Talking Proud Archives --- Military

LS-85, Airmen left out on the limb, a leadership failure

September 10, 2017

By Ed Marek, editor

Challenges to the USAF: Operation Rolling Thunder

Employment of US airpower was central to all three US approaches to the NVN and Laos during the Indochina War described in the preceding section . Please recall I am going to focus mainly on USAF conventional attack missions against enemy targets in NVN and Laos, and mainly on the F-105D. USAF pilots flying those missions contended with several challenges, each impacting what would happen at LS-85.

US Government - "The suits" in Washington


The first challenge was the US government (USG) itself. Bottom line: it actively controlled the air campaign from Washington, top to bottom. Here you see President LBJ reviewing a situation in 1968 from the White House Situation Room. That is Walter Rostow to the far right, the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs.

LBJ was a very cautious man, and Operation Rolling Thunder was a cautious operation. His number one worry was to fight the war in Indochina without widening the conflict to include intervention by Communist powers such as China and the USSR.

Col Dennis Drew, USAF, writing "Rolling Thunder 1965: Anatomy of a Failure," said, "This problem would color nearly every decision Johnson made about the war, wold force him (in his view) to take personal command over the air war in North Vietnam, and would frustrate the military leadership, just as they had been frustrated in the Korean War."

His secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, shown here, was also a cautious man. He was a big believer in "gradualism," a concept where the US would "tip-toe into battle" as coined by Craig Collins in his book Midair. The operation ended up with all kinds of convoluted command and control arrangements and restrictions on where the bombing could occur. First, restrict all bombing to areas south of the 20th parallel. Then inch northward until finally they could bomb Hanoi and Haiphong, but even then with limitations and plenty of "time-outs."

John K. Ellsworth, Col., USAFR (Ret.), writing "
Operation Rolling Thunder: Strategic Implications of Airpower Doctrine," wrote this:

"The level of intensity and the manner in which the (RollingThunder) campaign was being pursued was not what the JCS or General McConnell had in mind. Washington was in complete control of the missions — scheduling the dates, specific targets,
type of armament, and even the type of strike (such as armed reconnaissance or interdiction or preplanned strikes) … (President) Johnson showed that he did not understand the inherent nature of airpower as an offensive weapon. Aerial combat is much different than ground warfare: the vastness of airspace promotes offensive actions rather than defensive or
protective measures. Defensive tactics are counter-productive … Since you can be attacked from any direction by airpower, it is therefore imperative that air leaders be allowed to force the fight and take the offensive to the enemy."

Ellsworth concluded that the restrictions and prohibited zones for bombing, boring halts and cease-fees, all characterized Operation Rolling Thunder as a defensive operation.

General McConnell, the CSAF, and General Wheeler, USA, the CJSC, were critical of the way Washington had roped in the operation. Admiral Sharp, CINCPAC, was especially critical of its "gradual escalation" character.

F-105 not designed for this mission


A second challenge was the USAF flew the F-105D and F-105F for most of its attack missions against targets in the NVN and Laos, about 85 percent of the missions over NVN alone. Other aircraft attacked these kinds of targets but I will confine my discussions to the F-105Ds based in Thailand. Its pilots carried the heaviest burden. The photo above shows a F-105D with a full bomb load


The F-105 flew mainly out of Takhli and Korat RTAFBs. That meant they had to fly over Laos and NVN, if attacking the latter. In most instances, they had to refuel over Laos before going into NVN. F-105 operations out of both air bases remained officially secret until March 9, 1967.


This aircraft was designed and built to conduct high speed low altitude nuclear bombing. This photo shows the B28IN nuclear bomb carried by the F-105. This was a bomb built for high altitude freefall or retarded (parachute), airburst or contact, and low altitude lay-down. For most targets, the F-105 intended to come in low and as fast as it could go (Mach 1-2, depending on altitude and load). I also understand most such missions would be single ship missions, carrying only one bomb, as opposed to formation flying in groups carrying a variety of ordnance.


Employing this aircraft in the conventional war of Indochina marked a complete departure from why the USAF bought the aircraft and how the pilots were trained. Broadly speaking, the pilots had to train for the conventional mission “on-the-job,” at war, over Laos and NVN. The photo shows a four-ship formation bombing targets in the RVN.

