Thursday, February 20, 2014

Air-to-Air Combat Over Southeast Asia: 20(+/-) Questions That Resonate Today

Questions 1 thru 4

A Q&A series on things you probably know but your friends probably don’t.

I’ll update the subtitle and bump the post every time I add a question. The number of questions in the end will be determined by where the discussion takes us.

I anticipate that my primary sources will be the AF Weapon Systems Evaluation Group, The Ault Report, Marshall Michel’s Clashes (and perhaps some of his other writings), some Air Force Historical Studies Office publications, and Nordeen’s Air Warfare in the Missile Age (Second Edition) at the minimum. I’ll add other sources as required.
I intend to start simply and build on the discussion. Readers are invited to answer the latest question for themselves before they open the fold. Below the fold I’ll post the answer along with perhaps some related observations including the relevance of the question and answer today.

If you have questions or comments about a particular question or section, please reference the relevant question/section number(s). Otherwise this 'single post' format may become confusing pretty quickly.

NOTE: I've 'inverted' the series to keep this post from taking up so much real estate AND to allow people who've been following the series to get to the new stuff without wading through the old stuff. If you are just joining us, take a stab at the latest question and open the fold to see past questions as well.


Section 4

From the ‘Acquisition Phase’ we now move to consideration of the “Attack Phase”.

From the Red Baron Report Volume IV, pg 50:
The performance of U.S. aircraft, combined with the skill and tactics employed by U.S. aircrews versus the enemy aircraft/crew combinations, resulted in a 111/8 advantage against the MIG-17 and 36/1 advantage against the MIG-21. This result indicates that under the prevailing conditions, timely position information of the enemy aircraft was the single most significant requirement to enable U.S. aircrews to achieve a position to fire first. However, reference to Figure III-B1 indicates that only 41 of 154 or 27 percent of U.S. first attacks resulted in a MIG kill. Any improvement in U.S. weapons or weapon delivery capability would result in an appreciable number of MIG kills for these acquisition conditions.

The ‘Figure III-B1’ identified above is recreated here:

The Red Baron authors recognized there might be “a slight upward bias to the ratio of U.S. to enemy firing attempts” because “there probably were instances where the enemy achieved a firing position and even fired its weapons without being observed”. But this may be balanced out if one thinks of ‘opportunities’, since it was acknowledged that there were circumstances where opportunities for the U.S to attack were ‘passed up’ when it would have interfered with the primary mission. Example: F-105s at one time were ordered to ignore MiGs unless they were under imminent threat’ (Red Baron, Vol, IV, pg 47) .

The Red Baron Study looked at the engagements in the previous discussion using a variety of factors in an attempt to evaluate the potential encounter outcome as a product/result of those factors, where there was sufficient information (data) available to analyze. There were other factors the study members would have liked to have included (crossing angles, attitude, sun position, maneuver sequence to name those listed in the report) but there was insufficient data of those types for too many of the engagements to perform a statistical analysis.

The factors where there was enough information to analyze for relevance/importance to outcome were:
1. U.S. aircraft type
2. Hostile aircraft type
3. Acquisition range
4. Acquisition clock position
5. Hostile altitude
6. Friendly relative altitude
7. Time of day
8. Stage of war (through 1967)
9. Method of acquisition and identification

Question 4:

From this list of factors above, Red Baron analysts reduced the list of relevant factors to four that were found to “correlate in a complex way”. Were those four factors:
A) 1, 3, 4, 8
B) 2, 3, 4, 6
C) 2, 3, 5, 6
D) 1, 3, 5, 8

Answer and much more below the fold

Answer: B.

From Red Baron Report Vol. IV, pgs 50-52
"It was determined that on this subset of encounters, four factors were correlated with the results in a complex way – enemy aircraft type, quadrant [Acquisition clock position], relative altitude, and acquisition range. (The latter two factors, while statistically significant, had a small effect upon results compared to quadrant). No significant statistical difference was noted between the results achieved by the different U.S. aircraft types, when adjusted for relative starting position. No significant difference could be detected among the three non-rear quadrants…."

