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ATKFITRON, Vietnam and the SAM crisis of 1965

Dan Rush

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“Sammy comes to Vietnam”

Dealing with the SA-2 Guideline.


The Soviet made SA-2 Guideline (NATO name)



     The first confirmation that the Soviet Davina S-75 surface to air missile (or “SA2 Guideline” as NATO called it) system was in North Vietnam was on April 5, 1965 when an RF-8 Crusaider from USS Coral Sea brought back photos of an operational “clover” near Fook Yen outside Hanoi. A “clover” is the traditional Russian arrangement for a Soviet anti-aircraft missile battalion; seven portable missile launcher base racks ringed around a central radar control station with dug out interconnecting serving roads that give the whole site the appearance of a highway clover-leaf.


       The war had entered “Operation Rolling Thunder” in January 1965 as the US Air Force based out of Udorn, Udapau and Korat Thailand and from Tan Su Naught Air Base in South Vietnam joined the US Navy off the coast in the operational box called “Yankee Station” in both suppression and offensive strike missions against North Vietnam as called for under Phase III of the Johnson Administrations plan to conduct the Vietnam War.


      The appearance of the same SAM’s which brought down Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy-plane over Russia in 1960 caused alarm in the Joint Chiefs and senior commanders of air units in Vietnam and though not yet operational; the consensus was that this was a major escalation by Russia requiring an immediate response. Requests were made for the sites to be bombed before they became operational but the Johnson Administration denied the requests because of the possibility, later proven, that Soviet advisors were present to over-see the construction and training of their North Vietnamese allies as they were in Cuba. Once again, racism played a hand in the decision as well. Few believed that the North Vietnamese, nor any Vietnamese, could master with adequacy the technical requirements needed to field, operate and effectively employ SAM’s against US Air Power. Once again…they were about to get a nasty shock concerning the abilities of the Asian culture.


      The construction of these sites continued from January 1965 until their suspected operational status in late June and the lack of action from the Americans bewildered the North Vietnamese as the sites began to take on their Russian “clover-leaf” appearance. In the interim, the Chinese, The North’s neighbor to the north, actually viewed the Soviet move in North Vietnam as seriously alarming. Vice Premier under Mao Lu Ting expressed “deep dismay” about the amounts of Russian equipment pouring into the North adding…”It is unwise to fill a small tea cup with a big water bucket as the overfill creates a mess and someone will be burned by the hot tea.” Which translates into “You Russian morons are going to start something that will get out of control fast.”


      The Communist Chinese realized that all they and the Russians needed to do was exert worry on the Johnson Administration about potential involvement and Washington, being self-serving bastards who’ll save their own hides while sending men to die for them, would self-restrict their own efforts. Moscow however did not accept the Chinese concern. The flow of SAM’s in large quantities continued through the first six months of 1965 as the Vietnamese rushed the first batteries around Hanoi and Phook Yun to completion.


       Here is where the Vietnamese not only displayed their efficiency but their tactical genius. The one weakness the Vietnamese quickly saw in the Russian construction was…..it’s nakedness. The obviousness of the traditional Soviet clover pattern was evident and to the bewilderment of the Vietnamese, the Russian advisors seemed oblivious to the fact. This is where Vietnamese engineering and their “knack” for “camo fashion” and “hide in plain site” tricks were quickly put to good use. While a few of the Hanoi ringed batteries remained in the classic Soviet style, the Vietnamese quickly abandoned them for a more spread out and un-uniform employment pattern. Camouflage was used extensively on the mobile launchers, some missiles were even stood upright and decorated to look as much like regular palm trees as possible while still being ready to fire in under two minutes.


     The Vietnamese also did not depend on the radar sets alone, as the Russians (in their overt pride) claimed that the radar’s, being Soviet made, were absolutely superior. The North Vietnamese reverted to the old true methods of advanced spotters and good communications. If the downing of an American jet could be traced back to a particular spotter; that person was often richly rewarded with American currency. As Stephen Coontz wrote in “Flight of the Intruder.”….”Every gook on the ground has a rifle.” Perhaps he should have added…”And every Vietnamese had a good set of binoculars too.”


