The Speed of Heat – Operation Farm Gate: Vietnam, 1964

J.D. Webster’s Air Power series continued to grow after 1987’s “Air Superiority” with several new expansions (“Air Strike”, “Desert Falcons”, etc.), culminating in the 1992 offering “The Speed of Heat”.  “The Speed of Heat” focused on early post-WW2 air combat such as Korea and Vietnam.  There are a number of improvements that “The Speed of Heat” makes to the Air Power rules as presented in the original “Air Superiority”.

First off, the rules are a bit more streamlined (although the number of typos and mistakes in the rulebook are numerous) and better organized than the original Air Superiority game.  A badly-needed index is included in the back of the rulebook.  There seem to be more examples of play and diagrams as well as more explanation of key rules.  It doesn’t exactly hold your hand but the rulebook has a much friendlier feel for those just starting into the Air Power series.

There’s no doubt that the Air Power series achieves its impressive realism through layers of complex rules but for the persistent gamer, the mechanics start to make sense after enough plays that you can start to see the workings of a beautiful game slowly come to life.  Thankfully, Webster included many interesting and fun training scenarios in “The Speed of Heat” to help ease players into the system.  After two weeks of solid play, I’ve been slowly walking through the scenarios and I am indeed learning something new every day and the mistakes I’ve made are minor, which I believe is due to the nice scenario structure and the rules explanations.

Interested in the air-to-ground aspect of the game, I decided to learn these rules by playing through the scenario “Operation Farm Gate!  Vietnam 1964”.  This scenario features a pair of A-1H Skyraiders on a close air support mission over Vietnam during the early days of America’s involvement in the war.  The Skyraiders are supporting a US Special Forces outpost which is about to be overrun by four platoons of Viet Cong.  The VC, prepared for enemy aircraft, have brought along 3 anti-aircraft artillery pieces and set them up in a triangle around the combat area.

The US forces will almost certainly be overrun without air support.  The VC will attack on turns 6 and 12 so the player is under pressure to get in there and deliver the weapons quickly and on target.  The Skyraiders are heavily armed with air-to-ground weapons, each of which has:
3×750 lb. BLU-1 Napalm canisters, 6x 500 lb. HE bombs (Mk. 82), and 2xLAU-68 70mm rocket pods.

The Viet Cong AAA is not too accurate but it’s quite deadly when it does score a hit.  Two of the AAA pieces are ZPU-1s and there’s one very deadly ZU-23.  One of the ZPU-1s is positioned almost adjacent to the attacking VC platoons so this threat will need to be dealt with immediately.  The ZPU-1 to the south could cause some problems so that’s also a target.  The ZU-23 might get a lucky shot at one of the planes but as long as the Skyraiders stay far away from it and do some jinking, it should be okay.

Reach 1 approaches the target area and fires off its 70mm rockets at the ZPU-1 AAA, getting a 2D result (“D” for damage) and suppression.  The gun crew is in a sorry state and Reach 1 now adjusts his heading for a napalm strike on the VC platoons in 5907.

Meanwhile, Reach 2 goes south of the target area and fires off its rockets at the other ZPU-1, suppressing it but not damaging it.

Reach 1 lines up the targets and dives from 3,000 feet, releasing early in the dive.  All three BLU-1 napalm canisters land on the 2 VC platoons in  5907.  Although the platoons take horrible casualties, they are still able to fight.

While Reach 1 passes over his target to the north, Reach 2 makes a tight turn over the ZPU-1 AAA piece to the south and begins his run at the VC platoons to the north of the US Special Forces outpost.

Reach 1, at 1,000 feet, pulls out of the dive over the VC in 5907 and passes over the second group of VC in 6007, dropping all Mk.. 82 bombs and scoring several hits despite the lack of time spent aiming at the target.

Reach 2 passes over the same group of VC moments later and drops napalm, completely eliminating both platoons.  After pulling out of the dive, the A-1 is hit by the ZU-23 to the east.  The A-1 is lightly damaged but still able to fly.  The VC attack at the end of this turn and manage to score a hit on the US Special Forces.

Error:  That should say 6007 not 6006.

After making a tight turn and climbing from the dive, Reach 2 turns around level bombs the remaining two VC platoons with Mk. 82 but the hits are ineffectual and the two planes turn for home.

Time to count up the VPs.

For both VC platoons eliminated, we get 10 points with an additional 5 for the damage inflicted on the other two platoons.  2 points are awarded for the 2D hit on the ZPU-1 AAA in 5807 for a total of 17 points.

The VC score 2 points for inflicting damage on the Special Forces unit and another 4 points for scoring 2L (light damage) on the Skyraider for a total of 6 points.

I can start to understand from this scenario why old prop-driven Skyraiders were often used for close air support in Vietnam. Although they are much slower than jets, these planes are small and maneuverable and they can hold quite an impressive air-to-ground weapons load (with 15 weapons stations!).  They are also fairly tough, with a vulnerability rating of +2.  The only downsides are the low fuel capacity (possibly made up for by the relatively low fuel consumption rate – I’m not an expert here) and the utter lack of fancy technology.  There are no computerized bombing systems, radar, or ECM so this is truly an aircraft from a previous generation but impressive in its performance nonetheless.  The A-1H was very gradually replaced by the A-4 Skyhawk.

