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The Rise of North Vietnam’s Air Defense

By Carl O. Schuster
4/10/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

Rapid mobilization of anti-aircraft guns, missiles and jet-fighters provided Hanoi with a potent resistance to U.S. bombers in the early years of the war.

Communist leader Le Duan. (AP Photo)

On Aug. 5, 1964, U.S. Navy aircraft struck four North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases and the fuel depot at Vinh, about 160 miles south of Hanoi. Two of the 64 aircraft were lost to anti-aircraft fire. Launched in retaliation for a torpedo boat attack on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 2, Operation Pierce Arrow had the ostensible political purpose of demonstrating America’s strength to the North Vietnamese to deter further aggression and additional support for the insurgency in South Vietnam. But Hanoi’s leaders concluded the relatively small-scale response showed that American intervention would be constrained, not decisive. More important, it energized and unified Hanoi’s political leadership behind new party leader Le Duan, who had taken power in January by marginalizing the Communist Party moderates led by Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap at a party meeting in December. Le Duan immediately ordered “resumption of armed struggle in South Vietnam” and requested assistance from North Vietnam’s two major allies, China and the Soviet Union. He put the military on a wartime footing on July 6 and mobilized all components of society for the coming war. That mobilization and support from other Communist countries enabled North Vietnam to build what would become the world’s strongest integrated air defense at the time.

Beijing rushed aid to North Vietnam in early 1964. China’s backing came at a time of Sino-Soviet competition for leadership of the global Communist movement, and Moscow felt compelled to provide higher-technology sensors, better weapons and a larger training package than the Chinese were offering. The Soviets also sent more than 8,000 military advisers and technicians, who wore Vietnamese uniforms to hide their nationality. At the same time hundreds of Vietnamese were placed in Soviet military training schools. Additionally, Moscow shipped radars, anti-aircraft artillery and coastal defense equipment to Hanoi. Not to be outdone by its rival, Beijing accelerated the training program for the 30 North Vietnamese pilots who were being trained on Soviet-donated Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17s at China’s Son Dong Airfield since early 1963. China also donated training aircraft to Hanoi and initiated a training program for about another 200 pilots. Those pilots, however, were not expected to be ready for combat operations before late 1964 or early spring 1965.

The Chinese and Soviet aid was vital for North Vietnam’s air defense forces. Although Hanoi had been improving its air defenses incrementally since 1957, the system was still grossly inadequate against a modern bombing campaign. To simplify air defense command and control, Hanoi combined the Air Defense Force, which managed ground-based anti-aircraft systems, and the North Vietnamese Air Force into one command on Oct. 23, 1963.

At that time, Hanoi’s air defenses consisted of 22 search radars and a single Wurzburg fire-direction radar that Beijing had supplied in 1954 to control 16 batteries of World War II–era German 88mm anti-aircraft guns, supplied by the Soviets. The country’s 600 light anti-aircraft guns did not have radar fire control. Additionally, the air force had neither fighter interceptors nor qualified jet fighter pilots.

The North Vietnamese Air Force, established in March 1956, had been constructed from literally nothing. Not many Vietnamese had even seen an airplane before the pilot training program began that year (indeed less than 10 percent had even seen a car). Hanoi sent 110 flight candidates to the Soviet Union that month and a similar number each year through 1962. 

The program initially suffered a high accident rate. Fewer than 1 in 5 trainees completed the basic instruction course in the Soviet Union, and only 30 achieved basic pilot qualification by late 1958 after two years of training. Hanoi also began to send small numbers of pilot candidates to China for training. Before 1962, however, most of the Chinese-trained pilots only qualified on transport or utility aircraft. 

By December 1959 Hanoi had 90 qualified pilots, although only about 40 were capable of flying jets. Hanoi established its first domestic flight training school that month, using Yak-18 aircraft. A year later, Hanoi had more than 140 qualified pilots, and it picked 82 for advanced jet fighter training—52 went to the Soviet Union and 30 to China.

North Vietnam also lacked runways and maintenance support for air operations. It had only a handful of airfields, and a 1959 study found that just two could handle jets. In response, party leader Ho Chi Minh ordered an airfield expansion program that would construct 44 airfields by 1965. It was a massive project that employed more than 30,000 people, required over 200,000 cubic meters of concrete and involved moving nearly 1 million tons of earth.