      Knowing where American pilots could and could not attack also helped the North Vietnamese SAM placement since the era of true accurate “smart weapons” would not come about until the 1980’s; no one wanted to be accused in the world media for “bombing a school full of children.” Just to get one pesky SAM launcher.


     The decision not to go after the sites early in 65 would prove fatal as the first US aircraft shot down by a Vietnamese SA-2 battery occurred on 25 July 1965 when a Soviet training crew observed by Vietnamese trainees brought down an RF-4C near Hanoi. The pilot Air Force Captain Richard Kiern survived but his Radar Officer Captain Roscoe Fobair was killed. Kiern’s plane was one of a flight of four RF-4C’s and all of them caught hell from the same battery. All three planes returned severely damaged by close proximity fuse detonations.


     The S-75 Davina/ SA2 Guideline was North Vietnam’s main go to SAM and it was as the pilots described “A flying telephone pole with stubby wings…..a real “Scottish Monster” in reference to the wood poles Scotsmen hurled skywards at clan meetings.


Captain Kiern’s RF-4C as the SA2 warhead detonates.


SA2 in flight over Hanoi 1965


     The SA-2 was accurate, fast and lethal above 3,000 feet. After launch the missile accelerated to Mach 3.5 and had a maximum range of about 25 miles. It could intercept targets flying as high as 50,000 feet, but was generally ineffective against aircraft flying at high speeds at altitudes under 3000 ft. The SA2 was directed by the Fan Song radar after information was handed to it by the initial contacting radar set called the “Spoon Rest” by NATO. An SA2 battery had a radar detection range of 171 miles in circumference by the systems optimal range of lethality lay at 17 miles from the Fan Song battery.

     The SA2 itself is a two-stage missile consisting of a solid-fuel booster and a storable liquid-fuel upper stage, which burns red fuming nitric acid as the oxidizer and kerosene as the fuel. The booster fires for about 4–5 seconds and the main engine for about 22 seconds, by which time the missile is traveling at about Mach 3. The booster mounts four large, cropped-delta wing fins that have small control surfaces in their trailing edges to control roll. The upper stage has smaller cropped-deltas near the middle of the airframe, with a smaller set of control surfaces at the extreme rear and (in most models) much smaller fins on the nose. The missiles were guided using radio control signals (sent on one of three channels) from the guidance computers at the site. The earlier S-75 models received their commands via two sets of four small antennas in front of the forward fins while the D model and later models used four much larger strip antennas running between the forward and middle fins. The guidance system at an S-75 site can handle only one target at a time, but it can direct three missiles against it. Additional missiles could be fired against the same target after one or more missiles of the first salvo had completed their run, freeing the radio channel.The missile typically mounts a 195 kg (430 lb) fragmentation warhead, with proximity, contact, and command fusing. The warhead has a lethal radius of about 65 m (213 ft) at lower altitudes, but at higher altitudes the thinner atmosphere allows for a wider radius of up to 250 m (820 ft). The missile itself is accurate to about 75 m (246 ft), which explains why two were typically fired in a salvo. Typical range for the missile is about 45 km (28 mi), with a maximum altitude around 20,000 m (66,000 ft). The radar and guidance system imposed a fairly long short-range cutoff of about 500 to 1,000 m (1,600 to 3,300 ft), making them fairly safe for engagements at low level.

    The US Navy’s first combat loss from the SA2 was an A-4 Skyhawk off the USS Midway. Up to this point in time both the Navy and Air Force’s ability to pick up a flying SA2 depended on eye sight than electronics. The earliest warning equipment mounted on most US Navy planes was “The Growler” which made a disturbing sort of low pitched “growling” in the cockpit which warned the pilot that a tracking radar had acquired his airplane. Problem was, there was no tie in information to the HUD (Heads Up Display) that we now see on modern combat aircraft like the F-18 Hornet. Modern combat displays tell the pilot what kind of weapons system is tracking him, the strength of the tracking radar and the direction in relation to the HUD’s view of compass rose to aircraft (Front, back, Left, Right relation to six o clock low.)

