9A331-1 combat vehicle

Intended for effective defense of troops, civilian and industrial facilities from current and future air attack weapons, primarily high-precision weapons, as well as from aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles, guided aerial bombs and remotely piloted vehicles.

TOR-M1 air defense missile system which succeeded the OSA-AKM ADMC is one of the most advanced shortrange air defense systems. To the present day, TOR-M1 has no foreign analogues that could so effectively engage the cruise missiles, glide and guided bombs, small and actively maneuvering targets at the altitudes from 10 meters to 6 kilometers and at a range of 12 kilometers. The system is being in demand not only in the Russian army but also among many foreign customers. It is now in service with Greece, China, Iran and Egypt.

TOR-M1 is designed to defend the important administrative economic and military facilities, first echelons of the land forces and formations against the attacks of the antiradar and cruise missiles, remotely piloted vehicles, glide bombs, aircraft and helicopters, including of stealth technology.

The system incorporates the combat vehicle (CV) and the AD missile module (with the missiles in the container launcher), vehicles, maintenance and repair facilities and the electronic computer-aided operator’s trainer of the combat vehicle.

TOR-M1 basic element is the combat vehicle mounted on the cross-country self-propelled tracked chassis. It can detect the air targets independently on the move, determine their state identity and engage them at short halts. Unique design solutions implemented in TOR-M1, i.e. missile vertical launch scheme; ammunition up to eight missiles; capability of detecting up to 48 targets at a distance of up to 27 km; selection of up to 10 high threats and simultaneous engagement of two targets by two missiles; high level of automation; effective operation in the active and passive jamming environment, can reduce to a minimum the time to engage the surprise air targets.

All the radar, optical and computer equipment, missile ammunition and missile launch facilities, electrical power supply sources, survey control and life support equipment of the TOR-M1 crew are installed on one cross-country softskin tracked chassis that greatly improves mobility and endurance of the combat vehicle.

9A331-1 combat vehicle

The basic component of the system is a combat vehicle mounted on a cross-country tracked chassis of the intermediate weight category. The combat vehicle can detect aerial targets on the move and launch air defense missiles at two highest threat targets from a short halt. The combat vehicle comprises:

– self-propelled armored tracked chassis;

– three-dimensional target acquisition radar;

– digital computer;

– antenna stabilization system;

– ground-based IFF interrogator;

– target tracking phased-array radar;

– TV/optical sight;

– automatic launch equipment;

– coded telemetry and command radio communications system;

– navigation, survey and orientation equipment;

– primary power supply system;

– crew life-support equipment;

– auxiliary equipment.

9M334 air defense missile module (9M331 missile and 9Ya281 transport launch canister)

The missile is designed around a canard configuration. It is launched vertically by a powder catapult to a height of 15 – 20 m. It is then turned in the target direction, and its main solid-propellant rocket motor gets ignited.

The single-stage rocket motor has two operating modes. In the liftoff mode, the motor imparts the maximum speed of 850 m/s to the missile for 4 s of flight; in the cruise mode, lasting up to 12 s, the motor maintains this speed. Such a flight speed envelope ensures the required power-to-weight ratio, which enables the missile to cover a zone of up to 12 km in range and defeat targets flying at a speed of up to 700 m/s and g-loads of up to 10 g. The missile is maintenance-free and accommodated in a four-compartment transport launch canister.

Command/control assets

Organizationally, four combat vehicles of the Tor-M1 AD missile system enter into the complement of an air defense missile battery, which is the smallest tactical element. The combat vehicles are controlled by the 9S737-M Ranzhir unified battery command post. The Tor-M1 AD missile system is shipped by any type of transport, including aircraft. The manufacturers of the Tor-M1 system render a full package of maintenance services to keep the system in combat readiness and offer modernization packages that markedly expand the system’s combat capabilities.

There are several modifications of the Tor-M1 system, such as the TorM1T (wheeled chassis mounted system) and a stationary version.


The Tor-M1 ADMS includes combat, technical and auxiliary assets.

Typical combat assets include:

  • up to four 9A331-1 CVs with two SAM modules on each;
  • 9M334 missile modules with four 9M331 missiles in each;
  • 9S737M battery command post.

Technical assets include:

  • maintenance assets for the ADM system and its vehicles;
  • missiles loading/unloading, storage and transportation facilities with rigging equipment;
  • ADMS group set of spare parts, tools and accessories.

Auxiliary assets comprise 9F678 self-contained simulator for CV operators. Each CV is equipped with life-support equipment, navigation and mission recording means. The CV onboard equipment can be mounted on either tracked or wheeled chassis, or in container.

The Tor-M1 ADMS can be shipped by all transportation means, including aircraft.

Number of targets:

simultaneously detected 48

simultaneously tracked 10

Target detection range, km 27

Target engagement envelope, km: range 1.0 – 12.0 altitude 0.01 – 6.0 cross-range 6.0

Target speed, m/s 0 – 700

Minimum target ERA, m2 -0.1

Reaction time (from target detection to missile liftoff), sec 5 – 10

Number of missiles on combat vehicle 8

Aircraft kill probability 0.6 – 0.95

Maximum vehicle speed, km/h 65

Weight of combat vehicle, kg 37,000

Fuel endurance (including equipment operation for 2 h), km 500


Russia Buks

Buk-M1-2 air defence system in 2010. Command post 9C470M1-2, TELAR 9A310M1-2 and a TEL 9A39M1-2 from the backside.

The Buk-M1 (SA-11 Gadfly to NATO) can be used by minimally trained operators to deliver a lethal attack, without the safeguards built into other comparable GBADS, an Aviation Week analysis shows. It is also one of the two GBADS – both of Soviet origin – that are most widely distributed in conflict zones with the potential for large-scale, crossborder or civil violence.

The feature that makes the Buk-series weapons uniquely dangerous was introduced in the 1970s when Tikhomirov NIIP, now part of Almaz-Antey, designed the system to replace the 2K12 Kub low-altitude missile system, known to NATO as the SA-6 Gainful. (The similar names are coincidental: “Kub” means “cube” and “Buk” means “beech.”)

Kub was exported to Egypt after the destruction of that nation’s air force in a low-level air strike in 1967, and proved lethal in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. But it had a serious weakness in that it could engage only one target at a time. A Kub battery included one radar vehicle and four launch vehicles and used semi-active radar homing (SARH) guidance. The radar vehicle carried two antennas, a search radar and a continuous-wave tracker-illuminator, and the missile homed on to energy from the illuminator beam that was reflected from the target. With one illuminator per battery, the system could not start a second engagement until the previous missile had hit the target.

In the 1982 Lebanon war, the Israel Defense Force – Air Force launched a wave of decoys against Kubs and other GBADS. Once the Kubs locked onto the decoys they were unable to respond to the IDF-AF fighters that appeared next, and were destroyed.

The designers of the replacement Buk system had anticipated this problem. In addition to a new radar vehicle – the Phazotron 9S18M, Snow Drift to NATO – they fitted each launch vehicle with its own X-band multi-mode radar, under a radome on the front of the rotating launch platform. The vehicle is defined as a transporter/erector/launcher and radar (Telar). Similar to a fighter radar, the Telar radar (known to NATO as Fire Dome) has search, track and illuminator functions and can scan through a 120-deg. arc, independent of the movement of the platform.

This feature may have been a crucial factor in the destruction of MH17. The Fire Dome radar’s main job was to permit simultaneous engagement of more targets – one per Telar – under control of the battery’s 9S18M Snow Drift. But the Soviet military and the designers installed a set of backup modes that would permit the Telars to detect and attack targets autonomously, in the event the Snow Drift was shut down or destroyed by NATO’s rapidly improving anti-radar missiles. The autonomous modes are intended for last-ditch use by the Telar operators, not the more highly trained crews in the battery command vehicle. According to an experienced analyst of Russian-developed radar, the automatic radar modes display targets within range. The operator can then command the system to lock up the target, illuminate and shoot.

Critically, these backup modes also bypass two safety features built into the 9S18M Snow Drift radar: a full-function identification friend-or-foe (IFF) system and non-cooperative target recognition (NCTR) modes. The IFF system uses a separate interrogator located above the main radar antenna and most likely will have been upgraded to current civilian standards.

The 9S18M introduced new NCTR processing technology, according to a 1998 interview with Buk designer Ardalion Rastov. NCTR techniques are closely held, but one of the most basic – jet engine modulation, or the analysis of beats and harmonics in the radar return that are caused by engine fan or compressor blades – should easily discriminate among a 777 with high-bypass turbofans, a turboprop transport or an Su-25 attack fighter.

There is no sign of an IFF interrogator on the Buk Telar’s Fire Dome radar or elsewhere on the vehicle. In normal operation, it would not be necessary since the target’s identity would be verified (according to the prevailing rules of engagement) before target data was passed to the Telar. Other GBADS also leave identification to the main search radar and the command-and-control center; however, the launch units cannot engage and fire without central guidance. The Buk’s combination of lethality and lack of IFF/NCTR is unique.

The Buk-M1 and later derivatives, the M2 and M2E, have been deployed in 14 nations, and are operational in other areas subject to internal conflict. In January 2013, Israel launched an air strike that was apparently intended to destroy a number of Buk-M2E vehicles – the more advanced version – that were being transferred from Syria to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. In all, Syria is reported to have possessed eight Buk-M2E batteries. Syria also operates as many as 40 S-125 (SA-3 Goa) batteries, which are reportedly being upgraded. These also are medium-range, mobile weapons, but the launch units do not have radar. The same goes for the nation’s aging Kub batteries.

Egypt has 50-plus batteries of S-125, some of which have been modernized, and has been reportedly negotiating orders for Buk-M2E systems. Yemen also has some S-125 systems. Most pre-2003 Iraqi and Libyan GBADS have been destroyed, analysts suggest.

Russian 9K33M1 ‘BUK’.

With a NATO reporting name of ‘Grizzly’ or ‘Gadfly’ these effective Surface to Air missile defence systems have been operated by many countries from the 1980s to present with the usual Russian development approach of ‘slowly but surely’ and equally Russian robustness of the torsion-bar tracked chassis. The BUK system attained Worldwide infamy recently when it was used to shoot down of a civilian airliner. The system has a range of 35 Kms and a warhead weighing some 70Kg travelling at a speed of Mach 3 these 9K37M missiles can counter most airborne targets.

