From 1985 to 1987, Jack Manclark, the Air Force's former test and evaluation director, oversaw a secret project dubbed "Constant Peg."
—Amy McCullough and Seth J. Miller
Under this then-secret initiative, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy fighter pilots trained in the skies northwest of Las Vegas at the Tonopah Test Range on how to fight against Soviet MiGs—by going up against actual Soviet-built fighters that the United States acquired.
"The purpose was to expose US fighter crews to MiGs," said Manclark during a July 31 talk sponsored by AFA's Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies in Arlington, Va. "We wanted them to be able to kill a MiG the first time they saw it."
Pilots could not talk about the mission at home and when airplanes crashed and a pilot was lost, the Air Force could not disclose the circumstances of the death.
"That was tough on the families," said Manclark.
Despite the secrecy surrounding the program, all sorties were conducted during the day, he said.
Constant Peg ran from 1977 through 1988. When Manclark took command in 1985, the United States operated a total of 26 MiG-21s and MiG-23s that it had acquired by various means.
He declined to detail exactly how, but acknowledged that some had been pulled from water-filled ditches and smuggled back to the United States.
"I saw the waterlines myself," he said.
MiG-17s also had operated at Tonopah during the early stages of Constant Peg, but when the United States no longer saw that aircraft type as a threat, it retired them, said Manclark.
Combat Peg served as a precursor to today's Red Flag exercises, he said.
The Vietnam War had been a rude awakening for the Air Force, which lost one airplane for every two it shot down, he said. Combat training before the war had been non-existent, he noted, adding that air strategy had been more focused on nuclear deployment.
However, later as the Soviets developed more advanced fighters, the Air Force upped its air combat training.
The Air Force declassified Constant Peg in November 2006.
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