F-111 in Southeast Asia
In 1965, at the start of the OPERATION ROLLING THUNDER bombing campaign, the Air Force did not have a night/all-weather precision tactical bomber. The advanced F-111A provided this badly-needed capability. Introduced to combat somewhat prematurely in 1968, the F-111A returned triumphantly to play a key role in LINEBACKER operations over the North in 1972.
The lack of an all-weather precision tactical bomber was particularly acute with the heavy monsoons and ground fog that characterized the weather over North Vietnam. Strategic Air Command B-52s could have precisely hit targets in these conditions at the start of ROLLING THUNDER, but for political and military reasons, they could not be used over North Vietnam. Over time, the U.S. Air Force tried many different solutions, but found no workable method.
The revolutionary F-111A, which first flew in December 1964, seemed to offer the answer. The F-111A's sophisticated terrain-following radar automatically flew the aircraft at very low level, even over hills and mountains. Its advanced attack radar provided bombing accuracy far superior to other aircraft. These complicated systems, however, along with the novel use of a "swing-wing," experienced many problems that delayed the F-111A's operational use.
By the spring of 1968, after years of development, there was pressure to use the F-111A in combat. Before all the F-111A's problems were worked out, the Air Force deployed six pre-production aircraft of the 428th Tactical Fighter Squadron to Southeast Asia under the code name COMBAT LANCER. The F-111A crews flew their first combat mission in March 1968.
This operational combat test had mixed results. The F-111A displayed great promise--the missions were generally single aircraft precision strikes at night or in poor weather at low altitude. The enemy had little or no warning because the F-111A crews did not have to see the target to hit it, and they could strike accurately on the first pass.
The F-111A was highly praised by its crews, and the aircraft did not need aerial tankers, fighter cover, or anti-SAM protection like other aircraft. Still, in 55 sorties--one mission by one aircraft equals one sortie -- three F-111As (and four crewmembers) were lost, apparently to accidents or malfunctions. In the fall of 1968, the remaining five F-111As (two other F-111As had been sent over) deployed back to the U.S.
When peace talks stalled during the OPERATION LINEBACKER campaign in 1972, the Air Force sent 48 F-111As to Southeast Asia under the code name CONSTANT GUARD V. The first F-111A strikes since 1968 began in late September 1972. By now, the F-111A had been thoroughly tested, and the aircraft and its crews performed brilliantly and with great success.
As before, F-111A crews flew at high speed and low altitude, typically 200-250 feet above the ground. These crews nicknamed low-level flying through valleys and over hills and mountains "skiing." At this altitude and speed, if there was a control error, only 1/4 second would pass before they impacted the ground.
After a brief halt, the all-out bombing campaign called OPERATION LINEBACKER II began on Dec. 18, 1972. F-111As played an essential part by striking enemy airfields and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. The F-111A crews in LINEBACKER and LINEBACKER II fully vindicated the aircraft. F-111As destroyed many targets with its advanced precision bombing system and proved highly survivable in the incredibly dangerous skies over North Vietnam -- F-111A crews flew over 4,000 sorties in 1972 and 1973, but they lost only six aircraft in combat.
F-111A crews continued to fly bombing missions in southern Laos and Cambodia after the war in Vietnam ended in early 1973. The F-111A also had one last important part to play in Southeast Asia. In May 1975, Cambodian communists hijacked the SS Mayaguez. Search aircraft could not locate the missing ship, but an F-111A crew used the aircraft's powerful radar to find and visually locate it. An F-111A also sank one of the communist gunboats guarding the hijacked ship.
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