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Vietnam War Articles
The Green Beret Affair: A Factual Review
The "Green Beret Affair"
America's Paradoxical Trinity
The Cambodian Incursion
Dien Bien Phu: A Battle Assessment
The Effects of Vietnamization
The Battle for Hue
Dien Bien Phu 50 Years Later
The Wild Weasels
Role of Airpower in Vietnam
The Wild Weasels "Daredevils of the skies"
The Wild Weasels "Daredevils of the skies"
by Mike Nastasi

Introduction

During the early days of the Vietnam War, the United States Air Force had almost full autonomy over the skies of Vietnam. However, once the Soviet Union and China began arming the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), with advanced Surface to Air missile (SAM) systems, the U.S. domination of the skies was abrubtly challenged. To deal with the new SAM threat, the U.S. Air Force decided to dedicate men and machine exclusively to the SAM's. Thus a new breed of aviator and aircraft were born, the "Wild Weasels."

The purpose of the "Weasels" was to seek out and engage NVA SAM sites, and if possible destroy them. Often times though, the only way the Weasel pilots could locate a SAM site was by getting the NVA to fire a SAM at them, thus revealing their position. Tantamount to a suicide mission, the Weasel missions were amongst the most dangerous sorties of the war. Losses in the Weasel squadrons were among the highest of the war. In the early stages of the Weasel development, the aircraft and its avionics were not ideally suited for this new and dangerous mission. However as the war progressed, the U.S. Air Force developed a dedicated Weasel aircraft, the Republic F-105G Thunderchief. The "Thud" as it is affectionately known to the pilots who flew it, is recognized as the workhorse of the Vietnam War. The men who flew the F-105 love the airplane and from all accounts the aircraft performed superbly throughout the war.

One such Wild Weasel is retired U.S. Air Force Colonel George Acree. Colonel Acree flew the F-105 both as a bomber and a Weasel aircraft. With over 200 missions over North Vietnam to his credit, Colonel Acree was one of a different breed of men. Colonel Acree and the other Weasel pilots flew the most dangerous missions of the war and did so with courage, honor and professionalism. Putting aside the nasty politics that governed the Vietnam War, the Weasel pilots accepted their mission and carried it out faithfully. The men who flew the Weasel missions in the Vietnam War did so to a varying degree of success, but they paved the way for the Wild Weasel program to become a major part of the modern day United States Air Force.

The Birth of the Wild Weasels

On July 24, 1965 a United States Air Force F-4 was shot down over North Vietnam by a surface to air missile (SAM). This incident marked the beginning of a new kind of war in the skies over Vietnam. Total U.S. domination of the sky was now challenged like never before and it forced the U.S. to rethink its tactics and strategies in carrying their enormous air power into the heart of North Vietnam.

During the first few years of the war, the Soviet Union and China were basically staying out of the war in Vietnam. However, once the U.S. committed to total war the Soviets and Chinese began arming the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) with advisors and equipment. At first this was limited to anti-aircraft (AAA) guns and small arms, but eventually the NVA acquired advanced SAM's to defend against the relentless U.S. airstrikes. The system the NVA was provided was the SA-2 Guideline radar guided surface to air missile system. This missile was designed as a medium range, medium altitude surface to air missile by the Soviets, who then began equipping the NVA with the missiles and its FAN SONG guidance radar. Additionally the Soviets provided the NVA with deadly radar directed AAA. This development spelled big trouble for the U.S. and its aircraft.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the introduction of the SAM's into North Vietnam was the fact that the U.S. Air Force watched them being built but were powerless to do anything about it. President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara absolutely prohibited the Air Force from attacking the sites. Because the SAM's were Soviet made, McNamara was sure there were Soviet advisors at the sites and he did not want to chance infuriating the Soviets and possibly draw them into the conflict, so he ordered the sites to be left alone. The U.S. Air Force watched helplessly as hundreds of the deadly SAM sites were constructed and became operational. This micromanagement of the air war would continue throughout the conflict, much to the chagrin of the Air Force and its pilots, who battled the SAM's on a daily basis.

Now that the SAM threat in North Vietnam was a reality, the U.S. Air Force was forced to come up with a solution to the SAM problem. As the war dragged on, aircraft and pilot losses to the SAM's were mounting, and something needed to be done to deal with the problem. The solution was a dedicated anti-SAM aircraft, whose sole mission would be to take out the SAM sites. The project was called Project Weasel or Wild Weasel 1, and thus the "Wild Weasels" were born.

