#AirWarVietnam – Making a MiG-Killer: Technology and Signals Intelligence for Air-to-Air Combat in Vietnam

#AirWarVietnam – Making a MiG-Killer: Technology and Signals Intelligence for Air-to-Air Combat in Vietnam

By Dr Mike Hankins

Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Dr Mike Hankins discusses the use of signals intelligence via Project Teaball that helped to improve the air-to-air combat ratios of the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series, then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.

Air-to-air combat in the Vietnam War has long been a sore subject for some observers.[1] Sources vary, but U.S. forces overall killed approximately 200 MiGs while losing about 90 planes to them, for a ratio of about 2.2:1.[2] Robert Wilcox, in his history of the Top Gun program, calls this ‘embarrassingly low.’[3] Looking just at 1968, the picture is even bleaker. The US Navy was disappointed with its 3:1 ratio and the US Air Force (USAF) traded McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms for MiGs at nearly a 1:1 rate. During the bombing halt between 1968 and 1972, both services sought to upgrade their technology and training, including the creation of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as ‘Top Gun.’ In 1972 when the LINEBACKER bombing campaign began, the US Navy’s air-to-air record jumped to 6:1. The USAF struggled in the early months of LINEBACKER, earning a negative kill ratio for the first time in the war and perhaps in its existence.[4]

The US Navy is often praised for their changes to training procedures (even though Top Gun initially had little support from US Navy leaders) while the USAF is often criticised for over-reliance on technological solutions.[5] However, the most significant improvement in air-to-air combat for the USAF was the result of a technological system: Project Teaball – a Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) system that allowed analysts on the ground to track enemy planes in real-time and communicate that information to pilots in the air.

‘Teaball’ was just as critical to the USAF’s air combat success during the LINEBACKER campaigns as Top Gun was for the US Navy. It demonstrated that the USAF was open to change and adapted its technological culture to meet new challenges. This is not to take away from the undeniable success of the Top Gun program, nor to diminish the importance the USAF’s effective RED FLAG program that began shortly afterwards. In the last throes of the Vietnam War, both technology and training worked in tandem.

Web of Confusion

North Vietnamese pilots had long relied on GCI to direct their movements – ground controllers used their extensive radar coverage of the area to track aircraft and give detailed second-by-second instructions to MiG pilots.[6] American forces were different. They tended to rely more on the initiative and skill of individual pilots, but they also had far less radar coverage of the areas they flew over in North Vietnam. Complicating, this was the fact that US radar stations were not well integrated, creating a confusing web of systems competing for pilots’ attention.

NVAF MiG-19 pilots of the 925th fighter squadron discussing tactics in 1971
North Vietnamese MiG-19 pilots discuss air-to-air combat tactics (Source: US Air Force)

The USAF operated a ground radar covering the southeast at Da Nang. Another radar further north at Dong Ha known as ‘Waterboy’ covered the lowest reaches of North Vietnam, although few air-to-air engagements occurred there. For further coverage, USAF flew a Lockheed EC-121 known as ‘College Eye,’ which was excellent over water but was less accurate over land. Other radar stations existed in Thailand, including ‘Brigham,’ at Udorn, and ‘Invert,’ at Nakon Phanom. These stations contributed ground control and navigational assistance, although their short-range provided almost no coverage of North Vietnam itself.

Hankins Radar Map
This map shows the radar coverage of systems prior to Project Teaball. Note that coverage above the 20th parallel, where air combat was much more likely, was almost nonexistent.

The US Navy used a system called ‘Red Crown,’ a ship-based radar located in the Gulf of Tonkin, to provide early warning of approaching MiGs. There was some limited cooperation between ‘Red Crown’ and ‘College Eye’ during Operation ROLLING THUNDER. The bottom line for all these radar systems was that none of them was effective for strikes further North than the 19th parallel, where air combat was more likely, and some of these systems, such as ‘Red Crown,’ could not effectively track planes below 10,000 feet, where MiGs often flew.[7]

However, radar was only one way to gain situational awareness of enemy MiGs. Communications surveillance, or signals intelligence (SIGINT), could track enemy movements and plans. In 1967, the USAF brought in new EC-121s known as ‘Rivet Top; to do just that: Intercept North Vietnamese communications and pass on vital information to American pilots. ‘Rivet Top’ was a success. In its limited time of employment, American forces claimed 20 MiG kills, 13 of which received direct contributions from ‘Rivet Top.’[8] However, the ROLLING THUNDER campaign ended before they could make a more significant contribution. At the beginning of the LINEBACKER Campaign, the US Navy’s ‘Red Crown’ ship returned, and the USAF instituted a system known as ‘Disco,’ essentially a slightly upgraded version of ‘College Eye.’ Under ‘Disco,’ multiple EC-121s provided a larger area of radar coverage and continued the SIGINT role provided by the ‘Rivet Top’ equipment, although the system suffered many of the same problems that plagued the ‘College Eye’ system, such as a limited range, limited crew and equipment capacity, and the need to stay in slow, controlled orbits.[9]

Both sides found that GCI was key to air-to-air victory. General John Vogt, Director of the Joint Staff and later commander of the Seventh Air Force, argued that MiG successes were attributable entirely to how their radar systems connected to their command and control practices.[10] USAF Ace fighter pilot Richard ‘Steve’ Ritchie went so far as to state that flying a protective escort without GCI warning of incoming MiGs was ‘useless,’ and that employment of US GCI ‘was one of the primary reasons that we were able to engage MiGs and effect kills.’[11] Yet the limited range, communications problems, and frequent technical failures limited US GCI efforts.

