Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

By Alan Stephens

This week marks the 74th anniversary of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, arguably the most significant action fought by Australians during World War II.

Between December 1941 and April 1942, Imperial Japanese forces shocked Australians with their victories over the United States at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines; and over the British Commonwealth in Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and Rabaul. When enemy forces occupied northern New Guinea, an invasion of Australia, with its unthinkable consequences, seemed possible. However, supported by their American and British allies, Australia’s servicemen and women regrouped and fought back.

From mid-1942 onwards, Australian victories with American support at Milne Bay and Kokoda, and the triumph of American naval air power at Coral Sea and Midway weakened Japan’s hold on New Guinea. Further Allied successes on New Guinea’s northeast coast at Buna, Gona and Sanananda between November 1942 and January 1943 left the Japanese position substantially weakened.

Then, intercepted radio messages revealed that an enemy convoy would sail from Rabaul with reinforcements for the vital Japanese garrison at Lae on the northeast coast of New Guinea in late-February. This was likely to be Japan’s last throw of the dice in New Guinea. If the convoy were stopped, then so too would be the likelihood of an invasion of Australia

Allied Air Forces under the command of the American General George Kenney immediately began preparing for an all-out assault against the convoy. A critical factor was the brilliant plan largely conceived by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Group Captain William “Bull” Garing. Garing had already fought in Europe for two years with the RAAF’s No. 10 Squadron, and his experience of maritime warfare was to prove decisive.

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Group Captain Garing RAAF (standing, right) hands over information to his successor Group Captain McLachlan, seated at the office desk, c. 1943. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

It was Garing who convinced General Kenney of the need for a massive, coordinated attack. Garing envisaged large numbers of aircraft striking the convoy from different directions and altitudes, with precise timing.

Initially, the allies would rely on reconnaissance aircraft to detect the convoy, which would then be attacked by long-range United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombers. Once the convoy was within range of the allies’ potent anti-shipping aircraft – RAAF Beaufighters, Bostons and Beauforts, and American Mitchells and Bostons – a coordinated attack would be mounted from medium, low, and very low altitudes.

During the waiting period, crews practised their navigation and honed their formation flying, bombing, and gunnery skills.

Six thousand four hundred Japanese troops embarked at Rabaul between 23 and 27 February 1943, and the convoy of eight merchant ships and eight destroyers sailed just before midnight on the 28th, planning to arrive at Lae on 3 March. Air cover was provided by about 100 fighters flying out of bases in New Ireland, New Britain and New Guinea.

The enemy convoy initially was favoured by poor weather, which hampered Allied reconnaissance. It was not until mid-morning on 2 March that USAAF B-24 Liberators sighted the ships. General Kenney immediately launched eight B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, followed shortly afterwards by another 20. The B-17s attacked from an altitude of 2000 metres with 450-kilogram demolition bombs. Later in the day, another strike was made by 11 B-17s whose crews reported that vessels were ‘burning and exploding […] smoking and burning amidships’ and ‘left sinking’.

By nightfall, the enemy was only hours from Lae, which meant that in the morning it would be within range of the entire allied strike force. If the coordinated attack were to succeed, the precise location of the convoy had to be known at daybreak; consequently, throughout the night, it was tracked by an RAAF Catalina from No. 11 Squadron, which occasionally dropped bombs and flares to keep the Japanese soldiers in a state of anxiety. Also during the night, eight RAAF Beaufort torpedo bombers from No. 100 Squadron took-off from Milne Bay to try to use the darkness to their advantage. The heavy frontal weather made navigation hazardous, and only two aircraft found the convoy. Neither scored a hit.

The moment the Allied Air Forces had been waiting for came on the morning of 3 March 1943, when the Japanese convoy rounded the Huon Peninsula. For much of the time the adverse weather had helped the enemy avoid detection, but now clear conditions favoured the allies. Over 90 aircraft took-off from Port Moresby and set heading for their rendezvous point. While the strike force was en route, RAAF Bostons from No. 22 Squadron bombed the enemy airfield at Lae.

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By 9:30 a.m. the AAF formations had assembled, and by 10:00 a.m. the Battle of the Bismarck Sea had begun.

The allies attacked in three waves and from three levels, only seconds apart. First, 13 USAAF B-17s bombed from medium altitude. In addition to the obvious objective of sinking ships, those attacks were intended to disperse the convoy by forcing vessels to break station to avoid being hit.

Second, 13 RAAF Beaufighters from No. 30 Squadron hit the enemy from very low level, lining up on their targets as the bombs from the B-17s were exploding. With four cannons in its nose and six machine guns in its wings, the Beaufighter was the most heavily armed fighter in the world. The Australians’ job was twofold: to suppress anti-aircraft fire, and to kill ships’ captains and officers on their bridges.

The Beaufighters initially approached at 150 metres above the sea in line astern formation. The pilots then descended even lower, to mast-level height, set full power on their engines, changed into line abreast formation, and approached their targets at 420 kilometres an hour.

