(Author’s note. I worked on this for several days only to have it completely dumped when I tried to save it. This has been rewritten largely from memory.)
In the mid 1960s, with the country mired in the Vietnam War the Air Force determined that it would need a new fighter aircraft to counter the threat of newer Soviet aircraft.
The aircraft that came out of the F-X project is the plane we know today as the F-15. The F-15 would not be the plane it is today, however, if certain people had gotten their way.
Most notable of these people was Fighter Weapons School instructor John Boyd. Along with a group of like-minded fighter pilots who are often referred to as “The Reformers” or as “The Fighter Mafia”.
Today people might call them “disrupters” because they wanted to shake up the defense establishment.
Boyd himself was a very polarizing figure. People tend to think he was either the greatest military mind since Clausewitz or a total a-hole. He famously claimed that he could beat anyone in a dogfight in 40 seconds. A claim which as far as I know is unsubstantiated. Boyd flew in Korea as a wingman and never scored an aerial kill.
At the time all this was going on the main fighter of the USAF and US Navy was the F-4 Phantom.
The Fighter Mafia particularly disdained the F-4. First off, it came from the Navy and the Air Force hates having to take Navy aircraft. It was too big, had too many engines, too much avionics and too many radar-guided missiles. Plus it could (Eeeeeek!) drop bombs. Fighter pilots generally hate dropping bombs. Even multi-role F-16 pilots would rather chase each other around the sky than do “air to mud” given a choice.
Air-to-ground is bullshit! — John Boyd
Fighter pilots make movies. Bomber pilots make history. — Anonymous
The worse thing about the F-4, however, was that it had too many people. Originally the Air Force put two pilots in the F-4, which drove the fighter guys nuts. Later on they switched to putting Navigators (WSOs) in the back seat. Even so an F-4 driver once told me “There’s not a WSO in the world I wouldn’t trade for 200 extra pounds of fuel.”
Boyd and the Reformers are often credited with the development of the F-15. I would say the F-15 was developed more in spite of them than because of them. While they did play a large part in its development, they didn’t really like the F-15, thinking it too big and too complex. They especially didn’t want the pulse-doppler radar and radar guided missiles, which is pretty much what makes the F-15 what it is.
It’s tough to argue with success. The F-15 has a record of something like 104 to 0 in air to air combat.
No sooner had the F-15 been developed that the Reformers went back to pushing for the plane they had really wanted in the first place.
What the Fighter Mafia wanted was a light, simple (there we go again), single-seat, single-engine fighter with no radar, guns only or maybe a couple of heat-seeking missiles. Basically the YF-16 prototype, which was quite a bit different from the production F-16.
The YF-16 was everything the Fighter Mafia wanted. Small, light, highly maneuverable. Armed only with a 20mm cannon and two Sidewinder missiles.
Compared the YF-16 this F-16C Block 70 looks like an entirely different aircraft.
By the time the F-16 reached production it had become a multi-role aircraft with an air-to-air radar and bomb dropping capability. It was larger, heavier and not as nimble as the YF-16. It has also gone on to be one of the most successful fighters ever. With over 4,500 of them operated by 27 different countries over the years.
The Fighter Mafia felt betrayed by the production F-16 and started lobbying yet again for their simple lightweight day fighter, which thankfully never came about.
They envisioned large numbers of these little guys would achieve air superiority through epic dogfights reminiscent of World War I. And then…….well I’m not sure. I guess put on airshows to entertain the ground troops since they wouldn’t be able to drop bombs. “Not one pound for air-to-ground!” was the mantra.
The problems with this approach are numerous:
First off, this was the Cold War and we were preparing for a major conflict in Europe. Now anyone who has spent any time in Northern Europe can tell you that the weather tends to be pretty crappy much of the time. All those wonderful little day VFR fighters would have spent a lot of time on the ground staring up at the overcast layer.
Then there’s the issue of logistics. We would need a lot more pilots to fly all those fighters. Which means more trainer jets, and more instructor pilots and more instructors to train those instructors and more mechanics, and more air bases to house all this stuff. Not so simple after all.
Then there’s the minor problem of between the F-15 and the lightweight fighter, roughly 2/3 of the USAF fleet would have had no air-to-ground capability whatsoever.
There was a popular saying back then: you can shoot down all the MiGs you want but if the Russian tank commander is eating lunch in your snack bar when you get back, you’ve lost the war.
