Air Basing Basics
It was a pleasure to again run into my old friend, Lt. Col. Price Bingham, not in person unfortunately, but in his well-written and researched article: “The Air Base: The Air Force’s Achilles’ Heel?” [October, p. 48]. Price, a proud Air Force Academy grad—not a ring knocker—and I met on the Air Staff in the Pentagon in 1980. I was assigned to Doctrine and Concepts and my boss was a former Misty pilot, shot down once in his fast-mover F-100 over South Vietnam. When I showed up, he briefed me on our mission, then said, ‘Find a problem area, study it, and write me a paper.’ That was it, and how I got into Soviet armor attack and what I called a concept with a fatal flaw. Price was researching similarly contentious issues, not always well received, but we moved amongst people with vision who had the future of the Air Force in mind, not their personal careers. One of them was John Boyd, whose thinking shaped us both. Boyd is best-known for the OODA Loop—Observe-Orient-Decide-Act—a fighter pilot’s survival guide. Boyd pushed his concept vigorously, to the chagrin of many of the senior staff, and when we met him he was working as a retired colonel for a dollar a year in OSD. Before that, Boyd developed a series of energy maneuverability curves for the F-105s assigned to the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing in Bitburg [Air Base, Germany,] and helped bring out the airplane’s true capabilities. All that before handheld computers or GPS. So I am not surprised that Price came up with this article, which has to be among the top 10 issues the Air Force is—or should be—working.
Air base vulnerability was recognized before World War II. In 1933, within days of Hitler becoming Germany’s new chancellor, he ordered the construction of a number of new air bases. One of those bases was Fassberg, in the Lüeneburg Heath, near Hannover. Fassberg, the air base, and the adjacent town that was to house the people who ran and maintained the base, was built into the pine forest. Little could be seen from the air. The hangars all had flat roofs covered with soil, allowing grass, heather, and trees to grow. In addition, a fake airfield was constructed, anticipating Allied bombings. During the war years, that fake airfield was attacked several times, as well as a nearby hillside after which Fassberg was named—but not the air base. Although this base anticipated the future, the Luftwaffe continued to cling to large air bases, dooming many of its Me 262 jets and pilots.
The ultimate deception the Germans constructed probably was their aviation research center at Voelkenrode near Braunschweig, which accommodated 76 buildings and an 8-meter wind tunnel. From the air it appeared as little more than an ordinary farmstead.
When Price and I were assigned to USAFE, the issue of air base vulnerability was of course addressed, at least minimally, by creating landing strips on Germany’s autobahns. If war would come, in those days, we all viewed it as a doomsday exercise.
In today’s threat environment such minor changes as autobahn landing strips won’t do. We have to move first of all from a wing-centered combat unit, of three to five squadrons, down to the squadron as the ‘mother hen’ and the squadron down to its flights. The base structure to accommodate such dispersal has to be accordingly decentralized and diverse. Camouflage, along with small size, has to be high on the agenda, as well as fake structures good enough to serve that purpose. The logistics will have to accommodate to the revised deployment structure. A wing can still operate as a command, control, and coordinating element from a larger air base, but the cutting-edge elements cannot, as in the past, be assembled on large bases.
Yes, when at our forward locations, we may have to live in tents, or whatever serves our purpose. We’ve done it before, we can do it again. Flier and maintainer as one integrated element. Colonel Bingham, you did a great job raising this issue!
Col. Wolfgang W.E. Samuel,
Fairfax Station, Va.
I was gratified to read Price Bingham’s characteristically insightful discussion of air bases as the “Achilles’ heel” of our air warfare capabilities. As he points out, Airmen have dealt with the dilemma of basing for logistical convenience or for survival since the earliest days of air combat. What I would add is that the choices they made usually reflected their perceptions of the vulnerabilities of bases to truly devastating attacks; perceptions that differed over time. When Airmen believed that enemies could devastate bases in short order, they tended to default to dispersing assets or sheltering them. When they perceived that enemies could attack, but not with instantaneous destruction of bases and the assets on them, they tended toward reliance on general air superiority, perhaps with some aircraft sheltering, to protect infrastructure-rich, fixed bases. USAF has addressed these issues in various ways, but has never been comfortable with acquiring the types of aircraft or accepting dispersal concepts that might reduce the generation of combat power.