Ritche
The F-4D flown by Captains Richard S. Ritchie and Charles B. DeBellevue at Udorn AFB in 1972. This aircraft is currently on display at the Air Force Academy. (Source: US Air Force)

Green Door Syndrome

An equally serious bureaucratic problem aggravated these technological difficulties. Unknown to most fighter pilots, the National Security Agency (NSA) frequently intercepted North Vietnamese communications – including information about MiG flights. Some NSA analysts, such as Delmar Lang, had previously advocated combining these intercepts with GCI to provide a more accurate picture of enemy locations and movements. Lang had developed such a system in the Korean War, contributing to the success of North American F-86 Sabre pilots. Lang had offered to create a similar program in Vietnam, but both NSA and USAF leaders, particularly Major General George Keegan, Director of Air Force Intelligence, repeatedly turned him down.[12] Interception of North Vietnamese transmissions was classified, and American pilots did not have proper security clearance. This policy was not unfounded. Using these intercepts could undoubtedly aid American pilots but using them too frequently risked alerting the North Vietnamese that the US was intercepting their signals.[13]

This was a dilemma for American planners who needed to balance using the data with keeping its existence secret. However, USAF leaders such as Keegan simply refused to pass on any information to American pilots in combat. This created a sense of ill will between pilots and intelligence agents. As former USAF intelligence officer, Gilles Van Nederveen noted, ‘US pilots, already frustrated by the small amount of data provided to them, felt betrayed when they learned that some losses over Vietnam could have been prevented if intelligence data had been shared with them.’ This animosity grew so prevalent that it received a name: ‘green door syndrome,’ so labelled because, in many combat wing bases in the theatre, classified information was kept in vaults usually behind a green door.[14]

LINEBACKER and Project Teaball

When bombing (and air-to-air combat) resumed in earnest with the LINEBACKER campaign in May 1972, the US, particularly the USAF, received what Colonel Russ Everts, an F-4 Pilot, generously called ‘an old fashioned butt kicking, pure and simple.’[15] After some initial successes that May, in June and July, USAF F-4 Phantoms claimed 8 MiGs, with the US Navy shooting down only 3. While the US Navy only lost one F-4, USAF lost 13.[16] The US Navy could still claim their previous 3:1 ratio; the USAF had sunk to its lowest ratio during the war, 0.6:1. For the first time in the war, the kill ratios favoured the North Vietnamese.

These reversals rippled through USAF quickly, prompting investigations into the quality of fighter pilots. General William Momyer, then commander of Tactical Air Command (TAC), who had previously resisted any alterations to training procedures, changed his mind and recommended the creation of an ‘Aggressor’ squadron to simulate MiGs in air combat training (building on a program at Nellis run by Major Roger Wells). Although Chief of Staff of the Air Force General John Ryan approved the Aggressor concept at that time, the program did not begin until after the war was over and thus it had no effect on air combat in Vietnam.[17]

However, one element the USAF could fix in time to make a difference was their GCI system. The summer’s heavy losses, increasing concern from Vogt about the shortcomings of American GCI, and pressure from eager NSA analysts and USAF pilots all overrode earlier concerns with sharing classified intelligence and pushed the issue higher up the chain of command. Ryan directly contacted the head of the NSA, Admiral Noel Gayler – himself a former US Navy aviator – and requested the creation of an improved early warning system to alert pilots to approaching MiGs. With Ryan and Gayler’s approval, General Vogt worked with Delmar Lang and Lieutenant Colonel William Kirk to establish Project Teaball at Nakhom Phanom Air Force Base in Thailand in August 1972.[18]

Teaball 1
The flow of information from various radar and SIGINT sources, to the Teaball center that was eventually disseminated to pilots. (Source: Nederveen, ‘Wizardry’)

‘Teaball’ took the classified NSA intercepts and combined them with other US radar sources. These included the radio calls sent from North Vietnamese pilots to their ground controllers and vice versa, revealing precise locations and vectors for their MiGs. This information was fed into a computer known as ‘Iron Horse’ that took data from these sources and quickly synthesised it into a composite display showing a near real-time picture of the location of all friendly and enemy aircraft over North Vietnam.[19] ‘Teaball’ operators then sent this information directly to pilots via Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) radio signals relayed through a Boeing KC-135 aircraft code-named ‘Luzon.’

There was still tension between some pilots and the intelligence community. Kirk worked to build trust between the two groups and overcome ‘green door syndrome’ by personally visiting every single wing in the theatre to brief them on ‘Teaball’s’ capabilities, the accuracy of its data, and the methods he used to contact pilots directly.[20] Finally, US pilots could have situational awareness of the aerial battlefield and early warning of MiG threats. However, ‘Teaball’s’ implementation differed from the authoritarian North Vietnamese GCI system and simply provided information to pilots. The American ground controllers often suggested courses of action, but individual pilots handled threats at their discretion.

The Best Show We’ve Had

‘Teaball’ was only active from August 1972 until the end of LINEBACKER operations in October. In that time, USAF F-4’s shot down 21 MiGs with only six losses. Of those kills, 13 were a direct result of vectoring from ‘Teaball.’[21] Of those losses, five of the six occurred when ‘Teaball’ was down due to technical failure, demonstrating just how critical the system was to the USAF effort. When examining only MiGCAP flights, USAF F-4s claimed 18 kills with five losses, a nearly 6:1 ratio.[22] During that same timespan, the US Navy got two kills but lost two Phantoms.[23] General Vogt extolled the program’s success:

This is the most effective show we’ve had during the entire war with the battle against the MiGs […] This proved one thing – if you can show the American fighter pilot where [the enemy] is in sufficient time, he’ll shoot him down.[24]

Vogt went on to say:

Same airplane, same environment, same situation, same tactics; largely [the] difference [was] Teaball. It was one of the most impressive developments we’ve had out here.[25]

Pilots praised ‘Teaball’ as well. One mission report stated: ‘A good GCI capability made the difference, and will in the future.’ Another echoed: ‘Computerized real-time intelligence will get more kills than all the fighter sweeps we can put together.’[26]

No matter how well-trained a pilot is, if they do not realise they’re under attack, they cannot use their training. ‘Teaball’ gave them that warning, preventing further losses. ‘Teaball’ also provided more accurate visual recording of encounters than the memory of pilots could provide, enabling both a better study of enemy tactics and a useful training tool. It was also invaluable for search and rescue efforts, as ‘Teaball’ data could pinpoint the location of downed aircrews, enabling rescue craft to arrive quickly.[27]