The project called for the installation of radar homing and warning (RHAW) sets into F-100F Super Sabre aircraft. This new equipment would allow the aircrew in the Super Sabre to get a bearing on a SAM when it turned on its radar. It also was fitted with a launch warning detector, which would alert the aircrew when a SAM was launched. Applied Technologies Corporation developed this new equipment, and the U.S. government signed a contract with them for the production of the new RHAW sets for installation in the F-100's. The sets were designated AN/APR 25, and the installations began immediately.

The next step in Project Weasel was to choose aircrews for the new "Weasel" aircraft. Each aircrew was made up of a pilot, and an electronic warfare officer (EWO). EWO's were also known as "Bears", or "Gib"(Guy in the back). The EWO was responsible for monitoring the new radar sets and locating the SAM sites, and basically being the eyes and ears of the aircraft for the pilot. The pilots were chosen from the ranks of the existing F-100F cadre, and they were amongst the best and brightest the Air Force had to offer. The EWO's were picked from the ranks of B-52 bomber aircrews, and were experts in radar and electronics. The relationships between the pilot and the EWO became extremely close, with each man relying on one another for their survival. With the new equipment in place, and the aircrews selected, training began in October 1965.

Training was conducted at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Major Gary Willard directed the Wild Weasel project, and it was basically a crash course in SAM suppression. The equipment and tactics were new to the pilots and EWO's. The aircrews were told of the SA-2 and its characteristics, and they flew mock missions against simulated SA-2 radars. The training was rushed, and soon the aircrews were informed of their mission, to locate and destroy NVA SAM positions. There was one catch however, to locate the SAM sites the Weasels had to fly into North Vietnamese airspace in advance of a strike force, let themselves be tracked by the SAM radar, and then be fired upon by the SAM site. With North Vietnam's thick foliage, this was the only surefire way of finding the SAM sites. If this wasn't unsettling enough, the tour of duty for the Weasels was 100 missions into North Vietnam.

The new Weasel crews were shocked to hear of their new mission, which was nothing short of a suicide mission. One of the new weasels, EWO Captain Jack Donovan, summed up the feelings of all the Weasels about their new mission, when he said, " You want me to fly in the back of a little tiny fighter aircraft with a crazy fighter pilot who thinks he's invincible, home in on a SAM site in North Vietnam, and shoot it before it shoots me, you gotta be shittin me!" Despite the apprehension, the Weasel crews went forward with their suicide mission, and in early November 1965, they deployed to Korat AFB in Thailand to begin their Wild Weasel missions.

Wild Weasel 1 began with five F-100F aircraft and five aircrews. The Weasel crews began their mission in December 1965, with Major Willard leading the first strike into North Vietnam. The Weasel missions were code named Iron Hand missions, and their purpose was to lead a strike force into North Vietnam, and pave the way for the strike force to drop its bombs. They did this by going out in hunter/killer teams. The Weasels would pair up with a flight of F-105D fighter/bombers and try to locate a SAM site. The Weasels would then attack the site to mark it, and the F-105D's would finish it off. With Operation Rolling Thunder (the bombing campaign of North Vietnam that began in 1964) in full effect, the Wild Weasels were about to prove their worth in combat for the first time.

On December 22, 1965, the Wild Weasels scored their first SAM kill in North Vietnam. Captain Al Lamb the pilot, and Captain Jack Donovan, his EWO led the mission into North Vietnam that day, and when they encountered a hostile NVA SAM site, they engaged it and destroyed it. With this success, the Weasels demonstrated their worth to the Air Force, and from then on, the Wild Weasels were in Vietnam to stay. Despite the early success however, the original Weasels suffered a fifty-percent casualty rate in their ranks, and it was clear that new tactics and equipment would have to be developed.

During the Weasels missions it became clear that the F-100F Super Sabre was not ideally suited to the Weasels mission. It was too slow, and could not keep up with the accompanying F-105D fighter-bombers. Therefore, the Air Force decided to begin testing a prototype F-105 Thunderchief for use as a Wild Weasel aircraft. At the same time, the groundwork was being laid for a dedicated Wild Weasel training school at Nellis AFB in Nevada, to specifically train the new Wild Weasels.