I’m not diminishing the importance of air superiority but the air-to-air guys sometimes act like they’re the only reason the war is being fought.
Finally - it’s not 1964 any more and missiles actually work.
Every aviation geek knows the story by now. In the late 50s and early 60s the Air Force was run by bomber generals (true) and was focused on intercepting Soviet bombers with long range missiles (true) and had largely forgotten how to dogfight (also true).
Then we got into Vietnam and the F-4 didn’t even have a gun!
This is where I note that even “The last gunfighter!” F-8 Crusader scored most of its kills with missiles because its guns were notorious for jamming. F-8’s only made four gun kills in Vietnam.
(The shortest measurable unit of time is between someone posting something about the F-8 and someone saying the last gunfighter).
This is one of those instances where it’s possible to learn a lesson too well. Vietnam was a unique case where the harsh tropical climate plus restrictive rules of engagement put missiles at disadvantage. The much maligned AIM-7 Sparrow was almost never used in the manner it was designed for, so it’s no surprise that it didn’t work all that well in Vietnam.
Today we’re as far from Phantoms over Vietnam as those Phantoms and MiGs were from SPADs and Fokkers over Verdun. Fifty years from 1917 to 1967 and fifty from 1973 to 2023. Yes, it’s been that long.
Even by 1973 the Israelis had no trouble killing MiGs with missiles and certainly by the 1980s missiles had become very capable. They’ve only gotten better since then. Times change. Technology changes. Warfare changes.
By 1991 roughly 40% of the air to air kills in Desert Storm were from Beyond Visual Range. The only gun kill in that war was an A-10 of all things shooting a helicopter.
That A-10 is now on display at the Air Force Academy. Of all the things the A-10 has done, they picked the one that shot down another aircraft.
Likewise the B-52D on display at the Air Force Academy is one with a confirmed MiG kill.
Which goes to show the emphasis the USAF puts on air to air combat versus all else.
Today, if you were to find yourself in a dogfight something has probably gone very wrong. From what I’m told, most of the maneuvering takes place long before what they call “the merge”.
I was having a conversation with an F-16 pilot recently who described it like this. If you break off to go mano-a-mano against an enemy jet, everybody on both sides can see you and they’ve all got a missile. The philosophy today is having a “wall” of jets sweeping through and firing missiles ahead of them. Not unlike how the guys in the late 50’s thought we’d be doing things.
Now I don’t think Boyd and the rest of these people were stupid. Boyd famously came up with the concept of “OODA Loop” and the energy maneuverability theory which are still considered groundbreaking.
So I would say quite intelligent but I think he suffered from “smartest guy in the room” syndrome. A certain Representative from Wyoming named Dick Cheney was a big fan of Boyd, which should tell you something.
I think their main problem was these guys were fixated on dogfighting to the exclusion of all else. They spent a lot of time talking about “the white scarf stuff” and WWI dogfights. Chivalrous “knights of the air” wearing white scarves and outmaneuvering each other in epic dogfights.
Except there was nothing chivalrous about WWI air combat. WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker described it as scientific murder. World War One pilots had very short life expectancies and a lot of them burned to death. There was nothing romantic about it.
There wasn’t anything chivalrous about medieval knights either, if you’ve read anything about them. The quickie version is, they weren’t very nice people.
It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers must be punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.
I also think the Fighter Mafia over emphasized simplicity. The F-86 that John Boyd flew in Korea was not a simple weapon and certainly more advanced than its main adversary the MiG-15.
The F-86 was one of the most sophisticated aircraft around in 1950 with advanced features like automatic leading-edge slats and a radar gunsight that allowed it to score hits at much greater range than the MiG-15s powerful but inaccurate cannons.
Go back to World War II and the P-51 Mustang was a very advanced aircraft for its time. Featuring the best American airframe coupled with the best British engine. The B-29 that ultimately defeated Japan cost as much as the Manhattan Project to build.
Go back to World War One and the SPAD S.XIII and Sopwith Camel were the most advanced things they could build in 1917.
OK, you want simple? I’ll give you simple. Here, this is about as simple as it gets. Just walk up to the other guy and stick him with it.
Oops. He had a longbow. I guess it’s not that simple after all. Ouch. That’s got to hurt.