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Air war over Vietnam

Written by Sakhal

Air attack against North Vietnam

From the large bombers to the agile fighters, from the tankers to the helicopters, from the turbojet to the piston engine, the most varied typology of aircraft was used in the most diverse missions in the Vietnamese skies. Facing the challenge of new situations appeared new defensive and offensive tactics and new forms of organization of the operative forces that tested both machines and humans. Here are exposed the most important of them while describing some air operations carried during the Vietnam War.

An air attack against North Vietnam was a complex task that involved many aspects of the United States Air Force (USAF). In this article will be illustrated the diverse components of a bombing mission during the campaign "Linebacker I", carried from May to October 1972: the strike group and the supporting patrols, and a raid with "smart" bombs against the bridge at Thanh Hoa. As it can be seen, the supporting and escorting aircraft widely exceeded in number the attacking aircraft. However, despite of this display of forces, the USAF did not achieve total air superiority during the campaign, in which was declared the loss of 44 American aircraft: 27 downed by MiG fighters, 12 downed by surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and 5 destroyed by anti-aircraft artillery.

The rescue force in these missions usually consisted of two helicopters Sikorsky CH-53, which from 1971 were equipped with electronic localizators to determine the locations of the helpless crews. The escort was formed by eight ground strike aircraft Douglas A-1 Skyraider and by one Lockheed HC-130P, which acted as a command post and a fuel tanker for the helicopters. The first of the supporting aircraft was the EB-66 "Brown Cradle", equipped with electronic countermeasures (ECM) to interfere the localization radars of the surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. Albeit the fighters of the USAF carried their own ECM system from 1967-68, the EB-66 remained in service. The Lockheed EC-121D "Big Eye" served as a control command post; it was equipped with radar and radio devices to determine the class and the altitude of the enemy interceptors to warn the allied aircraft soon enough. The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker served as the "gas station of the skies", with fuel to resupply the bombers, fighters and support aircraft, before and after the air attacks.

Air war over Vietnam

The core of the incursion force was the attack group (A) formed by 32 McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II, which transported conventional gravity bombs and laser-guided "smart" bombs. This attack group was preceded by the groups "Iron Hand" (E) and "Chaff" (F) and it received close escort from aircraft Phantom prepared for air-to-air combat (B). The "Iron Hand" group led the incursion force, formed in two groups composed of two Phantom armed with air-to-air missiles and two Republic F-105G Wild Weasel, armed with anti-radar missiles to destroy the localization radars of the SAM emplacements. The "Chaff" group was formed by eight A-7 Corsair II that flew 2-3 minutes behind the "Iron Hand", extending along their path a curtain of metallic strips (known as "chaff") that covered the attacking force, masking it against the enemy radars and frustrating so the attacks from the SAM. Loaded with weight, flying in straight line and keeping a precise formation, this group was very vulnerable to enemy attacks. Because of this it required its own escort composed of Phantom aircraft (G). Long-range defense against enemy fighters was carried by errant-flying Phantom formed in patrols against the enemy MiG fighters (C). Finally, at certain distance behind the incursion force, flew two reconnaissance aircraft RF-4C Phantom whose task was to photograph the target after the incursion to provide a reliable testimony of the damages inflicted to the enemy.

Air war over Vietnam

The bridge at Thanh Hoa, for road and railway, located about 70 miles south of Hanoi, was an important junction in the transport network of North Vietnam and it had been signaled as target in April 1964. During the operation "Rolling Thunder", prolonged from the 2nd March 1965 to the 31st October 1968, 700 sorties were effectuated against the bridge (with eight American aircraft downed) and despite of that it remained open to traffic. The 27th April 1972 it was severely damaged by F-4 Phantom aircraft carrying laser-guided "smart" bombs and finally it was disabled during several months after a second incursion of F-4 Phantom armed with "smart" bombs, happened the 13th May 1972, during the campaign "Linebacker I". The "smart" bombs consisted of 746-kilogram or 1119-kilogram bombs with a laser sensor attached to them. In a fairing under the fuselage of the launching aircraft was housed an optical sight and a laser emitter. The artillery officer localized the target by using the optical sight and then directed the laser beam against it. Once launched, the bomb descended guided by the trace of the laser until hitting the "illuminated" target. Since it was required to "illuminate" the target during the entire trajectory of the bomb until hitting the target, the system was very sensitive to the presence of clouds or rain. The illustration shows an F-4E Phantom launching one of these bombs and the artillery officer of one of these aircraft checking the attached sensor in a 746-kilogram bomb.

