Friday, March 11, 2022

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging July 1951, II With Some Public Engagement, Even: MiG Alley


In the course of a bit more than a century of aviation, the air has seen its share of  the ancient tradition of deniable war. For example, the Condor Legion and Republican aircraft smugglers in Spain, the AVG in China, and the American volunteers of the Ethiopian air force. Probably the single most currently relevant example is one I have been postblogging: The clandestine participation of the Soviet 64th Fighter Aviation Corps in the Korean War.  Clandestine, in that Soviet pilots flew aircraft with North Korean and Chinese insignia. Everyone knew what was going on. The secret existed only because  it was in everyone's  interest to pretend that it was secret. Although I do not find numbers for the personnel side of the Russian auxiliaries, the Wikipedia account says that there were 297 Sabres available in theatre facing 950 MiGs at the time of the 27 July 1953 ceasefire, flown by Chinese and North Korean as well as Soviet pilots. 

So that's an occasion when the pilots of one nuclear power faced off against another under a convenient veil of ignorance and also with the pilots of one of the powers further insulated from the brute realities of great power politics by a collective action system in which there was some guarantee that, between a provoked American President and a final nuclear confrontation, there would interpose an angry Clement Attlee or avuncular Winston Churchill. 

We have seen UN pilots playing the numbers game in the contemporary press, with a final claim of 792 MiG-15s shot down against 78 Sabres. A more recent estimate indicates a kill ratio closet to 1.3 to 1 in favour of American F-86s.This is, however, exclusive of other Allied jets and piston planes, and the point of the fighting was to drive off the B-29s bombing the Communist staging area on the Korean side of the Yalu around Sinanju, a name I cannot type without free associating.Which I probably should have repressed harder, since it turns out I was reminiscing about a yellowface performance.. 

It was the failure of the B-29, and not the F-86, which proved to be the crisis of the air war, since it was deemed necessary to maintain pressure on the airfields around Sinanju to prevent the Red Air Force from contesting air superiority over the battle front. The fact that the crisis did not eventuate does not change the fact that there was a bit of a "Fokker panic" going on in Korea in the fall of 1951. The USAF needed a new bomber, urgently. And while the aircraft in question was not ready in time for Korea, the USAF did get one, and that is the story on which this little technological appendix hangs. 

Long ago (from 1962 to 1973, it turns out, with the author returning to the series from 1979), Donald Jack wrote a series of comic novels about a Canadian WWI flying ace, Bartholomew Bandy. After the war, at one point, Bandy plans to establish an aircraft factory in the Ottawa Valley, "convenient to government subsidies," or something to that effect. I'm sure that in the author's hands, it was much funnier. The point is, the one-liner has stuck with me over the years and, recently, has informed my interpretation of the Glenn C. Martin Aviation Company. 

If there was a single American major wartime aircraft manufacturer that I would have picked to fail in the postwar period, it would have been Glenn L. Martin. Apart from having been founded by one of the more charismatic American aviation pioneers, the company had nothing going for it as the war ended. Apart from competing in the crowded flying boat space, it had the B-26, the notorious "Baltimore Whore," a play on its reputation as a widowmaker that directly referenced the widespread suspicion that the USAAF had ordered it because the company had been cleverly located adjacent to Washington following Bandy's sage advice. (I suspect that Jack was referencing some of Canada's more dubious Ottawa-based technological plays, although the only aerospace company I can think of among them was actually pretty successful. The less said of your Blackberries, Corels and Nortels the better.)

Martin's subsequent efforts to extract itself from the postwar military aviation drawdown went little better. I've commented frequently around here about the Martin 2-0-2's apocalyptic safety record, which seems to demand a closer examination of Martin, or Northwestern, or perhaps the CAA. Probably Northwestern, to be fair to Martin, since it was the President of Northwestern who eventually had to resign to "spend more time with his family." Meanwhile, Martin's Matador guided missile is only excusable as being an Air Force idea. Of the Martin XB-51 (latterly XA-51), the best that can be said of it is that it was innovative. Ultimately, the XB-51 would not be chosen as the USAF's new light bomber. The choice fell instead on a British design, the English Electric Canberra, which was produced under license by Martin. 

All of this is well known, but back in September I let a fascinating article from the 23 July 1951 issue of Aviation Week pass uncommented upon, and with intimations of foreign volunteers and foreign jets flying deniable combat missions against nuclear powers in the news, I thought I would dig it up again. It's also an article by Aviation Week freelancer, Irving Stone, who is, I am pretty sure, a different Irving Stone, but I did want to point out the coincidence at least once. (The link, for fellow subscribers.)

