Air-to-air combat was never the most dangerous threat to American pilots in the Vietnam War, although its prevalence grew as the war unfolded. The air-to-air war consisted of three distinct phases aligned with the timing of major U.S. bombing campaigns, as these campaigns drew MiG fighters to the skies. The first phase coincided with the "Rolling Thunder" campaign initiated in March 1965. In November 1968, Rolling Thunder ended, beginning a second phase marked by an almost complete cessation of air-to-air encounters. The third phase began with the opening of Operation Linebacker, lasting from May to October 1972.
The air-to-air combat performance of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and Navy during the entire war has been a sore subject for many advocates of American air power. The most commonly used metric for measuring air-to-air success or failure is the "kill ratio," a measure of how many enemy planes are shot down compared to each single loss. After building a legacy of dogfighting success in the World Wars, and after F-86 Sabre pilots in Korea earned a kill ratio of 10:1 (or as high as 15:1 depending on the source), American pilots were frustrated at shooting down seventy-two MiGs while losing twenty-eight planes during the entire Vietnam War, earning an overall ratio of approximately 2.5:1. (1) Although destroying more than two enemy craft for every one lost hardly seems like a failure (especially given the total losses of over 2,300 aircraft from other causes), many pilots, personnel, and scholars have viewed the situation in exactly those terms, citing the higher ratios of previous wars and the North Vietnamese Air Force's (NVNAF's) increased ability to prevent U.S. bombing missions. As journalist and historian Robert Wilcox noted, U.S. forces were struggling against the "supposedly 'inferior' North Vietnamese pilots." (2)
Looking closer at the war's three phases, a distinct picture emerges. U.S. pilots were successful in the first few years of the war, but by 1968, the Navy was embarrassed by losing three F--4 Phantom fighters for eight kills, a less than 3:1 ratio, while the Air Force approached a 1:1 trade, losing seven F-4s for ten kills. Although this close analysis may seem to be quibbling over small numbers--especially when considering the exchanges of World War II that numbered in the hundreds of planes--the air battles of Vietnam can nevertheless reveal important patterns in military thinking, doctrine, and technology. The totals seem smaller than the swarms of fighters in previous wars because of the growing cost of planes in a comparatively technologically advanced age, added to the U.S. government's increased reluctance to tolerate heavy combat losses. The nature of limited war in Vietnam combined with waning domestic support, rendering the United States military increasingly intolerant of civilian and friendly casualties. This attitude included pilots and their multimillion dollar aircraft, which the Air Force and Navy were reluctant to risk.
During the second phase--the bombing halt from the end of 1968 until Linebacker in 1972--both the U.S. Air Force and the Navy sought to rehabilitate their air combat performance through technological improvements to their aircraft and weapons systems. But the most famous, change was not technological: the Navy's Fighter Weapons School, also known as "Top Gun," was created specifically to train its pilots to become air-to-air combat specialists. The school was effective. Navy pilots improved from a 3:1 kill ratio in 1968 to a 6:1 ratio in the Linebacker campaigns of 1972. (3) In his 1984 memoir, Navy fighter ace (the first American Ace of the war) and Top Gun trainee Randy Cunningham boldly stated, "My training is the reason I'm alive today." (4) The Air Force, in contrast, struggled in the early months of Linebacker, earning a negative kill ratio for the first time in the war and perhaps in its existence. Many historians point to the lack of improved Air Force pilot training and the initial failure of new Air Force technologies (such as new missiles and aircraft upgrades), judging the Navy as an example of "correct" adaptation. (5)
This narrative--of the Navy's "right" choice to reinstate high-level combat training--is far from complete. Aviation analyst William A. Sayers has already cautioned that kill ratios can be misleading, especially when examining the small sample sizes seen in air-to-air combat in Vietnam, suggesting that the comparison between Top Gun cadets and the Air Force can be problematic given the facts that the Navy encountered so few MiGs, and almost none of the more dangerous MiG-21s during the Linebacker phase. Sayers has argued that tactical doctrine, rather than individual pilot training, was the determiner of victory--yet this analysis misses one other key development. (6)
Although the Air Force did not change its training program as did the Navy, it did experiment with a number of new technological systems designed to aid pilots through a network of radars, enemy identification systems, and surveillance. These systems were marginally successful at best until August, 1972, when the Air Force instituted a technological change known as Project Teaball--a Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) system that could electronically track all aircraft in the skies at any given time. This network was similar to the Soviet GCI system used by North Vietnam during the entire war, and similar to the Navy's GCI system, known as "Red Crown," that contributed to its success. But Teaball was more ambitious. It relied on surveillance from the National Security Agency (NSA) of enemy communications, combining this intelligence with radar data from stations throughout Vietnam, synthesized by a supercomputer, to give near-real-time information to pilots about enemy locations and movement. Teaball thU.S. represented the culmination of an evolutionary process of adaptation to the technological environment of air combat over North Vietnam.