However, the program, literally operating out of the back of a van, was not without problems.[28] The ‘Iron Horse’ computer was powerful for its time, but processing the data of all the SIGINT and radar inputs took an average of two minutes – an eternity in a dogfight. For this reason, ‘Teaball’s’ role was limited to providing early warning only. Once combat began, most pilots relied on more timely information from ‘Disco’ or ‘Red Crown’ if in range.[29] Also, the UHF radio relays in F-4 cockpits were old and broke down frequently.[30]

Increased American success forced the North Vietnamese Air Force to scale back its operations, flying fewer missions and attempting to counter ‘Teaball’s’ tracking ability by turning off their IFF (Identify-Friend-or-Foe) signals. However, that separated North Vietnamese pilots from their GCI, their chief advantage to this point. They could run with radio silence, but that risked making them vulnerable to their surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). ‘Teaball’ operators could spot them as soon as they tried to alert their missile sites. The more common technique the North Vietnamese used to get around ‘Teaball’ was deception. Ground controllers sent messages pretending to be pilots, essentially creating ‘ghost MiGs.’ However, ‘Teaball’s’ operators could easily distinguish between these fake calls and authentic ones due to differences in the signal itself.[31]

When LINEBACKER ended, so did most air-to-air combat, but ‘Teaball’ stood ready when LINEBACKER II commenced on 18 December 1972. Lieutenant General Horace Wade, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was impressed enough with ‘Teaball’ to move it into a permanent facility at Nakom Phenom.[32] However, MiGs barely flew during the operation – only 26 were even sighted. USAF Phantoms took down four, the US Navy got one more, and B-52 gunners shot down two. USAF lost two Phantoms to MiGs. North Vietnamese sources claim that MiGs shot down two B-52s as well, but this is unconfirmed by the U.S.[33] This 3.5:1 is above average for the war, if not as impressive as when ‘Teaball’ was most active in LINEBACKER. However, the sample size for LINEBACKER II is incredibly small, and the operation was unique. In any case, although SAMs wreaked havoc on the B-52 fleet, MiGs did not pose a significant threat. By 28 December 1972, North Vietnam had exhausted its SAM supply and was incapable of defending itself from the B-52 raids. When Hanoi expressed its desire to renew serious negotiations, President Nixon halted all bombing north of the 20th parallel. With the signing of final settlements on 23 January 1973, air-to-air combat in the Vietnam War ended.[34]

Conclusion

The typical, perhaps romanticised narrative of air combat in Vietnam is that the US Navy used the ‘correct’ approach when creating the Top Gun program and that the USAF deserves criticism for its failure to produce a similar program and its adherence to technological chimeras. However, this story ignores that the US Navy also used technological improvements, including upgrades to their missiles and the jamming of enemy communications. It fails to note that the US Navy engaged fewer MiGs during the LINEBACKER period, with little contact with the more advanced MiG-21 Fishbed, so perhaps a direct comparison of each service’s kill counts is misleading.

Furthermore, this narrative fails to recognise that the USAF saw a more significant improvement in its effectiveness than did the US Navy in the same period owing to the systems-based, technological approach of Project Teaball. Top Gun worked, but ‘Teaball’ worked better. The role performed by ‘Teaball’ laid the foundation for the later role of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) that has become an essential element of American air power strategy. In the final phase of the Vietnam War, the USAF demonstrated that technological solutions could be effective.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.’ He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A U.S. Air Force Lockheed EC-121K ‘Rivet Top’ of the 552nd Airborne Early Warning & Control Wing, based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, in 1967-68. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] This article is adapted from Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam, 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63:3 (2016), pp. 7-24.

[2] John Correll, The Air Force in the Vietnam War, The Air Force Association (Arlington, VA: Aerospace Education Foundation, 2004), p. 17. See also Robert Futrell, et al., Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1973 (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Air University, 1976); Chris Hobson, Vietnam Air Losses: United States Air Force Navy and Marine Corps Fixed-Wing Aircraft Losses in Southeast Asia 1961-1973 (England: Midland, 2001); and the Red Baron Reports, Volumes I, II, and III, Institute for Defense Analyses Systems Evaluation Division.

[3] Roger K. Wilcox, Scream of Eagles: The Dramatic Account of the US Navy’s Top Gun Fighter Pilots: How they Took Back the Skies over Vietnam (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1992), p. xii.

[4] Red Baron II Vol. I, C-1–E-2, USAF Fighter Weapons Center, 1973; and Red Baron III, Vol. I, C-1–D-6, USAF Fighter Weapons Center, 1974.

[5] Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, 214-215; See for example Steven A. Fino, ‘Breaking the Trance: The Perils of Technological Exuberance in the US Air Force Entering Vietnam,’ Journal of Military History, 77:2 (2013), pp. 625-55.

[6] United States Air Force Oral History Program, Interview #K239.0512-630, Captain Richard S. Ritchie, 11 Oct 72 and 30 Oct 72, 1, pp. 74-5.

[7] William Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Washington D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1978), pp. 150-5.

[8] Marshall Michel, Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), p. 114.

[9] Futrell, Aces, p. 14; Momyer, Air Power, p. 155; Michel, Clashes, p. 226.

[10] M. F. Porter, ‘Linebacker: Overview of the First 120 Days,’ Project CHECO Report, 27 Sept 1973, p. 48.

[11] Ritchie Interview, 37, 8.

[12] Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology During the Cold War, 1945-1989, Book II: Centralization Wins, 1960-1972 (Fort Meade, MD: Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 1995), p. 580.

[13] Michel, Clashes, p. 115; See also Walter J. Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ Air Force Magazine (July 2008), p. 68; and Gilles Van Nederveen, ‘Wizardry for Air Campaigns: Signals Intelligence Support to the Cockpit’ (Research paper for the College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education, Airpower Research Institute, Maxwell: 2001), pp. 2-3.

[14] Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ 24.

[15] Quoted in Marshall Michel III, “The Revolt of the Majors: How the Air Force Changed After Vietnam” (PhD Thesis, Auburn University, 2006), p. 145.

[16] Red Baron III, C-1–D-6.

