Fighting MiGs in Vietnam

The dominant producer of Soviet combat aircraft throughout the cold war was the Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) design bureau. U.S. Air Force pilots encountered four primary Soviet combat aircraft over North Vietnam: the MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21. Soviet-designed aircraft were generally technologically equal to their American counterparts. Although Soviet pilots flew combat missions in Korea and probably flew them in Vietnam, the U.S. airmen most often battled pilots from China, North Korea, and North Vietnam, all of whom were trained by the Soviet Union. The first jet aircraft to enter into service was the MiG-15, referred to by its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nickname, Fagot. American pilots encountered the MiG-15 for the first time in Korea. The small, swept-wing, nimble fighter outclassed everything in the theater in 1950. The U.S. Air Force was forced to rush F-86 Sabre aircraft to Korea to deal with it. The second Soviet aircraft that American airmen encountered was the MiG-17, code-named by NATO the Fresco. The MiG-17 was an advanced model of the MiG-15 with wings that were swept even further than its predecessors, an afterburner, and high maneuverability.

The consummate fighter pilot Robin Olds described the MiG-17 thus:

That little airplane could give you a tussle the likes of which you never had before in your life. It’s fast enough, it turns on a dime, it has a reasonable zoom capability, has very light wing loading. I’ve seen them split S from 2,000 feet. It’s absolutely impossible to follow them. I’ve also seen an MiG-17 turn from where I had him at a disadvantage of perhaps a 30-degree angle off, about a mile and a half out, maybe two miles, trying to get a missile shot at him, and I’ve had them actually turn to make a head-on firing pass at me even though I was going about .9 mach at the time when I was closing on him. So their turn radius has to be seen to be believed. It’s incredible!

The two other primary Soviet aircraft in the theater were the MiG-19 Fishbed and the MiG-21, which quickly followed it. Markedly different from its predecessors, the MiG-21 more than equaled its primary adversary, the F-4 Phantom. The North Vietnamese preferred to send their MiG-17s after the F-4s and the MiG-21s after the less capable F-105s. This approach gave them certain advantages against the Americans. For example, the heavy and slow F-105 carried a particular electronic countermeasures pod, the QRC-160, which enabled the North Vietnamese to identify it easily on radar. This perceived advantage in technology actually worked against American pilots. Furthermore, the F-105s used the same call signs for every mission. Although this was done so friendly units knew what type of aircraft they were, it gave the North Vietnamese the same information. After North Vietnamese radars detected the F-105s, MiG-21s intercepted them, forcing the F-105s to drop their bomb load and engage the MiGs or break off the attack and return home. Either way, contact between the North Vietnamese and American aircraft ended the bombing mission. However, American ingenuity ended this practice when a tactical deception operation, Operation Bolo, resulted in the downing of seven MiG-21s.

Soviet and American aircraft each had strengths and weaknesses that helped or hindered them in any given engagement. The MiGs were highly maneuverable, with a very small turning radius. However, such a tight turn caused them to bleed off speed and energy, two very important aspects of an air-to-air engagement. By contrast, American fighters were much larger. The greater size meant larger engines, which gave them greater thrust. The pros and cons of size, thrust, and maneuverability will be discussed later. The larger American aircraft, especially the F-4, could be seen miles away due to black smoke billowing out the back end of the aircraft when its afterburner was on. As one American pilot sarcastically stated, “If you want business, you’ve got to advertise.”


To overcome the lack of training and the problematic equipment, the in-theater unit commanders changed tactics on their own. In particular, Colonel Robin Olds pushed his pilots hard. Speaking about the lack of training that he had to overcome, Olds later said, “Even after coming home from a long mission if we have enough fuel to burn to afford five to ten minutes of practice tactics. We always do it. I never let them rest. We don’t want to waste a moment in the air.” Olds used these last minutes of returning flights to practice formation tactics, breaking away from a surface-to-air missile, air-to-air combat tactics and maneuvering, and rolling in on targets. Even the most mundane operations, such as simply taking off with a full combat load, had never been taught back in the United States.

Robin Olds’s legendary status is well deserved, and his use of the most able and qualified pilots as flight leads, rather than the pilots who had the highest rank, would be echoed in the changes that occurred within the USAF tactical forces throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Olds, while wing commander of the Eighth TFW, also began scheduling dissimilar aerial dogfights with local Australian F-86 pilots who were also stationed at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. These training dogfights exposed Olds’s pilots to aircraft similar to MiGs. It was an in-theater fix to a training deficiency, and it was very successful. The changes to training and combat missions that Olds instituted with the Eighth TFW became standard practice and had direct results during the Vietnam conflict.

