The Missile Men of North Vietnam

A look at the air war waged from the ground.

Surrounding an SA-2 on its launcher, North Vietnamese missileers rally against an intimidating foe. Despite diminished effectiveness by the end of the war, the missiles and crews are still celebrated in Vietnam for protecting major cities against American air raids. (National Museum of the USAF)
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The life of a missileer was grueling, often tedious, and occasionally terrifying, but retired Colonel Nguyen Dinh Kien, 67, a former SA-2 fire control officer, says that he and his comrades had it relatively easy compared to the thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers sent south to fight. Those troops were often gone for years, says Kien, and many never returned.

Kien was a college student studying agricultural engineering in 1965 when he joined the North Vietnamese army and spent four months training on the SA-2 before being assigned to a missile battalion south of Hanoi. Soviet technical advisers came by once a month, he says, to make sure everything was working properly and to answer questions, of which there was never any shortage. With its solid-fuel booster and liquid-fuel second stage, the SA-2 was a complex weapon requiring regular maintenance, as did each battery’s radar systems. Kien recalls that the Soviets told the crewmen that each SA-2 cost the equivalent of about $100,000—more than $700,000 today.

On February 28, 1968, Kien got his first taste of real combat. After tracking a U.S. Navy A-6 Intruder for 12 miles, he launched two SA-2s. Both missed. The Intruder had used “annoying signals” to blur his crew’s radar, he says. He and his crew then waited what seemed like hours for the Intruder to counterattack. “I was afraid the entire time to be hit by the enemy,” he remembers, but the A-6 crew never attacked.

Ralph Wetterhahn is a retired Air Force colonel (and Air & Space magazine contributor) who flew F-4C Phantoms on 180 missions over North Vietnam in three combat tours. Later, he flew Navy A-7E Corsairs. By 1966, he says, the jets were being outfitted with radar homing and warning receivers, known to air crews as “RHAW gear.” An antenna mounted atop the aircraft’s tail sensed the search and tracking modes of the radar used to guide SA-2s. The information was displayed on a small cockpit scope that looked like a bullseye with three concentric rings. When enemy radar swept the airplane, a strobe would appear on the scope indicating the aircraft’s bearing and its distance from the radar site. A “three ringer” meant that the site was dangerously close. At launch, a different signal was received and a red launch light came on, accompanied by a tone in the pilot’s headset. There were also strobes for the radars that controlled 57-mm and 85-mm anti-aircraft guns.

“At times over Hanoi,” Wetterhahn recalls, “the scope would be alive with strobes, and the headset chirped like mad.”

Eventually, Phantoms were outfitted with QRC-160 wing pods designed to jam SAM radars. The units were largely effective, but occasionally broke down.

As U.S. electronic countermeasures improved, along with more effective evasive techniques—American pilots learned to outmaneuver the SA-2 by diving toward it, then pulling up sharply after the missile turned to track them—it became increasingly challenging for North Vietnamese gunners to fire effectively without drawing counter-fire. Of particular concern was the Americans’ AGM-78 anti-radiation missile.

Fired from F-4G and F-105G “Wild Weasel” aircraft outside the effective range of SA-2 radars, the highly maneuverable AGM-78 missile, which was capable of turning 180 degrees after being launched, could home in on North Vietnamese radar units even after they ceased emitting.

Phiet says that to reduce their exposure, he and his fellow officers would play a cat-and-mouse game, keeping their radars on until an inbound warplane was about 25 miles away. They would then turn off the radar, calculating the aircraft’s speed, distance, and last plotted direction until the aircraft was little more than a mile away. The SA-2 launcher, which was reusable, could be swiftly rotated a full 360 degrees. Crews would then turn on the guidance radar and attack.

The missile launchers were wheeled, allowing them to be relocated quickly. SAM crews could, in fact, pack up an entire site—usually made up of six missiles—in about four hours, but Phiet says their carefully camouflaged locations shifted only when it was believed the missiles had been spotted by U.S. surveillance aircraft.

Phiet says that over the course of the war he launched 89 SA-2s from various locations around Hanoi. He reports hitting 21 aircraft, including the F-105 that was his first kill, the four B-52s he was credited with shooting down in December 1972, an F-4E Phantom, and one propeller-driven, AD-6 Skyraider. His marksmanship could not be readily confirmed. However, if his claims are true, they would be nothing short of remarkable, considering that any SA-2 finding its mark was relatively rare, U.S. war records show.

As the war dragged on, SA-2 launches increased from a monthly average of about 30 in 1965 to 220 in 1967-1968, while the weapon’s effectiveness declined precipitously. According to Kenneth P. Werrell’s Archie, Flack, AAA, and SAM: A Short Operational History of Ground-Based Air Defense, downing one U.S. aircraft in 1965 took nearly 18 SAM launches. By 1968, the number was 107.

Phiet says that batteries to which he was assigned were directly attacked 10 times; the worst assault happened on September 4, 1972, when both Phiet and Kien, who by then had joined Phiet’s battery, fired at and missed an inbound F-4. The Americans, in turn, launched an AGM-78, killing a 22-year-old soldier, whose heart, Kien says, was pierced by shrapnel as he sat in a radar truck. Phiet was hit in the back and spent a month in a hospital.

“The hardest part was the next day,” says Kien. “The dead man’s wife came to visit him and didn’t know he’d been killed. We lied and told her he’d been called away temporarily.”

North Vietnamese missile veterans like Kien and Phiet aren’t particularly anxious to talk to an American journalist. Officials at Hanoi’s Foreign Press Center wanted $1,000 to set up interviews for this story. Fortunately, I’d made the acquaintance of Dan Cherry, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general who counts among his friends a former MiG-21 pilot, Nguyen Hong My, whom Cherry shot down during the war (see “My Enemy, My Friend,” Apr./May 2009). Hong My is acquainted with a prominent Vietnamese journalist who, in turn, introduced me to Phiet. The general persuaded Kien to meet with me.

About David Freed

Contributing editor David Freed is a pilot, novelist, and former Los Angeles Times reporter.

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