Operation Rolling Thunder was the title of a gradual and sustained aerial bombardment campaign conducted by the United States (U.S.) 2nd Air Division (later Seventh Air Force), U.S. Navy, and Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF) against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) from 2 March 1965 until 2 November 1968, during the Vietnam War.
The four objectives of the operation (which evolved over time) were to boost the sagging morale of the Saigon regime in the Republic of Vietnam; to persuade North Vietnam to cease its support for the communist insurgency in South Vietnam without sending ground forces into communist North Vietnam; to destroy North Vietnam’s transportation system, industrial base, and air defenses; and to halt the flow of men and materiel into South Vietnam. Attainment of these objectives was made difficult by both the restraints imposed upon the U.S. and its allies by Cold War exigencies, and by the military aid and assistance received by North Vietnam from its communist allies, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and North Korea.
The operation became the most intense air/ground battle waged during the Cold War period; it was the most difficult such campaign fought by the United States since the aerial bombardment of Germany during World War II. Supported by communist allies, North Vietnam fielded a potent mixture of sophisticated air-to-air and surface-to-air weapons that created one of the most effective air defenses ever faced by American military aviators.
Studying the outcome of the events in Rolling Thunder, the Air Force and Navy came to very different conclusions on how to adapt. The Air Force noted that most of their air-to-air losses were due to unseen attacks from the rear, and thus the problem could be addressed through additional technology that would provide early warning of such attacks. They began modifying their aircraft with built-in M61 Vulcans for close-in use, adopted the Sidewinder and began upgrading them to improve their performance, and introduced new ground and air-based radars to provide an overall watch over the battlefield. The Navy concluded that the primary problem was that their pilots had not been given proper air combat maneuvering training, and were forced to rely on missiles that were not performing as expected. In 1968 they introduced the TOPGUN program, a move that was welcomed by the F-8 pilots who had been campaigning for this all along.
Which of these two policies was more effective was immediately clear: during Rolling Thunder the US claimed a 3.7:1 kill ratio over the VPAF as a whole, but the Air Force’s portion of that was closer to 2:1. By 1970 the Navy’s kill ratio had climbed to 13:1. The Air Force, however, saw its ratio stagnate and actually decrease, for a short time being less than one. More critically, in 1970 the VPAF inflicted a kill on the USAF every three times they tried, while it took six missions to do the same against the Navy, and inversely, the VPAF lost a MiG every two engagements with the Air Force, but every time they engaged the Navy.
From April 1965 to November 1968, in 268 air battles conducted over North Vietnam, VPAF claimed to have shot down 244 US or RVNAF’s aircraft, and they lost 85 MiGs. During the war, 13 VPAF’s flying aces attained their status while flying the MiG-21 (compared to three in the MiG-17).
It was not until Operation Linebacker in 1972 that the problem became acute enough for the Air Force to finally take note. In the three months following the start of Linebacker in May 1972, the U.S. lost 48 aircraft, 21 to VPAF MiGs and 27 to improved ground defenses. In the same period, only 31 MiGs killed were claimed by U.S. aircraft and things worsened in the summer with 13 U.S. aircraft lost to MiGs and only 11 MiGs shot down were claimed. General John W. Vogt Jr., commander of the Seventh Air Force, reported to the USAF Chief of Staff that they were losing the air war. One immediate outcome was Operation Teaball, which reorganized the entire operational side of the Air Force’s early warning systems, and tying them with the Navy’s, so that every aircraft had a channel providing immediate warning of incoming aircraft. It was not until 1975, however, that the Air Force introduced Exercise Red Flag to match the performance of the Navy’s TOPGUN.
The film in this video has been digitally enhanced and colorized.