NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — After U.S. fighter jets tangled in a mock battle over central Florida two years ago, Air Force officials were chagrined to learn that more than a third of the planes had been "killed" by their own forces.
In Air Force jargon, such friendly-fire losses are called fratricide. In pilots' slang, the victims "mort themselves out."
Whatever the term, the nightmare of comrades unwittingly shooting one another is just one of the hazards in today's high-speed, high-tech world of aerial combat. The blue yonder has changed enormously since fighter jocks of an earlier generation fought in Southeast Asia, and tacticians here at the Fighter Weapons School--the Air Force's graduate school for its best pilots--are looking for ways to improve the odds for pilots.
Combat planes now look so much alike, move so swiftly and fire from such great distances that a pilot's most dangerous enemy might be his buddy. Furthermore, air defenses are much more intense than they were in Vietnam, as U.S. losses in Lebanon and Libya demonstrated. A two-man team from Nellis is in England studying the April 15 raid on Libya for lessons about the SAM, Soviet-built surface-to-air missiles.
Raid Called 'Political'
Aerial warfare looks a little different--and a bit less predictable--to pilots here than it does to official Washington. In the aftermath of the Libya raid, notwithstanding damage to the French Embassy in Tripoli and other unintended targets, there was much rhetoric from the Pentagon and White House about precision bombing and minimal "collateral damage" to civilians.
"We say we can attempt a surgical strike, but jeez . . . ," said Col. Richard E. Guild, vice commander of the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing. "The precision munitions we have now have very good capabilities, but you can't be sure nothing will go wrong."
Even in the Nevada desert, where conditions are often "clear and 40" (40 miles' visibility), a slight increase in humidity can cut the range of infrared target finders in half. Lasers beams used to guide munitions can be disrupted by smoke or clouds. Bombs have been known to bounce off the desert floor, or "go slick," when braking vanes that are crucial to accuracy don't deploy.
"You can't predict the kinds of things that happen on our big ranges," said Col. Richard Myers, commandant of the Fighter Weapons School. "That's why we have big ranges."
Military Strategy Defined
There is one thing that pilots say has not changed much since Vietnam: Politics is a wingman. "The Libyan action was a political statement" against targets alleged to have terrorist connections, said Lt. Col. Gary D. Kanikeberg, the F-15 division commander here.
"The Israelis in Lebanon (in 1982) made a military statement, so they rolled up that air defense and then just flattened the Syrian tanks," he said. A purely military strategy in Libya, he said, "wouldn't start with the targets we started with. We'd go after the systems that were a threat to us" by first destroying Libyan air defenses.
Political restrictions have become part of the landscape of combat, added Lt. Col. G. L. (Scar) Scarborough, the F-16 division commander, and he added: "You just hope they give us enough latitude that we can go in without it becoming a suicide mission."
The tactics used in Vietnam increasingly are consigned to the archives, behind the locked gate of the library here that contains the classified records of every U.S. bombing raid in Southeast Asia.
There are only half a dozen combat veterans among the 60 or 70 pilots at the Fighter Weapons School. Their planes, notably the F-15, F-16 and A-10, also are post-Vietnam. Only the F-111 is left from an earlier generation.
Menaced by Many Missiles
In Vietnam, more than 2,500 U.S. planes were lost in combat, but pilots then had only one kind of SAM to worry about. Today, there are as many as 15 versions that fighter jocks must know intimately. Each has its own range, electronic signature and lethal characteristics. Among the SAMs they fret over are American-made Hawks, which Iran possesses, and French-made Rolands, which are sold to a number of potential adversaries.
More than a decade ago, pilots trained for dogfights in Vietnam with two U.S. planes versus two enemy planes. Today, given the Soviet Bloc's overwhelming numerical advantage, American pilots practice two against eight or four against 12 adversaries.
If the results of modest raids on Third World nations are unpredictable, tacticians here admit that there are huge uncertainties in trying to prepare pilots for a modern war with the Soviet Union.
"Nobody really knows what it's going to be like that first day (of a major war), when you fly into the valley and your wingman dies before you've ever fired," Kanikeberg said. "You might say, 'Whoa!' and turn around and go home, but we'd like it to be Ivan who says that."
Too Costly for Training