The first fire unit of the new 9K317M Buk-M3 SAM system, developed and manufactured by Almaz-Antey, has been delivered. It was received in early November, together with two units of the less advanced Buk-M2, and both the Buk-M3 and Buk-M2 fire units have successfully passed acceptance testing.

The Buk-M3 has longer range and can engage more air targets than its predecessor. Its maximum range is 70km with a minimum range slated at 2.5km, while the number of targets that can be simultaneously engaged is 36.

It uses a new missile, designated 9K317M, equipped with an active-radar, fire-and-forget seeker. Each 9K316M transport-erector-launch (TEL) vehicle can take up to 12 missiles accommodated in storage and launch tubes. The 9K317M autonomous fire vehicle with guidance radar is equipped with six missiles.

Each fire unit consists of a command post, an early warning radar, two autonomous fire vehicles with guidance radars and one or two TELs and transport-reload vehicles. All use tracked chassis enabling high off-road mobility.

The 9K317M missile boasts good manoeuvrability, thanks to the gas-dynamic controls (thrust vectoring) which enables the hit-to-kill capability. The missile’s maximum speed is 1,550m/s while the maximum speed of the engaged air targets is 3,000m/s and the engagement altitude is between 50 and 115,000ft.

In addition to aircraft, cruise missiles, UAVs and helicopters, the Buk-M3 is also advertised as well suited for countering tactical ballistic missiles.

The Israel Air Force (IAF) began a series of air strikes in 2013 that reportedly targeted weapons systems that Syria was transferring to its Lebanese ally Hizbullah. These air strikes all struck targets in areas largely controlled by pro-government forces.

The first was carried out on 30 January 2013, when vehicles were destroyed at the Al-Jamraya Research Centre just northwest of Damascus. Western media reports cited unnamed US officials as saying Buk-M2E mounted on transporters had been targeted before they could be driven across the border into Lebanon. In contrast, Syrian television showed footage of 9K33 Osa SHORAD systems and a number of transport trailers that had been destroyed in the air strike.

Even if the Syrians removed Buk-M2E components from these trailers after the air strike, the presence of the SAMs would not have been indicative of an intention to transfer them outside of Syria. Tracked vehicles that are capable of severely damaging paved roads are often transported on trailers and this has been seen with Syrian Buk-M2Es heading towards Al-Mazzah Air Base west of Damascus.

At the same time, Hizbullah would not be able to operate and maintain complex systems such as Buk-M2E SAMs on its own. Furthermore, the transfer of that system to Hizbullah would put Russia under far more international pressure to discontinue arms deliveries to Syria and to concede to a UN arms embargo on the Arab country. There are other possible explanations: Syrian may have intended to deploy Buk-M2E batteries to Lebanon to defend Hizbullah positions and/or challenge the Israeli aircraft that currently operate over Lebanon with impunity, or to transfer the less sophisticated Osa SAM systems to Hizbullah.

A series of airstrikes in early May 2013 appeared to have been directed at Hizbullah-oriented weapon systems. According to an unidentified US official quoted by The New York Times , the first strike on 3 May targeted Iranian-supplied Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) under the control of Iranian Quds Force and Hizbullah personnel. The Fateh-110 is a far less sophisticated weapon system than the Buk-M2E and potentially could be operated by Hizbullah personnel.

The IAF’s unwillingness to enter Syria’s airspace indicates that its efforts to improve its IADS have been successful. Furthermore, the incorporation of modern Chinese radar systems following the 2007 incursion suggests a more robust EW network is being established, designed to limit the effectiveness of any network-centric warfare attempts to degrade it. At the same time, the more strikes that the IAF carries out, the better the chances of the Syrian Air Defence Command predicting future strikes. In doing so, the command has the ability to relocate advanced mobile systems such as the Buk-M2E and Pantsyr-S1E in an attempt to successfully repel hostile action.

Original design tree

9K37-1 ‘Buk-1’ – First Buk missile system variant accepted into service, incorporating a 9A38 TELAR within a 2K12M3 Kub-M3 battery.

9K37 ‘Buk’- The completed Buk missile system with all new system components, back-compatible with 2K12 Kub.

9K37M1 ‘Buk-M1’ – An improved variant of the original 9K37 which entered into service with the then Soviet armed forces.

9K37M1-2 ‘Buk-M1-2’ (‘Gang’ for export markets) – An improved variant of the 9K37M1 ‘Buk-M1’ which entered into service with the Russian armed forces.

9K317 ‘Ural’ – initial design of Buk-M2 which entered into service with the Russian armed forces

Backside of the 9A317 TELAR of Buk-M2E (export version) at the 2007 MAKS Airshow

Wheeled MZKT-6922 TELAR of Buk-M2EK SAM system at Kapustin Yar, 2011

9K317E ‘Buk-M2E’ – revised design for export markets

9K37M1-2A ‘Buk-M1-2A’ – redesign of Buk-M1-2 for the use of 9M317A missile

‘Buk-M2EK’ – A wheeled variant of Buk-M2 on MZKT-6922 chassis exported to Venezuela and Syria.

9K317M ‘Buk-M3’ – A SAM battalion has 36 target channels in total.


  • combat assets
  • support assets

Typical combat assets include:

  • 9S470 M1-2 command post;
  • 9S18 M1-1 target acquisition radar;
  • up to six 9A310M1-2 self-propelled launch vehicles;
  • up to six 9A39M1 launcher-loader vehicles, assigned to SPLVs;
  • up to 72 9M317 surface-to-air missiles, carried on SPLVs (up to four on each) and

LLVs (up to eight SAMs with four of them ready-to-fire on launch rails).

The support assets include maintenance and repair assets for the ADMS main elements, including tracked vehicles.

A group of up to four ADMS is provided with the following support assets:

  • maintenance and repair facilities for the ADMS elements, and an automated integrated missile test and monitoring system;
  • missile storage and transportation means (with rigging equipment to load/unload the missiles);
  • training facilities;
  • a group set of spare parts, tools and accessories for the ADMS elements.

Basic missile system specifications

Target acquisition range (by TAR 9S18M1, 9S18M1-1)

Range: 140 kilometres (87 miles)

Altitude: 60 meters – 25 kilometers (197 feet – 15.5 miles)

Firing groups in one division: up to 6 (with one command post)

Firing groups operating in a sector

90° in azimuth, 0–7° and 7–14° in elevation

45° in azimuth, 14–52° in elevation

Radar mast lifting height (for TAR 9S36): 21 meters

Reloading of 4 missiles by TEL from itself: around 15 minutes

Combat readiness time: no more than 5 minutes

Kill probability (by one missile): 90–95%

Target engagement zone


Altitude: 15 meters – 25 kilometers (50 feet – 15.5 miles)

Range: 3–42 kilometres (2–26 miles)

Tactical ballistic missiles

Altitude: 2.0–16 kilometres (1.2–9.9 miles)

Range: 3–20 kilometres (1.9–12.4 miles)

Sea targets: up to 25 kilometres (16 miles)

Land targets: up to 15 kilometres (9.3 miles)

The system is estimated to have a 70% to 93% probability of destroying a targeted aircraft per missile launched. In 1992, the system was demonstrated to be capable of intercepting Scud missiles and large rocket artillery.

NIIP 9K37/9K37M1/9K317 Buk M1/M2 Self Propelled Air Defence System / SA-11/17 Gadfly/Grizzly



The Lockheed Martin P-175 Polecat was a worthy successor to the reconnaissance aircraft projects that had come to Groom Lake from the Skunk Works through the decades.

The first X-45A, with its weapons bay door open, dropped its first bomb in March 2004.


The Phantom Ray, the successor to the X-45C J-UCAS, made its first flight in 2011.

In the world of popular interest in aviation, the first decade of the twenty-first century could be called the Decade of the Drone. Certainly the drone has become synonymous with clandestine military operations in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. These aircraft, called RPVs in the third quarter of the last century and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) more recently, were first widely used for aerial reconnaissance missions during the war in Southeast Asia and for combat operations since the turn of the century.

However, drones have been around for almost a century. The first military drone designed for combat, the Kettering Bug, was being tested in 1918 and might have played a role in World War I had that conflict not ended when it did. By midcentury, the hobby of flying remotely controlled airplanes was widespread. During World War II, an enterprising Californian named Reginald Denny started a company called Radioplane, which sold thousands of scaled-up radio-controlled models to the US Army and US Navy as target drones. Northrop later bought Radioplane and continued building both piston-engine and jet target drones.

After World War II, as discussed in chapter 12, Ryan Aeronautical (later Teledyne Ryan) developed a line of jet-propelled target drones that were called Firebees. In turn, these were adapted for reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam, Laos, and elsewhere during the 1960s, propelling the company down a path toward more sophisticated RPV reconnaissance aircraft such as Compass, Compass Cope, and Patent Number 4019699.

By the 1990s, as RPVs were now being called UAVs, they were growing in sophistication. Many surveillance drones in service then, as now, such as the RQ-2 Pioneer, RQ-5 Hunter, or Boeing Insitu ScanEagle, were small, slow, piston-engine aircraft. Others are larger and much more sophisticated. Teledyne Ryan’s experience with the Compass Cope, for example, led to the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a large jet aircraft that can operate at 60,000 feet and stay aloft for more than 24 hours.

Drones captured the headlines after 2001, not only for their reconnaissance capability, but also for their offensive capabilities. Arming the General Atomics RQ-1 Predator with Hellfire missiles to take out terrorists and insurgents came as an afterthought to its original concept. However, when operations were watching the enemy in real-time video feeds, there was a natural inclination to attack the enemy that could be seen. The reconnaissance RQ-1 became the armed, multimission MQ-1, and General Atomics developed the much larger and more capable MQ-9 Reaper, which was capable of carrying more and varied offensive ordnance.

In the meantime, in 1998, DARPA and the US Air Force had initiated the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) program, aimed at demonstrating unmanned stealth aircraft that could be flown on deep penetration missions, such as suppression of enemy air defenses, into heavily defended air space. This led to the Boeing Phantom Works X-45A, first flown in 2002, and the Northrop Grumman X-47A Pegasus, which made its debut in 2003.