Stone singles out three major changes from the British to the American production that I thought were worth calling attention to in this appendix. First, and in general, the subcontracting philosophy was different. I have long suspected that the British AID and associated Admiralty/Air/War Office factory inspectors (depending on which supply branch the factory was producing for) are an important area of difference between British and American industrial culture, although as far as I am aware no-one has researched the question and, darn it, someone else should get right on that while I do more interesting stuff! Rather later, and in connection with standards conversions, a specific example is noted, a British-type flush rivet with a shallowed head which "allows installation with machine countersinking in thinner gauge material than we can use with our rivet." A bit later, Stone observes that "[t[he subcontractors will do their own British conversion tasks and any redesign necessary, but under Martin's supervision . . ."

Second, and this is a very long descent from general to specific, I admit, "a section of skin on the Canberra's aft fuselage to pis hand-riveted in a long single piece. This procedure points up a fundamental difference in the production techniques of the two countries: Britain relies on the artisan, we rely on the machine." This is a cliche, and, with regard to my third difference, unfair in the extreme. That said, there is no doubt that the B-57's aft fuselage top was built up from three sections riveted together on an automatic machine because the job was too challenging for an American workforce.  

Third, the Canberra wing's single spar makeup "hooks on to a large hogged-out filling," which the American factor will only be able to replicate by using the British procedure, and will ultimately require a "larger forging capacity than is available here," because even though the British are said to use artisans rather than machines, in fact late-war British aircraft are made with bigger forging presses than are available in the United States, where pieces have to be built up, instead.

Fourth, and this ties into a point of general current interest in the American industry in the summer of 1951, independent of Matin's import of English Electric manufacturing methods and even tools, the company is contemplating adopting optical tooling to reduce gaging work. 

Taken together I wanted to highlight this material as a very belated answer to the Audit of War thesis. This is as good an example as any of how the British headstart in producing combat aircraft for competitive air warfare is embodied in factory practice that is often invisible to top down views that focus on headline numbers like maximum speed. It is unfortunate that no-one takes Audit of War seriously, any more, but if anyone does still care, this is for you, business-first neo-liberal Thatcherites. Government enterprise does so work! 

However, for today there is a newer and fresher take, the Fokker panic of the fall of 1951. Needless to say there are no actual Red jet hordes ready to push south and force UN tactical aviation, still dependent on P-51s and F4Us, from the battlefield. That is because Russian jet aircraft production is not, in fact, anywhere close to as far ahead of American as it was thought to be. The loss of time imposed by postwar budget cuts did not, in fact, lead to an unassailable Communist lead in aviation technology. (Not, to follow up on the lat paragraph, that government enterprise in the form of RAAF Meteors did any better.)

It is, however, probably true that air superiority over the forward edge of the battle area was decisive in wearing down the Red offensive and blunting it into an incomprehensible inertia, so that Seoul was never again encircled and captured, as some continued to fear would happen until surprisingly late in the conflict. 

I hesitate to draw too close a parallel between a historical case and the current one, but if I were going to go down that road, it would be to point out that air superiority often hangs on the knife's edge of technological change, and that the crucial factors are not always obvious at the time. UN fighting forces at the front line came to be dependent on Forward Air Controllers in light liaison types, who made it possible for the UN air forces to fully develop their close air support potential. The Wikipedia article gives some insight into the process. the author taking the position that the Korean war lesson was not really assimilated at the time. Airborne FACs were abolished after the war, only to be revived in Vietnam. This might not be entirely fair, given the UN fear that Red air power would push south and roll back the air cover. FACs in liaisons could hardly expect to survive in an environment where MiG-15s have control of the air! This underlines the key role for which the B-57 was envisioned. In the absence of an absolutely dominant air-to-air capability, the only way to maintain UN air superiority over the front was to roll back the Red ability to conduct counter-air operations by day and night intruder attacks using radar-aimed bombing. Thanks to the very short range of the MiG, these attacks could be effective even if restricted to south of the Yalu, so that there would be no escalation resulting from attacks on Chinese soil. A longer-ranged MiG would have changed things again, and it is probably just as well for everyone that none showed up --perhaps intentionally so?

(The MiG-19 was delivered in time for a 3 July 1955 public unveiling. The MiG-19SV variant was designed to intercept Canberras, but in the post-Korean War reconnaissance intrusion role. Which, given they were intended to collect targeting information for British nuclear weapons . . . All I can say is that the Fifties sure were fun!)

No comments:

Post a Comment