Operation Farmgate was a first step by the Americans into what became a much larger involvement in the Vietnam War years down the road.  Farmgate was absorbed into the larger US war effort and American policymaker claims of the “advisor-capacity only” role of the US pilots eventually stopped as American involvement in Vietnam escalated over subsequent years.

Air Superiority: Border Clash

In this scenario from J.D. Webster’s “Air Superiority”, published by GDW in 1987, a West German F-4F Phantom II pursues a fleeing East German MIG-21MF Fishbed after it strays into West German airspace.  Armed only with cannons, the F-4F is determined to shoot down the MIG-21 before it flees back over the border and the communists can claim they were attacked over East German airspace instead.

See these?  You’re gonna get real familiar with them when you play Air Superiority!

This is a solitaire scenario with the MIG movement determined through rolling on an “Evasive Movement Table”.  The player controls the West German F-4F.  Although this is not a complex scenario, it’s excellent for learning the basics of the Air Power system and a bit more exciting than the training scenarios in the book.  Even though this is a basic scenario, I’m not 100 per cent sure that I didn’t make a mistake (especially with a late game lag-roll) but I think I did a fairly good job of it.

The basics of this scenario involve using energy management to keep up with the MIG and get on its tail for a good firing position.  Each turn, depending on a number of factors such as speed, altitude and what has been done with the plane in the prior turns, you’re given a certain amount of energy (called flight points).  You can spend these flight points to move horizontally (Horizontal Flight Points or HFPs) or climb/dive vertically (Vertical Flight Points or VFPs).  You can do several types of turns of various Gs but making really tight turns can restrict your actions in some ways, especially when it comes to aiming weapons and using radar and other aircraft systems.

Setup:

The Phantom starts out in a pretty nice position, a little over a mile out on the MIG driver’s six.  If the F-4 had missiles, this scenario would be over pretty quickly.  Fortunately for the MIG, the Phantom only has guns (with a 2 hex range).  The MIG is at altitude 10 (10,000 feet) and doing 500 mph while the Phantom is a little higher (altitude 12 or 12,000 ft) and is going a bit faster (speed 6 or 600 mph).

Turn 1:  

The MIG pilot, knowing that he is in big trouble, pulls some serious Gs and turns left, hoping to outmaneuver the less nimble West German fighter.

As the Phantom pilot, I’ve got a slight advantage in terms of speed and altitude, which I can use to help me get back on the MIG’s six o’clock.  I’ve decided to try and make a turn to intercept the MIG, cutting down his options while keeping mine open. With 6 Flight Points to spend, I use 3 horizontal flight points to go straight and do a hard turn NNW.  After that, I need to use up some energy to sustain the turn at its current rate, so I commit to a dive down to the same altitude as the MIG (costs 2 VFPs) move ahead a hex and this gives me the ability to finish the turn up, pointing my nose to the northwest.  I am now in the MIG’s 90 degree arc.  It’s too far away to shoot but I’m in a good position to get behind it next turn if the pilot does something silly.

Turn 2:

On the second turn, the MIG climbs to 12,000 ft and continues a slight turn.  Considering the Phantom has a much more powerful engine, this will probably be a fatal mistake as I can just push the Phantom behind the MIG at this point and go for a shot.

The Phantom has 6 flight points available and I have the throttle set at military power.  I want to avoid using brake turns or emergency turns to catch up with the MIG as doing so will incur some negative modifiers on hitting him.  As a result, I want to again use a hard turn after spending 3 horizontal flight points, climb to match the MIG’s altitude level and then another hard turn towards the MIG.  This puts the F-4 into hex 0516 and we’re in a position for a shot.

I try to use the F-4F’s radar to help with tracking the MIG and firing but my radar officer is apparently asleep and I can’t get a lock.  Needing a 4 to hit, I roll and get a 9.  Vulcan cannon rounds pierce the air near the MIG but no hits are scored.

Turn 3:

The MIG pilot must really be shaken because he climbs for safety again, ignoring the better turn abilities of his plane.  The MIG is now at 14,000 feet doing 500 mph and hoping for a break.  It’s not gonna happen.

I’ve got only 5 Flight Points to play with since I was loathe to use my afterburners in the previous two turns and the climbing plus the turning has slowed the F-4 down to 500 mph, the same speed as the MIG.  I turn on the afterburners, move forward and begin a lag roll that shifts the plane facing 30 degrees to the SW in the hex that’s forward and to the right, continue towards the MIG until I’m on its tail and then pull a hard turn and climb. This puts me directly behind the MIG and a little underneath it while in a climb, which is as good as it gets.

Again, the radar tracking fails to kick in and I curse the RIO, firing a stream of 20mm Vulcan cannon at the MIG, scoring a hit with an “8” (-2 modifier for being on the MIG’s 0 degree line).  I roll for damage and get a “2”.  Splash one MIG!

Allo!

Conclusion:

To score a kill, the most important thing is learning to use the strengths of your plane and how to manage your energy better than your opponent, much like what I’ve read of real air combat.  The Fishbed is quite maneverable and it’s tricky to nail them down with a fighter aircraft like the Phantom which is all engine.  It’s hard to resist the urge to go afterburners from the start, but keeping your hand off the throttle a bit definitely helps with turning ability.  Using VFPs (Vertical Flight Points) to climb also helps to drain off excess energy and keeps your nose pointed at the MIG’s tail rather than overshooting it.  I’ve played this scenario several times and watched my tendency to go full throttle result in a turning war that I can’t win.  This time, happily, was a bit different.