The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
January/February 2006
FEATURE
 
 

The '65 Decision
Bombing Soviet SAM Sites In North Vietnam

 

BY JOHN PRADOS

A few years later and in a different context it became a joke in Washington that “Sam Upgrading” had become the newest member of the National Security Council staff. But in Southeast Asia during the 1960s, any improvement or upgrading of the enemy’s surface-to-air missile (SAM) defenses was a deadly serious matter.

The United States carried out a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam from 1965-68, an operation known as Rolling Thunder. The state of the adversary’s air defenses constantly influenced Washington decision-makers and commanders in the field. Of all the measures the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) took to improve its defenses, the introduction of SAM missiles in the summer of 1965 was a quantum-shift in capability. Veterans and observers of the war often recall the SAM threat, and some wish the surface-to-air-missiles could have been neutralized before they were established in North Vietnam. This is the story of why that did not happen.

North Vietnamese leaders had gotten by for years devoting very modest means to their air force and air defenses. There were fewer than a hundred aircraft in the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF), none of them fighters, and only artillery guns for air defense. On October 22, 1963, Hanoi merged the VPAF with its air defense system, creating a combined service, the Air Defense Forces-Vietnam People’s Air Force. Col. Gen. Phung The Tai commanded the service, with Col. Gen. Dang Tinh as deputy.

Initially, the radar system received the most attention, because American efforts in 1964 focused on harassing coastal radars. At the time, three of eleven VPAF regiments were radar units, with detection conducted by eighteen radar companies. Forty-four radars were confirmed and sixteen suspected by February 1965, figures that grew by almost 50 percent in three months. 

The first VPAF fighter regiment was formed in February 1964. The North Vietnamese air force went on full alert in response to OPLAN 34-A a month later. Initial VPAF fighter flights took place on August 6, the day after the American bombing during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Ground defenses also expanded. By February 1965, American intelligence estimated that almost a thousand anti-aircraft guns were deployed in North Vietnam.

The United States began bombing North Vietnam in February 1965 in retaliation for a Viet Cong attack at Pleiku, which Washington believed had been ordered by Hanoi. The air campaign became regularized in March and was named Rolling Thunder. That month 585 attack sorties were flown against the North.

Air attacks, initially symbolic strikes on troop barracks and other bases, soon began hitting the radar network and other targets. At the moment of the first American strikes, Russian leader Alexei Kosygin was visiting Hanoi for talks on increasing aid. Hanoi leaders instantly requested the Soviet Union’s help in improving their air defenses with jet fighters and SAMs. The Russians swiftly agreed; the aid project was considered an emergency effort. Moscow began an airlift of equipment, advisers, and—eventually—Russian air defense units. Within a few weeks, the results of this agreement became visible.

Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai followed the Soviets, visiting Hanoi at the beginning of March. At the time, an intense competition existed between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. Zhou told Ho Chi Minh on March 1 that China opposed the Russian aid program. China had had Soviet advisers in the 1950s, but they left with the beginning of the Sino-Soviet split. 

Zhou Enlai warned the Vietnamese of this danger, and Hanoi challenged Beijing to provide an alternative. The result was parallel Russian and Chinese military aid to North Vietnam. For the VPAF this meant Russian SAMs and MIG-21 fighters, along with Chinese MIG-17s and MIG-19s. These exchanges in early 1965
created the basis for the North Vietnamese air defenses that the United States faced throughout Rolling Thunder.


While these events took place in the North, in South Vietnam the United States pursued its own military program. Washington, already aware it needed better intelligence, had ordered a detachment of Strategic Air Command U-2 spy planes to deploy to Tan Son Nhut airbase outside Saigon. On April 5, 1965, one of these U-2s, from the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, flew over North Vietnam and photographed site preparations for a SAM installation about fifteen miles southeast of Hanoi. In the pattern characteristic of Soviet surface-to-air missile units, there were half a dozen firing bays, a revetment for servicing SAMs, and another for command guidance.

