Balloons to Bombers

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SPAD XIII Jacques Michael Swaab, by Iain Wyllie.

The birth of Army aviation coincides with the beginning of all military aviation in America. Following the record-setting flight of Wright and Foulois, during which the Flyer soared to 400 feet and flew at 42.583 mph, thereby satisfying the Signal Corps’ specification for a “flying machine,” the Army accepted the airplane on Aug. 2, 1909. It is this date that properly proscribes the service’s century of aviation activities.

But other starting points are variously cited, even by the Army itself. Professor Thaddeus Lowe’s seven hydrogen-filled balloons won President Abraham Lincoln’s instant approval after a demonstration flight in 1861, and were subsequently employed by the Union Army during the battle for Fair Oaks and the siege of Richmond in 1862.

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the Army put its only balloon into service. Sgt. Ivy Baldwin was sent aloft on June 30 to confirm the presence of Adm. Pascual Cervera y Topete’s fleet in Santiago de Cuba harbor. The next day, the balloon and Baldwin were in action above Kettle and San Juan hills, messaging target information to Army artillery and Col. Theodore Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders.”

Though the potential of airborne platforms for the military had already been recognized, it would be nine more years until the Army would give further consideration to aeronautics. Army officers who took an interest in ballooning were labeled “balloonatics” – followers of a phenomenon that was nothing more than a new sport. In the meantime, European aviators were forging ahead.

Washington finally began to take notice in 1907 and created the Aeronautical Division of the U. S. Army Signal Corps. It took the foresight of President Theodore Roosevelt to get the ball rolling with regard to powered flight. Aware that the United States was behind, Roosevelt dipped into a special carte blanche “presidential fund,” which had been granted by Congress a decade before for use at the chief executive’s discretion. The money was set aside for the development of the country’s first military aircraft, with specifications laid down by the Signal Corps.

More than 40 bidders sent proposals to the Signal Corps, but the Wright brothers were the only candidates whose application seemed realistic, and their bid was accepted in 1908. The result was a series of acceptance trials held at Fort Myer, Va., beginning in September 1908. Tragedy struck on the last of the initial trials when the Flyer crashed after one of its two propellers cracked. Orville Wright, piloting the airplane, survived with a broken left thigh, cracked ribs, and a gash in his cheek. His passenger, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, a cavalry officer, became the first casualty of powered flight and Army aviation.

Fortunately, the crash did not kill the Army’s desire for an airplane, and the aforementioned 1909 flight sealed the deal. But progress from 1909 until America’s entry into World War I in April 1917 was poor. In 1913, a bill that would have established military aeronautics as a separate corps distinct from the Signal Corps reached the House Military Affairs Committee, but died there. Spending on Army aviation since 1908 amounted to only $435,000. Meanwhile, Germany had invested more than $28 million.

On the brighter side, the Army’s first successful standard training plane, the Curtiss JN-1/2/3/4 Jenny debuted in 1915. It would go on to be produced in the thousands, with sales to the Army, Navy, and the Royal Air Force. Still, the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps numbered just 29 officers, 155 enlisted men, and eight airplanes by the summer of the same year.

The war in Europe had been under way for almost two years in March 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Army to pursue Mexican bandit Pancho Villa and his forces in the wake of an incursion in New Mexico, which led to a battle with the 13th U. S. Cavalry. The Punitive Expedition’s leader, Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing, requested that the 1st Aero Squadron and its eight JN-3s and 11 pilots (including Foulois) be assigned to him for the campaign to help track Villa.

What followed was a fiasco. The eight underpowered Jennies were no match for the 94,000 square miles of the Mexican state of Chihuahua into which Pershing pushed with infantry and cavalry units. The aircraft were damaged in crashes, suffered engine failures, and had difficulty finding any sign of Pancho Villa. Foulois requested replacements, but the Army had none. Less than a month after its deployment to Mexico, the 1st Aero Squadron was recalled to Columbus, N. M., to serve as couriers.

In the wake of the campaign came the realization that the United States was woefully behind in all aspects of military aviation. Just three weeks before America’s entry into World War I, Dr. Charles D. Walcott, head of the aeronautic committee of the Council of National Defense summed up the situation: “No amount of money will buy time,” he remarked. “Even the most generous preparations would not open up the years we have passed and enable us to lay carefully the foundations of a great industry and a great aero army. We have hardly made a beginning.”

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Army aviation had on strength just 52 officers and 1,300 enlisted. Only 26 of the personnel were fully qualified pilots and the total aircraft inventory numbered 55. Pershing complained bitterly, “Fifty-one were obsolete and the other four obsolescent.”

Over the summer, Congress and Wilson approved a massive funding increase ($640 million) for the Aviation Section. One of the first efforts mounted was to build an American engine capable of powering the British-made De Havilland DH-4 day bomber, which Pershing had decided would be put into production for the Army’s aviators. Thus, the Liberty engine was born. But the first American-built DH-4 did not reach Europe until March 1918.

After delays, the 1st Aero Squadron sailed for France in August 1917. All the while, Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), had been laying the groundwork for Army aviation’s role on the Western Front. His top lieutenants in organizing the force were Lt. Col. William Mitchell and newly promoted Brig. Gen. Foulois.

Volunteers for pilot training abounded (more than 40,000 applied), but few facilities existed to train them stateside. Accordingly, many were trained by the British, French, and Italians. Attrition was huge, and by the war’s end, less than 10,000 Americans were rated military aviators. Final numbers show that only a fraction – 767 pilots, 481 observers, and 23 aerial gunners – actually made it to the front with AEF’s paltry 45 squadrons. Among them were top aces including Capt. Edward Rickenbacker and Lt. Frank Luke Jr. By the war’s end in November 1918, operational U. S. aircraft comprised just 10 percent of the Allied total. Americans had carried out 150 bombing missions, downed 781 enemy aircraft – and lost 289 of their own, including 237 airmen.

Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskeegee Airmen

The Tuskeegee Airmen

A famous unit of African American combat pilots who served during World War II. Despite pressure from the black press and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, African Americans were prohibited from serving in the Army Air Corps throughout the 1930s. In 1939, African Americans were admitted to the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), but no black graduates were allowed to enlist in the Air Corps. Finally, in January 1941 the Air Corps announced the formation of its first black combat unit: the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Training was to commence at a new Air Corps field to be built in the vicinity of Tuskegee, Alabama.

This location meant that black trainees would have to live and work within the heart of the unreconstructed South. Many loathed the segregationist precedent, but officials, as well as the pilots themselves, saw an opportunity to prove their critics wrong. The “Tuskegee Airmen” quickly received a flood of national media attention, and it soon became apparent that much was riding on their success or failure. They would operate under intense public scrutiny for the entire war.

