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Vietnam War's Linebacker II Air Operations

Originally published by Vietnam magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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With the wide assortment of literature and movies portraying the 'typical' Vietnam-era GI, one might be led to believe that most Americans involved in that war were either bloodthirsty warmongers or soldiers tripped out on drugs. For the majority of the personnel who served their country in Southeast Asia (SEA), the truth was exactly the opposite. This was certainly the case with the F-4 maintenance troops of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, during the 1972 Linebacker II air offensive.

Most of the maintenance personnel assigned to the F-4 section were young airmen in their late teens or early 20s. Considering the fact that F-4E Phantoms were designed to be maintained by an experienced crew chief with a 'technical sergeant' skill rating, it was quite a responsibility for a young airman to be assigned as a crew chief on this multimillion-dollar weapon system. The reason for the shortage of experienced personnel was that, in late October 1972, President Nixon had halted all bombings north of the 20th parallel in North Vietnam in anticipation of a negotiated cease-fire. For the next several weeks, most of the Americans stationed in SEA felt that an end to the war was imminent. Apparently, the manpower planning staffs also felt that way because the flow of replacement personnel was reduced to a trickle.

Throughout the months of October and November, maintenance and other support organizations lost experienced personnel at a far higher rate than normal due to a large number of expired DEROS (dates of expected return from overseas) for completed one-year tours, as well as the end of many TDY (temporary duty) cycles. Since many U.S. Air Force personnel had deployed directly to SEA during the April-May period following the North Vietnamese (NVA) Eastertide invasion into the South, they had finished their 180-day TDY cycles and were therefore due for a return to their home stations. In light of the bombing halt situation, there appeared to be no reason to retain the TDY people. But by the end of November, the realization finally struck a number of commanders that unless the personnel pipeline was reopened, the flying units would be in a situation of trying to maintain an in-place force without adequate manpower to do so.

Finally, during the first part of December, relief in the form of new TDY personnel arrived from a number of Stateside bases and from areas in the Pacific. Some of the more experienced men who were due to rotate just before Christmas were also involuntarily extended to January or February 1973 dates. This was a highly unpopular action as most of the extended troops had families expecting them home for the holidays, but as things later turned out, it proved to be a very fortuitous decision. Since many of the new TDY people were somewhat unfamiliar with working on F-4 aircraft, it was up to those extended crew chiefs to provide them with quick on-the-job training.

Although most units were still sitting far short of their normal manning requirements, the maintenance officers were reasonably confident they could handle the kind of flying schedule that the squadron wing had supported during Linebacker I operations from March to October 1972 in response to the NVA Eastertide Offensive. That effort had been characterized as a'standard' schedule whereby missions were flown by day, and night shift was used as a time for the maintenance system to correct all discovered major discrepancies to get the aircraft ready for the next day's schedule. The demands of concurrent aircraft launch and recovery operations required greater manpower loadings during the day shift. The men on night shift could usually perform their jobs with a less than full complement since their main role was to act as a coordinator for specialists doing the actual troubleshooting or repair actions on the aircraft. Under these kinds of conditions, the maintenance officers and senior NCOs felt that even with shortages the troops could 'hack the program.'

In the meantime, the North Vietnamese were using the respite from the post-Linebacker I bombing halt to rebuild their military strength. On December 13, 1972, the North Vietnamese delegates walked out of the Paris peace talks, and two days later, the president ordered the execution of Linebacker II–the resumption of airstrikes against North Vietnam. The majority of U.S. Air Force people stationed in Thailand were completely surprised by the new air offensive.

The first hint that something unusual was going on was on December 16, when the author, then the most junior F-4E maintenance officer, was told by his flight line maintenance supervisor to go to his quarters to get some rest in preparation for a return to the night shift beginning the next evening. A new second lieutenant with only four months of experience, the author was in temporary command of the wing's fighter section because all of the more senior maintenance officers had departed for Christmas leave.

But before he left for his quarters, he was tasked to supervise a quick detail to transport dozens of empty, center-line fuel tanks from the tank storage area to the aircraft revetments. The men on night shift were given the duty of loading the tanks and to begin putting together all friendly aircraft undergoing routine, scheduled maintenance. The flight-line personnel were also informed by the supervisor of the Thai work crews, who were assembling new fuel tanks, that they would be working overtime to build up a large reserve of operational tanks (which arrived in kit form from the Stateside stocks). This activity seemed to point toward an expected large expenditure of external tanks and spawned numerous rumors that U.S. forces were possibly going to be involved in a new bombing effort above the 20th parallel. During Linebacker I, it had been standard procedure for F-4 aircrews to punch off their external fuel tanks prior to entering North Vietnamese airspace, thereby lessening drag.

