A Low-Cost Way to Defeat Adversaries? Israel and Air Power in the Second Lebanon War

A Low-Cost Way to Defeat Adversaries? Israel and Air Power in the Second Lebanon War

By Major Jared Larpenteur

At 9:05 am on 12 July 2006, Hezbollah initiated Operation TRUE PROMISE at the Lebanese-Israeli border. They kidnapped two Israel Defense Force (IDF) reserve soldiers and sparked the Second Lebanon War.[1] Israel restricted large ground operations and instead turned to the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to win the war for them. Over the next 34 days, the IAF carried out tens of thousands of sorties but failed to achieve the decisive result sought by Israel.

No stranger to conflict, Israel has fought for survival since the establishment of the country in 1948. From 1948 to modern day the IDF has undergone multiple transitions to keep its military in line with the modern battlefield. Some of these transitions came at the cost of extensive amounts of blood and treasure. Despite a relatively successful air campaign in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel’s societal perspective led to paying a high cost to discover essential lessons regarding the importance of joint warfare on the modern battlefield.

Since 1982, the IAF had dominated the skies of the Middle East. However, by the 2006 Lebanon War, they had become accustomed to an uncontested environment and employment in the counter-insurgency environment. Leading up to the Second Lebanon War, two intifadas, the first from 1987-1993 and the second in 2000, drew the Israeli military away from high-intensity conflict.[2] The first intifada occurred in 1987 and made the IDF shift focus from manoeuvre warfare to riot control to handle massive civilian uprisings. The second intifada in 2000 saw more violent clashes including suicide bombings in Israeli territory resulting in over 135 Israelis killed.[3] The two intifadas prompted the IDF to transition to a more counter-insurgency approach to warfare but also degraded public opinion as the Israeli populace became war-weary. At the same time, Israel observed the United States use of a heavy air power approach during Kosovo in 1999 and the initial Iraq invasion in 2003 to help limit casualties.

Israel had developed an aversion to casualties but still faced instability within the region. According to Frans Osinga, Israeli military leaders came to see air power as ‘a low-cost way to defeat adversaries such as Hamas and Hezbollah.’[4] Adversaries like Hezbollah watched, adapted, and understood the power of the IAF. Hezbollah understood Israel’s transition and according to their leader believed ‘the Israeli Achilles heel was the society itself.’[5]  By 2006, Hezbollah planned for a future war with Israel under the assumption that Israel would rely on air power and limited ground forces to reduce the risk of casualties.

When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Chief of Staff General Dan Halutz (an IAF general), and Defense Minister Amir Peretz met shortly after the July 2006 abductions to discuss options their perspectives became apparent when they decided not to send a large ground force into Lebanon, but instead, rely on airstrikes and limited ground raids.[6] The resulting conversation led to Israel’s three political objectives: first, the release of the abducted soldiers to Israel unconditionally; second, stop the firing of missiles and rockets into Israel territory; lastly, enforce United Nations Resolution 1559, which pressured Lebanon to control Hezbollah, disarm militias, and secure its southern border.[7]

Fueling all fighters
An Israeli Air Force F-15I from No. 69 Squadron moves away after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over Nevada’s test and training ranges during Exercise RED FLAG 04-3 in 2004. (Source: Wikimedia)

On 12 July, mere hours after the war began, the IAF launched Operation SPECIFIC WEIGHT. This air campaign targeted Hezbollah’s rocket sites, runways at the Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport, interdicted the Beirut-Damascus highway and attacked the al-Manar Television Station (a Hezbollah-operated media source).[8] General Halutz assumed that it would only take two or three days to achieve the objectives because of the effect of precision-guided munitions on specific targets. These specific targets carried the planning assumption that air strikes would damage Hezbollah, pressure the Lebanese government, resulting in the release of the captured soldiers, and strengthen Israel’s military deterrence.

Two days later, Israeli intelligence assessed the strikes as successful. This led the IDF General Staff to target the town of Dahiye, a southern Beirut suburb that housed Hezbollah’s headquarters. The General Staff believe that Dahiye would deliver a symbolic blow to Hezbollah represented the beginning of a change of focus. With the soldiers still unreturned, the strikes on Dahiye appeared to expand the war aims to cause damage and pain to Hezbollah.[9]

By the end of the war, the IAF had carried out 19,000 sorties, averaging 200 sorties a day. The IAF attacked around 7,000 targets to include Hezbollah command posts, bridges, traffic intersections, and rocket launchers. The IAF used 19,000 bombs and 2,000 missiles of which 35 per cent of the ammunition were precision-guided munitions. The IAF racked up more flight hours in the Second Lebanon War than during the Yom Kippur War.[10] Despite the air effort, Israel began to realise that the air campaign alone would not achieve their political objectives as Hezbollah continued to launch an average of 90-150 rockets into Israeli territory every day.[11]

On 12 July, shortly after the air campaign began and keeping with the limited ground force approach Israel deployed several special operation units to recover the two kidnapped soldiers instead of large manoeuvre force. However, the special operations units did not anticipate the resistance from Hezbollah, while the IAF remained primarily focused on its strategic objectives. The IAF never prioritised integration and support for the ground offensive. Major General Benjamin Gantz, commander of the IDF army headquarters, stated:

By exploiting the air war, we could have gotten in simultaneously in full force and taken over the entire area, cleansing it from within. But that would have required […] decisive ground-maneuver warfare, not the stage-by-stage operations that were ultimately executed.[12]

However, the IDF entered southern Lebanon under the assumption that the destruction of targets by the IAF placed significant effects on Hezbollah.