Training of enlisted support personnel soon began at the Air Corps Technical School at Chanute Field, Illinois, and in July 1941 the first class of pilots began military aviation training at Moton Field. All were previous CPTP graduates, with the exception of Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., son of the first black general in the history of the U. S. military. The younger Davis had endured four years at the U. S. Military Academy before graduating in 1936, and in 1941 the Davises were the only two non-chaplain black officers in the regular Army.

Captain Davis was rapidly promoted to lieutenant colonel and, in August 1942, assumed command of the 99th Fighter Squadron. An AAF inspecting general reported in October 1942 that the 99th was in excellent condition and ready for immediate departure overseas, but the unit was permitted only to continue training; by early 1943 morale had suffered considerably. Finally, in April 1943 the 99th Fighter Squadron shipped out for North Africa.

By June, the 99th was operating over the Mediterranean, but Allied aircraft already dominated the area, and contact with Germans was infrequent. In July, the squadron downed its first enemy aircraft, but a long dry spell followed throughout the rest of 1943. This was not surprising given the circumstances, but opponents of the “Tuskegee experiment” recommended, based upon the supposed poor performance of the 99th, that it be reassigned to noncombat duties. This recommendation was endorsed by officials throughout the chain of command, all the way up to the commanding general of the AAF, General Henry “Hap”Arnold.

In October 1943, Colonel Davis argued before the War Department’s Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies that the 99th’s combat record was comparable to similar white units and, further, that it had accomplished this despite the unique pressures it had to operate under. Further attacks from AAF leadership were undercut by the obvious success of the 99th following its transfer to the more active Italian Theater.

On 16 January 1944, during intense combat in the skies over the Anzio beachhead, the 99th Fighter Squadron downed a total of eight German Fw 190 fighters, suffering the loss of two Curtiss P-40s. The squadron continued to perform well in the combat that followed, but by mid-February German air activity had again tapered off and the 99th returned to ground support. Throughout February and March, the 99th was gradually joined in Italy by the all-black 332d Fighter Group, which when fully deployed eventually comprised the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302d Fighter Squadrons, all now under the command of Colonel Davis. The new squadrons of the 332d first deployed with obsolete Bell P-39s, but beginning in April they began to receive very capable Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. In late June, the 332d began its conversion to the top Allied air superiority aircraft of the day, the North American P-51 Mustang, and by the end of the summer the Tuskegee Airmen had assumed as their primary mission the job of escorting friendly bombers, often deep into the heart of Germany.

Throughout the rest of 1944, the 332d earned a reputation as one of the better fighter groups in Europe. Bomber crews soon coveted the protection of the “Red Tails” (as they affectionately became known, due to their P-51s’ distinctive paint jobs), and in fact by war’s end the 332d had the unique distinction of being the only fighter group to have never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft. By late 1944, it was apparent that the Tuskegee Airmen had earned the respect of their fellow white units; although individual acts of discrimination did continue, their treatment by the chain of command was on the whole fairly good. They received widespread and very positive publicity within the United States and were even visited by numerous celebrities, including Lena Horne and Joe Louis. Their success continued into 1945: During one March escort mission to Berlin, pilots of the 100th Fighter Squadron downed three of the new German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters; during another escort mission the following month, P-51s of the 332d downed 12 German aircraft for the loss of only three of their own. During its peak period of combat, from August 1944 through April 1945, the 332d destroyed approximately 500 enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground. Tuskegee Airmen received numerous decorations for bravery, including the Legion of Merit, Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, and more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses; in March 1945 the 332d Fighter Group received the Distinguished Unit Citation. These accomplishments did not come without a cost, however: Of the approximately 1,000 black pilots trained at Tuskegee, 66 were killed in action, 32 were taken prisoner, and some 80 pilots and support personnel were killed in training and other noncombat accidents through 1946.

The combat record of the Tuskegee Airmen is remarkable given the obstacles they had to overcome: racism in the service, segregation, lack of opportunity, and discrimination at home. Through it all Colonel Davis was their leader, the cornerstone of their success.

But the fate of the 477th Bombardment Group, many of whose pilots were also trained at Tuskegee, provides a different and instructive example. The unit was moved numerous times during 1944 and 1945 without seeing combat. In April 1945, approximately 60 black pilots from the 477th were arrested for entering a white-only officers club at Freeman Field, Indiana; later, 101 officers of the 477th were arrested when they refused a direct order to sign a document essentially acquiescing to the segregation of officers clubs. A subsequent investigation concluded that white-only facilities violated Army regulations. Due in part to the so-called Freeman Field mutiny, the 477th was never allowed into combat.

Following the end of the war, the 332d Fighter Group gradually returned to the United States, where most of its elements were disbanded as part of the general postwar demobilization; the rest were absorbed into what was now known as the 477th Composite Group. In 1946, the Army quietly closed Tuskegee Army Air Field. The influence of the Tuskegee Airmen, however, resonated for generations within the U. S. Air Force and American society in general. The 1948-1949 desegregation of the U. S. military owed much to the success of the 332d Fighter Group and the disgrace of the officers of the 477th Bombardment Group. Former Tuskegee Airmen continued to play important roles in the postwar Air Force, including most notably Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who retired as a three-star general, and Daniel “Chappie” James, who flew more than 60 combat missions during the Vietnam War and became the first African American to achieve four stars.

By the mid-1990s, African Americans represented more than 5 percent of the officer corps and 17 percent of the enlisted personnel in the U. S. Air Force. Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in the Tuskegee Airmen, and in November 1998 President Bill Clinton approved a congressional resolution authorizing the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.

References Davis, Benjamin O. Jr. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: An Autobiography. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991. Dryden, Charles W., with a Foreword by Benjamin O. Davis Jr. ATrain: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997. MacGregor, Morris J. Jr. Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965. Defense Studies Series. Washington, DC: Center of Military History. Sandler, Stanley. Segregated Skies: All-Black Combat Squadrons of World War II. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. Scott, Lawrence P., and William M. Womack Sr. Double V: The Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994.

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Wellington Bomber in Service

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On 15 August 1936, however, the Air Ministry had placed an order for 180 Wellington Mk Is to Specification B. 29/36. These were required to have a redesigned and slightly more angular fuselage, a revised tail unit, and hydraulically operated Vickers nose, ventral and tail turrets. The first production Wellington Mk I was flown on 23 December 1937, powered by Pegasus X engines. In April 1938, however, the 1,050-hp (783-kW) Pegasus XVIII became standard for the other 3,052 Mk Is of all variants built at Weybridge, or at the Blackpool and Chester factories which were established to keep pace with orders.