Under the program, the Phantom Works project utilized technology from the Bird of Prey, while the X-47A would have benefited from the obscure Teledyne Ryan 4019699 research.

The UCAV program later became the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS). The “J” was inserted when the US Navy expressed keen interest in the previously US Air Force program, specifically in the X-47A. Meanwhile, UCAV became UCAS when the DOD decided to consider the overall system developed within a program, not just the vehicle. Meanwhile the term UAS was introduced to supersede UAV, although in practice the UAV acronym continued to prevail.

The “white world” X-45A and X-47A never inhabited that arcane world where their existence was denied and are not known to have been tested in the skies over Area 51. However both projects involved technology that suggests that they may have “black world” cousins whose existence may not be disclosed for decades.

One unmanned aircraft definitely straddles that line in the Lockheed Martin RQ-3 DarkStar, which brings the narrative full circle and back to the Skunk Works. Indeed, the DarkStar has evolved into programs that are known to have been seen over Area 51 and to others that simply remain unknown.

The DarkStar originated as Lockheed’s entry in DARPA’s High Altitude Endurance (HAE) UAV advanced airborne reconnaissance program, which was initiated in 1993 and which DARPA managed on behalf of the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office (DARO). HAE had evolved out of DARPA’s High-Altitude, Long-Endurance (HALE) program of the 1980s that led to the development of the Boeing Condor, a huge UAV with a service ceiling of 67,000 feet.

During the 1990s, each of the armed services developed a complicated and confusing taxonomy of “tiers” to define its UAV program, but this practice fell out of use in later years, probably because the respective nomenclature of the services did not align, and within the services, the drones themselves did not conform precisely to the tiers. The two complementary US Air Force aircraft developed under HAE were described not as Tier II and Tier III, but as Tier II Plus and Tier III Minus. Tier II Plus identified a strategic UAV operating up to 65,000 feet with a range of 3,000 miles, slightly beyond the performance envelope of Tier II. Tier III Minus UAVs were strategic HAE vehicles embodying LO characteristics, but they had a shorter endurance than Tier II Plus or Tier III aircraft.

Under HAE, the Tier II Plus aircraft was the RQ-4 Global Hawk, while the Tier III Minus was the RQ-3 DarkStar. Both were intended to be reconnaissance aircraft, not UCAVs. The DarkStar first flew in 1996, while the RQ-4 Global Hawk first flew in 1998. The Global Hawk was a longer endurance, higher flying aircraft, while the DarkStar was designed as a stealth aircraft capable of operating in hostile environments.

While elements of the Global Hawk’s ongoing twenty-first century operational career remain classified, it has been widely photographed and was never a black program. The DarkStar, meanwhile, came and went quickly, leaving much speculation about follow-on aircraft.

Resembling a “flying saucer” from the front, the DarkStar airframe was composed primarily of nonmetal composites, and it had no vertical tail surfaces. It was only 15 feet from front to back, but its wing spanned 69 feet. The DarkStar had a gross weight of 8,600 pounds and was powered by a single Williams FJ-44-1 turbofan engine. It had an endurance of 12.7 hours, or eight hours above 45,000 feet.

The first DarkStar prototype made a successful debut flight in March 1996 at Edwards AFB but crashed on its second flight a month later. After twenty-six months of reworking, the second DarkStar made a forty-four-minute fully autonomous first flight in June 1998, but the Defense Department officially terminated the Tier III Minus program in January 1999. By this time, it seemed that there was more interest in the potential usefulness of a long range Global Hawk than a stealthy DarkStar.

This aircraft, which could possibly be considered a “nephew of DarkStar,” was developed by Lockheed Martin as Unmanned System P-175 and named Polecat. This is a term that describes a member of the weasel family but is also synonymous with “skunk” in American slang, therefore suggesting a reference to the Skunk Works. Polecat could also be a reference to the pole that is used to hold a model of an aircraft aloft when evaluating the RCS of its airframe shape. Whatever the origin of the moniker, the P-175 was first flown in 2005 and disclosed to the media in July 2006 at the Farnborough International Air Show in England. The aircraft itself made no appearance, remaining safely beyond public gaze within the confines of Area 51.

Lockheed Martin announced that it had developed the new aircraft to demonstrate that the Skunk Works still had the “right stuff” to compete in the advanced technology world where the principal players had been Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Frank Mauro, the company’s director of unmanned systems, told Amy Butler of Aviation Week and Space Technology that the company undertook the project against the backdrop of a perception within the industry that it had abandoned unmanned aerial vehicle technology after DarkStar. “We’ve taken some hard shots in the past three or four years that [we were] not in the UAS game,” he said, “and there is a perception that our future is at risk. We are putting our money where our mouth is.”

Indeed, the company had spent $27 million of its own money on the program, which Mauro described as a “significant” proportion of the company’s research aircraft budget during the period. However, it is also significant that the Polecat was developed in a year and a half, a very short time to bring an aircraft that involves innovative technology from initial concept to first flight.

Only one Polecat was built, constructed of 98 percent composite materials, and with a wingspan of 90 feet. The company acknowledged having pioneered a low-temperature curing process for composites used in the aircraft. In this case, the composites were cured at 150 degrees Fahrenheit rather that the 350 degrees of a conventional autoclave. The idea was cost savings. The Polecat had a gross weight of 9,000 pounds and was designed with a payload bay between the wings that could accommodate a half ton of sensors, reconnaissance gear, or weapons. It was powered by two FJ44-3E Williams International engines.

Frank Cappuccio, the executive vice president and general manager of Advanced Development Programs and Strategic Planning at Lockheed Martin later said that “no one has ever developed in this configuration a high lift-to-drag ratio, and we are going to do it higher than anyone has done it.… [The Polecat] was specifically designed to verify three things: new, cost-effective rapid prototyping and manufacturing techniques of composite materials; projected aerodynamic performance required for sustained high altitude operations; and flight autonomy attributes. In addition, the company investment and the resulting successful flights are proof positive of our commitment to developing the next inflection point in unmanned systems.”

He added that the engine intakes were masked to deflect radar and explained that without vertical structures and a tail, the aircraft was “inherently low-observable” though it had not been “coated” with radar-reflecting material because “it is not expected to fly operationally.”

An innovative “twisting strut” inside the Polecat’s wings had, according to Lockheed Martin, been designed to “flex in air and improve the laminar flow over its swept wings, propelling the UAV to high altitudes.” The intended operational altitude of the Polecat was specified at 60,000 feet, much greater than that of the UCAV/UCAS demonstrators.

An important design feature that the DarkStar and Polecat shared with the X-45 and the X-47, as well as with the B-2, is the absence of vertical tail surfaces. This design feature, which helps to reduce the RCS, is still considered to be very leading edge technology in the twenty-first century. However, recall that this innovation had been pioneered a half century earlier in Germany by Walter and Reimer Horten.

Lockheed Martin intended to continue flying the Polecat in an ambitious series of high-altitude test flights, but on December 18, 2006, over the Nellis Range, the sole Polecat prototype suffered what Lockheed Martin characterized as an “irreversible unintentional failure in the flight termination ground equipment, which caused the aircraft’s automatic fail-safe flight termination mode to activate.” The aircraft was destroyed in the ensuing crash.

In March 2007, Flight International reported that the notion of “building a replacement” for the Polecat was under consideration.

When a Lockheed Martin statement affirmed that a Polecaat replacement was “certainly being discussed,” few outside the Skunk Works and the shadowy corners of the world of Tonopah and Groom Lake realized that something else was already in development. Nor was there any indication that such a thing might be afoot until a tailless flying wing very similar to the Polecat was observed in the skies over Afghanistan later in 2007.

This aircraft was Lockheed Martin’s Sentinel, a UAV that bore the designation RQ-170. Assigned for no reason that was then apparent, this designation was far out of sequence with the US Air Force reconnaissance drone nomenclature that then topped out at just eighteen with the Boeing YMQ-18A Hummingbird, a rotorcraft UAV. The higher number suggests that the RQ-170 designation was that used by the CIA, where manufacturer model numbers, rather than military designations, are used. The Lockheed A-12 and the Ryan Model 147 are examples of such aircraft. The Polecat did bear the nearby company designator, P-175. It is possible that Sentinels were operated by both the US Air Force and the CIA, as are Predator drones.

The Air Force Sentinels were based inside the deep black world of the Nellis Range and the Tonopah Test Range, where they were assigned to the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron. This unit dated back to World War II and was operational until inactivated in 1976. Reactivated in 2005, the 30th was assigned first to the 57th Operations Group at Nellis AFB and then to the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech AFB, the umbrella organization for UAVs, such as the Predator and Reaper, that were active over southwest Asia.

Before its existence and its designation were officially acknowledged in 2009, the RQ-170 was glimpsed as it operated out of Kandahar AB in Afghanistan. For want of an official name or designation, the mysterious UAV came to be known as the “Beast of Kandahar.”

The revelation to the media, also identifying Lockheed Martin as the manufacturer, came on December 4, 2009, after which little further information was released. It was stated that the US Air Force was “developing a stealthy unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to provide reconnaissance and surveillance support to forward deployed combat forces.… The fielding of the RQ-170 aligns with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’s request for increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support to the Combatant Commanders and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz’s vision for an increased US Air Force reliance on unmanned aircraft.”

Writing in Aviation Week, David Fulghum and Bill Sweetman observed, “Visible details that suggest a moderate degree of stealth (including a blunt leading edge, simple nozzle and overwing sensor pods) suggests that the Sentinel is a tactical, operations-oriented platform and not a strategic intelligence-gathering design. Many questions remain about the aircraft’s use. If it is a high-altitude aircraft it is painted an unusual color—medium grey overall, like Predator or Reaper, rather then the dark gray or overall black that provides the best concealment at very high altitudes.… The wingspan appears to be about 65 feet, about the same as an MQ-9 Reaper. With only a few images to judge from, all taken from the left side, the impression is of a rather deep, fat centerbody blended into the outer wings. With its low-observable design, the aircraft could be useful for flying the borders of Iran and peering into China, India and Pakistan for useful data about missile tests and telemetry, as well as gathering signals and multi-spectral intelligence.”