Modern HUD representation of directional threat spikes.

      The aircraft losses became a worsening reality to the Navy over the course of a week after the first SAM shootdown as another A-4 off USS Midway was blasted out of the sky over Hanoi. Two other aircraft (F-4 Phantoms from VF-161 “The Red Rockers” departed their assigned targets South of Hanoi and egressed below 3,000 feet to defeat the surrounding SAM radars only to get chopped viciously by North Vietnamese gunners. The discipline of the anti-air defenses over and around the North Vietnamese capital convinced Admiral Sharp to confront the Joint Chiefs with great vehemence…

       “If the enemy keeps up their strong defense from their “privileged” and “protected” sanctuary in Hanoi; what kind of a damned air fleet do you think I’ll have left? No disrespect intended but we are not engaged in some silly kite flying exhibition out here gentlemen.”

Admiral Stark’s message to JCS, 24 July 1965

     Ambassador Taylor in Saigon sent a message back to Washington D.C. echoing Admiral Sharp’s complaints and urging President Johnson to pull Hanoi from the protective privilege list of off limit targets and allow the Navy and USAF to attack every SAM site they could identify. The number of operational sites grew quickly from the first downing from 4 to 7 as Tailor’s message reached the White House. To bring more emphasis to the dilemma, a radio controlled SAC (Strategic Air Command) drone was shot down by Hanoi site number 5 as it flew at 58,000 feet.

Vietnam ushers in the era of the drone.

     A break in the Vietnam chapter. The shoot down of the SAC drone in July of 1965 by SAM site 5 was a heralding moment in the history of US air warfare; it confirms that the United States used drone aircraft in combat areas as far back as Vietnam and not as late as we’re seeing now with the US Navy’s carrier launch able UAV program or the Predator drones of the “War on Terror” in the early 2000’s. In fact crude drones were part of the anti-SAM war which soon followed the Hanoi splurges of July 1965, including the use of obsolete BOMARC missiles as “Sammy Teasers” which will be explained later in this chapter. In fact remote controlled aircraft experiments in warfare can be traced back to World War II. Navy Lieutenant Joseph Patrick Kennedy, son of Ambassador Joe Kennedy and brother of President Kennedy, was killed volunteering to fly a radio controlled B-17 flying bomb over the English channel in 1942. He remains listed as an MIA/KIA to this day.


The BOMARC surface to surface missile with launcher

      What still remains secret about drone operations in Vietnam to this day is how extensive were they used in the overall campaign and could drones in sufficient quantity have saved countless airmen? The real operational effectiveness of any Vietnam era drone programs will probably remain a secret however their growth from the post-Vietnam era and their enormous and beneficial contribution to air warfare in this day and age (2016) is undisputed.

     Returning to the early days of the SAM war over Vietnam; President Johnson authorized Admiral Sharp to undertake offensive operations “Outside the Hanoi/Haiphong” sphere of protection only…which was an absurd concept that assured Hanoi’s continued supply of new SAM shipments from Russia. Sharp pushed no further complaints, what he should have done was resigned his commission and gone to the American people. Any conditions which may have remained to salvage the American effort in Southeast Asia were gone at this point, so too was any reasonable logic for the US to remain committed to the venture. Thousands of men and hundreds of US airmen would pay with their lives; backstabbed by a clueless and idiotic central bureaucracy that has not changed since Korea.

