airbattle  air combat wargames


The Combatants

This page looks at the opponents who fought in the campaigns represented by Downtown. Note that only units that fought in the higher route packages -- the focus of the game -- are mentioned here. (For an explanation of the route package system, click HERE.)

The US Strike Package System

US air raids into the upper route packages began the war as fairly small-scale affairs: simply bombers and fighter escorts. However, as the North Vietnamese defenses grew in extent and sophistication, the number of support aircraft needed to get the strike 'planes through to the target began to grow. By the end of Operation Rolling Thunder, the support-to-strike ratio was around 1:1. By Linebacker it was 3:1 or more and the strike aircraft themselves had become a small components in a large machine designed to deliver bombs on the target. With their emphasis on technology and teamwork, these 'strike packages' were a quintessentially American method of waging war.

USAF Strike Packages

The USAF in Operation Rolling Thunder

F-105sThe USAF strike package was a sophisticated organization. At its core was a group of 'strikers' -- flights of F-105D (single-seat) or F (two-seat) Thunderchief bombers bunched together and tasked with attacking the target. Most strikes would employ about 16 bomber aircraft in four flights of four. Though occasionally a fifth flight might be added. In 1967 some experiments were tried in using F-4C Phantoms as bombers, though these were discontinued in periods where enemy MiG activity was high and the Phantoms were needed as fighters.

Strikes would begin when standoff jamming flights positioned themselves to direct jamming down the path of the raid. The standoff jammers would orbit along a 'racetrack' at a safe distance from the strike.

Taking 'point' in the raid, ahead of the strike force by a few minutes, were aircraft charged with the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). This would involve attacking Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) and Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) to prevent them attacking the bombers as they came through. Early in the war the SEAD aircraft were F-100F Super Sabres known by the codename 'Wild Weasel'. Later, the two-seat F-105F was adapted to become the definitive Wild Weasel of Rolling Thunder. The Wild Weasels were equipped with cluster bombs for pasting air defense sites and Shrike anti-radiation missiles which could home in on SAM or AAA radars and shred them.

Combat Air Patrol (CAP) flights were flights made up of fighters that would act as escorts to the strikers, or sweep ahead of them to clear enemy MiG fighters out of the way. The workhorse USAF fighter of Rolling Thunder was the F-4C Phantom, with the improved F-4D arriving in mid-1967, though the F-104C Starfighter also made occasional appearances into the upper route packages.

Bringing up the rear of the raid were recon aircraft -- initially the RF-101C Voodoo and later the RF-4C Phantom -- which would zip through the combat zone, using high speed to evade MiGs and flak.

The USAF in Operation Linebacker

By Linebacker, the USAF strike package had evolved into its ultimate form. Raids were sometimes termed 'gorilla packages' because of their massive size.

ChappieBy 1972 more than 65% of raids used Laser Guided Bombs for precision strikes against targets. But the Air Force only had a limited number of Pave Knife laser-designation pods. These pods presented a practical limit to the number of strikers that could attack a target. Pave Knife was such a precious resource that the USAF was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent their loss. The need to protect Pave Knife meant the ratio of support aircraft to strikers soared. The quantity of CAP fighters (now mainly F-4Ds) doubled from its Rolling Thunder peak and SEAD forces were enhanced by teaming F-105 Wild Weasels (now upgraded to the F-105G with the Standard anti-radiation missile) with F-4E Phantom flights in 'Hunter-Killer' teams.

One of the biggest innovations was the addition of a group of chaff-laying aircraft. These would fly ahead of the raid and lay a corridor of chaff -- a cloud of radar-reflecting material that could shield an aircraft -- through which the main raid force would funnel. Chaff corridors proved so effective that losses to SAMs dropped radically and the DRV made special efforts to disrupt the chaff-laying flights with MiG attacks.

The Linebacker 'gorilla packages' were so huge that support at times outnumbered the strike aircraft by five or six to one. Allied with the new laser-guided bombs that offered a one-bomb one-kill capability this order of battle achieved astonishing results.

This graphic shows the differences between Rolling Thunder and Linebacker-era strikes. Note the greater size of the support for the Linebacker strike bombers (here armed with laser-guided bombs, or LGB). These are the forces players will control in a game of Downtown.

