Arrows And Torpedoes

Now, only recently have I looked more in-depth at the legendary Preston Tucker and his failed attempts at building cars.

The SEC charges were rather weak and there is no evidence to indicate that Tucker was an outright scammer, but even many of his defenders state that he was unaware of what going into the brutal auto industry actually meant. Kaiser-Frazer and Crosley, started by far more successful businessmen with more resources, still failed.

(The car itself did have many innovative and unique features, but even some of those were pared back in development. Never facing the stress test of sustained use marketing gives the vehicle an unnaturally rosy picture).

The Tucker cars remind me of another lost vehicle that attracts a disproportionate amount of nostalgia. This vehicle is the Avro Arrow. The Arrow was at best a limited F-4 or Western equivalent of the Su-15. Its main reason for being dropped dramatically after the Soviets shifted to missiles.

What makes the Tucker and Arrow stand out is the belief among far too many devotees that their success would have been game-changing. With the Arrow, Canada would be cranking out hordes of fighter jets. With Tucker, Detroit would have been nimbly pushed into shape, so that when the imports started arriving, they’d have far less of an opening.

I find both of these claims highly dubious.

A Simulation and A Scenario

One of the best things about Command is that it can be both a what-if simulation and an enjoyable experience at the same time.

So I designed a scenario, intended as an exercise (a favorite of mine). In this case, the exercising nation was Iran, and the goal was to see if its air force had any offensive capability whatsoever. Hordes of shah-surplus and ex-Iraqi “reparation planes” face against the best approximation of the Gulf States’ ultra-modern hardware-F-14s, modified I-HAWKs, and a Tor missile battery.

A combination of feedback and my own trials answered the question. “Nominally.”

Over two dozen aircraft were lost in the full playthrough in exchange for moderate damage to part of the target airbase. Enough to win the scenario (which was only asking if they can get anything on the target at all, regardless of cost), but in real terms, not cost-effective in the slightest.

Against a force with better missiles than the AIM-54, they’d have fared even worse.

The scenario is available under the Steam Workshop as “Iran Airbase Attack Drill”,  and has been submitted to the community pack. Making it was very fun-the concepts of both the player being qualitatively inferior and forcing them to take heavy losses are ones I’ve been interested in, and I’m already entertaining ideas for using a similar force mixture in a “real” battle scenario.

Iran’s Symmetric Weakness

The impetus for my latest foray into Command was a timeline on alternatehistory.com that didn’t live to its potential. Dealing with an expansion of the Iraq War into Iran, it was a badly written jumble. The author admitted not knowing much about the military, and it showed in that a lot of it was simply copy-pasted. The focus was on the politics-except a lot of that was copy-pasted too.

I wanted to do better.

First, the author involved a ground invasion. No one, at least after the Iraq War intensified, supported one. The US military, already strained to the limit, would have to secure a much larger, much more populous country (in the TL they only secure a small area as of now), and doing so would play to the regime’s strengths-allowing its deliberately planned unconventional defense to work, and in all likelihood unifying the people against an invasion.

Air and naval strikes, on the other hand, play to the strengths of Iran’s opponents. Far superior technology-the Iranians, if more skilled and certainly more willing to fight on, have technology roughly equivalent to the Iraqi airforce that the American-led coalition bulldozed in 1991, while said coalition’s forces have some advances, most notably AMRAAMs. So I’ve put my foot in the water with a few Command experiments-not integrated scenarios.

How badly is the Iranian Air Force outclassed by its potential opponents? To put it mildly-very.

 An Iranian F-4 Phantom. Generations behind its opponents, it scored hits on attacking fighters in only a few cases.

The circumstance involves a combat air patrol of F-15Cs near Bushehr. Red Flag veterans and trained exclusively for aerial battle, their proficiency is set to Veteran. Taking off from Kuwait, they fly, are picked up by a radar, and are moved to be intercepted by a flight of ten Iranian fighters-a mix of F-4s and F-5s. The proficiency has been set to “Cadet”, as the lran-Iraq veterans have retired, and the replacements face a constrained, limited environment.

If the pilots are suboptimal, the mission pattern is not-a pop-up “tethered intercept” that means they don’t just fly up high and get smashed by an AMRAAM immediately. I set up the missions and hit play. F-15s, 10. F-4s, zero. F-15s 10, F-4s zero. F-15s Dix, F-4s Zéro.

Then I look closely at the logs, to see the endgame calcs. This is just as important, because having an endgame calc happen at all means that there’s a chance for damage in a way that isn’t there when fighters are shot down before they can engage. I got only a handful of endgame calcs, and in many cases, it didn’t even reach the dodge stage-the ECM and decoys frequently bested the ancient seekers.

But the calcs also showed that the tethered intercepts were “working”. This was not just an AMRAAM-push-button kill. There were close scraps that required the use of AIM-9Xs (another advantage over the Gulf War-vintage fighters) and even a gun burst now and again. The combination of technology and skill was just too strong.

To even the scales in one case, I added an I-HAWK site. The furball ensued again. This time, when the dust settled, one F-15 had been downed. Looking at the log, I found it was-the ground defenses that did the trick.

Then I did another ‘rigged’ test, fighters only. This time the F-15s were set to novice, the justification being that after years of unconventional war, their skills had decayed. Logs showed one shot down, one additional close call, and-ten Phantoms and Tigers down. Again.

