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North Vietnamese Air Force [NVAF] Operations

Hanoi claims to have engaged in its first aerial combat on 15 February 1965 when it used captured T-28s to shoot down an american C-123 over north-western North Vietnam. This claim appears to be a fabrication [the first of many] as it does not correspond with any known infiltration mission involving C-123s. Moreover, although T-28s were widely used at the time by the Laotian, Thai, Cambodian, and South Vietnamese Air Forces, not a single T-28 was ever known to have found its way into North Vietnamese service.

The first confirmed aerial combat came on 03 April 1965, when PAV MiG-17s damaged a US Navy F-8E. On the following day MiG-17s shot down a pair of USAF F-105 jets. 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 F105 was designed for dropping nuclear bombs, but instead of carrying a nuclear bomb in its bomb bay, in Vietnam the F105 carried conventional bombs on its wings. Those relatively small wings had been intended to help the F105 penetrate at high speed close to the ground; at higher altitude they limited the F105s maneuverability. Pilots gave the F105 unflattering nicknames like Lead Sled or more commonly Thuda nickname that in Southeast Asia would become more affectionate than derogatory.

Despite these early successes, the PAV Air Force soon began taking heavy losses. From August 1965 to April 1966 Hanoi ordered a complete stand-down in order for its pilots to receive better foreign training. During this time the ORV also received its first MiG-21 fighters and 11-28 bombers. By April 1966 PAVN had 63 MiG-17s and 14 MiG-21s. On 23 April 1966 the MiG-21 entered combat with US aircraft and almost immediately began taking heavy losses.

Between 26 April 1965 and 08 January 1973, USAF F-4s and B-52s downed 68 MiG-21s. Soon thrown into combat over North Vietnam, the guided-missile equipped MiG-21 proved a deadly opponent for the USAF, Navy and Marine Corps crews striking at targets deep into communist territory. Most of the VPAF's 12+ aces scored their bulk of their kills in the MiG-21, which was then the best fighter produced by Russia's premier fast jet manufacturer, Mikoyan Gurevich.

US Air Force and Navy fighters had to engage in aerial battles with MiGs as the Soviet-built fighters began to challenge strike aircraft. The key mission for US Air Force fighter escorts (or MiGCAPs) over North Vietnam was to prevent VNAF MiG fighters from interfering with American strike aircraft. The MiG pilots' primary goal was to force strike aircrews to jettison their bombs early, thereby disrupting the bombing mission. Though outnumbered, VPAF MiGs had some significant advantages. Guided by ground controllers using early warning radar, MiG pilots only attacked under ideal circumstances, such as when USAF aircraft were bomb-laden, low on fuel, or damaged. The small, hard-to-see MiGs typically made one-pass attacks at high speed, then escaped to a sanctuary (either their airfields, which were not bombed until mid-1967, or to nearby communist China, which was never bombed). Since they were always over friendly territory, MiG pilots could be back in action quickly if they survived being shot down.

On 2 January 1967 US Air Force fighters set an intentional trap for the PAVN Air Force, destroying almost half of the PAVN's operational MiG-21 inventory. Hanoi once again ordered a stand-down in order for its pilots to receive better training. VNAF MiGs failed in their primary mission to stop US air attacks over North Vietnam during OPERATION ROLLING THUNDER. In fact, the VPAF fighter force sometimes retreated to China and stood down from combat operations due to heavy losses suffered at the hands of American fighter crews.

USAF fighter pilots had better training and superior aircraft, but they endured several disadvantages. One serious issue was missile reliability and performance. Over one-half of the missiles fired by the USAF during the SEA War malfunctioned, and only about 1 in 11 fired scored a victory. The USAF rules of engagement dictated visual identification of VNAF aircraft before firing, which negated using the Sparrow missile at long range. USAF F-4s flown during ROLLING THUNDER did not have an internal gun to use when missiles failed. Although some F-4s carried external gun pods, it was not until the F-4E arrived in late 1968 that USAF Phantoms finally had an internal gun. Lastly, USAF pilots had to combat MiGs, SAMs and AAA over hostile North Vietnam, and if shot down, they were not always rescued.

In neighboring north-eastern Laos, PAVN in January 1968 launched an unusual air attack with An-2 biplanes. Outfitted with gunpods, rockets, and mortars dropped from a modified hydraulic dispenser, the An-2s hit a key US mountaintop radar facility. The mission was a total failure as two aircraft were lost: one ran out of fuel, and a second was shot down by a helicopter gunner.

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 for the Americans with the addition of the MiG-21 to the North's arsenal.

Because of its limited number of aircraft and lack of trained pilots, fighter aviation of the DRV conducted limited combat actions. But after July 1966 its activity rose significantly. It began to carry out battle with US aviation not only from duty on the ground, but also from duty in the air. During the second half of 1966 it claimed to have shot down in air combat forty-nine American aircraft, of which there were twenty F-105, eight F-4C, five A-4D, two F-8, two RF-101, one A-6D, one C-47, and three pilotless PQM-34A reconnaissance aircraft. Of this number, eighteen were claimed to have been shot down by MIG-21 fighters and twenty-four by MIG-17 fighters.