In July 1966, the original Wild Weasels in the F-100F flew their last missions in Vietnam, as it had been decided that the Super Sabre was to be phased out of Weasel operations in favor of the faster, and more durable F-105 Thunderchief. The F-105 Thunderchief became the primary Wild Weasel aircraft until the end of the Vietnam War.

The "Thud"

When it became apparent that the F-100F Super Sabre would not be an ideal aircraft for the Weasel mission, the U.S. Air Force began modifying existing F-105F aircraft to fit the Weasel mission. The F-105 Thunderchief was already noted as the workhorse of the Vietnam War in its bomber role, and now it was to be deployed as a dedicated Wild Weasel aircraft.

The F-105 Thunderchief was developed by Republic aviation in the 1950's as a strategic nuclear bomber. However, in the early days of the Vietnam War it quickly became the go to bomber for the Air Force. The Thunderchief conducted over 75% of the USAF bombing strikes during the war. In all 833 F-105's were produced by Republic, most of which were F-105D fighter-bombers. The Wild Weasel versions of the F-105, were designated the F-105F, and F-105G, and it gave the Wild Weasels the much needed firepower they required.

The Thunderchief was a single engine, two-seat fighter-bomber, with afterburning capability. It housed an internal 20mm cannon, and had five external weapons stations. The F-105 represented a considerable upgrade over the slower, less capable F-100F Super Sabre. The Thunderchief was faster, more agile, carried more ordnance, and was considerably more durable. Nicknamed the "THUD", for the sound it made when hitting the ground on landing, the pilots that flew it loved it. Retired USAF Weasel pilot Colonel George Acree called the "THUD", " a great airplane" and it was these qualities that persuaded the Air Force to develop it as the next generation of Wild Weasel aircraft.

The F-105F was a two-seat trainer that was converted to fit the Weasel role. The AN/APR 25 set was added, and the new AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile was fitted on the new Weasels to make it a formidable SAM killer. The Shrike missile was a short range, passive missile, which locked on to the signals emanating from the SAM's radar to guide it to its target. Although the Shrike was somewhat ineffective, it did afford the Weasel crews some standoff capability. A small weapons payload and limited range hampered the Shrike, but it was an upgrade on the earlier Weasel payloads.

The converted F-105F Wild Weasel was brought to Nellis AFB to begin its testing at the newly developed Wild Weasel school. New pilots and EWO's were brought in and they were trained in the F-105F. By May 1966, the new F-105F Weasels were deploying to Vietnam for duty. The new Weasels were designated Wild Weasel 3, and they would write a new chapter in the history of the Wild Weasels.

The new F-105F Weasels deployed to Vietnam in May 1966, and began operations almost immediately. It was clear from the beginning that the F-105F was a significantly better suited aircraft for the Weasel mission. The Wild Weasels now had an aircraft that could keep up with the fighter-bombers and fighter escorts, which enabled them to execute their mission more effectively. However, the Air Force was not satisfied with the F-105F, and plans for upgrading the aircraft began.

By early 1967, a new version of the Thunderchief was being introduced, the F-105G Wild Weasel. The F-105G was a converted F-105F, with advanced avionics and greater weapons capabilities. The AN/APR-25 RHAW was replaced by an upgraded version, and a replacement for the ineffective Shrike missile was being developed. The AGM-78 Standard anti-radiation missile had an improved seeker head and almost four times the range of the Shrike missile, giving the Weasel pilots much improved standoff capability. The Standard Arm was deployed on the F-105G in 1967, but wasn't readily used until 1972 because of the halt in bombing over North Vietnam. For the Weasels, this was good news, as the equipment and the tactics were getting better, making their jobs a little easier.

Now armed with the new and improved Thunderchief as the primary Weasel aircraft, the Weasels set to their task. Their mission was seemingly simple; protect the strike force from SAM sites and destroy the sites whenever possible. This task became increasingly difficult as the war raged on, as NVA air defenses got better and better. The Weasel's job of hunting and killing SAM's more and more resembled a dangerous game of cat and mouse.

Cat and Mouse

The air war in Vietnam witnessed the beginning of the Wild Weasels as a formidable and integral force. The Weasels showed their bravery and courage time and again, and although it is hard to put an exact number on it, it is safe to say that the Weasels saved countless lives in the performance of their duties. Their mission was no less than suicidal, but despite the odds they pressed on and did their jobs, defying death at every turn. Along the way they paved the way for future generations of Weasels to follow in their footsteps.