These rumors became fact when the maintenance officer in charge reported back to work on the evening of December 17. He was told to report directly to the Wing Maintenance Control Room for an important briefing prior to his shift-change muster and roll call. He noted immediately that every single aircraft status board was covered over by curtains. The F-4 board controller, an experienced master sergeant, lifted up the curtain covering the status board for the F-4 section and, amazingly, almost all of the aircraft appeared as either operationally ready (OR) or well on the way to being so.

On a normal basis, the section maintained an OR rate of about 80 to 85 percent, but the board was showing an OR status of 92 percent, with 23 out of 25 F-4s available for service. Every aircraft was loaded for either an air-to-air configuration (AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles) or a hunter-killer configuration (cluster bomb units, or CBUs) with fully fueled center-line and wing tanks. This had to mean only one thing–the 388th aircrews were definitely headed back to North Vietnam!

Although no one would even then provide an official word as to exactly when, where and how the aircraft were to be used, the air in the control room was filled with excitement for what was sure to come. These feelings were mixed with a sense of apprehension as well, since it was known that the North Vietnamese had all but replaced their air defense network, which had been seriously damaged during Linebacker I.

The maintenance status boards for other types of aircraft provided even more proof of a large-scale restrike effort against targets deep into North Vietnamese territory. The EB-66s were getting new installations of ECM packages (electronic countermeasures). All of the Wild Weasel F-105Gs were fully armed and loaded with AGM-45 Shrike radar-seeking missiles and AGM-78 Standard ARMs (antiradiation missiles, used to home in on enemy acquisition radars). Almost everyone who had leave, passes, or rest-and-recreation trips scheduled was getting a cancellation and being told to remain on base. The cover story was simply that a new offensive was being planned against new supply bases in southern Laos. Hardly anyone on the base believed this story, but then again, no one believed that they would be going back to Route Package Six (i.e., the Hanoi area in North Vietnam) either.

In the meantime, the F-4 section was informed that it would be tasked to support a schedule to sustain both a day and a night effort until further notice. The successful outcome for such a flying schedule usually relied upon a maximum effort even when units were manned at full strength–and the 388th's section was still suffering from a shortage in manpower.

The only thing that had prevented the problem from reaching a critical state was the fact that some of the experienced troops had been involuntarily extended for several weeks pending the arrival of new permanent party replacements. This action enabled the wing to perform the assigned mission. But even so, there were still barely enough certified crew chiefs to handle launching, recovery, and maintenance for the 25 Phantom aircraft within each 12-hour shift.

The real shock of having to support a 24-hour flying schedule was based upon the previous Linebacker I experience when everyone knew that it routinely required an entire 12-hour night shift to generate enough F-4 airframes to support each day's flying commitments. That was the situation when the unit had the luxury of having a permanent crew chief assigned to almost every aircraft. Now the troops were being told that they would launch and recover twice as many missions with half as many crew chiefs and without any appreciable maintenance stand-down time. It seemed impossible.

A strange thing happened as the word was relayed to the troops by the maintenance officer. They acted relieved. Prior to this, many of the extended people had been angered at having to remain in SEA over the holidays for no more apparent reason than 'babysitting' their aircraft without any 'real' mission in mind. But now, these same individuals were making statements about almost missing out on the action.

On the afternoon of December 18, the unit commanders finally got the straight word on what the preparations were all about. Very few believed it when it was finally disclosed that B-52 bombers would be attacking targets within the dense Hanoi-Haiphong defense zones. There were a lot of discussions taking place throughout the base over whether or not the huge Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers would be sitting ducks against the expected concentrated enemy defenses. As of yet, it had not been revealed as to how many B-52 bombers were involved in the new offensive, nor the tactics they would be using during their night attacks.

The mission plan was explained to the flight-line people by the aircrews during their preflight inspections of the aircraft as they prepared for the first launches. The main intent of Linebacker II was to take the war to the major cities and complexes in North Vietnam. The operation differed from previous air offensives in that it provided for continuous around-the-clock air attacks against the North Vietnamese homeland. The primary aim was to strangle the Communist war effort by shutting down the sources of the massive pipeline of equipment and supplies that gave Hanoi its capability to sustain a major ground offensive within South Vietnam.

It was also meant to show America's serious 'get-tough' attitude to convince the North Vietnamese that it would be in their own best interests to return to the negotiating table. In earlier air offensives against North Vietnam, our fighterbombers had limited capability in attacking pinpoint targets during night or poor-visibility periods. Thus, the Communists had been able to adjust to American bombing schedules by hiding and storing their valuable supplies during U.S. daylight attack periods and moving them at night when U.S. air operations were not nearly as effective.

