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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.