Daily Archives: 4 December, 2009

USN F-4 Phantom vs VPAF MiG 17/19 – Peter Davies

Phantom vs. MiGs

Phantom vs. MiGs

I am a big fan of Osprey’s Duel series of books. The approach of comparing two contemporary machines, that fought against each other, makes for a very good read. And by also looking at the men involved, Osprey are onto a winner. This book charts the ongoing battle fought between the US Navy’s Phantom fighters and the North Vietnamese MiG fighters in the later part of the Vietnam War.

The US Navy developed its Cold War aviation from its successes in the Pacific in the Second World War. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, relied on significant Chinese and Soviet assistance. In the US Navy, ‘MiG killers’ became something of an elite within an elite. The US Navy’s Phantom’s performance was far superior to that of the US Air Force phantoms during the same period. After 1972 the US Navy’s statistics improved considerably, after more emphasis had been given to training crews in air combat. Originally designed as a stand-off interceptor, innovative Navy pilots showed that the Phantom could be used for dogfighting.

Interestingly, although one Phantom crew ended the Vietnam War having shot down 5 MiG’s, the next highest crews only accounted for two. In a highly intense war, that must have involved many missions, clearly many operations saw little action. It is, however, difficult to compare losses compared to the overall amount of aircraft deployed, as Hanoi has never released details of just how many MiG’s fought in the war.

One very interesting aspect that this book stresses, as early as the introduction, is to what extent do we compromise between technology and skill? This is all the more pertinent given the Cold War context. Particularly when it came to dogfighting, technology was useful but not the be all and end all. Aerial combat is an extremely complicated business, involving the aircraft itself, the weapons, electronics, and finally the crew themselves.

There are some disappointing aspects, however. The book focusses exclusively on Vietnam, to the exclusion of any other factors. Other air forces around the world were flying Phantoms and MiGs at the time – what was their approach? The more you separate history into little sections, the more compartmentalised it becomes. This book is about Vietnam, and rightly so – but a little more wider comparison would be a useful literary garnish.

Otherwise it is a great read. Packed with technical descriptions and specifications, and with a plethora of photographs and drawings, this should put the Phantom-MiG duel on the same level as Spitfire/Hurricane vs. Messerschmitt and Harrier vs. Mirage. The very essence of military aircraft is how they perform against their rivals, and the Duel series is an ideal way to showcase this.

There is a side story to this book too. Rowland White’s Phoenix Squadron, published earlier this year, describes how a British Fleet Air Arm Pilot went to America and saw that the US Navy’s Phantom training consisted of a number of experienced pilots, all telling their pupils different things. ‘This is how I flew in Vietnam!’ seems to have been the message, even if if it was a different message from room to room. According to White the British pilot submitted proposals on how to centralise the US Navy training and introduce more of a coherent policy. The result was the famed Top Gun programme.

To what extent was the Top Gun programme, of Tom Cruise fame, inspired by the less well-known but equally skilled Top Guns of the British Fleet Air Arm?

Published by Osprey Publishing

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Filed under Book of the Week, cold war

HMS Bulwark

I managed to catch a rare sight today when HMS Bulwark came into Portsmouth Dockyard. Conveniently when I was able to dash out of work in my lunch hour! Known as Landing Platform Docks, Bulwark and her sister ship HMS Albion are replacements for the HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid.

HMS Bulwark

HMS Bulwark

Their primary role is to embark, transport and deploy troops, their vehicles and equipment. To do this she carries 8 Landing Craft – with a resident Squadron of Royal Marines to operate them – which can be loaded through the dock at the stern of the ship or off of a side door and ramp. They can operate Helicopters up to the size of the Chinook, although there are no Hangar facilities onboard.

Albion and Bulwark, as well as carrying troops, can act as the Flagship for an Amphibious Task Group, containing the Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean and several ships from the Bay Class of Auxilliary Landing Ships. They can carry 305 troops for long periods, and 710 in an emergency. The whole ship has been specifically designed around the needs of the embarked military force.

Weighing 18,500 tons, they are a significant improvement on Fearless and Intrepid. Although their top speed, 18 knots, is pretty low.

Albion was commissioned in 2003, and Bulwark in 2004. Both are based in Plymouth, along with HMS Ocean. This probably makes sense as the Commando Brigade is based in the West Country. Therefore it is not very often that one of these ships comes into Portsmouth.