Two months later, in February 2010, Bill Sweetman reported in Aviation Week that an unidentified aircraft matching the description of the Beast, had been seen over Korea. He wrote, “The Beast of Kandahar gets around. The hitherto-classified Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned air vehicle (UAV), its existence disclosed after our inquiries in December, has been sighted outside Afghanistan. A Korean newspaper report—overlooked when it appeared in December—has now surfaced and states that the UAV had been flying for several months from a South Korean base—probably Osan, where the US Air Force currently operates U-2s—before it was disclosed. This revelation points directly to an answer to one of the puzzling questions about the Beast: why would you use a stealthy aircraft to spy on the Taliban? The answer is that you don’t, but Afghanistan and South Korea have a common feature: they are next door to nations with missile development programs.”

In August 2010, David Fulghum reported that “the latest twist is that the US Air Force’s stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel flying wing either has returned or is returning to operations in Afghanistan, this time with a full motion video (FMV) capability that ground commanders have been demanding as part of the continuing ISR buildup in the country. What’s not clear is whether the Sentinel’s stealth enables the conduct of unobserved surveillance missions near or over the borders with Iran and Pakistan.”

It was no secret that American UAVs had been operating routinely over Pakistan for years, and Sentinels were probably also active. Numerous RQ-170 missions were reportedly flown in preparation for Operation Neptune Spear, the successful effort to take out Osama bin Laden, who was killed at his compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011, by US Navy SEALs.

On this subject, David Fulghum wrote that the RQ-170 then carried a full-motion video (FMV) payload, noting that “FMV is the key to activity-based, intelligence analysis, the same discipline that revealed Osama bin Laden’s hiding place. Both the CIA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) see activity-based intelligence as the path to better monitoring of areas of concern, and they are busy expanding that capability.… The single-channel, FMV capability is being multiplied up to 65 times in new systems being packaged for carriage by unmanned aircraft and airships. An Air Force version of the capability is Gorgon Stare. An Army system is called Argus-IS.… Gorgon Stare, developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation and the Air Force’s Big Safari program, has been flying over Afghanistan on MQ-9 Reapers since December 2010. The current payload is in two pods. One carries a sensor ball produced by subcontractor ITT Defense. The ball contains five EO [electro-optical] cameras for daytime and four IR [infrared] cameras for nighttime ISR, positioned at different angles for maximum ground coverage. The pod also houses a computer processor. Images from the five EO cameras are stitched together by the computer to create an 80-megapixel image.”

Both Sweetman and Fulghum were on the mark in suggesting that the Beast’s primary mission was to snoop on places such as Iran. This intent became painfully clear on December 4, 2011, when one of the stealthy aircraft fell into the hands of the Iranian government near the city of Kashmar in northeastern Iran, 140 miles from the Afghan border.

Western news media reported that it had been “shot down,” although when the Iranians put the RQ-170 on display it was clear that it had not been hit by a surface-to-air missile. The Iranians claimed that their cyber warfare experts took over the control telemetry channel and landed the aircraft. The US DOD said it was “flying a mission over western Afghanistan” when control was lost, adding that the aircraft had crash-landed.

Questions arose over whether the RQ-170 was being operated by the Defense Department, as initial comments suggested, or by the CIA. In the Washington Post of December 6, Greg Miller wrote that “CIA press officials declined to comment on the downed drone and reporters were directed toward a statement from the military. And sure enough, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force seemed to step up to take the blame. ‘The UAV to which the Iranians are referring may be a US unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week,’ ISAF said in a statement. Mystery solved. The US military operates plenty of drones as part of the war effort in Afghanistan, and this one just veered off course. But the wording of the ISAF statement was curiously ambiguous, particularly on the question of who was really flying the drone. Some senior US officials seemed troubled by the attempt at deception from the start. On Sunday, a senior defense official voiced skepticism about the idea that a precious stealth drone would be doing surveillance work in western Afghanistan. By Monday, the story had changed. The CIA and the Pentagon continued to deny comment, but other US officials confirmed that the drone belonged to the CIA.”

“Accurate information was provided in the statement,” a “senior US official” told Miller. “There’s no obligation to disclose all the details of sensitive reconnaissance missions. If that’s the test, then we may as well knock on the doors of our adversaries, wherever they may be, and ask them to answer our questions.”

With this, the United States predictably asked that the RQ-170 be returned, and the Iranians, just as predictably, refused. Also as could have been expected, the Iranians insisted that they were going to build a copy of the aircraft. As of February 2013, when Iran first released FMV footage downloaded from the RQ-170, the reverse-engineered replica had not yet appeared.

Back in the United States, a window into the future of twenty-first century black airplanes continued to be found in a look at industry-funded projects such as the Bird of Prey and the Polecat. Boeing and Lockheed Martin had not funded these programs internally on a whim, but under the assumption that the technology being developed would evolve into a salable future product—such as the RQ-170 and who knows what else.

Another company-financed program is the Boeing Phantom Ray, named in part for the company’s Phantom Works and in part for its shape. The Phantom Ray evolved from the X-45C J-UCAS, which was to have followed the X-45A UCAV but had been cancelled in 2006. In 2009, the same year that the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 was formally revealed, Boeing announced the decision to revive the X-45C as the company-funded Phantom Ray. “We will incorporate the latest technologies into the superb X-45C airframe design,” said Dave Koopersmith, vice president of Boeing Advanced Military Aircraft, a division of Phantom Works. “Phantom Ray will pick up where the UCAS program left off in 2006 by further demonstrating Boeing’s unmanned systems development capabilities in a fighter-sized, state-of-the-art aerospace system.”

As Graham Warwick of Aviation Week wrote in May 2009, “If the [Phantom Ray] aircraft looks familiar, that’s because it is—it’s the X-45C that was completed, but never flown, when the [J-UCAS] program was cancelled back in 2006.… Unveiling of the Phantom Ray comes hard on the heels of US defense secretary Robert Gates’ April 7 announcement that the [Next Generation Bomber] program is to be deferred and his comments that perhaps the next Air Force bomber could be unmanned. In effect, we are back to where we were before March 2006, when the J-UCAS program was planning to demonstrate technology for future unmanned strike/surveillance platforms.”

The Phantom Ray entered its flight test program with a seventeen-minute first flight from Edwards AFB on April 27, 2011. While this first flight was announced, and it took place at an officially acknowledged facility rather than at Groom Lake, little more has been said officially, so it is hard to know the nature of the black world iceberg of which the Phantom Ray is the tip.

“The fact of the matter is that we have a stealthy, remotely piloted aircraft that’s out there,” General David Deptula, the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, told reporters back in 2010 when he was asked about the secrecy surrounding the RQ-170.

He then went on to provide some insight into the next generation beyond the stealthy black world aircraft that now exist—or that are known to exist. “We can’t do business in a serial fashion like we have before. We’re not looking for the next version of the MQ-9 that can fly faster and go higher. Can we physically change the characteristics of an aircraft to adapt it to different roles by making it more survivable through shape and treatments?”

There are other ongoing, but little heralded, programs that provide tantalizing clues into what might be going on at Area 51 and the other areas about which we know even less. There is DARPA’s Vulture program, aimed at developing a solar-powered UAV that can stay aloft for five years. The Boeing X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is a UAV spaceplane that has already been operational in space on missions lasting more than a year.

Speed, as well as duration, has always been the hallmark of the black programs at Area 51. An indication of what might be going on in the black world is indicated by the Boeing X-51 Waverider. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne SJY61 scramjet engine, it rides its own shockwave to hypersonic flight. By 2012, the Waverider had demonstrated speeds up to Mach 4.88.

The speed of the Waverider is eclipsed by that of Lockheed Martin’s Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), developed for a DARPA research and development effort known as Force Application and Launch from the Continental United States (FALCON). First test flown in 2011, it is, as DARPA explains, “an unmanned, rocket-launched, maneuverable aircraft that glides through the earth’s atmosphere at incredibly fast speeds—Mach 20 (approximately 13,000 miles per hour). At HTV-2 speeds, flight time between New York City and Los Angeles would be less than 12 minutes.”

The only certain thing about the skies over Area 51 are shapes and treatments that will keep black airplane speculators and aviation enthusiasts busy well into the twenty-first century.

X Flight

Six X Flight members stand by the wreck of the downed Rumpler.


X Flight’s camp at Akaba.

Much has been written by and about Lawrence of Arabia but little has ever been written about the handful of aircraft and personnel of X Flight, which was set up to give him and his Arab army close air support.

Lawrence and the Arabs wrecked many trains, stations and railway lines but so too did X Flight with their bombs and machine-guns in regular daily support of the irregulars. Consequently, Lawrence held the Royal Flying Corps/the Royal Air Force in high regard. He wrote, with conviction and accuracy, ‘It was the R.A.F., which had converted the Turkish retreat into rout, which had abolished their telephone and telegraph connections, had blocked their lorry columns, scattered their infantry units.’

The capture of the town of Akaba by Lawrence and the Arabs on 6 July 1917 enabled X Flight to set up its principal base there, from which flying operations were conducted and a succession of small advance landing grounds could be supplied with aircraft and skilled personnel. Akaba was the last port the Turks held on the Red Sea and its loss led the way to their ultimate defeat as did the £200,000 a month Lawrence was spending to encourage the Arabs to revolt against the Turks. Lawrence’s personality was charismatic but so too was the gold which Britain allowed him to distribute!

Early in the conflict Lawrence asked for air support and he got it from both No. 1 Squadron of the Australian Air Force and the Royal Flying Corps. Dedicated help was always available to him throughout the campaign from 14 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps between 3 February 1915 and 4 February 1919 with its HQ first in Ismailia then Deir el Belah, mid-1916, and thence Junction Station in 1917. Close support was provided by a detachment of C Flight in the Hejaz from December 1916 to August 1917, in its raid on the Hejaz railway at Ma’an from Sinai in August 1917. But the closest support of all, for him and his Arab allies, was provided by the secret X Flight with its aircraft, the Tiyaras, the ‘female flying things’ which so impressed the Bedouin.