Initial Mk Is totalled 181, of which three were built at Chester. These were followed by 187 Mk lAs with Nash and Thompson turrets and strengthened landing gear with larger main wheels. Except for 17 Chester-built aircraft, all were manufactured at Weybridge. The most numerous of the Mk I variants was the Mk IC, which had Vickers ‘K’ or Browning machine-guns in beam positions (these replacing the ventral turret I, improved hydraulics, and a strengthened bomb bay beam to allow a 4,000-lb (1814-kg) bomb to be carried. Of this version 2,685 were built (1,052 at Weybridge, 50 at Blackpool and 1,583 at Chester), 138 of them being delivered as torpedo-bombers after successful trials at the Torpedo Development Unit, Gosport.

Many of the improvements incorporated in the Mks IA and IC were developed for the Mk II, powered by 1,145-hp (854-kW) Rolls-Royce Merlin X engines as an insurance against Pegasus supply problems. The prototype was a conversion of the 38th Mk I, and this made its first flight on 3 March 1939 at Brooklands. Although range was reduced slightly, the Wellington II offered improvements in speed, service ceiling and maximum weight, the last rising from the 24,850 lb (11272 kg) of the basic Mk I to 33,000 lb (14969 kg). Weybridge built 401 of this version.

With the Wellington III a switch was made to Bristol Hercules engines, the prototype being the 39th Mk I airframe with Hercules HEISMs, two stage superchargers and de Havilland propellers. After initial problems with this installation, a Mk IC was converted to take two 1,425-hp (1063-kW) Hercules III engines driving Rotol propellers. Production Mk IIIs had 1,590-hp (1186-kW) Hercules XIs, and later aircraft were fitted with four-gun FN.20A tail turrets, doubling the fire power of the installation in earlier marks. Two were completed at Weybridge, 780 at Blackpool and 737 at Chester.

The availability of a number of 1,050-hp (783-kW) Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp R-1830-S3C4-G engines, ordered by but not delivered to France, led to development of the Wellington IV. The prototype was one of 220 Mk IVs built at Chester, but on its delivery flight to Weybridge carburettor icing caused both engines to fail on the approach to Brooklands, and the aircraft made a forced landing at Addlestone. The original Hamilton Standard propellers proved very noisy and were replaced by Curtiss propellers.

For high-altitude bombing Vickers was asked to investigate the provision of a pressure cabin in the Wellington: the resulting Mk V was powered by two turbocharged Hercules VIII engines. Service ceiling was increased from the 23,500 ft (7165 m) of the Mk II to 36,800 ft (11215 m). The cylindrical pressure chamber had a porthole in the lower nose position for the bomb-aimer, and the pilot’s head projected into a small pressurised dome which, although offset to port, provided little forward or downward view for landing. Two prototypes were built in Vickers’ experimental shop at Foxwarren, Cobham, to Specification B. 23/39 and one production machine, to B. 17/40, was produced at the company’s extension factory at Smith’s Lawn, Windsor Great Park.

The Wellington VI was a parallel development, with 1,600-hp (1193-kW) Merlin 60 engines and a service ceiling of 38,500 ft (11735 m), although the prototype had achieved 40,000 ft (12190 m). Wellington VI production totalled 63, including 18 re-engined Mk Vs, all assembled at Smith’s Lawn. Each had a remotely controlled FN.20A tail turret, and this was locked in position when the aircraft was at altitude.

Intended originally as an improved Mk II with Merlin XX engines, the Wellington VII was built only as a prototype, and was transferred to Rolls-Royce at Hucknall for development flying of the Merlin 60s.

First Wellington variant to be developed specifically for Coastal Command was the GR. VIII, a general reconnaissance/torpedo-bomber version of the Pegasus XVIII-engined Mk IC. Equipped with ASV (Air to Surface Vessel) Mk II radar, it was identified readily by the four dorsal antennae and the four pairs of transmitting aerials on each side of the fuselage. A total of 271 torpedo-bombers for daylight operation was built at Weybridge, together with 65 day bombers, and 58 equipped for night operation with a Leigh searchlight in the ventral turret position. In these last aircraft the nose armament was deleted and the position occupied by the light operator.

The designation Mk IX was allocated to a single troop-carrying conversion of a Wellington lA, but the Mk X was the last of the bomber variants and the most numerous. It was based on the Mk III, but had the more powerful 1,675-hp (1249-kW) Hercules VI or XVI engine with downdraught carburettor, and was identified externally from earlier marks by the long carburettor intake on top of the engine cowling. Internal structural strengthening, achieved by the use of newly-developed light alloys, allowed maximum take-off weight to raise to 36,000 lb (16 329 kg). Production was shared between Blackpool and Chester, with totals of 1,369 and 2,434 respectively. After withdrawal from first-line service with Bomber Command, Mk Xs were among many Wellingtons flown by Operational Training Units. After the war a number were converted by Boulton Paul Aircraft as T.10 crew trainers, with the nose turret faired over.

Making use of the experience gained with the Wellington VIII torpedo-bombers, the GR. XI was developed from the Mk X, using the same Hercules VI or XVI engines. It was equipped initially with ASV Mk II radar, although this was superseded later by centrimetric ASV Mk III. This latter equipment had first been fitted to the GR. XII, which was a Leigh Light-equipped anti-submarine version. Weybridge built 105 Mk XIs and 50 Mk XIIs, while Blackpool and Chester respectively assembled 75 Mk XIs and eight Mk XIIs, but with 1,735-hp (1294-kWl Hercules XVII engines Weybridge was responsible for 42 Mk XIIIs and 53 Mk XIVs, Blackpool for 802 XIIIs and 250 Mk XIVs, and Chester for 538 Mk XIVs.

A transport conversion of the Mk I, the C.I.A, was further developed as the C.XV, while the C.XVI was a similar development of the Mk IC. They were unarmed, as were the last three basic versions which were all trainers. The T. XVII was a Mk XI converted by the RAF for night fighter crew training with SCR-720 AI (Airborne Interception) radar in a nose radome. Eighty externally similar aircraft, with accommodation for instructor and four pupils and based on the Mk XIII, were built at Blackpool as T. XVIIIs. Finally, RAF-converted Mk Xs for basic crew training were designated T. XIXs. In total 11,461 Wellingtons were built, including the prototype, and the last was a Blackpool-built Mk X handed over on 25 October 1945.

The fourth production Wellington Mk I was the first to reach an operational squadron, arriving at Mildenhall in October 1938 for No. 99 Squadron. Six squadrons, of No. 3 Group (Nos. 9, .37, .38, 99, 115 and 149) were equipped by the outbreak of war, and among units working up was the New Zealand Flight at Marham, Norfolk, where training was in progress in preparation for delivery to New Zealand of 30 Wellington Is. The flight later became No. 75 (NZ) Squadron, the first Dominion squadron to be formed in World War II. Sergeant James Ward of No. 75 later became the only recipient of the Victoria Cross while serving on Wellingtons, the decoration being awarded for crawling out on to the wing in flight to extinguish a fire, during a sortie made on 7 July 1941.

