Brigadier General Robin Olds
"Fighting spirit one must have. Even if a man lacks some of the other qualifications, he can often make up for it in fighting spirit".
Brigadier General Robin Olds, USAF
by Chief Master Sgt. Tom Kuhn
Olds had ideas about tactical air power that were as big as he is, all six-foot, two
inches of him. With missionary fervor and a sprinkling of salty language, he argued for
better fighters, better pilot training, new tactics. When dogfighting practice was
discouraged between wars, Olds snuck behind the clouds and did it anyway.
Now 74, Olds -- who retired in 1973 as a one-star general -- lives in retirement in Steamboat Springs, Colo. But he's still not a quiet man. He offers his insights on TV and as an after-dinner speaker, spilling doctrine that has become rehearsed, almost congenital.
He first heard of tactical air power from his father, Army Air Corps Maj. Gen. Robert Olds, a World War I combat pilot and aide to legendary air power pioneer Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, who was court-martialed for his less than diplomatic way of presenting his ideas.
"He was one of Mitchell's disciples," Olds said. "He and his contemporaries fought unselfishly to achieve an air power capability in the 1920s and '30s."
Olds himself eventually took up the cause, arguing that pilots in aircraft designed specifically for tactical warfare could be trained to slip through defenses, get in close and personal with well-aimed munitions, and destroy an enemy's will to fight -- the kind of air war fought against Iraq during Desert Storm.
His father died of a heart attack in 1943 just as 800-plane armadas of American B-17s and B-24s began attacking German industrial targets in daylight raids. By 1944, Robin Olds was escorting the bombers in a long-range P-51 Mustang named Scat V. At war's end flying Scat VII, Olds had shot down 13 German planes and destroyed 11.5 others on the ground. He added four MiGs during the Vietnam War, for a total of 17 kills.
"When the lead bomber dropped his weapons, the rest of his formation released their bombs on his smoke trail. Out of thousands of bombs dropped," Olds observed during raids on German targets, "as few as 50 percent hit within 3,300 feet of the aim point." As a result, post-war studies revealed German war plants were dispersed and often increased production despite the raids.
Olds began developing his own ideas about tactical air power. "It occurred to me that if they wanted precision bombing on a ball-bearing factory they could load P-51s with 500-pounders, and 70 of us could have done just as much damage as 1,000 bombers."
He suggested the idea, but planners rejected it out of hand. "They thought it was heresy," he said.
When World War II rumbled to a close with the surrender of Germany and the capitulation of Japan after atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States emerged as a super power with the high-flying B-29 and the big bomb.
Military leaders "thought we didn't need anything else," Olds said. Then the Soviets exploded their own atomic bomb, and the arms race began. Suddenly, the rules had changed with the arrival of another, more horrible threat.
Squadron and group commanders of World War II bomber units became the commanders of the new Air Force -- men who "didn't fly a whole hell of a lot, or we wouldn't have had many of them around," Olds said. "After the war they became our Air Force leaders and planners.
"I don't mean to denigrate the bomber boys. They did a hell of a job," he said. "My concern was with the hierarchy, smugly sitting on our possession of the [atomic] bomb."
"They [Air Force leadership] didn't know how to get around it [the Cold War] except to say, 'We have more than you have.' It became a game of threat and counter-threat. You had to make sure the other guy knew you had the weapons. Otherwise, what good were they?
"Our whole arsenal -- carriers, bombers, missiles and submarines -- had one sole purpose, and that was never to be used," he said. "Before long, our ability to fight conventionally was practically nil."
When the Korean War erupted in 1950, Olds chaffed at flying stateside desks while others went into combat. "We fought conventionally in Korea," he said. "Out of that war came the F-100 Super Sabre, a great training airplane for future generations of fighter pilots. It was good for its day, but it wasn't good for what we faced in Vietnam."
After the Korean cease-fire, Olds said U.S. tactical air power entered the Dark Ages. "We weren't allowed to dogfight," he said. "Very little attention was paid to strafing, dive-bombing, rocketry, stuff like that. It was thought to be unnecessary. Yet every confrontation America faced in the Cold War years was a 'bombs and bullets' situation, raging under an uneasy nuclear standoff."
He and others flew dogfights "behind the clouds." Said Olds, "I always tried to stay ahead of the game."