USAF Historical Commentary

The USAF entered the Vietnam War with inadequate aircraft, weapons and tactics. For years Tactical Air Command (TAC) had been the impoverished stepsister of Strategic Air Command (SAC), but the war pushed Tacair to center stage. SAC's B-52 force was considered too blunt an instrument, so the bombing campaign against the DRV would be carried out by tactical aircraft performing ‘surgical' strikes.

F-105In the mid-1960s TAC was barely up to the challenge. Bombers such as the F-105 had been designed for nuclear delivery, but now they had to drop conventional weapons while trying to achieve great accuracy. In spite of the immense bravery and skill of TAC pilots, bombing results were disappointing, particularly against key infrastructure targets such as bridges. It took the introduction of true precision weapons, such as the laser-guided bomb, to make TAC aircraft into the surgical instrument the Air Force promised.

In the air-to-air arena TAC's performance was less than stellar. The Phantom jet was an anti-bomber interceptor and wasn't designed for turning dogfights with MiGs. Its missile weapons were unreliable while pilots criticized the lack of a gun for missed opportunities. Worse still, the Air Force used an obsolete tactical formation, the ‘Fluid Four', that made flights a fraction as effective as they should have been.

In spite of the low kill rates, the USAF never overhauled their air-to-air tactics, preferring a technological solution. New weapons and the use of IFF interrogators improved kill ratios slightly, but they weren't able to match the Navy's scores.

As the SAM and Fire Can threat increased, the Air Force was slow to adopt electronic protection. Only when defensive jamming and radar warning receivers had been proven to reduce casualties were they taken on board. 'Jamming cell' formations were able to enhance the jamming protection.

Still, the best defense against SAMs was to kill them or shut them down. The USAF's Wild Weasel forces -- the legendary SAM hunters -- did just that.

USN Alpha Strikes

Like the USAF the US Navy operated packages comprised of bombing aircraft and their support. These 'Alpha Strikes', as they were known, employed most of the complement of a carrier air wing.

All the aircraft in an Alpha Strike would come from the same carrier, though in the early stages of the war, jamming aircraft were in short supply and EA-1F jammers would 'cross-deck' from carrier-to-carrier as they went on and off the line. Jammers would also be supplemented by EF-10F Skyknight US Marine Corps aircraft flying from Da Nang. Carrier complements varied widely, with F-8 Crusader and A-4 Skyhawk aircraft being launched from the smaller Essex-class carriers and the powerful F-4B Phantom, A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair launching from larger carriers.

This graphic shows a Navy Alpha strike from the USS Constellation for the summer and fall of 1967. Compare with the similarly-structured USAF strike package. Note that the US Navy used this formation for the whole of the war. Because of the carrier's limited capacity they weren't able to increase the support-to-strike ratio in the dramatic way the Air Force did

Alpha strikes were organized along nearly identical lines to the USAF. Jammers -- EA-1Fs, later replaced by EKA-3 Skywarriors and EA-6B Prowlers -- would patrol off the coast, projecting jamming beams down the strike's line of approach.

Ahead of the main strike flew the SEAD aircraft. Unlike the Air Force, the USN didn't have specialist aircrew flying the SEAD mission (codenamed 'Iron Hand'); it was just another job naval aviators were expected to do. However, the Navy pioneered the use of new anti-radar weaponry such as the Shrike and Standard ARMs.

The main strike comprised 16 bombers in flights of four. These were preceded or escorted by CAP flights. Navy CAP forces operated in two-aircraft flights. These were more effective than the four-ship USAF CAP and the Navy wasn't hobbled by the Air Force's obsolete 'Fluid Four' fighter tactics.

Bringing up the rear was the Navy recon: either RF-8 Crusader or RA-5 Vigilante bombers.

Here is a picture of an Alpha Strike as it might appear in the game. Only the recon forces are not shown here

USN Historical Commentary

The US Navy's role at the war's start had not changed since World War II and Korea. They were in the business of power projection and possessed enormous combat flexibility.

