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Beginnings America's Involvement in French Indochina
Air War Phantoms Tangle with Migs
Weapons Napalm, Iron Bombs, Guided Weapons
Air Defenses Deadly SA-2 SAMs and Flak ( AAA )
Rolling Thunder Progressive bombing of North Vietnam
Arc Light B-52 strikes against the Ho Chi Minh Trail
The Air War MIGs tangle with Air Force and Navy Fighters
Policy, Politics The Presidents, the Advisors the Military
Other Actions Cambodia, Defoliation, Special Ops
Linebacker I & II Sustained Bombing of Hanoi by B-52s
Casualties / Cost The Dead, the Wounded and the Missing
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Vietnam: How We Went to War Vietnam: How We Went to War

This is an in-depth look at the policies and social forces that led America into the longest conflict in its history.

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Weapons and Aircraft of The Vietnam War

A huge blast erupts in the wake of a A-1 Sky raider

Main Helicopter Types Used in Vietnam

Bell UH-1, etc. "Huey" Used in every role and in larger numbers than any other
Huey-Cobra Gunship
Hughes OH-6 Observation
Boeing / Vertol Transport
CH-47 Chinook Transport
CH-53 Transport
Sikorsky CH-54 Skycrane Transport
Sikorsky UH-34 Used in many roles

Helicopter Sorties Flown During Entire War

Type of Sortie Number Flown
Attack (gunship) 3,932,000
Assault (troop landings in hostile areas) 7,547,000
Cargo transport 3,548,000
command and control, reconn search & rescue, other 21,098,000
Total 36,125,000

Data from Vietnam War Almanac by Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Colonel in Infantry)

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F-105 Thunderchief

Over 20,000 combat missions were flown by Thunderchiefs in Vietnam. A total of over 350 Thunderchiefs (Ds and Fs) were lost in combat, most of them to North Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire. This was over half of all Thunderchiefs built. 126 F-105s were lost in 1966 alone, 103 of them to AAA. At one point in 1965-1968, it was calculated that a F-105 pilot stood only a 75 percent chance of surviving 100 missions over North Vietnam. Although the total number of losses was rather high, the actual loss rate was not that bad considering the total number of missions that were flown.

The Thunderchief made an excellent tactical bomber. The internal bomb bay had originally been designed with nuclear weapons in mind, but for operations in Southeast Asia, the internal bay of the F-105D rarely carried any ordnance, usually being fitted with a 365-gallon auxiliary fuel tank. With the exception of the ammunition for the M61A1 cannon, all the ordnance was carried externally. With multiple ejector racks the F-105D could carry an impressive load of external fuel, ECM gear, and up to eight 750-pound bombs on long-range missions. On short-range missions, it could carry sixteen 750-pound bombs. Alternative combat loads were two 3,000-pound bombs or three drop tanks. On a typical mission over North Vietnam, the F-105D would carry six 750-pound bombs or five 1,000-pound bombs, along with two 450 US-gallon drop tanks. The D could also carry the Martin AGM-12 Bullpup air-to-surface missile, but this weapon was to prove almost useless in Vietnam against hardened targets. The F-105D could carry 2.75-inch rocket pods, napalm canisters, as well as four AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared homing air-to-air missiles. The M61A1 Gatling-type 20-mm cannon proved invaluable in the dual role of air-to-air combat and ground strafing. With its size and range, the F-105D could carry twice the bombload further and faster than the F-100.

Specification of F-105D:

One Pratt & Whitney J75-P-19W turbojet, rated at 17,200 lb.s.t. dry and 26,500 lb.s.t. with afterburner. Performance: Maximum speed: 1,420 mph at 38,000ft, 1,372 mph at 36,000ft, 1122 mph at 50,000ft, 836 mph at sea level. Stalling speed was 208 mph. Initial climb rate was 34,500ft per minute (clean). Service ceiling was 32,100ft, combat ceiling was 48,500ft, and absolute ceiling was 50,000ft. Combat range was 778 miles and maximum range with full external fuel was 2208 miles. Fuel: The internal weapons bay can accommodate a 390 US gallon auxiliary tank which supplements the normal internal fuel load of 1,160 US gallons. This fuel load can be further augmented by a 450 or 650 US gall external tank on the fuselage centerline plus a 450 US gallon tank on each of the inboard underwing stores pylons. Dimensions: wingspan 34ft 11 inches, length 64ft 3 inches, height 19ft 8 inches, wing area 385 squareft. Weights: 27,500lb empty, 35,637lb combat, 48,400lb gross, 52,546lb maximum takeoff. Armament: Armed with one 20-mm M61A1 rotary cannon with 1,028 rounds. Up to 8,000lb of ordinance could be carried in the internal weapons bay. In addition, a further 6000lb of ordinance could be carried on external weapons racks (four underneath the wings, one underneath the fuselage).