"Going North", or "Going downtown" were phrases coined by air force pilots who flew into North Vietnam. During the Vietnam War there was no greater risk than venturing into North Vietnam to try and deliver a payload of bombs. Particularly dangerous was flying over "Thud Ridge", a treacherous mountain range just outside of Hanoi that was loaded with deadly AAA guns. The F-105's were especially hit hard over this mountain thus the nickname "Thud Ridge." With Soviet and Chinese assistance, the NVA had built up a formidable air defense network. No one knew this better than the Wild Weasels, the men assigned to deal with the SAM's and the NVA air defenses.

A typical Wild Weasel mission lasted almost three hours and was carried out in one of two ways. An Iron Hand mission, which consisted of flying out in front of a strike force to clear the way of SAM's so the strike force could get through. The Weasels adopted the phrase "first in, last out" in reference to these missions because they would fly in before the strike force, attract the attention of the SAM sites, remain on station while the strike force delivered its payload, and then remain on station until the strike force left safely. This made the Weasels ten times more vulnerable to getting shot down.

The other method the Weasels employed was that of the hunter-killer concept. The Weasels would team up with a flight of bombers and specifically "troll" for SAM's. They would wait to be tracked by the SAM radar and then attack the site, then guide the bombers to the site, effectively finishing it off. This was not an easy task however, because more often than not, the SAM would launch at the Weasels, causing them to employ evasive maneuvers. One such maneuver was "dancing with the SAMS." This maneuver involved waiting for the SAM to launch, heading straight for it, waiting until it got dangerously close to the aircraft and then pulling violently out of the way of the missile in the hopes that the missile could not replicate the sharp moves of the aircraft. More than any other example, this illustrates the danger of the Weasels mission.

In addition to the threat of the SAM and AAA sites, the Weasels also had to contend with Soviet built MIG fighter jets that were supplied to the North Vietnamese Air Force. In April of 1967 Weasel pilot Major Leo Thorsness and his EWO, Captain Harold Johnson shot down a MIG –17 over Hanoi to become the first Weasel pilot to claim a MIG kill. Major Thorsness flew over 90 Weasel missions over North Vietnam, including a mission in which he took on several MIG fighters and saved countless American lives. For this he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson were shot down and spent six years in an NVA prisoner of war camp.

Retired United States Air Force Colonel George Acree also served as a Weasel pilot in the Vietnam War. Colonel Acree amassed over 200 missions into North Vietnam, some in an F-105D bomber, and some in an F-105G Weasel aircraft. Colonel Acree stated that the Weasel pilots, "were some of the bravest men I ever met." Over and over again the Weasel pilots distinguished themselves in combat, and they also sustained heavy losses throughout the war. In all the Weasels lost twenty-six aircraft, and forty-two Weasels either Missing in Action (MIA), Killed in Action (KIA), or Prisoner of War (POW). Despite these conditions, the Weasel pilots persisted in executing their mission.

The Weasel missions continued through 1968 until President Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam halted. Weasel missions did not end however. They continued their missions in support of reconnaissance flights and the support of troops on the ground. The break in the bombing also allowed the Air Force to implement the F-105G Wild Weasel aircraft with the upgraded avionics package and the Standard Arm missile. F-4C Phantom fighter-bombers were also being developed as Weasel aircraft and it wasn't until 1972 that the Weasels and their new and improved equipment were thrown back into the fury of North Vietnam.

With most of the Weasels now being rotated back to the U.S. as part of new President Richard Nixon's Vietnamization plan; only one squadron of Weasels remained in Vietnam in 1972. This was a squadron of the new and improved F-105G. The newly developed F-4C Phantom Weasel soon joined them, and it wasn't long before they were to be tested. In April of 1972, President Nixon ordered unrestricted bombing of North Vietnam resumed, and the Weasels were again called upon to lead the way. Operation Linebacker commenced and the full fury of the USAF was brought to bear against the NVA. The Weasels were simply overwhelmed, with some crews flying up to four missions a day. Then came Linebacker II, which began on December 18, 1972. During this phase the Weasels were designated back to the hunter-killer role.

During Linebacker II USAF B-52 bombers rained unprecedented destruction down on North Vietnam, and the Weasels led the way. Armed with better planes and missiles, the Weasels successfully escorted the huge bombers North allowing them to effectively deliver their payloads. The Linebacker II campaign lasted until the end of December, at which time the North Vietnamese sued for peace. The unrelenting bombing had finally brought them to their knees, and for all intents and purposes the war in Vietnam was over.