    Sharp delegated the SAM hunt to the Air Force Commander in Vietnam. General Moore on July 27,1965 authorized Operation Spring High forty-six F–105s, carrying napalm and CBUs, supported by fifty-eight other aircraft (three EB–66s, six Marine EF–10Bs, two EC–121s, eight F–105s, eight F–104s, four RF–101s, twelve F–4Cs, and fifteen KC–135s) to the offending missile installations. Eleven Thunderchiefs struck site 6 and twelve struck site 7. At the same time, twenty-three aircraft hit barracks areas suspected of housing SAM air defense personnel at nearby Cam Doi and Phu Nieu. In their bombing runs, pilots flew 50 to 100 feet above the terrain, four abreast, to deliver their napalm and CBU ordnance.* The attack was very costly. The North Vietnamese had ringed the sites with 37-mm, 57-mm, and 85-mm antiaircraft guns, and aircraft flying into and out of the target areas faced intense ground  fire for seven and a half minutes. Enemy gunners damaged one F–105 striking site 6. During the approach to Udorn with an escort, the damaged

aircraft rammed its escort and both planes and pilots were lost. Two more

Thunderchiefs were shot down with their pilots while attacking site 7. A fifth F–105 and pilot were lost in an associated strike on the Cam Doi barracks. A sixth was downed after hitting the barracks at Phu Nieu, but the pilot was rescued, the sole survivor of the antiaircraft barrage. The heavy attrition was even more distressing in light of electronic evidence that Fan Song radars were emitting before, during, and after the air strikes and that bomb damage assessment photos disclosed that there was a dummy missile in site 6, placed there as a trap, and that site 7 was empty.


       Spring High was an appalling disaster, a media coup for the North Vietnamese who quickly accused the United States of “murdering civilians without pity.” And relations with Thailand were almost torn asunder when United Press International reported that the two aircraft which collided at the end of their mission, collided at their base in Udorn. The Thai’s were stern in their demands that their involvement in Vietnam with basing US warplanes be kept a close secret. Spring High once again validated the stability of North Vietnamese fire discipline when it came to ground guns, a level of professionalism and co-ordination which the Americans never expected and now they were forced to give grudging respect. The planning for Spring High was piss poor, the U2 intelligence read with too much haste and the whole air package thrown together and designed on a level more befitting a 3rd grader with crayons than professional soldiers.


      Sharp seemed unconcerned about the North Vietnamese gunners who would score more hits throughout the war than their SAM assigned brethren, instead Sharp ordered more attention to dealing with the SAM sites alone despite the rings of guns around them. Sharp did however take the North Vietnamese ability to use deception very seriously. He ordered comprehensive round the clock surveillance flights with the Air Force flying from midnight to noon and the Navy flying from noon to midnight to keep abreast on the situated SAM sites. He also ordered an extension of the intelligence gathering and analysis effort; doubling the size of photo discrimination crews (double eyes check system) to verify the existence of “boogy sites” with their faked SAM missiles.


      Hanoi 8 site went operational just as the next Program of Operation Rolling Thunder on August 3rd. Program 26/27 called for the site to be bombed to test new tactics to deal with the Vietnamese gunners ringing the SAM sites. But again Admiral Sharp’s request to deal with sites within the Hanoi ring or send planes to bomb the transport ships in Haiphong Harbor were rejected. On August 9th 1965, a force of twelve F–105 Thunderchiefs with Maj. William J. Hosmer of the 12th Tactical Fighter Squadron as mission commander, headed for the installation accompanied by many supporting aircraft flying MiG and rescue CAP, ECM, and ELINT. Because the area was heavily defended by 37-mm, 57-mm, 85-mm, and 100-mm guns, Hosmer split his force into three flights of four aircraft each. The lead flight, led by Hosmer, winging at minimum altitude and high speed from divergent directions, dropped 173 CBUs on radar-directed and other antiaircraft guns. Behind them, flying in train, came the remaining Thunderchiefs, dropping their 750- pound general-purpose bombs in a series of low-altitude, pop-up strikes. The

tactic of targeting the gun emplacements first, of which several were hit, and of drawing away fire allowed the follow-on aircraft to strike the missile area more accurately. No aircraft were lost and only one Thunderchief was damaged. For his leadership, Major Hosmer won the Silver Star. Unfortunately, as in the assault on July 27, bomb damage assessment disclosed that the missile revetments were unoccupied, indicating that the DRV was able to anticipate an attack and to disperse missiles and associated equipment quickly.

