The Evolution of Fighter Tactics in SEA



At a luncheon honoring this year's Mackay Trophy winners--the three USAF Vietnam aces--the Commander of Tactical Air Command, who had previously headed Seventh Air Force in Vietnam, talked about tactical fighter operations during the eight years of Air Force combat in Southeast Asia. Here, adapted from that address, is an analysis by USAF's most experienced air tactician . . ..


The Air Force Magazine July 1983, Vol. 56, No. 7


THE Vietnam War has had a profound effect on tactical air forces equipment and training and on the employment of those forces. Even though it is often said that the basic principles for employing tactical airpower haven't changed, the methods and techniques have changed in some very fundamental ways.

Prior to the 1965 decision to bomb North Vietnam, air refueling of fighters was considered a means of deployment, rather than an accepted procedure for the employment of these forces. During most of our training, emphasis was placed on refueling for long over water flights. These techniques of air refueling gave our tactical air force a rapid-reaction capability to meet contingency situations.

I don't believe many foresaw that air refueling would become a basic part of the scheme of employment of fighter forces over North Vietnam. Yet, early operations indicated that it would be most difficult to sustain any significant TAC air effort unless air refueling were used. The fighter force was based about 350 nautical miles from Hanoi. Thus, with any substantial armament load, there was no way an F-105 or F-4 could fly such a mission without air refueling.

As the bombing campaign developed, it was necessary to employ twice a day a strike force broken down in two waves. As long as unguided bombs were the standard munitions, this size force represented about the best potential for destroying most of the assigned targets.

It has been estimated that there were four to five thousand AAA weapons of varying caliber throughout all of North Vietnam. As expected, these weapons were concentrated around the targets that were of value, and the largest concentrations were around Hanoi and Haiphong. In World War II, there was the element of surprise, which materially assisted in degrading the quality of the AAA. This was not the case in North Vietnam. There was no element of surprise because of the small geographical area involved, limited approach routes, and the few targets available for attack.

As a consequence of the geography, strike forces had to meet the defenses almost head on. That is, there was limited opportunity to strike from multiple directions and to feint the enemy defenses out of position. It was necessary to designate specific elements of the strike force to counter AAA fire in the target area. For fighter operations, this isn't a unique technique. It was used in World War II and Korea.

In suppressing AAA defenses in North Vietnam, a given number of flights or elements within a flight were armed with CBU (cluster bomb unit) munitions to hit positions that were firing at our strike flights. These supporting attacks had to be carefully timed. If the suppressive strikes were made too soon, it allowed the North Vietnamese gunners to concentrate maximum fire against the strike fighters in their most vulnerable position, which was at the time of roll-in for the dive-bombing run.

The timing was split-second, since the force normally penetrated at about nine miles a minute and then increased speed to over ten miles a minute during the bombing run. Traveling at these speeds demanded that every pilot knew his job in great detail and could react to the anticipated situation without delay.

As a sidelight, I think an old cliche about fighter pilots has been disproved. When I went through flying school, it was said that the pilots with brains but who couldn't fly were put into bombardment; pilots who had no brains but could fly were put into pursuit; and pilots who had neither brains nor ability to fly were put into observation. If there is an elite in the Air Force, it is the men who fly fighters, since they have to be able to outthink the enemy, make split-second decisions, and translate those decisions into action instantaneously.


The SAM Threat

Prior to the Vietnam War, many people in the tactical commands were concerned about the effectiveness of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). It was generally though this threat could be managed somewhat like the antiaircraft threat--that is, direct attack would be the best solution. It has been estimated that the North Vietnamese doubled the number of SA-2 SAM battalions between 1966 and the time bombing in the North was resumed in 1972. Most of these missile battalions were located in the immediate vicinity of Hanoi and Haiphong. Consequently, the threat was of a far greater magnitude than would have been the case if strike forces had a greater array of targets and a much broader area of operation. Lacking these tactical assets, the SA-2 threat had to be handled in a much more sophisticated manner.