Carrier air wings were broadly divided into two types: those aboard light attack carriers (primarily those Essex-class ships upgraded from World War Two with steam catapults and angled decks) and those on the ‘big deck' carriers, epitomized by the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise. Light carriers mainly operated the Crusader and Skyhawk while big deck carriers flew the Phantom, Skyhawk, Intruder and Corsair.

          Flight DeckIn air-to-air combat, the Navy were well able to handle the MiG threat. The ageing Crusader was a dogfighter with superior air-to-air missiles and highly-trained crews. Their 'loose deuce' two-ship fighter formations proved more effective than the Air Force's four-ship 'Fluid Four'. Navy Phantoms were not as potent as the Crusaders at first. The F-4 was a missile-armed fighter designed to stop nuclear bombers but aircrews didn't know how to beat nimble MiGs in it. The Navy's 'Top Gun' training program turned that around, transforming Phantom pilots into deadly MiG killers.

The air-to-ground effort was led by the Skyhawk, a no-frills fighter-bomber that carried an incredible amount of ordnance for its size. Its replacements on the big deck carriers -- the Intruder and Corsair -- had improved payload and accuracy.

The Intruder's radar bombing capability made it a great aircraft at night and in bad weather. The Corsair's bombsight was a quantum leap in accuracy, though still not as effective as precision guided munitions. Until guided bombs were deployed in great numbers, Navy bombing was little more effective than the Air Force's.

The Navy didn't develop specialist Wild Weasel units for the SEAD role as the Air Force did, but they pioneered many anti-SAM weapons such as the Shrike and Standard anti-radiation missiles. They were also the earliest to adopt defensive jamming and radar warning receivers, as Project Shoehorn fitted these to aircraft on a fleet-wide basis.

Strategic Air Command

Operation Linebacker II is considered an operation launched by Strategic Air Command (SAC). Though nominally part of the USAF this was virtually a separate air force in its own right. The main weapons of SAC were the B-52 nuclear bombers adapted to the 'conventional' bombing role.

B-52There were two versions of B-52s used. The B-52D had been upgraded to carry a massive bomb load in the internal bomb back and on wing pylons. The fleet of 'D's had also been refitted with modern jamming countermeasures. The B-52G was new to the theater and did not have wing pylons. It carried just a quarter the bomb load of the B-52D. One problem the B-52G suffered was an outdated jamming countermeasures suite. This would leave it vulnerable to Vietnamese SAMs over Hanoi and the 'G' models would take the brunt of the DRV air defenses.

SAC did not operate in strike packages as such. Instead waves of bombers were dispatched at night. In the early part of Linebacker II these waves would fly in three-ship 'cells' arranged in a long stream that would overfly the target. However, this turned the attacks into a duck shoot for the Vietnamese SAM crews. Only later in Linebacker II, when SAC arranged for the entire force to attack from separate directions and be on and off the target in a very short period of time, were the SAM crews foiled.

In addition to SAC's B-52s both the USAF and USN tactical air power played their part in Linebacker II, contributing fighter escorts, chaff bombers and jamming 'planes to support the operations.

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam

The DRV organised their air defences around three arms of battle: anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), surface to air missiles (SAM) and the force of MiG fighters.


AAAAAA forces comprised thousands of artillery pieces, ranging from 23mm and 37mm caliber all the way up to 50mm, 85mm and 100mm guns. There were many thousands of small arms weapons too, including machinegun nests (12.7mm and 14.5mm caliber), while cadres of farmers and workers were trained to shoot their rifles at passing aircraft, even though the chances of hitting anything were slim.

AAA positions were dug in around major targets: often camouflaged and concealed. One of the primary tactics they used was 'sector fire': filling a cube of sky with blast and shrapnel in the hope of catching anything flying through. Later, fire control radars such as the system codenamed Fire Can were deployed. These would provide range and height information to the larger calibre guns, allowing them to track the enemy accurately. Radar-directed fire proved deadly until jamming systems were introduced by the Americans to reduce their effectiveness, and SEAD forces started to concentrate on shutting down the radars.

Overall, AAA was the primary killer over North Vietnam.