      America was dealing with a demonstrably efficient, intelligent and organized enemy. Between Admiral Sharp and Air Force General Harris, both men conceived what became known as “Iron Hand” the tactical air strategy to deal with Hanoi’s tough SAM defenses outside the protected perimeter. One part was to destroy the vital bridges which led from Hiphong, through central Hanoi and over these bridges to the SAM sites beyond. Bridges 6,7, and 8 were considered critical to the North Vietnamese efforts so they were targeted. The Navy would take on the mission of bombing the SAM sites beyond the protected ring.


      General Harris quickly selected a number of F–105Ds as Iron Hand aircraft and PACFLT designated a few A–6A Intruders and A–4E Skyhawks for the same purpose.* The Air Force Thunderchiefs, loaded with ordnance, would rely initially on photos or ELINT data gathered by reconnaissance planes in searching for known or suspected SAM installations. If weather or operational problems canceled an anti-SAM mission, they could strike other targets.15 Meanwhile, Hanoi’s air defense units were far from intimidated. On August 12, within hours of Sharp’s receipt of the Joint Chiefs’ latest strike authorization another SA–2 missile downed a Navy A–4E Skyhawk and damaged a second about fifty-five miles southwest of Hanoi. As no parachute was observed, the pilot of the first Skyhawk was presumed killed. Both aircraft were part of a flight engaged in armed reconnaissance along Route 119 at about 9,000 feet, outside the range of known SAM sites. The other Skyhawk pilots believed they saw a second missile fired.


    Sharp immediately dispatched his first Iron Hand search and destroy directive to PACAF and PACFLT commanders. But in selecting Navy aircraft for the initial missions, he ordered PACAF to “stand down” its Rolling Thunder operations for the remainder of the day while aircraft from the Coral Sea and Midway undertook a massive hunt for the offending SAM site or sites. During the next two days, the Navy flew 124 missions, with an outcome not unlike the Air Force’s first anti-SAM effort on July 27: high cost and no verifiable results. Intense ground fire downed five Navy aircraft and damaged seven. Two pilots were lost. Once again, North Vietnam’s air defense cadres had camouflaged the sites, positioned many antiaircraft weapons in the surrounding area, and dispersed their missile equipment prior to the Navy’s search.


     It is bewildering as one who served 20 years in Naval Aviation to understand how so many senior officers in the US military could screw up so disastrously in understanding the enemy; this could only have been bread and born not only in American society, where we think of ourselves as somehow superior and God blessed than all other nations, but in the military academies where only 25 years earlier naval air officers were being told that the Japanese were short, inferior beings with bucked teeth. When you dehumanize your enemy and treat him with such disrespect….you will get your ass handed to you and in 1965 both the Navy and Air Force were carrying the remains of their ass in buckets.


     It took weeks before the Joint Chiefs rescinded a ridiculous order telling airmen to fly below the effective range of the SAM missiles, while you might think this is crazy…it was actually better to deal with the SAM’s where electronics, chaff, flares and good training could do more for the airman than having them be cheese bate for the North Vietnamese gunners. But things were about to get much worse.


     On the 23rd of August 1965 in Rolling Thunder Program 28/29; the Navy attacked a suspected site about thirty-five miles northeast of Hanoi. Sixteen A–4Es, escorted by six F–8s, zoomed in at low level to drop Snake Eye ordnance. Once more, post strike photos disclosed an empty site and the cost was considerable. DRV gunners damaged six aircraft, filling two with so many holes in their wing tanks they had to fly back to their carrier plugged into refueling tankers.


