The Christmas Bombing
In December 1972, the B-52 bombers that North Vietnamese missile crews had been waiting for came to Hanoi. Night after night. Over virtually the same track.
- By Marshall Michel
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
(Page 3 of 11)
The SA-2 Guideline system had been used for the entire war but had achieved mixed success against highly maneuverable U.S. fighters. Overall, the system was reliable but unsophisticated, using vacuum tubes and slow, mechanical computers, and the Fan Song guidance radar had proved vulnerable to various types of electronic jamming. The success of the system depended almost entirely on the skill of its seven-man crew.
The experienced Hanoi missile crews had been defending against U.S. air attacks for years, and they were especially anxious to shoot down a B-52. The big bombers had devastated North Vietnamese forces at Khe Sanh and recently pummeled North Vietnamese units fighting elsewhere in the south. North Vietnamese experts had been studying the B-52s' standardized tactics and jamming procedures almost daily as the aircraft attacked targets in Laos and southern North Vietnam, and at an October 1972 conference the Hanoi missile battalion commanders reviewed hundreds of feet of Fan Song and Spoon Rest radar film of B-52 jamming, provided primarily from units in southern North Vietnam. After that conference, the air defense headquarters produced a book entitled "How to Fight the B-52" and distributed it to all the SA-2 units.
While the weather on the ground was cold and rainy, above the solid cloud deck it was a beautiful night, with clear skies and a full moon that reflected on the clouds. U.S. support forces shepherded the B-52s in. The strike package included F-4s—some dropping strips of metal foil, or chaff, and others acting as fighter escorts—EB-66 electronics jamming aircraft, and the much-feared Wild Weasels, aircraft specially configured with electronics and the anti-radiation Shrike and Standard ARM missiles, which could home in on the SA-2's Fan Song radar (see "Counterpunch," Aug./Sep. 1998). As the force approached Hanoi, low-flying FB-111 fighter-bombers attacked North Vietnamese MiG airfields. The B-52s followed in three-ship cells.
At the command post plotting map, Dong Thi Van, one of three women who worked as plotters in the headquarters, became very nervous as the B-52s approached. "At first…one flight, then two flights, then several flights coming like a swarm," she recalls, "but my soldier's sense of responsibility helped me regain my composure and continue to plot the flights." The 361st Division headquarters watched the raids approach, then began to allocate numbers to cells of bombers and assign them to the battalions to attack.
The missile crews had been alerted that the B-52s were inbound, and trucks in the missile sites had long since started up their noisy diesel engines to provide power to the radar and command vans, each about the size of an 18-wheeler. The un-air-conditioned command van was the heart of the SA-2 battalion. Inside the van were the battalion commander, a fire control officer, three guidance officers, a plotter, and a missile technical officer, who was responsible for monitoring the status panels of each of the six launchers and their missiles. The battalion commander was in phone contact with the regimental headquarters and sat in front of the radar scope of a Spoon Rest acquisition radar, where he watched the raids come in while waiting for orders assigning the battalion a target. Next to him was a transparent plotting board showing his battalion's area of responsibility, overlaid with the same grid references as the map at headquarters, and standing behind it was the plotter, also connected by phone to headquarters. When the battalion was assigned a target, the commander located the aircraft with the Spoon Rest search radar while the plotter tracked the raid manually on the plotting board; this process ensured that, if jamming prevented the battalion commander from locating the assigned target on his radar scope, he could watch the target's position and course on the plotting board and determine when he could began the engagement.
The fire control officer sat a few feet away on the commander's extreme right; in front of him was a Fan Song radar scope that he used to locate and track the target. In front of him the three guidance officers—each one responsible for one coordinate (elevation, azimuth, and range) of the missile—had radar scopes with large control wheels beneath them. The officers turned the wheels to keep crosshairs on the target's radar return.
The van was tightly sealed to keep out light so the operators could focus on their radar scopes, and the only sound other than the voices of the crew was that of loud cooling fans, necessary to control the temperature of the vacuum tubes in the relatively primitive electronics of the SA-2 system. "The background noise of the fans was not a big problem," recalls a battalion commander who asked not to be indentified. "It was quite noisy, but you got used to it. The tone of voice set the tone for the crew, and each battalion commander had his own style, based on his personality and how he trained his crew."
The first B-52s flying into North Vietnam that night were a group of 21 from U-Tapao, Thailand. The 28 B-52s from Andersen fell in behind, and the 49 bombers moved single file from the northwest corner of Vietnam down to the southeast toward Hanoi.