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North Vietnamese Air Force [NVAF] Operations

During the war in Southeast Asia, political restrictions gave the North Vietnamese Air Force a distinct advantage over the US. One of the restrictions forbade US air forces from bombing North Vietnamese air bases in and around Hanoi and Haiphong. This restriction essentially gave the North Vietnamese a safe haven for their MiG fighters. Because US forces could not fire on the MiGs parked on airfields, the North Vietnamese could pick their fights. Communist targets usually consisted of aircraft like F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers that had to drop their bombs before they could defend themselves against an air threat. In fact, MiG pilots usually harassed the F-105 pilots just enough to get them to drop their bombs prematurely. The MiGs would then retreat to the safety of their airfields when the F-105s turned to fight. The MiGs also avoided confrontations with the powerful F-4 Phantoms. With the North Vietnamese using these tactics, MiG kills became few and far between. The situation became even more critical with the addition of the MiG-21 to the North's arsenal.

On 8 May 1972, President Nixon halted peace negotiations with North Vietnam and authorized the Air Force to strike targets in the heart of that country, an area defended by over 200 MiGs. During Operation Linebacker, the North Vietnamese Air Force lost at least 40 MiGs in air battles to McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms.

The United States lost 67 aircraft in air-to-air combat while shooting down 137 North Vietnamese planes. No B-52s were lost to intercepting fighters. In the 1950 Korean conflict, American F-86 Sabre jet aircraft destroyed equally capable Soviet MIG-15 aircraft at a rate of 10 MIG's for every Sabre lost. In view of these results, the USAF and USN were surprised at the relatively poor exchange ratios of approximately 2:1 advantage over the North Vietnamese Air Force during the first half of the Vietnam conflict.

In 1969, the US Navy released the results of a study directed by Captain Frank Ault to explain the unexpected poor air combat maneuvering (ACM) performance of U.S. pilots in Southeast Asia. The "Ault Committee Report" (1969) identified deficiencies in air combat training as a primary factor. In particular, many pilots were reported to have fired their weapons (i.e., missiles) outside of tactical launch envelope boundaries.

The revival of the dogfight posed new requirements on the air-to-air weapon systems. The nearly complete reliance on AAMs, developed during the pre-Vietnarn period, was found to be erroneous. (". . . guided missiles of this type were intended for interception, . . . with a straight-line attack of the target. But it was difficult for the pilot to use them in maneuver battle. [Thus], cannon were hastily installed on the 'Phantoms' . . .; they are close range weapons.") In the early years of the war, the North Vietnamese Air Force got the better of the Americans, sneaking inside radar missile range and shooting US aircraft down at closer ranges, where they really needed a gun. Then, in an historical moment of inventive genius, men from the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Da Nang -- unsupported by policy or POM -- hotwired 20mm SUU-16 gun pods onto the F-4 centerlines. Within days our F-4s began bringing a surprise package to the party. From April 23 to June 5, 1967, the 366th TFW shot down 11 enemy MiGs, and became hailed forever more as "The Gunfighters."

Overall, during the air war over North Vietnam, the United States had a 2.63 : 1 victory-loss ratio comparing all U.S. losses to Vietnamese losses, and, when non-fighter aircraft are removed from the comparison, this rose to a 2.85: 1 air superiority edge over the North Vietnamese Air Force in fighter vs. fighter combat. But even given better radar and missile technology, the primary U.S. air-to-air fighter, the joint service and multipurpose McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II, had only a 3.46 : 1 overall exchange rate against various (and more agile) MiG opponents. This reflected primarily training, restrictive rules of engagement, and usage deficiencies, but also the problems of operating a heavy airplane never really intended for hard-maneuvering dogfighting against opponents optimized for the air-to-air combat arena. In Korea, by comparison, F-86 Sabre pilots shot down ten MiG-15's for every Sabre lost, and sometimes as many as fourteen per friendly lost.

When Vietnam's numbers are looked at in even greater detail, far more serious lessons are drawn: while 1960's Mach 1.5-Mach 2 supersonic American fighters had a 5.70 : 1 advantage over the subsonic Korean War-vintage MiG-17, they only had a 3.33 : 1 advantage over the Mach 1.5 supersonic MiG-19, and but a 1.8 : 1 advantage over the Mach 2 MiG-21.

Although only a little more than ten percent of the USAF's 625 aircraft losses in combat over North Vietnam were to MiGs, the MiG's caused expensive jettisoning of bombs and the dedication of fighters to patrol duty rather than strike duty." For example, by the end of 1967, there were only thirty MiG's operating in North Vietnam--but the percentage of Air Force strike sorties jettisoning bombs rose from 2% to more than 10%; on December 19 of that year, fully fifty percent of the strikers on one mission--20 of 40 aircraft--jettisoned their bombs when confronted by twelve threatening MiG's. As a result, by February 1968, the ratio of Air Force fighter sweep and fighter escort sorties to strike sorties rose from less than 1 : 5 to 2 : 1. In short, a numerically inferior force of enemy fighters had disrupted an entire campaign, even though that campaign, at least in theory, possessed "air superiority."

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