|DoD photo by Senior Airman |
Greg L. Davis, U.S. Air Force.
The Wild Weasel plays one of the most critical roles in modern airpower operations, the defeat of enemy air defenses. In context of a balance of technology and military power that heavily favors modern Western airpower, advanced air defense systems, most often purchased from Russia or China, represent the only effective defense for second-tier states. The most important enabler for modern airpower operations isn't the air superiority fighter, because modern Western air forces rarely have to fight air-to-air combat. Rather, it's the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) team, which kicks the door open and holds it open long enough for all the other elements of an air operation to do their jobs.
Hampton's battle accounts are genuinely gripping. He never becomes involved in actual air-to-air combat, but he's very convincing on the danger and excitement of the Wild Weasel mission, not to mention the close air support runs he occasionally has to make. Moreover, Hampton's battle accounts connect well with his earlier discussion of training. An F-16 pilot needs to be able to conduct an enormous number of intellectual tasks simultaneously, from managing his fuel to assessing threats to organizing her command to paying attention to where all the weapons are going, all while flying an aircraft that, aerodynamically, would prefer to be on or in the ground. Hampton suggests that flying an F-16 under combat conditions is akin to playing several musical instruments at the same time, which sounds about right. Hampton's accounts of non-combat missions (coordinating the landing of a squadron during a sandstorm, test-piloting a poorly maintained Egyptian F-16) are equally compelling.
At the same time, Hampton admits not the faintest grasp of or interest in grand strategy or international politics. He only occasionally comments on the geopolitical realities of the wars that he fights in, and then usually without much insight. In this he fits the stereotype of the Air Force fighter pilot who is interested, above all, in flying fighter aircraft in wartime conditions. The rest (why he's there, what he's doing) is relatively incidental. He enjoys utilizing the killing power of the F-16, even on missions (such as close air support) that the Air Force as a whole is altogether unenthusiastic about.
Viper Pilot is a quick read; Hampton is a good writer, with a sound grasp of what should and shouldn't become part of the narrative. He knows that no one has bought Viper Pilot to read about family. There's a fair amount of interesting trivia about the Air Force and about F-16s; I'll confess that I had never quite understood the Viper vs. Fighting Falcon debate, or the role that the original Battlestar Galactica plays in that conversation, but it makes sense in context. If you like fighter pilot narratives, you'll probably like this book. If you don't, you won't.