Editorial Note: In the first part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War.
In the Solomon Islands off Australia’s northern shores, on the 19 October 1944, a US Navy flown, Interstate Aircraft-built TDR-1 dropped a mix of ten 100lb and 500lb bombs against Japanese gun emplacements on Ballale Island. This was the first operational armed unmanned aircraft attack in history.
The twin-engined unmanned aircraft involved was just one of some fifty sent into combat in late 1944 with Special Task Air Group One. The armed unmanned aircraft took off under radio control that was then transferred to accompanying manned TBM-1C Avenger control aircraft for the long transit to the target area. The control aircraft remained some 8-12 kilometres outside of the ground defences while using a data linked real-time video picture displayed on a cockpit mounted television screen for close-in guidance. Few of the Air Group personnel involved had even seen a television set before they joined the unit. Their feats would not be replicated until early in the 21st century.
In truth, while after 1944-armed unmanned aircraft continued to attract considerable interest and at times funding, the technology available was too immature. The crucial issue was to find technological solutions that could overcome the many problems arising from not having a person in the aircraft. Finding the right blend of complex technological solutions took several decades, but this was not enough to see armed unmanned aircraft fly again in combat. There had to be a compelling operational need only they could best meet.
Curiously enough, the next armed unmanned aircraft was again operated by the US Navy. In the 1950s, the US Navy was concerned that the Soviets were building submarines faster than it could build anti-submarine warfare (ASW) destroyers. The solution was to upgrade a large number of old Second World War vessels, but these were too small to operate manned ASW helicopters from. Soviet submarines of the time could fire on ASW destroyers at longer ranges than the destroyers could fire back. A helicopter that could drop homing torpedoes was necessary to allow them to engage first. The answer was the small QH-50 Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter controlled by the ship’s crew through a line-of-sight data link and able to deliver two MK-44 ASW homing torpedoes where and when required. There were numerous problems and many crashes, but hundreds were built and saw service throughout the 1960s.
QH-50 enthusiasts consider the more pressing operational demands arising from the worsening Vietnam War prematurely killed the unmanned helicopter off, and in this, they may be right. In the second half of the 1960s, there was a significant air war almost daily over North Vietnam. Attacking US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy strike aircraft were pitched against a continually improving Soviet-equipped integrated air defence system featuring the latest SA-2 and SA-3 Surface-to-Air Missile systems. Bomb damage assessment was a real problem; bad weather and the heavy defences made manned aircraft reconnaissance problematic.
The solution was a fast jet, unmanned aircraft and again hundreds were built, and thousands of sorties flown. These Ryan Lightning Bugs were launched from modified C-130 transport aircraft, flew pre-planned missions and were then recovered using a parachute that was caught in mid-air by a large helicopter. This was an inflexible and expensive way to do business that only fitted the oddities of the Vietnam air environment. With the war’s end in 1975, interest also faded albeit after some trials of armed unmanned aircraft carrying bombs and missiles.
The USAF’s focus shifted to the European Central front then characterised by strong air defences, long-range fighters, a harsh electromagnetic environment and extensive jamming. Launching and recovering unmanned aircraft using slow, vulnerable C-130 transports and CH-53 helicopters in such a hostile air environment looked both very unappealing and most probably operationally ineffective.
The need that drove TDR-1 development however remained. When attacking well-defended targets in a significant war, aircrew survivability was still a real concern. In the late 1970s, the aircrew losses in a new major European War looked as though they would be exceptionally heavy, but there would not be time to bring newly trained aircrews into service as in the Second World War: what should be done? Could armed unmanned aircraft meet the need? After much thought and numerous experiments, the answer adopted instead was to invest sizable funds into high performance manned aircraft equipped with stand-off precision-guided weapons that lowered the sortie numbers required to inflict the necessary damage, field a fleet of electronic warfare attack aircraft able to defeat hostile SAM systems and build secret stealth bombers, the F-117 fleet. This approach was stunningly validated in the short very successful air campaign of the 1991 Gulf War.
Unmanned aircraft lost out not because of aviator biases as some assume but because of their technological immaturity, their relative operational ineffectiveness and their prohibitive costs. Other systems were just plain better. Unmanned aircraft were left as a potential solution in search of a mission. However, the world was about to change.
Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.
Header Image: An Interstate TDR-1 at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Florida. (Source: Wikimedia)
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.’ 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.
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.’ 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.’
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
 William W. Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2003), p. 178.
 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).
 Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat, 1965-75 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008), p. 59, 74.
 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.
 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.
 Robert Wilcox, Scream of Eagles (New York, NY: Pocket Star Books, 1990), pp. 203-6.
C.R. Anderegg, Sierra Hotel: Flying Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam. Washington DC: US Air Force History and Museums Program, 2001. Notes. Illustrations. Appendices. Glossary. Bibliographic Notes. Index. xvii + 210 pp.
When From Balloons to Drones put out a call for reviews of historic air power books, I immediately thought of my favourite book on United States Air Force (USAF) history, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam by C.R. Anderegg. I presented this book to each of my mentees that graduated from the USAF Weapons School with the same message; this book shows the power of a small group of dedicated and highly competent officers, and their ability to change the Air Force for the better fundamentally. The officers that receive top billing in Anderegg’s book are young combat veterans; virtually all of whom were Captains and Majors at the time. These men took the hard lessons of Vietnam and turned them into the ideas and concepts that revolutionised USAF training and employment and can be rightly given much of the credit from the phenomenally successful DESERT STORM air campaign.