To circumvent the use of air power and draw the IDF into attritional warfare Hezbollah developed large bunker and trench systems in southern Lebanon that could protect its arsenal of 122mm Katyusha rockets from air strikes. Additionally, Hezbollah integrated bunker systems inside of villages, towns, and surrounding terrain to draw the IDF closer rendering air support useless. As stated by an IDF lieutenant in southern Lebanon, ‘[Hezbollah] have so many places to hide from the air strikes, so we have to send in the infantry. It can be dangerous.’[13] For example, the IDF found a bunker complex in southern Lebanon 40 meters underground covering an area of two kilometres, with firing positions, operation rooms, medical facilities, and air conditioning.[14]

As the reports of Hezbollah’s resistance flooded in, it became clear that Israel needed a more significant force to secure the established political objectives. In response, the IDF launched its first large-scale ground force on 17 July to seize Maroun al-Ras and was surprised by Hezbollah’s preparation and fighting skills. Despite the effort, Maroun al-Ras remained unsecured as Hezbollah successfully outmanoeuvred the IDF with integrated mortar, rocket, and anti-tank weapons.[15] The realisation that intelligence did not match the reality on the ground hit hard as the first of the IDF ground elements manoeuvred into southern Lebanon. With the limited ground approach, the IDF faced massive resistance from Hezbollah. One IDF officer stated, ‘We expected a tent and three Kalashnikovs, that was the intelligence we were given. Instead, we found a hydraulic steel door leading to a well-equipped network of tunnels.’[16]

With the reports of limited success, Olmert and Halutz decided to deploy the Israeli reserves on 21 July. Despite the call for the reserves, Halutz’s ground plan remained the same without a consolidated effort between the IAF and IDF to achieve military objectives that linked to national objectives. By 5 August, three weeks after the start of the war, the IDF had roughly 10,000 soldiers in Lebanon four miles from the border. By 8 August, Israel realised it had been pulled into what they wished to avoid, a large-scale ground operation with dozens of casualties.[17]

Despite the scale of air power involved, Operation SPECIFIC WEIGHT did not have the intended effect. It only impacted around seven per cent of Hezbollah’s military resources.[18] Hezbollah still maintained the ability to manoeuvre and fire rockets, the two captured IDF soldiers were never returned to Israel, and the Lebanese government had no more control over Hezbollah than they did at the start of the war on 12 July. What changed the war and resulted in some semblance of partial Israeli success was not the massive air campaign but the eventual ground offensive.

For the US Military, Operation SPECIFIC WEIGHT provides several stark and valuable lessons. First, air power alone cannot achieve decisive results. Air and ground forces must act together whether in counter-insurgency, large scale combat operations or as in 2006 when facing a hybrid threat. On the modern battlefield, the integration of air and ground elements become imperative for success to achieve military and political objectives.

Second, as air and ground power integrate the release authority for munitions should be delegated down to lower echelons. In the Second Lebanon War, the IDF General Staff held the release authority which created lag times in fires and medical evacuation procedures. These lag times directly led to friendly fire incidents and enhanced pressure from the enemy. For example, near the town of Bint J’beil, an IAF attack helicopter inadvertently fired on IDF ground forces during a firefight barely avoiding fratricide.[19] Additionally, Israel learned that integration of the air and ground domain requires extensive training. That training should entail calling for fire, air-ground coordination, and target acquisition.

Lastly, the use of air power in the targeting process should focus more on desired effects to achieve decisive results rather than the destruction of specific targets. In the targeting cycle, the IAF uses a quantitative approach that focuses on the destruction of specific targets, with the assumption that effects placed on the target will bring decisive results.[20] The US Air Force uses a qualitative effects-based concept which focuses on the desired effects rather than a specific target.[21] During the Second Lebanon War, the air campaign attacked specific targets such as bridges over the Latini River, known Hezbollah positions, TV stations, and Lebanese airfields, with the assumption that destroying these targets would have the intended effect of achieving decisive outcomes. However, once the ground forces arrived in southern Lebanon, it became apparent that destroying these targets did not have the desired effect.

Israel paid the price in blood and treasure to learn the hard lessons of integrating air power on a modern battlefield. The Second Lebanon War resulted in the death of 66 IDF soldier, $55 million in loss of infrastructure, and $443 million in loss of economic activity.[22] The Second Lebanon War shows the importance of understanding the effective use of air power and the need to integrate air power across all operating domains. Israel learned the cost of getting air power integration wrong in 2006. In 2019 the US must avoid such costly schooling.