The next day, one of two PACFLT F–4B Phantoms flying at 12,000 feet on barrier combat air patrol (BARCAP) was lost to a salvo of about seven SAMs from a site about fifty miles southeast of Hanoi and ten miles north of the Thanh Hoa bridge. One missile detonated directly behind the doomed aircraft and a second narrowly missed a wingman. Of the two-man crew in the downed Phantom, one was believed killed and the second, who parachuted safely from his aircraft, was apparently captured. It was the fourth U.S. loss to SAMs.23 Very upset, Admiral Sharp informed the JCS that the chances of finding the mobile SAM equipment and concealed site were remote, and that the DRV gunners were probably waiting for a special U.S. air effort to find the offending weapon. Sharp said that the continued missile firings indicated that the present Rolling Thunder targets were not of great value to the Hanoi regime. He strongly urged hitting a more vital target, such as Haiphong’s principal POL installation, as soon as possible. However, administration officials were not prepared to endorse such provocative action.


    The presence now of mobile SAM launchers in Hanoi in addition to the SA-2’s turned Hanoi into the most heavily defended target since Berlin. You could fly up high and get “SAM slapped” or go low and get kissed by a bullet shot by “Jimmy the rice farmer and his World War I musket.” Light hearted treatment to what was now a dangerous back and forth between the cagey North Vietnamese and the technologically superior Americans.


“Dueling with Sammy”

The tactics of anti-SAM warfare


      The Navy’s first electronic attempt to thwart the radar of the SA2 Guideline sites around Hanoi came with an upgrade to the A-4 Skyhawk’s ALQ-51 radar set in early September 1965. In theory the radar decepter would confuse the SA2’s seeker head and receiver gear and “break” the control lock and signals passing between the Fan Song fire control and the launched “bird”.


     It’s first test came when battery site number 5 launched on a pair of A-4 skyhawks from VA-22 off USS Midway (CV-41). Lieutenant Charles Mindell watched his wingman Lieutenant Peter Tedderman roll around in what was thought to be a crazy or suicidal maneuver…Tedderman turned his plane nose-on towards the oncoming SAM and started to count out-loud over the radio….


    “One thousand, two thousand, three thousand…..ECM…..four thousand…..” 


     Tedderman pushed his control stick hard to the right, rolled the Skyhawk into a sharp turn, shot a chaff and flare canister from his aircraft and rolled out of the line of fire as the confused SA2 streaked past his tail and detonated safely out of range.


     Mindell caught Tedderman as they deplaned aboard Midway and asked him if he’d lost his mind. Tedderman’s maneuver was born simply from a lesson in boxing…


    “The cardinal rule in boxing is to make yourself as slim a target surface as possible, forcing your opponent to lose power by having to slide and roll punches around rather than delivering strait head on blows. The longer a punch takes to land, the more time you have to defend against it. Missiles are no different. It’s all in the presentation.


Lieutenant later retired Captain Peter Tedderman

“Duels and Dances over Vietnam” 1977


     Tedderman, who now lives in Whidbey Island Washington, inspired one of the more common tactics for defeating single contest engagements between combat aircraft and SAM’s, as Tedderman described it…it all comes down to presentation and profile.


    Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia because his U2 presented a “beneficial radar profile” for the SA2 to maintain “solid hold” and because the U2 had no ECM to confound the missile firing solution transmission. This same situation killed Air Force Captain Robert Anderson over Cuba in 1962. At the worst possible time, both men simply paniced and panic gets men killed.


     Turning into an on-coming SAM reduces your profile significantly to an enemy radar, the whole combat aircraft industry past Vietnam is about profiles, materials, paints, alloys and how all are combined to make the aircraft profile to radar signature less able to produce an “establishment lock” The F-18 per say has a 50 percent lesser profile than the F-4 Phantom and the new F-35 Lightening has a 60 percent lesser profile than the A-6 Intruder. Shape and size wise the FA-18 gives a 50 percent lesser shape profile than the brutish F-4.


