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

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

By Donald Auten
May 4 2024
Share this article

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!

Korean War Box Score

When last we left Hawk, he was undergoing pilot training flying the T-2 Buckeye. He then successfully earned his naval aviator wings of gold and completed the F-4 replacement air group (RAG) syllabus at Key West.

Assistant CIC Officer recalls when after a North Korean MiG-21 shot down a US Navy EC-121, carriers were alerted to support a USAF nuclear strike on Pyongyang
MiG-21

It was amazing and comforting to Hawk just how fast the Navy could change things when they had to. During Hawk’s first assignment to the RAG in 1964, there was a lot of intercept training but absolutely no air combat training. Now, three years later, there were several sorties devoted strictly to learning the art of air combat in the Phantom.

When Hawk entered the F-4 RAG for his pilot training, the war in Southeast Asia had raged for three years. In that time the TACAIR communities of all the services had learned some vital lessons about tactics, maneuvering, and training. Many of those lessons had origins as far back as the Korean War.

In the three years of the Korean War, from June 1950 to July 1953, the best combat pilots of North Korea and China, were pitted against America’s best and both sides flew the latest weapon in their arsenal—the jet fighter.

Although the jet represented a revolutionary maneuvering improvement in air combat, it carried much the same type of weapon as its propeller-driven predecessor—a rapid-firing canon. True, the envelope of the cannon had expanded, projectiles diameters had become larger, velocities greater, and rate of fire, higher, but pilots were still obliged to maneuver for a tracking solution, within lethal range, to kill the enemy. That, more often than not, meant the pilot was still required to enter a hard maneuvering, high “G” fight to bring weapons to bear.

Korean Air War: lessons learned

The primary North Korean fighter, the Russian built MiG 15, had a performance and ceiling advantage over both the USAF F-86 Saber and the Navy Grumman F9F-2 Panther, but the skill and innovation of the American pilots more than compensated for those disparities.

F-14 pilot recalls doing a barrel roll over a Bear for the Soviet crew, F-4 pilot recalls a Tu-95 crew member holding up Playboy magazine in the window of his bomber
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

Hundreds of aerial engagements took place between U.S. and North Korean pilots. Engagements were close-in deadly aerial ballets where each opponent maneuvered in three-dimensional space. These were time consuming, gas guzzling, energy depleting contests. Often, a successful engagement left the victor so low on fuel, energy, and positional advantage he was the next to get shot down.

By the end of the Korean War, Navy, Marine, and Air Force pilots had demonstrated their air combat prowess over Korean and Chinese fighter pilots by racking up an exchange rate of over ten-to-one. In spite of its horror, the war provided iron-clad proof that by developing better tactics and maneuvers, providing better training, and applying innovative concepts to the battlefield, U.S. airmen could reign triumphantly, even when confronting opponents with superior equipment. This lesson would have significant influence on Navy, Marine, and USAF fighter crews in the air war over Vietnam.

The F-4 Phantom II in Vietnam: the Wrong War

The F-4 Phantom II entered the fleet in 1962, nine years after the Korean War. Because it was designed specifically to counter the long range, high-altitude bomber threat, its primary mission was the outer air battle, to protect the task force, and the carrier strike aircraft. For that, the Phantom was well suited. Tacticians, engineers, and intelligence experts, however, failed to comprehend that these monumental tributes to U.S. technology and can-do spirit, without a radical change in tactics and training, would have questionable success in the air war the U.S. was courting in Southeast Asia.

Early in the war, the Navy and USAF discovered they were using the right airplane in the wrong battle environment. Kill ratios were in the vicinity of two- and one-half enemy aircraft shot down for each U.S. airplane lost, a far cry from the ten to one kill ratio experienced during the Korean conflict.

The problem was multi-faceted and nearly identical to those Hawk and the CAG-6 fighter aircrew experienced during Operation Fairgame IV in 1966: rules of engagement (ROE), weapons system, fighter performance asymmetry, environment, and training.

There was much concern over blue-on-blue engagements in Vietnam. The rules of engagement written to avoid fratricide were complex and restrictive. Prior to firing missiles at another aircraft, U.S. fighter crews were required to have one of two conditions met: a positive visual identification (VID) or clearance from an intercept controller with positive radar identification.