In perhaps the most famous air force tactical combat operation of the Vietnam War, Olds deceived North Vietnamese MiG-21s into launching against his F-4s, which were masquerading as slower and more vulnerable F-105s. Olds’s in-theater adaptation showed exactly the kind of innovative thinking that was not occurring at the Fighter Weapons School, at other training facilities back in the United States, or at Tactical Air Command. Contrary to oral tradition and fighter pilot barroom tales depicting Olds as a maverick with no use for authority, he went to General Momyer, Seventh Air Force commander at the time, and asked for permission to go after the MiG-21s. Momyer agreed, and Olds named the operation “Bolo” after a fighting knife. Of course, Olds and Momyer knew that the easiest way to destroy the MiGs would be an attack on the bases where they were stationed. However, the rules of engagement established in Washington precluded attacks against North Vietnamese air units on the ground until later in the war.

Olds knew that his enemy was a living, thinking organism capable of analysis and adaptation. It was common at this time for air force fighters or fighter-bombers to use the same call signs on missions. As an example, F-105s often used vehicle names, such as Ford, Chevy, and Oldsmobile, and this was a clue to the North Vietnamese that the slow and heavy Thunderjets (“Thuds”) were approaching. In Bolo, the F-4s used these same call signs. Olds also equipped his F-4s with QRC-160 jamming pods that, until then, only the F-105s had used. Thanks to a New Year’s ceasefire, Olds had enough time to retrofit his F-4s with the jamming pods. Starting on 1 January 1967, maintenance crews installed the QRC-160 electronic countermeasures pods in secrecy and equipped each aircraft with a full complement of AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

On 2 January, a mammoth package of aircraft lifted into the sky from Ubon and Da Nang. By including support aircraft, Olds had ensured that the phantom package mirrored a large F-105 strike in every way. Olds had his F-4s spread apart at five-minute intervals, hoping to ensure that once the MiGs were engaged they would not be able to escape. Heavy cloud cover both helped and hindered the operation. On one hand, the MiGs didn’t know a trap had been set until they burst through the cloud cover, right into the waiting F-4s. On the other hand, the MiGs used the clouds to escape before the second wave of fighters entered the fray. As many as twelve MiG-21s came up to engage Olds’s men that morning, and seven of them were shot down. The lost aircraft represented between one-third and one-half of the total MiG-21 aircraft operating in North Vietnam at the time. For the rest of the war, the North Vietnamese never sent that many MiG-21s skyward simultaneously.

Olds and his crews quickly became known, thanks to Bob Hope, as “the leading MiG parts distributor in Asia.” Olds’s Bolo operation worked as he had planned it. Still, a combat zone was not the preferred location to make changes to training and operations, despite Olds’s belief that only in combat could a fighter pilot truly learn his trade. Interviewed by the air force’s Historical Research Agency in 1967 when he returned from Vietnam, Olds stated, “You can’t train a man in the United States to do what he’s going to have to do in combat. It’s difficult to simulate air-to-air combat.” Olds retired from the USAF in 1973 just as changes he had made as a wing commander were being made throughout Tactical Air Command.

Project Red Baron

At the request of the director of defense research and engineering, the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group began a study of every air-to-air encounter in Southeast Asia. The project code name was Red Baron, and the reports detailed the problems faced by U.S. fighter pilots during the Vietnam War. The major problems included the pilot’s difficulty in locating the enemy in the air before he could move into an advantageous firing position, the need for an all-weather air superiority fighter and, most important, the need for realistic training to properly prepare fighter pilots for combat.

In 1969, General Momyer, who by that time had become TAC commander, used the Red Baron reports to evaluate the effectiveness of TAC air crews in air-to-air engagements in Vietnam. Written in three volumes over several years, the reports covered each engagement chronologically. Furthermore, the air force did not limit itself to evaluating only its own engagements; it dissected navy operations as well. Volume 1 covered F-4 and F-8 engagements prior to March 1967, volume 2 F-105 engagements in the same period, and volume 3 the very narrow period of March to August 1967; volume 3 did not cover a particular aircraft. In total, Red Baron project officers assessed 320 engagements and conducted more than 150 interviews of mission participants.

As was the case with the Graham Report, the data in the Red Baron project came from after-action mission reports and interviews with the aircrew, when possible, for each engagement. The data collection for Red Baron was exhaustive. Beyond mission reports and interviews, the project’s members combed through the records of the chief of naval operations, the chief of staff of the air force, the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, and the commander of the Seventh Air Force. Researchers used, when available, videotaped footage from gun cameras, letters from participants, and in-flight communication tapes—anything that could help them to re-create the engagements. The intent of the massive data collection effort was to obtain sufficient information to reconstruct the various air-to-air encounters in as much detail and with as much accuracy as possible. While some interviews lasted only a few minutes, many lasted several hours as the pilots and interviewers struggled to piece together a particularly chaotic dogfight.