Olds recounted how -- while writing a paper on conventional, tactical air power -- he was ordered to stop by his two-star commander. "He said I had to get it through my head that we would never again fight a conventional war," Olds recalled. "That was in 1962. We already had advisers in South Vietnam."
"My boss was a bomber guy with a missile badge. He was a really nice man who knew absolutely nothing about fighter warfare or tactical warfare. As a matter of fact, I thought he didn't know much about bomber warfare either. To him, there wasn't any warfare. We just postured and threatened with our nukes."
The Vietnam War, Olds said, "proved the need to teach tactical warfare and have fighter pilots. It caught us unprepared because we weren't allowed to learn it or practice it in training."
When the Air Force entered the war, F-4 Phantoms -- originally developed as Navy fleet defense aircraft -- joined the older F-100s and the propeller driven A-1E's.
At the mention of the F-105, irony crept into Olds' voice. "The 'Thud' turned into a great fighter aircraft," he said, "yet remember, it was developed for nuke strikes and had an enormous bomb bay. So much for Pentagon vision."
He recounted how, on one mission as he flew his F-4 Phantom up the Gulf of Tonkin on an air strike against North Vietnam, he told his backseater, "Think about us flying a Navy plane, carrying World War II bombs, a gun sight in front of my face not as good as the one I had in P-38s, and going up there to bomb some railroad yard. We'll face a sky full of flak, missiles and MiGs, but don't worry about it because I've got it on good authority that none of this is happening."
The general remembers the Vietnam War as a turning point for American air power. "It took that long, protracted, lousy war to convince us we needed to develop better, more precise, viable air power," he said.
While commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, Olds flew 152 combat missions, 105 of them over North Vietnam, from October 1966 to September 1967. He shot down two MiG-17s and two MiG-21s, two on one mission. His F-4, by now called "Scat XXVII," is at the Air Force Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
"Young pilots showed up at Ubon who saw for the first time an F-4 loaded down with live ordnance," Olds said. "They had never been taught how to deliver a cluster bomb unit, didn't know about SAM [surface-to-air missile] evasion tactics or electronic countermeasures formation flying. They knew how to fly the airplane, but didn't know how to roll over into a 60-degree dive bomb attack from 16,000 to 17,000 feet. They hadn't been taught anything like that.
"They didn't know B.S. about combat. What the hell was I supposed to do with them? So, we had to train them ourselves. That, on top of a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operational schedule."
After Vietnam, Olds became commandant of cadets at the Air Force Academy until 1971. He preached tactical air power, as he still does, with opinions that find targets with the accuracy of a smart bomb.
"When they told me they were building the B-1, I said, 'What for?' They said, 'We need a new strategic bomber.' And I said, 'What for?'
"They said they wanted to go down to 300 feet to drop bombs. My God, my guys used to pull up to 200 feet at night to deliver high drag [bombs]. If you flew higher than that you were dead meat."
But he admires the F-117 stealth fighter and the long-range B-2 flying wing as "devastating" tactical weapons because of their ability to strike targets precisely. Instead of bomber armadas, "Now one or two airplanes can do the job," Olds said.
Modern fighters like the F-15E and F-16, and soon the F-22 fighter, "have capabilities we never knew in speed, range and accuracy," he said.
Accuracy, stealth and range are the most important differences, according to the venerable fighter pilot. A few tactical planes now have the ability to do the job in one mission with surgical precision -- just as Olds imagined might be done with P-51s in World War II.
"And that's what the old boys dreamed of in World War I," he said. "It was the basis of their doctrine. So I guess it's true: What goes around, comes around."
Olds, known for the flamboyantly waxed, regimental mustache he sported in Vietnam, talked openly about his individuality. An oil painting of him grinning through his illegal mustache is featured prominently in the lobby of the War-gaming Institute at Maxwell AFB, Ala.
"Generals visiting Vietnam would kind of laugh at the mustache," said Olds. "I was far away from home. It was a gesture of defiance. The kids on base loved it. Most everybody grew a mustache."
Returning home, however, he discovered not everyone was fond of his maverick behavior. "I remember my first interview with [Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P.] McConnell," Olds said. "I walked briskly through the door, stopped and snapped a salute. He walked up to me, stuck a finger under my nose and said, 'Take it off!' And I said, 'Yes, sir!' And that was the end of that."
Click here to read an article by Robin Olds
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