Earlier this year HMS Bulwark headed a UK task group taking part in Amphibious exercises and ‘flying the flag’ operations in the Far East. She’s looking pretty rusty – her predecessor used to be nicknamed ‘Rusty B’ so obviously she is living up to the nickname!

a view showing the stern door and internal dock

a view showing the stern door and internal dock

The introduction of Albion, Bulwark and Ocean represents a commitment to the UK’s amphibious capability. For years up until the Falklands war the Navy was not quite sure what to do with the Royal Marines, and preferred to spend time and money on aircraft carriers and submarines. The Falklands War changed all that, and along with 16 Air Assault Brigade the amphibious ships and the Commando Brigade comprise the UK’s readily deployable forces, ready and able to deploy into any enviroment from the Arctic to the Tropics.

It is difficult to envisage what kind of environment such a force would be used in – although securing a destabilised country, such as Sierra Leonne, could be one. The Falklands showed that amphibious operations are extremely vulnerable to air attack, and as the Royal Navy is getting shorter and shorter of Destroyers and Frigates armed with anti-aircraft missiles to act as escorts it might be difficult to deploy our amphibious forces against anything more than medium opposition.

But in an unpredictable world a capable Amphibious Task Force is a sound insurance policy.

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Filed under Falklands War, Navy, out and about, Royal Marines

British Generalship

I’ve almost finished reading The Making of the British Army, by Allan Mallinson. I will be writing a review in full course, but I’m more than happy to give away a few glimpses now.

Think of great British Generals. Cromwell. Marlborough. Wellington. You can probably add Wolfe, and maybe Kitchener, to that list. But in the twentieth century, nothing. If anything, we tend to think of amateurish fumblings in the Crimea, Haig’s indifferent and incompetend leadership on the Western Front, and evacuation at Dunkirk and surrender in Singapore.

Why is it that we generally can’t offer up a great British General since Waterloo? Especially as in that time we have fought a multitude of colonial wars, won two world wars, and then a plethora of difficult conflict around the world? Certainly, it would take a very brave person to argue that any great leaders came out of the Crimea or the First World War.

Or is it that British Generals have suffered from History? The longer ago a commander died, the more that their faults and vices tend to pale into insignificance. It is often said that the best career move anyone can make is to die – if we look at a comparable military figure, such as Nelson, all becomes clear. To die in battle absolves you of pretty much any drawbacks, even infidelity and vanity.

Nelson brings us on to another theme. Britain, as a country, has always admired sailors. There is something noble about going to the sea, even as a Jack Tar. Yet soldiers have long been thought of as ‘the scum of the earth’. The Royal Navy is the senior service, yet the Army – note the absence of a royal prefix – itself is only a loose collection of tribes. The Royal Navy has a pantheon of greats, from Howe, Anson, St Vincent, Nelson, Collingwood, Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty, Cunningham, and … and I would also argue Henry Leach… plenty more besides.

I have always thought that in Montgomery Britian did in fact have a 20th Century General who may rank just below Marlborough and Wellington. He probably doesnt deserve to rank alongside them, the debacle of Arnhem put paid to that, as well as his prickly character which won him few friends. But his military record speaks for itself. He saw active service in the first world war and was severely wounded. Then in the Second World War he managed to extricate his Division from Dunkirk, and gained a strong reputation as a trainer of men. When he was finally called to command the Eighth Army in North Africa, he put together a sound plan that turned the course of the Desert War. And only Montgomery could have overseen D-Day so succesfully.

For almost half a century it has been fashionable to knock Montgomery. Perhaps this stems from his abrasive attitude. But on the other hand, Wellington was a notoriously cold character too. Or it may stem from the fact that historical views of Wellington tend to polarise on US-British lines. This arose from the deep dislike that American generals had for Montgomery. But were they right to be so bitter? Montgomery had seen more action than all of them put together. At the start of the war, Eisenhower was a Colonel. Patton was good at driving forward in a straight line very fast, but came unstuck when he faced strong opposition. And to my knowledge, Montgomery cared too much for his men to slap any of them. If he had, he would have been sacked and retired from the Army. And for all his faults, Montgomery always followed orders. Perhaps his greatest fault was that he was right, and was not afraid of saying so.

American Historians – and not a few British ones too – have dominated the military historiography of the second world war. It has almost become an orthodoxy that Montgomery was over-rated. Saving Private Ryan said as much. In America, every general seems to be respected as a matter of course. Whilst I would not go this far, it is frustrating that in Britain we do not stand up for our military figures as much as we should. We love to knock our heroes, and especially our Generals. The late Robin Neillands wrote some very positive books about Montgomery, so hopefully in time historians will come to realise that his perceived faults have been exaggerated, and by comparison his strengths have been overlooked.

It seems that it is not so much what happened during the war that matters, but how it has been written about. It might be quite possible that had American Historians had found reason to denigrate Wellington, he would not be regarded as being as important as he is now. And that would completely change our view of leadership in the British Army. Are we missing out by not holding up Montgomery as a more important figure?

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Filed under Army, debate, Navy, Uncategorized, World War One, World War Two