Here’s why before TOPGUN, Navy F-4 Phantom II fighter crews in Vietnam managed only a 2.5:1 kill ratio versus Soviet-built MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters

Have Doughnut and Have Drill: the classified programs that optimized the F-4 Phantom II’s performance margin over the MiG-17 and MiG-21

By Donald Auten
May 19 2024
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Roger Ball!

He was the second of two children and born on 25 January 1940 in Shandon Baptist Hospital in Columbia South Carolina. He, in every way, gave the appearance of a normal, healthy, well-developed kid of average height, slender but not skinny. History would show that he was anything but normal.

His name was John Monroe Smith, and “Roger Ball!” is his story—a tale that should be told. It intertwines the true, firsthand accounts and experiences of a fighter pilot with the significant developments in the fighter community and historical events in which Captain John Monroe Smith, USN, call sign “Hawk” was a part. Finally, it speaks to the men who laid their careers and sometimes their very lives on the line for their shipmates and their country.

Hawk was a legend in the fighter community. During his thirty-year career, he forged a reputation as a skilled and lethal aviator in the air-to-air combat arena, a natural tactician, and consummate leader. To many, he was one of the most essential pathfinders in the modernization of the naval air war arts.

He was just a man, but his story, his life adventure, is a high-fidelity history of personal achievements for naval tactical aviation, devotion to a cause, and service to his nation. It was a time during and shortly after the Vietnam conflict that America became ideologically divided. The military was disillusioned with the intrusion of nonwarriors in the White House over the conduct of the war, and tactical aviation of all the services was struggling to catch up to the realities of the war’s hard lessons. It was a time when the Navy needed leaders and tenacious thinkers to set things right again. It was Hawk’s time!

Combat-Training Philosophy

When last we left Hawk, he was completing the F-4 replacement air group (RAG) syllabus. Meanwhile the Phantom II crews in Vietnam were struggling to achieve a 2.5:1 kill ratio versus Soviet-built MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters because of the rules of engagement (ROE), weapons system, fighter performance asymmetry, environment, and training.

Have Doughnut and Have Drill: the classified projects that optimized the F-4 Phantom II’s performance margin over the MiG-17 and MiG-21
MiG-21

These mishaps fortified Hawk’s belief that the Navy’s approach to improving fighter doctrine and combat expertise needed some re-tooling. Something was missing from attack and fighter pilot ACM training, but he wasn’t certain what it was. “Our ACM training seemed like a self-help program to me. The RAG combat maneuvering training was a good first step and everybody was happy to see it, but the training in the fleet just wasn’t standardized. Our friends and shipmates were dying. It was a big problem, and I just felt that the Navy needed to fix it.

“The fighter mission is part art and part science. Given a combat scenario and a set of engagement dynamics a good fighter pilot could develop a solution for any tactical problem. And if he could figure it out, he could teach other fighter aircrews to figure it out—and do it safely.

“I believed that there were too many fighter pilots ill prepared for combat, and some were without the proper killer instinct to care. Adolf Galland’s quote, ‘Only the spirit of attack, born in a brave heart, will bring success to any fighter aircraft, no matter how highly developed it may be,’ is as true today as it was decades ago.

“The ability to perform the fighter mission depends on capability and mind-set. Fighter pilots have to be skilled, cunning, smart, brutal, and hungry. Only a very few come by this naturally. The others have to be trained.

Have Doughnut

“What we really needed was the smartest, most experienced fighter aircrews in the Navy to figure out fighter tactics and then we needed them to teach that to the fleet. We needed a school house, a clearing house that taught us how to think and respond in combat scenarios.

“I wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to go about it, I just knew it needed doing.”

Have Doughnut and Have Drill: the classified projects that optimized the F-4 Phantom II’s performance margin over the MiG-17 and MiG-21
This model is available AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Hawk may not have been smart enough to figure out how to go about it, but he clearly had the wherewithal to understand the training fighter aircrew received desperately needed improving.

Hawk was in the midst of the RAG syllabus in 1967 when a highly classified project, Have Doughnut, was quietly launched to help fix some of the snags associated with the maneuverability of the Phantom. The task was assigned to AIRDEVRON Four (VX-4) at Point Mugu, California. VX-4 was the operational test and evaluation squadron for naval fighter doctrine. They evaluated and tested hardware for fighter aircraft and developed tactics and maneuvering procedures for Navy fighter aircrew.
Hawk was unaware of the project, but he and the entire fighter community would reap the rewards of Have Doughnut and the secret project that followed.

Have Doughnut was designed with the specific intent of developing performance assessments on the MiG-21 and designing tactics that allowed the Phantom to engage and kill the Soviet fighter. Several MiG-21s and MiG-17s had been mysteriously acquired after the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War. They were flown by Air Force and Navy fighter pilots, many trained as test pilots, at a remote airfield near Nellis AFB in Nevada. Commander Tom Cassidy from VX-4 was assigned as head of the Navy contingent to this joint Air Force, Navy project.

Have Drill

After months of evaluating the MiG-21 under the Have Doughnut test plan, the joint team found that the MiG-21 was a highly maneuverable, point defense fighter with a dash capability up to Mach 2. It had a very small cross-sectional area and when head-on, outside one and a half miles, was very difficult to see.

By the Air Force assessment, the Phantom’s best tactic against the MiG-21 was to engage it at low altitude. They surmised that at lower altitudes the F-4 had a maneuvering advantage over the MiG-21.

