by Robert K. Wilcox


            In the late 1960s, US flyers in Vietnam realized a tragic mistake. Their planners had erred. The dogfight weapons and tactics devised for them had serious problems. Aviators were dying and becoming prisoners of war as a result. In a larger war, control of the skies might have been lost, which would be a national disaster. Today, the decision about America’s newest front-line fighter, the F-22 Raptor, threatens to cause a similar tragedy. We could again lose control of the skies which is a must for victory.

            The decision also bears on the heart of the nation’s current economic crises. Just what should taxpayer dollars be used for? A transfer of wealth or the nation’s defense?

            Here’s what happened in Vietnam:




            Following the Korean War, with air to air missile technology advancing, military experts predicted close-in dogfighting was dead. Adversaries wouldn’t get near enough for turning fights. They’d be shooting missiles at each other from long distances - “beyond visual range” or “BVR”. The air force and navy eliminated dogfight training. The navy even dropped guns, a close-in weapon, from its newest fighter, the F-4 Phantom. But once the war commenced, the folly of such decisions became obvious.

            Missiles didn’t work as advertised. Real-time battle revealed flaws in their designs. Crews weren’t trained well enough in their use. Worst, pilots realized they had to get close to determine if the target was friend or foe. To eyeball their target they were forced into a close-in turning fight where missiles, needing certain distances to track, were often out of envelope. In that situation, guns were required.  

            As a result, the US started losing planes and pilots to simpler, Russian-built Vietnamese MiGs which were good little dogfighters. Vietnam, whose air force was small, didn’t present a major threat. But what if Russia declared war? The Russians had hordes of MiGs. The famous navy “Topgun” school was founded as a secret remedy. Read my book “Scream of Eagles” for the full story. Dogfighting skills had to be relearned, missiles and tactics sharpened. Once up to speed, US pilots again ruled the skies and have done so since.

            But now it looks like a similar error is brewing. The F-22 is our latest and best fighter – a new generation plane needed to match some of the startlingly good fighters being fielded by our potential enemies. Our current frontline fighters, the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Viper, and F/A-18 Hornet, are old and vulnerable to the new enemy machines, especially MiGs and Sukois being produced in Russia and supplied to nations like China and North Korea. China also has its own new fighter, the J-10, comparable to our aging fleet. In practice fights the Raptor has slaughtered all opposition. But it’s expensive and being eyed for cutting by the new Obama administration. In addition, war planners are again predicting dogfighting is a thing of the past. Future wars will be guerilla type, like we’ve had largely in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ground troops, precision bombs and robot planes will be adequate, is the thinking – but only if we rule the skies.

            In almost every war, we’ve entered unprepared. We tend to dismantle what we’ve learned, thinking peace will now prevail. And then jarringly – after a surprise attack or brazen aggression requiring response – we have to relearn again. Now, because we’ve had such mastery of the skies for so long, we’re again taking things for granted. Our emphasis has been on terrorism. Big land and sea battles have receded in our memory.

            But the world is a volatile place. There are potential enemy nations with massive, conventional armies. China is one. If we have to fight them we need control of the skies. Only fighters can assure that. Otherwise precision bombers will be shot down. Land forces will be slaughtered. Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ability to call in an air strike often has been the difference between winning or losing, surviving or dying. That wouldn’t be the case if we didn’t own the skies. In today’s world, only the Raptor promises that.

            There’s a truism amongst fighter pilots: a better fighter pilot in a lesser plane will always beat a lesser one in a better plane. It honors talent and training which US pilots thrive on. But fighter planes have advanced so much since the Eagle, Viper and Hornet appeared decades ago that even the best pilots in the aging warbirds the administration wants to rely on might have trouble with an enemy’s new or souped-up machine. Only continuing production of the Raptor assures that the truism remains. It is stealthier, faster, more agile and deadlier than anything else in the sky.

            Yet the administration, to save money, is moving to cut the fighter’s production as a way to have more taxpayer money to pay for it’s record breaking socialist agenda, including corporate bailouts for bad business decisions, DMV-style health care and free broadband connections for all, and mortgage rescue payments for those who got in over their heads but not those who were responsible with their debt. Isn’t the first duty of government – and some would argue almost the only – defense of the nation? Even if you agree with the socialist agenda, what good does it do if our enemies can defeat us on the battlefield?

©2009 Robert K. Wilcox