It seems that some of the Japanese captains thought the Beaufighters were going to make a torpedo attack because they altered course to meet the Australians head-on, to present a smaller profile. Instead, they made themselves better targets for strafing. With a slight alteration of heading the Beaufighters were now in an ideal position to rake the ships from bow to stern, which they did, subjecting the enemy to a withering storm of cannon and machine gun fire.

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 A Japanese transport on fire during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

According to the official RAAF release:

[e]nemy crews were slain beside their guns, deck cargo burst into flame, superstructures toppled and burned.

With the convoy now dispersed and in disarray, the third wave of attackers was able to concentrate on sinking ships. Thirteen American B-25 Mitchells made a medium level bombing strike while, simultaneously, a mast-level attack was made by 12 specially modified Mitchells, known as ‘commerce destroyers’ because of their heavy armament. The commerce destroyers were devastating, claiming seventeen direct hits. Close behind the Mitchells, USAAF Bostons added more firepower.

Following the coordinated onslaught, Beaufighters, Mitchells and Bostons intermingled as they swept back and forth over the convoy, strafing and bombing. Within minutes of the opening shots, the battle had turned into a rout. At the end of the action:

[s]hips were listing and sinking, their superstructure smashed and blazing, and great clouds of dense black smoke [rose] into a sky where aircraft circled and dived over the confusion they had wrought among what, less than an hour earlier, had been an impressively orderly convoy.

Overhead the surface battle, 28 USAAF P-38 Lightning fighters provided air defence for the strike force. In their combat with the Zeros which were attempting to protect the convoy, three of the Lightnings were shot down, but in turn, the American pilots claimed 20 kills. Apart from those three P-38s, the only other allied aircraft lost was a single B-17, shot down by a Zero.

With their armament expended the allied aircraft returned to Port Moresby. However, there was to be no respite for the enemy. Throughout the afternoon the attacks continued. Again, B-17s struck from medium level, this time in cooperation with Mitchells and RAAF Bostons flying at very low level. (Incidentally, the Bostons were led by Squadron Leader Charles Learmonth, after whom the RAAF’s present-day base in north-west Australia is named.) At least 20 direct hits were claimed against the by-now devastated convoy.

That was the last of the coordinated attacks. The victory had been won. For the loss of a handful of aircraft, the Allied Air Forces had sunk twelve ships – all eight of the troop transports and four of the eight destroyers – and had killed more than 3,000 enemy soldiers.

The brilliantly conceived and executed operation had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea and had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded. In the words of the supreme command of the Southwest Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea was ‘the decisive aerial engagement’ of the war in the Southwest Pacific.

However, there was still a terrible yet essential finale to come. For several days after the battle, Allied aircrews patrolled the Huon Gulf, searching for and strafing barges and rafts crowded with survivors. It was grim and bloody work, but as one RAAF Beaufighter pilot said, every enemy soldier they prevented from getting ashore was one less for their Army colleagues to face. Moreover, after fifteen months of Japanese brutality, the great immorality, it seemed to them, would have been to have ignored the rights of their soldiers.

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A Japanese destroyer steaming astern while under attack by USAAF bombers during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Japanese media never mentioned the battle, but in a macabre footnote, two weeks later, Tokyo announced that in future all Japanese soldiers were to be taught to swim.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a master-class in air power. The RAAF and the USAAF had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea; they had forced the enemy into a defensive posture from which ultimate victory was unlikely, and they had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded.

This was arguably Australia’s most important victory in World War II.

This post first appeared at The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.

Header Image: During the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in which the Japanese suffered heavy losses while attempting to reinforce their garrison at Lae, a RAAF Beaufighter attacks a camouflaged Japanese transport. A burst is poured into the burning vessel. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Commentary – Design and Defence Acquisition: The Missing Piece of the Jigsaw

Commentary – Design and Defence Acquisition: The Missing Piece of the Jigsaw

By Michael Pryce

Reports in the Sunday Times and other newspapers this weekend have highlighted a number of familiar issues in defence acquisition. Tales of gold-plated requirements, service chiefs ‘gaming’ the system to get preferred projects funded, and delays are familiar ones stretching back over decades.

While some of these issues raised in the press reflect aspects of reality, a vital part of the story is missing. This is the withering away of the vital ability of the services and industry to work together on a project using the language of design. This stretches back to the mid-1980s, when Michael Heseltine brought an industrial figure, Peter Levene, into the Ministry of Defence to head its procurement division. This was seen as a radical challenge to the defence establishment at the time, in line with the Thatcher government’s policy of bringing entrepreneurs from the private sector into government to gain efficiency savings.

There is a history of private business people attempting to shake up defence acquisition. In the 1960s the Kennedy administration brought Robert McNamara in from the Ford Motor Company as United States Secretary of Defense. In the 1970s and 1980s David Packard, of Hewlett-Packard fame, was similarly used to introduce private sector practices to the US Department of Defense’s acquisition projects.

