Patrolling the Cold War Skies

We had to be ready to roll up our sleeves and get into close quarter combat … affectionately referred to as ‘a knife fight in a telephone box’.

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This is an edited extract from Patrolling the Cold War Skies. Sunset Reheat, by Philip Keeble, published by Fonthill Media
 

DACT stands for Dissimilar Air Combat Training and looking in my logbook I seem to have done an immense amount of it against all sorts of fighter and bombers.
 
Most years the Operational Conversion Unit from RAF Coningsby went to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus on detachment. There were two good reasons for this. Firstly, for our Armament Practice Camps (APC), Air-to-Air gunnery practice for the staff. Secondly, for student training if we got behind with our training task in the UK winter because of bad weather. I can think of other reasons for being there but these are the best two.
 
Whilst there in 1989 with our Tornado F3s, we asked the US Navy, Mediterranean Fleet, if they would like the chance of a bit of dissimilar combat. It was a chance for us to try our hand against vastly superior aircraft but also to try out some new tactics.
Whilst our Tornado F3’s were labelled as an ‘Interceptor’ and designed to combat the threat of long range Soviet bombers we had to be ready to roll up our sleeves and get into close quarter combat … affectionately referred to as ‘a knife fight in a telephone box’.
Fighting against the US Navy gave us an excellent chance to see if we could defeat a high-class force. I do not need to tell you how that went. Not too well. That is, unless you discounted their ‘Fox 3’ calls ... as the AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile left their F14s and reaching Mach 5/ 3,000 mph and not long after decimated their targets.

 

"...there was some confusion, later sorted out by us changing to ‘guns, guns, guns’."

 

The Phoenix was an ultra long-range (100nm+), radar guided, air to air missile - of which the Tomcat could carry up to six - their normal load being four Phoenix, two Sparrows and two Sidewinders. Formidable. But it was the AIM-54 that did the damage. The only one sure way to counter a Phoenix was turn back on the runway and hide but that kind of defeated the whole object of DACT.
However, once we got down to the medium range stuff, using the better British Skyflash versus its American cousin the Sparrow, it was a much fairer fight. In the close quarter fighting I like to think that we just about held our own … sort of.
As an aside, at the time, we, the Brits, used the term ‘Fox 3’ for guns shots. The Americans didn’t, so there was some confusion, later sorted out by us changing to ‘guns, guns, guns’.
 
The second example is much more interesting tactically.  Having experienced the ignominy of being slaughtered by superior air-to-air missiles (AIM-54 Phoenix) the previous year we thought that as it was so much fun that we would give it another go.
Whilst us Brits may not always have the best equipment in the inventory, we certainly had some of the best tacticians.
One thing we could do and that was to come up with a cunning plan that might overcome our aforementioned difficulties. 
I won’t go in to some of the tactics in any detail because one in particular may still be in use with the Typhoon although I seriously doubt it, but it’s not worth taking the risk.

On this second occasion, in 1990, we had on this sortie two Tornado F3’s and along side us a pair of Hawks from RAF Chivenor, Devon. They were out with us in Cyprus acting as targets for the student missions but on this occasion we joined up together into a Mixed Fighter Force Operation, a UK tried and tested scenario (MFFO). We were fighting against the American aircraft carrier, the USS Coral Sea, CV-43, a Midway Class carrier. Anyway they put up two F14 Tomcats and two F18 Hornets. On paper there was no match. We were dead ducks. Our weapons instructors had decided that the rules for today’s mission was - initial contact missile kills would not constitute a removal from the fight and that only subsequent shots would count.

 

"Of course they carried quite a punch with their two extremely effective infrared Sidewinder missiles and you ignored them at your peril."

 

The F3’s with their Pulse Doppler radars would pick up the ‘enemy forces’, inform the Hawks where they were and lead them into the visual merge, as we approached the fight the Tornados would accelerate, fire our radar guide missiles and bravely disengage to a nice safe distance. The Hawks, albeit lagging behind a bit, would have visual with the Americans and stay and fight, tying up the USN fighters in a turning fight. We would then return into the fray and lock a target up on our radars. If we could visually see the target using ourtarget designator box (TDB) in the Head Up Display (HUD) it must be a large aeroplane i.e. an American and we would fire another Fox 1 Skyflash head-on missile, if we couldn’t see the radar contact visually then it must be a Hawk. We would then break the radar lock and pick another target. 
That worked extremely well but soon the Yanks got wise to that and tried to ignore the little Hawks. Of course they carried quite a punch with their two extremely effective infrared Sidewinder missiles and you ignored them at your peril. As the Americans did.
UK 4 - US 0
You lose.
 
Next day it was decided that instead of coming into the fight with one Tornado and one accompanying Hawk at about 3-5 miles visually separated, we would come in, still as a mixed pair, but this time 10 miles procedurally separated. That meant that the Americans would have to decide which of our two MFFO packages to commit to. 
Whichever one they chose to fight against they would turn towards and engage but of course that presented their tails to the other Brit package, leaving them very vulnerable for a stern kill. A classic sandwich manoeuvre.
UK 4 - US 0
You lose!
 
The next day the Americans were wise to this and entered into the arena about 10 miles apart, a good idea except we were now 20 miles apart. 
UK 4 - US 0
You lose again! 
 
What they should have done is split their forces, gone supersonic, taken us on at 2v2 and left us for dead. Such wide ‘splits’ were not standard NATO tactics of course but they were an opportunity to try out new ideas and then see how the opposition countered them and then counter the counter and so on. A steep learning curve. Trouble is the Americans, and to a much larger degree the Soviets, were hog tied to a much stricter code of gameplays and scenarios. Initiative and ‘free play’ were not the order of their day.
The Brits had to be shrewd, flexible and astute in order to survive. These tactics, whilst not being all that much used in an European theatre, were excellent in situations that presented themselves around the world against unsuspecting air forces.
They worked beautifully down the Falklands against the Argentinians. Where twenty Harriers took on ten times that many enemy aircraft without the Brits loosing a single aircraft in combat. 

In the meanwhile it was back to RAF Akrotiri for the debrief and then later into the bar for a beer and enthuse our students with the day’s events.

P.S. I seem to remember that USN ships are dry. America you lose again.


 Watch our interview with Phil Keeble

Watch our interview with Phil Keeble