By Lieutenant Colonel Tyson Wetzel

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Lieutenant Colonel Tyson Wetzel examines the enduring legacy of Operation Bolo, an operation during the Vietnam War that was designed as a response to the increasing loses being incurred on the United States Air Force (USAF) in the mid-1960s.

Deliberately planned fighter sweep went just as we hoped. The MiGs came up; the MiGs were aggressive. We tangled. They lost.[1]

Colonel Robin Olds, 3 January 1967

By the end of 1966, USAF fighter pilots were incredibly frustrated by rising aircraft and aircrew losses, restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) and North Vietnam People’s Air Force’s (NPAF) ‘hit-and-run’ tactics. The pilots were looking for an opportunity to seize the initiative and strike the premier NPAF fighter, the MiG-21. The NPAF was extremely careful with their limited number of MiG-21s, launching them only when their air defence network determined slow and non-manoeuvrable fighter-bombers were conducting unescorted strikes in North Vietnam.[2] Colonel Robin Olds, Commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing ‘Wolfpack,’ at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, devised a plan to dupe the NPAF into believing his F-4 Phantom IIs were a large formation of unescorted F-105 Thunderchiefs, which he believed would draw out the MiG-21s. On 2 January 1967, Olds and his Wolfpack executed Operation Bolo and destroyed seven NPAF MiG-21s with no friendly losses. The plan was elaborate, and successful execution relied on deception, predictive and actionable intelligence, and a well-integrated force package. These factors ensured Bolo was a triumphant success and have enduring applicability for air power theorists and air campaign planners preparing for future high-intensity conflict.

AR.2010.007
Colonel Robin Olds with his F-4C ‘SCAT XXVII’, which is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Olds named all his aircraft after his West Point roommate Scat Davis, who could not become a military pilot due to poor eyesight. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

The Strategic Environment before Bolo

Two significant factors shaped the American prosecution of the air war over Vietnam in 1966. First, to reduce the risk of escalation, US ROEs at the time of Bolo did not allow strikes on critical North Vietnamese airfields. The result was that MiGs could not be destroyed on the ground; they had to be destroyed in the air.[3] The second factor was the rapidly improving North Vietnamese air defence system, which included air defence artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighter aircraft. The combination of surface and airborne threats was taking a heavy toll on US aircraft. By the end of 1966, 455 US aircraft had been lost to enemy action, and USAF leaders wanted to take action to address the losses.[4]

The airborne threat to US aircraft increased dramatically when the NPAF began receiving the MiG-21 in 1965. The MiG-21 retained the manoeuvrability of its predecessors the MiG-15/-17/-19, but it was capable of supersonic flight and was the first Soviet aircraft capable of carrying an infrared-guided air-to-air missile, the K-13 (NATO Designator: AA-2 ATOLL). Intelligence estimates at the time of Bolo put the NPAF MiG-21 inventory at only 16 airframes. To preserve these precious assets, the North Vietnamese only scrambled these aircraft to attack bomb-laden fighter-bombers such as the F-105. According to Walter Boyne, the MiG-21 tactics were very effective:

The MiG-21s’ rear attacks with Atoll missiles were achieving North Vietnamese goals by causing the F-105 formations to jettison their bombs before reaching their targets.[5]

MiG-21 attacks on F-105s resulted in failed missions causing multiple strike packages to be sent to re-attack high-priority targets in a dense threat environment.

Olds was increasingly concerned with the MiG-21 attacks on the fighter-bombers, and the inability of the F-4 escorts to find and kill the MiG-21s in the air:

As we entered the winter of 1966, the MiGs began increased efforts to harass U.S. strike forces […] It became imperative for U.S. forces to bring counteraction to bear on the MiG fighter threat.[6]

Unfortunately, Olds did not see any plan to deal with the threat at the tactical, individual fighter wings, or operational level, 7th Air Force. Olds expressed his frustration with the inaction in an oral history interview two years after the mission: ‘There was no concerted effort really to do anything about the MiGs.’[7] Olds decided to take the lead in developing a plan to take the fight to the MiG-21s.

The Mission

Olds is often given credit as the sole mastermind behind Bolo, but others deserve credit for playing critical roles in the development and refinement of the plan. In early December 1966, Olds began discussing the MiG-21 problem with one of his most gifted fighter pilots, Captain J.B. Stone. Stone laid out the foundation for the plan that would eventually be adopted; using a ruse to make the North Vietnamese launch their MiG-21s against what they believed were fighter-bombers.