The TAB VEE (Tactical Air Base Hardened Aircraft Shelter) hanger program is a case in point. When other NATO air forces began looking to [vertical take-off and landing] fighters, light attack aircraft, and highway strips in response to growing Warsaw Pact air capabilities in the mid-1960s, USAF began to build hundreds of hardened fighter shelters that could withstand the overpressures of nearby nuclear blasts and anything but direct, high-angle hits from large bombs. These hardened shelters made some sense through the 1980s, when a nuclear war would obviate the need for sustained air operations, and the unguided conventional air weapons of the time minimized the likelihood that fast jets forced low by air defenses would find—let alone hit—shelters obscured by trees, terrain, smoke, and other obscurants. But, when the advent of precision weapons reduced such shelters to the role of target markers, the Air Force kept them but largely returned to hopeful dependence on general air superiority to protect the fixed bases upon which it continued to rely.
However, in this age of threats ranging from local fifth-columnists to long-range precision missiles, the Air Force knows it cannot expect to hold continuous air superiority in some possible conflict situations. Indeed, some regional enemies have the capacity now to place the Air Force’s entire combat, logistical, and communications infrastructures under threat from their homeland bases to their forward-most operating locations. So, as [Bingham] has so ably argued, the time has come to reduce the Air Force’s dependence on fixed basing while, at the same time, preserving its ability to generate combat effects at decisive levels. I have addressed this challenge for air mobility operations in a number of studies and articles over the last decade or so and, from that experience, I would close here by saying that the Air Force must approach the challenge of achieving dispersed effectiveness as a systemic one. It will be useless, for example, to dream in peacetime of fighter mobility dependent on utilizing transport aircraft as rolling magazines, if the airlift and tanker fleets remain dependent on fixed-basing themselves. The Air Force must convert all of its parts—kinetic, electronic, command, logistics—all of them—to a unified concept of agile dispersion that makes them elusive targets while they also do their jobs.
Robert C. Owen
Daytona Beach, Fla.
Lt. Col. Bingham has written a very good article on the dependency of USAF on air bases. The F-35B is about the only answer I see thus far. In the Pacific, it’s pretty clear that a lack of nearby air bases is acute. It is a much worse situation than in Europe. One possible solution is to amplify the power of the F-35B with Skyborgs. The Kratos Syborg lands with a parachute and inflatable air cushions. Elon Musk lands his launch vehicles on their tail. Obviously he has the advantage of a thrust to weight ratio of better than one. But it would seem that it might be worth investigating if a Skyborg and combination of a parachute, landing struts, and a fairly powerful engine might be able to do the same.
Obviously, you could do this with a thrust to weight ratio of one. But the desire would be to keep the Skyborg cheap with a less-powerful engine (maybe T/W = 0.2). However, there might be some trade-off if you could get more sorties from a Skyborg with a more powerful engine (probably you could get away with something less than a thrust to weight ratio of one if you used a parachute).
Here’s what I have in mind: Fly the Skyborg into a hammerhead stall and release the parachute. The Skyborg descends tail first. The attitude is kept vertical using Elon Musk techniques. The engine is firing straight down. Maybe there could even be an afterburner just for landing. The landing struts ought to be good for a landing a 20 feet/second. There should be some trade-off between a parachute size and engine thrust to achieve the terminal 20 feet/sec.
Of course, it all depends on the numbers. Might not be practical at all, might be worth exploring. No one thought of landing launch vehicles on their tail until Elon Musk tried it.
I wish to both thank and respond to Lt. Col. Bill Norwood for his corrections of my errors [“Letters: Different Times in Service?” October p. 6].
Unfortunately, while there is some history about the hardware of our missile heritage, there is little information available about the crew force itself. I agree with Colonel Norwood that General [Curtis E.] LeMay was gone by the time of the first crew selection—my bad. What is important is a majority of the early crew force was handpicked from the rated force—pilots and navigators (Jacob Neufeld, “Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force, 1945-1960.” Over time, these experienced (and senior in comparison to today’s missileer) rated officers returned to their cockpits.
The point I wished to make is, in the beginning, missile duty had an initial high level of interest, and it was presumed that crew members needed a depth of experience or “seasoning” to operate to Strategic Air Command’s standard—flawlessly.
While operating without a crew may have been a stretch, one thing Minuteman did succeed in was reducing the crew manpower requirements. Early systems (Atlas D) operated with a one Launch Control Center (LCC) to three Launch Facilities (LFs) ratio. Atlas E and F had a 1:1 ratio. The Titan I ratio was 1:3 and the Titan II ratio was 1:3. Minuteman was a big improvement—one LCC to 10 LFs! Also, unlike Atlas and Titan the missile itself no longer needed daily hands-on treatment—at least by the ’80s.