The period between the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of DESERT STORM is my favourite era of USAF history to study. The USAF was embarrassed by its lacklustre performance in Vietnam, and it embarked on an aggressive reform path that recapitalised the fighter force, procured revolutionary aircraft and weapons, developed new standards for tactical employment, and most importantly, revamped the way pilots were trained for combat. This period in USAF history has been studied and written about extensively. Notably, Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War is the definitive text on the birth and growth of the RED FLAG exercise while Steve Davies’ Red Eagles is a key source on the clandestine MiG squadron flying out of Tonopah Test Range Airfield at the time. Ben Rich’s Skunk Works described the fascinating history of the origins of the F-117 and the stealth revolution, and most recently, Steven Fino’s Tiger Checkdetailed the development of the fighter pilot and fighter tactics during this period. Anderegg’s work focused on the people who were at the centre of the tactics and training revolution that had its epicentre at Nellis Air Force Base. According to Anderegg:
[t]his book is about the young officers, the line pilots, and weapons system operators (WSOs), whose innovation, devotion to duty, intelligence, flying skills, and sheer determination made indelible marks on combat capability. (p. xi)
Anderegg began Sierra Hotel by detailing the myriad of problems that plagued the USAF in Vietnam. There was a litany of reasons for the service’s poor performance, but Anderegg concluded (p. 71) that ‘the most important one was training. Air-to-air, or dogfight, training, though, was poor to nonexistent.’ Young combat veterans returned from Vietnam frustrated and angry at the lack of preparation they received before combat. They were determined to remake their service to ensure fighter pilots were never again so unprepared for aerial combat. A group of young, combat proven, pissed off, and supremely talented aviators set about remaking fighter tactics and training:
Fighter pilots returning from Vietnam to the peacetime Air Force did not come home with their tails between their legs […] They were proud of the effort they put forth under difficult circumstances […] They also knew that the things that were wrong needed repair, and that the things that had gone right probably would not work in the next war anyhow. For creative tacticians like John Jumper, Ron Keys, Joe Bob Phillips, and Earl Henderson there was only one direction to go – forward. (p. 181)
The revolution in tactics and training began from the ground up at Nellis, the ‘Home of the Fighter Pilot.’ An unwritten axiom in the USAF is that ‘as Nellis goes, so goes the Air Force.’ Sierra Hotel looks at the base at the height of its influence on the service. Anderegg also introduced the reader to a generation of officers who left a legacy on not their service, but truly the history of air combat.
In Sierra Hotel, Anderegg described the cultural influence of then-Major Larry Keith, a Vietnam veteran hand-picked to reform the F-4 Fighter Weapons School (FWS), which he did first as the Operations Officer, and then the Commander of the 414th Fighter Weapons Squadron. Keith, who retired as a Brigadier General, led a ‘murderers row’ of USAF legends to be who were instructors at the FWS in the mid-1970s. For example, Richard ‘Dick’ Myers went on to become the fifteenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Jumper would eventually serve as the seventeenth Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and Ronald ‘Ron’ Keys retired as the Commander of Air Combat Command. These men, though destined for greatness, were simply ‘Iron Majors’ at the time; pilots determined to improve the tactics and training of their service.
Anderegg detailed the role a young John Jumper played in the revolution in pilot training. Jumper wrote a series of watershed articles on fighter training, describing a ‘Building Block Approach’ to instruction that was revolutionary at the time but is used today to train not just fighter pilots, but every combat speciality at the USAF Weapons School, successor to the FWS. Anderegg recapped the fight Moody Suter had to convince USAF leaders to accept greater risk in aerial combat training in a large force employment exercise that became RED FLAG. Pilots who are lesser known today also play a major role in Sierra Hotel. Randy O’Neill, an early and passionate advocate for a squadron of dissimilar aircraft to be used as adversary training, a radical idea that was the genesis of the Aggressor squadrons of today, is mentioned. While Roger Wells, whose determination to pry open the doors of the intelligence community to release its treasure trove of data on Soviet pilots led to a ground-breaking brief on Soviet fighter pilots of the day, is also cited. These officers risked their careers pushing ideas that were not always embraced by USAF senior leaders. Anderegg described their courage in fighting for change:
[s]howing the same determination and heroism they had in the skies of Vietnam, the young fighter pilots pressed on, dismissing the risks to their careers to build a better Air Force. (p. 78)
Anderegg’s depiction of this period is made even more vivid since he was a peer with these men, a fellow instructor at the F-4 FWS.
As a bonus, Anderegg’s two appendices are required reading for any USAF member or aficionado and are a good enough reason to pick up the book. If you have ever gulped down a shot of Jeremiah Weed and asked yourself how this God-awful excuse for bourbon became a fighter pilot and USAF tradition, you can read the origin story in Appendix A, told by someone that was there. Or, if you have heard about Ron Keys’ original ‘Dear Boss’ resignation letter, in which he told the Commander of Tactical Air Command that he was sick of the USAF and was hanging it up because of the incompetence he saw throughout the Air Force, or have seen one of the many copycat letters in the four decades since, you can read the original in Appendix B and marvel at its applicability to today’s Service.
Anderegg’s book is an easy read and good fun. More importantly, however, it fills a critical role in describing the USAF’s post-Vietnam era. The ‘Iron Majors’ at Nellis drove the revolution in USAF tactics and training:
During those ten years, fighter pilots fundamentally changed the way they trained, how they employed weapons, even how they thought about themselves. Essentially, they built a new culture and the anvil upon which the success of Desert Storm would be forged another decade later. (p. xi)
There are clear parallels between the post-Vietnam era in USAF history and today. Frustrated combat veterans are convinced the service must improve rapidly if it is to win a future high-intensity conflict. Sierra Hotel provides a roadmap for institutional change; embrace the disruptive thinking of the ‘Iron Majors,’ those who have seen the errors made over the past 17-years of non-stop combat, those who can envision a better way of doing business. If the USAF is going to position itself to dominate air, space, and cyberspace in future conflicts, it must listen to those young and innovative thinkers who believe they do not have a voice and cannot affect service-wide change. War winning ideas are percolating in their minds, being printed in blogs, and being debated in the squadron bars over Jeremiah Weed shots. Anderegg’s lesson is that the service must listen to those voices, nurture those future leaders, and take some risk in implementing their ideas. Nothing less than the USAF’s ability to dominate future conflicts is at stake.
Tyson Wetzel is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, an intelligence officer, a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor, and the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. He is currently assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He tweets @gorillawetzel.
Header Image: A flight of Aggressor F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons fly in formation, 5 June 2008, over the Nevada Test and Training Ranges. The jets are assigned to the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons at Nellis Air Force Base. (Source: US Department of Defense)
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article,Lieutenant Colonel Tyson Wetzel examines the enduring legacy of Operation Bolo, an operation during the Vietnam War that was designed as a response to the increasing loses being incurred on the United States Air Force (USAF) in the mid-1960s.
