Air Force fighters flying air-to-air missions shot down 29 MiGs while losing just two of their own—a It is little wonder that Air Force brass failed to see a problem in the training program for their fighter force. With its air supremacy fully established, the U. Air Force implemented an economy of force measure, using Phantoms that could be deployed for both bomb strikes and combat air patrols. While that approach made sense at the time, it proved to be a major mistake.
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The North Vietnamese air force, having lost half of its combat planes in a matter of a few weeks between March and June of , went into a period of self-examination, training and reconstitution. Because the North Vietnamese could not possibly gain control of the skies by directly challenging American aviators, they adopted a different tactic that created headaches for the U.
Air Force until the end of the war. On Aug. That incident was grim news to U. Air Force tacticians. The Air Force initially reinstituted its tactic of sending dedicated escort fighters to accompany the bomb carriers, but this also proved ineffective. Yet, with no effective radar support to properly position the combat planes between the MiGs and bomb carriers that tactic was fraught with risk.
The new formations provided relatively good protection for the bomb carriers at the heart of the formation but left aircraft on the periphery vulnerable. As more U. This was a dismal turn of events, with the U. However, if the American Air Force could not solve the problem of surprise attacks, the success of future operations would be at risk.
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Between February and early March, the U. Air Force ran up eight kills without loss. The Navy, with several graduates of the new Topgun course in the air, countered the bulk of the North Vietnamese action that day and famously shot down seven MiGs and a MiG with no losses. It was the worst single day of the war for the North Vietnamese air force, on par with the shock of Operation Bolo more than five years earlier.
The MiGs, now proved obsolete, were largely withdrawn from combat. They would be involved in only seven more decisive battles for the rest of the war.
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The North Vietnamese air force reverted to its successful supersonic ambush tactics with the MiG The Navy tallied just 11 victories and three losses for the balance of the war. The Navy had only 22 decisive battles with MiGs over the course of the entire war. After May 10, the air-to-air war effectively became an Air Force show. For a brief moment in June , MiGs gained ascendancy, shooting down five Air Force Phantoms on air-to-air missions for a loss of only two.
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Four out of the five losses were the result of supersonic MiGs attacking unaware targets from behind, while one of the U. The losses were troubling enough to cause the Air Force to re-evaluate its tactics. July proved only marginally better, with Air Force fighters trading six victories for five losses. The MiGCAP force, with its focus on offensive operations, showed its advantages, however, getting four of those six victories with no losses. But things were about to turn around. Despite the high cost of the day battle, U.
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Marines abandoned Khe Sanh three months later. Tet captivated the media. For viewers the still-horrid scene lacked context. It was a climate of savagery. Weeks later, U. One U. Within a few weeks, the territorial gains of Communist forces during Tet had evaporated, but there was nothing fleeting about the human cost—for either side.
For the same period, U. About 14, civilians also died. Tet decimated the Viet Cong, but it had a more meaningful outcome: declining U. Through their fierce aggression during Tet, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers had widened a pre-existing credibility gap between LBJ and the American people—and they had accomplished that without gaining one square inch of territory. What the United States faced was a bottomless pit—a stalemate that could not be broken without widening the war or negotiating a peaceful settlement.
For the Communists of both Vietnams, it was a short-term loss and a long-term victory. The U. Subscribe or Give a Gift.
More than five decades ago, America won this huge battle, but lost the war
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Shot Down During Vietnam: A Fighter Pilot's Story
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