On both sides of the Atlantic, this approach has a mixed track record. The introduction of competition and a reduction in single-service projects saw some benefits in the US and the UK. However, the introduction of taut, arms-length contracts and competition broke the links that allowed design teams in industry to speak openly to the military requirements writers. Allied to the privatisation of the state-run research establishments, who provided advice and assessment on both requirements and designs, this led to a lack of communication across the acquisition process. A taut contract is no replacement for informed dialogue.

The British Aerospace Harrier is used by the RAF in the close air support role.
Harrier GR7 as used by the RAF. (Source: Defence Imagery, MoD)

A good example of how this dialogue leads to success is the Harrier ‘jump jet’, a highly risky technical concept. Starting as a private design by industry in the 1950s, it was refined with support from the research establishments before it was adopted for service by the UK and US armed forces. Flying prototypes before a final requirement was written meant that when it did enter service, the project was on time, on cost and met almost all specifications; one small shortfall in manoeuvrability was discussed as not being worth the cost to fix. The success of the Harrier in the Falklands in 1982 showed that this was the right decision. The shared language of design, spoken openly between MOD and industry, led to the Harrier’s success.

Pictured is the first of the UK’s F-35B Lightning II jets to be flown to the UK.
The first of the UK’s F-35B Lightning II jets to be flown to the UK in 2016. (Source: Defence Imagery, MoD)

In 1985 the Harrier’s original designer, Ralph Hooper, retired; the same year that the Levene reforms started to end the ability of designers to develop new projects while talking openly to requirements writers and technical experts. Instead, a contract that defines roles and responsibilities is expected to lead to success, although it is hard to see any examples of this working in the years since – for example, the Harrier’s successor, the F-35B Lightning II, has yet to replicate its record of delivery on time or cost.

Ralph Hooper originated the Harrier design out of a sense of idle interest. The project was, as he says, the product of a lot of people. The first contract for the aircraft came when the prototypes were being built, having proceeded with a ‘nod and a wink’ from government. The trust engendered by having all those involved in the design of a complex system in industry, the services and government able to discuss design openly are a continuing need for successful defence acquisition. That we no longer do this, due to competition and contracts, lies at the heart of the issues reported in the press over many years, not just one weekend.

This post first appeared on the Cranfield University Blog.

Header Image: Harriers from Joint Force Harrier lined up following a ceremony to mark the retirement of the famous aircraft after 41 years of service. (Source: Defence Imagery, MoD)

‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice

‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice

By Ross Mahoney

If there is one description of the multi-national and cosmopolitan composition of Allied forces in the Mediterranean theatre during the Second World War, it is ‘complex.’ This comment may seem obvious at first; however, were there not only British and American troops in the theatre but also forces from the Commonwealth and Empire and ‘free’ forces such as those from France and Poland. Also, in the aftermath of the Italian surrender in September 1943, there were also those of the former regime.

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The first Prime Minister of Italy after the fall of Mussolini, Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio with the Head of the Military Mission in Brindisi, Lieutenant General Sir Noel Mason-MacFarlane. Photograph taken at the Italian Naval Headquarters at the Castle, Brindisi. (Source: © IWM (NA 7029))

By the terms of the instrument of surrender, units of the Italian navy and air force were to be transferred to the control of Allied forces. Once the Italian government under Marshal Badoglio moved to Brindisi, and the long terms of surrender were signed, the Allies set up a Control Commission to enforce the surrender terms. However, even before the Control Commission was established, General Eisenhower had dispatched a Military Mission to Brindisi to transmit military instructions to Badoglio, collect intelligence, and most importantly, co-ordinate the use of Italian armed forces in the war against German.[1]

It is clear that the use of Italian forces was designed, where possible, to complement Allied combat power in the Mediterranean theatre; however, this came up against a number of challenges that highlight the problem of integrating former enemies into the Allied force structure. Furthermore, as Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, who at the time was in charge of the Mediterranean Air Command, reflected in his wartime memoirs that, while he was keen to support the use of the Italian air force, that Services needs came secondary to the Allied war effort.[2] Challenges for re-building the Italian air force included administrative, logistical, resource and personnel issue as well as cultural and language difficulties.

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Air Vice-Marshal Robert Foster, Air Officer Commanding the Desert Air Force, sitting in his office trailer at DAF Advanced Headquarters at Cesena, Italy. (Source: © IWM (CNA 3338))

The head of the air section of the Military Mission was one Air Commodore Foster, later Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Foster who later commanded the Desert Air Force and the 2nd Tactical Air Force in Germany in the early 1950s. In Foster’s personal papers, held by the Royal Air Force Museum in London, is an interesting record of his service with the Military Mission between September 1943 and March 1944.[3] In this recollection, which is what it is as it is clearly entitled the ‘Personal Record of ACM Sir Robert Foster’ and as such probably written after his retirement in the 1950s, Foster details the work he undertook.