Tom Cassidy and the Navy team had an entirely different appraisal of the MiG-21. They evaluated the MiG-21 throughout its energy-maneuverability envelope and found many alarming discoveries. The MiG-21’s performance was equal to, and in certain regimes, better than the Phantom’s.

Have Doughnut and Have Drill: the classified projects that optimized the F-4 Phantom II’s performance margin over the MiG-17 and MiG-21
MiG-17

Shortly following Have Doughnut a follow-on project began. Have Drill was designed to develop tactics and maneuvers against, and expose TACAIR pilots to the MiG-17.

The Air Force team assigned to Have Drill included Colonel Fred Cutler, Major Wendell “Wendy” Shawler, and Major “Guilla” Johnston, head of Air Force Tactics Development. The Navy team included aircrew assigned from VX-4: Lieutenant Mike Welch; Lieutenant Pete Gilleece; Commander Tooter Teague, head of the Navy detachment; and a new pilot to VX-4, Lieutenant Commander Ronald “Mugs” McKeown.

During Have Drill, both services concluded that the MiG-17 was an exceptionally tough little jet to fight in a horizontal engagement. A turning engagement would likely end disastrously for the Phantom crew if the MiG was flown to the edge of its performance envelope.

Important findings from Have Doughnut and Have Drill

This fact was very well demonstrated by the several engagements flown by Navy TACAIR aircrew as Mugs McKeown recalled years later. “The objectives were to develop fighter tactics against the MiG-17 and expose as many fighter and attack pilots to the MiG-17 as possible. We briefed the crews the day before the engagement but didn’t explain what they’d be fighting since it was a classified program. It was very funny to see how they reacted when they arrived in the training area and were jumped by a MiG-17. They had no idea what they were getting into.

“The fact was that no Navy pilot won his first fight against the MiG-17. It only made sense to have as many pilots as possible make their first mistakes, fly their first encounter, in a nonlethal training environment.”

There were a number of important findings from Have Doughnut and Have Drill but none more important than the finding that in certain configurations and flight regimes the Phantom could outperform the MiGs. The Navy team believed the Phantom, because of the collaborative characteristics of wing design and thrust-to-weight, had a performance advantage over the MiGs. This finding opened the gates to a resurgence in the development of single and multiple aircraft tactics for the Phantom. Many fleet squadrons and the RAGs became heavily involved in studying, designing, and teaching new tactics and maneuvers that could improve the Phantom crews’ lethality and survivability.

Have Doughnut and Have Drill: the classified projects that optimized the F-4 Phantom II’s performance margin over the MiG-17 and MiG-21
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4B Phantom II VF-84 Jolly Rogers, AG204 / 151491 / 1964

A few tactics pioneers identified one maneuver in particular which optimized the Phantom’s performance margin over the MiG-17 and MiG-21.

Important findings from Have Doughnut and Have Drill: taming the Rudder Reversal

It involved exiting a horizontal fight in a high-speed turn into the vertical using afterburner to produce several thousand feet of vertical separation from the opponent. At the apex of the climb, when sufficient separation had been built to employ the Sparrow missile, the pilot initiated a full rudder and aileron deflection maneuver to effectively “swap ends,” slice back into the opponent, and launch a Sparrow.

The maneuver accomplished three necessary prerequisites for successful engagement: an energy sanctuary the MiGs could not easily reach; a reasonable engagement zone (aircraft separation) for the primary weapon (Sparrow); and an acceptable exit option.

This maneuver was coined the rudder reversal or rudder slice. It became so effective in giving Phantom crews a tactical advantage against MiG aircraft simulators, it took a prominent position in the air combat maneuvering training phase at VF-101, the Phantom RAG.

The rudder reversal and other fighter maneuvers and tactics were not a cure-all for the combat hazards fighter crews would face in the air war, but they had at least two spectacular effects. First, they gave the Phantom crews a lethal tactic over what was believed to be a superior enemy aircraft. Second, and perhaps more important, the efforts of the agencies involved in modernizing tactics and maneuvers forced a sea-change that shook the relics of the interceptor first mentality and proved that the Phantom, in the right hands, was a fighter.

Fleet outfits began to assimilate the tactics and maneuvers into their training programs and the RAG squadrons included them as part of their new air combat training syllabus.

That time a former US Navy F-4 RIO undergoing pilot training flew an Unauthorized Engagement with his T-2 against another Buckeye student pilot
Roger Ball!, Odyssey of a Navy Fighter Pilot is available to order here.

Photo credit: US Navy, U.S. Air Force and War Thunder Via Pinterest 


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Donald Auten

Donald Auten

Donald E. Auten, a native of Southern California, graduated from Long Beach State University and Salve Regina University, receiving a Master of Science degree and the Naval War College, where he earned a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies. Although originally trained as a light-attack pilot, he graduated from TOPGUN fighter and adversary courses and became an adversary instructor pilot in four adversary commands. In the course of seventeen years of training and operational flying, Donald completed six squadron assignments and logged nearly five thousand hours. He retired from the Navy as a Captain (O-6) following a twenty-seven-year career and completed several staff postings on both coasts, and a three-year assignment at the Pentagon as a Joint Strategic Plans Officer and two commanding officer assignments: Commanding Officer of VFC-12 and Commanding Officer of Naval Air Reserve, San Diego. Following his release from active duty Don was worked at Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command (SEALs) in Coronado, Ca, as a Future Force Planner. He makes his home in Etna, Wyoming with his wife, Katherine Sullivan Auten and their crème Labrador, Megan. Donald is the author of “Roger Ball!, Odyssey of a Navy Fighter Pilot”, “Alika, Odyssey of a Navy Dolphin”, and “Black Lion ONE”.
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