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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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