The first challenge recalled by Foster was that of morale and linked to that the issue of attitude. Italian forces had by the time of surrender been fighting on multiple fronts and, for a variety of reasons, suffered significant defeats. Added to this, as Foster recollected, was the fact that the Italian’s were being asked to fight with their former enemies against their former allies. Furthermore, motivation was considered to be challenging because of conditions in Italy for the civilian population and the separation of personnel from their families. This was an outcome of the character of the Italian campaign and German failure to withdraw from the peninsula. That Foster identified this as his first requirement was hardly out of character. It was recognised by British forces that the generation of combat power was related to good leadership, command and morale. As such, managing issues such attitude, culture, identity and loyalties were essential to ensure the provision of an effective force. As Foster wrote:

It was perfectly clear […] that the first step must be to establish a sense of purpose and to find officers with sound qualities of leadership, with good operational experience, and with the basic enthusiasm which would make their Air Force and efficient and useful addition to the allied war effort.[4]

Foster was aided in attempting to implement his first step by recognising the need to gain support from Badoglio’s government and to help with that he appointed Squadron Leader Roger Francois whom both spoke Italian and was a ‘firm Italophile.’

Importantly, it was agreed that Italian units would be grouped to maintain identity, though the Allies would provide stores and logistical support and eventually re-equipment of units. Linked to this were administrative challenges concerning issues such as an operational headquarters to control units that not only served the purpose of Italians but also fitted with existing Allied arrangements. Added to this was the need to communicate to Allied air commanders that the addition of Italian units would be of benefit to the war effort. Foster recollected the ‘excellent service’ of his Italian staff officers fondly and that ‘at heart, the Italian Air Force air crew were dissimilar to ours.’[5]

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An Italian Macchi C.205 Veltro aircraft found on Catania airfield, Sicily by personnel of No. 450 Squadron RAAF and subsequently serviced by the squadron’s fitters. (Source: Wikimedia)

Ultimately, without further research, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of Foster’s effort to rebuild the Italian air force on the Allied war effort. At a simple level, were the outcomes achieved greater than the effort expended? One thing is certain, while an attempt was made to utilise the Italian air force it was hampered by the fact that the Allies secured only some 300 aircraft and that many continued to be used by forces that remained loyal to the regime in Northern Italy. This led to Italian units being used by the Balkan Air Force and re-equipped with Allied types. Nevertheless, perhaps the key outcome of this effort was that it laid the foundation for the post-Second World War Italian air force, as such, while the Service might not have been militarily effective in reinforcing Allied combat power, it served a political purpose in the longer term.

This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the effort to rebuild and utilise Italian forces after the 1943 surrender; however, while it is dangerous to draw historical parallels, the experience of Italian forces after 1943 begs the question of the purpose of rebuilding forces of defeated enemies and the challenges inherent in that process. It is evident from Foster’s recollection that while there were technical and logistical challenges, the key to his ‘success’ was the need to recognise the problem of working with the Italians to ensure that they felt part of the Allied team. A need to maintain some form of identity was paramount to Foster’s work and the subsequent integration of Italian forces who subsequently felt valued as they were able to ‘prove [their] worth under the new circumstances.’[6]

Header Image: A formation of Macchi C.200 of the Regia Aeronautica, c. 1941 (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] On the development of the Allied Control Commission, see: C.R.S. Harris, Allied Military Administration of Italy, 1943-1945 (London: HMSO, 1957), pp.105-28.

[2] Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, With Prejudice (London: Cassell, 1966), p. 469.

[3] Royal Air Force Museum, Personal Papers of Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Foster, AC75/34/8/23, Personal Record of A.C.M. Sir Robert Foster of Service with the Italian Air Force, September 1943-March 1944, N.D..

[4] Ibid, p. 2.

[5] Ibid, p. 5.

[6] Ibid, p. 6.

Commentary – The RAF and the F-117

Commentary – The RAF and the F-117

By Ross Mahoney

In the past couple of days, several sources have reported on the fact that in 1986, the US President, Ronald Reagan, offered Britain the opportunity to co-operate on stealth technology and purchase the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. Details of the project, codenamed MOONFLOWER, have become known through the recent release of files by the British National Archives. This release is part of the material coming out of the Prime Minister’s files for the 1980s and the specific reference for MOONFLOWER is PREM 19/1844. An important issue to note with these files is that they have not been digitised and were opened just before the New Year. This is an important consideration when reading many of the reports on the internet as it is probable that the one in The Guardian – from which most derive – has only cited certain parts of the file. Indeed, I have not read the file yet.

The F-117 remains one of the most iconic aircraft of the latter part of the Cold War. Announced in 1988, the F-117 emerged from Lockheed’s Have Blue project and was developed by the company’s Skunk Works division. The F-117 was first operationally used in the US invasion of Panama in 1989, but it was during Operation DESERT STORM that it rose to prominence. During the 1990s and 2000s, the F-117 was used in other conflicts, and one was shot down in 1999 during Operation ALLIED FORCE, and it was eventually retired in 2008.

