Document created: 11 December 03
Air University Review, March-April 1973

BEST HIT ‘72—
NATO’s Southern Region 
Fighter Weapons Meet

Lieutenant Colonel Harold A. Susskind

A number of factors that became obvious in the 1960s made it necessary for NATO to review and revise its strategic concept of operations.

First, the apparent relaxation of tension between the East and West in Central Europe led to the realization that a major attack on that front was not necessarily the main threat that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had to face. Increasing account needed to be taken of the possibility of limited, peripheral, or ill-defined threats in other areas. It was noticeable that the Soviet Union was developing types of forces designed to enable it to deploy a significant military capability in any part of the world. In particular, the increasing penetration of the Mediterranean posed a potential threat to NATO’S southern flank.

Accordingly, a new and more flexible strategic concept was developed and adopted by the Defense Planning Committee meeting at the Defense Minister’s level in December 1967. The basis of this concept, which retains the principle of forward defense, is that credible deterrence of military actions of all kinds is necessary and that this can be secured only through a wide range of forces equipped with a well-balanced mixture of conventional weapons with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.

The purpose of this balance of forces is to permit a flexible range of responses combining two main principles. The first principle is to meet any aggression with direct defense at approximately the same level; the second is to deter through the possibility of escalation. If an attack cannot be contained, the responses must at least be sufficient to convince the enemy of NATO’S determination to resist and to force a pause, during which the risks of escalation must be considered. The keystone of the new strategy is that an aggressor must be convinced of NATO’S readiness to use nuclear weapons if necessary, but at the same time he must be uncertain regarding the timing or the circumstances in which they would be used. In short, while this flexible strategy involves the possibility, ever present in the background, of escalation to a nuclear strike, it is based essentially on controlling the progress of escalation of any conflict rather than on planning to meet any attack with instant and massive nuclear retaliation.

The new strategic concept, with its increased emphasis on the need to be prepared for attacks of varying scales in any region of the NATO area, calls for a comprehensive range of mobile and well-equipped air forces, conventional as well as nuclear.

This change of strategy from one of all-out retaliation if somebody stepped across the line to the one of today, which is to “retain that nuclear capability, but be prepared to fight conventionally,” has had a very significant effect on the air forces of the Southern Region.

Now the pilots of the Greek, Italian, and Turkish air forces assigned to the Allied Air Forces, Southern Europe (AIRSOUTH) must not only retain their proficiency in nuclear weapons delivery but also become proficient in conventional (bomb, rocket, strafe) weapons delivery. At the same time they must stay adept in air-to-air gunnery.

Improving the conventional capability of the pilots equates to improving and increasing the lethality of every mission and every sortie flown by AIRSOUTH.

Lieutenant General Fred M. Dean, Commander, AIRSOUTH from August 1968 to June 1972, was a firm believer that a tactical weapons meet with its pressures, problems, and requirements contributed immeasurably toward increasing the overall ability of a command to accomplish its mission. Soon after taking over as Commander, he directed his staff to look into the possibilities of reviving the AIRSOUTH weapons meet competition among the air forces of the three Southern Region nations. The meets, which had been hotly contested and well attended during the mid-fifties, had not been held since 1956, even though each nation had won a leg on the Air Commander’s Trophy during that period.

In September 1969, after much spade work, the Italian Air Force was officially asked to host the meet, reviving the AIRSOUTH Weapons Competition. Upon Italy’s acceptance, invitations went out to the other Southern Region nations asking them to participate. Turkey accepted, but the Greek Air Force, although strongly supporting the meet, could not actively participate the first year. The United States Air Force and the United States Navy were each asked to contribute a team to be known as guest teams. Both accepted the invitation, but the Navy team withdrew before the competition started.

The 1970 AIRSOUTH Tactical Weapons Meet, “Best Hit 70,” was held at Istrana Air Base, Italy, 4-12 September 1970. The Maniago Gunnery Range, 70 kilometers northeast of Istrana Air Base, was used for all ordnance delivery. With the AIRSOUTH Commander’s Trophy as top prize, the meet initially took the form of competition between the Fifth Allied Tactical Air Force and the Sixth Allied Tactical Air Force, with the Italians representing FIVEATAF and the Turks representing SIXATAF.

Poor weather conditions during the competition phase of the meet prevented flying the minimum number of missions required by the rules, so a winning team could not be selected.

Although no winner was named, the meet was deemed a success since many organizational procedures were tested and the competition did give valuable training to the pilots participating. It also furthered the close working relationship between the ground and air crews of the nations involved. Most of all, it set the stage for “Best Hit 71.”