Deliberately planned fighter sweep went just as we hoped. The MiGs came up; the MiGs were aggressive. We tangled. They lost.
Colonel Robin Olds, 3 January 1967
By the end of 1966, USAF fighter pilots were incredibly frustrated by rising aircraft and aircrew losses, restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) and North Vietnam People’s Air Force’s (NPAF) ‘hit-and-run’ tactics. The pilots were looking for an opportunity to seize the initiative and strike the premier NPAF fighter, the MiG-21. The NPAF was extremely careful with their limited number of MiG-21s, launching them only when their air defence network determined slow and non-manoeuvrable fighter-bombers were conducting unescorted strikes in North Vietnam. Colonel Robin Olds, Commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing ‘Wolfpack,’ at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, devised a plan to dupe the NPAF into believing his F-4 Phantom IIs were a large formation of unescorted F-105 Thunderchiefs, which he believed would draw out the MiG-21s. On 2 January 1967, Olds and his Wolfpack executed Operation Bolo and destroyed seven NPAF MiG-21s with no friendly losses. The plan was elaborate, and successful execution relied on deception, predictive and actionable intelligence, and a well-integrated force package. These factors ensured Bolo was a triumphant success and have enduring applicability for air power theorists and air campaign planners preparing for future high-intensity conflict.
The Strategic Environment before Bolo
Two significant factors shaped the American prosecution of the air war over Vietnam in 1966. First, to reduce the risk of escalation, US ROEs at the time of Bolo did not allow strikes on critical North Vietnamese airfields. The result was that MiGs could not be destroyed on the ground; they had to be destroyed in the air. The second factor was the rapidly improving North Vietnamese air defence system, which included air defence artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighter aircraft. The combination of surface and airborne threats was taking a heavy toll on US aircraft. By the end of 1966, 455 US aircraft had been lost to enemy action, and USAF leaders wanted to take action to address the losses.
The airborne threat to US aircraft increased dramatically when the NPAF began receiving the MiG-21 in 1965. The MiG-21 retained the manoeuvrability of its predecessors the MiG-15/-17/-19, but it was capable of supersonic flight and was the first Soviet aircraft capable of carrying an infrared-guided air-to-air missile, the K-13 (NATO Designator: AA-2 ATOLL). Intelligence estimates at the time of Bolo put the NPAF MiG-21 inventory at only 16 airframes. To preserve these precious assets, the North Vietnamese only scrambled these aircraft to attack bomb-laden fighter-bombers such as the F-105. According to Walter Boyne, the MiG-21 tactics were very effective:
The MiG-21s’ rear attacks with Atoll missiles were achieving North Vietnamese goals by causing the F-105 formations to jettison their bombs before reaching their targets.
MiG-21 attacks on F-105s resulted in failed missions causing multiple strike packages to be sent to re-attack high-priority targets in a dense threat environment.
Olds was increasingly concerned with the MiG-21 attacks on the fighter-bombers, and the inability of the F-4 escorts to find and kill the MiG-21s in the air:
As we entered the winter of 1966, the MiGs began increased efforts to harass U.S. strike forces […] It became imperative for U.S. forces to bring counteraction to bear on the MiG fighter threat.
Unfortunately, Olds did not see any plan to deal with the threat at the tactical, individual fighter wings, or operational level, 7th Air Force. Olds expressed his frustration with the inaction in an oral history interview two years after the mission: ‘There was no concerted effort really to do anything about the MiGs.’ Olds decided to take the lead in developing a plan to take the fight to the MiG-21s.
Olds is often given credit as the sole mastermind behind Bolo, but others deserve credit for playing critical roles in the development and refinement of the plan. In early December 1966, Olds began discussing the MiG-21 problem with one of his most gifted fighter pilots, Captain J.B. Stone. Stone laid out the foundation for the plan that would eventually be adopted; using a ruse to make the North Vietnamese launch their MiG-21s against what they believed were fighter-bombers.
Olds enthusiastically embraced the plan and decided to take the plan to his boss, Lieutenant General William Momyer, Commander of 7th Air Force. Momyer also enthusiastically supported the plan and identified his Operations Officer, Brigadier General Don Smith, as his dedicated liaison for the plan. Momyer and Smith shepherded the plan from the start to ensure Olds and his planners were given all available resources and support. According to Olds, Bolo ‘wouldn’t have been possible’ without ‘Momyer’s courage in doing this, probably in spite of a lot of opposition.’ Olds is rightly given credit for a bold and brilliantly designed and executed plan, but the success of the mission would not have been possible without significant support from his subordinates and superiors.
On 2 January 1967, 56 F-4s launched in waves of eight aircraft into Northern Vietnam to execute Bolo. The mission worked as it was designed, despite heavy cloud cover in the target area that threatened to keep the MiGs on the ground. Believing they were engaging F-105s, the MiG-21s took the bait; the results were disastrous for them.
According to USAF records, Olds and his Wolfpack destroyed seven MiG-21s in less than 15 minutes with no damage to any US aircraft. Though the seven kills may not seem a significant number, it was nearly half of the NPAF inventory. Four days later, two more MiG-21s were destroyed when they attacked what they believed were unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, but in actuality were more of Olds’ F-4 pilots. The devastation wrought by Bolo, combined with two additional aircraft lost on 6 January led the NPAF to remove the MiG-21 from combat while they re-equipped, and evaluated the causes and their response to recent aircraft losses. Bolo played a significant role in the US re-acquiring air superiority during the beginning of 1967.
The Role of Deception in Bolo
Deception was central to the successful execution of the Bolo plan. The F-4s had to disguise themselves as lumbering F-105s to bait the MiG-21s into an aerial engagement. According to J. Alfred Phelps, the purpose of the deception plan was to create beneficial conditions for an aerial engagement:
The ultimate objective was to deceive and lure the MiG air defense force into a reactive posture and, once they were airborne, seek them out, engage, pursue, and destroy them.