The VPAF’s introduction of SAM missiles was not a surprise to the United States. Nor were the characteristics of the missiles themselves. American intelligence had been aware of Soviet development of SAMs since the late 1950s. Better awareness came after May 1960, when a Russian SAM downed the CIA U-2 aircraft that Francis Gary Powers piloted. The details of that engagement were unknown, but Russian spy Oleg Penkovskiy provided the CIA with copies of the Soviet manual for the SAM. In Cuba in 1962, the American military observed surface-to-air missiles in the field, and had extensively photographed the sites and recorded electronic emissions of the Fan Song radars. When SAMs downed another U-2, an Air Force version of the plane, American intelligence stood ready to observe all the action. By 1965, the data had been used to begin the creation of countermeasures for the SAM-2 missile. 

Much more sophisticated mechanisms came later, but by early 1965 the United States had a system that could warn an aircraft being tracked by the Fan Song, with limited jamming potential, as well as a pod system designed to counter the Fan Song, and a special EB-66 aircraft optimized for radar jamming. The Air Force issued orders to equip its U-2s with the basic warning system within days of receiving imagery of the SAM site preparations near Hanoi. Efforts first concentrated on providing countermeasures for reconnaissance aircraft and were later expanded to include strike planes.


The larger question remained: whether to attack the SAM sites. This issue was fought in the summer of 1965 in Saigon, Honolulu, and Washington—not in the skies over Hanoi. In Saigon, Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), and Gen. Joseph H. Moore, Jr., commanding the 2nd Air Division, pressed for authority to attack the sites. From Honolulu they were joined by Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp, the Commander-in-Chief Pacific (CINCPAC), who held the overall command responsibility for Rolling Thunder. The way Gen. Westmoreland portrayed this issue in his memoirs, the “clever civilian theorists” in Washington had the place locked down and there was never any chance. He recalls a visit from John T. McNaughton, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

“You don’t think the North Vietnamese are going to use them,” McNaughton said of the SAMs. “Putting them in is just a political ploy by the Russians to appease Hanoi.”

Gen. Westmoreland deplored the cadre of Ivy League advisers in Washington: “If it had not been so serious, it would have been amusing,” he wrote.

The Vietnam War field commander’s recollection is a much-simplified version of reality. Washington had not made up its mind at all. McNaughton’s voice did not speak for the government, although he accurately reflected Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s views. On May 16, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson held a meeting of his top advisers at the White House. On the table were the next series of Rolling Thunder proposals, possibilities for peace negotiations, a short bombing pause, the Russians—and the SAMs.

Westmoreland wrote from hindsight when he implied that the notion of a Soviet intervention trumping his desire to take out the SAMs would have been amusing were it not so important. In actuality, the intelligence estimates of the time held out significant prospects for action on the part of both Russia and China, and the trigger would be American pressures on North Vietnam. This came out in the Cabinet Room on May 16 and was brought up by the President himself.

“What do you think about the threats from Russia about coming in?” President Johnson asked Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The nation’s chief diplomat, fresh from talks with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, replied: “There is a flash point in the Hanoi area in how far you can go without bringing the Russians in. Gromyko said he was going to help North Vietnam and help them decisively.”

Immediately afterwards, LBJ again mentioned surface-to-air missiles. “What about the SAM sites?” the President asked. “Question is whether we let the clock tick or whether we take them out now.”

McNamara supplied the answer: “We can’t go after the SAM sites unless you go after the MIG airfields. We don’t think we’re at that point now.” The Pentagon worried about killing civilians in these attacks, but they nevertheless were thinking in terms of sending B-52 heavy bombers in a night attack, followed by fighter-bombers by daylight against the SAM sites. Speaking on the telephone the following day, McNamara and Rusk agreed it would be “a great mistake” to go after the SAMs. McNamara knew Hanoi had no combat-ready SAMs at that point, and he did not expect any of the sites to become operational for at least a month.


Not long afterward, overhead imagery taken May 24, showed that the launcher revetments at two of the SAM sites had been finished. On May 27, the Joint Chiefs of Staff weighed in with a memorandum recommending an attack against the SAM sites and airfields. McNamara asked CIA Director William F. Raborn for an intelligence estimate on the consequences of such an action. The consensus view in the estimate was that the Russians and Chinese would make a lot of noise but not do much of anything, nor would Hanoi respond by invading the South.