Air war over Vietnam

Thanh Hoa: the thorn of the American aviation

Thanh Hoa was just a medium-size city in North Vietnam, but its location was key. Located in the most densely populated and richest region of the country, where were placed the nerve centers for decisions and provisioning, it was a very important communications junction where converged the roads coming from the mountains and the Chinese border to the sea, where crossed the roads that went from the Tonkin to the region of the northern Annan, next to South Vietnam. The excellent position of this city as crossroads is evidenced by its closeness to Hanoi, capital of the country; to Haiphong, the most important dock, on the Tonkin Gulf; to Hon Gai, where existed the only coal mines, and to the fertile lands of the Red River delta. Because of all of this, the destruction of the road and railway bridge that in Thanh Hoa crossed the river Chu, was of prime importance for the USAF. It was meant to inflict a hit that would cut one of the most important supply flows of the enemy. The interest of the American aviation to achieve this goal was demonstrated by the 700 sorties that were carried out to bomb the bridge. It was a precision bombing for which existed the adequate means and valuable, experienced crews. And however, the results had never been satisfactory. Which were the reasons for this fiasco? To hit a particular target, puntually determined, was not an easy task. To this has to be added the effective opposition from the North Vietnamese, who employed thoroughly the means available for its defense. The dense anti-aircraft fire claimed numerous aircraft and many other were damaged trying to fulfill a decision of the command, promptly defined as such, but which resulted so hard to fulfill. The bridge at Thanh Hoa was, because of that, like a thorn nailed in the flank of the USAF. A thorn hard to extract despite the prodigality of means put into play. But at the same time, such prolonged determination highlighted the usefulness of pursuing without discouragement a certain objective while its strategical interest remains alive and, by the North Vietnamese part, the importance and possibilities of a well emplaced anti-aircraft artillery, with a high degree of coordination and good command and equipment, in the defense of the points exposed to attacks from the enemy aviation. Both lessons can be profitable. The North Vietnamese managed to delay the execution of the sentence set upon the bridge, while the Americans achieved at last their objective, albeit at a high cost. But, eventually, as a Chinese proverb says, "the rice has stones and the partridge has pellets".

Rescue of the crews of downed aircraft

The Americans developed prodigious efforts to rescue the crews of the aircraft downed by the enemy, either in South Vietnam or North Vietnam. The largest part of this work was carried by helicopters, given its ability to land in small areas or to hover to hoist the survivors. They were so many the organizations involved in operations of this nature and so high the risks incurred by the search teams, that any rescue could turn into a very costly activity.

A typical rescue mission

A: The survivors of a downed American aircraft (which burns in the jungle) saved themselves by using their parachutes and then hiding among bushes in the border of the woods next to a clear area, at a certain distance to the nearest friendly camp (E). B: Aircraft OV-10 Bronco act as early control points; their task is to keep radio communication with the crew to be rescued, the support and rescue aircraft and the ships of the US Navy which patrol the coast. The OV-10 of the USAF were equipped with the system "Pave Nail", which included a night sight, target designator and special electronic devices. The OV-10 in the illustration keeps radio contact with the survivors, the rescue forces and the patrolling ship. C: Enemy activity exists in this area in the form of infantrymen anxious to capture the survivors, anti-aircraft armament of caliber higher than 100 millimeters and surface-to-air missiles SA-2 with a range of about 40 kilometers. One of these is launched against the rescue aircraft from a North Vietnamese missile battery. D: The early control aircraft requests an aerial incursion against the enemy forces that threaten the rescue operation. In the illustration can be seen how two aircraft Cessna A-37 arrive after being called. Originally built to serve as training aircraft, a certain number of these aircraft were reconverted into effective close support aircraft able to carry a variety of weapons, including six 226-kilogram bombs. E: The early control aircraft requests artillery support from a nearby fire support base. F: At some distance from the scene of action flies an EC-121 Warning Star in radar surveillance mission. This aircraft, a conveniently modified Lockheed Super Constellation, watches for enemy MiG fighters and missiles that could threaten the rescue and support forces. In the illustration the EC-121 passes information in real time about the missile launched by the enemy to a specially equipped US Navy ship - codenamed "Red Crown" - which patrols the waters of the Tonkin Gulf. The "Red Crown" evaluates the information provided by the surveillance aircraft and promptly transmits the appropriate instructions to the threatened aircraft.