Major Jared Larpenteur is an Infantry Officer in the United States Army and currently a student at the School for Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, KS. He is a 2003 graduate of Louisiana State University with a BA in History and commissioned through the ROTC program. He has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan and has experience in mechanized and light airborne infantry units. He received his masters from Kansas State University in Adult Learning and Leadership. He can be found on twitter at @jlarpe1 or email at jlarpe1@gmail.com. Views are his own and not representative of DoD or the US Army.

Header Image: An Israeli Air Force General Dynamics F-16C Barak of No. 110 Squadron departs on a mission during the ‘Blue Flag’ exercise on Ovda Air Force Base, Israel, on 27 November 2013. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 12–3.

[2] Intifada translates as ‘shaking off’ meaning grassroots resistance across the Middle East, see: Bethan McKernan, ‘Intifada: What Is It and What Would a Thrid Palestinian Uprising Mean for Israel and the Middle East?,’ The Independent, 7 December 2017.

[3] Giora Eiland, ‘The IDF in the Second Intifada,’ Strategic Assessment, 13:3 (2010), p. 31.

[4] Frans Osinga, ‘Air Strike’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Air Power (New York: Routledge, 2018), p. 102.

[5] Cited in Scott C. Farquhar, Back to Basics: A Study of the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2009), p. 7.

[6] David E. Johnson, Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), p. 56.

[7] The United Nations Security Council, ‘United Nations Resolution 1559.’

[8] Harel and Issacharoff, 34 Days, p. 86.

[9] Ibid., p. 100.

[10] Johnson, Hard Fighting, p. 62.

[11] Ibid., p. 65.

[12] William M. Arkin, Divining Victory: Airpower in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 2007), p. 133.

[13] Benjamin S. Lambeth, Air Operations in Israel’s War Against Hezbollah: Learning from Lebanon and Getting It Right in Gaza (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), p. 51.

[14] Arkin, Divining Victory, p. 21.

[15] Johnson, Hard Fighting, p. 68.

[16] Uzi Mahnaimi, ‘Humbling of the Supertroops Shatters Israeli Army Morale,’ The Times, 27 August 2006.

[17] Farquhar, Back to Basics, pp. 15-7.

[18] Ibid., p. 14.

[19] Lambeth, Air Operations in Israel’s War Against Hezbollah, p. 51.

[20] Johnson, Hard Fighting, p. 33.

[21] US Air Force, Air Force Doctrine Document No. 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 2003), p. 18.

[22] Raphael S. Cohen et al., Lessons from Israel’s Wars in Gaza, Brief: Summary of From Cast Lead to Protective Edge (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017), p. 8.

#Commentary – Going Back to the Future with Insurgent Air Power

#Commentary – Going Back to the Future with Insurgent Air Power

By Dr Jacob Stoil

From the British conception of air policing to the myriad of coalition air assets deployed as part Operation Inherent Resolve, counterinsurgents have enjoyed their ability to be the sole force in skies and the plethora of benefits that brings. Throughout late 20th and early 21st century, there have been rare instances where insurgents have tried to either contest this or at the very least exploit the air domain for their operations. These include the development and deployment of the ‘Air Tigers’ of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil and Eelam (LTTE) and the more recent use of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) by a host of actors including ISIS and Hezbollah. LTTE’s attempts were largely ineffective, and ISIS’s small UAVs have been only deployed for tactical effects. Assumedly developing a counter to this ISIS threat will be part of the broader effort to deal with the UAV threat writ large. In Gaza, Hamas has developed something different and is going back in time technologically to exploit the hybrid space and launch an air campaign.

In late May 2018 Israeli security forces identified an explosive-laden UAV launched by one of the militant groups from the Gaza strip. In the same month, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) destroyed a Hamas base containing unmanned underwater vehicles. Both these capabilities while impressive represent an evolution of what combatants have already observed the world over. Militant groups increasingly have the capabilities to employ low-cost unmanned systems in a variety of domains. The interesting evolution out of Gaza strip is not the use of advanced technology by militant groups but a return to simple and cheap solutions.

Over the past month, militants in Gaza have launched numerous strikes using incendiary devices attached to kites and balloons. These devices come in several forms; some are kites released on to the wind current carrying flaming material and accelerant dangling from a rope. Others are helium balloons (or helium-filled condoms) with trailing flaming materials and accelerant. Although there are variations most of these carry metallic mesh pouches contacting burning oil-soaked rags or coal. These take advantage of the dry summer conditions in Southern Israel to spark fires out of proportion to the amount of accelerant. In addition to these, there are varieties with small impact based explosive devices attached and more recently explosive devices designed to litter the ground.

This is the past returning. During the Second World War, the Japanese military was unable to bomb the mainland US and turned to balloons with incendiary devices as an attempt at a solution. By 20 June 2018, 75 days of balloon and kite attacks had seen over 700 attacks which burned over 6,100 acres of primarily agricultural land causing millions of dollars of damage. For Israel damage to its agricultural sector presents a serious threat given the relatively small amount of arable and pasturable land.