To trick the North Vietnamese air defence system, the F-4s used F-105 callsigns, formations, speed, aerial refuelling tracks, mission routing, and electronic countermeasure (jamming) pods. The deception caused mass confusion among the NPAF MiG-21 pilots. Terry Mays explained the success of the ploy:
The North Vietnamese fell for the ruse and launched MiG-21 fighters to intercept what they thought were F-105s streaking along ‘Thud Ridge’ […] As the MiG-21 pilots maneuvered through the clouds and entered the open sky, expecting to attack F-105s, they found themselves in the midst of F-4s.
MiG-21 pilots had avoided the US’ premier air-to-air fighter, the F-4, so seeing a wall of Phantoms was a shock to the NPAF pilots and ground controllers.
Airborne intelligence collectors were able to capture the shock of the NPAF air defence force. In 2014, Joseph Trevithick analysed recently declassified intercepts from the mission, which showed the near-panic of North Vietnamese pilots upon realising they had been duped:
When Olds’ strike team started its attack, the C-130s picked up enemy pilots shocked to find that ‘the sky is full of F-4s,’ according to the declassified report. ‘Where are the F-105s? You briefed us to expect F-105s!’ ‘I’d like to come down now,’ another Vietnamese pilot reportedly declared.
The North Vietnamese were not prepared to face the F-4s, nor able to quickly react to the changing operational environment in time to save many of their MiG-21s.
The expert application of deception is one of the most important lessons to be learned from Bolo; aerial combat is not merely about the fastest jet, the missile with the longest range, or the best pilot. The use of deception can mitigate a tactical disadvantage or maximise a tactical advantage in the air. The use of deception is rarely a critical aspect of modern aerial combat plans, as US air planners often rely on overwhelming numerical or technological superiority. However, as nations like Russia and China develop and deploy large numbers of advanced fighters and air defence systems, the US cannot continue to rely on numerical or technological advantages. The use of a well-developed deception plan can once again tip the balance in aerial combat, as Olds and his Wolfpack proved in Bolo.
The Role of Intelligence in Planning and Execution of Bolo
Intelligence played a crucial role in both the planning and execution of Bolo. Olds knew that to develop a complete plan for the operation, he needed an accurate intelligence assessment of how the enemy would react to the ruse. According to Olds, ‘it was crucial to accurately predict the capabilities and possible reaction of the MiGs.’ The support of Momyer and Smith opened the doors to closely guarded intelligence, including signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercepts of NPAF fighter missions. This intelligence shaped the predictive assessment the intelligence analysts provided to Olds. He continued:
Intelligence gave us some highly probable MiG tactics. The MiGs were usually in the air anytime strike aircraft were in the area. Typically, they were airborne approximately ten to fifteen minutes prior to the strike, about the time the Thuds crossed the Black River.
Olds and Stone used the predictive assessments to determine the number and time spacing of the F-4 formations.
The mission also relied on timely and accurate intelligence during execution. Olds believed real-time relay of SIGINT collection was vital to the mission’s success:
Most critical to the success of BOLO, we had to have clear, real-time intelligence from USAF monitoring stations listening in to VPAF transmissions—no more of the bullshit of keeping essential knowledge secret from the strike force. VPAF transmissions had been monitored and translated but never shared down the line. It was sensitive, but it was imperative to have this intel for BOLO.
Olds and Stone ensured airborne and ground-based SIGINT collectors were included and integrated into the mission so that the force package would receive real-time intelligence updates. Trevithick used declassified Bolo reports to illuminate how important real-time SIGINT collection was to the mission:
Another key—and previously unknown—element of the top secret plan involved deploying signal-snooping aircraft to keep track of the MiGs. The special C-130B-IIs would listen in on enemy radio chatter and feed information straight to American pilots throughout the mission.
Two of these specially modified C-130s, known as SILVER DAWN aircraft, were airborne during the mission providing real-time collection to the force package. The use of predictive intelligence to help refine the plan and the use of real-time intelligence collect was nearly revolutionary because of the classification walls that prevented much intelligence, specifically SIGINT, from being shared with tactical operators. Such barriers have come down in the decades since Bolo, but air planners still struggle with the integration of intelligence into mission planning and execution.
The Role of Force Packaging in Bolo
Bolo included detailed planning and integration among a host of platforms, both airborne and on the ground. Each had a critical role to play to ensure the maximum lethality and survivability of the force. 48 F-4Cs were designated to conduct the aerial sweep mission to find and kill enemy MiGs. They were supported by 24 F-105F IRON HAND aircraft designed to suppress enemy air defences to protect the force package from SAMs. Eight F-104Cs were tasked with the protection of the fighters as they egressed the sweep area. Twenty-five KC-135 aerial refuelling tankers were needed to support the huge strike package. Combat support aircraft including the RC-121 BIG EYE battle management aircraft, EB-66 jamming aircraft, C-130 airborne command post and SILVER DAWN SIGINT platforms, combat search and rescue aircraft, ground control intercept sites, and the ground-based SIGINT stations all participated in the mission. Planning to integrate each of the platforms and its capabilities was complex, and Olds spent days travelling the theatre briefing operators on the plan.
The Bolo package foreshadowed the massive force packages that would become prevalent in Operation Desert Storm and all other air campaigns since. In addition to multiple fighter types executing various mission sets, combat support aircraft provided the updated air picture, collected real-time intelligence, executed command and control, jamming, and aerial refuelling. These aircraft were force multipliers in the mission, and the roles and importance of similar platforms have continued to expand over the past five decades. Bolo was an early and clear example of the effectiveness of a complete and fully integrated force package. This is one of the lessons of Bolo that air planners have absorbed, and force packaging is now a daily part of air operations.
Bolo was not only the highlight of the larger Rolling Thunder air campaign; it was the most successful US fighter operation of the war. Despite the mission being executed more than fifty years ago, there are critical lessons about mission planning and execution that can be used in the development of aerial missions and air campaigns today. Historian Jon Latimer summed up the primary takeaway from Bolo:
U.S. Air Force pilots demonstrated over Hanoi in 1967 that lure tactics can also work well in the higher reaches of technology. So it was that Operation BOLO, a small but unusually successful part of the ROLLING THUNDER bombing program, succeeded in claiming seven North Vietnamese MiGs within 15 minutes, without losing a single American aircraft.
