Chasing the Silver Bullet: U.S. Air Force Weapons Development from Vietnam to Desert Storm (review)
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Chasing the Silver Bullet: U.S. Air Force Weapons Development from Vietnam to Desert Storm. By Kenneth P. Werrell. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2003. ISBN 1-58834-116-X. Photographs. Notes. Index. Pp. vi, 346. $37.95.

Kenneth Werrell's Chasing the Silver Bullet enhances his well-deserved reputation as an astute historian of air power technology. A former U.S. Air Force pilot with a doctorate in history from Duke University, Werrell has written books about air defenses, cruise missiles, and bomber operations. This time he uses declassified documents to discuss aircraft, munitions, and sensors deployed by the U.S. Air Force during the quarter century spanning the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. He tells more about the evolving strengths and weaknesses of each weapon than about the bureaucratic, political, and industrial structures that produced the weapons. Separate chapters treat the F-15, the F-16, the A-10, "stealth" (the F-117 and the B-2), precision-guided munitions, strategic airlift (the C-141 and the C-5), command and control aircraft (the E-3 and the E-8), and satellites.

The book begins with an assessment of the Air Force's technological problems during the Vietnam War and ends with a more positive (but not entirely glowing) account of how well the Air Force's new weapons performed in the Gulf War. Werrell is wary of giving air power too much credit for defeating an inept Iraqi regime in 1991, and he emphasizes that air power's ability to strike targets with guided bombs had outrun the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to find key targets.

The Air Force that entered the Vietnam War had devoted most of its resources to preparation for a nuclear war against the Soviet Union. For the Rolling Thunder conventional bombing campaign against North Vietnam, the Air Force relied on F-105s designed to carry nuclear bombs. Before introducing laser-guided bombs late in the war, the Air Force could not bomb accurately from altitudes above the reach of most ground fire. Werrell's account makes clear that the Air Force's difficulties in Southeast Asia led toward the technological developments he describes and away from the service's former focus on nuclear operations.

Although most of the aircraft shot down during the Vietnam War were victims of ground fire, many Air Force leaders seemed more concerned about the failure of their fighter aircraft to overwhelm enemy fighter aircraft in air-to-air skirmishes. That failure may have been as much a matter of unrealistic pilot training as a lack of superior technology. Nevertheless, air-to-air losses over North Vietnam provided grist for would-be reformers of weapons acquisition. Werrell highlights the work of John Boyd, whose brief combat fighter pilot experience at the end of the Korean War eventually led to an energy maneuverability theory that influenced the design of the F-15 and F-16. Those fighter aircraft turned out to be heavier and less specialized for the air-to-air mission than reformers wanted. Yet the F-15 and the F-16 long remained the best air-to-air and multi-mission fighters in the world.

The Air Force Historical Foundation, Gen. (USAF, Ret.) and Mrs. Robert T. Herres, the McDonnell-Douglas Foundation, Boeing, Pratt and Whitney, [End Page 1015] General Electric, and Lockheed all deserve congratulations for giving Kenneth Werrell the financial support and free rein necessary to write so valuable a contribution.

Wayne Thompson
Arlington, Virginia
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