Psychologists also aided in the interviews, primarily to help alleviate the difficulty pilots had in piecing the encounters together minute by minute. Those who undergo extreme stress during a traumatic event such as dogfight often suffer some type of temporal distortion. In retrospect, events that occurred within a few seconds seemed to the pilots to have dragged on for an indeterminable time, and other aspects seemed to occur instantaneously. It became clear during the course of the interviews that the air-to-air combatant rarely had an accurate sense of time during the event in question. Amazingly, however, pilots were able to recall a battle in very minute detail, such as where their hands were positioned or the nose angle of the aircraft. The psychologists from the Institute for Defense Analyses helped piece all this information together.

The Red Baron reports are essentially oral histories by those who participated in air-to-air combat in Vietnam. Volume 1 alone covers 248 separate encounters, 164 air-to-air engagements, and 331 interviews. The other volumes are similarly bulky. For each engagement, the report presented a narrative and in many cases a visual diagram to aid in the understanding of the “sufficient complexity” of the engagement. During Vietnam, military aircraft did not carry, nor did there exist, computers capable of automatically tracking known flight paths and locations of aircraft in time and space during aerial combat. Thus, the oral record of events in the Red Baron reports gives us the best available picture of aerial combat during Vietnam.

The first engagement recorded in volume 1 of the Red Baron reports detailed how four F-8s (Blue 1-4) were engaged by three MiG-17s in April 1965. Blue 1 was orbiting over the target at about eight thousand feet when he was hit by what he presumed to be ground fire. The pilot was concentrating on looking for antiaircraft weapons and was not maintaining a lookout for enemy fighters, which were the responsibility of his combat air patrol of F-4s at twenty-five thousand feet. As soon his aircraft was hit, the pilot climbed to eighteen thousand feet in an attempt to escape the perceived ground fire. After considerable maneuvering, Blue 1 noticed the attacking MiGs, which departed the area due to the heavy number of incoming American aircraft that were part of a separate strike package. Blue 4 attempted to engage the fleeing MiGs but withheld fire despite a missile lock for fear of inadvertently hitting another American aircraft. The first dogfight in Vietnam ended in a draw. The American aircraft did not recognize that an attack had occurred until the enemy had departed the area. In a scenario that would be repeated in many other Red Baron reports, the American pilots did not know they were under attack until the enemy had already fired at them.

Two days later, the air battle resumed with the first losses for both sides when one F-4 and one MiG-17 were shot down. The air battles increased in duration and intensity over the next several months, with neither side developing any decided advantage over the other. On 17 June 1965, the air force scored two kills in an engagement between two F-4s and four MiG-17s, the first time the air force claimed kills without also suffering losses. Many of the aerial engagements were “sightings only” or ended with no damage or loss of aircraft to either side. In fact, between the first battle in April 1965 and June 1966, the air force lost only one aircraft to an enemy MiG. After that, however, the air force experienced an increasing loss rate, losing seven aircraft to MiGs over the next seven months but killing seventeen in return. Of those seventeen, seven were killed in a single engagement during the trap that was the Bolo operation. Although the air force maintained a superior kill rate to the MiGs, it never approached true air superiority over Vietnam, as for the better part of the decade air force pilots engaged in aerial warfare that they had not been properly trained to conduct.

The Red Baron reports demonstrated that there were a few universal truths about air combat in Vietnam. The first was that the majority of American pilots who were shot down did not know enemy aircraft were in the vicinity until it was too late. The MiG-15s, 17s, and 21s were smaller, faster, and generally more maneuverable than their larger American counterparts. Furthermore, the MiGs were notoriously hard to spot unless they were giving off contrails. Finally, the enemy’s preferred method of attack with MiGs was high and fast from the rear. Olds spoke about this tactic after his return home: “Going in a pair of MiG-21s hit us, two of them, and they came in supersonic from six o’clock high and [were] right on top of us before we ever knew anything about it, launched a bunch of missiles, and shot down two of my F-4s. Bang. Just that fast. I turned around, I heard them scream, I turned, and all I saw were two burning objects on the side. . . . These MiGs were gone, supersonic.” There is an old adage among fighter pilots: “Lose sight, lose the fight.” In the case of many engagements in Vietnam, American pilots never had sight in the first place. Finding a way to locate and fix enemy aircraft became a major goal when changes were made in training after the war ended.