The 1971 meet was held at Eskisehir, Turkey, and hosted by General Mushin Batur, Chief of Staff of the Turkish Air Force. It brought together pilots from all three NATO Southern Region nations, plus a combined U.S. Navy-U.S. Air Force guest team. It also featured for the first time in international gunnery competition five different air weapon systems: Northrop F-5s, Fiat G-91s, North American F-100s, LTV A-7As from the USN, and McDonnell Douglas F-4Es from the USAF.

Final standings showed the Turks on top with 596 points, the combined U.S. team with 538, the Italians with 464, and the Greeks, the first-day leaders, with 422. By winning, the Turks were one up on their Southern Region allies.

Preparations for “Best Hit 72” started in November 1971, with the selection of an AIRSOUTH project officer. In December the agreement to host the meet at Larissa Air Base, Greece, was received from the then Hellenic Air Force Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Demetrios Kostakos.

It was decided that the meet would be open to teams comprised of combat-ready pilots from all Southern Region attack squadrons. Pilots of dual-capable units and pilots assigned to staff positions would also be eligible to compete, provided they were combat-ready in the attack role. It was also decided that the meet would be open, on an optional basis, to one guest team composed of combat-ready pilots not permanently assigned to the Southern Region.

Invitations were issued by the Hellenic Air Force to the Italian, Turkish, and United States air forces and the U.S. Navy to participate in the meet. The USAF and USN were asked to supply elements that would participate as a combined guest team but be ineligible to compete for the AIRSOUTH Commander’s Trophy. However, they would be eligible to compete for the high-score team trophy.

In the master plan for the meet, it was estimated that 30 milestones would have to be passed before the meet was concluded, a winner crowned, and a final report submitted.

In February 1972 the eighth milestone was accomplished when a committee team from AIRSOUTH visited Larissa Air Base to check operational requirements and accommodations and to set a firm date for the meet. The Hellenic Air Force officers from the 110th Wing and the 28th Tactical Air Force had anticipated most of the committee’s desires and questions and had prepared a master plan of their own. Hotels in Larissa, a city dating back to ancient Greece, had already been contacted. Ramp parking places for visiting aircraft on Larissa AB, as well as office space for the various committees and participating teams, were already designated. The Ambelon Gunnery Range, approximately 10 miles east of the air base, was picked as the site for the delivery of all ordnance. A “we can do it” spirit seemed to be the motto of the Hellenic Air Force hosts.

Many administrative and operational problems had to be solved before the teams could depart for the meet. Requests went out to qualified weapons meet officials in Allied Forces Northern Europe, Allied Forces Central Europe, and the United Kingdom’s Near East Air Force, requesting their services for the meet. Permission to take aerial photographs of the navigation routes and targets by a Southern Region nation had to be received from the Greek officials. Upon receiving permission, the Ministry of Defense of the United Kingdom was asked to take the photographs. The Royal Air Force 13th P.R. Squadron from Akrotiri, Cyprus, accomplished the task.

On 9 July 1972, milestone 28 was reached with the arrival of the organizing committee and the participating teams at Larissa AB. “Best Hit ‘72” officially opened at 0900 hours on 10 July as the NATO flag and flags of the five nations assigned to the Southern Region were raised in the slight warm breeze blowing across Larissa AB. Major General Alexandros Papanikolaou, Commander of the Greek 28th Tactical Air Force, welcomed the visitors on behalf of Lieutenant General Thomas Mitsanas, Commander, Hellenic Air Force. At 1300 hours on the 10th, a team captains’ meeting, presided over by the Chief Judge, was held to discuss the local flying procedures and to resolve any last-minute questions regarding the rules of the competition.

The 1972 meet brought together pilots from three of NATO’S Southern Region nations, plus a combined U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force guest team, and again it featured five different air weapon systems. Representing the Hellenic Air Force and flying Northrop RF-5As was the 349th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron from Larissa AB, Greece. Competing from the Italian Air Force, flying Fiat G-9ls, was the 14th LWAR Squadron from Treviso AB, Italy. Shooting for the Turkish Air Force, flying Lockheed F-104G Starfighters, was the 191st Fighter Bomber Squadron, Balikesir AB, Turkey. Making up the Navy element of the guest team, flying Ling-Temco-Vought A-7Bs, was Attack Carrier Wing Six from the USS Roosevelt. And for the USAF guest element was USAFE’S 612th TAC Fighter Squadron of the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing, Torrejon AB, Spain, flying McDonnell Douglas F-4Es.

The uniqueness of the meet in having five different air weapon systems called for some unique decisions. The F-4E and F-104G have a “gatling” gun that, because of its rapid-firing capability and design characteristics, could not be loaded with only the 80 rounds required by meet rules. The solution to this problem was to load the gun fully, set a limit switch at approximately 80, and then count the expended rounds after the mission. If more than 80 rounds were fired, the number over 80 was subtracted from the pilot’s score. If fewer than 80 rounds were fired, the number of hits stood. This method was agreed to by all participating team captains.