The study authors used this as a basis for further analysis:
Accordingly, the data base was reexamined to identify all engagements that could be categorized with respect to the following factors:
-U.S. aircraft type
    -Hostile aircraft type
    -Acquisition Range (Close ≤ 2nmi; Distant >2nmi)
    -Acquisition quadrant (Rear Quadrant or All Other Quadrants) 
    -Relative Altitude (0 ± 2000 feet = Co-altitude, If > 2000 feet = unequal altitude)
 The Red Baron authors used the numerical data for engagements with these factors to create a graphical representation of their findings. I have adapted them for this venue as shown:

Example for understanding these graphs by using the chart above: When the acquisition distance was greater than two miles against a MiG-17 in any quadrant other than rear, and at 'Co-altitude', the US  fighter got first shot 21 times to the MiGs' 6 times. If the Acquisition was in the rear quadrant, co-equal altitude and at less than 2 miles distant, the MiGs got the first shot 33 times and the U.S. fighters had NO first shots.

The report observes that for all but quadrants where the enemy was first detected and identified EXCEPT for the rear quadrant (really about 5-7 o’clock from the graphics):
The performance of U.S. aircraft, combined with the skill and tactics employed by U.S. aircrews versus the enemy aircraft/crew combinations, resulted in a 111/8 advantage against the MiG-17 and 36/1 advantage against the MIG-21. This result indicates that under the prevailing conditions, timely position information of the enemy aircraft was the single most significant requirement to enable U.S. aircrews to achieve a position to fire first.
(Remember this finding was for the timeframe through mid 1967)

For the instances where the enemy was first detected and identified in the rear quadrant, the Red Baron Report gives us a different scenario:
The enemy, when not detected until he positioned himself in the rear quadrant usually succeeded in making the first attack. The enemy success ratio in attaining a position to fire first under these circumstances was 37/2 for the MiG-17 and 9/5 for the MiG-21. The possibility of significantly affecting this result appears negligible. The short ranges of detection in this quadrant indicate that the MiG was within a few seconds of a firing position and in several cases he was already firing. The previous statements are made in relation to the enemy's current weapons capability. If and when the enemy increases the range of his weapon system to 2 to 4 miles, there would be no time interval at all for evasion before the attack.
A little later (pg 53) the Red Baron Report expands on the implications of the data (emphasis mine):
The significance of rear acquisition is apparent. In 25 percent of the encounters the enemy managed to position in the rear quadrant before detection. In most events this was not a chance phenomenon but appeared to be the result of ground controlled intercepts. A study of intercept patterns indicates that many enemy aircraft must have passed through other quadrants where they were at least theoretically visible but went undetected. The short range of most of the acquisitions indicated in the previous section of this report make it quite clear that, under prevailing operating conditions, a MiG can pass through the detection range of 3 to 10 miles with some positive probability (higher than desired) and then turn into the rear quadrant for his attack run undetected.

A couple of pages later, the Red Baron Report posits what turned out to be a ‘prophetic’ finding which we'll revisit later:
However, there is a more alarming aspect to the data. The frequency of encounters in which the enemy has successfully attained the rear-quadrant position undetected is probably below the potential achievable for forces with a GCI capability against penetrating aircraft dependent on visual detection. If it may be presumed that the enemy were still in the early part of his learning curve, then an increase in the relative frequency of this type or attack could be expected which would seriously reduce the observed U.S. superiority unless timely and adequate countermeasures are introduced.

Analysis and Observations.

The hit-and run attack methods of the North Vietnamese pilots never really changed. Very few 1 v 1 extended ‘dogfight’ events occurred, and when they did, many of the detailed accounts in the Red Baron Report show that one side or the other was usually sooner than later subjected to attack by another opponent turning it into a 1 vs. ‘many’ event. So from the total results involved, there is no indication that any of the MiGs had a notable maneuverability-performance advantage over the larger U.S. aircraft (with the exception of the F-105 vs. MiG-21). In fact the Red Baron Report history notes that in every case analyzed up to the time of publication, there had been only four instances where the opponent who didn’t get the first ‘attack’ position was able to reverse the situation and make a counter-attack, and ALL of the planes and pilots who were able to reverse a disadvantage were U.S.

Another interesting aspect, to me anyway, is the fact that in the cases analyzed, there were no recorded instances of the MiGs being able to be put in a position by their GCI to make an attack run if they were more than 2 miles away and at significantly different altitudes. This fact along with the observation above that "A study of intercept patterns indicates that many enemy aircraft must have passed through other quadrants where they were at least theoretically visible but went undetected"
 would seem to indicate that since those same MiGs did not attack, that the ‘size differences’ between the opponents weren’t as large a factor as what the people who have ‘Spreyed’ that idea for decades would lead us to believe. The MIGs were apparently looking for U.S. fighters without success more than with success in those cases. Further, (and I admit I can’t say it hasn’t been speculated elsewhere, but only that) I have not seen it anywhere supposed that perhaps the proliferation of IRSTs in the Soviet fighter design philosophy after Vietnam might have been a reaction to the abysmal intercept record of the MiGs during the Vietnam War when their targets weren’t sitting right ahead of them? This strikes me as a very real possibility, and stands as a working theory until I can be shown otherwise.