But the State Department’s own intelligence unit, aware of Chinese airfield development just across the borders of Vietnam, dissented from the estimate and warned about a possible Chinese aerial response. The specter was raised of an American air battle with the Chinese, triggering wider hostilities between the two countries, and possible Russian involvement as well.

Secretary Rusk had a well-earned reputation as a hawk on Vietnam War policy. In this case, after hearing out his intelligence people, he called McNamara and cautioned against attacks on targets not on the JCS-approved list—an elliptical reference to the SAMs and MIG bases. On May 28, McNamara responded that orders had been issued excluding those objectives.

The orders cut at the end of May did not end the debate. On June 9, Rusk informed the American embassy in Saigon of the plan for attacking the SAM sites and airbases and of the expectation of a response from the other side. Rusk asked Saigon to comment on the possibilities.

Gen. Moore briefed Westmoreland on a plan to attack the SAM sites at about this time. The evidence suggests that Washington began thinking about attacks on SAMs before the Saigon embassy and MACV became involved. Adm. Sharp supported the counter-air strikes, needling Washington with his usual energy. The JCS also were on board. In mid-June, Secretary McNamara refused to lift the existing prohibition on SAM and airfield strikes.

Meanwhile, the air war heated up. No one had fired any surface-to-air missiles against American planes, but there were a pair of ominous air engagements. On June 17, two Navy F-4B Phantoms on combat air patrol over Thanh Hoa engaged four MIGs, downing two of them, damaging another, which may have crashed. Several days later, west of Hanoi near Son La, another MIG-17 flight engaged a group of Navy A-1H Skyraiders under Lt. Cmdr. Edwin A. Greathouse. The A-1Hs were participating in a search and rescue mission. The prop-driven Skyraiders,  at a disadvantage against MIGs, showed superior flying skills in escaping while destroying one of the VPAF jets.

In June, the United States lost 14 more aircraft over North Vietnam, bringing Rolling Thunder losses to 55 planes. That month, the number of attack sorties ballooned to 5,901. By June 24, there were no raids on SAM sites, only four on airbases—on just a few of the nine confirmed bases with a total of just 180 attack sorties. 


A fresh round of deliberations on striking the SAM sites began on June 29 in Washington. That day the CIA released a status report on the SAMs which declared that construction at three of four sites near Hanoi was almost complete. Two were considered virtually finished. Actual SAM equipment had appeared at just one complex.

The agency had “little direct evidence” on exactly who would be in charge of these systems but reported at least one movement of Russian air defense technicians to North Vietnam. Postwar accounts from former Soviet sources record that Col. G. Lubinitsky of the Air Defense Troops led the first Russian SAM unit to the DRV. The number of Soviet advisers and active air defense troops in North Vietnam soon reached about 3,500.

On June 30, in its official commentary on the Defense Department plan for escalation in Vietnam, the CIA reprised the conclusions of its special national intelligence estimate on the consequences of SAM attacks: “If we increase the pressure on NVN as visualized, one of the quickest ways to signal our serious intent as well as protect our attacking forces would be to destroy the SAM sites and major airfields. While a major Chinese and/or Soviet response cannot be totally ruled out, the risk will not necessarily be increased.”

National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy forwarded bundles of papers to President Johnson on Vietnam War planning, including this report, McNamara’s memorandum, an alternate plan from William P. Bundy at the State Department, and Joint Chiefs of Staff observations. Mac Bundy made it clear in his cover notes that he viewed possible SAM attacks within the broader context of the American move toward massive ground troop deployments to South Vietnam.

Mac Bundy’s treatment of the issue provides a critical clue to what happened with the option for bombing the SAM sites. By early July, with the President focused on a major Vietnam decision, SAM attacks became one more item on a menu from which Johnson had to select.

