When SAMs Guarded the Ho Chi Minh Trail

In the May 12, 1966 edition of the New York Times, Neil Sheehan reported that a flight of F-4C Phantoms had sighted two Soviet-made surface to air missiles near the Mu Gia Pass. The pilots took evasive action and the missiles exploded harmlessly. It was not known at the time that the U.S. had begun a covert bombing campaign over southeastern Laos code-named Operation Steel Tiger.

The objective of Steel Tiger was to interdict the flow of North Vietnamese troops, weapons and supplies moving down the expanding logistical corridor known to us as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This complex logistical network cut through jungle-covered mountains straddling the border between North Vietnam and Laos, then continued on to South Vietnam. The Mu Gia Pass and the Ban Karai Pass were the principal points of entry from North Vietnam into Laos, through the Annamese Mountains.

Map of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
The Mu Gia Pass and Ban Karai Pass entry points from North Vietnam to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos are highlighted on the map, which is from The Air Force War in Vietnam by John T. Correll.

On November 11, 1968, a little over a week after President Lyndon Johnson had declared a complete halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, aerial interdiction efforts on the Ho Chi Minh Trail were combined and renamed Operation Commando Hunt.

Bombing had already been restricted to North Vietnam's "panhandle" region as of March 31. In The Hunter Killers: The Extraordinary Story of the First Wild Weasels, USAF Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Dan Hampton explains that Hanoi, freed from having to defend its main defense and industrial facilities in the northern part of the country, took advantage of the bombing restrictions to begin to reconstruct damaged transportation infrastructure, while soldiers moved south by rail and war matériel was stockpiled north of the Demilitarized Zone. Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were also moved south, and by late spring of 1968 there were four SAM units in the North Vietnamese panhandle.

With the November 11 bombing halt, U.S. aircraft that had previously been active over North Vietnam were now freed to join the effort to interdict traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During daylight, the missions would be performed by jet fighter-bombers, propeller-driven aircraft and B-52s. At night, fixed-wing gunships like the AC-130 Spectre prowled for prey.

U.S. Department of Defense data show how attack sortie counts shifted massively between 1968 and 1969, from North Vietnam to Laos and Cambodia.

Attack Sorties in Southeast Asia

SAMs at the Ho Chi Minh Trail Gateway

In The War Against the Trucks, Bernard C. Nalty chronicled the North Vietnamese air defense buildup at the gateways to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. By 1966, more than 300 anti-aircraft artillery sites had been identified around the Mu Gia Pass. During 1968, the area around the Ban Karai Pass was defended by machine-guns and smaller calibre anti-aircraft artillery.

In December 1970, the North Vietnamese stationed SA-2 Guideline missiles on the North Vietnamese side of the Mu Gia and Ban Karai Passes. In late 1971, the buildup of large calibre radar-guided anti-aircraft artillery and the presence of SA-2 surface-to-air missiles in North Vietnamese territory near the Laotian border had forced a halt to B-52 operations near the Mu Gia and Ban Karai passes. On December 10, 1971, a SAM battery destroyed an F-105G Wild Weasel conducting a support mission for a cell of B-52s performing an airstrike at the Mu Gia Pass. In late December, four SAM batteries began to occupy firing positions in southern Laos, and more became operational during the new year.

Surface to Air Missiles in Laos

The War Against the Trucks recounts North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile activity in southern Laos during Operation Commando Hunt. In January of 1972, despite the efforts of U.S. hunter-killer aircraft teams to take out the missile sites, a strip of southern Laos extending some thirty miles westward from the Vietnamese border and extending from north to south from the Mu Gia Pass down to South Vietnam's A Shau Valley became a danger zone for U.S. aircraft. AC-130 Spectres operating along the Trail were forced to to pull back. In late March, a missile crew in Laos scored a direct hit on an AC-130 gunship southwest of the key road junction at Tchepone, killing everyone on board. The enemy missile threat caused B-52s and fixed-wing gunships to avoid, at various intervals, important target boxes, allowing the trucks to proceed southward free from harassment.

The following pictures of surface-to-air missile remnants along the old Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos are from the Laos GPS Map website belonging to motorcycle tour guide Don Duvall and are posted with his permission.

SAM canisterr
SAM canister
Surface to air missile
Surface to air missile
Surface to air missile
Surface to air missile
SA-2
SA-2 Guideline
SA-2
SA-2 Guideline