The shrewd use of deception allowed the US fighters to engage their adversary at the time, place, and in the manner of their choosing.
Additionally, the use of intelligence before and during the mission was vital to the success of the operation. The utilisation of predictive intelligence in mission planning allowed the Bolo planners to optimise the F-4’s survivability and lethality against the MiG-21. The timely dissemination of SIGINT was unheard of at the time, but Bolo showed the importance of real-time intelligence updates to the operational environment. Finally, the integration and coordination of airborne and ground-based elements in a massive and diverse force package was a significant contributor to the overall success of the mission. Bolo made better use of deception, intelligence, both predictive and real-time updates, and force packaging than any air operation of the Vietnam War up to that point.
In this era of ‘near-peer’ threats, including the development and deployment of fifth-Generation aircraft, modern long-range SAMs, and advanced electronic warfare, the US and its allies cannot rely solely on numerical or even technological superiority to win future air conflicts. Air power theorists and operators need to think through problems, evaluating the operational environment and the adversary and build plans that leverage and maximise their comparative advantages while mitigating risk and minimising the adversary’s comparative advantages. Air planners and tacticians should study these aspects of Bolo and consider incorporating tactics similar to those of Olds and his Wolfpack in the planning and development of future air operations in a high-intensity conflict.
Tyson Wetzel is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, an intelligence officer, a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor, and the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. He is currently assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He tweets @gorillawetzel.
Header Image: Pictured here are revetments and F-4s of the 8th TFW at Ubon, Thailand. (Source: National Museum of the Unites States Air Force)
 Robin Olds, interview with Armed Forces Network, 3 January 1967. Clip shown on Dogfights: Air Ambush. History Channel, 10 November 2006.
 Walter J. Boyne, Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010), pp. 162.
 Jon Latimer, ‘Operation Bolo: Phantom ambush over North Vietnam,’ Vietnam, 15:3 (2002), pp. 38.
 Olds, Project Corona Harvest. Operation Bolo Briefing, pp. 68
 Frank F. Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob, and Charles A. Ravenstein. Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1973 (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, Headquarters US Air Force, 1976), p. 21.
 Olds, Project Corona Harvest. Operation Bolo Briefing, pp. 65.
 Terry M. Mays, ‘Gunfighting Over North Vietnam,’ Vietnam, 20:6 (2008), p. 47.
 J. Alfred Phelps, Chappie: America’s First Black Four-Star General: The Life and Times of Daniel James, Jr (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992), pp. 225.
 Mays, ‘Gunfighting Over North Vietnam,’ p. 47.
 Joseph Trevithick, ‘Spies Helped the USAF Shoot Down a Third of North Vietnam’s MiG-21s,’ WarIsBoring.com, 30 Dec 2014.
Editorial Note: In the first of a new series, Dr Brian Laslie, author of The Air Force Way of War, discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian.
The Editor of From Balloons to Drones, Dr Ross Mahoney, has been pestering those of us who contribute to this blog to put together a list of the most influential books we have read on the study of air power. I have always been of the opinion that I only have so many words I am capable of writing in a single day and have thus, avoided acquiescing to Ross’s request. Seriously, I am never going to get these two manuscripts done at this rate, but I finally decided that Ross is right (we were on a break) and that it is high time those of us who study air power history discuss the most influential books we’ve read on the history/study of air power (two words not one). So here is my top ten:
Bert Frandsen, Hat in the Ring: The Birth of American Air Power in the Great War(Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003). I read this book shortly before leaving active duty and heading to Kansas State for grad school, and it had a profound impact on what I wanted to study. Frandsen weaves together history, technology, and narrative into one of the finest works on the creation of America’s air service and air power.
Alexander P. de Seversky, Victory through Air Power (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1942). Let us get something out of the way. Seversky and Hap Arnold hated each other, and I am not being hyperbolic. The two could not stand to be in the same room with each other, and when they were, it usually ended in a shouting match. Seversky’s book was Second World War aerial propaganda, but when Walt Disney read the book and decided to produce it as a feature film, Arnold was forced to stay mute on the subject. Seversky went on to write other air power books, but none as influential and long-lasting as this one.
Thomas E. Griffith, Jr,MacArthur’s Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998). In the age of the bomber mafia, Kenny marched to the tune of his own drum. Surely as Quesada and Chennault followed pursuit aviation, Kenny favoured attack. He was, perhaps, the most innovative airman of his generation and Griffith’s book demonstrates just how important Kenney was to MacArthur.
Thomas A. Hughes, Over Lord: General Pete Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Air Power in World War II (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1995). I really have no doubt, and I doubt many would argue with me, that strategic bombardment garnered the lion’s share of attention both during and after the war. It would take Tactical Air Command until after the Vietnam war to rise to prominence over Strategic Air Command, but those seeds were planted in the Second World War by Pete Quesada and his tactical airmen in the European theatre.
Mark Clodfelter,The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1989). The single most important book on air power to be published in the post-Vietnam era. It defined air power historians of a generation. More than a critique of strategic bombardment in Vietnam, it is a book that teaches you how to think about air power, what it can and what it cannot do.
Steve Davies,Red Eagles: America’s Secret MiGs (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008). A popular history, but this book is flat-out fun. Secret units, secret locations, and American fighter pilots learning how to outperform their Soviet counterparts in their own aircraft.
John Andreas Olsen (ed.), A History of Air Warfare (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2010). Actually any of Olsen’s work could make this list; however, if you were going to use one book in the classroom to discuss the history of power, then this is the one. There is a reason; the Air Force Academy has every freshman read in their introduction to military history. From the First World War to the present and large scale combat to air power in smaller conflicts, Olsen’s edited work covers it all.
Diane Putney, Airpower Advantage: Planning the Gulf War Air Campaign(Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2004). This book is what made me decide to write about Desert Storm. This book taught me that air power is so much richer than 1 v. 1 dogfights, that true command of the air comes from logistics, planning and execution.