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A USAF F-117A Nighthawk flies over Nellis Air Force Base during the joint service experimentation process dubbed Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02). (Source: Wikimedia)

What appears to have got people talking is the fact that Britain was offered the F-117 at a time when it was still officially a ‘black’ project i.e. before it existence was officially acknowledged. Moreover, according to the various reports, the key reason that Britain did not pursue purchasing the F-117 was for this very reason. However, while this may be one reason for rejecting the F-117, it should be noted that while the release of British files is interesting, this is not strictly a new story, though it is potentially a new dimension. Several histories of the F-117 cite the fact that in 1986, several Royal Air Force (RAF) test pilots were sent to fly the aircraft. For example, Paul Crickmore reflected that the RAF ‘had its chance to evaluate the F-117’ as a thank you for British support of Operation EL DORADO CANYON.[1] However, what these secondary sources lack is the archival evidence to understand why the evaluation took place. It is probably – though I would not like to say for certain until I see the file – that this assessment formed part of this project.

As already noted, the reason cited in the reports for the RAF not purchasing the F-117 was the ‘black’ character of the project; however, I have to wonder how well this aircraft would have fitted into the Service’s force structure and concept of operations in the 1980s. Moreover, it will be interesting to see if anything more is mentioned in the file as to why the F-117 was not purchased. Nevertheless, a few issues come to mind that may have been challenges. First, the RAF operated at low-level in small packages, and I am unclear how the F-117 would have fitted into this concept of operations. Second, by 1986, the RAF was in the middle of purchasing the Panavia Tornado that had been designed for the low-level role, as such; again, what additional capability the purchase of the F-117 would have added to the RAF at this point remains unclear. Finally, there is the issue of numbers. The F-117 was never built in significant numbers, and it seems unlikely that the RAF would have bought more than the United States Air Force, as such, again, what additional capability would the addition of a highly complex piece of equipment have added to the RAF? Yes, it would have added a stealth capability but this needs to match a concept of operations, and in my mind, this remains a murky area. As such, this is more an interesting example of the so-called ‘special relationship’ rather than a significant ‘What-If’ for the RAF.

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An F-35B in RAF Markings. (Source: Royal Air Force)

This is not, however, where the story ends as in 1995, Lockheed once again tried to sell the RAF an improved F-117 that included locally produced content, such as GEC-Marconi supplied avionics.[2] This approach was in response to the RAF’s Staff Target (Air) 425 that began the process of looking at replacing the GR4 variant of the Tornado, which became known as the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS). FOAS closed down in 2005 and was rolled into Future Joint Combat Aircraft project that has seen the purchase of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II – an aircraft with a stealth capability.[3]

Header Image: A pair of specially painted F-117 Nighthawks fly off from their last refueling by the Ohio National Guard’s 121st Air Refueling Wing, c. 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Paul F. Crickmore, Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2014), p. 26.

[2] Guy Norris, ‘Lockheed Martin targets RAF and USAN for F-117,’ Flight International, (28 June to 4 July 1995), p. 4.

[3] Louisa Brooke-Holland, ‘The UK’s F-25 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter,’ Standard Note (SN06278) UK House of Commons Library, (6 February 2015), pp. 5-6.

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

By Ross Mahoney

Happy New Year!

Now we have reached 2017, and that From Balloons to Drones has been up and running for around six months, it thought it would be worth posting our top five posts of 2016 based on views.

  1. At the head of the list is ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training.’ This is the first of a three-part article by Jeff Schultz that examines the use of the North American T-28 during the war in Laos in the 1970s. Parts two and three can be found here and here.
  2. In second place is my research note on ‘Air Power and the Challenge of Professional Military Education’ that was based on my thoughts on an excellent conference at the Royal Military College of Canada in November. An important subject that I hope to return to in 2017.
  3. In third is Brian Laslie’s commentary, ‘TheF-35 is here!’, which deals with some of the issues surrounding this program and the important role that training will play in developing the aircraft’s use.
  4. In fourth, and timed in conjunction with the types eventually retirement for the United States Air Force, Mike Hankins provided a timely discussion of the development of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II in his piece ‘Remembering the F-4 Phantom – Part 1: A Product of Its Time.’ The second part of this article can be found here.
  5. Finally, but no means last, Alex Fitzgerald-Black’s research note ‘Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers’ provided a useful discussion of the importance of the air battles fought during the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

These are just a selection of the highlights of our half year in existence. We are keen to expand our list of contributors and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions then please leave a comments here or emails us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com.

Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)

Commentary – Buddha’s Next Incarnation: What does the future hold for the C-17A Globemaster?

Commentary – Buddha’s Next Incarnation: What does the future hold for the C-17A Globemaster?

By Eamon Hamilton

In airlift terms, the C-17A Globemaster III has arguably made the biggest single impact to Western Air Forces in the 21st Century thus far – and will likely hold this claim for the next decade. While it was conceived for the United States Air Force in the 1980s and introduced to service in the 1990s, its acquisition by nations including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom has given Western Air Forces its first real appreciation of modern strategic airlift. For the USAF, which arguably wrote the book on strategic military airlift, has also benefited significantly from the C-17A’s tactical airlift talents. Elsewhere, the aircraft has been capitalised upon by NATO, India, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait.

