The B-66 was developed from the US Navy A-3 Skywarrior as a tactical light bomber and photo reconnaissance aircraft. The RB-66B photo reconnaissance version became the first production series and totaled 145 of the 294 B-66s built. The USAF also developed a weather reconnaissance version, and an “electronic warfare” version, the EB-66.
Studies of air combat in the Vietnam War inevitably focus on the MiG-killing fighter engagements, B-52 onslaughts or tactical strikes on the Hanoi region. However, underlying all these was the secretive ‘electron war’ in which highly-skilled electronic warfare officers duelled with Soviet and North Vietnamese radar operators in the attempt to enable US strike forces to reach their targets with minimal losses. As explained by Peter E. Davies in his book B/EB-66 Destroyer Units in Combat, orbiting at the edge of heavily-defended territory, the vulnerable EB-66 Destroyers identified and jammed the enemy’s radar frequencies with electronic emissions and chaff to protect the American bombers. Their hazardous missions resulted in six combat losses, four of them to SA-2 missiles and one to a MiG-21, and they became prime targets for North Vietnamese defences when their importance was realised.
F-104C Starfighters were initially provided as escorts for the EB-66s, and their MiG-killing potential was appreciated. However, their endurance was inadequate and they were soon replaced by F-4 Phantom IIs. Destroyer escort was never a popular mission due to the cruising speed differential between the aircraft. F-4 pilots always had to weave slowly behind the ECM aircraft, putting them at a disadvantage against a MiG-21 climbing or diving at supersonic speed into their rear quarter.
An early engagement with MiGs involved Chinese communist aircraft rather than the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF). During an Oct. 5, 1965 strike on the Long Het ammunition depot by eight F-4Cs, five MiGs intercepted an EB-66C providing ECM support while orbiting in the northeast corner of North Vietnam just 17 miles from the Chinese border. The Destroyer pilot was sure that he saw Chinese markings on the fighters as they made two unsuccessful firing passes at his aircraft and then retreated northwards.
Escorting the crucial EB-66s, a prime target for communist fighters, led to another encounter near China on May 12, 1966. Maj Ray Dudley and 1Lt Imants Kringelis were ‘Jupiter 03’ in a 390th TFS/35th TFW F-4C Phantom II escorting 41st TRS EB-66C 55-387 20 miles from the Chinese border when four MiG-17s approached them. The EB-66 pilot, Lt Col Allen ‘Spider’ Webb, commander of the 41st TRS at Takhli, turned towards the MiGs, forcing them to break formation and fire randomly at the EB-66C.
One of the intercepting pilots was obviously determined to destroy the EB-66, and Dudley, although he was without a wingman, engaged the enemy fighter as it started to fire its 23 mm cannon at 55-387. Launching two AIM-9B Sidewinders, the Phantom II crew saw one of them blow the tail off the aggressively flown MiG. Dudley subsequently stated, ‘I think I got two MiGs that day, but I was never given credit for the second one’. His F-4C, 64-0660, eventually became a triple MiG-17 killer.
The Chinese insisted that the downed fighter was one of theirs, claiming that five US jets had penetrated 25 miles inside their border and attacked several of their aircraft in ‘a deliberate, systematic act of provocation by the Johnson government’. They also claimed that the EB-66 had been shot down by one of their J-6 (MiG-19) fighters, flown by Si Heng Zhu. The incident resulted in eight days of interrogation for the EB-66 crew in Saigon at the insistence of Defense Secretary Robert S McNamara, with hostile Press coverage. It was just one example of a border dispute that continued throughout the war, and cost several US aircraft. The RB-66C concerned also subsequently became a victim, being destroyed by a North Vietnamese SA-2 on Feb. 4, 1967.
B/EB-66 Destroyer Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Gareth Hector via Osprey and G B_NZ via Wikipedia
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