To this list of ten, I could add hundreds more, but as I looked at my bookshelf these jumped out at me as having the most impact on my thinking during my time in grad school or shortly thereafter and helped solidify my thinking on what air power is and what it does (spoiler alert: it’s the ability to do something in the air. Thanks, Billy Mitchell!)
Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: McDonnell Douglas F-15A (S/N 71-0280, the first F-15A prototype). Note the square wingtips and unnotched stabilator. (Source: Wikimedia)
These are just a selection of the highlights of our half year in existence. We are keen to expand our list of contributors and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions then please leave a comments here or emails us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)
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.
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.’ 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. Air America continued to fly T-28s in support of SAR missions into the late sixties, often flying as overhead cover. 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. 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.
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. 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. Night Recon missions were considered but then dismissed in favour of ‘Yankee Team’ reconnaissance planes, which were evaluated as more effective at night. A Thai recon pilot was shot down in an RT-28 in August 1964 near Phou Khout ridge in the Plain of Jars. 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. 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.
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. 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 […]
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. 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.
Some of the Ravens, contrary to orders, also flew combat missions with T-28s such as USAF Major Tom Richards in 1968. Another Raven, USAF Colonel Joseph Chestnut, was shot down and killed flying a T-28 in October 1970 near Luang Prabang, Laos.
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. Their mission was to destroy trucks and other targets of opportunity moving along the trail. 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. By 1968, the ‘Zorro’ AT-28s were replaced with Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, ending this chapter of the T-28 involvement. Coming budget cuts as part of Vietnamization would reduce the ability to interdict the trail even more.
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. Another source mentions the use of T-28s for leaflet drops and some leaflet drops took place in conjunction with SAR missions.
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. 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.
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.
Editor’s Note: In the second 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 attack role. Part One can be found here.
Perhaps the most important mission performed by T-28s was in the attack role, dropping ordnance and strafing ground targets, which was the most commonly performed mission in Laos by T-28s. The armed trainers were flown by some different operators carrying a broad range of ordnance on multiple bomb racks such as .50cal gun pods, unguided bombs and rockets, napalm and/or cluster bomb units. The cluster bomblets would fall in a series and per a former pilot could be devastating to troops in the open.
In 1963, former Thai pilot Chert Saibory, now flying for the RLAF, defected to North Vietnam, his T-28 later returned to service for the VPAF as its first fighter plane, which per one source, nearly shot down a Nationalist Chinese C-123 during a night attack mission in 1965. An early example of the attack role of T-28s came from June 1964, when the first US Navy aviator was shot down over Laos. Lieutenant Charles Klusmann was on a ‘Yankee Team’ RF-8 reconnaissance mission when Pathet Lao ground fire hit his plane. During nearly three months of captivity, while being transported at one point to Vientiane via truck, the column was ‘halted by intense air raids by jet aircraft and T-28s,’ per his POW debriefing. T-28s also flew in support of search attempts following Klusmann’s shoot down.
In 1964 not only Air America pilots (forming the so-called ‘A-Team’), but also Thai volunteer pilots flew T-28s (as ‘B-Team’) and the Laotians as ‘C-Team’ which, would be much easier to explain than downed Americans. The Thai ‘B-Team’ pilots flew missions under the call sign ‘Firefly’ and conducted attacks on the crucial Plain of Jars (French: Plaine des Jarres) region in north central Laos, knocking out two enemy trucks in one particular mission. In June 1964 the CIA evaluated the T-28s as probably having more effect on enemy morale than otherwise, owing to the lack of RLG (Royal Lao Government) forces supporting them. RLAF T-28s also flew the first missions against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in October 1964, which acted as the unofficial beginning of the later American attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in December, known as BARREL ROLL. Laos often featured very heavy AAA, another hazard to the T-28s, as Ted Maudlin, a former Air America pilot, related in an interview. From 1964 to 1969 the RLAF flew occasional missions against targets in the Laotian panhandle, but eventually AAA became too heavy for daylight attacks.
As a witness to T-28 missions in Laos, Reginald Hathorn flew with the American 23rd Tactical Air Support Squadron out of Nakhon Phanom, Thailand and coordinated air strikes in Laos as a Forward Air Controller (FAC). He provided an account of the role of RLAF T-28s in a strike mission in support of a Laotian Army base then under mortar fire from the Pathet Lao in 1968. After Hathorn had marked the intended target with unguided white phosphorus rockets, the accompanying T-28s dropped their ordnance accurately. He pointed out he could never be sure who was flying the RLAF T-28s they worked with, until this time an American voice came over the radio in contrast to the Lao or Thai pilots.
Captain George Marrett, who flew USAF A-1 Skyraiders from 1968-69, summarised the war in Laos as follows:
All the ground fighting – and dying – was done by a group of mountain people known as the Hmong. Early in the war, they provided much of their air support, flying mission after mission until they died.
Among the T-28 pilots produced in the American-led Water Pump training course at Udorn, Thailand were several standouts: Ly Lue and Vang Sue. According to one source, Ly Lue could be called the ‘Hans-Ulrich Rudel of the Laotian war’ about his effective bombing exploits, flying over 5,000 missions. At his funeral in Long Tieng in July 1969, a Distinguished Flying Cross was placed on his casket by Colonel Tyrrell, the USAF Air Attaché for his incredible feats. Vang Sue flew at least 3,000 combat missions in four years. Both of these men went on to great success but like all the Hmong fliers they lived with the unfortunate reminder as fellow pilot Vang Bee recalled, ‘Hmong pilot have no limit to missions, they fly until they die.’ Depending on the source consulted, about 20 of the 37 total Hmong pilots survived the fighting. An American who served with the Hmong called them, ‘some of the finest pilots in this world.’
In 1969, during the early days of Vietnamization, Kissinger sent a memo to President Nixon advocating, among other things, more T-28s for the RLAF since he intended for them to be supported but without being able to send more evident help in the form of Thai ground units or B-52 strikes. The reliable T-28 remained the simplest way to support our ally given the existing rules of engagement. In 1969, RLAF T-28s knocked out a former ad hoc guerrilla weather station captured by the enemy using bombs and napalm. As an indication of the T-28 contribution in the attack role, from November to December 1969 alone Thai, Lao and Hmong pilots flew an impressive 4,629 sorties with an average of only twenty-eight T-28s available on a given day.
