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?