In the timeline thread, my stated aircraft losses to all kinds of enemy action were 10-20 American planes. This was a guesstimate based off of two posted losses for a scenario featuring a huge strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities (seven and eight aircraft). The authors of a book theorizing on war with Iran got ten in the initial, highest-intensity phases as well, albeit by abstracting. They took Gulf War loss rates and applied them to the theorized numbers of sorties without going into detail.

While the Bushehr engagement favored the F-15s by giving them easy reach (no coordination to hit a target deep in Iran and possibly get too far from the strike craft, just fly immediately), it still showed the weakness of the IRIAF when such clashes did result. My remaining guestimate is that only a small number of the losses would be due to fighters.
This is not to say that the IRIAF will be totally worthless beyond inflicting a few victories. Their mere ability to resist at all will force more combat air patrols and diversions, and keep crucial but vulnerable support aircraft at a distance. But the disparity is there and growing, and the immense focus on asymmetric tactics means the Iranians know it.

In Defense of the F-4

In the frequent criticisms of the F-35, it is often compared to the F-4 Phantom, another “do-everything” plane that ended up being used in all roles for both the US Navy and Air Force. The idea goes that since the F-4’s performance ended up being poor, so will the the F-35.

An example can be seen in this op-ed.

“What is fascinating is that the same argument was made almost 50 years ago about the F-4 Phantom, a twin-engine fighter designed for air superiority and reconnaissance. It was first sent into battle without an internal cannon — because of the Pentagon’s optimistic assumption that the new generation of air-to-air missiles made close-range air duels a thing of the past.

The result was that outdated North Vietnamese MiGs were able to shoot down these Phantoms in dogfights, which the Pentagon had planned not to have. So the Phantoms had to be equipped with the very guns once considered unneeded. The Navy then had to create the Top Gun program to teach what had become a lost art of aerial dogfighting.”

This is a huge oversimplification, and also ignores the context that illustrates just how revolutionary the F-4 turned out to be. While not minimizing its imperfections, a closer look at the Phantom shows that it not only that many of the criticisms are unfair, but also that it acheived something more than the sum of the parts.

The Gun Debate

The legend goes “super-tech Pentagon thought that the Phantom didn’t need a gun, so it suffered until the gun was finally brought back”. The truth is much more complex. Marshal L. Michel’s Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam mentions both that pre-war, many crews actually supported losing the gun. And there was a justification even during the early phases of the war-that a cannon would just make fighter crews try to get into dogfights with agile MiG-17s that, gun or not, would not end in the F-4s favor.

The justification was flawed, but it was still there, and was not just mere technological hubris. (Incidentally, the Americans, Europeans, and Soviets all built gunless interceptors in the same time period, showing that this trend was not unique to the Pentagon.)

But even with the gun, most of the kills went to missiles. The platforms on both sides that scored their kills with guns-the American F-105 and North Vietnamese MiG-17, did so because they had no choice. F-4 guns, both the jury-rigged external pods and internal models, offered some opportunities but did not change the basic dynamics of aerial combat. The malinged AIM-7 scored the bulk of American victories, and the AA-2 Sidewinder copy was the North Vietnamese weapon of choice.

In 1972, gunless Navy F-4s, backed by air combat training, excellent radar support in their area of operations, and largely facing weaker MiG-17s, scored their best group of kills yet. Air Force F-4s with guns, facing a larger and better-trained group of MiG-21s, initially foundered, with kills dropping to a negative ratio even by the USAF’s own admission. There is more to it than those initial claims, but it shows that the cannon was no cure-all.

Beyond the Gun

Beyond the stories of the gun, the dogfighting losses, and even the record of the F-4 in Vietnam as a whole, the context of its birth shows its true power.

From World War II to the 1960s, military aircraft development was a frenzied rush. Jets were appearing and getting faster and faster-aircraft were contorted into strange shapes as designers tried to take advantage of the possibilities. Aircraft would enter service, be slammed into rapid production runs that were as much to make up for the very high accidental loss rates as they were to build up the numbers, and then quickly drop out almost as soon as they went in.

There were lasting successes, like the A-4 Skyhawk. But these were drowned out by the mixture of flashes in the pan and utter duds that dominated 1950s tactical aviation. Enter the F-4. The plane began service as a fleet defense interceptor, to shoot down attacking aircraft and missiles threatening the carrier. Thus it was meant to operate in a more BVR-friendly environment (over the water with lavish radar backing) and was unlikely to close to gun-range. Yet it ended up making history in a different role.

Through its journey into becoming a multi-service, multirole “good enough” plane, the Phantom achieved something that had been lacking for much of the jet age-stability. The plane would be a fixture on American carrier decks and air bases alike for two decades, and remained in service with foreign customers for considerably longer.

Through the F-4’s imperfect and somewhat inadvertent pioneering of the multirole aircraft, it set the stage for deliberate designs to follow. Having the ability to both engage in the aerial combat role of a fighter and carry a large and/or long distance payload was extremely important. Pioneering the use of both radar missiles and smart bombs that are now ubiquitous, it provided a needed building block for those game-changers.

And its own service was not a terrible one. In addition to Vietnam, it served effectively in the Arab-Israeli and Iran-Iraq Wars. Among American pilots, even after its vulnerabilities through nearly a decade of war were revealed, it had its staunch defenders. (The book Sierra Hotel has an anecdote where F-4 crews were skeptical of the F-15, believing that having only one pilot would vastly limit its situational awareness. While the latter plane would certainly prove its worth, this was not the reaction of people who wanted to junk the wrecks they were forced to fly in).
In spite of its weaknesses, the F-4 was a capable, versatile product of the technology of the time that brought American jet fighters out of a chaotic childhood into a measured adulthood.