Iron_Dome_Battery_Deployed_Near_Ashkelon
An Iron Dome battery at Ashkelon, c. 2011 (Source: Wikimedia)

The balloon and kite launched devices present significant challenges to the Israeli military (IDF). Due to their low signature, they are harder to detect than UCAVs. Unlike rockets and mortars, they do not follow a set trajectory making counter battery fire more difficult. They are cheap and therefore employing short-range air defence such as Iron Dome makes little sense. The helium-filled condoms which trail burning liquids or rags may only cost as much as the helium (condoms are distributed in Gaza by the Palestinian Authority and international NGOs) while Iron Dome costs near $100,000 per launch. Other forms of Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar systems rely on a more prominent radar profile and are designed for point defence not protecting a whole broader.

The biggest challenge they pose may result from their place in the narrative domain. Often launched by teams including children, balloons and kites do not seem as threatening as other, more significant, more conventional types of attacks. Targeting those who launch them with lethal force would likely play poorly in the media and the international community overall. Unlike rockets and mortars, kites, and balloons – no matter the threat they may pose – are not often thought of within the panoply of tools of war. In this way, they are emblematic of an entire strategy – namely causing as much strategic threat as possible while remaining below the threshold of escalation. In his 1991 book The Transformation of War, Martin van Creveld identified the challenge this strategy poses to conventional state militaries stating: ‘Since fighting the weak is sordid by definition, over time the effect of such a struggle is to put the strong into an intolerable position.’[1] The kite and balloon attacks represent a new form of air power for insurgent groups which takes advantage of exactly this dynamic. As of now these attacks also provide a narrative victory to the militant groups allowing them to showcase in video and photo their ability to reach out and attack Israel. If the success of the balloon and kite attacks continues, we can safely assume they will spread. The more they are featured in regional media and militant media the more likely this is to happen.

So what options exist to counter this counter this new aerial threat? Thus far the IDF has looked to technological solutions deploying cheap commercial UAVs to bring down the kites and the balloons through physical contact. The Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported that this has had mixed results. The IDF has recently deployed a new system called Sky Spotter. The IDF employs this electro-optical system, to identify and provide an alert of incoming attacks mitigating the damage caused. Sky Spotter also serves to guide defenders to the incoming targets. There are plans to equip Sky Spotter with a laser system or to the ability to autonomously vector mini-UAVs. In the meantime, with an increase in the threat, some Israeli officials have suggested targeting those launching the attacks, and the IAF has begun firing warning strikes near those launching the attacks. As previously noted this tactic is rife with problems.

Another possible solution might be retaliating against targets and in doing so establishing deterrence. Although this might work in the unique operating environment of Gaza it is doubtful it would be as possible if another insurgency adopts this new use of air power globally. Just as lookouts may be more useful for identifying incoming attacks from balloons and kites than more high-tech radar, so too might defeating the threat requiring an examination of the past for inspiration. In the past, the best air defence consisted of layers of surface to air missiles (SAMs) and gun systems. These balloon and kite attacks exploit the intellectual and perhaps, even technical space, below the threshold for the employment of SAMs. Kites and balloons are vulnerable to gunfire and integrating rapid firing weapons aimed and operated by humans might provide a solution to this threat. Even this is not without problems as it potentially risks causing inadvertent casualties due to inaccuracy. Regardless, until a solution is found, it is likely insurgents will continue to exploit the air domain not only by developing drones but by evolving from drones to balloons.

Dr Jacob Stoil is an Assistant Professor of Military History at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies where he serves as the author for the course ‘Anticipating the Future’. He is the Deputy Director of the Second World War Research Group for North America. Stoil holds a PhD from the University of Oxford, and an MA and BA from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has research experience carrying out fieldwork in both Israel and the Horn of Africa. His most recent publications include Command and Irregular Indigenous Combat Forces in the Middle East and Africa’ in the Marine Corps University Journal, and ‘Martial Race and Indigenous Forces’ in Rob Johnson (ed.), The British Indian Army: Virtue and Necessity (2014). Additionally, he has authored analysis of contemporary operations and policy for the Journal of Military Operations, War on the Rocks, and From Balloons to Drones. Most recently he published an article on the spread of vehicle ramming attacks through West Point’s Modern War Institute and has a forthcoming in Le Vingtième Siècle article on indigenous forces in Palestine Mandate.

Header Image: A missile from an Israeli Iron Dome, launched during the Operation Pillar of Defense to intercept a missile coming from the Gaza strip, c. 2012. (Source: Wikimedia)

Disclaimer: The views presented here do not represent those of any contributors employer, funder, or government body.

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

[1] Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 176.

Call for Contributions – High-Intensity Warfare in the 21st Century

Call for Contributions – High-Intensity Warfare in the 21st Century

Since the end of the Cold War, the West’s militaries have been engaged in a series of protracted and persistent low-intensity counterinsurgency campaigns. For air forces, this has broadly meant involvement in campaigns where there have been few serious challenges to control of the air and air dominance was assumed. However, as we move further into the twenty-first century, that scenario is likely to change with the likelihood of peer-on-peer high-intensity conflict increasing. In such conflicts, air dominance will have to be fought for, and maintained, to utilise the full spectrum of capabilities afforded by the exploitation of the air domain.

