Red flag: how the rise of “realistic training” after Vietnam changed the Air Force’s way of war, 1975-1999



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Kansas State University


This dissertation examines how changes in training after Vietnam altered the Air Force’s way of war. Specifically, the rise of realistic training exercises in the U.S. Air Force, particularly in the Tactical Air Command, after the end of the Vietnam conflict in 1975 ushered in a drastic increase in the use of tactical fighter aircraft to accomplish Air Force missions. Many scholars, including Benjamin Lambeth and Richard Hallion, have emphasized the primacy of technological developments in the renaissance of air power between Vietnam and the Gulf War. This neglects the importance of developments in training in the Tactical Air Command during the same period. This dissertation demonstrates that throughout the 1970s and 1980s Air Force leaders reconsidered some of their long-held assumptions about air power’s proper use and re-cast older ideas in ways that they considered more realistic and better justified by past experience. Realistic training exercises led to better tactics and doctrines and, when combined with technological advancement, changed the way the Air Force waged war. Tactical assets became the weapons of preference for Air Force planners for several reasons including their ability to precisely deliver munitions onto targets and their ability to penetrate and survive in high-threat environments. Tactical assets could accomplish these missions precisely because of the changes that occurred in training. At the same time, the rise of tactical assets to equality with strategic assets directly led to the demise of both Tactical Air Command and Strategic Air Command and the creation of the single Air Combat Command. The conventional view that a massive technological revolution in military affairs took place in the 1980s and led to success in Desert Storm is conceptually too limiting. That interpretation places too much emphasis on the technological advancements used to prosecute war and slights the experiences of the airmen themselves in the development of the training exercises that helped change how the U.S. Air Force waged war.



Red flag, Air Force, Desert Storm, Military training, Military exercises

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Doctor of Philosophy


Department of History

Major Professor

Donald J. Mrozek