Therefore, the plan for Linebacker II was to maintain constant pressure on the North Vietnamese by an intensive bombing campaign against specific key targets by U.S. Air Force B-52s and F-111s and Navy A-6s at night, with continuing bombing strikes against the same areas conducted by Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers during the day. This kind of offensive had never been experienced by the North Vietnamese before, and they would now understand America's true abilities to wreak destruction upon their homeland.

Throughout the afternoon and night of December 18-19, aircraft were being launched from every base in Thailand to support the B-52 night strike force. The first night, more than 120 B-52s attacked in three separate waves against targets in the Hanoi area. The 388th's F-4E Phantoms were assigned two primary missions throughout the operation: to provide a 'MiG CAP' aerial protection for the B52s against MiG fighters; and to serve as a component of the hunter-killer teams with the F-105G Wild Weasels to attack threatening surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites surrounding the Hanoi-Haiphong complexes.

The main purpose of the hunter-killer team mission was to 'troll' the enemy skies looking for ground-launched defensive threats. The Weasel F-105G crew would be alert for any signals indicating a tracking radar for SAMs, and then would fire one or more of their anti-radiation missiles into the radiated signal. The missile would then home onto the signal source and ride right down into the radar antenna site. Once the site was marked, the accompanying F-4s carrying cluster bombs would destroy the remainder of the site, including the actual SAMs and support personnel. Additionally, the F-4s carried two AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles in their aft fuselage launchers to protect the Wild Weasel team from MiG attacks.

Every night of the offensive, Air Force and Navy fighters preceded the B-52 entry routes with attacks on such threats as MiG airfields, gun batteries and known or suspected SAM sites. The missions that U.S. aircrews flew over North Vietnam during those days in 1972 were in the highest threat areas of the world at that time. The North Vietnamese air defense network was composed of 2,000-plus surface-to-air missiles, 4,000-plus heavy anti-aircraft gun batteries, and a couple of hundred MiG fighters.

The Wild Weasel teams were constantly operating along the planned ingress/egress routes to maintain a vigilance for the SAMs. Although relatively few Weasels were available (six F-4Cs on TDY from Okinawa and two Korat-based F-105G squadrons), it became apparent that dozens of B-52 crew members probably would owe their lives to the umbrellalike cover provided by the Weasels. The Weasel motto was 'First in, last out,' and these aircraft made their presence known.

The NVA's SAM-site personnel had long since learned to respect the capabilities of the Weasels, and for the U.S. B-52 attack force, a turned off radar to avoid a Weasel attack was nearly as good as an actual kill of a SAM site. This forced the North Vietnamese to employ a tactic of firing their SAMs like skyrockets without the benefit of acquiring good lock-ons with their acquisition radars. Thus, they often had to rely on aiming at a point in space toward the B-52 bomber streams in hope of scoring hits with the missile's proximity fuzing system.

Enemy MiGs also flew parallel courses with U.S. bombers and would radio information to the SAM battery crews concerning B-52 altitudes and headings to assist them with their aims. Although some 15 B-52 bombers were lost due to the SAM defenses, the high expenditure rates associated with the salvo tactics rapidly depleted the available SAM assets to the point where the North Vietnamese ability to defend themselves was seriously affected.

Maintenance personnel fully understood and appreciated the implications of keeping available the needed mission-capable fighter aircraft to protect the B-52 attack force. Even though the crew-chief shortage was such that each primary crew chief was maintaining and supporting up to three aircraft per shift, the men consistently volunteered to work longer than their normal 12-hour shifts almost every day of the offensive. Many of the crew chiefs even slept in their aircraft's parking revetment areas.

Additionally, many airmen and NCOs assigned to other areas of maintenance, such as the Phase Docks, the Nonpowered Aerospace Ground Equipment Sections or the Specialist Maintenance Squadrons, aided in the effort by volunteering to work as crew-chief assistants. Although inexperienced in performing crew-chief functions, these volunteers quickly learned to accomplish tasks such as conducting end-of-runway quick-check inspections, depaneling aircraft to remove and replace defective equipment, towing, fuel servicing, uploading fuel tanks, and assisting with aircraft launches and recoveries.

As it turned out, the inexperienced volunteers did quite well because they learned their new roles fast and, more important, because they wanted to. Everyone sensed that they were involved in a historic event, and they all wanted to have an active part in it. Most of these volunteers performed the flight-line functions in addition to their normal shift duties within their own respective primary work areas.

Toward the end of the first week of the offensive, the aircraft systems were already straining local supply-support capabilities due to the compressed requirements of a day-and-night flying schedule. This was especially true for the F-4 Phantoms, since so many F-4 units were assigned in Thailand, and each was competing for many of the essential parts that were in short supply worldwide.