Olds enthusiastically embraced the plan and decided to take the plan to his boss, Lieutenant General William Momyer, Commander of 7th Air Force. Momyer also enthusiastically supported the plan and identified his Operations Officer, Brigadier General Don Smith, as his dedicated liaison for the plan. Momyer and Smith shepherded the plan from the start to ensure Olds and his planners were given all available resources and support.[8] According to Olds, Bolo ‘wouldn’t have been possible’ without ‘Momyer’s courage in doing this, probably in spite of a lot of opposition.’[9] Olds is rightly given credit for a bold and brilliantly designed and executed plan, but the success of the mission would not have been possible without significant support from his subordinates and superiors.

On 2 January 1967, 56 F-4s launched in waves of eight aircraft into Northern Vietnam to execute Bolo. The mission worked as it was designed, despite heavy cloud cover in the target area that threatened to keep the MiGs on the ground. Believing they were engaging F-105s, the MiG-21s took the bait; the results were disastrous for them.

According to USAF records, Olds and his Wolfpack destroyed seven MiG-21s in less than 15 minutes with no damage to any US aircraft.[10] Though the seven kills may not seem a significant number, it was nearly half of the NPAF inventory. Four days later, two more MiG-21s were destroyed when they attacked what they believed were unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, but in actuality were more of Olds’ F-4 pilots.[11] The devastation wrought by Bolo, combined with two additional aircraft lost on 6 January led the NPAF to remove the MiG-21 from combat while they re-equipped, and evaluated the causes and their response to recent aircraft losses.[12] Bolo played a significant role in the US re-acquiring air superiority during the beginning of 1967.

The Role of Deception in Bolo

Deception was central to the successful execution of the Bolo plan. The F-4s had to disguise themselves as lumbering F-105s to bait the MiG-21s into an aerial engagement. According to J. Alfred Phelps, the purpose of the deception plan was to create beneficial conditions for an aerial engagement:

The ultimate objective was to deceive and lure the MiG air defense force into a reactive posture and, once they were airborne, seek them out, engage, pursue, and destroy them.[13]

To trick the North Vietnamese air defence system, the F-4s used F-105 callsigns, formations, speed, aerial refuelling tracks, mission routing, and electronic countermeasure (jamming) pods. The deception caused mass confusion among the NPAF MiG-21 pilots. Terry Mays explained the success of the ploy:

The North Vietnamese fell for the ruse and launched MiG-21 fighters to intercept what they thought were F-105s streaking along ‘Thud Ridge’ […] As the MiG-21 pilots maneuvered through the clouds and entered the open sky, expecting to attack F-105s, they found themselves in the midst of F-4s.[14]

MiG-21 pilots had avoided the US’ premier air-to-air fighter, the F-4, so seeing a wall of Phantoms was a shock to the NPAF pilots and ground controllers.

Airborne intelligence collectors were able to capture the shock of the NPAF air defence force. In 2014, Joseph Trevithick analysed recently declassified intercepts from the mission, which showed the near-panic of North Vietnamese pilots upon realising they had been duped:

When Olds’ strike team started its attack, the C-130s picked up enemy pilots shocked to find that ‘the sky is full of F-4s,’ according to the declassified report. ‘Where are the F-105s? You briefed us to expect F-105s!’ ‘I’d like to come down now,’ another Vietnamese pilot reportedly declared.[15]

The North Vietnamese were not prepared to face the F-4s, nor able to quickly react to the changing operational environment in time to save many of their MiG-21s.

The expert application of deception is one of the most important lessons to be learned from Bolo; aerial combat is not merely about the fastest jet, the missile with the longest range, or the best pilot. The use of deception can mitigate a tactical disadvantage or maximise a tactical advantage in the air. The use of deception is rarely a critical aspect of modern aerial combat plans, as US air planners often rely on overwhelming numerical or technological superiority. However, as nations like Russia and China develop and deploy large numbers of advanced fighters and air defence systems, the US cannot continue to rely on numerical or technological advantages. The use of a well-developed deception plan can once again tip the balance in aerial combat, as Olds and his Wolfpack proved in Bolo.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21PF
A Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21PF ‘Fishbed’ in North Vietnamese colours at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (Source: Wikimedia)