The second lesson learned from Red Baron was that American pilots, even if they could locate and engage a MiG, lacked sufficient skill to dogfight the enemy. Pilots interviewed in the Red Baron reports repeated this time and again. In volume 1 pilots stated that they had “received insufficient training in air combat tactics,” and that “safety restrictions severely limited air combat tactics training prior to deployment.”

The final finding from Red Baron was that pilots were so task-saturated in learning how to employ air-to-air weapons for one mission, air-to-ground munitions for the next mission, and electronic jammer operation for yet another that they never could become proficient in any of these tasks. The U.S. Navy discovered this reality, as indicated in the “Report of the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review,” more commonly called the Ault Reports. The Ault Reports, conducted in the latter half of 1968, demonstrated to the navy that its fighter pilots were not trained to place their aircraft in an advantageous position to use missiles against MiGs. The navy began fixing this problem in 1969 when it established the Fighter Weapons School, more commonly known as Top Gun. However, the U.S. Air Force already had a weapons school, which raises the question of what, if anything, was being taught and learned there.

Failures in air combat were not always linked to weaknesses in the training of American pilots or to any special successes of the MiGs. The Red Baron reports backed up what fighter pilots were already saying: that the missiles did not work as billed. In one encounter, two F-4s fired a total of six missiles. The motors of three did not engage, causing them to plummet uselessly to earth, and two did not track the enemy aircraft, causing them to arch, again uselessly, into the distance until their fuel ran out. The one missile that did track its target was evaded. The report did not contain the pilots’ reactions to the complete failure of their missiles. Even though missile developers (Raytheon, BAE, Douglas Aircraft Corporation, and Ford Aerospace) promised certain kill rates, the missiles consistently failed to deliver, due in large part to the fact that the Americans were rarely in the position to fire from directly behind the enemy. The missiles had been designed to be fired from the six o’clock (rear) or twelve o’clock (in front of) position against nonmaneuvering bombers, and MiGs learned quickly to prevent American pilots from getting into this position. Besides, once merged, fighters were often too close to employ missiles effectively. It did not help combat pilots engaged with the enemy at close range that initial designs of the F-4 did not include a gun—aircraft designers and the military establishment believed that a gun would not be needed thanks to the advent of missiles. Later versions of the air force’s F-4 included a gun.

There are several reasons for the missiles’ low Pk rates. First, as already suggested, many missile motors failed to fire. Second, the missiles’ extreme acceleration sometimes caused a guidance fin to separate, resulting in the missile hurtling away from the target. Third, some missiles were fired outside weapons parameters, as was the case with the AIM-9B, which could not be fired in a turn of over two Gs. Fourth, in some cases the missiles failed to track the targets due to either internal failures or enemy countermeasures, including turning into or away from the missiles. Fifth, in the enormously complicated process of “switchology” necessary to fire a missile, some pilots missed a step, causing the missile to hang on the rails. As one fighter pilot humorously noted, “They’re called missiles and not hittles for a reason.”

Beyond missile failure, the air force also noted a need to develop and exploit “all weather, night and adverse weather conventional weapons delivery.” As it turned out, the weather in North Vietnam often precluded the air force from flying scheduled sorties. When the pilots took to the skies on clear days, so did the MiGs and surface-to-air missiles. By 1974, the air force’s chief of staff, General George S. Brown, and Tactical Air Command commander Robert J. Dixon recognized the need to be able to conduct air operations in all weather.

Despite the Graham and Red Baron reports, the air force as an organization refused to accept that tactical losses were matters of serious concern. Some air force leaders refused to admit a problem existed. In 1968, General Bruce K. Holloway, wrote an article for the Air University Review in which he stated that “in South Vietnam, our air superiority came by default. In North Vietnam it has yet to be seriously challenged.” This view was egregiously wrong. The U.S. military never held air superiority over North Vietnam, because it never held, in Holloway’s own words, “the degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former . . . without prohibitive interference.” Holloway claimed air dominance in terms that were simply not true. The North Vietnamese routinely made a point of preventing the U.S. Air Force from accomplishing its mission. Enemy surface-to-air missiles, enemy aircraft, and enemy antiaircraft artillery posed a serious and ongoing threat to American air operations over Vietnam.

Holloway admitted that “our tactical fighters were designed primarily for nuclear war where penetration was more important than maneuverability, ordnance load carrying ability more important than armament, alert status more important than sustained sortie rates. The tactical fighter became less and less an air superiority system.” Holloway’s inability to admit that this thinking had proved costly to the ongoing war in Vietnam proves just how deeply ingrained the Strategic Air Command’s mentality was among air force leaders. Holloway argued for the creation of a new air force fighter, then called the F-X and later designated the F-15. However, it is difficult to believe the sincerity of his desire for an air superiority fighter.

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