Specification of the F-105F Thunderchief:

One Pratt & Whitney J75-P-19W turbojet, rated at 17,200 lb.s.t. dry and 26,500 lb.s.t. with afterburner. Performance: Maximum speed: 1386 mph at 38,000ft (Mach 2.1), 876 mph at sea level (Mach 1.15). Initial climb rate was 34,500ft per minute (at 39,350 pounds). Combat radius was 740 miles with 8 750-pound bombs. Fuel: Total internal fuel capacity was 1160 US gallons in seven tanks (including 25 gallons in the fuel lines). The internal weapons bay can accommodate a 390-US gallon fuel tank in place of the "special store". The fuel load could be further augmented by two 450 US-gallon drop tanks on the inner underwing pylons and an additional 450 or 600 US gallon drop tank carried on a pylon underneath the fuselage, bringing total maximum fuel capacity to 3100 US gallons. Dimensions: wingspan 34ft 11 1/4 inches, length 69ft 7 1/3 inches, height 20ft 2 inches, wing area 385 squareft. Weights: 40,073lb loaded (clean), 54,027lb maximum takeoff. Armament: Armed with one 20-mm M61A1 rotary cannon with 1029 rounds. Up to 8,000lb of ordinance could be carried in the internal weapons bay. In addition, a further 6,000lb of ordinance could be carried on external weapons racks (four underneath the wings, one underneath the fuselage). Typical weapons load include 16 750-pound bombs, 9 LAU-3/A or LAU-18/A rocket pods, or four AIM-9B Sidewinder infrared homing missiles in the intercept role.


The F-105G was the designation given to Wild Weasel F-105Fs which were fitted with greatly improved avionics. Additional electronic countermeasures equipment was housed in blisters mounted on the side of the fuselage.

F-100 Super Sabre

Douglas A-1 Skyraider

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Although 20 years old and propeller driven the A-1 Skyraider turned out to be one of the most useful planes the Navy had for the war in Vietnam. Able to carry a heavy bomb load and loiter for long periods of time the Skyraider delivered devastating firepower with good accuracy.

Douglas A-4 Skyhawk

A real workhorse during the Vietnam war, the A-4 flew more strike missions than any other Navy aircraft. The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk entered service with the navy in 1956. Simple and easy to maintain it was also the smallest and lightest jet the Navy procurred. Range and load limitations.

A-6 Intruder

By far the most sosphisticated aircraft deployed by the Navy was the A-6 Intruder. With very accurate navigation and bombing avionics the A-6 could be effective in almost any weather, dropping its heavy bomb load with great accuracy.

A-7 Corsair II

Combat debut: December 2, 1967 over Vietnam
On December 4 the A-7 flew its first combat strikes.
The Corsair II flew over 97,000 sorties in south-east asia.
A total of 54 A-7s were lost to enemy action out of the 854 A-7s that saw combat in Vietnam. A-7s eventually made up 27 squadrons in the conflict.
At an average mission length of 2.25 hours for 90,000 sorties means that A-7s collectively spent well over 8,400 days in the air.


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In the spring of 1967, a series of tests known as Combat Bullseye I were carried out with test F-111As. They confirmed the superior bombing accuracy of the aircraft's radar.

Based on the results of the Combat Bullseye I tests of the spring of 1967, the Air Force decided to rush a small detachment of F-111As to Southeast Asia under a program known as Combat Lancer. This program was preceded by the Harvest Reaper program of June 1967 which was intended to identify known F-111A shortcomings and to prepare the aircraft for combat. It was anticipated that the Harvest Reaper modifications would enter the F-111A production lines if they were successfully proven in combat.

Six 428th TFS F-111As were allocated to the Combat Lancer program, and departed Nellis AFB for Thailand on March 15, 1968. By the end of that month, 55 night missions had been flown against targets in North Vietnam, but two aircraft had been lost. Replacement aircraft had left Nellis, but the loss of a third F-111A on April 22 halted F-111A combat operations. However, the aircraft remained poised for combat, but they saw little action before their return to the USA in November. It turned out that the three F-111A losses were not due to enemy action but were caused by wing and tail structural defects. One of the Combat Lancer crashes had been traced to a malfunction of the aircraft's tail servo actuator. The USAF later discovered (as a later returning prisoner of war would confirm) that a tailplane problem could cause a sudden and uncontrollable pitch-up and roll. This failure in the flying controls system caused the aircraft to break up in flight. The other two crashes in Vietnam were traced to poor mounting of the M61A1 cannon and to pilot error.

