Great video on Air Force and Marine Forward Air Controllers in Vietnam, with O-1s, O-2s, and OV-10s. There is good gouge on the shadowy Raven FACs and the operation to recover Bat 21. The only thing missing is coverage of the Army’s O-1 operations. It’s long, so just bookmark this for later tonight.
Tag Archives: vietnam
Most of us, when we think of Air Force Special Operations helicopters immediately picture the mighty MH-53J/M, the giant Pave Low III/IV used through the 80s and 90s to insert special operation forces at long range and in limited visibility into denied territory. The Pave Low is retired now, replaced in Air Force service by the CV-22B.
Here’s the thing- the Air Force didn’t get the MH-53 until well after the Desert One disaster during the Iran hostage crisis. It had operated H-53s for many years prior to that, all the way back to the Vietnam war, but used it in the Combat Search and Rescue role, picking up downed pilots in enemy territory. But the Desert One fiasco convinced both the Army and the Air Force they needed dedicated aircraft and crews to support special operations forces.
Of course, the H-53 wouldn’t be the first Air Force helicopter focused on support to special operations. During the Vietnam War, it quickly became apparent that the North Vietnamese were supplying their forces and the Vietcong in the south via what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a complex of roads and trails moving from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. This web of trails was dispersed so that finding individual units and convoys on it was extremely challenging. A great deal of effort went into developing technologies that could find traffic on the trail. But for most of the war, the most effective means of finding traffic was to insert small reconnaissance teams of 3-6 men in the area. These small teams, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, or LLRPs (pronounced “Lurps”) would be inserted into an operational area via helicopter, walk to an objective area, and quietly observe. Intelligence gathered would be used to generated targeting for airstrikes, as early warning for ground commanders, and generally help generate an order of battle of enemy forces. Similar patrols inside South Vietnam would detect, locate and target NVA forces operating against the US and our South Vietnamese allies.
Tasked with supporting this mission, the Air Force actually bought their own variant of the ubiquitous UH-1 Huey, the UH-1F. Given that they were primarily inserting very small teams, the Air Force chose the original short cabin configuration. And observing the trouble the Army had with gunship versions of the short cabin UH-1B due to lack of power, the Air Force Hueys were powered by the General Electric 1500hp T-58 turbine engine, unlike virtually every other Huey that used variants of the Lycoming T-53 turbine.*
The Air Force also developed a bolt on kit to convert a “slick” Huey into a gunship variant, with two 7-round 2.75” rocket launchers, and two M134 miniguns mounted in the cabin. Where the army external forward firing mounts for M60s and later M134s, the cabin mounted miniguns of the Air Force could be used either in a forward firing mode, or as flexible guns aimed by the crew chief and gunner.
On November 26, 1968, then 1st LT James P. Fleming, USAF of the 20th Special Operations Squadron was flying a UH-1F when a call for an emergency extraction of a six man MACV-SOG recon team came over the air.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Capt. Fleming (then 1st Lt.) distinguished himself as the Aircraft Commander of a UH-1F transport Helicopter. Capt. Fleming went to the aid of a 6-man special forces long range reconnaissance patrol that was in danger of being overrun by a large, heavily armed hostile force. Despite the knowledge that 1 helicopter had been downed by intense hostile fire, Capt. Fleming descended, and balanced his helicopter on a river bank with the tail boom hanging over open water. The patrol could not penetrate to the landing site and he was forced to withdraw. Dangerously low on fuel, Capt. Fleming repeated his original landing maneuver. Disregarding his own safety, he remained in this exposed position. Hostile fire crashed through his windscreen as the patrol boarded his helicopter. Capt. Fleming made a successful takeoff through a barrage of hostile fire and recovered safely at a forward base. Capt. Fleming’s profound concern for his fellowmen, and at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.
As the Air Force learned lessons in Vietnam about the tactics, techniques and procedures best suited for this mission, they produced a film to share with new pilots and crews to keep this institutional knowledge alive.
Also, there’s some pretty good shooty/splodey in there.
*The T-53 also was adapted to become the 1500 hp turbine that powers todays M1 tank series.
At the beginning of the Vietnam War, the state of the art for most aircraft weapon delivery was just about as advanced as it had been in World War II. That is, the visual dive bomb pass was the normal method of delivery. Given the higher speeds, shallower dives, and higher release altitudes, accuracy was arguably lower than in World War II.
Worse still, dive bombing was essentially a day-only tactic. Previous aerial interdiction campaigns in Italy and Korea suffered from the fact that a day only interdiction campaign allowed the enemy as many hours of freedom of movement as it did hours of observation and attack. Some attack aircraft, notably the A-6 Intruder, were equipped to perform “precision” strikes using radar, but that meant the target had to be a significant radar target, or a fixed position offset from such a radar target. Radar technology simply couldn’t pick out discrete targets such as trucks along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Recognizing this shortcoming, the defense establishment put a lot of time, money and effort into devising alternative methods of target acquisition for night time use. One popular method was image intensification. The “starlight” scope took ambient illumination and magnified it to provide an image. Several platforms used such Low Light Level Television (or LLTV). But LLTV suffered from white-out if there was too much illumination (such as from weapons exploding) or poor image if there was little or no ambient light, such as on moonless overcast nights.