    A reverse tactic of “taking the SAM head on” was the more difficult, and really crazy, “Sammy Teaster” where instead of turning into the launch, you turn your exhaust to the missile once you know it’s coming after you. At the right time, the pilot unloads one chaff and one flare pod from his bucket dispenser and climbs high right or high left in a breaking turn to confused the missile into running after the chaff cloud and flare and not the aircraft.


   Chaff’s first use in combat was during the Battle of Britain in 1940 when a German college professor named Otto Durnitch discovered that simple aluminum foil could cause a response on a radar transmission. To test his theory, the Luftwaffe loaded several buckets of aluminum onto two JU-88 Junker bombers and sent them against the Dover radar net at high altitude. The result was a response from two British fighter bases as they scrambled their Spitfires in response to a massive German raiding force heading for London. The Spitfires of course, ran into vapor.


    The Germans soon used the trick against Dover again but this time it masked a real blitz attack on London, the one which several bombs slammed into Buckingham Palace. Once again the British responded with two precious Spitfire squadrons flying to intercept vapor. While it didn’t take long for the Brits to figure out the deception, it caused a change in British air operations that gave the Germans a little benefit. No longer did the Brits scramble like mad to every solid radar call until its authenticity could be verified; which means the German raiders got much closer to their targets than the Brits should have allowed.


    Chaff and Flare deployment has become a piece of the over-all anti-defense warfare application of modern air tactics. During the Gulf War in 1991, the United States Navy employed two new models of the Tomahawk cruise missile which carried chaff and flare pods in addition to sub-munitions bomblets which caused the poor Iraqi air defense operators to loose their hair. During the first five days of the air campaign over Iraq it seemed like the Americans had aircraft coming out of thin air and squadrons in locations that defied any logic.


      The Vietnamese, masters of deception improve, watched several of their SAM launches and realized that they could fake the initial rocket firing with bags of flour and gunpowder exploded behind the rocket launcher racks. This little trick added to the stress and frustration influencing the thinking of many an American pilot who found himself caught amidst a salvo volley of SAM’s from different sites around Hanoi.

As the SA-2 and Fan Song could only track one target at a time, the Vietnamese often employed the volley shot from two or three sites at one aircraft. Unlike phased array (The Navy’s Arleigh Burke Destroyer for instance can track 24 targets and lock 24 targets) the single set Fan Song can only hold a single target. The missile site could not launch again until the lock with the in flight missile was broken by detonation or by necessity.


      A multiple salvo required pilots to be attentive, quick thinking and sort of like bank accountants. It also demanded that they treat the Vietnamese SAM threat always with a respectful seriousness. It was easier for two-man aircraft, like the F-4’s or A-6’s, to escape salvo launches than for the single man planes like the A-4 because the demands of keeping missile accountability could be thrown on the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) and leave the pilot to do what pilots do…..fly your ass off.


      Navy fighter pilot and Vietnam ace Randy Cunningham evaded 36 SAMs Over Quang Lan on January 19,1972 owed as much to his RIO Bill Driscol as to his airplane for surviving such a heavy salvo of SAM’s. Driscol organized the launch information and prioritized the threats well enough for Cunningham to react successfully. The problem was…this induced in Cunningham a near fatal state of invincibility. He bragged to fellow pilots that no SAM would ever touch him. On 10 May 1972 south of Hanoi, Cunningham’s F-4 “Showtime 500” was slammed by a SAM he never saw…


      “I asked for devine help, I said, God I didn’t mean to say I was invincible, get me out of this, I don’t want to be a POW.”


   Cunningham was lucky that even though his F-4 lost hydraulics, it didn’t lose the engine. Using thrust controls, Cunningham rolled the F-4 over and over until he got over the Gulf of Tonkin and ejected. He and Bill Driscol survived. When he got back to USS Constellation though, he was humbled for a week by fellow pilots over his “Sudden loss of SAM impervious diety-ship.”