On 4 September 1939, the second day of the war, Wellingtons of Nos. 9 and 149 Squadrons bombed German shipping at Brunsbüttel, sharing with the Bristol Blenheims of Nos. 107 and 110 Squadrons the honour of Bomber Command’s first bombing raids on German territory. Wellingtons in tight formation were reckoned to have such outstanding defensive firepower as to be almost impregnable, but after maulings at the hands of pilots of the Luftwaffe’s JG 1, during raids on the Schillig Roads on 14 and 18 December, some lessons were learned. Self-sealing tanks were essential, and the Wellington’s vulnerability to beam attacks from above led to introduction of beam gun positions. Most significantly, operations switched to nights.

Wellingtons of Nos. 99 and 149 Squadrons were among aircraft despatched in Bomber Command’s first attack on Berlin, which took place on 25/26 August 1940; and on 1 April 1941, a Wellington of No. 149 Squadron dropped the first 4,000-lb (1814-kg) ‘blockbuster’ bomb during a raid on Emden. Of 1,046 aircraft which took part in the Cologne raid during the night of 30 May 1942, 599 w ere Wellingtons. The last operational sortie by Bomber Command Wellingtons was flown on 8/9 October 1943.

There was, however, still an important role for the Wellington to play with Coastal Command. Maritime operations had started with the four DWI Wellingtons: these had been converted by Vickers in the opening months of 1940 to carry a 52-ft (15.85-m) diameter metal ring, which contained a coil that could create a field current to detonate magnetic mines. Eleven almost identical aircraft, with 48-ft (14.63-m) rings, were converted by W. A. Rollason Ltd at Croydon, and others on site in the Middle East.

No. 172 Squadron at Chivenor, covering the Western Approaches, was the first to use the Leigh Light-equipped Wellington VIII operationally, and the first attack on a U-boat by such an aircraft at night took place on 3 June 1942, with the first sinking recorded on 6 July. From December 1941 Wellingtons were flying shipping strikes in the Mediterranean, and in the Far East No. 36 Squadron began anti-submarine operations in October 1942.

In 1940 the entry of the Italians into World War II resulted in Wellingtons being sent out from Great Britain to serve with No. 205 Group, Desert Air Force. No. 70 Squadron flew its first night attack on 19 September, against the port of Benghazi, and as the tide of war turned during 1942 and 1943, units moved into Tunisia to support the invasions of Sicily and Italy, operating from Italian soil at the close of 1943. The last Wellington bombing raid of the war in southern Europe took place on 13 March 1945, when six aircraft joined a Consolidated Liberator strike on marshalling yards at Treviso in northern Italy.

In the Far East, too, Wellingtons served as bombers with No. 225 Group in India, Mk ICs of No. 215 Squadron flying their first operational sortie on 23 April 1942. Equipped later with Wellington Xs, Nos. 99 and 215 Squadrons continued to bomb Japanese bases and communications until replaced by Liberators in late 1944, when the Wellington units were released for transport duties.

After the war the Wellington was used principally for navigator and pilot training, Air Navigation Schools and Advanced Flying Schools until 1953.

Naval Recce

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In 1919 the Royal Navy had an urgent need for a three-seat spotter/reconnaissance aircraft. In order to save money, it was decided to adapt the existing Airco DH.9A, for which part completed airframes were available in large numbers following the end of the First World War and the subsequent cancellation of production orders. The initial attempt was carried out by Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft, adding provision for an observer and removing the stagger from the wings to produce the Armstrong Whitworth Tadpole.

Further development, however, was passed on to Westland, who further modified the aircraft to produce the Walrus, with a 450 hp (336 kW) Napier Lion II engine replacing the Liberty engine of the DH.9A and Tadpole. Like the DH.9A, the Walrus was a single-engined, two-bay biplane. It was fitted with an extra cockpit for the observer/radio operator behind the gunner’s cockpit, while the observer also had a prone position for observing in a ventral pannier. The undercarriage was jettisonable and the aircraft was fitted with floatation bags and hydrovanes to aid safe ditching, together with arresting gear to aid landing on aircraft carriers. The wings were detachable to aid storage. The prototype first flew in early 1921, proving to have poor flying characteristics, being described by Westland’s Test pilot, Stuart Keep as “a vicious beast”. Despite this, a further 35 were ordered.

The earliest American and British experiments were conducted using landplanes equipped with flotation bags in case of an emergency water landing. By the time of the Hibernia trials the Royal Navy was using seaplanes, which predominated in shipboard use thereafter until well into World War I. René Caudron and the Farman brothers in France, Glenn Curtiss in the United States, and the Short brothers in Britain all developed practical seaplanes by 1912. They quickly were joined by other designers, especially after the French industrialist Jacques Schneider established the valuable Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider in December 1912 to encourage the development of seaplanes through international races to be held annually from 1913. Flying boats also developed rapidly, with very practical machines emerging from Curtiss, again, in the United States, Sopwith in Britain, the Franco-British Aviation Company in France, Lohner in Austria, and Oertz in Germany. Seaplanes, aircraft with float undercarriages, nevertheless predominated over flying boats, aircraft with boat-type fuselages, for shipboard operations.

Some further developments were very significant for the emergence of effective aircraft carriers. In 1913 the Short brothers patented their wing folding mechanism. This allowed them to reduce the stowed width of their seaplanes to as little as 12 feet and permitted rapid and trouble-free unfolding before flight, while maintaining structural strength for safe operation. This advance greatly increased the potential aircraft capacity of carriers, since the relative fragility of early machines required hangar stowage while at sea if they were to remain operational. In 1914, working very closely with Commander Charles R. Samson, in command of the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps (usually known as the Royal Naval Air Service), and Captain Murray Sueter, head of the Royal Navy’s Air Department, Short produced more powerful versions of its folder seaplanes that were equipped to carry and drop torpedoes or bombs. This enabled the Royal Naval Air Service to conduct experiments in using its aircraft offensively. The greater load-carrying capabilities of these seaplanes also permitted experiments with wireless telegraphy communications, long-distance navigation over water, and some early trials of night flying operations.

Early in WWI the Royal Navy in the Canal Zone created two carriers “in theater” from German merchantmen interned at Port Said. Modifications to the Anne and the Raven II consisted of adding a 12-pound low angle gun for self defense and erecting canvas screens to protect embarked aircraft. These vessels initially operated under the Red Ensign with mixed naval and civilian crews and their first aircraft were up to six French Nieuport floatplanes apiece, originally operated by the French seaplane carrier Foudre, flown by French pilots with British observers, an extraordinary arrangement that worked very well in practice. During the summer of 1915 they were at last commissioned as Royal Navy vessels with naval crews and served until the later half of 1917.