With this early warning system, F-4 Phantom crews experienced a level of situational awareness that allowed all the other developments in technology, tactics, and training to be used to their fullest. By taking the Soviet ground control model and applying it in a slightly different way, Air Force pilots gained the initiative to attack MiGs on their own terms. In the last month of Linebacker, Air Force fighters succeeded in protecting bombing formations while netting a kill ratio exceeding 3:1 against MiGs--especially impressive considering that almost all the losses incurred during this period happened when Teaball experienced technical failure. (7) After Top Gun became active, the Navy fighters increased from a 3:1 to a 6:1 ratio, but after Teaball's introduction, the Air Force improved from a negative exchange to a ratio exceeding 3:1. In terms of overall improvement (especially considering the much larger number of encounters and more advanced MiG-2 Is that attacked the Air Force), Top Gun worked, but Teaball worked better.
Kill ratios can be misleading, especially when examining ... small sample sizes
This article contends that the Air Force should not be overly criticized for its reliance on--and enthusiasm for-technological innovation. Some scholars have portrayed the service as stubbornly refusing to innovate in important areas, such as training procedures and tactics, while adhering blindly to hollow technological solutions such as long-range guided missiles. (8) The story of Teaball demonstrates an Air Force that was open to change, and was able to adapt its technological culture to meet new challenges. Equally important, this analysis suggests that although the narrative of Top Gun as the "correct" approach is appealing to the romantic image of the daring and skilled fighter pilot, the Air Force's systems-based approach was equally (if not more) effective and important to the future of air-to-air combat, as Teaball formed the basis for the role of Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) that has become key to present-day air combat doctrine. This assessment is not meant to diminish the success of the Top Gun program and its skilled pilots, but rather to argue that a romantic view of air combat (if possibly subconscious) should not obscure the fact that technological solutions were essential in the last throes of the Vietnam War, when both approaches worked in tandem.
To Bring Them to Their Knees
In November 1968, President Lyndon Johnson halted the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, hoping to encourage Hanoi to curtail their ground activities and their support for the insurgency in the South, although the North Vietnamese did not enter a formal agreement. As a result of the halt, air-to-air combat was nearly absent in Southeast Asia from the end of 1968 until 1972. However, American interdiction efforts--air attacks against supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos--continued, spurring MiGs into action in 1970, if only for a few brief encounters. In January, two MiG-2 Is attacked an HH-53 rescue helicopter. In March of the same year, Navy F-4s escorting a reconnaissance flight engaged and shot down a MiG-21 and a MiG--17.9 These brief encounters were stark exceptions to the general lack of air combat during this time.
From December 26 to 30,1971, USAF flew over one thousand sorties in Operation Proud Deep Alpha
In 1971, the NVNAF harassed American interdiction missions in Laos that were typically flown by slow moving propeller craft, helicopters, or the cumbersome B-52 bombers, all of which were vulnerable to attack from nimble MiG interceptors. The North Vietnamese's primary tactic was a low altitude approach, beneath U.S. radar coverage, quickly climbing to an attack position to make a single attack before retreating at high speed. These hit-and-run, "pop-up" attacks mimicked the tactics perfected by the NVNAF in 1967 and 1968, primarily operating under strict coordination from their GCI controllers...