The Role of Intelligence in Planning and Execution of Bolo

Intelligence played a crucial role in both the planning and execution of Bolo. Olds knew that to develop a complete plan for the operation, he needed an accurate intelligence assessment of how the enemy would react to the ruse. According to Olds, ‘it was crucial to accurately predict the capabilities and possible reaction of the MiGs.’[16] The support of Momyer and Smith opened the doors to closely guarded intelligence, including signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercepts of NPAF fighter missions. This intelligence shaped the predictive assessment the intelligence analysts provided to Olds. He continued:

Intelligence gave us some highly probable MiG tactics. The MiGs were usually in the air anytime strike aircraft were in the area. Typically, they were airborne approximately ten to fifteen minutes prior to the strike, about the time the Thuds crossed the Black River.[17]

Olds and Stone used the predictive assessments to determine the number and time spacing of the F-4 formations.

The mission also relied on timely and accurate intelligence during execution. Olds believed real-time relay of SIGINT collection was vital to the mission’s success:

Most critical to the success of BOLO, we had to have clear, real-time intelligence from USAF monitoring stations listening in to VPAF transmissions—no more of the bullshit of keeping essential knowledge secret from the strike force. VPAF transmissions had been monitored and translated but never shared down the line. It was sensitive, but it was imperative to have this intel for BOLO.[18]

Olds and Stone ensured airborne and ground-based SIGINT collectors were included and integrated into the mission so that the force package would receive real-time intelligence updates. Trevithick used declassified Bolo reports to illuminate how important real-time SIGINT collection was to the mission:

Another key—and previously unknown—element of the top secret plan involved deploying signal-snooping aircraft to keep track of the MiGs. The special C-130B-IIs would listen in on enemy radio chatter and feed information straight to American pilots throughout the mission.[19]

Two of these specially modified C-130s, known as SILVER DAWN aircraft, were airborne during the mission providing real-time collection to the force package. The use of predictive intelligence to help refine the plan and the use of real-time intelligence collect was nearly revolutionary because of the classification walls that prevented much intelligence, specifically SIGINT, from being shared with tactical operators. Such barriers have come down in the decades since Bolo, but air planners still struggle with the integration of intelligence into mission planning and execution.

The Role of Force Packaging in Bolo

Bolo included detailed planning and integration among a host of platforms, both airborne and on the ground. Each had a critical role to play to ensure the maximum lethality and survivability of the force. 48 F-4Cs were designated to conduct the aerial sweep mission to find and kill enemy MiGs. They were supported by 24 F-105F IRON HAND aircraft designed to suppress enemy air defences to protect the force package from SAMs. Eight F-104Cs were tasked with the protection of the fighters as they egressed the sweep area. Twenty-five KC-135 aerial refuelling tankers were needed to support the huge strike package. Combat support aircraft including the RC-121 BIG EYE battle management aircraft, EB-66 jamming aircraft, C-130 airborne command post and SILVER DAWN SIGINT platforms, combat search and rescue aircraft, ground control intercept sites, and the ground-based SIGINT stations all participated in the mission.[20] Planning to integrate each of the platforms and its capabilities was complex, and Olds spent days travelling the theatre briefing operators on the plan.

The Bolo package foreshadowed the massive force packages that would become prevalent in Operation Desert Storm and all other air campaigns since. In addition to multiple fighter types executing various mission sets, combat support aircraft provided the updated air picture, collected real-time intelligence, executed command and control, jamming, and aerial refuelling. These aircraft were force multipliers in the mission, and the roles and importance of similar platforms have continued to expand over the past five decades. Bolo was an early and clear example of the effectiveness of a complete and fully integrated force package. This is one of the lessons of Bolo that air planners have absorbed, and force packaging is now a daily part of air operations.