Theoretically, the Minuteman ratio could also be extended by LCCs relinquishing their command to other LCCs within the squadron for maintenance, if required. This was a big manpower savings and step toward automation. During LCC modifications it was common to have two or three LCCs monitoring the 50 LFs of the squadron (though crews were still required at the other LCCs to monitor contractors and safeguard classified materials).
The different eras of our experience in the Minuteman program is highlighted by Colonel Norwood’s praise for the Minuteman Education Program (MMEP). As a crewmember at Minot during ’84-’88, most of the crews were not involved with the MMEP, but those who worked on their advanced degrees used other schools available in our education center. The University of North Dakota only offered an MBA program. One of my early commanders looked into it, and they required him to take an extensive list of prerequisite courses—he already had a B.S. in management. He chose not to get his degree there. English majors didn’t stand a chance.
Those early missileers certainly had their hands full as the system was basically being built around them. Improvements made in the hardware/procedures over the decades of alerts made the job less unpredictable. Unfortunately, I think since the dissolution of SAC and the remarkable reliability of the Minuteman hardware, this vital leg of the triad has been neglected and the crew member most of all.
Lt. Col. David J. Wallace,
I would like to add a little more to the Norwood/Wallace discussion in the June and October issues, from the viewpoint of someone who came into the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force in 1961, spending the last 28 of my 30 years Active duty in Minuteman and ground-launched cruise missiles, with a short, four-year “vacation” as a base commander on two European fighter bases.
For 25 of the 31 years following my retirement, I was the executive director and one of the founders of the Association of Air Force Missileers (aafm), and I still edit the quarterly newsletter for AAFM. Therefore, I have stayed fairly current with the missile/ICBM business over the last 59 years.
First, as Norwood said, General LeMay was no longer CinCSAC during the early ICBM activation process for Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman. When he came into SAC at the end of 1961, Gen. Thomas Power had already been CinCSAC for four years. I volunteered for ICBM duty, and when I began training at Sheppard AFB, Texas, in September 1961, my training class was a mix of officers like me who came from varied backgrounds (I had been in aircraft maintenance), along with a couple of second lieutenants who were some of the first Minuteman officers. There were a number of what we then called “rated officers” because a significant number of aircraft were being phased out (B-47s, KC-97s, and even early B-52s). Most of our crew commanders at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, one of the Titan I bases, were pilots, with about a third of the people like me. They were not “handpicked by LeMay” as Wallace stated, some were volunteers and some were just sent to missiles. There were no “spot” promotions in the missile force—that was a benefit only enjoyed by those who flew SAC aircraft.
When I went to Minuteman in 1965 as a crew member at the last wing, Grand Forks, the majority of the crew force were navigators, displaced by the continued phaseout of B-47s, early B-52s, KC-97s, early KC-135s, and the B-58). Some of us had come from the recently closed Atlas and Titan, others straight from aircraft. It was just a matter of manning needs for the developing ICBM force and shrinking number of cockpits.
Many of those SAC bomber and tanker types stayed in the missile business, some rising to high leadership positions. The demands of Vietnam sent many back to the cockpit after missile duty.
The Winter issue of the Friends Journal, the publication of the National Museum of the Air Force, included my article, “The Bomber Heritage of the ICBM Force,” describing how the decision to bring these experienced officers (and NCOs, for those of us in maintenance) into the ICBM force gave us some great mentors and got us started off on the right foot in the nuclear deterrent role for ICBMs.
Wallace suggested to bring officers into missile duty as “more mature officers.” I don’t agree with his assertion that the current model is a critical error. When I was a squadron commander 40 years ago, we taught our new lieutenants officership with a great program developed in our missile wing. The 60 crew members in my squadron were typical—motivated, mature, and involved. Many went on to senior leadership in our ICBM force.
Over the 59 years I have been involved, we have mostly done it right, and we when stumbled, we quickly fixed the problems. It was, and is, a great part of our Air Force and a superb career path. We even added incentive pay for missile operators a few years ago.
Col. Charles G. Simpson,
I would like to compliment John Correll for his many years of service to AFA and especially to his latest article, “The Air Force Enters the Vietnam War,” in your October edition [p. 52]. Let me endorse John’s research and add some personal knowledge. I was assigned to the 602nd Fighter Squadron (Commando) flying A-1 Skyraiders. When I arrived at Bien Hoa [Air Base, South Vietnam] in January 1965, the Farm Gate T-28s were already gone. I saw a few of them on the ramp later, in June 1965 when we deployed to Udorn, Thailand, to set up the Sandy operation.