Formed at Shoreham on 3 February 1915, No. 14 Squadron, commanded by Major G. B. Stopford, had sailed out from England to Egypt on the liner, SS Anchises on 7 November 1915. Although some sources give SS Anchises as the transport vessel, an intriguing note by George Hynes gives an SS Hunsgrove (commandeered from the Germans and previously called the SS Lorenzo) as the ship which set out with 14 Squadron and full equipment for ‘an unknown destination’ (the Dardanelles) but was diverted from Malta to Egypt instead. He claimed that during the voyage the crew successfully fought off a U-boat attack using Lewis guns and four rifles! There were a number of former German vessels commandeered in Suez at the beginning of the war and all were renamed, all having the prefix ‘Hun’ (some naval or Whitehall jest possibly) when put into service as British vessels. Among such vessels were SS Huntsvale (formerly Barenfels); Huntsend (formerly Lutzow); Hunsbrook (Annaberg); Huntsfall (Goslar); Huntsmoor (Rostock); and HMT Huntsgreen (Derflinger).

Flights were established in Kantara and Ismailia before Christmas and by then a detachment was also operating in the western desert of Egypt participating in the Battle of Mersa Matruh on Christmas Day 1915.

Just after Christmas they moved out of Heliopolis to Ismailia near the Suez Canal and months later became part of the Middle East Brigade formed on 1 April 1916 by which time Salmond was a Brigadier General. Exactly two years later to the day, the RFC became the RAF. At the time the squadron was equipped with BE2c machines and a few Martinsydes. The BE2cs played the biggest role supporting Lawrence. The RFC’s duties lay in Army co-operation in Egypt, Arabia and Palestine. In his memoirs George Hynes commented:

I do know that Geoffrey Salmond had a hard time building up the Middle East from our first Squadron, No. 14, and our brotherly squadron, No. 1 Australian on the front line….

During the early years of the war in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Murray had led the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF). His forces had pushed across the Sinai constructing railway and freshwater lines from the Suez Canal to support operations on the southern edge of Palestine, south of Gaza. Under his direction, two attempts were made to capture Gaza: the First Battle of Gaza on 26 March and the Second Battle of Gaza on 19 April. Both attempts were embarrassing failures so the War Office replaced Murray on 28 June 1917 with General Allenby who saw the war in the Middle East through to the end.

Air support for Allenby’s ground forces was placed in the care of Brigadier General A. E. Borton, in December 1917, when he took command of the Palestine Brigade comprising two wings: the 5th Wing and the 40th Army Wing. The Counter-Air and interdiction roles were carried out by 40 Wing, while 5th Wing squadrons were mainly involved with tactical reconnaissance and artillery direction whilst also taking part in bombing raids against Ottoman positions. By mid-summer 1918, the Brigade also had a balloon company, an engine repair depot and an aircraft park and depot. One solitary Handley Page O/400 was added to the strength.

The Germans and the Turks with their Rumpler and Fokker aircraft, superior in design and performance, had exercised air superiority in the Levant so Allenby set out to challenge that by increasing the number and quality of the British machines. It was a slow process and the RFC gained the upper hand by the sheer dedication and determination of the pilots and ground staff working with aircraft which needed a lot of ‘make do and mend’.

The enemy comprised the Turkish Fourth Army, commanded by the German General Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein defending Palestine, while in Mesopotamia the main Turkish force was commanded by another German, General Erich von Falkenhayn, who was attempting to recapture Baghdad from the British. Although Turkish troops had won several victories against the British, their morale was poor because of severe shortages of food for both animals and men, ammunition and transport. Many deserted and eventually they lost to the British and Empire armies together with Feisal and his Arabs.

The tactically brilliant capture of Akaba by Lawrence and the Arabs on 6 July 1917 was a significant day for X Flight because for the rest of the war the RFC landing ground there was the Flight’s centre of operations. A number of covert advanced landing grounds were set up out of Akaba and George Hynes spent much of his war in them.

In the Third Battle of Gaza, fought between 31 October and 7 November 1917 in southern Palestine, British Empire forces under Allenby broke the Turkish Gaza–Beersheba line. Australian Light Horse captured the town of Beersheba on the first day and from then on the war went badly for the Turks.

During the conflict, army commanders and air commanders learned how to work together fighting desert battles in which flying machines played an increasingly important role, not only in photographic reconnaissance in communication but also in action as weapons of war. Conditions under which men and machines worked in those deserts were very trying indeed. The hazards faced by airmen of the RFC back in England were bad enough but No. 14 Squadron had to face them in the unforgiving deserts of Egypt and Arabia.

For example, No. 14 Squadron and X Flight itself carried out some night flying where advance landing grounds were no more than hardened mud or sand, strewn with small rocks set between hazardous hills. That was a remarkable achievement when one considers the criticisms made about night flying conditions in England itself where, ‘The chief complaints against aerodromes and night landing places were that they were insufficient in number, some of them too small, and some of them unsafe by reason of the surface being rough, such as ridge and furrow, or intersected by hedgerows or dykes.’

Furthermore, in England, ‘Night-flying is, as far as possible, forbidden at aerodromes where the state of the surface is such as to present unusual difficulties on landing system is inferior to the French and German systems.’

So much for the hazards of night flying in Britain but even worse the document pointed out that at the beginning of the Great War ‘the question of using aeroplanes for more than reconnaissance and observing artillery fire, as also the important part machine guns were going to play both in the air and on land, had hardly been considered.’

‘The provision of machine guns for cavalry regiments and infantry battalions was also seriously inadequate because no thought had been given to providing them for aeroplanes.’Given the absence of machine guns pilots and observers took to using rifles in their aircraft. Things very gradually began to improve:

The provision of weapons such as machine guns, bombs, hand grenades, darts, &c, fell under the able hand of the Master-General of the Ordnance; and the Committee are unable to find any delay on the part of the Royal Flying Corps in making use of any of these, or in providing mountings, racks, &c, for them, within a reasonable time of their being allotted to the Corps.

The document went on to say that experiments had to be made to find the most suitable way of carrying the several war requirements in aeroplanes. The pilots and ground crews of X Flight of necessity carried out many such experiments in the harsh environments of the desert. Fortunately they suffered no casualties as a result.

Another recommendation that pilots should be provided with proper maps, compasses or altimeters was impossible in Arabia as there were none. They did not exist. X Flight had to make their own maps and the maps for the ground forces. In fact their principal duty was flying daily reconnaissance taking thousands of photographs of enemy-held territory. The German and Turkish aircraft in their turn were doing exactly the same thing. During the course of the war British and German aircrews took tens of thousands of photographs between them.

The huge contrasts between high day and low night temperatures in Arabia made aeroplane maintenance a constant problem as woodwork shrank and warped. Machines had to be constantly stripped down and serviced. Spares and replacement parts, never plentiful, were often found to be useless. Fortunately X Flight’s machines, fitted with 90-hp Royal Aircraft Factory air-cooled engines, gave comparatively little trouble but the water-cooled Hispano-Suiza and Beardmores boiled water away. Oils sometimes became so hot they were rendered useless.

Although the RFC’s principal duties lay in just that, flying, there in the deserts, they had to make regular and constant use of motorised transport together with camels, horses and mules. The ubiquitous Crossley tenders fitted with double wheels were used so often that the RFC might aptly have been called the Royal Flying and Motoring Corps!

Air Mechanic George spent his war repairing and maintaining some second rate aircraft which X Flight had to put up with during its secret operations in the desert wastes. Of course he was devoted to engineering and took pride in his skills with those early flying machines but he was also fascinated by the horses and camels which were used so skilfully by the Arabs who lived in those deserts.

The expression, ‘knights of the air’ as applied to combat pilots has become a journalistic cliché but it was an apt metaphor for the fliers in the deserts of Arabia. Medieval knights, almost exclusively the sons of nobility, were trained to make gallant use of their weapons on the field of combat. Strict codes of conduct and chivalry were expected of them and captive knights were to be treated well, ransomed and not insulted or killed. Similar rules were followed in the deserts of Arabia. Captive officer pilots were treated well by captor officers who were ready to ‘buy’ prisoners from the Bedouin whose rules of chivalry were not the same! Fliers wisely carried gold pieces with them to pay the Arabs to hand them over into care.

If then the pilots were the knights, the mechanics were the squires. The mechanics kept the knights’ weapons in good order, handing them over to the knights as they went into battle and repairing them when damaged in combat. Like the knights of old, the pilots were from the top of the social hierarchy, the products of expensive schools and formal education whereas the mechanics, the squires, were from the artisan classes, the craftsmen.

Almost exclusively the aircraft were referred to as ‘machines’, both in formal reports and in conversations. In formal reports the pilots were described as being ‘on’ a machine, not ‘in’ a machine. For example an extract from a formal X Flight document reported, ‘Divers on a B.E. 2E flew Col. Lawrence to EL JAFAR for the latter to attend an important conference, returning after 2 hours.’

Perhaps within that usage there lay a residual memory of being ‘on’ a horse, because one does not ride ‘in’ a horse. Of course many early RFC pilots had first been cavalry officers!

Occasionally the mechanics like squires became knights themselves but even when they became ‘very perfect gentle knights’ like Chaucer’s hero they were sometimes ostracised because they had risen from the wrong social class. The remarkable air ace James McCudden VC, with fifty-seven victories, who started his RFC career as a mechanic was reportedly turned down for command of No. 85 Squadron RAF because of his lack of a public-school education!


The term tactical air power is one that brings certain images into the minds of those who either use the term or hear others speak of its role. It does, however, suggest that the effect that air power has in this context is purely at a local level. In fact tactical air power, can have effects across the spectrum of strategic, operational and tactical levels of command. In particular, no matter where women and children die, the images of the bodies can have a huge strategic impact.

Tactical air power had a limited impact upon the First World War. In the immediate aftermath as the conflict continued against the Bolsheviks and in Macedonia air power did start to have more of an effect on the ground. Gradually, in this short period which many military historians ignore, the ways of using air power to support ground troops and to make forays across enemy lines were consolidated into emergent military planning and doctrine.