Some success was achieved by VPA fighters as a result of the increased skill of Vietnamese pilots in MIG-17 aircraft and the mastering by some of them of the MIG-21 aircraft for day flights in uncomplicated weather conditions. Vietnamese pilots skilfully employed the high maneuverability capabilities of the fighters, particularly of MIG-17 aircraft, to conduct surprise attacks against the enemy by approaching and closing in on him from the direction of the sun, from behind clouds. Destruction of the enemy was accomplished in close combat by salvo cannon-fire on the first attack. Thus, on 18 August four MIG-17F fighters, after takeoff from their airfield, encountered eight F-105 aircraft. In fast-moving combat at an altitude of 500 meters one F-105D aircraft was shot down. The remaining enemy aircraft, jettisoning their bombs and in disorder, maneuvering between mountain heights, returned to their base.

The initial effectiveness of the combat actions of VPA fighter aviation was lowered in most instances because there were many grave deficiencies in the combat use of fighter aircraft. The basic ones are as follows:

  1. putting the fighters into the air was, as a rule, delayed and done at the time enemy aircraft were already over their targets;
  2. cover for the fighter aircraft taking off to intercept the targets was not provided by other aircraft or else was carried out with considerable delay. The actions of fighters were not covered by antiaircraft means because of a lack of coordination between fighter aviation and SAM (antiaircraft artillery) in a single zone;
  3. control of fighter aircraft was effected through the use of plotting boards (with a three to six minute delay), or by indicating to them the direction and range to the enemy. Control for the fighters by radar plan position indicators is not considered feasible by the VPA air defense because of the mountainous and forested terrain relief.

In a number of instances VPA fighter aircraft suffered losses because the pairs and flights flew close together. The conditions and nature of air combats convinced the Vietnamese of the need or fighters to have freedom of maneuver in order to conduct successive attacks against American aircraft by individual targetting. Support aircraft in pairs now keep apart at a distance of 600 to 800 meters, and between pairs a distance of 800 to 1200 meters is maintained. Under these conditions, loss of visual contact in air combat was cut down and coordination between pilots within groups was improved.

Soviet designed and manufactured air-to-air guided missiles were notoriously inaccurate and ineffective, with far less than a 50% capability rate, even when fired well within their designed parameters. Firing within parameters was the excuse mantra of both U.S. and Soviet missile manufacturers, although the success rates of US air-to-air missiles at that time far exceeded the capabilities of their poorly-made Soviet counterparts.

The PAVN did not use its jets again until December 1971, when MiG-21s were used in the reconnaissance and air superiority role during a major North Vietnamese offensive on the Plain of Jars. At least one US fighter was shot down at this time along the Lao-North Vietnamese border. Infrequent MiG-21 recconaissance missions over north Laos continued through the spring of 1972.

During the period on the eve of the 1972 Easter Offensive, the North Vietnamese Air Force made repeated forays into Laos and penetrated as far south as the Mu Gia pass. Although these penetrations were at night and usually consisted of single aircraft, it represented a demonstration of increased confidence in bringing air operations closer to the ground battlefield. Coupled with these penetrations was the extension of Ground Control Intercept coverage from Vinh which indicated a capability to control fighters as far south as Dong Ha. Supporting these activities was the development of new jet airfields that would permit small penetrations into South Vietnam by staging through Vinh. It could be concluded that the North problems with saturation, because of the large numbers of aircraft involved, the management of strikes was carried out in a highly effective manner.

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. Meeting the challenge was a rebuilt PAVN Air Force, totalling 80 MiG-17s, 33 MiG-19s, and 93 MiG-21s. By the end of October heavy aerial combat with US forces had destroyed over two-thirds of the MiG-21 fleet. During Operation Linebacker, the North Vietnamese Air Force lost at least 40 MiGs in air battles to McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms.

Also during October, PAVN made the first and only use of its Il-28 bombers when two of these aircraft attacked the northern Laotian garrison at Bouamlong. A dozen civilians were killed but little other damage was done to the base.

In December 1972 the US launched its massive LINEBACKER II B-52 raids over North Vietnam. Totally overwhelmed, the PAVN Air Force did almost nothing to stop the US bombardment. 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.

Following the 1973 ceasefire the PAV Air Force saw little major action until the 1975 Ho Chi Minh Campaign. Although Hanoi had improved airfields ju st north of the DMZ-appar ently to support MiG strikes into South Vietnam-the sudden collapse of northern South Vietnam did not allow the PAVN Air Force to launch offensive missions. Even before the fall of Saigon PAVN fixed-wing transports and helicopters immediately began ferrying troops and supplies into captured airfields at Hue, Danang, and Kontum.

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.

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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