By 1970 the Thai T-28 ‘B-Team’ pilots became redundant and were phased out since enough RLAF pilots existed for the task. In 1971, an article in the Milwaukee Sentinel discussed the grim situation in Laos and ominously mentioned the likelihood that the Nixon Doctrine would not protect the small country from North Vietnam with or without more aid, with only two new ‘T-28 propeller driven bombers’ provided to the RLAF per month as replacements.
Eventually, the Plain of Jars suffered so much from air attacks that it became, according to one source, ‘the most intensely bombarded place on the face of the planet’ while Laos itself was eventually hit by 2 million tonnes of bombs. In 1970, John Halliday, an American C-123 “Candlestick” flare-ship pilot, described the situation supporting friendly forces at night near the Plain of Jars region:
Our flares light the area below for…our Laotian allies fighting the Pathet Lao bad guys. The light we provide…is their only security against being overrun in the dark by overwhelming enemy forces.
The situation in Laos declined during Nixon’s Vietnamization, and as a 1970 Life magazine article pointed out, ‘In the last two years the pendulum of war in Laos has been swinging harder and wider, and each wet-season dry-season offensive has mounted a little higher than before.’ In 1971, the NVA attacked Long Tieng and forced the T-28s based there to withdraw, while others arrived to strike at the attackers. In 1972 when USAF General John Vogt, commander of Seventh Air Force, visited the base at Long Tieng he was impressed by the Hmong pilots and ‘awed.’ A CIA officer working with the Hmong, James Parker, Jr., described the role of Vang Pao’s pilots in 1972 as follows:
There was no politics involved, no sterile high-tech environment where the converted T-28 trainers from the Second World War were parked. It was honest warring, primitive, a throwback to combat flying in the First World War. The Hmong flyers strapped as many bombs and bullets as they could get on their planes and went out and found North Vietnamese to attack – flight after flight, hour after hour, day after day […] the major part of our close fire support was left to the T-28s.
The steady attrition of Vang Pao’s CIA-backed Hmong army and the slow drawdown of American financial and material support until the 1973 ceasefire, all contributed to the sense that things looked much worse. Since the Pathet Lao and NVA had won in Laos, it was simply a matter of time until the final defeat. In 1973, in one of the coup attempts involving T-28s, after years in exile in Thailand, Laotian General Thao Ma attacked Wattay, near Vientiane, along with other loyal RLAF personnel. Shot down while landing; General Ma was soon after that executed for his part in the coup attempt. Also in 1973, the USAF Ravens withdrew from Laos, which forced Vang Pao to provide his FAC ability via what T-28s were available. By 1974, the CIA withdrew all support, and by 1975, Laos was overrun. Per one source, Vang Pao sent RLAF T-28s on one last attack against a Pathet Lao column even as late as April 1975, just before the collapse. Further south in 1975, the Cambodian Khmer Air Force T-28s flew support for the American withdrawal from Phnom Penh, Operation EAGLE PULL, when only weeks remained for Cambodia.
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: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)
 Chinnery, Air Commando, p.73; Ginter, North American T-28 Trojan, pp.54-6.
 Kenton Clymer, ‘The War Outside Vietnam: Cambodia and Laos,’ in Andrew Wiest (ed.), Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land: The Vietnam War Revisited (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2006), p.106; George Herring, American’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), p.353.
 John T. Halliday, Flying Through Midnight (New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2005), p.62.
 Greenway, ‘The pendulum of war swings wider in Laos,’ pp.32-3.
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. 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. 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. 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.’
‘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.’ 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. 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’. T-28s also saw action as COIN aircraft in the Congo and Ethiopia against insurgents during the 1960s.
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. 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.’ 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. 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. 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.
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. 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’.
The American-backed RLAF used the T-28 as its primary strike aircraft from 1964 until its demise in 1975. 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.
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.’ 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.’ 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. The RLAF gained T-28s from the VNAF after they replaced them with the larger and more robust Douglas A-1 Skyraiders in 1964. 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. In the initial RLAF that flew T-6s, Thai pilots augmented the few available Lao pilots to increase the sortie rate.
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. 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.
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)
 Al Adcock, T-28 Trojan in Action (Carrollton, TX: Squadron Signal Publications, 1989), p.31.
 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.
 Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1988), p.85.
 Chinnery, Air Commando, p.71; Walter J. Boyne, ‘The Plain of Jars,’ Air Force Magazine, June 1999, p.78.
 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.
 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.
 Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (Boulder: Paladin Press, 1995), p.50.
 Keith Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chey’s Wheat, p.279-80.
Previously, we looked at how McDonnell lost a significant contract with the US Navy after their upgraded F3H Demon failed a fly off competition against their competitor, Chance-Vought’s entry which became the F-8U Crusader.
McDonnell engineer Herman Barkley took the Demon’s rejection as a personal challenge and immediately began designing an unsolicited new aircraft initially without military funding. Original sketches for the new craft consisted of yet another version of the Demon, similar to the design that had already failed against Vought’s F-8U. The US Navy had a vested interest in allowing McDonnell to experiment with the design. It could keep McDonnell afloat, enabling it to remain a valuable supplier, and perhaps reap some return on the initial investment they had both placed in the failed F3H. Upon review of these sketches, The US Navy did support the project, but gave no stated mission requirements for the plane, encouraging McDonnell to experiment on the drawing board. According to J. S. McDonnell himself:
All we had to work with in the beginning [of F-4 Phantom II Development] was a gleam in the customer’s eye […] What followed was two years […] of orchestrated confusion.
The US Navy, because of their doctrinal assumptions, wanted to focus on high-speed interceptors but was purposefully vague about communicating this, hoping McDonnell would reach in new and unexpected directions. This lack of specificity and a desire to maximise profits by designing a versatile plane that functioned in many contexts led McDonnell to develop a multi-role aircraft not optimised for the air-to-air mission.