The French Navy too created a seaplane carrier locally at Port Said in 1915 from a requisitioned French cargo liner, the Campinas. This vessel was very similar to the two extemporized British vessels and operated as many as ten Nieuport floatplanes. In home waters the French Navy also created a pair of seaplane carriers from cross channel packets. The Pas-de-Calais and the Nord acquired two hangers to accommodate two or three F. B. A. flying boats and were lightly armed. Their main distinction was their propulsion system- they were very unusual among aircraft carriers in being side-wheel steamers.

Navies placed considerable emphasis on the reconnaissance and gunfire observation missions from the outset. The Royal Navy’s first such aircraft was the Parnall Panther, whose design originated late in World War I as a dedicated carrier machine. It featured a wooden monococque fuselage that folded for stowage. Powered by a 230- horsepower Bentley B. R. 2 rotary engine, it attained a top speed of 108 miles per hour and had a maximum range of 350 miles. British carriers then embarked a series of three-seater biplanes from the Fairey Aviation Company, derived from a successful medium-size floatplane design that saw limited service during World War I.

Unlike other fleets, the Royal Navy also briefly deployed highly specialized gunnery observation aircraft equipped with facilities intended to maximize their effectiveness in this limited role. The first was the Westland Walrus, a much-modified variant of the Airco D. H. 9A light bomber featuring an observation cupola below the fuselage to accommodate the gunfire spotter. Powered by a 450- horsepower Napier Lion engine, it reached a top speed of 124 miles per hour and had a range of 350 miles. Its successors were the Avro Bison and Blackburn Blackburn. Both aircraft featured large cabins with good observation facilities to accommodate gunnery spotters and their equipment. Their Napier Lion engines gave them top speeds of 105 and 122 miles per hour respectively, while their maximum ranges were 360 and 440 miles. By 1931 the Royal Navy determined that the performance penalties of their accommodations and the burden of incorporating such specialized aircraft within the limited size of carrier air groups made further development of this category unnecessary, and the mission devolved on the fleet’s regular reconnaissance aircraft.

The French Navy too introduced dual-purpose observation and reconnaissance aircraft in 1928, when the Levasseur PL. 4 entered service aboard the Béarn. This three-seater biplane, with an all- metal structure, was powered by a 450-horsepower Lorraine 12eb engine, giving it a top speed of 111 miles per hour and a range of 560 miles. Its successor, the Levasseur PL. 10, entered service in 1932. Its 600-horsepower Hispano-Suiza 12Lb engine gave it a maximum speed of 137 miles per hour but its range fell to 450 miles.

The Imperial Japanese Navy gave up deploying carrier-based reconnaissance aircraft when the Mitsubishi C1M left front-line service in 1931. This aircraft was introduced in 1922 as the Type 10 Carrier Reconnaissance Plane, one of a trio of designs by Herbert Smith who came to Mitsubishi from the defunct Sopwith Aviation Company and created the navy’s first machines specifically designed for carrier service. It had a 300-horsepower Mitsubishi Type Hi engine giving it a top speed of 127 miles per hour and a range of 350 miles. Thereafter, until well into World War II, Japanese carriers relied on dedicated reconnaissance support from aircraft deployed on accompanying heavy cruisers and, to a lesser extent, on missions flown by their own attack aircraft.

Dedicated carrier reconnaissance types fared considerably better in the United States Navy. The Chance Vought Corporation produced a series of two-seater biplanes, derived from the successful VE-7 advanced trainer, that formed the backbone of the fleet’s carrier observation aircraft from 1922 until 1934. These machines started as all-wooden airframes and switched to steel tube fuselages in 1927. The original engine was a 200-horsepower Wright J-3 radial that gave the OU-1 a top speed of 124 miles per hour and a range of 400 miles. The improved O2U, powered by a 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engine, could reach 150 miles per hour and had a range of 600 miles, while the final SU-4, with a 600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Hornet radial engine, had a top speed of 167 miles per hour and a range of 680 miles. An early Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation product, the SF-1, briefly supplemented these Vought types until 1936. This biplane aircraft, with an all-metal structure and powered by a 700-horsepower Wright Cyclone, featured a retractable undercarriage and could reach 207 miles per hour with a range of 920 miles. The real replacement for the Vought observation aircraft, however, was a series of scout-bombers, introduced in late 1935, that combined the scouting role with the dive bombing mission.

The most important proving grounds for testing tactics were the regular unit, squadron, and fleet-level exercises that all the carrier-operating navies conducted. Such exercises allowed naval aviators to explore new ideas and validated their concepts to squadron and fleet commanders so that the tactical possibilities offered by improved aircraft and weaponry could be incorporated into operational doctrine. In these venues carrier aircraft units demonstrated the efficacy of coordinated torpedo attack, dive bombing against fast-moving warships, tactical search missions, strike operations against shore targets, and distant reconnaissance. They also enabled fleet and squadron commanders to evolve effective combinations of carriers and escorting surface warships, and to develop concepts to integrate fast-moving carrier forces with battle fleet operations. These exercises also revealed the limitations of aviation: the vulnerability of carriers to tactical surprise brought on by deficiencies in search, the impact of weather, and, above all, the magnitude of the task of maintaining an effective defense against an enemy air attack. Navies discovered that it was very difficult to provide adequate fighter cover, since the warning time of an incoming attack was more often than not too short to allow quick launch of defending fighters while it was impossible to maintain a large enough standing covering force without crowding out attack aircraft from the carrier’s air group. This problem would not be solved until the advent of radar and accounts for the emphasis navies placed on striking fast and first with the most aircraft possible, the attendant diminution of fighter strength in favor of attack aircraft, and even the adoption of armored carriers by the Royal Navy.

To address the shortfall in carrier tonnage imposed by the Washington and London treaties, Japanese naval planners added to the fleet a number of modern auxiliaries whose design incorporated specific features allowing their relatively straightforward conversion into full-fledged aircraft carriers if required. A total of seven such vessels were ordered, three submarine depot ships (the Taigei, the Tsurugisaki, and the Takasagi) and four seaplane carriers (the Chitose, the Chiyoda, the Mizuho, and the Nisshin). All but two of the seaplane carriers (which were sunk while operating in their original role) were converted into carriers either before Japan’s entry into World War II or during the conflict.

Air Power And Nuclear Deterrence

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Prior to the Second World War it had been claimed that air power acting on its own might be a viable alternative to large land armies. This was reflected in the use of the adjective ‘strategic’ as applied to ‘bombardment’, suggesting that air raids could be launched over the heads of land forces and thereby send a population into panic and despair, obliging an enemy government to beg for mercy. The experience of the Second World War qualified this optimism. Strategic bombardment did not produce sudden collapses in morale but became another instrument of attrition, at first gradually but then at an increasing pace, eating away at the war-making potential of Germany and Japan. In securing the final victories command of the air had been vital, but it had not been won easily and was not sufficient in itself. The European war was ended by the Allies physically fighting their way into Germany.