Section 3

The Vietnam/SEA experience in acquiring enemy aircraft was markedly different than the US experience in the Korean War. So much so, that it warranted special mention in the WSEG’s ‘Red Baron reports:
“It is interesting to compare these with the sightings of the Korean War reported in Project CHORE… Over 90 percent of those acquisitions were in the forward hemisphere and all were visual (the F-86 was not equipped with AI radar). The differences in the figures reflect the vast differences in the parameters of the two wars. U.S. pilots in Korea launched directly for MiG Alley to seek out and destroy MiGs. Allied and Communist air forces used GCI radar. Altitudes at acquisition were generally 30,000 to 40,000 feet, and ground fire was not a factor. By contrast, in SEA MIG aircraft were vectored for intercept by a very efficient GCI system while U.S. pilots had to rely primarily on visual acquisition. Also, U.S. fighter missions analyzed in this study were mainly defensive and were flown in a sophisticated MiG, SAM and AAA environment where altitude was chosen as a compromise between the various hazards. The MiG force encountered in SEA was substantially smaller than that encountered in Korea.”
This effectively summarizes why restraint should be the norm when comparing relative performance of the U.S. fighter forces in the two wars or projecting future performance using earlier wars as the basis. In addition to the factors in SEA listed above, along with the fact that until later in the war, some airfields in North Vietnam were off-limits to attack, while for most of the Korean War, ‘sanctuary’ airfields were ‘sanctuaries’ in name only. Just one more political constraint that permitted the enemy forces to dictate the terms of combat to their advantage. That advantage had one striking effect on the ranges at which the enemies would detect each other, at least until the later introduction of the Combat Tree systems on American aircraft. In Korea the acquisition of enemy aircraft was typically made at 4-10 miles, with no acquisitions reported any closer than 2 miles. 

Question 3 

During the Vietnam War the median (average) distance for all the available F-4 and F-8 acquisition data was:
A. The median range for initial acquisition was approximately 6 miles. For all acquisitions, initial and subsequent, the median range was about 3 miles.
B. The median range for initial acquisition was approximately 5 miles. For all acquisitions, initial and subsequent, the median range was about 2 miles.
C. The median range for initial acquisition was approximately 3 miles. For all acquisitions, initial and subsequent, the median range was about 2 miles.
D. The greatest number of visual acquisitions were made with the enemy less than 1 mile away.

Answer: C and D.

The MiGs operating at lower altitudes in SEA capitalized on the haze and clouds that were present most of the time in SEA. The standard tactic up to 1967, was for the North Vietnamese GCI to vector their fighters at the lower altitudes to position them at the 6 o’clock bearing of their quarry and then have climb quickly through the cloud cover to make their attack. The U.S. had minimal surface or air radar warning system support: either naval surface radar ‘Red Crown’ PIREZ ships or EC-121s orbiting off-shore with their own protective fighter cover. Both the ground and air radar systems had limited range as well as could not detect the MIGs while they were flying low, and American jets frequently were on their own in finding or being found by enemy MiGs. The Red Baron reports note that the F-105 acquisition distances weren’t any better. The topic of ‘Acquisition’ was summarized in the Red Baron Report (p.125) thusly:
Acquisitions of enemy aircraft during the period of the study were primarily visual at close range, and in all quadrants. A method of determining enemy position and direction information at longer ranges would have enabled greater preparedness for aerial combat. At these short ranges, two thirds of the identifications occurred simultaneously with acquisition. The data suggest that moderate increase in acquisition range would result in improved ID ranges within limits of visibility and human vision. Further increase in acquisition and ID range will require supplementary sensor equipment.

Translation?: ‘If we can acquire the bogies a little sooner we’ll be able to ID sooner, but not by much. What is really needed is better sensors.’


‘Reformers’ and Lightweight Fighter Mafiosos have made a lot of noise over the years about ‘great big’ aircraft being easier to acquire than ‘very small’ aircraft, yet the advantage of the smaller size aircraft disappears if you have the sensors you need to tell you where the enemy is long before the visual size difference comes into play. This would hold true whether in the hazy skies of SEA, the clear cloudless days and nights in the desert, or even the lousy weather over a Serbia or Kosovo.

