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The Air Defense Campaign late 1972 – a unique feat of Vietnam air defense strategy

45 years ago, in late 1972, under the leadership of Vietnam Communist Party, our military and people came out victorious after conducting an air defense campaign against U.S. Air Force’s Operation Linebacker II, created the miracle of “Hanoi – Dien Bien Phu in the air.” There were many factors led to this victory, but the most significant among them was our creative and unique air defense strategy.

After suffering numerous defeats in the South and in bombing campaigns against the North, the U.S. Imperialism wildly pushed ahead a new escalation – a strategic air strike campaign by B-52 strategic bombers against targets in Hanoi, Hai Phong and some other locations in the North. Their aims were to break our fighting spirit and gain leverages in Paris peace talk. That said, the U.S. leadership mobilized a massive striking force including many B-52s, tactical fighters and aerial refueling aircraft. With this overwhelming force, they bragged about bombing Hanoi “back to the stone age”. However, these efforts were ultimately defeated, and they had to suffer another devastating failure. During only 12 days of December 1972, our military and people in the North, with People’s Air Defense – Air Force serving as the primary fighting force, managed to shoot down 81 enemy aircraft; including 34 B-52s, and capture many downed aircrew. This victory completely exposed the myth about U.S. Air Force’s B-52 “super flying fortress”, forced U.S. leadership to sign Paris Accords and withdraw its troops from South Vietnam. Also, the campaign clearly demonstrated our unique capabilities in air defense combat.

Missile and anti-air artillery were fired simultaneously (file photo)

In 1972, the North was under the blockade of U.S. Air Force and Navy, our military had very limited assets, especially air reconnaissance assets, to defend our airspace. Therefore, it was very difficult for us to gain intel about enemy’s equipment and weapons, especially B-52 strategic bombers (a component of U.S. nuclear triad). Meanwhile, the principal rule of combat is “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”. That said, the Campaign Command proactively carried out researches and forecast, and conducted appreciation about the U.S.’s plan, thus correctly identified the theatre of operation and forces that the enemy were going to employ in the upcoming campaign. Long before the campaign, many air defense missile, radar and air force units were dispatched to southern areas to study how to deal with B-52 (May 1966); as a result, the myths about B-52 were gradually debunked on the battlefield of 4th Military Region. Base on knowledge and experience gained from combats against U.S aircraft, especially B-52s, both in the North and in the South, Air Defense – Air Force Command developed training documents and plans to counter B-52 strategic bombers and defend Hanoi airspace. Those experience and knowledge enabled the campaign command clearly identified that our main targets were B-52s, Air Defense – Air Force units would play the main role in our defense, in which anti-air missile units were the most important contingents. That said, Air Defense – Air Force Command urgently adjusted unit deployments to create an effective air defense  network and ordered missile units to carry out extra training in countering B-52. In a short period of time, all preparation activities were completed, and our forces were ready to combat B-52. Therefore, when the U.S. strategic bombing campaign was launched, we were not only able to avoid being caught by surprise, but also very active in engaging enemy bombing squadrons. This clearly showed our unique capability in study, appreciate and identify potential enemy fighting platforms and theatre of operation.

To that end, the Campaign Command urgently conducted preparation, both in human resource and weapon, for the upcoming battle. With respect to human resource, besides boosting our soldiers’ morale and fighting spirit, the Command placed heavy emphasis on training. Although in the South before, we managed to target and score hits on B-52s, but we had not been able to shoot down this type of bomber on site and capture downed crews. Moreover, in this campaign, B-52s only operated at night and were heavily protected by numerous tactical fighters and electronic countermeasures. This caused a lot of complications and difficulties for our air defense force. Therefore, the Campaign Staff organized a lot of meetings to discuss about how to deal with B-52. Training documents were urgently developed, and many experienced officers were dispatched to air defense units to assist in training and in combat. Besides, the Campaign Command also actively conducted technical work. In 1972, the condition of air defense weapon and equipment in the North was quite problematic. Most well-equipped missile units were sent to the 4th Military Region to protect our supply lines for the South or were attached to combined arms units; new air defense platforms which were sent as military aid from our allies were still on the way to the North. There was even an air defense missile regiment which could not meet technical requirements for combat readiness; another one had just been withdrew from the South and had no equipment at all. This condition indeed had major negative impacts on our combat capability. Therefore, the Campaign Command instructed technical teams to conduct technical assessments and repair work for combat-ready contingents and units which just arrived from southern battlefields.