The F-111A returned to Southeast Asia in September of 1972. They entered combat not long after yet another crash and yet another grounding. Two F-111A squadrons (the 429th and 430th) left Nellis AFB for Thailand. They participated in the Linebacker II aerial offensive against North Vietnam. They flew bombing missions against targets in North Vietnam and Laos in the midst of the monsoon season. They flew without electronic countermeasures escort aircraft or KC-135 tankers. On November 8, 1972, they flew 20 strikes over North Vietnam in weather that grounded other aircraft.

Four F-111As could deliver the bomb loads of 20 F-4 Phantoms. Shortly after returning to SEA, an F-111A experienced double engine rollback after encountering heavy rain. There were continual problems with the terrain-following radar and the attack radar. Malfunctions of the internal navigation and weapons release system also cropped up on a regular basis. Nevertheless, the 429th and 430th TFS flew some 4,000 combat missions with excellent success rates in hitting targets even when visibility was near zero. Only six aircraft were lost in action.

Specifications of the F-111A:

Two Pratt & Whitney TF30-P-3 turbofans, 12,000 lb.s.t. dry and 18,500 lb.s.t. with afterburning. Weights: 46,172lb empty, 63,051lb combat, 82,819lb gross, 98,850lb maximum takeoff. Maximum speed 1453 mph at 53,450ft, 914 mph at sea level. Initial climb rate 25,550ft per minute (clean). Service ceiling 58,000ft, combat ceiling 56,650ft, absolute ceiling 66,000ft. Combat radius was 1,330 miles, with ferry range being 3165 miles with maximum external fuel being carried. Internal fuel capacity was 5,043 US gallons. With underwing fuel tanks, a maximum of 7,443 US gallons of fuel could be carried. Dimensions: wingspan 63ft 0 inches (maximum) and 31ft 11 1/2 inches (minimum), length 73ft 5 1/2 inches, height 17ft 6 inches, wing area 525 squareft. Armed with one 20-mm M61A1 rotary cannon with 2,000 rounds, which was only rarely actually fitted. Up to 30,000lb of bombs, missiles, or fuel tanks could be carried on six underwing hardpoints and in the internal weapons bay.

B-52 Stratofortress

The massive B-52 Stratofortress bomber as the main bomber of Strategic Air Command was designed to fly deep into enemy territory and drop nuclear weapons. But for the Vietnam conflict modifications allowed each bomber to carry fifty-one 750 or 500 lb. conventional bombs, later incresed to an incredible one-hundred and eight bombs.

The B-52 effort concentrated primarily against suspected Viet Cong targets in South Vietnam, but the Ho Chi Min Trail and targets in Laos were also hit. During the relief of Khe Sanh, unbroken waves of six aircraft, attacking every three hours, dropped bombs as close as 900ft (300 m) from friendly lines.

Specification of Boeing B-52F Stratofortress:

Eight Pratt & Whitney J57-P-43WA turbojets, each rated at 11,200 lb.s.t. dry and 13,750 lb.s.t. with water injection.
Maximum speed 638 mph at 21,000ft, 570 mph at 46,500ft. Cruising speed 523 mph. Stalling speed 169 mph. Initial climb rate 5600ft per minute. Service ceiling at combat weight 46,700ft. Combat radius 3650 miles with 10,000lb bombload. Ferry range 7976 miles. Takeoff ground run 7000ft. Takeoff run over 50-foot obstacle 9100ft.
Length 156ft 6.9 inches, wingspan 185ft 0 inches, height 48ft 3.6 inches, wing area 4000 squareft.
173,599lb empty, 291,570lb combat, 450,000lb maximum takeoff.
Four 0.50-inch M3 machine guns with 600 rpg in tail turret. Maximum offensive payload 43,000lb.

Specification of Boeing B-52G Stratofortress:

Eight Pratt & Whitney J57-P-43WB turbojets, each rated at 13,750 lb.s.t. with water injection.
Maximum speed 636 mph at 20,800ft, 570 mph at 46,000ft. Cruising speed 523 mph. Stalling speed 169 mph. Initial climb rate 5450ft per minute. An altitude of 33,400 ft could be reached in 19 minutes. Service ceiling at combat weight 47,000ft. Combat radius 4100 miles with 10,000lb bomb load. Ferry range 7976 miles. Takeoff ground run 8150ft. Takeoff over 50-foot obstacle 10,400ft.
Length 157ft 7 inches (later increased to 160ft 10.9 inches), wingspan 185ft 0 inches, height 40ft 8 inches, wing area 4000 squareft.
168,445lb empty, 302,634lb combat, 488,000lb maximum takeoff.
Four 0.50-inch M3 machine guns with 600 rpg in tail turret. Maximum offensive payload 50,000lb. Up to 20 Boeing AGM-86 ALCMs could be carried, eight internally and three on each underwing pylon. Internally, a clip of four B83 free-fall nuclear weapons could be carried. In the conventional role, could be configured with the Heavy Stores Adaptor Beam on the wing hardpoints so that nine 2000-lb Mk84 bombs could be carried under each wing, with a further 27 internally. Alternatively, 27 750-lb M117 or 1000-lb Mk83 bombs could be carried internally, with a further 24 on underwing positions fitted with the redundant Hound Dog pylon and multiple ejector racks. AGM-86C and the AGM-142 Have Nap EO guided missile can be carried on the HSABs.