    An even more crazy method of “dueling with Sammy” was called “Gun smoker” where a fighter like the F-101, F-104, F-8 or an F-4 equipped with a 30mm gun pod. Would fly dead on against the site and lay down a stream of lead against the Fan Song array. This was of course risky as hell in gun saturated Hanoi and left little room for error, you’re basically throwing yourself as a free target for a fast on-rushing missile. “Gun smoker” was a form of insurance later in the war as the Shrike ARM began to show up with the wild weasel program. Often a gun smoker would follow up a Shrike shot as insurance that the Fan Song set had been obliterated.


Anti-SAM efforts of the US Navy   


     Though the anti-SAM efforts in Vietnam were service encompassing, we’ll stick to what the US Navy did for its part from 1965 on. It first started with intelligence gathering as the US Navy EC-121 Big Look aircraft arrived at Da Nang in late August 1965 and flew out over the Gulf of Tonkin with an APS-20 radar to detect Fan Song radar sweep signals.





Navy/Air Force EC-121 “Big Looks” electronic reconnaissance aircraft.


     While the EC-121 could determine a geographic location of a certain Fan Song array, it didn’t have the capability of determining the precise location, that job still had to be done “in person” by other assets, in other words by “looking for a gunfight” and the Vietnamese were showing excellent skill in making that job a nightmare.


     On August 3rd 1965, Admiral Sharp ordered in the Marine Corps EA-3B Skywarrier Electronic detection aircraft to work in tandem with the EC-121’s to sharpen the detection and location picture for “Iron Hand/Gun Smoker” strikes on the SAM’s outside the protected Hanoi ring. Once again the wiley Vietnamese Fan Song operators quickly adapted to the American tactics by shutting down their radars upon getting word that spotters had sighted the American A-3 aircraft. All A-3’s were designated as potential electronic surveillance aircraft so the Vietnamese acted accordingly.


     Here is where drones began to show some promise of success. The Air Force launched a Ryan 147D drone on August 3rd, 1965 ahead of a “Gun Smoker strike package” and the Drone both photographed and fooled three sites of Fan Song crews into keeping their sets in transmit long enough for a near accurate location assessment to be sent to Operations and then back to the “Gun Smoke” package. Sadly…they didn’t smoke a single site. But on August 31st 1965, Two drones working in tandem with an EC-121 discovered two sites ( site 2 and 3) and the Gun Smokers were quick to pounce. One of the two Fan Songs was strike by Mark 81 bombs while another took out an F-105 West of Hanoi.


     Then the Vietnamese adapted again, this time they were wise to the drones and started blowing them out of the sky faster than the Air Force could employ them. The use of drones decreased until they were removed all together by October until SAC could better their survivability.



A Ryan 147D drone.




        From August 1965 to Late July 1966, the United States was confounded (to be kind) by the North Vietnamese SAM crews competency and their speed of adaptability. We shouldn’t forget that the United States faced an adversary whos’ intelligence network worm-holed through South Vietnam from the Government to the “hookers” in the barrios of Saigon. One female Vietcong operative who worked the brothels in Saigon said simply…


      “Get a young American drunk and laid enough and he’ll sing like a song bird fat on feed. The carelessness which the American G.I. handled important information left us thinking much of it was false information until we could check the authenticity.”


      The Vietnamese overlooked nothing important, they even had a team of simple thatch weavers employed to piece together shredded documents carelessly thrown in the general trash of the American Embassy in Saigon. The Iranians would do the same thing from 1979 to the mid-1980’s to documents the American embassy staff tried to destroy prior to the 1979 takeover and hostage crisis.

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9 hours ago, Home Fries said:

A great read.

Only thing is that reading stuff about the Vietnam war makes me think "BIH LBJ!"  His own cowardice ruined 50k American lives.

Yep.  Wars are winnable and if fought, should be fought to win, not to either tie or lose.

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