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What We Really Needed...


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Feb 13, 2008
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This is a pretty good discussion as I've heard so many arguments about what the US Military (USAAF/USAF, USN) needed for effectively defending itself: I've done some thinking and as I've put it all together.

I think the major screw-ups we made were the following

  • Failure in the classification of bombers: Early on with the DH.4 there was actually a clear light-bomber class; later on the attack designation muddled-things up as it would be similar; the light-bomber became a medium-bomber; to make it more confusing a medium-bomber category was made and that monkeyed things up even more. As the light-bombers ballooned up, the fighters ended up doing all the light-bomber roles and the medium-bombers became redundant. Once ultra-heavy bombers like the B-36 came around the B-47 was classified as a medium (USAAC/USAAF/USAF)
  • A disregard for the CAS mission, and the failure to see the use of dive-bombers; even when they were perceived to be useful, they were regarded as "too risky to use": The result was that you started to see single-engined planes like the A-17 that had internal bays; the A-14/A-18 ended up gaining favor (despite the A-14 being unsolicited), and this lead to the A-20 and A-26 (USAAC/USAAF/USAF) with single engined bombers viewed as useless; planes like the A-36 despite being produced out of political reasons was quite effective, and the XA-41 was quite effective (USAAC/USAAF/USAF)
  • The presumption that nuclear war would the be the only method of war: At least early on the idea of bomber-escort was considered useful, and some tactical bombing missions were felt to have a practical function; even after the Korean War showed that politicians were generally squeamish/reluctant about using nuclear-weapons (even after they got smaller, and developed battlefield use) unless they were under immediate thereat of attack, they still continued to operate under the premise that they'd never fight a conventional war again.
  • Interceptors becoming their own-class of aircraft: Interceptors are basically fighters with a prime on acceleration, climb, and altitude performance so as to allow them to destroy bombers and recon planes, though the ability to engage fighters is still important (early interceptors such as the Westland Whirlwind, the De Havilland DH.77, the Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, XF5F, F4U, and so on were all capable of dogfighting capability), with the exception of planes like the YFM-1 Aircacuda; Post WW2, the desire for all-weather capability and rockets lead to aircraft that were often not capable of engaging others in a successful dogfight; eventually the USAF built planes like the F-108 and YF-12's which were marginal in their use as a fighter (More USAF than USN: The F4D and F3H were both gun equipped, though the F4H didn't; both were technically guilty at different times).
  • The tendency for multi-role righters to replace the role of tactical-bombers: This often ended up removing the more dedicated tactical bomber like the A-4/A-6/A-7, resulting in more complicated fighters that were not always better in their fighter mission (USAF predominantly, though the USN has become guilty of this)
  • The attitude that we could never outnumber the Russians in the Air, and always needed the most high-tech aerial weapons systems (even when they weren't necessarily as reliable as simpler systems like the F-104 and F-5), and the false dichotomy that quality and quantity were in opposition.
I'm curious what we really needed during the following time periods

1. 1938-1945
2. 1945-1953
3. 1953-1965
4. 1965-1975
5. 1975-1985
6. 1985-2001
7. 2001-2014


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Jun 7, 2008
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Interceptors necessarily became their own class of aircraft, but their evolutionary tree leads from the night fighter, which for early radar sets necessarily meant a two-seat aircraft, generally with twin engines (plus the small number of NF Defiants). The concentration on acceleration, climb and altitude could arguably be a consequence, rather than a cause, of these platforms being second-rate dogfighters. Once you accept they aren't going to "turn and burn", you can put everything into straight line speed, climb, range (plenty of internal space for fuel) and the like, especially since their targets are necessarily going to be operating beyond the ability of the enemy air force to provide escort coverage.

As things evolve from the forties towards the early-mid fifties, you start to look at other factors - once centimetric radar comes along, a twin can fit a larger scanner in its nose (bigger is better, all else being equal); there's the whole "single engine at night" issue; weapon systems start to become more complex than just switching on guns and mashing the trigger when you have a sight picture, so you need space and weight for bulky valve electronics for a more elaborate fire control system, the ability to carry multiple and/or large missiles for long-range kills, and so on.

As radar (and signal processing) technology has evolved, allowing specific tasks to be performed adequately by smaller scanners and generally smaller machinery all around, the size of the FCS avionics has shrunk, which allows adaptation to an airframe which is much closer to the ideal for an air superiority fighter. Missiles have also shrunk drastically for the same or better range and speed performance, which has helped the situation immensely, and missile performance in terms of speed, agility and snap-up capability has evolved to the point where a climb-optimised Mach 3 launch platform to kill a Mach 3 target isn't essential any more.

I think what was built back then interceptor-wise was what HAD to be built. What went inside demanded it. In the case of the F-4 and the F-15, just to name two, what it gave us was a pair of aircraft designed as interceptors, but whose overall excellence led to their development into great all-rounders. The F-4's only problem was not being designed with guns, but the US designers weren't the only ones who made that mistake.


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Jun 3, 2011
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Given that WWIII never kicked off, I'd argue we had what we needed. Problems in Vietnam were due to training and politics not hardware. Also, we must keep in mind that the reason every hardware wish isn't fullfilled is because there is a finite amount of money.


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Dec 16, 2007
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I difficult question to do for all time periods and all branches of the armed forces... it'd be fun to do this again with perhaps one era and branch (e.g. 1936 air procurement - what decisions would you make?).