Aim

The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones seeks to commission a series of articles that examine critical themes related to the challenge of preparing modern air forces for the possibility of high-intensity conflict as they transform into 5th generation forces. As well as informing broader discussions on the future of conflict, these articles will provide the intellectual underpinnings for a Williams Foundation seminar on the subject of the requirement of high-intensity conflict to be held in Canberra, Australia in March 2018.

Themes

The editors seek contributions that provide a variety of perspectives on the following key themes:

Strategy and Theory | Future Roles | Emerging Threats | Air Force Culture

Force Structure | Technology and Capabilities | Ethical and Moral Challenges

Doctrinal Trends | Education | Training

Articles can range from historical discussions of the above themes through to contemporary perspectives. Perspectives can also come from a number of related disciplines including history, strategic studies, international relations, law, and ethics.

Submission Guidelines

Articles framed around one of the above themes should be c. 2,000 words. Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the addresses below with ‘SUBMISSION – HIGH-INTENSITY WARFARE’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. Please be careful to explain any jargon. Publication will be entirely at the discretion of the editors. These articles will appear on the websites of The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones simultaneously. We will be publishing articles from the middle of February 2018 onwards.

Keen to write but need some guidance? Email us, and we can link you up with a mentor-editor who can assist you before formal submission.

Contact Information

For more information, please contact Wing Commander Travis Hallen (Co-editor, The Central Bluecentralblue@williamsfoundation.org.au) or Dr Ross Mahoney (Editor, From Balloons to Dronesairpowerstudies@gmail.com).

Header Image: An RAF Harrier waits in a hangar at Kandahar, Afghanistan prior to departure, c. June 2009. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 3: Other Roles and Conclusion

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 3: Other Roles and Conclusion

By Jeff Schultz

Editor’s Note: In the final instalment of a three-part series, Jeff Schultz examines the use of the North American T-28 Trojan during the so-called Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War. In this part, Schultz examines the aircraft’s other roles, such as reconnaissance. Parts One and Two can be found here and here.

Other Roles

The T-28 performed a range of other missions such as search and rescue (SAR), reconnaissance, night interdiction, observation and leaflet dropping. Early SAR missions sometimes featured T-28s, flown by Air America crews depending on the situation. They were often the closest assets available depending on where in Laos the pilot was shot down; he had a ‘better chance of being rescued by […] Air America.’[1] Working in conjunction with Air America T-28s, unarmed helicopters rescued some downed American pilots including US Navy Commander Doyle W. Lynn in June 1964.[2] Air America continued to fly T-28s in support of SAR missions into the late sixties, often flying as overhead cover.[3] In 1968, Air America helicopters rescued some American pilots, such as A-1 Skyraider pilots Lt. Colonel William Buice, and Major Howard Jennings, with perhaps 30 total U.S. military pilots rescued in Laos and North Vietnam.[4] T-28s also covered the insertion of road watch teams in Military Region IV (MR IV), which attempted to radio information about traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.[5]

Reconnaissance missions were another mission flown by a few of the T-28s provided to the RLAF, as ‘RT-28s,’ with mounted cameras under the fuselage.[6] The RT-28s were used to take photographs while on recon flights and provided the RLAF with a modest ability to conduct their reconnaissance. According to a report from 1965, the need to process the RT-28 mission film needed to be given higher priority.[7] Night Recon missions were considered but then dismissed in favour of ‘Yankee Team’ reconnaissance planes, which were evaluated as more effective at night.[8] A Thai recon pilot was shot down in an RT-28 in August 1964 near Phou Khout ridge in the Plain of Jars.[9] Another example from 1964 showed that even when three RT-28s were available to the RLAF, only one was flyable due to lack of parts or other serviceability issues.[10] USAF Captain Jack Drummond, assigned to help the RLAF via PROJECT 404 based at Pakse and Savannakhet, related one case where photographs of a Chinese-built road in north-west Laos were needed. He went to Udorn, Thailand and using an RT-28 from the base, eventually flew the recon mission himself to get it done.[11]

110329-f-xn622-002
Damage caused by a communist ground attack on Luang Prabang airfield, Laos, 1967. (Source: USAF)

The war in Laos changed once the American ‘Raven’ FAC (forward air control) pilots, previously known under the callsign ‘Butterfly,’ got involved in 1966 directing strikes in Cessna O-1s, U-17s and T-28s, which significantly improved the situation in favour of the US aims.[12] Ravens, according to a contemporary:

[w]ere all six-month volunteer air force types, civilian clothes, discharged from the service for six months and then automatically became back into the Air Force after six months […][13]

Drawing out the enemy in a war of attrition to be destroyed by air power worked, at least briefly, in Laos in 1967 when the careful use of Ravens, RLAF T-28s, Douglas A-26 ‘Nimrods’ and other American air support contributed to defeat repeated NVA assaults on Na Khang and assisted with forcing the withdrawal of the NVA 316th Division.[14] Another Raven, First Lieutenant Jim Lemon, recalled:

[w]orking under low cloud cover, using Lao T-28s, American A-1s and T-28 Trojans from NKP [Nakhon Phanom] we killed three trucks and a bulldozer.[15]