[17] Michel, ‘The Revolt,’ 146-52. See also, Brian D. Laslie, The Air Force Way of War: US Tactics and Training after Vietnam (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

[18] Johnson, American Cryptology; Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ p. 69; Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ p. 25. See also Calvin R. Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations: September – December 1972,’ Project CHECO Report, 31 December 1978, p. 50.

[19] Author redacted, ‘TEABALL: Some Personal Observations of SIGINT at War,’ Cryptologic Quarterly, 9 (Winter 1991), p. 92.

[20] Quoted in Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ pp. 69-70. See also Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ p. 25-6.

[21] Johnson, American Cryptology, p. 580. See also Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ p. 52.

[22] William Sayers, ‘The Red Baron Reports: What They Really Said,’ Air Power History, 52:3 (2005), p. 12, 39. See also Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ p. 52.

[23] Red Baron III, Vol. 1, C-1–D-6.

[24] Quoted in Porter, ‘Linebacker: Overview of the First 120 Days,’ pp. 46-7.

[25] Quoted in Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ pp. 52-4.

[26] Red Baron III, vol. III, C-29.

[27] Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ pp. 28-9.

[28] Johnson, American Cryptology, p. 579.

[29] Ibid., p. 31.

[30] Ibid., pp. 28-9; Ritchie Interview, p. 8.

[31] Author redacted, ‘TEABALL: Some Personal Observations,’ 94-5.

[32] Ibid., p. 95.

[33] Red Baron III, C-1–D-6. Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat (Mechanicsburg, VA: Stackpole Books, 2010), p. 141, 145. See also, István Toperczer, Mig-21 Units of the Vietnam War and MiG-17 and MiG-19 Units of the Vietnam War, both from Osprey Press. Toperczer and Boniface each claimed to have examined North Vietnamese records, but make no mention or citation of specific documents, and their work has not been peer reviewed. Naturally their claims for NVAF victories are significantly higher that official US records. While their claims may have merit, this article has chosen to rely on official US records where possible, admitting that these are also not perfect.

[34] Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: The Free Press, 1989), pp. 188-9, 198-200.

#AirWarVietnam – Contested Skies: A Brief Guide to the Historiography of the Air War in Vietnam

#AirWarVietnam – Contested Skies: A Brief Guide to the Historiography of the Air War in Vietnam

By Dr Michael Hankins

Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones will be running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. To kick off this series, Assistant Editor, Dr Michael Hankins, provides a brief overview of the historiography of the air war. While not conclusive, it does give an idea of the critical strands present in the historiography and highlights where there are some important omissions such as a scholarly examination of air power during the French-Indochina War. If you would like to be a part of that discussion by submitting your work to the series, please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.

Here at From Balloons to Drones, we are launching a series of articles on the air war in Vietnam. This is no easy task, as writing about the Vietnam War is akin to strolling into a minefield: There is a good chance of causing an explosion. Historian Robert Citino stated it best:

Anyone who tries to draw conclusions from the Vietnam War will almost certainly anger the legions of Americans who have already made up their minds about it.[1]

In the U.S. especially, the debate over the war rages in both public and academic spheres regarding what happened and what it means for American society.[2] As the war in its entirety remains controversial, the sub-field on the air wars has developed its own debates and tropes. This article is intended as a quick guide to some of that literature as well as an introduction to a few of the broader arguments and issues that loom over the entire field. If there is any single takeaway from a survey of the literature of the Vietnam War (and its air components in particular), it is that the war remains contested but relevant, and there is plenty of work for scholars left to do in deepening our understanding of the conflict.

VNAF_A-1E_Skyraiders_at_Bien_Hoa_c1965
A Vietnamese Air Force student pilot and a USAF instructor sit side by side in a VNAF Douglas A-1E Skyraider taxing to the runway at Bien Hoa air base, Vietnam, c. 1965. (Source: Wikimedia)

General Histories

Because there is less of a standing consensus regarding the Vietnam War than in some other conflicts, finding an entry point can be difficult. Perhaps the most middle-of-the-road overview of the entire conflict (written primarily from the American perspective) is still George C. Herring’s America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (1979). Originally written in 1979, it is now in its fifth edition (released in 2013) as Herring continually updated it to incorporate new scholarship. Another useful overview is Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam 1945-2010 (2014) by James Olson and Randy Roberts. This is the sixth edition of a book initially published in 1991 and constantly updated. The book is still mostly from the American perspective but delves a little bit deeper into some of the backgrounds to the conflict regarding French colonialism and the ideology of Ho Chi Minh, which itself is highly contested.[3] Olson and Roberts are more pointed in their argument that the war was unwinnable for the U.S.

For a more traditional operational look, Phillip Davidson’s Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975 (1988) is a valuable in-depth examination of both the French and American phases of the war. For a contrasting, but still, mostly operational look at the war, the works of Gregory Daddis are perhaps the best place to start. It is fair to say that Daddis is the current leader of the field when it comes to military histories of the Vietnam War. His trilogy of books is useful and wide-ranging. No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War (2011) examines the ways that U.S. forces measured progress and success, which led them to make many faulty assumptions. Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam (2014) and Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (2017) each examine the American strategic and operational approaches in the first and second half of the conflict respectively.

What these books do not address as much are the pacification programs (also known as ‘the other war’) and a perspective internal to South Vietnam. Thankfully, more historians are entering the field and producing exciting work in these areas. Jessica Chapman’s Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (2013) are one of the most exciting new books in the field, examining the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and the three organisations internal to South Vietnam that resisted it the most. Andrew Gawthorpe’s To Build as Well as Destroy: American Nation Building in South Vietnam (2018) is probably the best look at pacification so far, although it proves to be a promising topic that shows much room to grow.

It is important to note that a book such as Olsen’s and Robert’s (and to some degree Daddis’) are responding to an earlier strain of works that argued the opposite. This argument was that the war was winnable, but that American leaders (mostly civilian political leadership and some military leaders) fundamentally misunderstood the war and for one reason or another, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Perhaps the most widely-read work that takes that argument is Harry Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982), which analyses the war through a particular interpretation of Clausewitz. Most works that take this tack posit that America could have won the war earlier by going with a more all-out, aggressive military strategy.