Bundy told LBJ there were two major alternatives: McNamara’s massive intervention plan and a middle course offered by his brother, Bill Bundy, at State. The latter’s prescription for Hanoi’s surface-to-air missiles foresaw the United States as “being prepared to attack SAM sites and airfields if but only if they are used to inflict militarily significant losses on us.”


As President Johnson marched forward in Vietnam, the question of attacking the SAM sites had evolved from a simple yes-or-no proposition to a much more complex choice moderated by his fear of triggering Russian or Chinese military action. Now the SAM attacks were part of a list that included much more serious actions, and LBJ wanted to choose actions that presented a minimal profile of American aggressiveness while enabling him to proceed with the key element, the commitment of American ground troops in large numbers in South Vietnam.

On July 4, aerial photography revealed site preparation work for a fifth SAM installation near Hanoi. Three of the existing sites appeared ready for the deployment of equipment, with combat-ready status possible at any time after 48 hours of emplacement. That brought a new round of CINCPAC and 2nd Air Division requests for authority to bomb the SAMs. McNamara asked the Joint Chiefs to compare prospects for aircraft losses with and without SAMs. The Chiefs replied that SAMs could increase losses significantly. But on July 11 at a press conference, Rusk said there were no plans to strike SAM installations.

Suddenly the aerial situation over the DRV changed: the CIA obtained a fresh photo cover on July 20, but initial interpretation of the imagery did not focus on the SAM sites. Meanwhile, on July 23, American electronic warfare aircraft intercepted emissions from the Fan Song radars associated with SA-2 missiles. Early the next morning, the radar came up again. At this moment, several F-105 Thunderchiefs were about to hit an explosives plant at Lang Tai.

Flying cover above them, at about twenty thousand feet, were four F-4Cs under Lt. Col. William A. Alden. The EA-66B Destroyer that had recorded the radar signals flashed a warning, but it was too late. Alden looked down and discovered two or three missiles rising toward his Phantoms. One exploded just beneath his wingman. The F- C caught fire, rolled away, then spiraled downwards. Its pilot, Capt. Richard P. Keirn, almost did not make it. He ejected successfully, but had to use the secondary system as flames surged through the cockpit. Keirn suffered a shrapnel wound in the leg, burns, and a bruised shoulder.

Capt. Keirn joined the ranks of prisoners of war, of whom, at 41, he became one of the oldest. He also gained the unfortunate distinction of being captive a second time: as a young pilot Keirn had been shot down by the Germans in the last months of World War II. Keirn’s radar intercept officer, Capt. Roscoe H. Fobair, died in the attack. The other Phantoms also were damaged by near-misses, but safely returned to their base. On July 25, SA-2 missiles reacted again, this time to a reconnaissance drone, which they hit at 59,000 feet.

Soviet accounts say that Col. Lubinitsky’s SAM unit destroyed three American planes and a reconnaissance drone in 1965. This source puts the level of engagement at 45 SAMs fired and 23 hits scored, obviously not all in this July engagement. Sgt. N. Kolesnik recalled: “The most impressive moment was when the planes were downed. All of a sudden through this dark shroud [of clouds] an object you couldn’t even see before comes down in a blaze of shattered pieces.”

American reconnaissance found a couple of mobile SAM sites. American authorities theorized that the SAMs that had downed Keirn’s Phantom came from one of these. 

Adm. Sharp responded to the use of the SA-2 by demanding that Washington take its gloves off, disregarding the political considerations that had prevented attacks on the SAM sites. He was joined by the ambassador in Saigon, Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, who cabled that an immediate attack “would show Hanoi how seriously we view this incident” and would “prepare public opinion for our subsequent anti-missile campaign.” Ambassador Averell Harriman opposed such an attack.


Beginning on July 21 the president held daily meetings to reach his final decision on Vietnam War policy. President Johnson met his senior advisers on the SAM matter at about the time the missiles made their second kill on the reconnaissance drone. The Joint Chiefs recommended attacks on all the SAM installations, but short of that wanted to hit the mobile units and one of the permanent installations.