Some of the Ravens, contrary to orders, also flew combat missions with T-28s such as USAF Major Tom Richards in 1968.[16] Another Raven, USAF Colonel Joseph Chestnut, was shot down and killed flying a T-28 in October 1970 near Luang Prabang, Laos.[17]

By 1966 another use of T-28s was for night interdiction by the ‘Zorros’ of 606th Air Commando Squadron of the 56th Air Commando Wing, which attacked the Ho Chi Minh Trail at night from neighbouring Thailand.[18] Their mission was to destroy trucks and other targets of opportunity moving along the trail.[19] The ‘Zorros’ benefited from the T-28’s slower speed and accuracy to strike vehicle convoys or other objectives, similar to what the A-26 Nimrods had done.[20] By 1968, the ‘Zorro’ AT-28s were replaced with Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, ending this chapter of the T-28 involvement.[21] Coming budget cuts as part of Vietnamization would reduce the ability to interdict the trail even more.[22]

Lastly, a few examples exist of the T-28 used for psychological warfare leaflet drops, which led to some Pathet Lao defections, according to a 1964 report from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Green.[23] Another source mentions the use of T-28s for leaflet drops and some leaflet drops took place in conjunction with SAR missions.[24]

Conclusion

An unsung trainer turned fighter-bomber went on to be one of the most significant propeller aircraft in Laos from 1964-1973, even on to 1975. It served all over in the strike, recce, and SAR roles as a reliable, simple platform to bring the fight to the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. T-28s bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail and flew with Lao, Hmong, Thai and American pilots. T-28s met the needs for a COIN aircraft that allowed a relative novice to become a skilled aviator, such as in the cases of Ly Lue, Vang Sue and Vang Bee. Some of the last planes flying in Cambodia in 1975 were T-28s of the Khmer Air Force. The venerable trainer was, therefore, active from 1961 in South Vietnam all the way to the fall of Laos and Cambodia in 1975.[25] The T-28s alone, however, could not change the outcome in Laos, much as American airpower alone did not defeat the North Vietnamese. In his end-of-tour report in 1969, Major General Seith, Deputy Commander, 7/13 Air Force, summed up the T-28s role:

USAF and the RLAF T-28 force have performed remarkably well in defense of friendly ground positions, in providing close air support for offensive moves, and in destroying enemy supplies, equipment and bivouac areas.  But air forces cannot substitute for ground force; they can only supplement them and increase their fire power and maneuverability.[26]

Jeff Schultz teaches history and political science at Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania. He has an MA in History from Central Michigan University. His research deals with a broad range of historical periods such as the American Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam-era.

Header Image: An unmarked North American T-28D Trojan. This aircraft was probalby transferred to Laos in 1964. It was an USAF aircraft maintained by Air America at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, but flown under the command of the USAF Attaché, Vientiane, Laos. It was transferred to the Royal Laotian Air Force in February 1973, its eventual fate being unknown.

[1] Joe F. Leeker, Air America in Laos I – Humanitarian Work, Part I, CAT/Air America Archive at the Eugene McDermott Library, University of Texas at Dallas, p. 54.

[2] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, p. 111.

[3] Leeker, Air America in Laos I, p. 47.

[4] Marrett, Cheating Death, pp. 84-6; Leeker, Air America in Laos I, p. 53.

[5] CHECO Reports: RLG Military Operations and Activities in the Laotian Panhandle,  01 January 1981, Folder 24, Box 01, Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations (CHECO) Reports of Southeast Asia (1961-1975), The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p. 40.

[6] Adcock, T-28 Trojan in Action, p. 37.

[7] Project CHECO Southeast Asia Report #254 – Continuing Report: YANKEE TEAM – May 1964-June 1965, 08 March 1966, Folder 0201, Box 0044, Vietnam Archive Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p. 16.

[8] Ibid, p. 26.

[9] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War, p. 112.

[10] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, pp. 141-2.

[11] Chinnery, Air Commando, p. 202, 206.

[12] Short Story – USAF – re: 1960 to summer of 1962, 06 November 1997, Folder 01, Box 03, Jan Churchill Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p. 2; Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat, p. 278.

[13] Interview with Larry Clum, 29 February 2000, Larry Clum Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, pp. 22-3.

[14] Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat, pp. 278-9.

[15] Ralph Wetterhahn, ‘Ravens of Long Tieng,’ Air & Space Magazine, (November 1998), p. 3.

[16] Christopher Robbins, The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos, p. 59, 167.

[17] ‘Chestnut, Joseph Lyons Biography,’ P.O.W. Network.

[18] Chinnery, Air Commando, pp. 183-4.

[19] Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains, pp. 149-50.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Bernard C. Nalty, The War against Trucks: Aerial Interdiction in Southern Laos 1968-1972, (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005), pp. 28-9.

[22] Lewis Sorley, A Better War: the Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1999), p. 177.

[23] Marshall Green, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, ‘Immediate Actions in the Period Prior to Decision,’ (Part VIII of Working Group Outline), 7 November 1964, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 3, pp. 606-10.

