The key mission for U.S. Air Force fighter escorts (or MiGCAPs) over North Vietnam was to prevent enemy MiG fighters from interfering with American strike aircraft. The MiG pilots' primary goal was to force strike aircrews to jettison their bombs early, thereby disrupting the bombing mission.
In 1965, the small North Vietnamese Air Force (also known as the Vietnam People's Air Force or VPAF) was equipped with somewhat outdated, gun-armed MiG-17s. The entry of missile-armed, supersonic MiG-21s in early 1966, however, dramatically increased the VPAF threat. The USAF's primary counter to the MiG was the F-4 Phantom II fighter.
Though outnumbered, VPAF MiGs had some significant advantages. Guided by ground controllers using early warning radar, MiG pilots only attacked under ideal circumstances, such as when USAF aircraft were bomb-laden, low on fuel, or damaged. The small, hard-to-see MiGs typically made one-pass attacks at high speed, then escaped to a sanctuary (either their airfields, which were not bombed until mid-1967, or to nearby communist China). Since they were always over friendly territory, MiG pilots could be back in action quickly if they survived being shot down.
USAF fighter pilots had better training and superior aircraft, but they endured several disadvantages. One serious issue was missile reliability and performance. Over one-half of the missiles fired by the USAF during the SEA War malfunctioned, and only about 1 in 11 fired scored a victory. The USAF rules of engagement dictated visual identification of an enemy aircraft before firing, which negated using the Sparrow missile at long range. USAF F-4s flown during ROLLING THUNDER did not have an internal gun to use when missiles failed. Although some F-4s carried external gun pods, it was not until the F-4E arrived in late 1968 that USAF Phantoms finally had an internal gun. Lastly, USAF pilots had to combat MiGs, SAMs and AAA over hostile North Vietnam, and if shot down, they were not always rescued.
Even so, enemy MiGs failed in their primary mission to stop US air attacks over North Vietnam during OPERATION ROLLING THUNDER. In fact, the VPAF fighter force sometimes retreated to China and stood down from combat operations due to heavy losses suffered at the hands of American fighter crews.
MiG pilots did little better in December 1972 -- by the end of OPERATION LINEBACKER II, USAF B-52s and tactical aircraft hit targets at will, forcing the North Vietnamese to sign a peace treaty. At the end of the Southeast Asia War in 1973, the VPAF had lost nearly 150 MiGs in combat to USAF fighter crews, while the USAF lost about 70 aircraft (of all types) to MiGs.
Click on the following links to learn more about air-to-air combat over North Vietnam.
USAF Southeast Asia War Aces
Tracking the MiGs: EC-121 Airborne Early Warning
Brig. Gen. Robin Olds: Combat Leader and Fighter Ace
Click here to return to the North Vietnam: Rolling Thunder Overview.