This prompted the introduction of the "Iron Hand" flights, which were in direct support of strike forces. Of all the strike and support forces, the iron Hand flights were truly the elite. These flights sought out the missile sites, and the battle of wits between the F-105 Wild Weasel pilots of the Iron hand flights and the North Vietnamese controllers makes a most fascinating story. Of course, we knew where most of the active sites were, but there were always a number that were brought to bear against the strike forces that were not known until their radars came on the air.

These Iron Hand flights would attempt to get the SA-2s to come on the air prior to the arrival of the strike flights in the target area. If they could get the SA-2s to commit, then the strike flight would have a decided improvement in probability of hitting the target and escaping without damage. The Iron hand flights would attempt to launch a Shrike or Standard ARM (antiradiation missile) against the radar of the SAM site. These Shrike and Standard ARM launches were followed up by other strike aircraft with conventional weapons.

Many times the Iron Hand flights would be unable to launch against the SAM site because the radar signal would be shut down. Nevertheless, if the SAM radars could be forced off the air, this gave the strike force just enough time to slide past the site. These iron Hand flights were indeed manned by brave pilots. They were the first in and the last out.


Electronic Countermeasures (ECM)

Prior to the war, I don't believe it occurred to many fighter pilots that the need to block out enemy electronic emissions would dictate the type of formation flown. Yet, this is what developed as a result of the heavy SAM and AAA defenses. Fighters had no capability for protecting themselves with electronic jamming equipment during the early days of the war. Most equipments were developed for bombers. It was not until early 1967 that an operational ECM pod was ready for fighters.

These ECM pods had a revolutionary effect not only on the employment of fighters in heavy defenses but in reduction of losses. By the time of the cease-fire, each fighter carried two pods. These pods were used to jam SAMs, early warning radars, and ground-control intercept radars. The enemy's entire electronic order of battle was within the jamming potential of these pods.

Fighter pilots had to learn how to fly a precise formation and maneuver the formation at very high speeds without wingmen getting out of position. The formation was the only means by which the fighters could gain self-protection. For maximum effectiveness, each fighter had to maintain a very precise position in the formation because of technical features of the pod. If one strayed from that formation, he was immediately illuminated by enemy radar and became a candidate for a SAM. Formation integrity was absolutely essential until a few seconds before rolling into a dive-bomb run on a target.

Today, ECM has become a standard part of tactical air units. Tactics are designed to take advantage of this equipment. On the other hand, many changes have had to be made in the formations flown. As a general principle, most fighter formations are designed to facilitate an offensive posture. That is, the formation is loose enough for rapid maneuvering and positioning to launch an attack against an enemy fighter. This concept is still preferred. But the severity of the enemy missile and AAA threat may compel compromises in these formations. In other words, in the heavily defended areas, it may be necessary to sacrifice some offensive ability against enemy fighters in order to get more protection against the ground-to-air defenses.

In addition to the ECM equipment carried by each fighter, EB-66s were employed to jam SAMs and radars. Depending upon the approach to the target, the EB-66s were positioned so that the full power of jamming equipment would be available. All of this coordination demanded very close timing since the whole force during the last few miles into the target was flying at better than ten miles a minute.


Gen. William W. Momyer entered pilot training in 1938, following graduation from the University of Washington. A World War II fighter ace, he once single-handedly took on eighteen Luftwaffe JU-87s that were escorted by fighters and shot down four. With the exception of duty as an Air War College faculty member and Deputy Commandant, assignment to a senior position on the Air Staff, and command o f Air Training Command, his entire career has been associated with tactical air. Undoubtedly, he is the world's most broadly experienced expert in tactical air operations. General Momyer is a graduate of the Air War College and the National War College.


Countering the MlGs

The last element of the attacking force was the fighters. A number of different techniques were employed in using this force. During the early part of the war, F-4s carried bombs and were assigned targets in the same general area as the F-105s. This was done in order to put as much effort as possible against the available targets. Since often some targets were cleared for attack for only a short period of time, it was essential to get as much force onto those targets as possible before they were withdrawn from our target list. In addition, the MIG threat then was very low, so there was no need to sacrifice the bombing potential of the F-4.