The Air War(s)

That more aggression could have produced victory was certainly the belief of many U.S. Air Force leaders. For example, speaking to Air Force Academy cadets in 1986, General Curtis LeMay was asked whether the U.S. could have won the war. He responded: ‘In any two-week period you care to mention.’[4] Many books on the air war take a similar approach, such as On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War Over Vietnam (1987) by John Nichols and Barrett Tilman. This argument is especially common among oral histories and memoirs. There are a plethora of such books, particularly by pilots eager to share their ‘There I was…’ stories and many of these works are very useful. The best is Airpower in Three Wars: World War II, Korea, Vietnam (1978) from the Commander of 7th Air Force, General William Momyer (pronounced Moe-Mye-er). Other notable entries in this category include Ed Rasimus’ Palace Cobra: A Fighter Pilot in the Vietnam Air War (2006), Robin Olds’ Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds (2010), Ken Bell’s 100 Missions North: A Fighter Pilot’s Story of the Vietnam War (1993), and Robert Wilcox’s oral history of the Top Gun program, Scream of Eagles: The Creation of Top Gun and the U.S. Air Victory in Vietnam (1990), to name a few.

However, most of the literature from historians regarding the air campaigns have argued the opposite: that a more aggressive bombing approach earlier in the war was not feasible for a variety of reasons. One of the earliest books to push for this line of thinking is Mark Clodfelter’s The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (1989). This book is, in this author’s opinion, still the most important book on the air war in Vietnam and one of the most important works in the field of air power history in general. Other works have made similar or related arguments but in more specific areas. Earl Tilford’s Crosswinds: The Air Force’s Setup in Vietnam (1993) looks at the years leading up to the war and argues that the Air Force’s structure and doctrine did not lend itself to the type of fighting in Vietnam.[5] For an operational look at the air campaigns through this lens, the most useful works are Jacob Van Staaveren’s Gradual Failure: The Air War over North Vietnam, 1965-1966 (2002) and Wayne Thompson’s To Hanoi and Back: The United States Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966-1973 (2000) each of which focuses on a distinct time frame. The Linebacker II campaign sometimes called the ‘11-day war’ or ‘the Christmas bombing’ can be contentious. The best operational account of it so far is Marshall Michel’s The Eleven Days of Christmas: America’s Last Vietnam Battle (2001), which blames Air Force leaders rather than political leaders for the mission’s problems.

Many of the more popular memoirs deal with air-to-air aspect, although such encounters were rare, as the North Vietnamese Air Force tended to average thirty to forty operational fighters at any given time (compared to the thousands of aircraft the U.S. had in-theatre). There are some broader examinations of the air-to-air aspect. The most comprehensive is Marshall Michel’s Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (1997), although Craig Hannah’s brief Striving for Air Superiority: The Tactical Air Command in Vietnam (2001) is also useful.[6] Because the war featured an expansion of tactical air power, many works deal with a diversity of air power roles, one of the best entry points is Donald Mrozek’s Air Power and the Ground War in Vietnam: Ideas and Actions (1988). Part of the problem with the use of tactical air power in Vietnam was the confusing command structures and service rivalries. Ian Horwood’s Interservice Rivalry and Airpower in the Vietnam War (2006) is perhaps the best text examining that issue and is a useful general exploration of tactical airpower in the south.

B-52D_approaching_U-Tapao_1972
A U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52D Stratofortress aircraft coming in for a landing at U-Tapao air base, Thailand, after a mission over Vietnam, 30 October 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

The problems that the US military experienced in Vietnam led to a long period of change afterwards, as the various services all raced to reform themselves not to repeat the perceived mistakes of the war. However, the services disagreed (with each other and within themselves) about what precisely the mistakes were and how to solve them. The period following the war, from the late 1970s until 1991, was essentially a second ‘interwar period,’ similar in some ways to the 1920s and 1930s. The degree to which the Vietnam War was used as an impetus for change in the air power realm has been covered in many works. There are so many volumes on this subject that they would require a separate article on their own, although some useful starting places include Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (2015), Mike Worden’s The Rise of the Fighter Generals: The Problem of Air Force Leadership, 1945–1982 (1998), and C.R. Anderegg’s Sierra Hotel: Flying Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam (2001). You can find a historic book review of this latter title here.

Although many of the works listed here are of high quality, there are some inherent limitations to the field. Most of them are limited to studying a specific geographical area or timeframe (or both), and there are fewer works that take a comprehensive look at the entirety of the air wars. Some such works are forthcoming, but there is more room for more books that take this wider approach. Most works are written by people who have some tie to the military. Many are veterans of the war or have served in the time since. Many more are civilian employees of the military (of which this author is one as well, so take my recommendations with a grain of salt of course). Many of the books listed here are from government or military presses. None of this is to imply that they are of lesser quality or that they have any particular biases (indeed, much of the material from Air University Press can be interpreted as critical of the Air Force), but it does mean that the perspectives given are limited. Further limiting our view of the war is the paucity of books written by women and people of colour. The majority (although not all) of the books in the field are from the perspective of men, predominantly white – a limitation that is hopefully in the process of being alleviated as new and diverse scholars continue to enter the field.

There is a reason to believe that the field of Vietnam War histories is on the verge of a turning point, as the previous generation who remembers the war as a part of their lives is starting to give way to a new generation that has no personal memory of the war. New sources and new perspectives are beginning to emerge, as new and old scholars alike develop not only new answers to questions but new questions. It is an exciting time to be a historian of this era.

Conclusion

There is an overwhelming number of works about the air wars in Vietnam. This brief survey, focusing on significant monographs, is not meant to be comprehensive, but merely a guide to some of the more influential works and themes. There are many wonderful and useful works not mentioned here, and that is not meant as a slight against any of them. For more, any serious student of the Vietnam War must become quickly aware of the work of Dr Edward Moïse. Not only are his own works useful reading, but his website contains quite possibly the largest bibliography of works on the Vietnam War, many of which are annotated and organised into searchable categories. This is an invaluable resource.