In Somaliland in 1919 air power achieved its first example of ‘air control’: a form of local policing of the population using air power. The basic idea was that if a local tribe became restive, leaflets would be dropped explaining in their local language what was expected of them by the local military commanders. If they continued to misbehave they would be warned that they would be bombed.

This was a different form of asymmetric warfare; a very one-sided affair where those enforcing the governance of the Empire used air power to ruthlessly suppress any dissident voices. For nomadic tribesmen in these areas the ability of air power to locate and attack them was very different from dealing with ground forces.

Needing to restore some semblance of government to Somaliland which had been beset by an insurgency since 1899, Air Marshal Trenchard sought to apply air power at a time when a ‘boots on the ground’ deployment was not practical. Using leaflet drops the RAF gave the head of the insurgency an ultimatum. His inevitable rejection of the demand was the catalyst for a three-week campaign to unfold in which air power was used to aid a small ground force to overcome the insurgency. Cost comparisons published at the time put a gloss on the achievement of air power suggesting that the air campaign had cost considerably less (£77k) than a conventional approach (circa £5M). Historians note the timely death of the insurgent leader and the lack of collateral damage as being important factors that saw a positive outcome. In 1921 the British sought to apply air power in Mesopotamia. Other campaigns were to follow across the Empire.

It may be fanciful to suggest that sometimes the most lasting of developments in military power occur in conflicts which are not widely viewed as significant but it is a point worthy of reflection. Often the collective psyche on military history subconsciously dismisses any confrontation or battle that has low levels of casualties. Somehow only new developments in war are forged in the heat of battle.

The Malthusian notion that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ is somehow taken to be a panacea that suggests military commanders are only able to innovate in conflict. There is evidence that suggests that would be a very narrow viewpoint. Sometimes in what some may be keen to label as ‘military sideshows’ gradual developments take place in the application of military power that set new refined operational concepts develop that can then form the baseline for future major military confrontations.

One example springs to mind: the Spanish Civil War. While this was a terrible conflict for the people of Spain drawing in people from across the world to support either side in what was seen as a fundamental clash between vastly different ideologies, a new tactical evolution of air power arose. This theatre of war was where the famous Stuka dive-bomber was to get its first and defining operational experience. While the number of Stukas committed to the Legion Condor was small and their military impact virtually insignificant, the pilots and operators of the aircraft had learnt some important lessons that would carry them into the Second World War.

While some writers suggest that the Spanish Civil War was a testing ground for the Second World War, their comments are sometimes too general. The essential elements of blitzkrieg were developed in German doctrinal thinking more than fieldwork in Spain. Besides, the nature of the engagements in Spain was not in the classic sense frontal. The battlefield in Spain was quite fragmented. Often the demarcation of where the opposing sides had secured land was unclear. Blitzkrieg was arguably at its most effective when two forces opposed each other along a distinct front.

Blitzkrieg was the result of a major tactical innovation drawing close air-support fighters, the Stuka bombers. In the Second World War aircraft like the Typhoon would swoop down from the skies over Normandy in the run up to D-Day or its aftermath and attack logistic supply lines trying to bring supplies forward to the front line. Attacking the enemy in the rear was important to relieve the pressure on the front line. In the desert Montgomery had applied similar tactics to disrupt Rommel’s supply lines before the Battle of El Alamein.

In the desert in the Second World War tactical air power was applied with little accuracy. It was carpet-bombing at a local level. One thing had an overriding effect on the application of tactical air power: the desire to avoid dropping bombs on one’s own side. In seeking to avoid that on what could often be dynamic and fast-moving battlefields, air power was often constrained to operating against fixed formations.

Problems also arose has to who owned the air power. Army commanders wanted air power to be available under their direction. Air force officers, however, had often been indoctrinated into the strategic role of air power. Its tactical application was something they did not fully appreciate. If army commanders saw a target that they thought air power could attack, they wanted control of the assets to make that happen. Limitations on the way air power could be used in the tactical domain arising from endurance and tasking issues associated with communications issues often added further restrictions on its application in a ground-attack role.

Doctrine writers had also stressed the application of air power to prevent hostile reconnaissance. Air power was about air superiority and making sure the enemy could not see army formations on the ground. The ground-attack mission was seen to be a far less urgent requirement.

In recent campaigns the availability of in-flight refuelling has transformed the application of tactical air power. Missions now last many hours as pilots fly over areas waiting to be called into a strike. Over the desert in 1942 that luxury of in-flight refuelling was not available. When missions were developed they often had an operational focus, working to interdict enemy supply lines and rear bases.

Ironically it was in the crucible of the initial forays into Normandy after D-Day that the shape for future applications of tactical air power developed. Interestingly its foremost advocate was General Patton. He was to acknowledge that it played a pivotal role as his army drove across Europe after its break-out from the Cherbourg Peninsula.

A P-47 Thunderbolt flown by Capt. Walsh from the 406th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force on a ground attack mission. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The author David Spires writing in 2002 documented the ways in which General Patton working alongside his tactical air commander Brigadier General Otto Weyland pioneered air operations at the tactical level. The success attributed to Patton in taking his Third Army across Europe owed a lot to the relationship he forged with Weyland. The two could be described as the ‘odd couple’. But together their blend of skills and understanding has seen some historians suggest that they were the supreme practitioners of tactical air power.

Over the period from the point the Third Army became operational on 1 August 1944 until the end of the war Patton’s troops covered more ground, took more enemy prisoners and suffered more casualties than any other army operating in North-West Europe. While other tactical air commanders were also to help re-write the doctrine manuals, it was Weyland working with Patton that really helped provide the foundations for future uses of tactical air power. Today in Afghanistan the role of the Forward Air Controller (FAC) is built upon the ideas applied by Weyland and Patton.

It was not until the dawn of the missile age that an era of more precise application of air power can be detected. As the first century of air power moved close to the end of its first fifty years it was the Israeli Air Force that became one of its foremost practitioners.

Israeli Air Power

Of all the advocates of air power the Israeli Air Force is one of the most important to examine. For a country that has spent a significant period of its short life surrounded by hostile states and groups acting as proxies for states, such as Hezbollah, the Israeli Air Force has traditionally relied on its tactical air power to provide an advantage on the battlefield.

Israel’s pre-emptive attack on the Egyptian Air Force, called Operation Focus (Moked), at the start of the Six-Day War in 1967 can rightly be argued as one of the most decisive applications of tactical air power that had a strategic effect. This was not the indiscriminate application of inaccurate bombers targeting Egyptian cities to strike fear into the local population. This was an accurate application of tactical air power at the outset of a brief campaign. The destruction of most of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground, a viewpoint still challenged by Egypt today, saw the most powerful Arab air force effectively removed from the forthcoming war in a matter of hours. It was a body blow to the Egyptians and their allies from which they did not recover. The whole venture undertaken by the Israeli Air Force was also risky as virtually every plane that could fly was involved in the initial strikes.

A combination of things ensured Israel would achieve tactical surprise. The Israeli intelligence agency Mossad had used high-level agents placed in the high command of the Egyptian armed forces to monitor their preparations for war. A crucial double-agent also played his role in deceiving the Egyptians. The preparations for the initial attack had been exhaustive. Israeli pilots had been involved in a wide range of mission rehearsals. They had memorized each target. Ground crews were also well trained to ensure that a high sorties rate could be generated. Historical reports of Operation Focus suggest that the Israeli Air Force achieved a mission generation rate of four flights per day from its strike aircraft.

The Egyptian Air Force operated at a tempo of around half that figure. This provided some compensation for the imbalances that existed in combat aircraft. Before the war Egypt had an air force that was estimated to consist of around 450 aircraft. The balance of Tu-16s (NATO Code Name: Badger), forty IL-28s and a number of MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21 fighters provided the Egyptian Air Force with what in 1967 was a formidable capability.

For Israel to survive the impending war it simply had to neutralize the Egyptian Air Force on the ground in the opening hours of the war. By any account, no matter how disputed the claims and counter-claims may still be, the pre-emptive attack helped Israel secure a notable military victory in the Six-Day War. They had seen the spectre of war rising over the region and had decided to act first.

That was the prelude to a phase of the confrontation between Israel and its neighbours that is often referred to as the War of Attrition. This is a part of history that again is often forgotten by amateur and professional historians. This was a period of eighteen months in which the Egyptians embarked upon a campaign on the ground and in the air that was designed to test the Israelis’ resolve and ability to hold on to the ground they had seized in the Six-Day War. The campaign made sense.

For the Israelis the strategic landscape had significantly changed. They had moved from defending a number of rather small border areas with fractious neighbours into encroaching upon and seizing their land. While the borders with Lebanon, Syria and Jordan largely remained unchanged in terms of their length, the effect of capturing Sinai had significantly altered the length of the border. Of all the gains the vast swathes of the Sinai Desert were both a benefit and disadvantage. On the one hand it provided a buffer zone to which any future Egyptian incursion would have to travel to reach the old Israeli border. On the other it was a large area to defend. For the Egyptian military to embark upon a series of raids and military incursions designed to exhaust the Israelis was a sound military approach.


For the Israelis the War of Attrition was now becoming serious. It was becoming clear the Egyptians had embarked upon a strategy to gradually erode the Israelis’ military capability. Where that would lead was anyone’s guess. This was not the short game of a swift military campaign. This was the long game. To counter this approach the Israelis needed to move from being reactive to proactive. The shift in emphasis is initially barely discernible but it is significant and tactical air power provides one instrument by which that increased effort is employed.

The War of Attrition was to receive little press coverage in the west. In part that can be explained by the rather intermittent nature of the clashes that occurred. In July 1967 in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War the Egyptians embarked upon a number of artillery and air-raids against Israeli positions in Sinai. On 14 July in one notable exchange seven Egyptian fighter aircraft were shot down. A period of relative calm then ensued before the Egyptians managed to sink the Israeli destroyer INS Eilat with the cost of forty-seven sailors in October. That provoked a serious reaction from the Israelis with attacks mounted against oil refineries and depots near Suez. All the time the threshold for all-out war was being tested.

