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Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam 1965-­1972, by Marshall L. Michel III, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 1997, $32.95.

Marshall L. Michel III has written a fine book to fill a very real void in the libraries of all those who have participated in or studied air combat over Southeast Asia. Instead of dwelling on personalities, he focuses on the facts behind the missions, highlighting the details that make the difference in split-second air combat maneuvering.

Michel, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, traces the vastly different approaches to the air war taken by the Air Force and the U.S. Navy. The Navy comes away looking smarter. By comparing the divergent trends of the two air services in equipment, testing, training, tactics and aircrew management, Michel illustrates the interservice rivalry that was certainly alive and well in Vietnam, even at the highest levels of command.

He makes it clear that throughout the war American armaments and the cockpit weapons systems that controlled them were extremely unreliable, and thus they were generally incapable of achieving optimum results. Readers get a real sense of the frustrations that crews routinely faced. They learn what it was like to have a MiG in your gunsight, with your aircraft’s radar locked onto it, suddenly escape when your missiles fail to fire, guide or detonate. Clearly, guns were still needed in our fighter jets, but there were ridiculous delays before guns were added.

The Air Force also failed to address vital armament questions raised during the Rolling Thunder campaign, which carried the air war into the heart of North Vietnam early in the conflict. During the long pause in the air war before combat operations into North Vietnam resumed during Linebacker I, the Air Force seemed content to simply bad-mouth Navy equipment and modifications rather than work to improve things.

Michel poses some interesting questions. For example, how could you justify withholding position information on attacking MiGs from U.S. pilots? The source of such information was apparently considered to be too politically sensitive to divulge at the time. But it was vital to U.S. aircrews, many of which were killed or shot down because of information they did not have. How could the highest levels of Air Force leadership ignore lessons that had been learned in combat and refuse to initiate equipment modifications, tactics changes and training improvements simply because they were someone else’s ideas? But perhaps most disturbing, how–after seven years of begging for the authority to attack the North–could the leaders of both air services be completely lacking in ideas and leadership when the commander in chief finally decided to attack North Vietnam?

Michel has done a fine job of research and presentation. Clashes presents nice, clean, documented facts that allow pilots to say, “I told you so.”

Colonel Jack Broughton,
U.S. Air Force (ret.)