If you wish to know more about the F-105 and Rolling Thunder, read my story,
"The F-105 Thunderchief, a legend flown by legends."

The F-105D was the Rolling Thunder workhorse. It was supposed to be all-weather, but its all-weather capabilities found weather over NVN and Laos very challenging. Furthermore, its navigation systems were inadequate for this kind of fight. A notable deficiency of the F-105, according to Timothy Castle in his book
One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam, was it lacked a ground acquisition radar.

General William "Spike" Momyer, commander of 7th AF, wrote a book entitled, Airpower in Three Wars published in 1978. He said the F-105's "radar had insufficient discrimination to make it suitable for night and all-weather bombing missions." He added that he used the F-105 for "some all-weather missions … run against Yen Bai, a railroad marshaling yard on the northwest railroad. However this experiment was abandoned because the accuracy was insufficient to be effective." He was not happy with the F-4 Phantom for such missions either.

The USAF intended to buy about 1,500 F-105Ds, but McNamara cut its production in favor of the F-4 Phantom II and F-111 Aardvark. Therefore only 610 F-105Ds were built. You might think 610 is a lot. However, the F-105D suffered the highest loss rate of any USAF aircraft in the Indochina War, about 382 of which about 320 were directly the result of combat (numbers vary according to source).
One observer said:

"It was apparent more aircraft were required — and not just to cover the mounting losses from anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and a new threat, the SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM). The size of the target set was growing" as Washington's gradualism kept mushrooming.


As an aside, the USAF was not allowed to employ the B-52 for Operation Rolling Thunder. That was regrettable since the B-52 had a very good all-weather capability, radar-guided bombing equipment, and enormous destructive power. The Washington decision-makers thought use of the B-52 would be too great an escalation. They did allow the B-52 to bomb NVN but only up to the 20th parallel and no farther.

NVN Air Defense System - First class


A third challenge to USAF pilots was posed by the overall NVN air defense system, most of which was supplied by the Soviet Union and China and in some cases operated by the Soviet Union. The system’s radars, AAA, and SAMs posed the major threats. The photo shows NVN forces manning a SA-2 SAM outside Hanoi, ready to fire.


The SA-2 was a formidable threat. I hate looking at this photo, but it shows a SA-2 shooting down a F-105 to drive home the point.


Elements of this overall system were in NVN and Laos. The NVN air defense system did not have much of a flying air force, though what it did have was a serious defensive threat to incoming and outgoing US aircraft. At this point in the war, the US did not have air superiority over NVN. Nonetheless, Peter Davies has said "F-105s over North Vietnam were attacked by MiG fighters more frequently than any other American aircraft." To the surprise of many, the sub-sonic MiG-17 such as shown here shot down a F-105 over NVN. The MiG-17's advantages were that it was smaller and more agile. During the period 1965-1968, the MiG-17 was credited with shooting down seven F-105s; it would shoot-down a total of 16 by the end of 1972.


Even though the F-105 was not designed for air-to-air combat, F-105 pilots would engage them. However, quite often their best bet was to turn on the afterburners, hit the deck and use their speed advantage to get out of harm's way. That said, F-105 pilots developed tactics to fight regardless of their aircraft’s limitations. They have been credited with 27.5 air-to-air victories. Twenty-two F-105s were lost to MiGs.

The reality was the NVN air defense system was first class. Furthermore, restrictions on what segments of this system the USAF could attack were put in place, and those restrictions changed frequently.
One observer commented:

"(Many of our targets way up north) were guarded by heavy AAA, including 37 mm, 57 mm, 85 and even 100 mm weapons. In early 1965 it was estimated there were on the order of about a thousand in North Vietnam – by the end of the year it had grown to over 2,000 spread across 400 key sites and supported by SA-2s and MiG-17s."

The weather and terrain — difficult navigation challenge


Another challenge had to do with navigating from Thailand to attack targets in the NVN and Laos. This was not a trivial challenge. The photo shows an example of the terrain in Houaphanh Province. Practically speaking, Laos had no serious navigation aids or useful charts, and F-105 inertial navigation systems were not accurate enough. The weather very frequently covered the landscape from view.

