Losses and Aviation Safety

How outdated WWII tactics and Soviet-manned North Vietnamese SAM Systems led to the shooting down of 15 B-52 bombers during Operation Linebacker II

Seventy-five Airmen died supporting the operation, 33 of whom died in the 15 downed B-52 Stratofortress bombers – the primary bomber flown during Operation Linebacker II.

From Dec. 18 to Dec. 29, 1972, Andersen Air Force Base (AFB) launched 729 sorties against 34 targets in North Vietnam as part of Operation Linebacker II. Andersen became the home to over 15,000 Airmen, 153 B-52 bombers and 20 support aircraft during the highest peak of the Vietnam War.

The bombing campaign was a success because, in its wake, the North Vietnamese released 591 American prisoners of war and returned to the negotiation table, where the Paris Peace Accords were signed less than a month after the operation. The mission to bring “peace through strength” was never more prevailing than during Operation Linebacker II.

Nevertheless, seventy-five Airmen died supporting the operation, 33 of whom died in the 15 downed B-52 Stratofortress bombers – the primary bomber flown during Operation Linebacker II.

How were North Vietnamese able to shoot down 15 B-52 bombers, something nobody else has done?

B-52s crews are briefed prior to departing Andersen Air Base, Guam, for missions in Operation Linebacker II in Dec. 1972.

John Chesire, former US Navy pilot who flew 197 combat missions during the Vietnam War, explains on Quora. ‘Here are the salient points:

  • In 1972, the North Vietnamese had a very effective and multi-layered air defense system. The massive amount of firepower unleashed at the B-52s was at a level never seen since WWII, and never seen again since then.
  • The Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) and radars the North Vietnamese had and used were highly capable for that time period. They had a multitude of SAMs spread out, but mostly concentrated near the B-52’s targets.
  • Especially significant was that these SAM sites were manned with many highly trained and capable, Soviet specialists, assisting the North Vietnamese. [It must be noted that the Cold War Soviets were extremely interested in testing their front line air defense systems in a real world war environment to see how they did. Thus the Russians put great effort into that. They also were quick to learn better tactics to shoot down B-52s over those 11 days in December.]
Even long-range bombers like the B-52 needed refueling to reach their targets and return to base on far-off Guam. Bombing operations such as ARC LIGHT and LINEBACKER depended heavily on air refueling.

Chesire continues;

‘While the Soviet SAMs, AAA, and Russian advisors had a lot to do with shooting down 15 B-52s and damaging several more, there were some guilty ones on the US side of the war that also help to cause B-52s to get shot down:

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. B-52H Stratofortress 2nd BW, 20th BS, LA/60-0008 “Lucky Lady IV”. Barksdale AFB, LA
  • Unfortunately these massive B-52 strikes were planned and directed by the Generals far away at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, using outdated plans and tactics left over from the potential WWIII days and not applicable to a conventional and smaller strike. Ideally, these raids should have been planned more at the operational level where the B-52 crews were based in Guam and Thailand. Worse, whenever these good and experienced operational commanders suggested other tactics, they were overridden by the Generals safe at home.
  • Incredibly over the course of these strikes, especially in the first number of days, the B-52s were extremely predictable. Notices to Airmen were sent all over before each raid. What was even worse was the B-52s usually came straight in, in trail and all on the same heading every time. I watched them one night and could not believe it.
  • The real key and killer for these B-52s was their turn point after releasing their bombs. Once again, this turn became predictable and left them most vulnerable, as the Soviet technicians learned to their great joy. It seems these turns were a leftover from the nuclear days whereby after the bomb drop, a tight turn was made immediately to escape the nuclear blast. However while in a turn, their normally exquisite array of electronic countermeasures (ECM) was seriously degraded. When the 3-plane cells that normally provided overwhelming ECM for each other when flying straight went into a tight turn, they immediately lost the radar masking and became visible without directed jamming to the SAM radar operators. Thus they became sitting ducks for a SAM.
  • This turn-point vulnerability was not known beforehand, because the Air Force had never thoroughly researched this in their tests and evaluation exercises.
The wrecakge of a B-52 shot down over North Vietnam

Chesire concludes;

‘Thankfully after a few tragic nights with many B-52 losses and men, there was a near mutiny at the Officer’s club in Guam of the B-52 crews. The crews demanded that the strike tactics be modified to give them a better chance of survival. Similar pressure was made at the B-52 bases in Thailand. Their voices were finally heard and heeded. The experienced operational commanders then took over the planning and tactics making many changes that made significant impact in their survival rate the following days.’

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Top Image: Jack Fellows illustration; Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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