Like the pilot training program, the maintenance and logistics organization had to start from scratch. The country had only a dozen aircraft “technicians,” and their experience was limited to piston engines on World War II–era airframes. None qualified on jet engines. The first 200 aviation maintenance technicians were sent to Moscow for training in 1956 and became qualified on cargo and training aircraft by 1959. The best of those received additional training to work on jets.

Pilots in North Vietnam’s 1st Squadron, 923rd Fighter Regiment, walk through an airfield of MiG-17 fighters. (Vladimir Akimov/Sputnik)

Despite North Vietnam’s commitment to pilot training, Hanoi never graduated more than 40 jet pilots a year, and the pilots didn’t receive their first fighters until February 1964. But those who completed the program were a highly motivated, deeply committed and hard-working group. One of the early fighter pilots, Nguyen Van Be, got the North Vietnamese Air Force’s first aerial kill while flying a former Laotian North American T-28—essentially an armed primary trainer—when he downed a South Vietnamese Fairchild C-123 over Laos on Feb. 16, 1964.

The Soviet Union had delivered the first 36 MiG-17 fighters, along with four MiG-15UTI two-seat trainers, just 13 days earlier. Hanoi assigned them to its first fighter unit, the 921st Sao Dao Fighter Regiment, formed at Phuc Yen Air Base, also called Noi Bai Air Base, near Hanoi. The pilots immediately began familiarization training and the equivalent of Western aerial combat maneuvering exercises. A second fighter regiment, the 923rd, was forming in China and would arrive in September 1965, equipped with Soviet-built MiG-17s the pilots had trained on in China.

Air defense command and control remained a problem even after the North Vietnamese Air Force had been incorporated into the combined air defense–air force organization. North Vietnam had no centralized air defense system. It possessed some World War II air-search radars—American-made for the anti-Communist Nationalist Party Chinese and then taken by the Communists after China’s 1949 revolution. But they were unreliable, short-range and almost useless during the frequent heavy rains. The primary air defense detection sensor was a network of 40 visual lookout posts that reported their observations to a “filter center” in Hanoi. The information was then sent to each district headquarters that controlled anti-aircraft weapons. The transmission method was telephone or Morse code.

In November 1963 North Vietnam lacked  the technological and industrial capacity to withstand a concentrated American bombing campaign. To alter that equation, Le Duan dispatched thousands of North Vietnamese to the Soviet Union to train on Soviet communications, electronics and weapons systems.

Meanwhile, the country’s academics were pressed to learn everything they could about America’s culture, media, political system and military. English speakers were conscripted to teach the language to the most promising students. The program’s scale was immense, the instruction intense and demanding. By 1969 the very best were good enough to intrude into American communications and create convincing fake radio calls. Military intelligence pursued every possible source, both open and covert, to research America’s political processes and “way of war,” from military equipment to tactics and operations. Party officials and sympathizers were directed to make contact with Western media outlets and spokesmen.

Le Duan also built upon Ho Chi Minh’s extensive effort to develop secure communications systems, ciphers and signals-monitoring equipment. He expanded research and production programs, pursued low-cost solutions to air defense problems and developed deception plans to complicate U.S. force deployment, targeting and battle damage assessment. To minimize the effects of American bombing, thousands of North Vietnamese were mobilized and trained, with Chinese assistance, to rapidly rebuild damaged roads, bridges and infrastructure.

Recognizing that political warfare would play a critical role in the coming conflict, Le Duan incorporated it into air defense planning. He developed a strategy to not only reduce a U.S. bombing campaign’s effectiveness but also undermine confidence in that campaign. The ultimate goal was to diminish public support for it—in the international community as well as in the United States.

Sino-Soviet aid accelerated after Operation Pierce Arrow. Anti-aircraft guns and ammunition constituted the bulk of the early Chinese and Soviet air defense assistance, a mixture of heavy (85-130mm), medium (57mm) and light (23mm) artillery with associated search and fire-control radars. The heavy artillery would harass the incoming flights, and the medium and light artillery would concentrate on the lead aircraft as the American planes approached their target. Hundreds of  men and women, even high school students, entered air defense training in what the Vietnamese and their allies feared was a race against time.

But a massive U.S. attack after the Gulf of Tonkin incident wasn’t on the horizon in early 1964. It was an election year, and President Lyndon B. Johnson was worried that a comprehensive bombing campaign would hurt his re-election chances. He was also concerned about the conflict’s effect on his envisioned “Great Society” legislation establishing anti-poverty, civil rights and other domestic programs. Johnson left the planning for the bombing campaign to his key aides. His only guidance: Keep the costs down.