Despite the large size of the field, there is much work left to be done. While there are many memoirs and oral histories of various aspects of the war, we still need scholarly monographs on the air wars in Laos and Cambodia, on Air America (the CIA’s air effort), on the defoliation operations, and on-air mobility both in terms of troop movements and airlift of supplies and humanitarian efforts. Many of the works mentioned do discuss air power used by the Army and Marines, but more works focusing on these aspects are needed. Perhaps the two most significant gaps in the field are a good scholarly analysis of the use of air power during the French-Indochina War and a discussion of the perspective of the North Vietnamese Air Force. Chinese involvement in terms of providing pilot training and providing some actual pilots could also be examined in more depth. Of course, there is always room for new interpretations of ideas that have been previously discussed. Several excellent books do exist on these topics, but there is room for scholars to expand our knowledge and understanding. This is just a tip of the iceberg of some of the exciting work left to be done in the field.

The Vietnam War is a conflict that will continue to be controversial as those involved on all sides continue to grapple with its legacy. We here at From Balloons to Drones hope that the upcoming series of articles from a variety of perspectives can help move that discussion forward.

Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A USAF Douglas A-26C Invader loaned to France during the Indochina War. This aircraft was loaned to France from March 1952 to November 1955. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Robert M. Citino, Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare (Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas Press, 2004), 254.

[2] For insightful studies of the memory of the Vietnam-American War, see Christian G. Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York: Viking Press, 2015); Patrick Hagopian, The Vietnam War in American Memory Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012); and Gregory Daddis, ‘The Importance of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive,’ War on the Rocks, 29 January 2018.

[3] Determining whether Ho Chi Minh was primarily a nationalist or a communist has been a major point of contention in the literature. Olsen and Roberts argue that he was in fact both, and that for him, those concepts cannot be separated.

[4] See Earl Tilford, ‘Linebacker II: The Christmas Bombing,’ The VVA Veteran, January/February 2014. This quote from LeMay is widely cited in many works.

[5] An earlier form of this book is available as a free download from AU Press under the title Setup: What the Air Force Did and Why.

[6] On the subject of air-to-air combat in Vietnam, see the author’s MA Thesis, ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air Combat in Vietnam’ (MA Thesis, University of North Texas, 2013).

Call for Submissions: Air War Vietnam

Call for Submissions: Air War Vietnam

From Balloons to Drones is seeking submissions for a series of articles that examines the varied use of air power during the conflict in Vietnam (1945-1975). Two thousand nineteen marks 50 years since the announcement of President Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. This marked a significant turning point in a conflict that dated back to the end of the Second World War when France returned to Indochina to reclaim her colonial possessions. Throughout this long conflict in Vietnam – both during the French Indochina War and the Vietnam War – air power played a significant role. Themes to be explored might include, but are not limited to:

Roles | Operations | Strategy, Theory and Doctrine

Strategic and Operational Effect | Technological Developments

Organisation and Policy | Culture | Ethical and Moral Issues

National, International and Transnational Experiences

We are looking for articles of c. 2,500 words, though we will accept larger pieces and we reserve the right to publish them in parts. We welcome and encourage submissions from academics, policymakers, service personnel, and relevant professionals. We plan to begin running the series in May 2019, and it will continue for as long as we receive potential contributions.

Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the address below with ‘SUBMISSION – Air War Vietnam’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. References can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. However, if you are not sure if your idea fits our requirements, then please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION – Air War Vietnam’ in the subject line to discuss.

If you are interested in contributing, please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here.

Header Image: A USAF Douglas A-26C Invader loaned to France during the Indochina War. This aircraft was loaned to France from March 1952 to November 1955. (Source: Wikimedia)

Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam

Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam

By Dr Michael Hankins

A recent post on the popular website The Aviation Geek Club told the story of what they called ‘the most epic 1 v 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation.’[1] This is the story in which Lieutenants Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham and William Driscoll, from among the first batch of graduates from the US Navy’s then-new Top Gun training program, shot down the number one North Vietnamese Air Force fighter ace, Colonel Toon, and became the first American aces of the war. Very little of that tale is true, but it makes for an exciting story, and this website is not the first to tell it. Although the details of these claims bear some scrutiny, the tale raises more interesting more significant questions about how and why legends like this form and grow over time.

Cunningham and Driscoll meet with Secretary of the Navy John Warner and CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt
Lieutenant Randy Cunningham (second from left) in a ceremony honouring him and Lieutenant William Driscoll (third from left), the US Navy’s only Vietnam War air ‘Aces’ in June 1972. On the left is John Warner, then Secretary of the Navy, and on the right is Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, then Chief of Naval Operations. (Source: Wikimedia)

Combat situations breed storytellers. Any stressful, exciting, death-inducing human endeavour does. Perhaps even more so among fighter pilots engaging in acrobatic dogfights at near (or above) the speed of sound, combat stories, as they are told and retold, heard and re-heard, become legendary. Especially enticing is the need to explain defeat or even a lack of decisive victory. During the Vietnam War, skilled North Vietnamese pilots shot down US aircraft in numbers that some Americans found embarrassing. The final official tally of air-to-air combat kills was 137 to 67, almost exactly 2:1 in favour of the US. This sounds like a victory to some. Indeed, General William Momyer, Commander US Seventh Air Force, saw it that way when he recalled later that winning by 2:1 was ‘an acceptable rate.’[2] However, it did not seem acceptable to those who drew historical comparisons. The US had fared better in previous wars, peaking in the Korean War, which saw US F-86 pilots defeating MiG-15s by a factor of more than 10:1.[3] By those standards, Vietnam felt like a massive step backwards.

Explaining the seeming backslide in combat performance was the official task of several investigations, from the US Air Force’s Red Baron Reports to the US Navy’s Ault Report. Pilots ranted about the poor performance of their planes, especially the F-4 Phantom’s thick black smoke trails that gave away its position to anyone caring to look up. Pilots scoffed at the lack of training in basic combat manoeuvring, much less dogfight training. They decried the fact that only ten percent of their missiles hit anything, and that their F-4s lacked the most basic instrument of air combat: a gun. Without a trigger to pull, many argued, how were they supposed to shoot anyone down?