Our air defense activities were carried out in a pre-planned battle-array which was adjusted during the course of the campaign. So that our air defense network was always steady but still flexible enough to maximize strengths of our equipment and weapons to counter B-52. The primary objective of the campaign was B-52, and our unique approach was using anti-air missile units in both gaining and capitalizing advantages. To ensure flexibility for our air defense network and create advantages in combat, besides battery positions we already had, the Campaign Command ordered engineer units to urgently repair and construct additional outer runways; reinforce missile sites; anti-air artillery positions and further construct secondary fighting positions for anti-air artillery and missile units to relocate to adjust formation, we even had enough positions for reinforcement units. In Hanoi, we managed to build over 30 missile sites and hundreds of anti-air artillery positions in a very short period of time. Due to the lack of missile platforms, we only deployed 2 air defense missile groups in Hanoi and Hai Phong. The missile group in Hanoi included 3 regiments, the one in Hai Phong consisted of 2 regiments which were deployed in inner perimeter. This battle-array allowed us to concentrate firepower on countering B-52. This was a unique characteristic of our air defense strategy. However, with this formation, we had to accept the fact that we would not be able to intercept B-52s from outer areas, before they dropped bomb.

To address this issue, the Campaign Command decided to use our air force to intercept B-52 from outer perimeters; missile units in Hai Phong simultaneously engaged enemy bombing formations to protect assigned targets and provided support for units in Hanoi from the East. Therefore, we still managed to ensure both a deep formation and an extensive air defense network. Another unique characteristic of our strategy was the combination of strong air defense groups with an extensive network of smaller units in the entire area of operation. Air defense groups in Hanoi and Hai Phong included a mix of both missile and artillery units. Route 1 North and Thai Nguyen groups were equipped with different types of anti-air artillery. Our air defense network was set up to ensure the capability of focusing firepower for major engagements against B-52, at the same time, being able to continuously target tactical fighters. This allowed our units to maneuver around their designated targets and primary positions without reducing overall firepower. One major rule of engagement was: focus firepower in the main area to create advantages in timing and position to engage the enemy for maximum lethality. After suffering heavy losses on December 20th night, the enemy redirected its offensive toward outer areas such as Hai Phong, Thai Nguyen and Route 1 North to lure our missile units out of Hanoi, then they would suddenly attack the capital from other directions. However, the Campaign Command did not only order units in Hanoi to hold position, but also moved 02 missile battalions from Hai Phong to Route 1 North to engage the enemy aircraft from outer perimeter and protect the capital from Northeast; several anti-air artillery regiments were dispatched from Thanh Hoa and Nam Dinh to reinforce Hanoi. Therefore, our force deployment in the primary area of operation was increasingly comprehensive, allowing us to engage the enemy from long range and close range at every altitude; it also make our soldiers become more confident in every combat.

Due to the enemy’s technological advantages, the Campaign Command applied many methods to maximize our combat capability, and mobilized all available resources to create an overall superior strength in combat. This was another unique characteristic of our air defense strategy. That said, the Campaign Command paid special attention in coordinating combat activities among units. In every engagement, combat coordination between Command Headquarters and subordinate contingents, as well as combined arms activities between air force units and missile units were heavily focused; notably, combat actions of missile units served as the basis for combined arms planning. For example, at night, when anti-air missile units were most active in combat, our fighters were responsible for intercepting and harassing B-52 formations outside missile range, creating advantageous conditions for missile force to engage them. Or when B-52 waves came in at daylight, fighter squadrons collaborated with anti-air artillery batteries to protect designated targets and missile sites. When our fighters landed or took off inside missile range; their coordinate, landing/take off time and altitude were reported to missile units to facilitate combined arms actions. After initial phase of the campaign, all B-52 kills were scored by missile, so that the enemy began to hunt for our air defense missile sites day and night. Therefore, the Campaign Command urgently sent addition anti-air artillery regiments, combined with fighter squadrons, to protect our missile sites. Besides, our radars constantly searched for and tracked enemy squadrons, especially B-52 formations, and sent notifications to other units in a timely manner. Needless to say, in this campaign, our units demonstrated a very high capability in combat coordination.