Another period of low-level military activity then followed before the Israelis unleashed Operation Boxer on 20 July. In this eight-day mini-campaign nearly the entire Israeli Air Force was employed on raids on the northern sector of the Suez Canal. Eight Egyptian aircraft were shot down and over 300 Egyptian soldiers were killed. A month later in August 1969 the Israeli Air Force conducted over 1,000 sorties destroying SAM sites and shooting down twenty-one Egyptian aircraft for the loss of three Israeli jets.

On 11 September the Egyptians launched a large package of sixteen aircraft to attack Israeli positions. They lost eight MiGs in air-to-air combat with Israeli Mirage jets and three Su-7 ground-attack aircraft to Israeli anti-aircraft and SAM batteries. In what was a rare air-to-air victory an Egyptian fighter achieved the first combat kill of an Israeli F-4 Phantom in December. Newly-delivered Russian P-15 radar systems, operated and manned by a small detachment of the Red Army operating in Egypt, helped the Egyptian pilot to secure the air-to-air victory. While it was a small event, it was to presage much bigger changes in the balance of power between the two countries as they vied for position along the Suez Canal.

Such was the scale of losses suffered by the Egyptians in this period that President Nasser flew secretly to Moscow in January 1970 to appeal for more military aid in what was tantamount to a request for the Red Army to intervene in the confrontation. His initial approach was dismissed out of hand by the Kremlin. At that moment the Soviet bloc did not wish to be drawn into a war with the Americans.

After further discussions the Russians reluctantly agreed to deploying ‘observers’ into Egypt. This was to alter the dynamics on the battlefield and lead to a very different security situation. New SAM and radar equipment was also quickly deployed into Egypt. As the new equipment came into service Israeli aircraft routinely conducted operations against the sites where they were housed.

In April 1970 a more sinister development was detected as evidence appeared from intercepted radio transmissions that the Russians had now deployed fighter pilots into the conflict. To avoid any danger of escalation Israeli commanders ordered their air force to withdraw from any confrontation if Russian pilots were thought to be flying Egyptian aircraft.

These rules of engagement, however, fell apart on 30 July 1970. On that day Israeli and Russian pilots became engaged in a massive dogfight to the west of the Suez Canal. Between twelve and twenty-four MiGs confronted twelve Israeli Mirage III and four F-4 Phantom jets. In a well-executed ambush the Israeli pilots managed to shoot down four of the Russian-piloted MiGs. A fifth was also later reported as missing. Four Soviet pilots died and no Israeli combat losses were recorded.

The manner in which Israel accomplished its military goals in the Six-Day War perhaps led to a sense of superiority in the IDF. The War of Attrition also helped enforce a sense of complacency. That was to be rudely shattered in October 1973.

The Egyptians and Syrians had learnt their lessons from the Six-Day War. The boot was literally on the other foot. The planning for the attack over the Jewish religious holiday of Yom Kippur had been closely-held with only a very small number of senior officers being aware of the decision to go to war. The military manoeuvres conducted in the build-up to the campaign were given a cover story of being a major exercise. When those exercises quickly turned into a crossing of the Suez Canal under the mobile umbrella of a Russian-supplied Surface-to-Air Missile system the situation dramatically changed. The Egyptians and Syrians achieved total surprise.

To reduce the effectiveness of the now-fabled Israeli Air Force the Egyptians moved forward under the cover of a mobile surface-to-air missile shield. These missiles were to shoot down a large number of Israeli ground-attack aircraft. One aircraft that bore the brunt of this was the A-4 Skyhawk. During the Yom Kippur War the IDF lost fifty-three Skyhawks out of total losses of 102 aircraft. By any standards of military attrition this was significant. If those levels had continued the Israeli Air Force would have been destroyed. Within hours, realizing the perilous state that the Israelis were in, the United States mounted a massive strategic airlift to supply new weapons and equipment to their embattled friend.

For those observers thinking about a Cold War scenario with a similar surprise attack being launched by the Warsaw Pact into Germany, the events at the start of the Yom Kippur War made sober reading. The outcome of the first few days of the war was to form a major point of study for defence analysts in NATO. Here was a case study that needed to be fully appreciated. The attrition rate initially sustained by the IDF could not have been sustained, had the Americans not intervened.

During its service with the IDF the Skyhawk gained an enviable reputation for its manoeuvrability and its ability to keep flying even when it had sustained significant battle damage. Its air-to-air capability was also sometimes underestimated. Its choice as the enemy fighter at Top Gun was not by accident. While the F-5 was to take over that role, the Skyhawks flown by highly-experienced combat pilots gave many United States navy pilots a good test of air-to-air engagements.

In one engagement in the Yom Kippur War an A-4 managed to shoot down two Egyptian MiG-21s and was about to get into a firing position on a third when an IDF Mirage IIIC intervened and shot the remaining MiG-21 out of the sky. Many of the A-4 Skyhawks that served in the IDF are now part of the Indonesian Air Force. Their longevity in service is a testament to their versatility as warplanes.

Since the Yom Kippur War the security landscape in the Middle East has profoundly changed. While Israel’s political ties with Egypt can best be described as strained, the chances of another war erupting are minimal. Despite the clear shift in power that has happened in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring, the Egyptians are focused on internal matters.

In August 2012 Islamic extremists operating in the Sinai attacked both Israeli and Egyptian outposts in the Sinai Desert. The attacks appeared opportunistic. Whether that was a crude attempt to re-start a war between the two former adversaries is unclear, but the unequivocal reaction of the Egyptian military to the threat sent a positive message to the Israelis. Under its new government Egypt was having no truck with any nomads in the desert who wished to take advantage of a period of uncertainty in the relationship between Israel and Egypt. As Egyptian military forces embarked on operations in the Sinai to locate and destroy the Islamist camps the Israelis cautiously looked on. This was not to be a prelude for another war.

The relative stability in the state-on-state relationships that evolved in the wake of the Yom Kippur War were not reflected in what became a more complex security landscape. Israel found itself increasingly dealing with non-state actors. Hamas and Hezbollah were difficult adversaries who had learnt how to fight asymmetrically. On several occasions the IDF has been called into action in Lebanon. Persistent threats from Katyusha rockets falling randomly in northern areas of Israel have resulted in IDF incursions into southern Lebanon. These have had mixed results.

In the first of the campaigns the IDF was able to use tactical air power to good effect. The firing-points used by Hezbollah were readily spotted by Israeli ISTAR and air strikes were quickly called. Hezbollah underestimated the Israelis’ ability to find, fix and destroy a target. Hezbollah learnt from this campaign and spent a great deal of time and effort hardening their missile firing-points. The Israelis had again underestimated their opponents. Air power alone was not going to grant the kind of security craved by its population that had to endure almost daily rocket attacks. A ground invasion of southern Lebanon became necessary. While this was initially limited in scope, mission creep set in and the Israeli Air Force was drawn into attacking targets over a wide area of Lebanon. The international outcry that resulted saw the campaign quickly concluded. For the Israelis this was not a satisfactory outcome.

For the IDF, used to applying air power in a dominant way over the battlefield to achieve the desired effect, the outcome was a salutary one. It was even suggested by some commentators that this was the first time the IDF had been defeated.

The outcome was to cost a number of senior figures in the IDF their reputations and jobs. It was also to set the baseline for a very difficult period in the Middle East. From now on, rather than having to live with fractious state-based neighbours, Israel would have to come to terms with living under the constant threat of attack. The conditions that applied in the War of Attrition had returned, only this time the enemy was elusive and quite prepared to use human shields.

Against Hamas, however, Operation Cast Lead was a very different and more difficult situation. This was the first time that contemporary tactical air power had been applied in the full glare of the media in densely-populated areas of the Gaza Strip. Israeli sensitivity to the pictures that would inevitably emerge led them to veto any media presence on the ground in Gaza.

Instead foreign journalists were confined to reporting from remote vantage points in Israel. Ironically the pictures of smoke and dust arising from bomb explosions in the centre of Gaza had more impact on the world’s population as they simply instilled images of what was likely to be happening in reality.

Wider Viewpoints

In Korea tactical air power was also hugely important in trying to counteract the sheer size of the North Korean and Chinese military forces. The images of jets dropping down out of the skies over Vietnam in support of ground troops to deliver a variety of ordnance on the ground is one that remains vivid. Air-to-ground missile systems were used to attack targets alongside a range of what euphemistically may be described as conventional weapons.

Fragmentation, napalm and cluster bombs have a quite specific effect on the ground over a large area. In Poland in 1939 the German fragmentation bombs had proven particularly effective against troops on the ground. On one occasion six Polish divisions were literally bombed into surrender by Stuka bombers.

Today the use of those weapons has been banned by international law. This is understandable but there may yet be an attempt to reverse this position. As western defence budgets continue their apparent inexorable decline the need to re-visit the use of area weapons may return to address specific military missions. While that is a view on the future, for the moment the emphasis from the employment of area-based weapons to those that are more discrete in their targeting capabilities is clear. Today, as far as the application of air power at the tactical level is concerned, the focus is all about precision.

In the Cold War with Europe facing the might of the Warsaw Pact cluster bombs and any other area munitions were seen as a counterweight to the imbalances that existed in conventional forces. Tactical air power was defined by the need for it to destroy as many Warsaw Pact armoured vehicles as possible. These were in close proximity to the Forward Edge of the Battlefield Area (FEBA) and in the areas where second-echelon troops would be assembling.

To force a military stalemate the front-line and second-echelon forces had to be attacked by tactical air power. This was the best NATO could hope for at the time. Through the employment of tactical air power any incursion into Western Europe would be halted in its tracks. On paper that sounded like a sensible strategy, but the stark reality was that conventionally-armed tactical air power was the last line of escalation before the nuclear option. If conventional tactical air could not blunt the attack then small nuclear warheads would be selectively employed to disrupt the advance of the Warsaw Pact forces.

Flight Lt. Nicholas Cooke, Cpl. Albert Lippett

“Lanky” Cooke (2nd from left), Phil Hunter DSO (3rd left) standing, with No. 264 Squadron

At 14.45hr on 29 May 1940 Sqn Ldr Hunter took off with eleven other Defiants and headed for the Dunkirk pocket. They were flying at about 6,000ft (1 ,800m) with three Hurricane squadrons- 56, 151 and 213 – flying above them. As they approached Dunkirk they were most aware of the great column of smoke rising from the harbour, and the many ships in the Channel below them. The Hurricanes began to engage some Bf 110s escorting some Ju 87s.