Exercise Pitch Black 2016
A big jet that can fly from little airfields (Source: RAAF)

With the production line closing in 2015, it is unlikely that we will ever see new Globemaster airframes constructed beyond the 279 that were delivered by McDonnell Douglas/Boeing (and indeed, a small number have been relegated to a museum or lost in an accident). This is not to say that we will not see new C-17 variants, especially if the Globemaster lives to see service past 2040, half a century after its first flight. Getting the airframe to that point (and beyond) however, will require careful attention and development.

Certainly, the C-17A has been no stranger to being developed over its 25-year history thus far. With a production spanning 15 years, older C-17As have been upgraded to match their newer kin with radios, weather radar, and combat lighting. A centre wing fuel tank was fitted to C-17As constructed after 2001 to extend the aircraft’s range, and in recent years, aircraft have been equipped with Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures and improved communications systems. Early Block Upgrades to the C-17A addressed design flaws in the original production aircraft – more recent ones have addressed issues of obsolescent aircraft systems and ensured fleet commonality.

More upgrades are projected. The C-17A’s Heads-Up Display (HUD) dates back to the early 1990s, and in 2011, Elbit was announced as the winner of the project to deliver a replacement HUD (although no public announcements have emerged since then). Trials are underway to add airflow strakes to the aircraft’s fuselage as a means of decreasing drag. Options to add Link-16 and more advanced satellite communications antennas are also being explored.

How else might we see the C-17A mature in the next 30 years?

Minimalist Change

Numerous aircraft go through their service career with modest increases in capability to allow them to continue in their intended role. Indeed, it is arguable that the C-17A has maintained this track to date with the changes it has undergone thus far. The purpose of such upgrades are not so much to advance the aircraft beyond the original design intent, but more to ensure it remains compatible with current/immediate operating practices and airborne environments. Compatibility with any new Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) or battlespace networking systems, or global air traffic control management systems, are examples of this.

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An office from a simpler time. (Source: USAF)

The aircraft’s cockpit ergonomics are still reminiscent of its early 1990s design, so it is not unreasonable to expect a major Mid-Life Update program that would improve the quality of cockpit displays, communications management, and other avionics. Newer airlifters such as the C-130J and A400M are equipped with larger HUD units and displays that can incorporate digimaps or other navigational data. A precedent for upgrading the C-17A exists, whereby old air mobility platforms (including the C-130H, KC-135 and C-5) have replaced their ‘steam gauge’ instruments and analogue controls with LCD screens and digital displays. Replacing these systems means eliminating obsolescence and ensuring the cockpit ergonomics have greater commonality with the wider air mobility and training fleet, and potentially improving the ease with which software updates can be applied to the aircraft.

Slightly More Ambitious Options….

The upgrades mentioned above were in large part to ensure the C-17A maintained pace with its operating environment. More ambitious upgrades, however, would provide new ways of performing its current mission. Evidence exists within existing air mobility platforms like the KC-135, which has been upgraded with navigation systems that now allow the aircraft to operate without a Navigator.

How could this apply to the C-17A? It is hard to judge this, as it is largely contingent on the technology that will be available to us in the next 15 years. It is easy to imagine a technology that has been applied to the A400M and C-130J being rolled out on the C-17A. It is harder to imagine the impact that newer and emerging technology – such as helmet-mounted displays, external sensors, and personal devices – will have. New tactical airlifters benefit from infrared cameras that allow landings to be comfortably made of poor visibility conditions. Whether such technology has an application on the C-17A remains to be seen.

C-17A AME Static Aircraft Communication Systems
Technology is finding its way on board, regardless. (Source: RAAF)

Likewise, the C-17A was revolutionary for its time by its use of a dedicated loadmaster station inside the cargo hold, a feature which has been capitalised by other airlifters. A future C-17A upgrade might extend on this further, allowing the loadmaster to control environmental conditions and cargo locks in the cargo hold with a personal electronic device, or direct automated aircraft loading equipment.

The High-End Option

High-end changes are easy to debate, being linked to systems on the aircraft that will become wholly inefficient or unsustainable during the aircraft’s life-of-type. These changes would be sufficient to mean the end of the C-17A as we know it today, delivering us a noticeably different aircraft – a C-17B or C-17C, for example.

Again, existing examples allow us to make educated guesses about the future, not only about the systems that are applied and upgraded but the causes for doing so. The C-5M Super Galaxy is the product of a program upgrade older C-5As and Bs with new engines, new avionics, improved cargo ergonomics, and most importantly, greater aircraft reliability. It essentially brings an aircraft design whose systems have their roots in the late 1960s and gives a 21st-century solution. The net result is a Galaxy with a shorter take off distance and better climb rate, as well as extended range. While the C-17A is reliable now, we can expect to question its relative performance in the future, especially if the expectation is for the aircraft to beyond a 30-year lifespan. Upgrading the C-17A could prove less expensive than embarking upon an all-new airlift replacement, too.