For the first several weeks, we flew A-1s with Vietnamese aircraft markings exactly as depicted in John’s article. Right from the beginning we had two missions. The first was training Vietnamese lieutenants who had recently graduated from pilot training, in weapons delivery. The two-seat A-1E was ideal for this mission. We used an air-scored gunnery range near Vung Tao, southeast of Saigon. The training primarily was in dive bombing, the most difficult of the attack missions. We did observe the small-boned Vietnamese had some difficulty in maneuvering the large and fairly heavy A-1, even with only 25-pound practice bombs. After a set number of training sorties, our graduates would go off to Vietnamese fighter squadrons flying the single-seat A-1H.
Our second mission was attack/close air support with a Vietnamese enlisted observer in the right seat. This was not only a cynical observation of “no Americans in combat,” but was also viewed by the pilots as a helpful local colleague in case we got forced down or bailed out. Of course, we also viewed it as a convenient ruse. There was one exception to requiring a Vietnamese observer. That was in January/February when American ground troops were being deployed in the field. If there were “Americans in trouble,” we were allowed to fly solo combat missions. These were called “Flaming Arrows.”
All this changed on 7 February 1965 when the 409th Viet Cong Regiment attacked the Americans at Camp Holloway air base and barracks near Pleiku. This led President [Lyndon B.] Johnson to order “Flaming Dart” retaliatory missions against North Vietnam, and in the South, we took off the Vietnamese markings on our airplanes and began combat in earnest.
Brig. Gen. R.G. Head,
The title of John Correll’s article, “The Air Force Enters the Vietnam War,” in your October 2020 issue is certainly misleading. I expected to read about the first Air Force personnel to enter the Vietnam War and about what they did there.
I know that Air Force Photomappers had Active-duty Air Force people on the ground in Vietnam operating aerial electronic surveying ground stations in 1957, well before the 1961 date identified in the article. And, in fact, they were operating stations in Vietnam for the six months in 1955 immediately before the official start date of the war on November 1, 1955. These were people on TDY orders conducting then SECRET missions. They operated as Air Force units called ASTs (Aerial Survey Teams). Perhaps Mr. Correll meant the first PCS Unit or perhaps the first combat oriented unit? Anyway, I think it should be clarified as I’m sure there may have been several units operating there prior to the 1961 date cited.
Lt. Col. Gordon Barnes,
On Race, Unrest, and USAF
As a Black man from a five-generation military family, I would like to thank and congratulate Air Force Magazine for turning its letters area into a forum for responses to the article on racial problems, in and out of the service. It was a fine editorial response to a problem that spans all of society in uniform—sadly—and out.
One of the most helpful indicators were the respondents. Some denied the existence of systemic racism (but have obviously not asked any of their fellow Black citizens). Others lauded the Tuskegee Airmen who flew, fought, and lived in racially segregated units. One said he had never encountered nor witnessed a racist action carried out against anyone, surely a unique happenstance for any American. One letter even stated plainly that the writer was disturbed by the “force-feeding” “ALL DAY LONG” of coverage of the racial divide in our country . As the man said, “The more this is shown and pushed, the more anger grows on both sides!” [“Letters: On Race, Unrest, and USAF,” p. 8]. I only wish he would have indicated what the other “side” was. But the majority recalled and recognized their knowledge of the problem and were Air Force strong in their condemnation of this systemic problem.
I know that there was a time not very long ago when no matter what the level of upheaval, it never would have reached the pages of Air Force Magazine. And for that, I am thankful. If our country is to be the exemplar of what we say we want it to be, it will take work on every level of society, including our armed forces. For, while President [Harry S.] Truman’s factual integration of the U.S. armed forces set the tone and momentum for civil rights in America, the work toward that goal has not been concluded. While some members and ex-members of the force may not believe that racism is a systemic problem, that may just reflect the fact that they have not asked someone Black what they think. Doing so—and listening—might be the best way to close this divide.
Norman E. Gaines
A Little Bit Off
Back in 1964, I transitioned from B-47s to B-52s. I went to K.I. Sawyer [Air Force Base, Mich.,] to fly the “newer” B52H [“BUFF Up,” October, p. 36]. The H models had the usual B-52 skin wrinkles and paint scratches in the cockpits and started to look old. In late ’94, word was out that the B-52Hs would be going through depot maintenance for upgrades that would extend their life for 10 years. We laughed, and said there was no way these birds will last until 1974.
Guess the laugh is on us.
Lt. Col. Russ Grunewald,