Six Bf 109s dived on the Defiants, coming out of the sun in the classic fighter tactic. Hunter saw them coming, but for the time being kept his four Vics of three flying in line astern. As the first Bf 109 came within 300yd, Hunter’s gunner, LAC King, opened fire, and it soon burst into flames. As the other Bf 109s shot overhead, Pit Off Welch’s gunner, LAC Hayden, hit one and it fell away out of control. The crews of Plt Off Young/LAC Johnson and Fit Lt Cooke/Cpl Lippett each also sent Bf 109s down in flames, the latter shot down right off the tail of another Defiant – probably that of Plt Off Kay/LAC Jones. His Defiant (L6957) was badly hit in the attack, the hydraulics being damaged and the starboard aileron and turret hit; and LAC Jones must have been under the impression that the aircraft was lost, because he baled out. Kay, however, was in fact able to return to Manston and land successfully. Jones’ body was later washed up on a French beach.

Eric Barwell’s gunner Plt Off Williams also fired on a Bf 109 attacking Kay’s Defiant, and saw it going down in flames; this was probably the same aircraft claimed by Young’s gunner. Although the squadron believed it had shot down five of the six attacking Bf 109s, it seems likely that the true score was four or even fewer. It was an inherent problem with the Defiant that different gunners could be firing at the same target from different directions, and all claimed it destroyed when it fell. Hunter now saw a Heinkel He III approaching Dunkirk and turned to attack it – but then he saw an even juicier target, a formation of Ju 87s. Sergeant Thorn/LAC Barker saw an isolated Ju 87 and broke away to attack: the Stuka did not see them coming, and was shot down with a burst of fire. Thorn rejoined the squadron as they turned to attack the main force of Ju 87s, but the dive bombers’ escort of Bf 110s dived on the Defiants. Hunter ordered the squadron into a line astern spiral dive, and as the German twin-engined fighters attacked, they were always faced with accurate fire from the Defiants’ turrets. Six of the Defiant crews claimed the destruction of a Bf 110, PIt Off Stokes and his gunner claiming two. More Bf 109s joined in the frantic battle, and three more of these were also claimed.

Hunter led his men back to Manston, where they landed cock-a-hoop, though their elation was inevitably modified by the news that the thirty-one-year-old Canadian gunner, LAC Jones, was missing. They claimed a total of seventeen fighters shot down, plus the odd Stuka. Refuelled and re-armed, they took off for a second patrol at 18.55hr, Plt Off Kay in a replacement aircraft, L696I, and with a new gunner, LAC Cox.

Once more they had Hurricane squadrons flying above them, and this time the Hurricanes kept the Bf 109s off their backs. Hunter saw large numbers of Ju 87s approaching the beaches from all directions, and wisely did not try to follow them down in their bombing dives, but went to low level to wait for them to pull out. The Defiants then eagerly closed in on the slower Stukas, pouring accurate fire into one aircraft after another, and sending them crashing into the sea. Ten of the crews were able to claim Ju 87s destroyed, four of them two Ju 87s, and Flt Lt Cooke and his gunner an incredible five. It was a massacre, the slow Ju 87s almost sitting ducks at low level, and the Defiants able to take up position on each in turn, slightly below so that their gunners could shoot them down at will.

With the Stukas shot from the skies, the Defiants closed on some Ju 88s, sending one down in flames with their combined fire, and damaging another. They turned for home nearly out of ammunition, and landed having experienced an incredible day’s fighting. They claimed thirty-seven German aircraft shot down, and three more probables, the only loss being of one gunner, and Sgt Thorn’s Defiant that over- shot while landing at Manston with leaking fuel tanks and only one wheel. Flt Lt Nicholas Cooke/Cpl Albert Lippett had claimed an incredible eight victories in one afternoon: three Bf 109s and five Ju 87s.

It was the best day a British fighter squadron has ever had, and many myths have grown around it. Wg Cdr Harry Broadhurst, the station commander at Wittering, but who happened to be at Manston when they landed, was the first to suggest that the Germans had mistaken them for Hurricanes, and therefore attacked from the rear. This ignores the fact that more than half the victories claimed that day were bombers, and it was the Defiants doing the attacking. It also ignores the fact that when they were attacked by fighters in the first sortie, the squadron adopted its proven defensive tactic, a spiral dive, and it did not matter which direction the Germans came from, they faced accurate, defensive fire.

Of course, as already seen, there is little doubt that No. 264 Squadron unintentionally over-claimed. More than one gunner claimed the same aircraft destroyed, though without realizing it, and many of the German aircraft were not actually destroyed. Over-claiming is a feature of all air fighting. Nevertheless, it was clear that the Defiant had had a good day, and back at the Boulton Paul factory, newspaper accounts of the day were soon pinned on notice boards with the words ‘Our work’ scrawled across them. Nicholas Cooke, who had claimed eight aircraft and a share in the Ju 88, that day told one newspaper reporter: ‘It was like knocking apples off a tree.’

By 20.22hr on 29 May 1940, No. 264 squadron had claimed eight Bf 109s, seven Bf 110s, one Ju 88 and twenty-one Ju 87s shot down, for the loss of one gunner killed, and one aircraft crash-landed back at Manston. Their reward was a host of publicity photographs, and by the end of May a clutch of medals. Sqn Ldr Hunter received the DSO, and there was also a DFC for Flt Lt Nicholas Cooke, who, with his gunner Cpl Lippett, had shot down eight aircraft in one day; there were also four DFMs for non-commissioned members of the squadron, Corporal Lippett, Sgt E. R. Thorn, LAC FJ. Barker, and LAC FH. King.

Final Sorties

On 31 May the Defiants were back in action, taking off at 14.00hr and crossing the French coast at 10,000ft (3,000m) around 14.20hr. With the Hurricanes of 213 Squadron at 15,000ft, and the Spitfires of 609 Squadron above them at 20,000ft (6,000m), Hunter saw a large formation of around seventy Bf 109s at altitude, and about twenty Heinkel He IIIs approaching from the south-east. He turned towards the bombers, but they jettisoned their bombs and scattered.

Hunter saw the Bf 109s coming down out of the sun, and called the squadron into a defensive circle. His gunner, LAC King, gave one Bf 109 a burst, and it spun away towards the sea; soon after, PIt Off Young’s gunner, LAC Johnson, opened Fire on one of the attackers, and it, too, fell away – Young saw just one parachute emerge From the stricken aircraft. But then disaster truck: Johnson yelled that there was another Defiant almost on top of them, and with that, PIt OFF Whitley’s aircraft crashed into them, and Young’s Defiant disintegrated. The other crews watched in horror as piece of the aircraft fluttered down towards the sea – and again, only one parachute opened. Whitley’s aircraft was badly damaged, but he was able to nurse it down and crash-land near Dunkirk. Whitley and Turner salvaged their Four guns and then set the Defiant on fire before making their escape; they Found their own way back across the Channel.

The attacking Messerschmitts had also shot down PIt Off Hickman’s Defiant, but he and his gunner, LAC Fidler, were able to parachute to safety. As Hunter maintained the defensive circle with the nine surviving aircraft, he counted eight parachute in the air below them, as well as the plummetting remains of Young’s Defiant. Plt Off Barwell, who was leading Green Section, had watched a LAC Fidler had shot down one of their attackers, and had then seen their Defiant fall with smoke and fuel pouring from it. Suddenly Barwell’s own gunner, Plt Off Williams, shout- ed a warning that a Fighter was right on them, and tracers flashed around their aircraft. Barwell pulled the Defiant in a tight turn to the right as Williams hit the BF 109, which fell away in flames.

No. 264 squadron claimed Four BF 109s shot down and another damaged for the loss of three Defiant, two of them in the collision. Only LAC Johnson did not return. Yet again they had proved they were capable of defending themselves against superior numbers of single-seat Fighters. At 18.40hr they took off for a second patrol, this time at 27,000ft (8,230m), with the Hurricane of No. 111 Squadron behind them and the Spitfires of 609 Squadron at 30,000ft (9,144m). Over Dunkirk they saw a Formation of Heinkel He IIIs 2,000ft (610m) below them, and the Defiants and Spitfires dived to the attack.

In a classic turret-Fighter Formation attack, Four Defiant gunner all opened Fire in a devastating assault on one of the bombers, which Fell away into the sea. The Defiant then began individual attacks on the Heinkels, and both Sqn Ldr Hunter’s and Plt Off Hackwood’s gunner sent their targets down in flame. Another Heinkel flew right above Eric Barwell’s Defiant, and his gunner Fired straight up into its cockpit and centre fuselage: the enemy bomber Fell to the sea, just two of its crew escaping to parachute down.

Barwell and Williams then attacked another bomber, but return Fire hit the Defiant’s glycol tank, and Barwell had to turn for home, nursing his rapidly overheating engine. As he slowly lost height it became clear he would not reach the English coast, and so he asked his gunner, PIt Off Williams, if he preferred to bale out or ditch. Despite the fact that ‘Bruce’ Williams had been a stunt man before the war and had made several hundred parachute jumps at air shows, he would not state his preference. Barwell chose to ditch between two destroyers, going in opposite directions. Against standard procedure, Barwell undid his straps and sat on the seat back, operating the aircraft with only the control column. Williams sat on the fuselage with only his legs inside the turret. As the engine topped completely Barwell tailed the aircraft onto the water. Both he and Williams were thrown clear, but his gunner was knocked unconscious; however, Barwell supported him until they were picked up by a boat from one of the destroyers. Imagine their delight to meet Plt Off Young on this vessel: he had managed to get clear of his aircraft when it broke up during the earlier sortie.

Pilot Officer Stokes’ Defiant had also been hit by the Heinkel’ defensive fire, and his gunner LAC Fairbrother was wounded. Stokes ordered him to bale out, but then managed to nurse the crippled Defiant back to Manston, and made a successful crash-landing. A crew who did not return were the squadron’s top scorers, Fit Lt Nicholas Cooke and Cpl Albert Lippet, who had claimed ten German aircraft destroyed up to that point.