In the first engagement occurred in the night of December 18; our fighters conducted interception actions against enemy bombing squadrons from outer perimeters, disrupted their formation, allowing our anti-air artillery and missile units to have better condition in engaging them. Missile units, using tandem and simultaneous launching tactics, concentrated firepower and managed to shoot down 03 B-52s, including 02 crashed on site; besides, anti-air artillery batteries ferociously fought back enemy strikes to protect designated targets, air bases and missile sites, shooting down 05 more tactical aircraft. This was a high performance engagement and one of the key battles of the whole campaign. The initial victory indeed helped boost the morale of our military and people; and proved that we were capable of shooting down B-52 on site, capturing downed crews and spreading panic among the enemy. Again, the Campaign Command’s strategy which chose missile force as the primary asset to combat B-52 was evidently corrected. After several unsuccessful engagements in the night of December 19, the Campaign Command and Party Committee order participated units to conduct combat assessment to figure out weaknesses; at the same time, prepared and enhanced combat plans, especially in command and logistical and technical services, for further engagements.

As ordered by the Campaign Command, fighter squadrons launched from outer air bases to intercept and harass B-52s in the sky of Moc Chau (Son La) and Viet Tri (Phu Tho), creating favorable conditions for anti-air artillery and missile forces to engage. As a result, in another key battle of the campaign, occurred in the night of December 20, our missiles shot down 7 B-52s, other forces scored 12 tactical aircraft kills, including 1 F-111A – one of the most advanced fighter bombers in the U.S. Military arsenal. The loss of B-52 in this night accounted for 7.5% of total number of B-52s used in the bombing campaign, a heavy blow to the enemy plan. The U.S. initial plan, which was expected to be accomplished with only 3 days of bombing, was utterly defeated; Nixon’s political objectives were nowhere near completion, so that the U.S. leadership decided to expand the campaign and use B-52s to attack minor targets. With these adjustments, the enemy sought to distract our force, buy time to reassess its tactics and stabilize the morale among its aircrew. The battle in the night of December 26 was a decisive engagement; our forces demonstrated unique creativity and flexibility in combat to address the disadvantage caused by the lack of missile. In this night, the U.S Air Force amassed a huge number of aircraft, including 105 B-52s, to simultaneously conduct bombing strikes in all three main areas: Hanoi, Hai Phong and Thai Nguyen. In Hanoi, enemy bombing squadrons came in from all 3 directions: northwest, southwest and northeast, these movements complicated the situation and forced us to divide our forces. However, in just one hour, all three air defense areas managed to shoot down 08 B-52s, including 4 crashed on site. After the night of December 26, there were 26 downed B-52s in total (including 14 crashed on site), dozens of B-52 crewmembers killed or captured, and many other killed or wounded outside Vietnam’s territory. These heavy losses forced Nixon to de-escalate bombing activities and eventually conclude the campaign.

During the last 45 years, the Air Defense Campaign December 1972 has proven that our air defense strategy is an indispensable element of Vietnam military doctrine. Nowadays, our aerial operational area has expanded to the whole airspace of the country, including our mainland and islands. New demand emerged from the task of protecting and monitoring the country’s airspace require our People’s Air Defense – Air Force to constantly maintain high combat readiness and always stay vigilant to really perform the role as the primary force in defending the motherland’s territory, waters and islands.

Lieutenant General, Dr. Le Huy Vinh, Air Defense – Air Force Commander

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