Other pilots took to creating legends. What could explain the fact that so many US aircraft were getting shot out of the sky by an allegedly inferior, third-world country’s hand-me-down air force that only had a few dozen aeroplanes to its name? There must be an amazing, inexplicable, near-mythical, born-genius dogfighter on the enemy side.

Thus, was born the legend of Colonel Toon, AKA Colonel Tomb, AKA Nguyen Tomb.

Telling the Tale

As the legend goes, Toon was more than a double ace, with at least twelve kills to his name, maybe as high as 14, which was how many stars were allegedly painted on the side of his MiG. Toon displayed the typical fighter pilot personality characteristics of aggressiveness and independence. He utilised frequent head-on attacks and a ‘lone wolf’ style of engaging in which he refused to obey the orders of his ground controller and engaged F-4s in vertical manoeuvres, where his MiG was at an inherent disadvantage.[4] According to the typical story, as American pilots struggled, the US Navy’s Ault Report had led to the introduction of Top Gun: a graduate school for fighter pilots. The intensive training there gave US Navy aviators the skills to destroy MiGs wherever they found them. Moreover, allegedly, Top Gun graduates Cunningham and Driscoll used their newly found skills to shoot Toon out of the sky on 10 May, during a massive dogfight at the beginning of Operation Linebacker. Cunningham claimed this himself, and the story is still often repeated in popular outlets.[5]

There is just one problem: almost none of this is true. Top Gun, although undoubtedly useful, was, at the time, a tiny outfit that many leaders in the US Navy did not take seriously. The narrative of Top Gun as the saving grace of air-to-air combat also ignores all of the other useful changes instigated by the Ault Report, as well as other practices the US Navy was doing at the time. These included enhancements to their aircraft, upgraded missiles, the increased reliance on early warning radar systems that gave pilots situational awareness, and the increase in jamming of enemy communications that limited North Vietnamese situational awareness.[6] Besides that, Cunningham and Driscoll were not even Top Gun graduates. Moreover, what of Colonel Toon? He was simply not real. He did not exist.

NVAF MiG-19 pilots of the 925th fighter squadron discussing tactics in 1971
North Vietnamese Air Force MiG-19 pilots of the 925th fighter squadron discussing tactics in 1971. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

Busting Myths

To unravel these tales, let’s start with Cunningham and Driscoll at Top Gun. The principal disputed aspect of the common claim hinges on the word ‘graduates.’ Cunningham and Driscoll had not been students at Top Gun, but they were involved with the school. Before the start of Operation Linebacker in 1972, Top Gun was in bad shape. It had struggled and fought to get access to aeroplanes to train in, and throughout 1971 most of the instructors assumed it was only a matter of time before the US Navy would shut the place down.[7] With limited student slots, selection for Top Gun was competitive. Only the top-performing pilots of select squadrons were picked, and Cunningham had simply not made the cut – twice. Cunningham’s roommate Jim McKinney, and later Steve Queen, both of whom were his colleagues in VF-96, were selected ahead of him. This was in part because they were viewed as more skilled, partially because Top Gun selection favoured career officers the US Navy could count on to stay in the service after the war, which did not, at that time, describe Cunningham. Also, as his skipper noted, Cunningham was simply immature. Top officers and those selected for the coveted Top Gun training needed to be more than just typical fighter jocks, they needed to be well-rounded officers capable of strong leadership. Cunningham’s commander did not see those qualities in him.[8] His fellow pilots noted the same lack of leadership. When Cunningham later pled guilty to taking millions of dollars in bribes as a congressman, those that served with him said they were ‘not necessarily surprised,’ because even when he was a pilot during the war, he had shown a remarkable lack of officership. Some noted that Cunningham was ‘a mind undistracted by complicated thoughts.’[9]

Cunningham and Driscoll
An autographed picture of Lieutenants Cunningham and Driscoll (Source: Randy Cunningham and Jeff Ethell, Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984)

Just because Cunningham was passed over for Top Gun does not mean he was not participating in some way. In 1971, during his squadron’s turnaround period, Cunningham was assigned to temporary duty at Top Gun as a ‘gopher,’ mostly doing paperwork for the school. However, it gave him a chance to listen to some of the lessons and occasionally sit in the backseat of adversary aircraft. He spent much time with the Top Gun instructors, including Jim Laing, J.C. Smith, Dave Frost, and Jim Ruliffson. The squadron then went on leave for a month, during which time Cunningham’s new commanding officer, Early Winn, permitted him to run exercises in the squadron’s F-4 Phantoms since they would be sitting idle for that time. Cunningham used the opportunity to practice what he had learned from his informal lessons. Upon returning from leave, the whole squadron became the first to go through the new Fleet Adversary Program, which some described as ‘mini-Top Gun.’ Primarily the program was a short workshop that introduced some of the concepts that Top Gun explored in more detail. VF-96 ran the workshop twice before returning to Vietnam.[10]

The claim that Cunningham and Driscoll were Top Gun graduates, as is often repeated, is false, but it is easy to see why many might be confused about that. Indeed, in an ad hoc sense, the pair had some access to higher level training than others, including Top Gun instructors. The other claim; that the duo’s fifth kill was the legendary Toon – or that there even was a Toon – is much more dubious.

Part of the confusion comes from the insistence of US SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) by the National Security Agency (NSA) that Toon was real. Claiming to have cracked the North Vietnamese callsign system, the NSA, intercepting enemy communications, began keeping track of individual pilots. They especially singled-out a North Vietnamese MiG-21 ace pilot named Toon, based at Phuc Yen, who developed a reputation for aggressively disrupting B-52 raids. They referred to him as ‘The Red Baron of North Vietnam,’ or ‘an airborne outlaw in the image of a Wild West gunslinger,’ who, whenever he was spotted, ‘U.S. planes took up the chase like some sheriff’s posse of old.’ The NSA claimed that Momyer was ‘obsessed’ with destroying Toon.[11] This could be possible, although it is strange then, that Momyer does not mention Toon at all in his book on the subject.