After Red Baron

In the Red Baron Reports there was speculation that the North Vietnamese fighter tactics included using a lead pair of MiG “decoys” to lure US planes into an attack while a second pair of MiGs in trail would then close on the Americans from behind. This was dismissed as not supported by the data at the time, yet as Michel notes in Clashes (pp. 236-37) this method of formation flying and attack (called Kuban tactics) was a “very popular” attack formation during Linebacker I.

The U.S. never had the kind of early warning system that would be needed to prevent sneak attacks from below and behind in the haze of SEA. That kind of capability would only come with the F-15’s look-down shoot-down radar and AIM-7F along with the E-3 Sentry program (another aircraft/system the ‘reformers’ denigrated. See four different ‘hit pieces’ on the AWACs from Sep-Oct 1981 in “More Bucks Less Bang” compiled by POGO before they were POGO, AKA "The Fund for Constitutional Government Project on Military Procurement". Please buy the book ‘used’ if you must buy it. )


Section 2 

 Question 2 

Of the relatively few radar acquisitions, only one was made at the approximate scan angle limits of the radars, about 60 degrees off-boresight. Ten of the fourteen were made with the radar aiming straight ahead. The 121 visual acquisitions that were able to have their heading determined were, of course, distributed quite differently. Were the MiGs acquired :

A.Mostly from the rear quadrant, and the first acquisition in these cases were usually made after the attacking MiG(s) sent a missile, rockets or cannon tracers past or into the US aircraft under attack
B. Mostly from the forward quadrant.
C. Mostly from the left or right quadrants.
D. From every direction in essentially equal measure. There was no statistically significant difference among the various bearing quadrants or angles.

Answer: D 
Although it is notable that too often there were attacks from the rear where “the first indication of enemy presence was an enemy tracer fire, missile smoke trail, or a wingman in distress” there was no statistically significant difference between the relative bearings that US aircraft acquired the enemy aircraft.
Source: WSEG 'Red Baron Report' Volume 4. Passim

Section 1

Question 1 

Throughout the first part of the war in SEA (January 1965-March 1968) ‘acquisitions*’ of enemy MiGs by the major combatant aircraft were made via radar and visual means. The breakdown for types of acquisition by aircraft type were:

A. Primarily visual for the F-4, F-8 and F-105 encounters?
B. Primarily visual for the F-4, and exclusively visual for F-8 and F-105 encounters?
C. Primarily visual for the F-4 and F-105, and exclusively visual for F-8 encounters?
D. Primarily visual for the F-4 and F-8, and exclusively visual for F-105 encounters?

*Acquisition: An acquisition was a radar or visual detection of any enemy aircraft or unit, or some evidence thereof, such as a contrail, that led to a positive identification of the enemy, An acquisition occurred each time a friendly tactical unit detected a different enemy tactical unit. Identification may have occurred simultaneously or at a later time, without •breaking contact with the enemy.

Answer: B
Only the F-4 had any radar acquisitions, and the total number was very small for the number of engagements ( 14 of 75 quantifiable occasions out of approximately 350 events). In later Q&As I believe the reasons should make themselves clear.
Source: WSEG 'Red Baron Report' Volume 4. Pg. 27.

********************************************************************************************************** **********************************************************************************************************


Inflatable Shark said...

This has all the makings of another interesting series. I'll be watching closely.
Why lead with F-104s and then talk mostly about F-4s? It's practically deceitful.

SMSgt Mac said...

LOL I updated the lead with an EC-121 escorted by F-104s (as actually happened in SEA) because of the content for the third question. I decided on this long multipart post to try and lead with a new pic when I update because I want people to easily recognize new content has been added.

Marauder said...

Did the US ever look at positioning HAWK batteries near the DMZ to counter the MiG interception tactics?

SMSgt Mac said...

Hi Marauder,
Sorry I didn't see your comment earlier. No I don't think we ever forward deployed the HAWK up north. Pretty sure we kept them no further north than Cam Ranh Bay.

Marauder said...

Interesting theory about the proliferation of IRSTs on Soviet fighters.

Conversely, why did the USAF not persist with EO/IR sensors after the F-106 and TISEO equipped F-4s?

SMSgt Mac said...

RE: Why did the USAF not persist with EO/IR sensors after the F-106 and TISEO equipped F-4s?
I'm making conjecture here, but I think the takeaway we got in SEA was to find and continuously track the bogies long before a EO/IR system would be useful. I think part of that was because we saw the big advantage the NV Air Force had over North Vietnam and Laos. Even today, most of our EO stuff is for Air to Ground work.