As it was, the entire Tactical Air Command was sacrificing mission readiness in other parts of the world to keep the flow of critical parts maximized to the SEA theater of operations. These part shortages caused some of the aircraft to be ineffective for a number of missions. A number of the on-board F-4 avionics used for performing important functions in the areas of radar, fire control, navigation and communications were quite vulnerable to the extreme climatic conditions of Southeast Asia. Very rare was the aircraft that returned from a mission without a problem in a least one of its avionic areas.

In the initial days of Linebacker II, U.S. forces had to make do with what was already on hand within the American local supply warehouses. This meant that, in some cases, certain individual aircraft awaiting parts on order could not fly specific missions due to inoperative subsystems with deficiencies in either air-to-air or air-to-ground modes. These problems led to restricted flexibility in assigning primary or spare airframes for specific mission configurations. Throughout the offensive, units had to continuously tailor individual aircraft for specific mission blocks by cannibalizing parts during the turnaround periods.

As aircraft returned from completing a mission and were being reserviced, the maintenance troops would have to 'borrow' the aircrafts' parts or avionics equipment and put them on F-4s getting ready to launch out on the next immediate sortie blocks. This was not a preferred approach since it required double the effort to turn an aircraft in preparation for subsequent missions. But it was necessary where there were only a limited number of reliably calibrated or fully operational avionic units, and the aircrews simply could not afford to fly up North with anything less than fully operable weapon systems. The stakes were just too high.

At first the wing tried to support a planned, formalized flying schedule as worked up by the Plans and Scheduling Staff. They had printed up a series of 'frag sheets,' or flight schedules, where specific tail-numbered aircraft were assigned to time blocks for specific types of missions. But, because of the 'real-time' turnaround problems and constant changes in aircraft readiness factors, it became difficult for schedulers to assess which tail numbers would possess some reasonable capability to perform specific functions for the next day's missions.

Changes to the published schedules became too numerous after Day 2, and the flight-line section chiefs were finally just given blank schedule forms with printed mission times which were filled in with tail numbers as airframes became available. Often, this would happen just minutes prior to the scheduled launch times, and aircrews patiently waited in the revetments for the word to climb aboard in a last-minute assignment. More times than not, they had very little time to conduct a proper preflight of their aircraft, since the other aircraft within their mission block had already started engines.

The aircrew's trust in their maintenance troop's judgments strengthened the resolve to provide the aircrew with the best possible airframes within the abilities to do so. Any mistakes on a crew chief's part could very well mean the loss of another aircrew over North Vietnam. This could occur either by a failure of a critical aircraft system or by enemy defensive actions if the weapon systems weren't operating at optimum performance with equipment such as the ECM, which was needed to counter the enemy SAM radars.

The pilots and backseaters paid back the efforts by continually keeping their support folks informed on the progress of the offensive. The troops were invited to intelligence briefings and combat film shows which gave them an idea as to what effect Linebacker was having on the North Vietnamese. The value these informative briefings had on morale cannot be emphasized enough. They continued to spark the efforts of the tired and weary maintenance personnel to press on.

The real break came when President Richard Nixon halted the bombing during Christmas. This happened just at a point when it seemed that the U.S. forces would run out of enough mission-capable aircraft to fully support the next day's missions. The stand-down period gave the tired support personnel a breathing spell and allowed them to perform some catch-up maintenance on the also tired birds.

In many cases, replacement parts had arrived for some of the more critical discrepancies, but the crew chiefs were forced to leave the problems open as temporary 'hold-fly' write-ups, due to the lack of available time to correct them. Each hold-fly write-up on its own was not sufficient to ground an aircraft, but a combination of several of them could easily cause a degradation of weapon-system performance. During the bombing break, however, the maintenance personnel were able to work on some of the more serious discrepancies and again bring the F-4s up to some measure of their full capabilities.

Although it was a sure thing that the North Vietnamese were using the temporary halt as a means to rebuild some of their damaged areas and defensive sites as well, the break was far more beneficial to the American side since the effectiveness and ability to restrike the North in force was largely restored.

After the 24-hour halt on Christmas Day, the bombing resumed with a vengeance. As the official history relates: 'By 28 December, American airmen had swept away virtually all the enemy's defenses, and the B-52s were free to roam the skies of North Vietnam…. On 30 December Hanoi agreed to resume the peace talks which culminated in the 27 January [1973] agreement.'

The 'can-do' spirit of the ground maintenance personnel had paid enormous dividends. During Linebacker II, the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing flew several hundred sorties over North Vietnam with only two countable aborts. The F-4E Phantoms at Korat did not suffer a single loss during this 11-day campaign due to either accidents or enemy action.



The article was written by Air Force Lt. Col. Karl L. Eschmann and originally published in the October 2000 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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