Cunningham’s debriefing report from 10 May 1972 – in which he very carefully words his statement to give the reader the impression that he was a Top Gun student without stating that directly – has ‘The 5th Kill (Col. Tomb)’ typed in the margin. After describing the dogfight, he claimed:

Intelligence later revealed that this 17 driver was Colonel Tomb, the North Vietnamese ace credited with 13 U.S. aircraft.[12]

Cunningham did not identify who told him this, and his claim raises questions, as it seems to contradict the intelligence from the time. The NSA referred to this pilot as ‘Toon,’ not ‘Tomb,’ and did not identify him as a Colonel. The NSA also specified him as a MiG-21 pilot whereas the Cunningham kill was a -17. They also credited Toon with five kills, not the 13 that Cunningham referenced. Furthermore, the NSA report states that Toon was never defeated, and eventually was promoted out of combat flying and became a ground controller.[13] Cunningham might be telling the truth that some intelligence source, which he does not identify, told him that the -17 he killed was Tomb, but because his claims are so at odds with the NSA’s information on nearly every point, Cunningham’s story raises more questions than it answers.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17F
A Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17F at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

However, the NSA could also be wrong. In fact, they probably are. Even though the NSA claimed Toon was real at the time, there is little evidence to verify this. Indeed, any ace pilots that North Vietnam had – and eventually they had fifteen that were confirmed by US sources, though Vietnamese records claim sixteen, which was triple the number of US aces – would be of immense propaganda and morale value for their cause. If Toon were real, he would likely have been celebrated as a national hero. When researchers and former pilots began talking to North Vietnamese veterans, any questions about Toon were met with confusion. There’s no record of a Toon or Tomb, which is not even a Vietnamese name. Some have claimed that ‘Toon’ was the result of SIGINT operators mishearing the name of Din Tonh, who was an effective pilot known for ‘lone wolf’ attacks. However, Tonh also flew the MiG-21, not the -17, and was not an ace, much less one with kills in the double digits.[14]

Historian Roger Boniface travelled to North Vietnam and conducted extensive interviews with former MiG pilots. His conclusion? Toon was merely an invented figment of American fighter pilots’ imagination, made up specifically to stroke their damaged egos. As he put it:

The existence of Colonel Toon in the mind of an American pilot may have provided a psychological comfort zone if a North Vietnamese pilot should out-fly him or, even worse, shoot him down.[15]

NVAF ace pilot Nguyen Van Coc meeting with Ho Chi Minh
Nguyen Van Coc meeting Ho Chí Minh, N.D. (Source: Wikimedia)

The closest real pilot to fitting the description, however, was Nguyen Van Coc. He flew a MiG-21 with 14 ‘kill’ stars painted on the side. Vietnam officially credits Van Coc with nine kills of US aircraft, and the US has officially recognised six of them. Still, Van Coc cannot have been the ace-making kill for Cunningham and Driscoll, not only because he flew MiG-21s, but by 1968 he had already been pulled out of combat duty and made an instructor of new North Vietnamese pilots.[16]

Conclusion

Why does this controversy – and others like it – continue to plague the memory of the Vietnam War? Possibly because losing a war is psychologically devastating. This is evident simply in how divisive it is to call the American-Vietnam War a ‘loss’ for the US. Some are reluctant to do so in any terms, but no one can deny that the US did not achieve its strategic goal of creating a stable, independent, non-communist South Vietnamese state. Indeed, North Vietnam did achieve its goal of creating a unified communist state. However, the air-to-air war was not at all the make-or-break factor in any of that. The US did not fail in their goals because of the MiG force. Also, former war records aside, Momyer was not wrong to claim that a 2:1 kill ratio in air-to-air combat is still a victory, in at least a technical definition although the ability of MiGs to frequently interrupt bombing strikes was a more significant problem. Despite these clarifications, Vietnam felt like a loss even to many air combat pilots. Explaining that sense of loss, or even just a sense of a lack of decisive victory is difficult at best. Many pilots, and some historians and observers since, including Cunningham and Driscoll, found it easier to invent an enemy rather than must deal with those painful feelings head-on. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Nearly every war sees these types of inventions as a coping mechanism. Toon may not exist, but what he represents as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma of warfare, is all too real.

Dr Michael Hankins is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: US Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II ‘Showtime 100,’ which was assigned to VF-96 of Carrier Air Wing 9 onboard USS Constellation Lieutenants Randy Cunningham and William Driscoll used this aircraft for their third, fourth, and fifth MiG-kills on 10 May 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

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

[1] Dario Leone, ‘Showtime 100 Vs Colonel Toon: the most epic 1 V 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation,’ The Aviation Geek Club, 9 May 2018

[2] William W. Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2003), p. 178.

[3] For example, see: Kenneth P. Werrell, Sabres Over MiG Alley: The F-86 and the Battle for Air Superiority in Korea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).

[4] Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat, 1965-75 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008), p. 59, 74.

[5] For Cunningham’s claim, see: Randy Cunningham and Jeff Ethell, Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984), pp. 107-8.

[6] For a more in-depth look at some of these changes in both the US Navy and the USAF, see Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63 (2016), pp. 7-24.

[7] Robert Wilcox, Scream of Eagles (New York, NY: Pocket Star Books, 1990), pp. 203-6.

[8] Ibid, pp. 207-8.

[9] Alex Roth, ‘Shooting down Cunningham’s legend: Ex-comrades in arms say disgraced congressman was a good fighter pilot but a poor officer with flair for self-promotion,’ San Diego Union Tribune, 15 January 2000.

[10] Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, pp. 210-12; Cunningham, Fox Two, p. 106.

[11] ‘On Watch: Profiles from the National Security Agency’s past 40 years,’ National Security Agency, 1984, declassified 2007, pp. 58-9.

[12] US Air Force Academic Library, Lieutenant Randy Cunningham, ‘Naval Intelligence Debriefing of 10 May 1972 MiG Engagement by VF-96,’ 10 May 1972, pp. 5-6.

[13] ‘On Watch,’ pp. 58-9.

[14] Sebastien Roblin, ‘The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace,’ War is Boring, 3 July 2016.

[15] Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam, p. 74.

[16] Ibid.; Roblin, ‘The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace.’