Electronic Weapons: April 15, 2001

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Single Seat Syndrome; The U.S. Air Force has a thing about single seat aircraft, and this attitude is ruining the air force. The individual pilot, especially flying a fighter, is lionized for going out alone and winning, or losing, in a modern form of knightly combat. The reality is quite different.

During air warfare's infancy in World War I (1914-1918), pilots were very much individual fighters. Few aircraft had radios. Pre-battle plans and hand signals brought little coordination to air combat. All that changed when World War II came along. Most aircraft had radios and air warfare became more complex. Electronic warfare was created during World War II and developed rapidly. 

By the 1960s, air warfare had become so complex that it was no longer possible to just send fighters or bombers off on missions. Electronic warfare aircraft were also needed. Even the electronics on individual aircraft became so complex that there was hardly any time left to fly the aircraft and fight. To solve that problem, two seat fighters were developed. The second crewman, the GIB (Guy in the Back) operated radar, fire control and electronic warfare equipment. The most widely used two seat fighters were the F-4 Phantom and the F-14 Tomcat. The F-14 was only used by the navy (although Iran bought some). The F-4 was one of the most widely used fighter aircraft in the last four decades. The GIB in the F-4 was particularly popular, as the extra pair of eyes during combat turned out to be very useful. The F-14 was built to defend carriers from air attack. To that end, the F-14 had long range radar and long range Phoenix missiles. 

But most fighter pilots continued to fly single seat aircraft, and there was undisguised disdain and dislike for the GIB. This became particularly onerous when, during the Vietnam war, two of the top three fighter aces were GIBs. When an F-4 shot down a plane, both the pilot and the GIB got credit for the kill. Since GIBs and pilots were not part of permanent teams, an extremely capable GIB would fly with several different pilots and eventually pick up the five kills needed to become an ace. Most pilots did not like this at all. The GIBs were often guys who flunked out of flight school and were, sensibly, retrained as GIBs. Note that many of these folks who washed out of flight school in peace time would probably have been passed in wartime. And some of them would have gone on to be aces. 

In the decades after the Vietnam war, the younger generation of fighter pilots replaced the World War II generation of bomber generals. Most bombing was now being done by fighter-bombers, and it was no mystery that the fighter jocks became the top dogs in the air force. The latest generation of fighters (F-15, F-16, A-10) were single seaters and life was good.

But there was still a need for two seat fighters. The fighter generals had to admit that SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) put a heavy workload on the electronics laden F-4G "Wild Weasels" that went in ahead of the fighters and bombers to clear out the enemy surface to air missiles (SAMs) and radars. All weather bombers also required a GIB to handle the electronic gadgets needed to find the target, and avoid flying into a mountain. Some F-15s were modified into the two seat F-15E. But the principle SEAD aircraft were older F-4s and F-111s, both two seat aircraft. These planes were getting old and would eventually wear out. In the year before the Gulf War, the air force confronted the need for new SEAD aircraft. One popular proposal was a variant of the existing two seat F-15E. The EF-15 would have been a formidable SEAD aircraft. But with the Cold War ending, the air force decided on a new strategy. The SEAD problem would be solved by stealth aircraft. The F-117 was already in service and the B-2 bomber was almost ready. The stealthy F-22 fighter was on the drawing board, as was a new single seat bomber. Then the Cold War ended, bringing with it a sharp cut in the budget. A major expense was maintaining lots of aircraft. By getting rid of many SEAD aircraft, and replacing more than one older warplane with one new stealth aircraft, considerable money could be saved. So the air force junked it's F-4 and EF-111 SEAD aircraft and made a deal with the navy to use their EA-6 SEAD planes. 

It didn't work out too well. Turned out that other nations were quick to develop techniques that made stealth aircraft less stealthy and air defenses more formidable. Throughout the 1990s, the navy's EA-6's were worked hard, and there were never enough of them available. Plans were made to convert some F-16s to SEAD aircraft. But the F-16 was originally designed as a lightweight single seat fighter. It didn't have much capacity for a lot of SEAD gear, or a second crewmember. Moreover, the pilot mafia had cleaned house with they got rid of their SEAD aircraft in the early 1990s. Most of the GIBs were gone, and with them went a lot of SEAD knowledge. Enemy air defenses were more of a threat than ever, and with out the SEAD experts and specialized aircraft, the future looks grim.

The pilots had won their battle, and lost the war. 


 


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