“Radar Contact!” The Beginnings of Army Air Forces Radar and Fighter Control

  • Published

Radar Contact!” The Beginnings of Army Air Forces Radar and Fighter Control by Randall DeGering. Air University Press, 2018, 96 pp. 

Radar Contact!” is the lost history of air control and a seminal piece for students and leaders of airpower. It is the authoritative untold history of how air superiority came of age. At the dawn of World War II, dire circumstances drove brilliant men and women to accelerate the technological development of radar and radio and conceive innovative organizations and procedures to revolutionize air superiority. In this Air University Press book, DeGering competently and thoroughly summarizes the people, organizations, technology, and milestones that connect early experiments to the decisive asymmetric advantage that saved Britain from invasion and set the stage for the Allied reversal of Axis momentum. This telling is a welcome addition to airpower heritage and is rich with a perspective that is as useful in considering contemporary airpower challenges as it is informative to historic analysis. 

DeGering is both a competent and informed writer. The work is the public culmination of years of research into the history of command and control of the air and rests on the credibility of the Air Force Historical Agency and Air University. As a retired air battle manager, the author was a career practitioner of systems directly descended from those described in the book. That perspective enables a precise and prioritized survey that succinctly fits years of rapid advancements into less than a hundred pages. 

The book is short and light enough to be an accessible casual read while being dense enough to serve as a go-to reference. The writing is professional but not dry. He quantifies staggering stakes and describes dramatic battles, allowing readers to engage their imaginations despite an emphasis on facts and an academic tone. It is well-organized, making it easy for researches to navigate and enabling casual readers to skip technical descriptions without losing track of the narrative. Uniquely, the author methodically emphasizes the evolution of the language of air tactics, still in use today. This feature adds flavor to the book and context to words Airmen take for granted every day, including scramble, bandit, tally, and the titular radar contact

DeGering is diligently objective and states no explicit thesis, but the implications of the narrative are obvious. The Battle of Britain would have been lost without the Chain Home air defense system. The potential of airpower was maximized not by an improved airplane but through technological and tactical innovations in surveillance, control, and communications. 

It’s a logical conclusion. The Luftwaffe had greater numbers, superior aircraft, more experienced pilots, and the advantage of the offense. Yet the Royal Air Force (RAF) was victorious. The RAF’s asymmetric advantage was the combination of radar, controllers, and radios that formed the Chain Home air defense system. The efficacy of Chain Home so frustrated the Axis that they indefinitely postponed their invasion of Britain. When Winston Churchill famously acknowledged the debt of “so many,” the “so few” weren’t just the heroic Commonwealth pilots but also included the pioneers who developed, fielded, and employed the world’s first integrated air defense system. 

This is not just a history lesson. Despite all its new tools, the modern theater air control system would be fundamentally recognizable to a World War II ground-controlled interception controller. Surveillance, communications, and control networks are still essential enablers and potent force multipliers for air operations. Those who can accurately perceive, rapidly decide, and reliably communicate through the air domain have an overwhelming advantage over those who cannot and a competitive advantage over those who do so, but poorly. This concept is foundational to air superiority, yet typically assumed instead of deliberately planned. 

Surveillance, control, and communication systems enable an air component to mass and maneuver as a unified whole. Capability improvements in control systems generally have a greater impact on operational performance and strategic outcomes of the force than investments in the lethality or survivability of individual weapons systems. 

These lessons from the Second World War are still relevant today. Technology has not yet reliably overcome the physical and physiological challenges of distance and span of control that require intermediate decision-making support between the commander and cockpit. Yet vital integrating capabilities such as the netting of existing sensors, machine assistants for battle management, and local airborne Internet Protocol networking, and defensive systems for the platforms required to host them continue to be misunderstood, irregularly advocated, and underfunded. 

Radar Contact!” fills a gap in the origin story of the US Air Force and illustrates the foundations underpinning airpower as we know it. DeGering explains that it was the combination of airplanes, radars, radios, and innovative Airmen that made airpower potent enough to be independent. It reveals truths and heroes oft-forgotten and is thus both pertinent and potent as the Air Force struggles with issues of identity and innovation, culture, and modernization. Every Airman, especially every rated officer, should read and reference this seminal work. 

Lt Col Gerrit H. Dalman, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."