F-4 model
This model is available AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

This presented a problem. In a multi- bogey scenario, it was often difficult to avoid confusing enemy aircraft with friendly aircraft on radar. There was high reluctance to authorize an AIM-7 shoot based on radar identification alone. This constraint usually forced fighters to identify unknowns visually.

The F-4 Phantom II in Vietnam: outclassed by both the MiG-17 and the MiG-21

MiG-17s and MiG-21s were the primary North Vietnamese Air Force fighters. These fighters were small, highly maneuverable, equipped with a gun, and carried radar and heat-seeking versions of the Soviet built AA-2 Atoll air-to-air missile. The small size of their fighters dictated that in order for the U.S. fighter crew to positively identify the bogey they usually had to close within about four miles.

Locking and launching a Sparrow on a bogey inside four miles was much dependent on target aspect, closure, altitude, relationship to the horizon, and the skill of the RIO. Even in the best of conditions the probability of a kill was not high. Unless the target presented a rear hemisphere shot from one-half mile to one and a half mile (dependent on many factors) a Sidewinder also produced poor results.

If the Phantom crew chose to engage in a close-in turning fight, they had three options: take any shot that presented itself and pray that it killed the bogey, engage the bogey in a turning fight in hopes of acquiring a heart-of-the envelope shot, or light up the afterburners and blow-through the fight. It’s important to remember that Navy and Marine Phantoms did not carry a gun, which, according to all fighter pilots was a severe short-sighted design flaw.

The Phantom had tremendous thrust-to-weight, good energy addition rates, and was supersonic. It was, however, large for a fighter, easy to spot due to its size and accompanying smoke trail, and not exceptionally maneuverable in a turning engagement. The sad truth was the Phantom, in a turning, high “G” type dogfight, was outclassed by both the MiG-17 and the MiG-21.

The dogfight where US Navy A-1 Skyraider attack aircraft scored 1 confirmed and 2 probable MiG Kills
MiG-17

The MiG pilots also had environmental factors working in their favor. They were the home team. They knew the terrain and used it to their advantage.

The F-4 in Vietnam: making a fighter out of the Phantom II

They carried far less fuel than the American fighters but used far less and could fight longer over their own territory before retiring to one of several airfields that dotted North Vietnam.

Finally, the F-4 crews were not trained to fight a close-in engagement owing to the interceptor first mindset.

Captain Ronald “Mugs” McKeown, an innovative tactician and Navy combat Phantom pilot, explained it best, “The F-4 wasn’t really designed as a fighter. After every war in this century we’d say, ‘that was a great war, but we’ll never dogfight again!’ So, the F-4 was designed to be a long-range interceptor and launch Sparrows at twelve to twenty miles. But the problem was we had to get a visual ID which means our ace was trumped. So, we wound up like a giant with a long rifle trapped in a phone booth by a midget with a knife!”

Analysts, tacticians, and experienced fighter pilots agreed, Phantom crews were put in a box. But the dismal performance, they believed, was not attributable to an inferior aircraft, weapons systems, or command and control. Experts pointed to three fundamental problems: there were few fighter tactics which compensated for the restrictive rules of engagement, there were few offensive and defensive maneuvers specifically designed to optimize the Phantom’s tremendous thrust-to-weight, and there was no institutionalized training. These were serious problems and quickly drew the attention of Navy leadership.

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 these problems.

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 


Share this article

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”.
Share this article


Share this article
Back to top
My Agile Privacy
This website uses technical and profiling cookies. Clicking on "Accept" authorises all profiling cookies. Clicking on "Refuse" or the X will refuse all profiling cookies. By clicking on "Customise" you can select which profiling cookies to activate. In addition, this site installs Google Analytics in version 4 (GA4) with anonymous data transmission via proxy. By giving your consent, the data will be sent anonymously, thus protecting your privacy. We and our selected ad partners can store and/or access information on your device, such as cookies, unique identifiers, browsing data. You can always choose the specific purposes related to profiling by accessing the advertising preferences panel, and you can always withdraw your consent at any time by clicking on "Manage consent" at the bottom of the page.

List of some possible advertising permissions:

You can consult: our list of advertising partners, the Cookie Policy and the Privacy Policy.
Warning: some page functionalities could not work due to your privacy choices