As the MIG threat increased and as the enemy radar system improved, it became necessary to take the F-4s out of the strike role and use them exclusively for air-to-air combat. Of course, this didn't make F-4 pilots unhappy since they all wanted to get a MIG. Every fighter pilot has one ambition, I suppose, and that is to be an ace. Nevertheless, somebody has to do the bombing, since this is where the final payoff will come.

With the F-4s assuming a pure fighter role, a number of different techniques were tried to destroy the MIGs. The enemy realized that the bombing attacks were doing the real damage and that his fighter force had to be used primarily to stop these attacks, rather than trying to engage the F-4s that were no bombing threat. In order to stop these attacks, the enemy positioned his MIG-17s, which had good maneuverability, along the ingress routes of the F-105s. These MIG-17s would be held at specific points at a very low altitude.

As the F-105s would start to boost their speed for the final leg into the target and just prior to the heavily defended SAM ring, the MIG-17s would pop up and try to force the F-105s to jettison their bombs. To some extent, this tactic succeeded for a short period of time. As this enemy tactic became established, F-4s were brought down to a lower altitude where these MIGs could be seen, and hit-and-run tactics were employed by the F-4s. This eventually eliminated the MIG-17 threat, and, during this period, the enemy fighter force was for all practical purposes destroyed.


Fighter Tactics Evolve

After a few months, and with a buildup in the number of MIG-21s, the enemy fighter force returned to combat, but with much more sophisticated tactics. The increased deployment of SAMs, greater concentration of AAA, better integration of radars, and an increased number of MIG-21s made these new tactics feasible. Since the North Vietnamese had only a small fighter force, it was necessary that it be under very close control and that it be committed to battle only when the situation was most favorable. Otherwise, their fighter force would again be driven from the battle.

It wasn't long until these changes in enemy tactics were apparent. Prior to this time, almost all of our aircraft were shot down by cannon fire. Rarely did the enemy fighters use air-to-air missiles, even though the MIG-21 carried the Atoll missile, which is very similar to our Sidewinder or AIM-9 heat-seeking missile. This early period of air combat was characterized by many dogfights with very close-in engagements. During these air battles, we soon learned that the way to employ the F-4 was to hit and run at high speed and not get enticed into a turning fight, in which the MIG-17 and -21 had the advantage. As long as the speed and acceleration of the F-4 were exploited, the outcome of the battle was in our favor. During this period of the war, we destroyed four enemy fighters for every one we lost.

As the enemy changed tactics, it became more difficult to exploit the advantage of our fighters. Instead of engaging in dogfights, the enemy chose to bring the MIG-21s in at Mach 1.2 or thereabouts, in a stern attack with missiles. This was a very effective tactic since it capitalized on his excellent radar control system and employed surprise to the maximum extent. Furthermore, our fighters were normally cruising at about 480 knots in order to conserve fuel, so a hit-and-run attack at the six o'clock position gave the MIGs the best probability of a kill, with the least exposure to fire from the F-4s.

The exchange rate dropped from four to one in our favor to two to one. The rate was beginning to climb to a more favorable ratio at the conclusion of the war. For several reasons, I don't believe it would have reached the Korean rate of fourteen to one. Most of the time, our fighters were beyond the limits of our ground-based radar during these engagements. Consequently, the enemy--operating under radar control--had a tremendous advantage. After we began using the EC-121 as an airborne radar platform and had worked out better integration with the Navy's sea-based radars, we were able to provide timely radar information to the fighters. This information, when used with that from the F-4's own radar, created a better situation for engaging the enemy fighters. I am convinced that, had the war continued in North Vietnam, it would have only been a matter of time until the enemy air force would have been completely destroyed.

Our greatest strength in this war, as has been true in all of our wars, is people. The conduct of tactical air operations was highly complex. Bringing together all the elements of a combat force--the tankers that did the air refueling, the Wild Weasels that suppressed the SAMs, the fighters that did the bombing, and the fighters that engaged enemy fighters--required great skill and professionalism.

We must not let that professionalism decline. We must provide the resources to maintain our tactical air forces in a strong and viable condition in the years ahead. I have been through the dismantling of our tactical air force after World War II and Korea. Surely, the lessons of history are clear. We cannot afford again to not be ready. The surest path to peace is through strength.

Air Force Association




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