The confusion continued until Spring of 1955 when Commander Francis X. Timmes (newly in charge of the project) emphasised the high-speed interceptor role and stressed adaptability. Those concepts required that the plane to have two seats, two engines, and an armament of only missiles. The plane thus featured eleven hardpoints for carrying bombs or missiles, the most ever designed on an airframe at that time. The homogenous armament and dual-pilot setup both theoretically enhanced adaptability, since dogfighting was (allegedly) unnecessary, the lack of guns made the plane lighter (thus faster), and pilot duties could be split between two people. In July 1955, the US Navy rewarded McDonnell’s efforts with a contract for the production of seven prototypes.
The Phantom’s unique look was the result of over 5,300 hours of wind tunnel tests, which revealed a significant problem in supersonic flight. The plane was susceptible to ‘roll coupling,’ which is a technical way of saying the plane became uncontrollable – a condition from which pilots were trained to eject immediately. The angled wingtips and tail decreased the chances of this occurring. To add to stability concerns without sacrificing speed, the Phantom was given the ‘Stab Aug’ system that could sense unstable flight paths and automatically correct for them quicker than a pilot could manually. Computer controlled intake ramps to control air flow into the engines also increased the plane’s top speed. Another computerised system, ‘Boundary Layer Control,’ sent excess air from the engines over the wings to generate more lift and increase speed and acceleration. 
Though the bond between the US Navy and its developers was strong, the military was loathed to place all its eggs in one basket. Timmes solicited other designs to fit the same roles as the Phantom in August 1955. The company that stepped up to the plate was none other than McDonnell’s old nemesis: Chance-Vought. Vought had developed an upgraded version of their successful F-8U Crusader, the very plane that had beaten McDonnell’s F3H Demon. Both new designs were set to compete in an unofficial fly off beginning on 15 September 1958. The tests emphasised the assumptions of the time, focusing on maximum speed and climbing rates. The assessments did not include manoeuvrability, gunnery, or other metrics pertinent to air-to-air combat.
In every tested category, the F8U-3 Crusader proved superior. It even had better fuel mileage. Its only drawbacks were a lower payload and time-consuming maintenance requirements. Despite this, George Spandenberg, then the director of Bureau of Aeronautics’ Evaluation Division, thought that single-seat, single-engine planes were inherently unreliable and argued that a two-seat plane would boost morale. Thus he boldly asserted, ‘The single-seat fighter era is dead.’ Advocates of the F-4 often claim the Phantom ‘won’ the contest (since it did win the US Navy contract after all), although a close look at the fly off reveals the upgraded Crusader had clear performance advantages in every category.
Despite the Phantom’s lacklustre performance at the fly off, it was still an impressive aircraft in many respects. Between December 1959 and April 1962, the F-4 set over a dozen world records, the most coveted (and revealing of the plane’s doctrinal design focus) of which was that of absolute top speed: 1,606.3 miles per hour. The F-4 also possessed many problems that came back to haunt the military over the jungles of Vietnam, and that appear almost negligent in retrospect. Aside from the stability issue (which caused ‘departure’ or ‘the adverse yaw effect,’ terms for when the plane loses control during maneuvers), the almost non-existent rear-visibility was a problem, as were the giant plumes of black smoke produced by the engines that gave away the location and heading of every Phantom. The plane was also quite vulnerable to ground fire because its hydraulic lines were delicate and devoid of redundancy. Indeed, ground fire downed more F-4s in Vietnam than any other single threat. Across US Air Force (USAF), the US Navy and the US Marine Corps combined, from January 1962 to January 1973, 930 planes were lost to small arms ground fire, or, 45% of losses by known causes. AAA claimed 632; SAMs shot down 191; MiGs destroyed 79, and friendly fire claimed 25.
The USAF observed these record-setting demonstrations and grew interested in the plane’s usefulness as a strategic bomber and interceptor. After a series of tests, USAF eventually ordered more than triple the number of Phantoms as the Navy. McDonnell finally created four new models of the Phantom to USAF specifications, the first and most significant of which was the F-4C.
Although the Phantom would undoubtedly have performed extremely well in its designed role of intercepting enemy bombers, it ironically never had to. Instead of saving the world from nuclear Armageddon in the hypothetical World War III, the F-4 instead flew in a limited war over the jungles of a tiny third world country that many Americans had trouble locating on a map. The enemies it faced were not large lumbering bombers threatening nuclear annihilation, but missiles, ground fire, and manoeuvrable MiG fighters much more adept at air combat. Statistically, the deadliest enemy for the Phantom, one of the most powerful and expensive planes in US history to that point, was an individual on the ground with a machine gun. Similar to the doctrine that spawned it, the F-4 was the right plane for the wrong war.
The F-4 Phantom II was a fighter plane possessing few characteristics of traditional fighters. It was large, cumbersome, and built around the concept of long range attacks, sacrificing the agility and armament necessary of true air superiority craft. Originally conceived as an interceptor and soon burdened by ‘mission creep’ that insisted it handle multiple roles, the plane was the poster child for pre-Vietnam USAF doctrine, namely, the quasi-religious devotion to strategic bombing that minimised all other roles of air power.
Mike Hankins is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, where he teaches World History, the History of Airpower, and the History of Comic Books, and he is currently working on his dissertation, ‘Sources of Innovation: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft, 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 and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header Image: A USAF McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II from the 81st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 52nd Tactical Wing, releasing 18 Mark 82 227 kg bombs over the Bardenas Reales Gunnery Range, Spain, 25 March 1986. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, The American Fighter (New York: Orion, 1987), p. 451, 310. Larry Davis, F-4 Phantom II in Action (Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1984), p 4.
 Glenn E. Bugos, Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: Parts Into Systems (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996)p. 23, 9, pp. 13-14.
 Peter E. Davies, USN F-4 Phantom II vs VPAF MiG 17/19: Vietnam 1965-73 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2011), p. 16; Lou Drendel, F-4 Phantom II in Action (Warren, MI: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1972), p. 6; Bugos, Engineering the F-4, pp. 95-9.
 Mick Spick, All-Weather Warriors: The Search for the Ultimate Fighter Aircraft (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1994), p. 131; Enzo Angelucci with Peter Bowers, The American Fighter: The Definitive Guide to American Fighter Aircraft from 1917 to the Present (London: G.T. Foulis, 1987), pp. 310-1.