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Gradual Failure The Air War Over North Vietnam, 1965-1966

Gradual Failure The Air War Over North Vietnam, 1965-1966

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Published by Bob Andrepont

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Published by: Bob Andrepont on Mar 04, 2011
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Washington’s insistence on restricting Air Force and Navy reconnaissance
aircrews to medium-altitude missions impeded Rolling Thunder operations
throughout March. As noted, General Harris, had emphasized the need for low-
level pre- and poststrike reconnaissance, and Admiral Sharp had heartily
agreed. On the 21st, in outlining a two-phase program to cut lines of commu-
nication, Sharp informed the JCS that weather over the north in April would
probably render 40 to 60 percent of medium-level reconnaissance missions
nonproductive. When he visited Washington late in the month, Ambassador
Taylor sided with the air commanders in their requests to remove the altitude
restriction. On March 30, the authorities at last permitted photoreconnaissance
at lower altitude and simultaneously extended the authorized reconnaissance
area from the 20th to the 21st parallel. For the first time, Sharp could also
schedule photo missions at his discretion.83
The removal of the altitude limitation was not without strings. The PACOM
commander could schedule no more than ten two-aircraft missions per week or



a total of twenty sorties, aircraft were forbidden to intrude within forty n.m. of
Phuc Yen airfield and Haiphong, and the JCS would decide on a case-by-case
basis whether to approve requests for supporting flak suppression.84
These restrictions notwithstanding, Washington authorized more reconnais-
sance for North Vietnam and Laos, speeding plans by General Moore and his
staff to redeploy and augment the 2d Air Division’s RF–101 force. On March
6, several personnel of the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) at
Tan Son Nhut flew to Udorn, Thailand, to arrange for the redeployment of some
of the Voodoos at that base, and on the 31st the first four RF–101 units of the
15th TRS arrived there. Nicknamed Green Python, the unit flew its first Yankee
Team mission over Laos the next day, and in April they began Blue Tree mis-
sions over the north. A month later, the Thai government authorized eight more
RF–101s at Udorn, bringing the total to twelve, providing regular reconnais-
sance for Rolling Thunder. The 2d Air Division was soon flying about two-
thirds of the tactical reconnaissance missions over the north while the Navy
flew the remainder.85

The Air Force took other actions in support of the Rolling Thunder program.
Thirty-four MiG–15s and MiG–17s were based at Phuc Yen airfield near
Hanoi, and the Air Force requested a squadron of F–4s to provide cover for
reconnaissance and strike missions over the north. On April 1, McNamara
approved the JCS recommendation to move this squadron to Udorn. The two-
seat Phantoms were the newest and most sophisticated fighters in the Air
Force’s inventory. Responding quickly, Tactical Air Command dispatched the
45th TFS of the 15th TFW from the United States to Udorn, where it arrived
on April 7. Aircrews immediately began flying combat air patrol.86

Also at the
Air Force’s request, the JCS authorized TAC to begin modifying several RB–66
reconnaissance aircraft to provide an electronic intelligence (ELINT) and
countermeasures capability against Hanoi’s expanding ground communication

F–100 flying flak suppression fires rockets at an enemy gun position.



* For a discussion of the origins and initial operations of the Steel Tiger program, see Jacob
Van Staaveren, Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1960–1968 (Washington, 1993), p 147.

intercept (GCI) system and possibly Soviet-built SA–2 surface-to-air missiles

In Honolulu and Saigon, military and civilian psychological warfare
specialists prepared for a major overt leaflet dropping program against the
north’s populace and leadership. Specially equipped Air Force and Vietnamese
fighters would distribute the leaflets.88
On the night of April 3, in an effort to reduce the infiltration of manpower
and supplies through southern Laos, General Moore launched two missions
against enemy truck traffic on segments of three truck routes. Each mission
consisted of a navigation and flare-carrying C–130 Blindbat and two strike
B–57s. Recommended by General Johnson in mid-March and approved by the
President shortly thereafter, these missions began a new Air Force and Navy
anti-infiltration interdiction program nicknamed Steel Tiger,* that was
intended to supplement the Rolling Thunder program against the north.89

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