Other Aircraft

North American OV-10 Bronco

Cessna O-2

North American RA-5C Vigilante

Douglas EB-66 Destroyer

Grumman OV-1 Mohawk

Martin RB-57

Douglas RA-3B Skywarrior

Grumman EA-6A Prowler

Fairchild C-123 Provider

Douglas RC-47

Fairchild AC-119G

Fairchild AC-119K

Lockheed AC-130 Hercules

Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker

The KC-135 refueling tanker is a specially modified Boeing 707 carrying 31,300 gallons of fuel which can be off-loaded at 1,000 gallons per minute to other planes. Refueling missions in support of the fighting in south-east Asia began in June of 1964 and continued until the end of the war in 1972.

SAC tankers had flown more than 110,000 sorties and delivered 5.3 billionlb of fuel during 481,908 refueling operations by the end of 1969. At the end of the war nearly 9 billionlb of fuel had been transferred during 813,878 refuelings involving 194,687 sorties.

Lockheed C-130 Hercules

Lockheed C-141 StarLifter

The RF101 Voodoo flew hundreds of recon missions over Vietnam.

RA-5 Vigilante

The SR-71 Blackbird flew reconn missions over Vietnam, these being by far the fastest combat sorties ever undertaken. At Mach 3+ the SR-71 briefly entered Chinese airspace before turning completedly around to fly south again.

Weapons and Tactics

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Thousands of these 750 lb (340 kg) bombs were used in the war


The word napalm is derived from naphthenic and palmitic acids which are used in its manufacture. Essentially "jellied" gasoline napalm consists of a mixture of 25% gasoline, 25% benzene, and 50% aluminum or polystyrene soap as a thickener. Although used during World War II and seeing extensive use in Korea this weapon became widely known during this conflict. It was used in massive quantities along with fuel air explosives to blast through dense jungle growth and get at enemy troops and positions.

It is estimated that the United States used a total of 338,237 tons of napalm in the Vietnam war between 1963 and 1971.

3,000 lb bomb

Mk118 3,000 lb (1360 kg) HE Bomb

Precision Guided Weapons

Research begun in the early 60's added two very powerful technologies to the weapons of America's arsenal by the latter stages of the war in Vietnam. Chief among these were laser guided bombs ( LGB ) and electro-optically ( TV ) guided weapons.

To better appreciate the importance of technology in warfare it's helpful to look at bombing accuracy with dumb ( unguided ) bombs.

To Have a 90% Chance of Hitting a 60 x 100 ft target with 2,000lb (907 kg) unguided bombs from medium altitude
War Number of Bombs Number of Aircraft CEP (inft)
World War II












By the time of the Gulf War, the capabilities of ‘smart’ airplanes dropping dumb bombs from low altitudes were sufficient to place an unguided munition within 30ft of a target.

Walleye I

guidance: television

warhead: 850 lb ( 385.6 kg ) bomb

total weight: 1,100 lb ( 498.95 kg )

Walleye II

Maverick Missile



total weight:

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Navy / Marine Air

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Seventy three pilots were lost in combat over Vietnam from 14 different carriers. A-4 A-4 Skyhawk A-4 Skyhawks were lost over Vietnam from five Essex class carriers.

Navy pilots flew 20% of all missions in Southeast Asia but more than half of those missions were over North Vietnam. In addition to having to brave murderous anti-aircraft fire and SAMs these pilots also had to fly back and land on their carriers, a task made even more stressful when low on fuel, a common condition.

Between 2 March and 24 December 1965, when President Johnson ordered a temporary bombing halt in North Vietnam, the Seventh Fleet's carrier aircraft flew 31,000 combat and combat support sorties, dropped 64,000 bombs, and fired 128,500 rockets in an effort to interdict the enemy's lines of communication to the South.

Aircraft Carriers

SOURCE: United States Naval Aviation, 1910-1980. Washington: Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air Warfare)/Commander, Naval Air Systems Command, 1981.

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