Cold War Era

The Story of the Effective A-7 Iron Hand Mission that protected the Alpha Strike Launched on May 10, 1972 over North Vietnam

Each A-7 pilot fired one preemptive Shrike, but someone in the group, who had probably forgotten the pre-briefed plan, called ‘SAM!’ Someone else correctly answered, ‘No, that’s a Shrike!’


One of the most famous missions of the Vietnam air war was the Carrier Air Wing Nine (CVW-9) Alpha Strike on the Bai Duong railway yards on May 10, 1972. Because of actions earlier in the day, a strong North Vietnamese defence comprising SAMs, AAA and MiGs was expected.

The dual mission of Iron Hand/RESCAP for this strike was assigned to Lt Cdr Tom Gravley and Lt Norm Birzer.

As explained by Norman Birzer & Peter Mersky and their book US Navy A-7 Corsair II Units of the Vietnam War, Iron Hand was the suppression of enemy fire-control radiation, the latter being crucial for the accurate guiding of surface-to-air missiles. For this mission, each A-7E Corsair II was loaded with two AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles. While this was the same mission performed by the well-known US Air Force ‘Wild Weasels’ with dedicated crews and jets, all Navy attack aircraft and pilots were equipped and trained to perform this function on a routine basis. The secondary mission of RESCAP, which stood for Rescue Combat Air Patrol, involved the coordination of the rescue of downed airmen.

Although Birzer had completed 170 combat missions in two tours — the previous deployment in America —most had been over Laos and South Vietnam. Birzer had only gone north about ten times. His event would be the middle launch of a three-strike sequence.

‘Going back into the North was scary and exciting at the same time’, he recalled. ‘A couple of pilots in our sister squadron had turned in their wings during this time. At least one was scared of getting hurt in North Vietnam, but most of us were eager. In fact, there was a fair amount of tactical manoeuvring and complaining to get a fair share or more of the few A-7 sorties available’.

Flying A-7E BuNo 156818/NG 404, Birzer and his flight leader, Lt Cdr Tom Gravley, were carrying six CBUs and two AGM-45 Shrike missiles. Birzer was the ‘Argonauts” weapons training officer, and was considered the resident expert on both the Iron Hand mission and the Shrike. ‘The Shrike was an extremely effective weapon against the SA-2’s guidance radar’, he remembers.

The normal SAM radar sequence was to acquire targets with an area-search radar, then switch to a tracking radar. The missile would then be fired, and it would rely on guidance signals from the ground in order to strike its target. During the relatively lengthy time that the SA-2 was in flight, a pilot flying a Shrike-equipped aircraft would receive audio and visual warnings via his cockpit receivers. He would manoeuvre and launch the high-speed Shrike in accordance with what his receivers were telling him.

During the search portion of its trajectory, the missile expands its field of view until it acquires a radiation signal from the SAM’s radar. The AGM-45 would then home in on the signal, guiding directly to the missile-launch facility’s radar antenna. The Shrike’s high reliability and accuracy usually put it right on target, firing 40,000 hot steel pellets into the antenna and control van, destroying the equipment and killing everyone inside.

Not surprisingly, the enemy had developed tactics to defeat the Shrike. Using a remote-search radar to identify the direction and height of the incoming aircraft, the SAM crews would manually point their SA-2s and fire them ballistically. After missile launch, the crew would then turn on the guidance radar. While this routine ‘hid’ the SAM launcher site, it also significantly reduced the launch crew’s chances of securing a good lock-on against a fast-moving target.

Lt Birzer came up with a counter tactic of his own. Knowing the location of SAM sites likely to fire against his strike group, he calculated the position from which he would have to fire his Shrike. Entering the information into his A-7E’s computer, the aircraft would ‘know’ when Birzer was where he should be to launch his missile.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-7E Corsair II VA-86 Sidewinders, AJ400 / 159292 / 1977

After launch and rendezvous, he took his position to the right of the strike group, while Lt Cdr Gravley flew on the left side. Each A-7 also had an accompanying F-4 to protect the Iron Hand Corsair Its from MiGs. Approaching the marshalling yards, there was no sign of enemy opposition — only a few stray beeps on the RHAW (Radar Homing And Warning) gear indicating radiation emissions. At 20 miles out, the A-7s split from the strike group to better line up on their selected targets. Birzer’s was a SAM site near Haiphong, while Gravley headed for a similar target near Hanoi.

Each A-7 pilot fired one preemptive Shrike, but someone in the group, who had probably forgotten the pre-briefed plan, called ‘SAM!’ Someone else correctly answered, ‘No, that’s a Shrike!’

As the strikers, led by Cdr Eggert, rolled in on their runs, Birzer and Gravley descended, following the group in their turn. The airspace was getting crowded as another carrier strike group was scheduled to arrive over the same target area ten minutes later.

`I strained to spot SAM launches’, Birzer recalled. ‘I saw no clouds of dust and no “telephone poles”. I glanced above me and could see strange large puffs of yellow-brown smoke. I was initially confused, but then I realised that they were 15 to 20 SAMs that had auto-detonated at the end of their terminal guidance time — about 60 seconds from launch’.

The SAMs must have all been launched ballistically to scare the strikers into diving toward the AAA zone, but the bombers did not even see them.

The strategy seemed to work, because 15-20 SAMs were launched and no guidance radiation signals were detected. Two strike aircraft were lost and a third badly damaged, but none due to guided SAMs.

US Navy A-7 Corsair II Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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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