[24] Joe F. Leeker, Air America: North American T-28s, CAT/Air America Archive at the Eugene McDermott Library, University of Texas at Dallas, p. 65.

[25] Albert Grandolini, Tom Cooper, and Troung, ‘Cambodia 1954-1999; Part 2,’ ACIG.org.

[26] Barrel Roll 1968-73 : An Air Campaign in Support of National Policy,  01 September 1996, Folder 04, Box 07, Glenn Helm Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p. 45.

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training

Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training

By Jeff Schultz

Editors Note: In the first of a three-part series, Jeff Schultz examines the use of the North American T-28 Trojan during the so-called Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War. In this part, Schultz examines the aircraft’s training role.

Scant attention has been paid to the two-seat T-28 Trojan trainer (or armed versions called the ‘Nomad’), of all the aircraft associated with the Vietnam era, and its important role in Laos during the Vietnam War. The most important single aircraft for the prosecution of the ‘secret war’ was the venerable T-28, used as a light ground attack aircraft adapted for counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare.[1] The T-28 sustained this COIN effort through a variety of missions and operators, eventually becoming a nearly ubiquitous fixed-wing aircraft during the Vietnam era. Its users included the US Air Force (USAF), Air America, South Vietnam, Thailand, Laos (including the Hmong), Cambodia, and even North Vietnam.

This article chronicles the mission types flown by the T-28 in Laos over the period 1964 to 1973. According to one source, ‘Laos has been a prisoner of geography, fought over and plundered by powerful neighbors,’ and the period after the 1954 French withdrawal only confirmed this notion of geographical entrapment.[2] American involvement in Laos before 1964 included a brief period of direct participation under President Kennedy until the 1962 Geneva Accords forbade outside intervention in Laos in an attempt to create a supposedly ‘neutral’ state. While America and the Soviet Union did withdraw their forces, the same could not be said of North Vietnam. After that the United States would attempt, from the Kennedy to the Nixon years, to maintain a supposed ‘civilian only’ presence in Laos so as to not violate the accords. This meant that in practice the ambassador and the embassy acted as the American command for Laos and therefore it was not a military, but rather a civilian affair. The ambassador occupied a critical role in the future of the country, as he controlled the means to support the Lao government such as financial and military support in the form of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other covert means.[3] As a CIA-owned subsidiary, Air America, provided a considerable portion of the aerial support for the war in Laos and in particular for the Hmong and Lao Army, in addition to search and rescue (SAR). As one source pointed out, the 1962 Geneva Accords ‘prohibit foreign military aircraft in Laos, but they say nothing about civilian planes.’[4]

‘Why the T-28?’ one might ask. The answer was simple enough: availability, simplicity and a proven record. USAF pilot Major Richard Moser flew the T-28s in his training phase and enjoyed flying the trainer he called ‘a memorable airplane’ with a ‘very classic sound.’[5] Already serving as one of the primary trainers for USAF/US Navy pilots, it operated a basic tricycle landing gear arrangement attached to a rugged airframe meant to teach trainees how to fly and could take some punishment from the fledgeling aviators.[6] Also, the airframe demonstrated its usefulness when the French used it with success as a COIN aircraft from 1961-62 during the Algerian War where they were called the T-28S ‘Fennec’.[7] T-28s also saw action as COIN aircraft in the Congo and Ethiopia against insurgents during the 1960s.[8]

Training Role

091029-f-1234o-002
A row of T-28s in Laos (Source: USAF)

The most basic mission the T-28s performed was the critical role of training new pilots, the trainee pilots sitting in the rear seat as ‘backseaters’ until they completed language and flight training phases progressing to graduation.[9] While the USAF could not openly operate in Laos per the 1962 Geneva Accords, it could do as it pleased in neighbouring Thailand. When the issue of training Lao and Thai pilots arose, the USAF did the same thing they had done in South Vietnam in late 1961, using special air warfare (SAW) personnel to ‘train foreign indigenous air force personnel in counterinsurgency operations.’[10] In South Vietnam, it was called Project FARMGATE as the Americans trained the pilots of the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF); the new unit set up in Thailand to train the Lao pilots used the name WATERPUMP.[11] Coincidentally, Captain Robert L. Simpson, the first American fighter pilot killed in South Vietnam, was from FARMGATE, who died when his T-28 Nomad crashed on 28 August 1962.[12] The VNAF pilots trained by FARMGATE went on to fly strike missions against the Viet Cong using American pilots and Vietnamese ‘backseaters’. In one 1962 instance, according to author Neil Sheehan, it was evident that the:

converted T-28 Trojan trainers were better than jets for this work because the pilots could dive more slowly and see better to strafe and rocket.[13]

American WATERPUMP personnel from the USAF 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (4400 CCTS) based at Eglin AFB, Florida made the Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) T-28 mission possible in Laos, but Thais and Americans flew T-28s such as Air America pilots and later the USAF ‘Raven’ forward air controllers (FACs) for some missions.[14] Another group of operators to fly the T-28s were Thai mercenary pilots, who also flew under RLAF colours but with no outward distinction as to their non-Lao identity, sometimes referred to as ‘Friendly Third World Power’.[15]

