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Sunday Book Review: Sierra Hotel


Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam, by C.R. Anderegg, covers the history of tactical air power (particularly fighter aircraft) from the Vietnam War until the early 1980s and beyond.  Sierra Hotel (slang, dontcha know) is a detailed account of what precisely went wrong with the Air Force in Vietnam, and how the fighter pilots of the USAF went about trying to remedy those problems in the post-war decade.

The USAF was not, in doctrinal, training, or equipment terms, prepared to fight the Vietnam War. The fault for these problems lay mainly with the service’s continued obsession with strategic missions, including bombing and interception.  Century-series fighters were designed either to kill Soviet bombers or deliver nuclear ordnance, not fight MiGs.  Training did not emphasize dogfighting or other air superiority skills. US pilots were not trained to fight dissimilar opponents, and a MiG-21 looked and acted nothing like an F-100 or F-4.  Equipment (including missiles) was designed for strategic rather than tactical missions.

The problems with missiles were multifold.  The missiles were designed to hunt and kill not tiny MiG-21s and MiG-17s, but lumbering bombers that could not maneuver fast enough for evasion. Competent PAFVN pilots developed tactics to push the missiles beyond their fuel and maneuver limits. USAF pilots were not properly trained regarding the launching sequence of the missiles, or the tolerances under which the missiles could operate.

According to Andregg, training over-emphasized safety concerns at the expense of skill and readiness.  There are always, of course, trade-offs between safety and realistic training, but Andregg makes a good case that the needle had drifted too far to the former. The “universally assignable pilot” policy, which held that any USAF pilot should (with sufficient training) be able to fly any USAF aircraft was also problematic.  First, sufficient training (especially air-to-air) wasn’t always available.  Second, the aptitude of pilots for fighter aircraft varied (as it will in any given population), and dropping lower on the aptitude chart invariably reduced overall effectiveness.

It’s easy to overstate the problems of the USAF in Vietnam, of course; it still achieved a positive kill-ratio against North Vietnamese forces, and conducted several exceptional tactical engagements (such as the trap, led by Robin Olds, that destroyed nearly half of the PAFVN’s MiG-21 inventory). Nevertheless, given the material advantage that the USAF held over its opponents, and also given the relatively greater success enjoyed by USN aviators, the general sense from the early years of Vietnam was of tactical as well as strategic failure.

But only the first part of Andregg’s story focuses on the experience of Vietnam.  He’s more concerned with what came after, as the USAF began to distill the lessons of the conflict.  In the 1970s, the Air Force would introduce new air-to-air missiles, new air-to-ground ordnance, new aircraft (most notably the F-15, F-16, and A-10), and perhaps most importantly new, more realistic training procedures. Indeed, Anderegg gives a fantastic account of the differences between the F-15 and F-4, emphasizing not only the clear technical superiority of the former aircraft but also how tacit knowledge accumulated during the Vietnam era helped shape design priorities.  Anderegg also gives careful, detailed accounts of the value of particular precision-guided munitions, discussing what exactly they could contribute to operations and how they changed the ways in which pilots flew.

Most interesting, perhaps, is Anderegg’s discussion of the development of Red Flag, which introduced training intended to remedy many of the problems discovered in Vietnam.  Red Flag concentrated (although not exclusively) on air-to-air engagements, most fought against dissimilar aircraft (either T-38 Talonsor F-5 Tigers). Later, captured or purchased MiGs would be introduced into the mix.   The experience of Red Flag undoubtedly increased the air-to-air expertise of US fighter pilots.  The introduction of bomber, attack, and SEAD missions to the mix also helped revolutionize doctrine in those areas.

Many good histories of the USAF abstract much of what happened during this period, covering the effects of the rise of the “Fighter Mafia” without detailing precisely what happened and why it happened.  Anderegg produced a detailed history that is long on specifics but well written and readable for those with only a passing knowledge of the subject.  For those interested in airpower history, Sierra Hotel is a critical part of the picture.


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  • Most notably the F-4 had no internal gun, only missiles. The early AIM-7 Sparrow missiles were designed for shooting down bombers.

    The early AIM-9 Sidewinders had a pretty limited engagement zone. You had to be almost directly behind the target and within a mile or so.

    In a visual fight the MiGs were much smaller and hard to see. The F-4 was big and its engines smoked which made it easy to spot.

    The MiGs (especially the MiG-17) could easily beat it in a turning engagement.

    The later F-4E had an internal gun and a slatted wing which gave much better low speed handling.

