Vincent J. Curtis
After the development of guided missiles in the 1950’s, fighter aircraft came to be seen as a “platform” for carrying weapons systems. The Avro Arrow was conceived as a weapons platform. Designed to carry missiles in a pod fitted at the bottom of the airframe, the Arrow would destroy an enemy aircraft by dropping a missile from the pod. The modern F-35 is designed similar to the Arrow.
The F-4 Phantom was the first fighter jet to rely completely on a missile system of engagement - when it was first produced. Experience in the air war over North Vietnam proved that a pure missile platform was ineffective. MiG-17s, and -21s flown by the North Vietnamese were agile dogfighters. If an American F-4 Phantom got close enough in a dogfight to fire a missile, it was often too close to arm, or it simply missed the agile Russian-built jets. Eventually, the Phantoms were fitted with Vulcan M-61 20 mm rotary cannons to compensate for the failure of the missile technology of that age.
During that time, John Boyd became one of the most influential colonels of the USAF. Boyd learned his trade as a fighter pilot during the Korean War flying F-86 Saber jets and engaging in dogfights against the better performing MiG-15s of that day. Out of his experience, Boyd developed his famous OODA loop theory, (i.e. Observe, Orient, Decide and Act). Boyd became an instructor, and head of the academic section, at the USAF Fighter Weapons School. He had a standing challenge for any of his students: meet him at 30,000 feet at a position of advantage, and if Boyd could not get gun-camera footage of his opponent’s tail within forty seconds, he would pay $40 to the student. No one collected.
Boyd also developed his famous Energy-Maneuverability theory which posited, mathematically, the combat performance possibilities of aircraft based upon their speed, thrust, drag, and weight. Boyd was able to generate graphs and tables illustrating what fighter pilots ought to do in given situations. He accelerated his students’ OODA loops; and the results were seen in improvements in the air war over North Vietnam. His Aerial Attack Study showed that an agile fighter could out-maneuver missiles.
The fame of his success led him to the Pentagon to rescue the so-called F-X project, the jet that would succeed the F-4 Phantom. Boyd tore the proposed F-X design apart, and restarted the project from scratch. Boyd’s work led to the F-15 Eagle, and then, when he became disappointed with design bureaucrats adding bells and whistles, to the F-16. Both these aircraft will perform front-line service into the 2040s.
Boyd grew disenchanted with the F-15 when it became, he thought, too complex, too expensive, too big, and too reliant on missile technology. Boyd drew around him Pierre Sprey, and Everest Riccioni, who called themselves the “fighter mafia” to design an inexpensive, simple, lightweight fighter. Boyd could see that the F-15 would be too costly to fully equip the USAF with them, and an inexpensive dogfighter would be necessary to fill the deficiency in combat aircraft. Thus, the light-weight F-16, and also, indirectly, the F/A-18.
Even the F-16, embellished by the bureaucrats, became heavier than Boyd wanted it to be. He wanted a stripped-down air-to-air specialist, not a multi-role fighter-bomber; and he wanted passive, rather than active radar. Nevertheless, an inexpensive and reliable F-16 conducted most of the missions in the 1991 Gulf War.
Boyd died in 1997 when the F-35 was known as the Joint Strike Fighter, but his colleague Pierre Sprey became famous for his criticism of the F-35. Based upon Boyd’s E-M theory, Sprey argues that the F-35 is a dud of an aircraft: it is too heavy, has too much drag, is too complex, has too high a wing load to be maneuverable, is utterly reliant on technology unproven in combat, and its stealth is defeatable. Sprey holds the F-35 would be torn apart in a dogfight with a MiG-21.
Sprey believes that the USAF bureaucracy is so enamoured with expensive technology and with the “hi-lo” mixed force concept (F-15, F-16; F-22, F-35) that the F-35 program drops big money in pursuit of a false ideology. Sprey does not believe the “platform” concept and thinks that actual aerial combat will see the resumption of dogfighting, in which the F-35 would be overwhelmed. He holds the original concept, light-weight F-16 with a more powerful engine than is currently in production is the best air-to-air fighter in future aerial combat.
Despite his vocal opposition, no one who favors the F-35 has come forward to refute Sprey’s argument. Boyd’s proven theories haven’t been repealed. And this should give budget makers pause. The Air Force bureaucracies of their own countries can be as bewitched by expensive technology as those of the USAF. There is no guarantee that ‘toys for the boys’ video game technology will work in actual combat, as was seen in Vietnam. Flying skill, E-M, and OODA loops may still
The case for a Canadian F-16 is that we have no reason to take a risk on an expensive dud whose capabilities we will never need or use - after a stripped-down air to air specialist met 99 + percent of the RCAF missions over the past fifty-five years, will meet them for the next thirty years, and can be had for a third of the price of the F-35. W