Forward Looking Infra Red, or FLIR, used the heat given off by various objects to provide a picture. Oddly, many FLIR systems are turret mounted, but for some reason, still retain the term “Forward Looking.”
Early FLIR systems were, by the standards of today, rather crude. But they gave airmen for the first time an effective way to pierce the darkness, and acquire non-radar significant targets on the ground. And if you can see it, you can kill it.
The Marines, presumably impressed with the side firing capability of the AC-119 and AC-130, modified two OV-1oA Broncos into what became knows as the YOV-10D* NOGS, or Night Observation Gunship. Basically, they added a FLIR system to the nose of a Bronco, with associated displays in the cockpits, and then added a tri-barrel XM197 20mm cannon on a turret to the aircraft belly.
The service test in Vietnam was pretty successful. The problem was, with the 20mm turret, the Bronco could not carry its sponsons, which on the A model had five stores stations, as well as mounting four fixed forward firing 7.62mm M60D machine guns. The tradeoff in conventional wasn’t worth it.
Eventually, with some modifications, the idea of a FLIR turret in the nose of the Bronco was accepted, and the OV-10D, without a gun turret, but with its sponsons, would enter production, serving with the Marines through Desert Storm.
Today, virtually every aircraft with a ground attack role carries FLIR, either on a pod or as an integral part of the aircraft.
*The “Y” in the designation is to denote its use as a service test.
Sure, the Coast Guard is primarily a law enforcement agency, additionally responsible for search and rescue and maintaining aids to navigation. But make no mistake, they’re an armed force, and when our nation goes to war, the Coasties have been there alongside the other services. Here’s an interesting documentary of Coast Guard contributions to the war in Vietnam. Most of this I knew, but the part about Coast Guard aviators contributing to CSAR was a new one on me.
With the late 1965 introduction of the S-75 (SA-2) surface to air missile system in North Vietnam, the US Air Force began looking for methods to counter this deadly threat to its strike forces. Locating and suppressing batteries of SAMs was a challenging role, hampered not just by the difficulty of the mission, but by poor equipment. Two seat F-100F fighters were the first platform used. But they had virtually no sensors beyond the human eyeball. The F-100 also had limited range and payload. The crews of these SAM hunters lacked almost everything but sheer guts. They cheerfully took on the role of attacking not just into the teeth of the enemy’s defenses, but the very defenses themselves. This “in your face” boldness led them to name themselves the Wild Weasels. Their motto, YGBSM, similarly noted their valor.
Soon after they began operations, the need for more range and payload, and room for growth for sensors lead the Air Force to assign the Wild Weasels the F-105F two-seat operational trainer version of the Thud. Of 143 “F” models built, eventually 54 were converted to EF-105F* configuration. Added Radar Homing and Warning devices and receivers allowed these Wild Weasels to locate, triangulate, and range the location of SAM sites based on the transmissions of their search and fire control radars.
Even more useful, the EF-105F added the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile to the available weapons. The Shrike, modified from the design of the AIM-7 Sparrow III missile, had a passive seeker that homed in on the fire control radar of the SA-2. Vietnamese radar operators could avoid the Shrike by shutting down their radar, but while that radar was down, the Weasel crews could close in and attack with conventional bombs and cluster munitions. More importantly, while the SAM site was suppressed, the main body of a strike force could carry out their mission unmolested by SAMs.
Further improvements to the “F” led to the F-105G** which served as the Air Force’s primary Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) platform until replaced by the F-4G Advanced Wild Weasel. The F-4G was replaced shortly after Desert Storm by the F-16CJ Wild Weasel.
*Not an official designation, it was still handy to differentiate them from vanilla two-seater Thuds.
**This time an official designation.
Today is the anniversary of the start of the Battle of Ia Drang, the first major engagement of US forces in Vietnam against the North Vietnamese Army. The 1st Cavalry Division, still learning how to employ an airmobile division, found itself locked in battle with two regiments of the NVA, themselves just learning how best to fight the Americans.
Vietnam tends to be thought of as a guerrilla war, but make no mistake, this was a conventional force-on-force engagement. Both sides were well equipped and armed, trained, and had some previous battle experience. And both sides learned lessons that would influence they way they fought each other for the next five years.
The battle has been memorialized for those of us of a younger generation both by LTG Hal Moore’s book, We Were Soldier’s Once, And Young, and the film adaptation We Were Soldiers.
LZ X-Ray, 14 NOV 65, before the engagement
In the early ‘90s, LTG Moore gave a talk to all the NCOs of the 4th Infantry Division about the battle (not often you have three star generals, even retired, giving NCO Professional Development).
I could address the technical and tactical lessons learned here, but for me, the lessons that always stood out were that young American soldiers, when faced with a daunting situation, backed by quality training, will display fortitude, resilience, ferocity, tenacity, selflessness, intrepidity, and valor. It is the leadership’s challenge to ensure those displays are exercised in a worthy effort.