The Wild Weasels did not disappear with Vietnam. The USAF developed the F-4G Phantom as a dedicated Weasel platform and equipped it with advanced avionics and missiles. The AGM-88 High Speed Anti-Radiation missile (HARM) is the most advanced Anti-Sam missile ever developed, and it has been highly successful. The F-4G and the Harm missile were widely used in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 to a high degree of success. F-4G Phantoms in true Weasel fashion were the first into Iraq, and they virtually destroyed the entire Iraqi air defense network, allowing coalition air power to pound Iraq into submission. Just as in Vietnam the Weasels proved their worth and paved the way for the next generation of Weasels.

Today the Weasel mission has been delegated to the F-16C Fighting Falcon. Although it is only a single seat fighter, it is no less lethal. Advanced avionics and a lethal weapons payload including the HARM missile, make the F-16C Wild Weasel the most deadly Weasel aircraft to ever take to the skies. The U.S. Navy also has a dedicated Weasel platform in the EA-6 Prowler, which employs jamming pods and HARM missiles to carry out its mission. One Prowler can effectively blind all of Iraq's southern air defenses! Although the aircraft and the technology have changed, the mission of the Wild Weasels has stayed the same, and it is still an integral part of the modern U.S. Air Force.

Conclusion

The story of the Wild Weasels is a story of courage, determination, dedication, and perseverance. Taking on a mission, which seemed impossible, the Weasel pilots and their EWO's accepted their mission and carried it out, despite the odds. The mere fact that these men accepted the mission they were given is a testament to their bravery, and dedication.
Although the first Weasels had limited success, they did succeed in convincing the USAF to implement the Wild Weasel on a regular basis. The Wild Weasel 1 pilots and EWO's were trailblazers in a new era of warfare. From their missions the Air Force learned that the Wild Weasel mission was an integral one, and that a modern Air Force could not successfully carry out its mission without them. Also because of the NVA SAM threat new weapons and tactics were forced into development. Many of the weapons and tactics employed today have origins in the Vietnam era and the original Weasels. Jamming pods, anti-radiation missiles, and dedicated anti-SAM radar avionics all were developed for the original Weasel missions. Vietnam also produced dedicated Weasel aircraft like the F-105 Thunderchief and the F-4 Phantom. The original Weasels also produced a new breed of aviator, one of which the world had never seen before.

The aviators that took to the skies over Vietnam were of a different breed. Men like Col. George Acree and Col. Leo Thorsness. They put the mission above their own safety, and carried out their orders without complaint. Wild Weasel missions were among the most perilous of the war, and Weasel losses were high. Despite the maddening politics that governed the war, and the burgeoning equipment and tactics, the Weasels carried out their mission with a cool professionalism. Because of their dedication, numerous American pilots survived the trip "downtown" into North Vietnam. The credit for the modern day success also belongs to the original Wild Weasels, for it was their trip into the unknown that paved the way for the modern day Wild Weasels to flourish and succeed as they have.

Bibliography

Acree, George. Interviewed by author. West Islip, NY. March 20, 2002.

Campbell, John, M., and Michael Hill. Roll Call Thud: A Photographic Record of the Republic F-105 Thunderchief. Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1996.

Chinnery, Phil. Air War in Vietnam . New York: Bison Books Inc., 1987.

Davis, Larry. Wild Weasel: The SAM Suppression Story . Texas: squadron/signal publications Inc., 1993.

Davis, Larry, and David Menard. Republic F-105 Thunderchief . Minnesota: Specialty PressPublishers and Wholesalers, 1998.

Jackson, Oliver. Map of North and South Vietnam. http://www.3onevet.com/vnmap.html. 15 April 2002.

Jenkins, Dennis, R. F-105 Thunderchief: Workhorse of the Vietnam War . New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Kent, Martin. Suicide Missions, Dangerous Tours of Duty: Wild Weasels. Produced and Directed by Martin Kent. 50 min. History channel video, 1998. Videocassette.

Society of Wild Weasels. http://www.wildweasels.org .

United States Air Force Museum. F-105G Thunderchief.

http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/modern_flight/mf29.html. 20 April 2002.
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Copyright © 2002 Mike Nastasi.
Written by Mike Nastasi.
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