As Defense Secretary Robert McNamara interpreted the president’s instructions, the bombing missions should be conducted with the minimum forces required to persuade Hanoi to stop its aggression. McNamara placed little value on the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, feeling the military didn’t have the imagination to envision anything other than a total war. It did not help that each of the individual service chiefs favored a different tactic. Among the civilian leaders, Secretary of State Dean Rusk shared McNamara’s view and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy favored an incremental approach, limiting the strikes at first to show Hanoi that the United States “was serious.”

The deeply divided group presented Johnson with three choices: Option A, a large-scale campaign that would devastate North Vietnam; Option B, a short but intensive campaign of “swiftly yet deliberately applied” strikes on key targets to deliver a “hard knock” that would demonstrate the United States was serious; and Option C, a start-small, incremental approach. The president chose Option C on Dec. 1, 1964. The plan called for a series of strikes, starting against targets in Laos, then expanding into southern North Vietnam and finally going farther north if Hanoi did not cease its support to the Viet Cong.

After the Viet Cong’s Feb. 7, 1965, attack on Pleiku in South Vietnam’s central region, Johnson at first responded with a limited retaliatory attack and then on February 24 approved what would become Operation Rolling Thunder, a three-year bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Fearful of triggering a world war or Chinese intervention, McNamara insisted on limiting where and when U.S. forces could attack various targets in specified geographic areas, and the president insisted that the civilian leadership control the selection of targets. The U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii nominated the targets. Then the Joint Chiefs culled them and selected the list that went to the president’s “Tuesday Cabinet,” a group of Johnson’s most trusted civilian advisers (McNamara, Rusk, Undersecretary of State George Ball, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, State Department adviser Walt Rostow and press secretary Bill Moyers). The Joint Chiefs chairman and the CIA director also attended. The target reviews initially took place daily but were changed to weekly by the summer of 1965.

The operational planning went smoothly, although the intelligence support faced challenges. With concurrent demands to monitor Communist activities in Cuba and Eastern Europe, the intelligence community had few resources available to collect information about North Vietnam. Unlike Hanoi, Washington made only a small, primarily military-focused effort to learn about the enemy it was planning to engage. Publicly accessible and academic materials were all but ignored.

The primary sources for U.S. knowledge of North Vietnam before 1965 were long-haul signals-intelligence monitoring, aerial reconnaissance flights and ship-borne electronics signal collection. The signals-intelligence personnel who deployed to South Vietnam in 1964 were drawn from European posts and augmented with South Vietnamese English speakers, some of whom later proved to be Viet Cong agents.

Even with those problems and limited human sources in North Vietnam, all three major American intelligence agencies—the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department’s Intelligence Bureau—issued assessments that bombing would not break Hanoi’s political will. After some weather-caused delays, Rolling Thunder began on March 2, 1965, with a strike on Xom Bang Ammunition Depot just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Five American aircraft were shot down. The number of enemy anti-aircraft weapons and the effectiveness of their fire came as a shock. American aircrews were not aware of North Vietnam’s air defense buildup.

North Vietnam had spent the final months of 1964 stepping up its preparations for the American bombers. China delivered four Shenyang F-4s (MiG-15s built under license from the Soviets) and 36 F-5s (MiG-17s) to Phuc Yen Air Base in late August 1964. China and North Vietnam also established a joint air warning system in September 1964, enabling Hanoi to monitor and identify air traffic over the Gulf of Tonkin and Laos. Hanoi had asked Moscow for surface-to-air missile systems, operators and trainers, and in September 1964 the Soviets agreed to provide the SAMs and personnel. The Soviets again wore Vietnamese uniforms to give Moscow plausible deniability about their presence in North Vietnam. The new arrivals operated the Soviet-supplied systems and trained Vietnamese air defense crews, radar operators, technicians and officers.

By December 1964 North Vietnam had discarded all the World War II–era equipment and more than doubled its anti-aircraft batteries and radars. The number of radar and weapons sites was nearly double the amount of radars and weapons available to put in them. That enabled the air defense forces to move units, equipment and “dummy weapons” among the sites to complicate the targeting efforts of U.S. attackers. Gaps in the country’s radar coverage were shrinking rapidly as the number of radars increased and older radars gave way to modern ones.