Procedures also had to be set up to score the Italian Air Force G-91, which uses a .50-caliber weapon system. This was taken care of by moving the foul or firing line up to 1200 feet, whereas the rest of the competitors had to observe a 1600-foot foul line.

As in the previous year’s meet, each pilot was required to fly at least two familiarization flights prior to competition flying. Six competition missions were scheduled for each pilot: four range-only missions and two full missions. On each range-only mission, the pilot was to expend one dive bomb, one skip bomb, and 80 rounds of ammunition for a possible perfect score of 30 points.

On each full mission, the pilot was to low-level navigate to an equivalent target, then fly to the range to expend two rockets and 80 rounds of ammunition for a possible perfect score of 40 points.

On 11 and 12 July, 87 familiarization flights were scheduled and 86 actually flown; one pilot had to abort because of sickness. To make the familiarization flights as meaningful as possible, every pilot flew a practice low-level navigation mission, with targeting judges in place, and escorted by chase aircraft.

During the competition phase, every pilot was scheduled to fly a low-level navigation route on each of his two full missions. Low-level navigation routes and equivalent targets were all located in the Larissa area. Fourteen targets and routes were chosen prior to the meet, and a target folder was prepared for each target. Included in the folder were maps, a target route description form, and at least three aerial photographs of the target.

Since six days of competition flying were planned, eight full missions per day were scheduled. This schedule required a total of eight different targets for the meet.

As in the familiarization flights, at each equivalent target there were two target judges to accurately time and position each aircraft. Every full-mission pilot was followed by a two-place chase aircraft piloted by the Hellenic Air Force. Chase judges from Hq AIRSOUTH and the RAF occupied the rear seats.

Competition flying started on 12 July. At the end of the first day’s competition, the Turkish Air Force team found the Ambelon Gunnery Range much to their liking and jumped off to a five-point lead over the Greek team, 119 to 114, followed by the U.S. team with 102.

It became evident that the teams were well trained and evenly matched and that the Commander’s Trophy would go to the team making the fewest mistakes.

Five points down at the end of the first day of competition, the Greek team rallied and took over the lead early in the morning of the second day of competition. They ended the day with a 14-point margin over the second-place U.S. team. Each consecutive day saw the Hellenic team gradually increasing its lead, to 29, 35, and 39 points, and when the meet ended they had won by a 28-point margin and a total score of 714 points. Finishing in second place was the USN-USAF guest team with 686 points. In third place was the Turkish team with 671 points, followed closely by the Italian team with 662.

The 714 points rolled up by the Greek team was the highest winning score to date. Besides the “Over-all Top Gun” of the meet, Captain G. Papaioannou, who amassed 136 points, all the members of the Greek team scored at least 110 points.

Tops in the range-only missions with 481 points was the Turkish team, which also walked off with individual honors in the dive-bombing and strafing events.

Speaking to a closing-day ceremonies audience, General Papanikolaou likened participation in “Best Hit” to competition in the early Olympic Games:

To compete in these Olympic Games was an honor in itself for the participants, their families and the community. . . Also, a portion of the wall that encircled the winners’ community was symbolically torn down to indicate that their brave and able competitors could defend the town better than a wall.

Today in our countries, we have no walls for defense, rather we have our Alliance. The achievements of all competitors during “Best Hit 72” show that a great improvement has been achieved by the Allied Air Forces of the Southern Region. That enables us, I believe, to be more optimistic for the efficiency of our common defense, as well as more confident of ourselves.

Lieutenant General Richard H. Ellis, Commander, AIRSOUTH, in summarizing the meet said:

The 2733 points scored in this year’s meet are 713 points more than last year’s total of 2020, a tribute to the training and competitive spirit of the participating pilots and ground crews, and concrete evidence that the over-all aim of the meet— “to serve as an incentive for internal improvement in the over-all weapons delivery capability of AIRSOUTH’S air forces”—has been achieved.

“Best Hit ‘73” will be held in Italy.

Hill Air Force Base, Utah


Contributor

Lieutenant Colonel Harold A. Susskind is Chief, Information Division, Ogden Air Material Area (AFLC), recently assigned there from similar duty in AIRSOUTH, Naples, Italy. During World War II he served as navigator with the Eighth Air Force, and after recall in 1949 he flew as navigator-bombardier in air rescue. Assigned to Southeast Asia as an information officer, he won the Aviation Space Writers’ Orville Wright Award in 1964. Colonel Susskind is a graduate of the Boston University public relations course.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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