Electronic Dueling With Enemy Radar Operators

During the Rolling Thunder campaign over North Vietnam, Wild Weasels hunted down and destroyed 89 SAM sites and prevented hundreds more from launching. Their success came at a high cost: 42 American airmen missing, killed or captured, and more than a couple of dozen aircraft downed. Among them were five of the first F-105s, within a few months of their introduction. The mission was so dangerous, it was nearly impossible for Weasel crews to complete the 100 flights necessary to fulfill their tour of duty and return home. The likelihood that they would be killed, captured or wounded was so real that filling out “dream sheets” for their next tour was considered pointless. Still, there were men willing to carry out the Wild Weasel mission.

You can't go into a job like this under the pressure of a feeling that you aren't going to survive. If you go into combat feeling that you’re not going to survive, you won't. Basically, you have to go in feeling invincible. This has to be done in a calculated manner: You don’t take stupid risks, but you go in confident that you know what you’re doing, that you’re the best in the business and that you’re going to survive.

Dealing with Restrictions

In an effort to control the number of losses, the Air Force ordered all F-105s to carry at least one defensive missile and one electronic countermeasure pod, in order to jam enemy radars. The orders were not well received by Wild Weasel staff. They complained that this would limit the number of Shrike missiles that they could carry. While the Weasels were eventually exempted from the order, they did have to comply with a set of restrictions of a geopolitical nature.

These restrictions created a certain amount of frustration. For example, the Wild Weasels couldn’t go after sites that were under construction, in order to avoid killing Soviet citizens who may have been down below, helping to construct the SAM sites.

Electronic Jousting Matches

Within a year and a half, the North Vietnamese had quadrupled the number of SAM sites. In each of those sites, there were several hundred missiles ready to fire at any moment. Soon, Wild Weasel crews came to recognize the tactics of certain enemy radar operators at particular sites. Some airmen even jousted with individual operators who repeatedly turned their radar on and off, as if teasing the Weasels who were trying to pinpoint the well-camouflaged site.

The sites had distinct personalities. They were mobile: One day there was nobody home and the next day, there they were. They were very disciplined and they became more effective as they learned. It must be understood that they were learning their weapons just as we were learning our weapons. Combatants were participating in a whole new era of warfare.

As time went on, the North Vietnamese learned not to keep the radars up for extended periods of time, which would alert U.S. attackers in advance. They would give radio signal "blasts" to pick up approaching warplanes, then pass the information on to other sites. Their tactics improved, therefore we had to develop improved tactics as well.

Perhaps the most deadly tactic of North Vietnamese SAM operators was a scenario known as “Popcorn”, or “Dr. Pepper”. Under this scheme, a Weasel crew would identify a radar threat and begin to approach it, only to find that the radar had gone offline and that another site had come online nearby. The pilot would quickly adjust his azimuth to head for the new site, but as soon as he did, the second site would go down, and a third site would immediately come up, and then go down. Suddenly, all three sites would come up simultaneously and launch from different directions at the baffled crew. This vastly complicated the pilot’s evasive maneuvers and often resulted in deadly consequences for the Weasels.

Shrike missiles arched over and homed in on an unsuspecting radar operator at one of the many sites searching for the incoming strike force. Timing and a little luck were critical in this maneuver. If the radar operator suspected that a Shrike had been fired, they would immediately go off the air, and the missile would just fall to the ground. This particular strategy had an unintended but beneficial side effect that became a favorite tactic for many Weasel crews.

Weasel pilots dipped the plane's nose and SAMs went off the air. This was developed into a regular tactic on approaching a new target: It as a SAM radar came on, they dipped the nose, the radar site would shut off and the U.S. strike force would get in. Of course, the surface-to-air missile installations were not the primary mission objectives, the goal of the Weasels was always to get the strike force in, so that they could drop their bombs on their real targets and get out safely.

Toss Bombing

To avoid having to come within range of anti-aircraft guns on the ground, the Wild Weasels adopted an old bombing technique known as “toss bombing”. During this maneuver, Weasel crews picked up as much speed as possible, pulled the nose up hard and fired a Shrike or two out in front of the strike force. Lofting the missile in this manner gave it additional flight-time by starting its ballistic path with an upward trajectory.

Pilots would dip the airplane’s nose until needles in the front seat lined up; from that they estimated the range and determined how far they needed to raise the nose in order to lob the Shrike missile at the intended target. or pull up to launch it. This maneuver created a certain risk: The aircraft would slow down as it climbed, making it less maneuverable and therefore more vulnerable to any lurking threats in the area.