Hanoi completed the integration of its domestic air defense networks in January 1965, establishing their headquarters at Hanoi’s Bac Mai Airfield in a building near the air force headquarters. It originally contained two sections: the Air Situation Center, which received and processed air defense information, and the Air Weapons Control Staff, which resolved tracking ambiguities and coordinated the Air Defense Force’s engagement of enemy aircraft. The senior controller determined which air defense center would engage which targets. The signals-intelligence system fed critical information to the center about enemy aircraft activity and intentions. Fighter pilots were on alert to scramble when approaching enemy aircraft were about 90 miles from Hanoi.

Outnumbered by a technologically superior opponent, the North Vietnamese Air Force intended to fight the equivalent of an aerial insurgency. Prolonged dogfights were to be avoided. Instead, pilots would intercept isolated U.S. aircraft when there was an opportunity for successful attack and escape. In the preferred tactic, an “intercept flight” of North Vietnamese planes attacked, while a similar-size “covering flight” protected the interceptors from American fighter escorts. The MiGs were prohibited from flying into designated anti-aircraft or SAM engagement zones, a rule that proved very hard to obey in the fast-moving tactical environment.

Hanoi’s allies and intelligence services were structured to give the country’s air defenders the best possible battle space awareness. Covert intelligence agents were to infiltrate American air bases in South Vietnam, while observation and listening posts were positioned near U.S. air bases in Thailand and Laos to report flights crossing into Laos. Beijing and Moscow also agreed to provide intelligence about U.S. carrier aircraft operations in the South China Sea. North Vietnamese signals sites were directed to report key allied aircraft communications via land line to the Air Filtering Center and appropriate ground-control intercept stations. The goal was to ensure North Vietnam’s pilots had all the information they needed to execute their hit-and-run intercept tactics.

The North’s intelligence preparations were much better than the support planned for the first American aircrews to fly over North Vietnam. American signals intelligence coverage, particularly electronic intelligence, was limited to a handful of Air Force Douglas EB-66B Destroyer light bombers, the Marines Douglas EF-10 Skynight fighters and the Navy’s Douglas EA-1 Skyraider attack aircraft and EA-3 Skywarrior bomber. The only American radar coverage of North Vietnamese air space for most of Rolling Thunder’s first year came from Monkey Mountain just outside Da Nang, Navy ships and carrier-based Grumman E-1 Tracer airborne early warning planes.

Monkey Mountain’s radar and signals-intelligence coverage was limited to about 80 miles north of the DMZ. The Navy’s radars, designed for detecting targets over water, were not effective in tracking low-flying targets that were moving over jungle or had mountainous terrain in the background. The radar coverage reliably penetrated only about 35 miles inland. Lacking the sophisticated radars of today, U.S. Navy and Air Force planes operating over North Vietnam had only the eyes of their pilots and crew. They were on their own.

Meanwhile, Hanoi’s leaders had mobilized their entire nation for a war effort that incorporated the conflict’s political as well as military dimensions. North Vietnam’s air defense plans, operations and tactics were an integral component of that war effort.  Recognizing that it could neither prevent nor defeat an American bombing campaign militarily, Hanoi assigned key objectives to its Air Defense Force in accordance with Le Duan’s strategic vision: thwart U.S. plans for using air power to force Hanoi to abandon its goal of conquering South Vietnam, and disrupt American bomb runs to decrease their accuracy while inflicting losses sufficient enough to undermine America’s political will.

As Johnson’s January 1965 inauguration approached, North Vietnamese leaders felt they were a year away from being ready to withstand a major American bombing campaign. Much remained to be done. Pilots and ground-based controllers that guided the fighters to their targets were just beginning to practice their tactics. The support procedures for signals intelligence were only then being worked out. The anti-aircraft gun crews were honing their skills on the newly arriving weapons, and Soviet air defense personnel were starting to arrive in-country. The soon-to-be-famous SA-2 SAMs had been selected but were weeks away from delivery and months away from being operationally ready. Air defense equipment and weaponry was arriving daily but the training program was far from complete. North Vietnamese leaders were particularly worried about the potential American deployment of Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers in the campaign because they had no weapons systems that could engage them, though their Soviet allies and media reports indicated that their concern was misplaced.

North Vietnamese leaders entered 1965 confident in their preparations and strategy. Ten years later their military would enter Saigon and take complete control of South Vietnam. The air war strategy was a major contributor to that success. 

Carl O. Schuster is a retired Navy captain with 25 years of service. He finished his career as an intelligence officer. Schuster, who lives in Honolulu, is a teacher in Hawaii Pacific University’s Diplomacy and Military Science program.

First published in Vietnam Magazine’s June 2016 issue.

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