Dissecting Tom Clancy’s Delusions about the USAF

In his 2004 book Air Wing: A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing, former insurance agent and military enthusiast Tom Clancy claims, without evidence, that the USAF is “the best air force in the world for starters. No other air force trains as hard to go somewhere and fight as hard.” (p. 194) If only that were true because right now the USAF is getting so few flying hours that it would barely be able to handle many potential adversaries. Fortunately not everyone buys Clancy’s propaganda, and that includes a retired RAF pilot named Squadron Leader Russ Peart, AFC WKhm whose 2021 book From Lightnings to MiGs: A Cold War Pilot’s Operations, Test Flying, & an Airspeed Record flatly contradicts Clancy.

Back in the late 1970s, Peart participated in a competition against the USAF and the bragging rights for the winner were significant. He flew the RAF Jaguar, and said the USAF had better aircraft, but he was not intimidated: “The big international tactical bombing competition, TBC 78, was due to take place in June. The teams involved would be from the RAF and the USAF. No. 6 Squadron would provide one of the teams. The USAF were represented by a team of A7s from England Air Force Base. The other two teams were from 31 Squadron, from RAF Bruggen, representing RAF Germany and a team of RAF Buccaneers. The A7 was a formidable opponent in such a competition as its avionics were well developed and were somewhat more reliable than the navigation and weapon aiming system fitted to the Jaguar at this time.” (p.139) Despite this disadvantage, his squadron emerged victorious, and he won the leadership trophy to boot. (p. 140)

Later in his career he wanted to become a test pilot and considered trying to get a seat at the USAF and USN test pilot schools as well as the UK’s Empire Test Pilots’ School at Boscombe Down, but felt the American courses demanded too much emphasis on mathematics and not enough on actual flying, which is a serious insufficiency. To quote him directly, “The course at Boscombe was much more flying orientated, and probably more challenging in that respect, than the courses in the States. In the UK the thinking was that professional mathematicians would handle all the maths stuff, and test pilots just needed to know the principles of what was involved and not actually be involved in doing complex calculations.” (p. 144) He was selected to take the course at Boscombe Down along with students from the US and several other countries, but soon USAF deficiencies became obvious. “There were ten pilots who started the course, one each from France, Germany and Italy, two from Australia, two from the USA and three from the UK. Unfortunately one of the American students was just not quite up to the flying task. Although he was very well qualified academically, it wasn’t possible for the staff to send him solo on the Jaguar. It was a surprise to us all as he had been flying the F4 Phantom in the USAF. Although it wasn’t made clear the precise problem, it seems the USAF flying was less demanding than that of some other air forces. He was a good guy and we were all sad to see him depart back to the USA after just a few weeks.”(Emphasis added, p. 147)

He also had the opportunity to fly his Jaguar against USN F-14s, and concluded with pride: “We had the benefit of practising our tactics on many occasions with aircraft of the US Navy, who would be flying from carriers not so far away. It was very mutually beneficial. Many times we would be intercepting such very capable aircraft as F-14 Tomcats. This was a very difficult adversary for a Jaguar, but surprisingly we had many successful engagements with them. We also flew against A-6s, A-7s and even against USAF F-16s.” (p. 214) Speaking of the F-16, my all-time favorite American fighter, on a later occasion he flew against them along an AWACS aircraft and noted that “Training with them was interesting. The [USAF] F-16 pilots were operating a very capable dog fighter and ground attack type of aircraft, but their training was not as realistic as ours. They had many quite restrictive rules they were having to stick to. In particular they were amazed that we had no height limitations when low flying, and how we would return to join the circuit at 500 to 550 knots at 50 feet.” (pp. 221-222)

With all its flying restrictions, unrealistic training, and avoidance of demanding missions that other air forces do, I will take the word of Squadron Leader Peart on the demerits of the USAF over Clancy’s bragging any day. This is offered as constructive criticism because overconfidence can be a dangerous thing to a pilot in any air force and all Clancy did was promote a false narrative of invincibility.


Russ Peart. From Lightnings to MiGs: A Cold War Pilot’s Operations, Test Flying & an Airspeed Record. Pen & Sword Books. Kindle Edition.

Tom Clancy; John Gresham. Fighter Wing (Tom Clancy’s Military Reference). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.