The advent of atomic weapons revived thoughts of a decisive strategic instrument. During the late 1930s news came through of a series of advances in nuclear physics that pointed to techniques for splitting the atom and then creating a chain reaction that would unleash vast amounts of energy. War soon provided the incentive to see how far the theory could be taken. After Pearl Harbor, the British effort to design an atomic bomb, which was quite advanced, was merged with the far better resourced American Manhattan Project. Here an international group of scientists, many of them refugees from Nazi Europe, were determined to construct this terrible new weapon before Hitler did. Others hoped that they would perform a service to humanity by demonstrating that it was a practical impossibility. In the event, the weapon was not ready by the time of Germany’s defeat in May 1945, and fortunately Hitler’s own programme had fizzled out before it was close to success.

The war with Japan was not yet over. Victory was almost certain, but Truman was concerned about the heavy loss of life that would result if an invasion had to be mounted, and was happy to explore all means to get a Japanese surrender as quickly as possible. After the first successful test of an atomic weapon in New Mexico in July 1945, news of which came through as the ‘Big Three’ assembled at Potsdam, Truman decided to use the couple of weapons available to shock the Japanese government into surrender by demonstrating this terrible power that could now be unleashed. Given the expense of their development he was not inclined to hold the weapons in reserve, and neither he nor his advisers were impressed by anguished pleas from many of the scientists involved that they should either desist altogether or rely on a demonstration shot away from a civilian population. For years both sides had been engaged in air raids of ever-growing intensity, culminating in the fire-bombing of Tokyo the previous March. At this stage of the war the moral argument against attacks on cities had long been lost, provided some military rationale could also be found. The first of the only two nuclear weapons ever to be dropped in anger detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, which Truman described as an important military target, on the morning of 6 August 1945. It led to 200,000 deaths and injuries. The second bomb hit Nagasaki three days later. After another five days Japan surrendered.

The conditions flattered the new weapon. Japan was close to defeat and lacked any means of response. The Soviet Union was also entering the Pacific war. Yet whether or not Japan would have surrendered anyway – as much evidence now suggests – it would also seem that the shock effect of the bombs tilted the internal debate in Japan towards accepting defeat earlier rather than later. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been described as the first shots in the Cold War, because they provided an opportunity to demonstrate American strength in a grimly convincing manner to Stalin during a critical stage of the bargaining over the shape of the post-war world. While this may have been a presumed side-benefit, the record shows that Truman’s main concern was with getting the Pacific war over as soon as possible.

The impact of these two attacks on the post-war world was immediate and profound. First they made it possible to imagine circumstances in which Russia could be defeated without having to brave its distances and climate. Second, the association of the new weapons with victory meant that they immediately acquired an aura of decisiveness, whether warranted or not. Third, they confirmed a trend towards progressive barbarism in warfare. Once a major war began there could be no presumption of innocence and no expectation of pity. While at first the stockpile of atomic weapons was very small (indeed, barely more than component parts in the years just after the war), and so appeared as providing merely a more efficient way to mount a conventional air raid, the fact that mass destruction could be instantaneous and include the insidious effects of radiation inevitably led to these weapons soon dominating all speculation on future warfare.

In the first couple of years of peace the Americans took steps to guard their atomic secrets, even from their British allies who had played a significant early role in the weapons development, but they did little to produce many new weapons. That effort began in earnest in 1947, after it had become clear that any hopes for placing this new technology under international control were doomed to disappointment. Proposals had been put forward by the United States, under the name of its chief delegate, Bernard Baruch, to a United Nations committee for the international control of atomic energy. In the circumstances this was a generous gesture, but it could never be convincing to Moscow, which saw in the scheme an early obstruction to its own nuclear programme with a political option whereby the Americans might avoid at a late stage any obligations to relinquish their own arsenal.

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The mushroom cloud from the “First Lightning” test (1949).

It had been assumed by the Americans that the Russians were far behind in nuclear technology. However, by dint of their own hard work, well-placed spies (notably Klaus Fuchs, who had been a British participant in the Manhattan Project) and a full published description by American scientists of their methodology, the Russians made rapid progress. In August 1949 they tested their own nuclear device. As the test came at a time when East-West tensions were growing daily, the effect on the Americans was electrifying. They could no longer assume a nuclear monopoly: they were now engaged in an arms race. The response was not only to step up production of fission (atomic) weapons, but also to press ahead with the next stage of weapons development – the fusion (or thermonuclear or hydrogen) weapon, which promised almost unlimited destructive capacity. Leading American scientists were bitterly opposed to creating ‘city-busting’ weapons with an explosive yield equivalent to millions of tons (megatons) of TNT, but Truman felt that he had no choice. He dared not let the Russians build such a bomb first.

The president did accept, at the same time, that the Soviet breakthrough required a reappraisal of the strategic role of nuclear weapons. This took the form of a major study, led by the State Department, which considered this new development in the light of the deteriorating international political situation. The other major communist advance in 1949 had been the defeat of the nationalists in the Chinese Civil War. There was now a Sino-Soviet bloc, spreading right through the Eurasian heartland and capable of pushing out against all areas along its periphery. The resulting document for the National Security Council- known as NSC-68 – was designed to bring home to the Washington bureaucracy just how dangerous the situation had become. It warned that without determined action, democracies might succumb to a communist drive for world domination. So long as the United States enjoyed a nuclear monopoly it could be argued that this would serve as a powerful disincentive to Moscow if there was any thought of aggressive action. But if Moscow could retaliate in kind, Western plans to initiate nuclear war would appear reckless. It was therefore unwise to rely on this threat for the indefinite future if it risked bringing a terrible retribution on the United States. The conclusion of NSC-68 was therefore that the remaining years of nuclear superiority should be used to build up conventional forces in Europe capable of coping on their own with a Soviet assault.

1944-45 German Aircraft Quality and Production

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The protracted development work required in order to make new technologies ripe for operational use was the main reason jet and rocket aircraft entered operational service only in 1944. The main problem with jet aircraft was the low reliability of their engines. Only in summer 1944 did German jet engines become reliable enough for operational use, even though their development had begun in late 1939. The same problem plagued rocket fighters. Prototypes of the Me 163 rocket interceptor began powerless flight testing already in 1941, but entered limited operational service only at the end of May 1944. This long delay was caused by the difficulties involved in making a rocket-propelled aircraft ready for operational service. These problems were never fully solved and rocket-propelled aircraft were somewhat sidelined after initial enthusiasm.

