Facing the most formidably concentrated air defences in history, pilots of the F-105D Thunderchief flew against North Vietnamese targets day after day during the 43 months of Operation Rolling Thunder.
As told by Peter E Davies in his book F-105 Thunderchief Units of the Vietnam War, to try to reduce the losses for the F-105 wings, which had lost 126 jets in 1966, twenty-five improved QRC-160A (later AN/ALQ-71) pods were ordered in mid-1966 for the Thai F-105 wings. Tougher than the 1965 test models, they contained jammers for the ‘Fan Song’ SA-2 guidance radar’s’ elevation and azimuth frequencies, as well as the ‘Firecan’ radar directing 57 mm and 85 mm AAA. From Sep. 26 through to Oct. 8, 1966, Project Vampyrus developed techniques for using these new pods, as evaluated by EB-66C crews. Various ‘formations’ were tried for maximum jamming protection, and initial combat results in late October showed that an ‘echelon up front the leader’ formation provided enough jamming power to prevent accurate guidance of both SA-2s and heavy flak.
Initially, two pods were carried on the F-105’s outboard pylons covering all threat frequencies, but increased MiG activity required one to be replaced by an AIM-9B Sidewinder.
Brig Gen William Chairsell, commander of the 388th TFW, approved of the pods as they let F-105s make dive attacks from medium altitude, rather than ‘popping up’ in 30-degree, 4g climbs from lower altitude, where the jets were easier AAA targets. However, a `Fan Song’ could ‘burn through’ the pods emissions and lock onto an F-105 inside eight miles’ range. The pod’s effectiveness was also reduced while the jet was turning or banking beyond 15 degrees, directing its radiation away from the radar it sought to blanket. Pods could also interfere with Shrike guidance and with the F-105’s own RHAW system. A ‘battle of the beams’ began in which both sides constantly changed tactics, frequencies and formations.
A particular hazard for the F-105s was ‘passive tracking’ where the NVA ‘triangulated’ data from a number of sites and launched missiles at a point calculated to be the centre of the attack formation. Later in 1967 the improved AN/ALQ-87 (QRC-160-8) pod that could jam both the SA-2’s position beacon and ‘Fan Song’ was introduced.
The 355th TFW approach to ‘pod’ formations differed from the Korat tactics, which relied on very close formations attacking from between 15,000 ft and 18,000 ft, with about two minutes between the formations. This placed them above the lighter AAA, although tight formations and relatively high altitudes limited the manoeuvrability of loaded F-105s against SAMs and MiGs. 388th TFW Vice Commander Jack Broughton explained;
‘At Takhli we liked the pop-up tactic as we felt we got better target coverage with less exposure and fewer losses. Lots of folks agreed until new PACAF C-in-C Gen John D Ryan arrived in Honolulu with his high-altitude, straight-and-level B-17 experience and his SAC bomber philosophy. He directed a study that produced the phoniest untrue results possible, and despite much wailing from the veterans of the Hanoi environment, he ordered us to adopt the bomber approach. He seemed to feel the advent of ECM pods would solve all the problems up North, which they did not do. We continued to appeal our case, without much hope, but in the interim many of us never quite “understood” the General’s direction, thus we did not get to fly the bomber patterns. We tried it one time and it was an obscene mess as far as we were concerned. The end of Rolling Thunder signaled the end of our attacks into RP VI, and therefore an end to that controversy.
‘We liked to have as many pods as maintenance could provide, and we used them along with our pop-up tactic. Korat units liked that straight and level stuff, which may be why their loss rates were higher than ours and their bombs-on-target rates lower.’
F-105 Thunderchief Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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