Johnson asked where the Russians were. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Earle Wheeler admitted that intelligence showed Russians manning the mobile SAM units.  McNamara nevertheless also favored hitting both Russian-staffed SAM units. Dean Rusk, citing indications that it would be dangerous to begin fighting Russians in Vietnam, still thought we might warn Moscow if its SAM detachment was bombed. The President asked Richard Helms of the CIA if he had any information. Gen. Wheeler interrupted, saying American knowledge depended on the accuracy of our own pilots’ navigation—if correct, the SAMs might have come from those sites; if not, who knew?

“One of the greatest dangers,” President Johnson said, “is conveying the wrong message by letting the enemy miscalculate our motives. What will be [the] reaction of [the] enemy if he can knock down U.S. planes and we do nothing about it? The sites are put there to destroy us. Are we going to sit and let them knock down our planes?”

McGeorge Bundy counseled that LBJ should wait and see if the SAMs really impeded Rolling Thunder. He discounted the potential for a Russian response. Adm. Raborn of CIA recommended waiting until his agency had completed a detailed analysis of the intelligence. The Joint Chiefs wanted to strike every known SAM site.

Johnson said: “Why do we fail to take out something that is more dangerous like [the] SAM site? How do you justify this? How can we not take out [the] SAMs?” Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey agreed there should be a response but added the United States could afford to wait a little to clarify just what had happened.

The President convened his advisers again the next afternoon. More desultory conversation followed. But Johnson remained steadfast: If the SAMs were not destroyed, he wanted nearby targets taken off the bombing list. Most important, he wanted the SAMs destroyed. At 6:55 p.m. on July 26, President Johnson ended the discussion. “Take them out!” he ordered.

Operation Spring High resulted from these Washington decisions. Carried out on July 27, Spring High involved more than a hundred Air Force, Marine, and Navy aircraft. A pair of EC-121 radar planes monitored VPAF activity, directing the combat air patrol. Ten electronic warfare craft jammed the enemy radars. A dozen Phantoms and eight more F-104 Starfighters flew air cover. There were fifteen KC-135s for aerial refueling, and a search and rescue flight to recover downed aircrews.

On the cutting edge, 46 F-105s hit SAM sites and nearby barracks presumed to house the defenders with napalm and cluster bombs. Four RF-101s then streaked past to photograph the targets for bomb-damage assessment. Spring High cost half a dozen planes: four F-105s over the targets, plus one more damaged so badly the aircraft lost control making an emergency landing at Udorn, colliding with its escort and destroying both warplanes. All the losses were inflicted by flak, not SAMs. One pilot was rescued. Damage assessment showed that one of the target SAM sites had been a dummy and another was unoccupied. The Soviet Union did not respond openly, but Moscow secretly accelerated its shipment of SAMs to North Vietnam.

These engagements in the summer of 1965 marked the beginning of a whole new facet of Rolling Thunder. Henceforth the air campaign featured extensive efforts to neutralize VPAF surface-to-air-missile installations. In fact, SAM site attacks were a major element in the next bimonthly plan for the air effort.


On Hanoi’s side, a rapid SAM buildup created some sixty installations before the end of the year. An interplay of offense-defense tactics ensued. Armed reconnaissance flights were soon briefed to hit SAMs whenever they were discovered. The United States developed evasive tactics to counter SAMs in flight and started a series of electronic countermeasure developments intended to disrupt the North Vietnamese radar system. Anti-radar missiles became a high priority, soon appearing in Vietnam’s skies. A search for stand-off attack weapons led to the first smart-bombs, which appeared in Vietnam in 1972. The VPAF deployed large numbers of antiaircraft guns around SAM sites to make them flak traps, encouraged the development of truly mobile SAM technology, found new ways to fire SAMs with brief—or without—radar control, and shut down their radar to preserve the system.

In the wider context of military technology, the Vietnam War air campaign became the first instance of large-scale use of surface-to-air missile technology. Its lessons include underlining the limited perfectability of air defenses, new evidence emphasizing boundaries on the survivability of aircraft, and confirmation of the value of massive collection of electronic intelligence underlying the design of new generations of countermeasures. The offense-defense cycle applied to SAM warfare with a vengeance.

   

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