Some of the new jets figured prominently in production plans submitted from mid–1943. The RLM planned a massive procurement of some of the more developed types and the aviation industry geared up to produce them en masse. They subsequently appeared in increasing numbers on the production lines in 1944–45. These modern aircraft entered series production just as the aviation industry went through the greatest transformation in its history.

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Me 109

This single-seat, single-engine fighter was designed by Willy Messerschmitt and entered operational service with the Luftwaffe before the outbreak of the war. It was even used in the Spanish Civil War. It was the most produced fighter ever, with around 35,000 units built before and during World War II. Some 13,942 Me 109s were produced in 1944 alone. It was supposed to be replaced as the main Luftwaffe fighter in 1942, but delays with the introduction of a replacement, and subsequently the decision to produce the Me 262 as its replacement, meant that it was never replaced. Mass production of its modified versions continued right until the end of the war, even though by 1944 it was inferior to both Western and Eastern fighters in many respects. It was considered difficult to fly and the masses of young and inexperienced late-war German fighter pilots mostly lacked the skills needed in order to fly it effectively in combat.

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FW 190

Another single-seat, single-engine fighter that was somewhat outdated by 1944. It was developed and purchased as a more advanced complement to the Me 109. It entered operational service with the Luftwaffe in autumn 1941, but suffered continuous problems with its BMW engine. Advanced and much improved versions of this fighter were supposed to enter series production in mid–1944. These were the re-engined and redesigned FW 190D and the Ta 152. The latter was designed primarily as a high-altitude fighter. These fighters were considered to be more than equal to modern Allied fighters. Severe delays in their production meant that the older models soldiered on and remained the most dominant types. The FW 190 was also used as a fighter-bomber and as ground support aircraft.

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Ju 88, Ju 188, Ju 388

The initial model was the Junkers 88, which was developed before World War II as the Luftwaffe’s “wonder bomber.” The production of this aircraft formed one of the largest contracts in the history of the German aviation history and turned state-owned Junkers into one of the giants of German industry. This twin-engine aircraft was later converted into an efficient night fighter, and in this role it stayed in series production almost until the end of the war. Its wartime development was the improved Ju 188, which entered service in early 1943. The completely different Ju 388 bomber-reconnaissance aircraft came too late to enter service in meaningful numbers. The production of these three Junkers aircraft was terminated in February 1945.

Less important types were produced in ever-decreasing numbers during 1944, but all of them were stricken from the production plans before the end of that year. In any case, of all the 20 types produced in significant numbers in 1944, the piston-engine types described above constituted 74 percent of total aircraft production for the year. Taking into account that other planes included in the 20 types were also propelled by piston engine, the dominance of “traditional” aircraft over jets on the production lines is obvious.

Paradoxically, at the time Germany commenced production of some of the most advanced aerial weapon systems of their time, there was a marked drop in the production quality of German aviation products. Hermann Göring generally confirmed the deterioration of quality after the war and attributed it to the dispersal of the aviation industry in 1944. Adolf Galland, former influential General of the Fighters, gave the following explanation when asked by American interrogators why dispersal caused deterioration of quality: “Because the assembly lines were interrupted. The planes no longer were in assembly halls, but somewhere the control surfaces were manufactured, in another plant fuselages were made, construction took place in destroyed halls and construction took place in the open air instead of under roofs.”

The explanations offered by these two wartime leaders provide only a partial explanation for this phenomenon. It appears that particularly the high-priority modern jets and other new aircraft types suffered from these declining production standards. Following a comparison flight test of an Me 262 against an Ar 234 prototype in June 1944, Messerschmitt’s main development office at Oberammergau complained about the quality of production Me 262s: “Workmanship— The workmanship carried out on production Me 262s leaves much to be desired. Armament hatch covers, sheet steel cockpit, engine cowlings, etc., were all poor as were those of most production machines. The surface finish is also coarse.” Problems with series Me 262 continued and became even worse. In February 1945 Messerschmitt’s chief test pilot Fritz Wendel reported severe technical problems originating from poor quality control after visiting operational units flying the plane.

Conventional types also suffered from this deterioration. Poor quality of the initial production runs of the Ta 152 fighters led to a brief production halt in order to enable the engineers to locate all the defects and to fix them. The main problem appeared to be faulty welding of the aileron pushrods. Further technical problems and other sticky production difficulties finally led to the cancellation of this aircraft at the end of March 1945, when its production capacity was allocated to the production of older proven types.

Unit commanders and pilots receiving the new aircraft experienced severe problems with their new mounts, caused by poor workmanship and slack quality control. Erich Sommer, flying Ar 234 reconnaissance aircraft since the summer of 1944, reported that “spare engines and accessories had to be stripped before use as quality control in the factory became less and less reliable.”

It seems that production standards of series Ar 234s was particularly low. Captain Dieter Lukesch, who commanded the first operational Ar 234 squadron, remarked about the production quality of the brand-new aircraft his unit received in July 1944: “Hardly any aircraft arrived without defects which covered all systems and were caused by hasty completion and shortage of skilled labor at the factories. The same applied to the Arado’s equipment.”

These problems were well-known and higher authorities tried to solve them in different ways. Among others, the Germans tried to use Allied standards in order to restore their own standards of quality. In this framework the Airframe Main Committee arranged to have wing sections of shot-down American aircraft sent around to aircraft factories to show the relative superiority of American workmanship in this regard, and serve as an incentive to do as well. At the end of September 1944 Ernst Heinkel pointed at the excellent polish of the wings of the American Mustang fighters and at the way such finish could improve the performance of German planes. He blamed the inferior German finish on a poorly trained workforce and demanded better training in order to achieve better workmanship.

The main solution was to improve quality control. Quality control was normally preformed on the final products upon leaving the production line. From 1944 it became generally slacker and less efficient. The dispersal of most factories in 1944 made it much more difficult to perform proper quality control because quality control departments usually stayed at the main factory and could not satisfactorily perform their tasks in the dispersed facilities. Furthermore, while efforts were invested in expanding production, much less effort was invested in expanding quality control departments to cope with the new situation.

The countermeasures failed in most cases to improve the quality of the end products and the production standards of German aviation products kept deteriorating until the end of the war. Arguably, the main reason for this failure, and for the worsening quality, was the composition of the workforce the Germans used at that time for aviation production. This huge army of foreigners, POWs, and concentration camp inmates lacked the motivation that prevailed in the German aviation industry before the war. With such manpower it was extremely difficult to preserve the prewar standards.

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The F-15S over Yemen, 2015

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The F-15SA is the most advanced production F-15 Eagle ever built. Saudi Arabia ordered 84 new build F-15SAs and close to 70 kits to upgrade their existing F-15S fleet to the SA configuration. Just one part of this upgrade is the activation of Eagle’s outboard wing stores stations, which will expand the jet’s already heavy combat punch.