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An F-4C of the 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, rolls out on takeoff. It is configured for the MiGCAP escort role with Sparrow air-to-air missiles under the fuselage, and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and extra fuel tanks under the wings. (Source: National Museum of the Unites States Air Force)

Conclusion

Bolo was not only the highlight of the larger Rolling Thunder air campaign; it was the most successful US fighter operation of the war.[21] Despite the mission being executed more than fifty years ago, there are critical lessons about mission planning and execution that can be used in the development of aerial missions and air campaigns today. Historian Jon Latimer summed up the primary takeaway from Bolo:

U.S. Air Force pilots demonstrated over Hanoi in 1967 that lure tactics can also work well in the higher reaches of technology. So it was that Operation BOLO, a small but unusually successful part of the ROLLING THUNDER bombing program, succeeded in claiming seven North Vietnamese MiGs within 15 minutes, without losing a single American aircraft.[22]

The shrewd use of deception allowed the US fighters to engage their adversary at the time, place, and in the manner of their choosing.

Additionally, the use of intelligence before and during the mission was vital to the success of the operation. The utilisation of predictive intelligence in mission planning allowed the Bolo planners to optimise the F-4’s survivability and lethality against the MiG-21. The timely dissemination of SIGINT was unheard of at the time, but Bolo showed the importance of real-time intelligence updates to the operational environment. Finally, the integration and coordination of airborne and ground-based elements in a massive and diverse force package was a significant contributor to the overall success of the mission. Bolo made better use of deception, intelligence, both predictive and real-time updates, and force packaging than any air operation of the Vietnam War up to that point.

In this era of ‘near-peer’ threats, including the development and deployment of fifth-Generation aircraft, modern long-range SAMs, and advanced electronic warfare, the US and its allies cannot rely solely on numerical or even technological superiority to win future air conflicts. Air power theorists and operators need to think through problems, evaluating the operational environment and the adversary and build plans that leverage and maximise their comparative advantages while mitigating risk and minimising the adversary’s comparative advantages. Air planners and tacticians should study these aspects of Bolo and consider incorporating tactics similar to those of Olds and his Wolfpack in the planning and development of future air operations in a high-intensity conflict.

Tyson Wetzel is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, an intelligence officer, a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor, and the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. He is currently assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He tweets @gorillawetzel.

Header Image: Pictured here are revetments and F-4s of the 8th TFW at Ubon, Thailand. (Source: National Museum of the Unites States Air Force)

[1] Robin Olds, interview with Armed Forces Network, 3 January 1967. Clip shown on Dogfights: Air Ambush. History Channel, 10 November 2006.

[2] Walter J. Boyne, Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010), pp. 162.

[3] Jon Latimer, ‘Operation Bolo: Phantom ambush over North Vietnam,’ Vietnam, 15:3 (2002), pp. 38.

[4] Latimer, ‘Operation Bolo,’ pp. 37.

[5] Boyne, Beyond the Wild Blue, pp. 162.

[6] Robin Olds, Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus, Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), pp. 262-3.

[7] Robin Olds, U.S. Air Force Oral History. Project Corona Harvest Collection. Operation Bolo Briefing (listed as Interview #222). Maxwell AFB: Office of Air Force History, 29 Sep 1967, pp. 8.

[8] Olds, Fighter Pilot, pp. 269-71.

[9] Olds, Project Corona Harvest. Operation Bolo Briefing, pp. 68

[10] Frank F. Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob, and Charles A. Ravenstein. Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1973 (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, Headquarters US Air Force, 1976), p. 21.

[11] Olds, Project Corona Harvest. Operation Bolo Briefing, pp. 65.

[12] Terry M. Mays, ‘Gunfighting Over North Vietnam,’ Vietnam, 20:6 (2008), p. 47.

[13] J. Alfred Phelps, Chappie: America’s First Black Four-Star General: The Life and Times of Daniel James, Jr (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992), pp. 225.

[14] Mays, ‘Gunfighting Over North Vietnam,’ p. 47.

[15] Joseph Trevithick, ‘Spies Helped the USAF Shoot Down a Third of North Vietnam’s MiG-21s,’ WarIsBoring.com, 30 Dec 2014.

[16] Olds, Fighter Pilot, pp. 273.

[17] Ibid, pp. 272.

[18] Ibid, pp. 275-6.

[19] Trevithick, ‘Spies Helped the USAF Shoot Down a Third of North Vietnam’s MiG-21s.’

[20] Multiple sources were used to determine all the components of the force package: Olds, Fighter Pilot, pp. 274-6; Latimer, ‘Operation Bolo,’ pp. 38-39; Boyne, Beyond the Wild Blue, pp. 163.

[21] Phelps, Chappie, pp. 229.

[22] Latimer, ‘Operation Bolo,’ pp. 35.

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