SAM SiteThe Vietnamese SAM forces were built around the Russian-supplied S-75 Dvina system (NATO codename: SA-2 Guideline). A battalion comprised a radar (codenamed Fan Song), an early warning radar (codenamed Spoon Rest) a control van and six launchers, each of which could be armed with a missile. Support forces such as transport, maintenance and missile reloads accompanied the battalion. A regiment usually comprised three battalions.

At the height of the war, about 33-35 battalions defended North Vietnam, with most of these located around Hanoi and Haiphong. One estimate for spring 1972 put 13 battalions around Hanoi and 10 around Haiphong.

Battalions were highly mobile and could pack up and move within hours. The North Vietnamese pre-prepared hundreds of SAM sites across the country: cleared areas of ground with launching points and dug-in defenses pre-built. A battalion could drive to a site, set up the radar and missiles and be ready to fight in short order. The DRV air defense command would regularly move battalions from site-to-site in a life-or-death shell game, trying to outwit the Americans. Battalions would camouflage themselves at sites to make themselves harder to detect and often dummy battalions were built at sites to fool the enemy while dummy radio transmitters were used to fake the presence of radars. These stealth tactics became so effective the Americans soon stopped targeting SAMs except for those that exposed themselves in battle.

SA-2 SAMA SAM engagement usually began when the early warning radar network picked up American intruders and the air defense command ordered a battalion to try and pick up targets in a particular area of sky with its Fan Song radar. If a target could be found and acquired (difficult sometimes amongst the American jamming) a spread of two missiles would be launched, the guidance radar providing tracking information until the missiles hit, or missed and self-destructed. Total engagement time was in the region of 60-120 seconds.

The US forces countered the SAMs with electronic jamming or by more active means – attacking sites with cluster bombs or radar-homing anti-radiation missiles. Radar beams could be avoided by flying very low or using the ground to mask the aircraft. In emergencies, the missiles could even be avoided with a well-timed rolling maneuver, assuming the missile was seen in time. While it didn't account for as many kills as AAA, the SAM force was highly disruptive to the American attacks.


At the outset of the American bombing the Vietnamese People's Air Force -- Khong Quan Nhan Dan Viet Nam -- was still new to jet aircraft. They had deployed their first combat jets in 1965 and to use them effectively the Vietnamese had to climb a steep learning curve. Not only were the MiGs a sophisticated technology for a third-world country to manage, but their employment required new and complex command and control arrangements.

MiG PilotsThe DRV used a Soviet-supplied Ground Control Intercept (GCI) system. A network of radars and ground observers tracked incoming raids. At GCI centers raids would be plotted on maps and controllers would direct aircraft to intercept. Pilots would follow precise instructions from their controllers to find and engage the enemy.

This system took two years to hone into an effective weapon. It also took that long to improve the performance of the Vietnamese combat pilots. Early battles highlighted the lack of tactical expertise. It wasn't until the Spring of 1967 that the development of a cadre of DRV veterans meant the Vietnamese People's Air Force was able to square up to the American pilots on more even (or better) terms.

However, the Vietnamese were still at a disadvantage with regard to their equipment. The mainstay MiG-17 was an ancient guns fighter and successes against US pilots was as much a sign of American weaknesses as of Vietnamese prowess. The MiG-19 was unpopular and didn't figure significantly in the air war.

The biggest threat to the Americans came from the MiG-21. Initially thought to be the equal of the Phantom, it turned out to be anything but. Tiny, short-ranged and with unreliable missile armament, the Fishbed had to be used carefully to achieve results. But the Vietnamese found that aggressive hit-and-run attacks suited aircraft and weapons well. By keeping at high speed the MiG-21 could launch slashing attacks through the big American raids.

Though victories against American aircraft were desirable, often all the MiGs had to do was disrupt the US flights and force them to jettison their bombs. The DRV became proficient at foiling the American strike missions.

DRV MiG Units

The principal fighter regiments of the Vietnam war were as follows:

921st Sao Dao regiment. Established Feb 64. Aircraft: MiG-17, MiG-21.

923rd Yen The regiment. Established Sep 65. Aircraft: MiG-17, MiG-21.

925th regiment. Established Feb 69. Aircraft: MiG-19.

927th Lam Son regiment. Established Feb 72. Aircraft: MiG-21.

Downtown copyright Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, 2001-2016. All rights reserved.