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The image above shows the F-15SA once again, albeit this time it is in an air-to-air configuration, including no less than eight AIM-120 AMRAAMs and eight AIM-9X Sidewinders. This amounts to double the missile carrying capability of the F-15C or F-15E. Also note the Infrared Search and Track system mounted above the jet’s radome. This, combined with its state of the art radar’s low probability of intercept modes, advanced radar warning receiver and Link 16 data-link, allows the F-15SA to hunt for enemy aircraft in electromagnetic silence while still maintain high-situational awareness.

The F-15S entered combat over Yemen on November 4, 2009, primarily flying cross-border strikes against insurgents on a daily basis into 2010. It was a difficult conflict for the Saudis and while the RSAF had problems adapting to counter-insurgency – as have many air arms – it did not suffer the setbacks of the Saudi ground forces. In 2010-15, RSAF aircraft carried out occasional cross-border strikes into Yemen.

The RSAF encountered shortages of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and there were unconfirmed reports of its attacks inflicting collateral damage. The F-15S units emerged as the RSAF’s close air support specialists, however, the Saudis considering the F-15S superior to the Panavia Tornado IDS (Interdictor Strike) for medium-altitude PGM-delivery sorties. These had become the RSAF’s primary offensive mission profile, as reflected by its investment in large PGM stockpiles in 2011 and 2013.

Following intervention in Yemen to prevent the government falling to the Ansar Allah insurgent group (known as the Houthis), Saudi F-15 operations over Yemen resumed on March 26, 2015 with the launching of Operation Decisive Storm, which ran until 21 April. More than 100 Saudi aircraft were reinforced from Bahrain (15 F-16s), Egypt (F-16s), Jordan (six F-16s), Kuwait (15 F/A-18s), Morocco (F-16s), Qatar (six F-16s), Sudan (three Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer bombers and an Antonov An-26 Curl twin-turboprop transport) and the UAE (30 combat aircraft) participated in this opening stage of what has become a prolonged conflict. According to press reports, Saudi F-15S bomb loads included WCMDs containing SFW sub-munitions.

The air campaign was planned at a joint fusion centre near Riyadh, which included six to ten US liaison personnel, with a further 50-60 providing coordination and support. The Saudis appear to have relied on preplanning and a centrally approved air tasking order (ATO), similar to those used during the 1991 Gulf War, rather than the type of near-real-time and in-flight tasking/retasking that has become more commonplace since 2002 among the US and its coalition partners. Theatre ballistic missiles (TBMs), including the SS-1 Scud and SS-21 Scarab, were fired at Saudi bases during the air offensive, leading to further coalition attacks.

The US provided support, including tanker sorties. The first coalition aircraft refuelled by a US Boeing KC-135 tanker during the operation were an RSAF F-15 and an Egyptian Air Force F-16. Losses included a Moroccan F-16 and, on March 26, an RSAF F-15S that suffered engine failure over the Gulf of Aden. US forces based in Djibouti, including an Alaska Air National Guard helicopter, rescued its crew and brought them aboard a US Navy destroyer, before returning them home.

Operation Restore Hope followed the initial operation and on July 14, 2015, the Saudi-led Operation Golden Arrow saw coalition air forces supporting ground forces in Yemen. Coalition aircraft flew from Aden International Airport and included Boeing AH-64D Apache helicopters, presumably from the UAE. In Washington on October 9, Prince Sultan bin Khaled al Faisal said Saudi special forces on the ground were performing “precision lasing for our air assets.” “You cannot say there has been no progress”, he said. The coalition’s operational tempo has slowed, reflecting the Saudis hosting ongoing peace negotiations in 2016. But the Saudi request to the US for 13,000 precision guided munitions, made in late 2015, shows the scope of the operations and their impact on existing weapons stockpiles.

Royal Saudi Air Force F-15SA programme

Despite continued delays to the Royal Saudi Air Force F-15SA programme, both the RSAF and Boeing are confident the issues will soon be resolved. So far 40 of the jets have been produced, but none have been delivered. Saudi sources close to the programme are citing software issues with the flight control system, as well as the integration of so many weapons as the main reasons.

The RSAF is procuring new production Boeing F-15SA (Saudi Advanced) Eagles, while upgrading its current F-15S aircraft to F-15SA standard. The move is part of a force modernisation programme begun in 2011, a manifestation of Saudi determination to possess and use effective airpower.

The F-15SA is an improved F-15S two-seat air-to-ground fighter incorporating elements of Singapore’s F-15SG and the F-15SK Silent Eagle – intended for the Republic of Korea, but never built. Its new systems include some more advanced than those fitted to United States Air Force (USAF) F-15E Strike Eagles, including fly-by-wire (FBW) controls.

Under the original plan, after an initial training period, the first F-15SAs were to have be delivered to KKAB, their Saudi main operating base, (where US$166 million in construction contracts to accommodate the F-15SA were awarded in February 2015).

A Lockheed Martin-integrated F-15SA ground training system is being installed at KKAB and is due for completion by 2020. By early 2017, Number 55 Squadron (Fighter Training Unit) at KKAB and 29 Squadron at KFAB were to have each had 24 F-15SAs, plus four at KAAB with 92 Squadron and the Fighter Weapons School.

Number 93 Squadron, at Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB), as to receive its first F-15SAs in mid-2017 be at its full 24-aircraft strength in a year. Deliveries of F-15SAs will continue until 2019. But the delays to the flight test programme will likely postpone these target dates.

The first F-15S to F-15SA upgrade was to be delivered to KAAB in mid-2017, but that also is likely to be delayed by six months or more. The upgrade line will start delivering F-15SAs to KAAB soon after, at a rate of one to two per month.

In early 2015, the flight-test programme was accelerated. Today, 40 production F-15SAs have been built and stored at St Louis, awaiting the completion of the four- aircraft test flying programme, while the training pipelines were already open.

Training, initially for instructors, was provided in the US by ex-US military personnel working for Mohawarean Aviation Services Co, a Saudi corporation. Five adjustments to the F-15SA programme were funded and implemented by the end of 2015.

The schedule for F-15SA delivery to the RSAF was the subject of a high-level review. Maj General Mohammed bin Saleh Al Qtaibi, the Saudi air chief and Heidi Grant, the Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for International Affairs, met in Washington on January 11-13, 2016.

A US Air Force spokesman reported, “the program was on track.” This meeting was intended to help set the stage for president Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia in April.

The delays have all come from the US side of the programme, rather than the Saudis’ economic problems (development funding was largely front-end loaded) or their ability to integrate the aircraft into their force structure, with the simultaneous need to focus on combat operations.

Prince Sultan bin Khaled al Faisal, a US-trained Saudi officer now at a Riyadh think tank, said in Washington on October 9, 2015: “I do not see a problem with any weapon system we decide to buy. We are able to train through every operational cycle and our groundcrews are some of the best in the world.”