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Electronic air war during the Vietnam War

By Sakhal

During the Vietnam War electronic war constituted a long and acerbated conflict in which the warlike elements of both sides demanded from scientists and technicians a constant renovation of measures and countermeasures in which each progress was to be counteracted by the opposite side. Nothing is so representative of this subject as the conflict between the American aircraft and the North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles.

Aircraft against SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles)

The confrontation between American aircraft and North Vietnamese anti-aircraft missiles reached its critical point during the bombing operations Linebacker II, between the 19th and the 30th December 1972, which forced the Communists to sign peace. This was the result of the conflict:

Departures of American tactical aircraft: more than 1000

Departures of American B-52 bombers: about 740

Missiles launched by the North Vietnamese: about 1000

North Vietnamese MiG aircraft downed: 8

American tactical aircraft downed: 11

American B-52 bombers downed: 15

B-52's crew members dead: 4

B-52's crew members captive: 33

B-52's crew members missing: 29

B-52's crew members rescued: 26

Losses of the USAF (United States Air Force)

Between January 1962 and August 1973, the USAF lost more than 2000 aircraft in Southeast Asia, either in combat or due to other causes:

Aircraft lost in combat and operations: 2257

Crew members dead: 2118

Crew members wounded: 3460

Crew members missing or captive: 586

Cost of the operations: 3129.9 millions of dollars

Anti-aircraft missile SA-2 Guideline

This surface-to-air mid-range Soviet missile was shown in public for the first time in 1957 and since then it was widely used. It was the most profusely used missile in the Vietnam War, specially in North Vietnam. It was transported by a ZIL-157 all-terrain truck and launched from a rotatory launcher, as seen in the illustration. These missiles were launched either one by one or by salvos. In the first launching a sole missile was fired to force the enemy pilot to perform an evasive maneuver and in that moment a salvo was fired to shoot him down. The elevator or booster fitted with four fins was ignited during four or five seconds. Two of the fins had gyroscopic rudders for the initial moments of the flight. The engine continued its combustion during 22 seconds fed by nitric acid and a liquid hydrocarbon - probably kerosen -. This radio-guided missil had cruciform delta-shaped wings and fins that served as rudder. Propulsion system: solid-fuel elevator and liquid-fuel sustainer; warhead: 130 kilograms of high explosive; total length: 10.7 meters; range: 40-50 kilometers; ceiling: 18000 meters.

The first emplacements of SA-2 missiles appeared in North Vietnam in July 1965 and their number grew fast until 1972, when about 300 emplacements were registered to exist in the country and even south of the demilitarized area. The American air force counteracted the situation by destroying missile batteries, by performing violent evasive maneuvers, by avoiding closed formations, by diversifying tactics and by using electronic countermeasures (ECM). In a typical SA-2 emplacement we would find several missiles ready in their launchers (A), about 50 meters afar from their command post (B). Roads connecting the missiles allowed access for the required tasks and reload vehicles (C). Carpets made from bamboo (D) covered and protected the electrical cables while reinforcing the pavement in the event of bad weather. The radar Spoon Rest A (E) was in charge of giving the alert of incoming enemy aircraft. The guide of the missiles was entrusted to the radar Fan Song (F), which localized the target and passed the data to a computer. The commands from the computer were transmitted to the missile by an UHF link that directed the missile towards the target.

Electronic air war during the Vietnam War

Attack at low altitude

One of the first American responses against the SAM was to approach the missile batteries at very low altitude. In the initial point (A) the pilot would change the course with a turn that would lead, in a known time span, the aircraft to a dive (B), at the end of which it would quickly take altitude in a carefully calculated maneuver until reaching the maximum altitude of the mission (C) and from there fall against the target. The defect of this tactic was that it left the aircraft exposed to the attacks from anti-aircraft and small caliber weapons during the long approximation at low altitude. This fact caused an unacceptable number of casualties. Moreover, the maneuver of ascension, despite being carefully planned, allowed the pilot very little time to perform an adequate identification of the target, which contributed to lesser precision in the attack. Because of this new methods were introduced to counteract the threat of the surface-to-air missiles.

"Chaff" corridor

Another measure against the SAM was the creation of a corridor formed by millions of tiny silver strips that would interfere the enemy radar frequencies. If this "curtain" was adequately launched the attack could be made along the corridor with impunity, but the F-4 and A-7 aircraft that dropped these strips from dispersers installed under the wings had to fly in formation (A) at reduced speed, becoming vulnerable to the SAM and the MiG (B). They carried electronic countermeasures to interfere against the SAM, but because of the MiG these aircraft required coverage from a combat group (C).

Electronic air war during the Vietnam War

Interception by an SA-2

The illustration below shows the actuation of an anti-aircraft missile SA-2 Guideline. A radar of wide scope localized the target (A), which was tracked by a radar of lesser scope (B) which in turn supplied data to a computer (C) that calculated the optimal trajectory for the missile. The commands were transmitted by cable (D) to the launcher (E), indicating direction, elevation angle and moment of launching. The instructions for the missile in flight were sent by radio link (F). That system of guide allowed to handle certain maneuvers made by the target (albeit not abrupt changes) but it required that the radar tracked the target during the entire flight of the missile.

Electronic air war during the Vietnam War

Shrike anti-radar missile

Another way to counter the SAM was the anti-radar missile AGM-45A Shrike which had a range of 5 kilometers. The pilot detected the emissions from the localization radar (A) and when his aircraft was aligned against the radar station he launched the Shrike missile (B) guided by an onboard detector. After the first successes achieved by the Shrike, the North Vietnamese countered it by the procedure of suspending the emissions from the localization radars of the missile batteries and gathering the information about the position of the enemy aircraft by means of long-range radars EW/GCI (C). The localization radars were kept in "silence", albeit connected, entering operation only when the enemy aircraft entered inside their range. The anti-aircraft missiles were immediately launched and guided by those radars, which subsequently stopped operating again, returning to "silence" position until further notice.

Electronic air war during the Vietnam War

Categories: Electronic War - Aviation - Cold War - 20th Century - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-01-20

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