Achieving this could take some paths. Replacing the engines on the aircraft, especially in light of advances in civilian airliner power plants, would be the most obvious choice. It could yield a Globemaster that is more fuel efficient or carries heavier payloads, and the C-17A’s existing power plant – the Pratt & Whitney F117 – is a militarised version of the turbofan that powers Boeing 757s. One issue here, however, is that C-17A engines are required to perform across a different spectrum than a stock civilian airliner. This means a simple transplant of a civilian power plant will not likely address the C-17A’s performance needs.

Another potential upgrade could be to the C-17A’s winglets, which were revolutionary for their time in 1991. This feature improves the wing’s performance, reducing drag and improving fuel efficiency in a cruise. Today, the C-17A’s winglets appear clunky in comparison to modern airliners which possess ‘blended winglets’ that enhance fuel burn. Ensuring the Globemaster can cruise efficiently, extending its range and lowering its operating costs, are likely to be a significant consideration for how the aircraft is upgraded into the future.

Other considerations for a potentially major upgrade to the Globemaster might include those options put forward by Boeing during the late 2000s to improve the aircraft’s tactical performance. Considerations for the ‘C-17B’ including a new higher thrust powerplant, double-slotted flaps, additional centre-line landing gear, and precision landing systems. It is arguable that the additional weight of some of these systems would come at a cost to the aircraft’s range and cruise efficiency. On the other hand, a sub-fleet of C-17s optimised for tactical performance to deliver payloads that can not be accommodated in a C-130 (and are unable to be transported over long ranges by future heavy vertical lift)

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A C-17 performs evasive counter measures by launching flares during a Mobility Air Forces Exercise over the Nevada Test and Training Range on 16 November 2011, (Source: Wikimedia)

Examining options for the Globemaster’s future may see it called to perform roles that are well outside the traditional airlift roles that the aircraft performs today. Few would argue that the C-17A’s talents are best applied to providing dedicated strategic and tactical airlift. The external surfaces of a C-17A, however, provide significant ‘real estate’ for discrete sensors and antennas, and the aircraft’s interior likewise has space that would allow it to fulfil support functions for C4I and ISR – especially if the terminals for such roles are significantly smaller and modularised, contrasting with the fixed workstations that fill C-135 and Boeing 707 variants operated by the USAF. Today, other platforms (such as those based on commercial airliners) might conceivably fulfil this role more efficiently and effectively than a Globemaster. However, future requirements – especially those that call for an aircraft to deliver personnel and vehicles, then remain near provide immediate support – might dictate that the C-17 is the aircraft for the job.

The last consideration for the Globemaster receiving a ‘high-end’ upgrade is that it might pick up new roles not even in service today. The aircraft has been mooted as a potential ‘Drone Mothership’ in a battlespace, deploying them to perform a range of ISR, attack, and strike missions. Alternatively, the C-17A’s cargo bay has considerable space for batteries and other systems that would employ high-energy weapons.

Where the Globemaster ultimately fulfils any of these roles is anyone’s guess – while the technology is being developed, it is by no means about to be applied to the C-17A. Once said technology is mature, there are no guarantees that the C-17A will be the best jet for the job.

The Likely Options

At a minimum, progressive upgrades will need to be applied in the future to ensure the C-17A can continue to be operated. The crew stations are likely to be developed over time, as are the aircraft’s avionics, communications and networking systems. Foreign operators should bear these developments in mind – on the one hand, the upgrading of their aircraft is likely to have a greater impact on the number of aircraft they have available. On the other hand, such programs are an avenue for them to suggest development roadmaps that can be shouldered by Boeing and USAF. Exploring these avenues, however, would have to be a modest process. However, it is unlikely that an entirely new C-17 variant will be developed if only one smaller operator is guaranteed to require it.

With that in mind, the Globemaster’s future development is likely to be informed by three things – keeping the airframe viable, the USAF’s appetite to embark on upgrade programs, and Boeing’s willingness to provide options. Lockheed Martin’s C-5M program provides an excellent example of where the C-17A can go with such updates, replacing aircraft structures and systems that have become tired and unreliable while also meeting demands of the customer to capitalise on generational changes in engine, avionics, and ergonomic technology. Indeed, the C-5M in some respects feels like it carries some of the best features of a C-17A (except the HUD and fighter control stick).

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Everyone has an embarassing childhood photo. (Source: USAF)

Strategic airlift development, however, emphasises the importance of cruise efficiency and performance, which is often largely dependent on reductions in the aircraft’s weight and improvements in a power plant. Such upgrades are easy to forecast in the C-17A’s future. The more ‘creative’ upgrades for the Globemaster will be in how it is required to perform tactical roles in future – or approach brand new problems.

This post first appeared at Rubber-Band Powered Blog.