The American-backed RLAF used the T-28 as its primary strike aircraft from 1964 until its demise in 1975.[16] The Lao operated T-28s featured:

[t]hree-sided frames on the fuselage into which metal insignia plates could be slid: the Lao insignia on one side, Thai insignia on the other, or no insignia at all.[17]

It was Project WATERPUMP that turned the RLAF recruits into T-28 pilots starting in 1964, and later in 1967 Hmong were also accepted for training, which concerned some of the non-Hmong RLAF who viewed them as ‘mere savages.’[18] A RAND study from 1972 characterised the relative Lao performance in a negative light: ‘The consensus of those who have worked with them is that the Lao make poor soldiers.’[19] Combined with lacklustre leadership which lacked aggressiveness and a general inability to maintain aircraft properly, the RLAF never progressed beyond flying the propeller-driven T-28s to operating jets like the American-supported VNAF (South Vietnamese Air Force), for example, had done.[20] The RLAF gained T-28s from the VNAF after they replaced them with the larger and more robust Douglas A-1 Skyraiders in 1964.[21] Before the T-28s were available, the RLAF operated a few old WW2-era North American T-6 Texan armed trainers, which quickly demonstrated the need for a more capable strike capability to counter the Pathet Lao, as the T-6s were able to carry little ordnance to make any significant impact.[22] In the initial RLAF that flew T-6s, Thai pilots augmented the few available Lao pilots to increase the sortie rate.[23]

One man, Vang Pao, rose from relative obscurity to change the fortunes for the Meo (or the Hmong) people, an ethnic minority that did not consider themselves the same as the lowland Lao. Many of the Hmong tribesmen had never seen aircraft before the French arrived, but a few of them, such as Vang Bee, would later go on to fly T-28s. The Hmong slowly transformed into regimental-sized groups from their original guerilla warfare orientation, so powerful was the inducement of air power, which represented a watershed in the manner in which the Hmong fought.[24] During the Dien Bien Phu era, Vang Pao had witnessed what airpower could do to the Viet Minh, and that impression heavily influenced his future.[25]

Jeff Schultz teaches history and political science at Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania. He has an MA in History from Central Michigan University. His research deals with a broad range of historical periods such as the American Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam-era.

Header Image: Damage caused by a communist ground attack on Luang Prabang airfield, Laos, 1967. (Source: USAF)

[1] Al Adcock, T-28 Trojan in Action (Carrollton, TX: Squadron Signal Publications, 1989), p.31.

[2] Hugh S. Greenway, ‘The pendulum of war swings wider in Laos,’ LIFE, April 3, 1970, p.34.

[3] Interview with John Webb, 1999, Wisconsin Veterans Museum Research Center, p.12; Interview with Larry Clum, 29 February 2000, Larry Clum Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.22.

[4] Richard Halloran, ‘Air America’s Civilian Façade Gives It Latitude in East Asia,’ New York Times, April 5, 1970.

[5] Interview with Richard Moser, 24 February 2006, Richard E. Moser Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.15.

[6] Steve Ginter, North American T-28 Trojan: The T-28 in Navy, Air Force and Foreign Service – Naval Fighters Number Five (Simi Valley, CA: Ginter Books, 1981), p. 29; James E. Parker, Jr., Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), p.103.

[7] Adcock, T-28 Trojan in Action, pp.42-3.

[8] Ibid., p.33.

[9] Phillip D. Chinnery, Air Commando: Fifty Years of the USAF Air Commando and Special Operations Forces, 1944-1994 (New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1994), pp.201-2.

[10] Corona Harvest Waterpump 1964 – 1965: A Special Report by Captain Thomas Knox, USAF (January 1970), 1964-1965, Folder 01, Box 01, Edward H. Douglas Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, p.ii; Victor B. Anthony and Richard R. Sexton, War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973 (Washington DC: Center for Air Force History, 1993), p.67.

[11]  Ibid., p.67, pp.96-97.

[12] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.75.

[13] Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988), p.85.

[14] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.71; Walter J. Boyne, ‘The Plain of Jars,’ Air Force Magazine, June 1999, p.78.

[15] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moon: the Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos, (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1996), p.132 and 136; Christopher Robbins, The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America’s Secret War in Laos (New York: Crown Publishers, 1987), p.163.

[16] Joe F. Leeker, Royal Lao Air Force / Raven: North American T-28s, p.1.

[17] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moo, p.132.

[18] Keith Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat: The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos (GPJ Books, 2011), p.280; Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, p.259.

[19] Douglas S. Blaufarb, Organizing and Maintaining Unconventional Warfare in Laos, 1962-1970, p.47.

[20] Boyne, ‘The Plain of Jars,’ p.78; Christopher Robbins, The Ravens, pp.58-59, p.64.

[21] Chinnery, Air Commando, p.94.

[22] Anthony and Sexton, War in Northern Laos, p.37, p.40; Arthur J. Dommen, The Indochinese Experience of the French and Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), p.591.

[23] Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (Boulder: Paladin Press, 1995), p.50.

[24] Keith Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat, p.279-80.

[25] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moon, p.29.