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War Birds

The flying workhorses of the U.S. military

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Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, is a former Navy commander and A-4 pilot, who was shot down and captured in Vietnam. He spoke to CNN at his Senate office in Washington, D.C.

On the creation of the F-14 Tomcat

The Navy needed an aircraft which was more capable in air-to-air maneuvering, but particularly with a standoff capability which gave the F-14 a definite air superiority. It came into being in the days when we were competing with newer generations of Russian aircraft.

The F-14 in its day -- as the F-4 (Phantom II) was in its day -- was a very superior aircraft. There is a tendency in the Navy toward a dual capability. For a long time we had attack aircraft and fighter aircraft. And now we are moving -- as the Air Force has generally been -- towards an aircraft with dual fighter and attack capability. In other words: the ability to engage in air-to-air combat, but also an ability to deliver ordnance on target. And the (F/A-18) Hornet or Super Hornet, as they've come along, have dramatically enhanced, not so much the air-to-air capability, but the delivery of weapons capabilities.

The F-14 was outfitted to carry more air-to-ground capability, and that was good because, frankly, the mission of air-to-air is minimal now throughout the world. We no longer face sophisticated aircraft that would either disrupt or destroy our attack capability. But I think also the F-4 at one time, as far as the Navy was concerned, was strictly a fighter aircraft and then developed into air-to-ground as well. So it seems to be a generational kind of evolution that we see. The F-18 was initially air-to-air and it's now very capable (as) a mission aircraft.

On the Navy's new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

I think the Super Hornet will provide two really dominant characteristics over almost any other aircraft in the world and that is the an air-to-air capability, which could have significant superiority over any potential adversary; and a very capable air-to-ground weapons delivery system with the most accurate technological capabilities. The kind we've seen displayed in the Afghan conflict.

On the Navy's plans to also use the Super Hornet as an in-flight refueling tanker, as well as other roles

That's another thing we've done in the past is make tankers out of many of these aircraft. I remember the old airplane I flew the A4, the ancient A-4 Skyhawk, as small as it was, we used it with a tanker capability as well. It's not that hard to put a tanker capability onto an aircraft, and that helps you in that you don't have to have a specially designated aircraft for tanking. And when you're in a situation such as we were in the Afghan conflict, with multiple refueling, long distance, then we need increased tanker capability.

The Super Hornet, like really every new generation of aircraft -- it was the same with the F-14, the F-4 and others -- is very appropriately designed for future improvements and advances, particularly where technology is concerned. Technology really is the key. We have to understand that, more and more, the airplane is simply the vehicle that gets the weapons from one place to another. And it's the technology that gets the weapons on target that has been, frankly, the most radical advance in the history of warfare.

On the B-52 Stratofortress

Well, I will forget many things about the Vietnam War, but I will never forget the Christmas offensive. The B-52's were sent over North Vietnam for the first time in the Vietnam War. They had a devastating effect on the North Vietnamese. They took our their air defenses. They took out their airfields. It was a really incredible display of the incredible capabilities of the B-52 aircraft at that time. Nothing has changed in the B-52 itself, except that we have developed technology which makes the weapons delivery far more accurate. The B-52 is still the same B-52 that flew over in Hanoi. So it's like taking a truck and modernizing your truck. Giving them GPS (Global Positioning Systems)and giving them better tires and better engines and better everything. But you still got the same truck body. That's basically what the B-52 is. And I think it still has a lot longer, useful life.

I think it's not only possible to keep it in the inventory for another 30 or 40 years, I think it would be very economical to do so. Nobody can totally envision all the conflicts that are possible for the United States to engage in. But the ability to deliver large amounts of weapons in a very precise fashion I think will play a key role in any conflict that the United States is involved in the future. And certainly in Afghanistan the old B-52 proved its worth again, particularly when they were going after the caves in Tora Bora and several other places.

On the B-52's new role in close air support in the Afghan conflict

It's done a good job with close air support, although I wouldn't overstate that. I think our tactical aircraft are probably still a better weapons system. But in the case of Afghanistan it was so far, it took so long to get on target that the B-52 probably might have played a larger role than they otherwise would have in a conflict where you had tactical aircraft closer to the battlefield.

On the message a B-52 flying overhead sends to the enemy

B-52's struck terror in the hearts of every adversary that they've come into conflict with. And as we've increased dramatically, I mean dramatically, the accuracy of the weapons, then the lethality of the aircraft is dramatically, dramatically geometrically increased. In the Vietnam War, they destroyed a lot of jungle in a very inaccurate fashion. In this recent conflict, they delivered bombs on target with precision.

Imagine yourself as a Taliban fighter on the ground and watching the it literary erupt around (you). And let me also add about the B-52. The B-52 also has better electronic counter measures capabilities so that they could counter surface air missile threats as well. That they had during the Vietnam War. In the Christmas bombing of 1972, we took pretty significant loses the first few nights that the B-52's came over in Hanoi. I don't think you'll find they take that kind of losses from surface-to-air missiles again.

On his call from his 2000 Presidential bid for the elimination of the B-2 Stealth Bomber program

I still don't see a compelling requirement for an aircraft that would have to fly for 16, 20, 24 hours. Millions of dollars expended. Very short time on target. I think it's a matter of cost analysis. If I was making the decision, I certainly wouldn't build any more. The B-1, up until recently had never been in combat because of its inadequacies in many respects. But I think when you look at it, even with increases in defense spending that, yes, we need newer weapons systems, but if we're going to be able to maintain capability, we're going to have to upgrade existing systems that we have -- such as the B-52, such as the as the F-18, such as many other weapons systems -- that we have that can be upgraded and improved rather than spending all the research and development money for brand-new weapons systems.

On the original design of the B-52

I don't think there's any doubt that the B-52 is a marvelous piece of technology. The same could be said of the DC-3 in World War II, and many of the fighter aircraft of World War II. The F-4 Phantom was around for generations. And, yes, they did a wonderful job. But if I might inject a little realism: for every success there's also either or a failure or near failure. The B-1 never, never approached the potential that was advertised before and still hasn't to this day. But those old geezers that did the initial work on the B-52 can look back with pride that they made a major contribution to American's defense.

On establishing priorities

You establish priorities through threat assessment. No longer do we face the threat of a superpower such as the Soviet Union presented us, who were developing generation after generation of aircraft and weapons systems that we had counter. Now the threat we face is very obvious and that is one that can be from any place in the world, but is probably not sophisticated to any degree of imagination to the one we faced during the Cold War. So it requires different weapons systems, different strategy and different tactics.

The priorities have to be to counter what we envision is the threat. I think we know the threat now is acts of terror. Perhaps even threats of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, in the case of Iraq, for example. And so we have to have a mobile force that can move to the battlefield, be there with force and quickly affect the battlefield equation. You can't do that with Crusader howitzers. You can do it with heavy equipment that we earmarked and manufactured appropriately during the cold war when we knew a threat was to fight a major tank battle on the plains of central Europe. Now we have to have lightly armed with capably armed agile military that can move very quickly from one place on the globe to another.

Related site

McCain's Senate Web site