Header Image: A C-17 arrives with GEOS-O on board at the Shuttle Landing Facility. (Source: Wikimedia)

Book Review – Air and Sea Power in World War I

Book Review – Air and Sea Power in World War I

By Ross Mahoney

Maryam Philpott, Air and Sea Power in World War I: Combat and Experience in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 258 pp. £59.50.

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This book is something of a curate’s egg. Overlooked in favour of the experience of the British Army, Philpott suggested that the contributions of the Royal Navy and Royal Flying Corps (RFC) ‘have never been explored.’ (p. 1) However, while containing a grain of truth, this hyperbolic overstatement illustrates the first of several issues extent in this work. Primarily, these problems are its methodology and historiographical underpinnings. Furthermore, split into chapters examining training, motivation, technology, the home front, and representations of war, this book attempts too much in the space provided.

First, the comparative approach utilised has led to a light touch on both organisations considered and this choice is questionable itself. Philpott compared one service, the Royal Navy, to a branch of another, the RFC of the British Army. Technology is utilised to justify their selection; however, this alone does not provide an adequate framework for understanding experience within these organisations. While technology certainly provided an important context for their operations, they were not the sole basis of their respective cultures and any acceptance of this represents a deterministic understanding of history. Further exacerbated by the fact that Philpott attempted to compare two different organisations, the key problem here is one of cultural understanding. Philpott never really understood the cultures underpinning the organisations she is examined. The Royal Navy had a distinct culture with norms quite separate from that of the British Army. Conversely, though Philpott dismissed the importance of this (p. 2), the RFC was, to borrow a phrase from cultural analysis, a sub-culture of its larger parent organisation, the British Army. A reading of David French’s excellent study, Military Identities (2005) would have enlightened Philpott as to the British Army’s cultural idiosyncrasies. While there certainly was an attempt by RFC officers to create an organisational identity, it still owed much to its parent organisation, as does the Royal Air Force, which was a complex cultural amalgam of both the British Army and Royal Navy.

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Officers and S.E.5a Scouts of No. 1 Squadron, RAF at Clairmarais aerodrome near Ypres. (Source: © IWM (Q 12063))

Second, at a historiographical level, Philpott did not adequately recognise the differences generated by the above distortion and made mistakes that illustrate a lack of understanding of the literature surrounding the Royal Navy and RFC. For example, Philpott described Arthur Marder as the Royal Navy’s official historian (p. 48). While the later Royal Navy may have liked to have Marder as their official historian – though he is not active until at least a decade after the production of the official history – the authors of the Service’s official history of the First World War were Sir Julian Corbett and Sir Henry Newbolt. Similarly, Philpott described the RAF’s official history as written by ‘veteran pilots’ (p. 14). While H.A. Jones served during the war and received the Military Cross, this oversimplification ignored the complicated selection process involved in choosing an official historian. Never a pilot, Sir Walter Raleigh, the RAF’s first official historian, was selected based on his literary ability and after his death, there was a long drawn out selection process to find his replacement, Jones. Philpott also ignored much of the literature concerning the Royal Navy and RFC. For example, the chapter on training as it pertains to the RFC (pp. 27-40) would have benefitted from a reading of David Jordan’s 1997 University of Birmingham PhD thesis that contained a useful section on this very subject. This spills over into the archival evidence deployed to support Philpott’s analysis. While drawing on some useful contemporary material, Philpott ignored an often overlooked source, reflective essay’s written by former RFC officers who attended the RAF Staff College at Andover during the inter-war period. These are an underused source written by the professional officers who stayed in the post-war RAF, served during the First World War, and were an attempt to by the service to develop a body of reflective knowledge concerning relevant personal experiences in numerous areas. Utilising this source would have enriched this work.

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The Royal Navy battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth of the 5th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet. (Source: © IWM (Q 68600))

These are just some of the challenges that distort what should have been a useful addition to the growing historiography of both the Royal Navy and RFC in the First World War. Grounded in a socio-cultural framework inspired by Joanna Bourke’s An Intimate History of Killing (1999), who supervised the thesis that this book is based on, Philpott did at times offers some interesting insights. For example, the chapter on the home front (pp. 134-162) illustrated the shared experience of service personnel and civilians. However, again, in this chapter, Philpott introduced the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) to the story that adds a further complication regarding the comparative approach utilised. Perhaps, the comparison utilised should have been one between the RFC and the RNAS. Alternatively, while elements of the discussion provided may be useful to readers, this work might have benefitted from focussing on just one of the services considered. Moreover, if Philpott’s assertion quoted at the start of this review is correct, then it begs the question of why this was not undertaken. A gap remains for a study of either the Royal Navy or RFC from the perspective of experience and motivation that would add much to our understanding of the First World War. Once these are undertaken, a more thorough comparative approach can then be considered. This gap remains to be filled.

This post first appeared at Thoughts on Military History.

Headers Image: Group of pilots of No. 32 Squadron RFC, Beauval, 1916 (Fourth Army aircraft park). Behind them is an Airco DH.2 (De Havilland Scout) biplane with Monosoupape Rotary Engine. (Source: © IWM (Q 11874))