There were long periods of bad weather over Laos and NVN, usually between November and May. Recall LS-85 was overrun on March 10-11, 1968. Furthermore, the landscape in northeastern Laos, the area over which most of the flights occurred, was extremely mountainous, jagged, rugged, heavily forested and sparsely populated.

One very experienced and well-respected F-105 pilot told me: "In the end, the pilot needed visual sighting of the target to assure hitting it with minimal-to-no collateral damage." They were under the gun not to miss their targets and cause civilian casualties. The weather often made that exceedingly hard.

There is an excellent and detailed summary of USAF problems with weather in the Indochina War. It is entitled, "Radar bombing during Rolling Thunder--Part 1: Ryan's raiders." I commend it to you. It said in part:

"During Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965 through 1968, pilots in the 388th TFW and the 355th TFW flew F-105 Thunderchiefs from Korat and Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Bases in Thailand. The annual cycle of northern monsoon weather over North Vietnam's Red River Valley during late winter through early spring often prevented F-105 pilots from putting bombs on significant targets around Hanoi. If an F-105 pilot couldn't see his target, he could not hit it accurately."

Net result: Trustworthy navigation aids needed in Laos

The net result of these challenges was one more challenge: The USAF urgently needed trustworthy navigation facilities located in Laos close enough to NVN to help its pilots know where they were and where they were going, and ultimately guide the pilot to his target. There were virtually no navigation aids for the pilots to use during their flights from Thailand through Laos into NVN. Charts and maps were hard to come by, and most of them were of little value. Trustworthy navigation facilities were installed in the RVN and Thailand, known as "Combat Skyspot," but they could not see "Up north," to targets in and around Hanoi. Installing and operating such systems in northeastern Laos would put such a system closer to the target area. However, such an installation required CIA cover and ambassadorial and RLG approval. Add in the convoluted US military command and control structure I highlighted earlier and it's a wonder anything got done.

The year 1966 was a particularly dangerous year for the F-105. Some 108 were lost that year, one-third of all lost in the war. Something had to be done. One of the most important "somethings" was a top caliber navigational aid.

General John Ryan, the commander-in-chief PACAF beginning in February 1967, was deeply involved with finding targeting and weapon guidance systems for bombing at night and in bad weather. There is an excellent and detailed summary of his involvement entitled, "Radar bombing during Rolling Thunder--Part 1: Ryan's raiders." This report will provide a good understanding of the terrible time the USAF was having with foul weather during Rolling Thunder. Among other things, it reported:

"The Air Staff published the final Combat Target Task Force Report in October 1967 by which time the Air Force was already implementing many of its recommendations. A fundamental conclusion of the task force was 'To achieve target destruction without excessive expenditure of sorties and munitions, non-nuclear weapon systems must produce combat CEPs (circular error probability) of 200' or less. Equipment currently in use or programmed for all-weather bombing capability will not produce this CEP.'

"Nevertheless, the Air Staff task force recommended for 'improved effectiveness' the deployment of F-4Ds (already done), the deployment of modified F-105Fs 'optimized by Republic for radar level bombing,' the installation of a Skyspot MSQ-77 radar in Laos (eventually LS-85), the deployment of six F-111As in January 1968, and the deployment of F-105s 'modified under the T-Stick II/LORAN program' in late 1968. The Air Staff also recommended exploiting all-weather weapon systems in Southeast Asia through peaking of weapon system components, training programs, and crew/staff specialization. Except for the Thunderstick II F-105Ds, a modification that arrived too late for the Vietnam war, the Air Force implemented these recommendations over the next year."

The bottom line from that part of the report is that the Skyspot MSQ-77 in Laos, which was installed at LS-85, was the only action for improved effectiveness of bombing targets in NVN that was real.

Linkages: Vietnam and Laos
US tackles the linkages
Challenges to Rolling Thunder pilots
TACAN at LS-85
TSQ-81 at LS-85: Process to make it happen
TSQ-81 at LS-85: Installation
TSQ-81 operations
Situation Assessment: Houaphanh Province
NVA plans attack
NVA moves to attack positions
US threat assessments — actions taken
The NVA attack
The aftermath