The inset illustration shows the rescue force, which comprises: H: Two transport helicopters Sikorsky HH-53C fitted with refueling probe, two detachable 1703-liter fuel tanks and a special rescue davit with 76-meter cable. J: The flying helicopters are refueled before starting the operation. The tanker aircraft is one of the 20 Lockheed HC-130P Hercules that were reconverted for this task. In a typical refueling mission, an HC-130 carrying 33385 kilograms of fuel met with the helicopters 925 kilometers far from their base, filled them with 22000 kilograms of fuel and then returned to its base. K: Six piston-engined Douglas A-1 Skyraider, codenamed "Sandy", serve as escort for the helicopters. Albeit their limited speed made them vulnerable to ground anti-aircraft fire, they were extremely useful in operations that had to be carried in unstable weather conditions, like in the monsoon season, when it was frequent to face low clouds and scarce visibility.

Air war over Vietnam

Air combat

From the 1950s, the USAF sent to Southeast Asia personnel for every service. They were sent as advisers, experts in maintenance and supplies and as fighting crews as well; initially to support the French regime still stablished there, and later as reinforcement for the resistence that the democracies of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia opposed to the communist agression. Since 1961, the aircraft of the USAF flew in reconnaissance missions and to defoliate the thick jungle. Interception missions were started in March 1962. The first air-to-air combat between American and North Vietnamese aircraft took place the 4th April 1965, when two fighter-bombers F-105D Thunderchief were shot down by MiG-17 fighters. Here are shown some combat tactics that were put into practice in the skies of Vietnam.

Mutual support

The 2nd September 1972, two F-105G and two F-4E flew in incursion against the airfield at Phuc Yen. Approaching the target, an enemy attack with SAM forced them to fly at low altitude, where they would be exposed to dense anti-aircraft fire. Acting separately, the F-4 attacked a SAM emplacement. Meanwhile, the F-105 waited about 40 kilometers far from there. When the F-4 were to join the F-105 again (A), these were attacked by a MiG fighter (B) that fired a missile against them, missing the target. Then the MiG pursued the F-105. The F-4 approached from behind without being detected. When the F-4 that went ahead (C) launched its missiles, its companion (D) was watching the trajectory of an SA-2 that had been launched (E). The F-4 managed to avoid the SAM and destroy the MiG with his missiles. This incident demonstrates a good degree of effectiveness for mutual support between American aircraft and a good coordination between the North Vietnamese fighters and the operators of the missile battery that promptly opened fire when having the enemy aircraft so close.

Formation dispersed in four

This type of formation was practiced by American fighters at the expectance of being attacked by MiG. It was intended to optimize the possibilities of visual and radar observation and ease mutual defense. About 1000 meters above and 600 meters behind the aircraft that led the flight and the one that covered its flank, the other two aircraft that integrated the patrol flew following a path in "S". One of these was in charge of visual observation and the other in charge of radar surveillance.

Maneuver "corkscrew"

This maneuver was used for turning a merely defensive position into one suitable for attacking. A MiG-21 (red strip) cuts by the flank the flight of an F-4. This one dives while turning against the MiG, forcing it to turn as well. The F-4 flies "a la corkscrew" to continue the attack in a surrounding loop at the flank of the MiG, which is forced to pass again above its adversary, granting him the optimal attack position "six o'clock".

Air war over Vietnam

Maneuver "cartwheel"

The North Vietnamese developed in 1967 a defensive maneuver known as "cartwheel". When they were attacked, the MiG-17 formed, flying at low altitude in a circular path, an enclosure similar to the one that formed with their carts the colonizers of the Wild West to defend themselves against the natives. The MiG pilots would so cover each other from an attack. During the development of this one, the MiG could either continue flying in the circle or in a given moment leave it at high speed and escape. Due to the low altitude, the enemy radars would have to face a high level of ground echoes and the missiles would lose a large part of their effectiveness. This tactic was successful because the MiG had better maneuverability than the heavier American aircraft; albeit it was purely defensive, its utilization was justified by the low experience of North Vietnamese pilots in 1967.

Maneuver "kite's curl"

The attack maneuver "kite's curl" was intended to take a more advantageous firing position. In this example an F-4 (A) flying at high speed encounters a MiG (B) and crosses its path with a 90 degrees angle. Then the MiG starts a turn (B1), while the F-4 performs the "kite's curl" maneuver by placing itself in the trail of the MiG, taking position behind it and slightly at its flank in the classical firing position called "six o'clock", to attack it with infrared missiles Sidewinder AIM-9B which are attracted by the engine exhaust.

Air war over Vietnam

Categories: Aviation - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-01-21

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