    • Derelict

      For the Air Force (and some Marine) fighters, the missiles had another problem: Reliability. In the effort to prevent FOD, everything coming onto the flightline had to pass over an FOD shaker–essentially a grating much like a cattle guard. This was supposed to make any loose bits like rocks or stray screws drop into the shaker and keep them from being dropped onto airplane-active areas.

      Unfortunately, the treatment also tended to shake loose internal connections in the missiles. This resulted in frighteningly large numbers of Sparrows and Sidewinders that would fail to launch, or simply fall off the rail without the motor firing, or come off the rail and fail to guide, or come off the rail and guide but suffer proximity fuse failure and so zip harmlessly past the target.

  • Vance Maverick

    Is “positive kill-ratio” the idiom? Meaning the kills are greater than the deaths? So what do you call it if you kill 2 and lose 4, for a ratio of 0.5?

    • wjts

      Wouldn’t that be a negative 1:2 kill ratio for you and a positive 2:1 kill ratio for the other guy?

      • Vance Maverick

        1:2 is 0.5, which is positive, unless (as seems likely) we’re using the term in a way not known to high school math.

        • wjts

          I think that in this instance, “positive” means “in one’s favor” rather than “arithmetically positive”.

    • In the early days of Vietnam the USAF barely exceeded a 1:1 kill ratio versus the Korean War kill ratio of 10:1 (depending on who you believe).

    • “Positive” means you shot down more enemy planes than you lost.

      A 2:1 kill ratio would mean you shot down 2 enemy planes for each one of yours that was shot down.

    • Anonymous

      Obviously, you just take the logarithm of the ratio ;)

      • Vance Maverick

        Or the ratio times the difference. At any rate, I get it now. I know well from being inside smaller institutions how the vocabulary mutates….

  • Chris M

    I really enjoyed Marshall Michel’s 2006 Ph.D thesis “The Revolt of the Majors” (available via Google) on this era. It sounds like he hits many of the same points that Anderegg hits too.

  • socraticsilence

    The Robin Olds obit is worth reading, he’s like a character out of a novel.

  • FMguru

    Much of this (from a naval aviation perspective) was covered early on in a scene from the mid-1980s documentary film “Top Gun”.

    • Documentary??????

      • Keaaukane

        I thought it was a recruitment film.

      • FMguru

        Like Highlander, Top Gun was a documentary and was filmed in real time.

        • Warren Terra

          Aren’t you thinking of the Iron Eagle films?

          • FMguru

            Those were more proto-Dogme95.

  • The Pale Scot

    ” also how tacit knowledge accumulated during the Vietnam era helped shape design priorities.”

    And all of that hard won knowledge is being tossed out the airlock concerning the F-35.

  • AF

    Appreciate the recommendation; I’ll take a look.

    A question about the statement in the post regarding the USAF’s “obsession” with strategic bombing: I may be wrong, but the post-WW2 conviction that the US needed to shape its forces to fight a nuclear conflict, and that “limited” conflicts like the Korean War and the Vietnam War wouldn’t occur, was held at the highest levels of the US Government, not simply the Air Force, no? Even the Korean War was, afterward, looked at as an aberration.

    In other words, the drive then for the USAF to concentrate on strategic bombing seems to have its sources in significant part outside the USAF.

    • Alan Tomlinson

      It wasn’t the Air Force’s fault!
      It wasn’t!
      It wasn’t!
      It wasn’t!

      Since no one else really comes to mind as having been in a better position to understand aerial combat than the Air Force, it does seem that the primary responsibility would lie with them.


      Alan Tomlinson

      • firefall

        They were just obeying orders, though

      • wjts

        You really can’t ignore the role of Congress in setting budgeting priorities. Bob Dornan, I’m looking in your direction…

    • It wasn’t just the Air Force, although they were the chief offenders.

      The Navy wanted to get in the action as well. That’s why there was the famous controversy over the B-36 vs building super-carriers capable of launching nuclear strikes.

  • simple mind

    Who cares what force did what in that agent orange fukcpit of a war? I want to hear about Coast Guard action in those remote villages of Iraq.

  • scepticus

    Regarding the slang of the military culture: why is it Sierra Hotel, and not Hotel Sierra? Is there an implied “military comma”? E.g. Shit, Hot (Shit [comma] Hot).

  • Wrye

    What was the US fighter aircraft mix like in the period? Were all combat squadrons Phantoms, or did some squadrons/services (Marines and USN) fly some different interceptors?

  • Sean Peters

    Re: slang. The “sierra hotel” site got it wrong in the first few entries: “abaft” does not mean “further than aft” (what does “further than aft” even mean?). It means “located to the aft of something”, or alternatively “to or toward the aft”. Typically used in constructions like “abaft abeam” – not directly alongside, but more to the rear.

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