The Soviet SA-2 surface to air missile (SAM) threatened to halt air operations over North Vietnam. To suppress and destroy this threat, the U.S. Air Force countered with the courage and skill of the Wild Weasels, who flew some of the most dangerous missions in Southeast Asia.
First In, Last Out: Wild Weasels vs. SAMs
After the start of Operation Rolling Thunder in March 1965, the communists began building SA-2 SAM sites in North Vietnam. The United States first became aware of the SA-2 in the mid-1950s, but it still had no specialized tactics to destroy it. Moreover, U.S. policy in Southeast Asia greatly complicated the problem. North Vietnamese SAM sites were initially off limits for attack, primarily because of fears of escalating the war if the Soviet technicians who built and helped operate these sites were killed. Some also naively thought that the North Vietnamese would not fire the SA-2s if the United States left the sites alone.
On July 24, 1965, an SA-2 shot down a USAF F-4C, the first of 110 USAF aircraft lost to SAMs in Southeast Asia. Even after the initial losses to SAMs, the USAF could not destroy the SA-2 missiles wholesale in their sanctuary storage sites in Hanoi and Haiphong. Rather, they were forces to attack the active sites virtually one at a time, a particularly inefficient and dangerous method.
SA-2s also caused other serious problems. While flying low to avoid SAMs, aircraft were more vulnerable to deadly antiaircraft artillery fire (AAA) -- in fact, AAA downed two-thirds of U.S. aircraft lost in Southeast Asia. Even if they did not down an aircraft, SA-2s forced strike aircraft to jettison their bombs early or drop them inaccurately.
Three days after the first shoot down from an SA-2 over North Vietnam, the USAF attacked two SAM sites. Of the 46 F-105s in the strike, six aircraft were shot down and many more were damaged by AAA. Moreover, it turned out that both sites were abandoned (the enemy had moved the missiles and radars to other sites). Other conventional anti-SAM attacks fared little better -- some answer to the SA-2 was desperately needed.
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