A north Vietnamese MiG-17 is hit by 20 mm ring from an Air pressure F-105D top top June 3, 1967. Photo: USAF via nationwide Archives

In the beginning, the north Vietnamese air pressure was a rag-tag procedure with obsolete, cast-off equipment.

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The very first unit was developed in 1959. The an initial combat plane was a T-28 trainer whose pilot defected indigenous the Laotian waiting force.

The Vietnamese Peoples’ wait Force—as it to be officially called—sent pilots come the Soviet Union and China for training in MiG fighters yet had no jet plane of its very own until February 1964, as soon as the Soviets donated 36 MiG-15s and also -17s to the VPAF.

For factors of security, the MiGs to be based across the border in southern China and did no deploy to Phuc Yen waiting Base close to Hanoi until August 1964, after the buildup the US forces in south-east Asia following an assault on united state ships in the Tonkin Gulf.

The VPAF would certainly not gain its very first MiG-21s until November 1965, and the MiG-15s and -17s to be not related to as any type of real danger to late-model us fighters. Thus, it come as a surprised on April 3, 1965, once a pair the MiG-17s pounced top top a us Navy strike trip south the Hanoi and raked the F-8E Crusader fighter-bombers with 23 mm cannon fire.

The north Vietnamese believed, erroneously, that they had damaged two that the Crusaders. In fact, they inflicted far-ranging damage on only among them. However, they had better luck the following day.

On April 4, in the very first confirmed aerial victories because that either side, MiG-17s shooting down two US Air pressure F-105s that were attack the “Dragon’s Jaw” leg at Thanh Hoa. The MiGs came in v a special layer of haze, eluding the F-100s flying protective wait patrol. The Thuds, carrying hefty bomb loads, to be unable come react.

The first US victories were in June 1965 by marine F-4Bs operating from a transport in the Tonkin Gulf. The an initial Air pressure victories go not take place until July 10, once F-4Cs, paris from Ubon Air basic in Thailand, shoot down two MiG-17s.

USAF and USN fighters confronted the MiGs in two phases: 1965-1968 and 1972-1973, be separate by one interval once operations over North Vietnam were halted during negotiations attempting to finish the war.

US pilots and aircraft were plainly superior, and also they had an overwhelming advantage in numbers. Also so, the small, quick-turning MiGs showed to be formidable opponents. American airmen shot down 196 MiGs—137 through the air Force, 59 through the Navy and also the marine Corps—and sustained 83 losses.

In historic context, it was a far cry from civilization War II, when the military Air pressures awarded much more than 15,000 aerial success credits, or the korean War, in i m sorry Air force F-86s shot under 792 MiG-15s and achieved an exchange proportion of better than 10-to-1.

Vietnam to be a different kind the war.

An F-4 crew admires a 5th aerial kill significant on your F-4 Phantom. L-r: Capt. Charles DeBellavue, Sgt. Reggie Taylor, Capt. Richard Ritchie, and SSgt. Candid Falcone. Photo: A1C Larry Groom


“Winning the waiting war” in a classic sense was no the strategy adhered to by one of two people side. Destruction of adversary aircraft was, for both, a secondary objective.

The function of united state fighters engaging the MiGs was to defend the win flights. “MiG killing was no our objective,” stated Maj. Gen. Alton D. Slay, deputy chef of staff for operations at 7th waiting Force. “The objective to be to safeguard the win force. Any kind of MiG kills acquired were considered a bonus. A shootdown of a strike aircraft was considered a mission failure, regardless of the variety of MiGs killed.”

For their part, the phibìc Vietnamese to work MiGs especially to avoid the strike flights. Castle avoided combat once risk was high. “The primary MiG mission was to interfere with bombing attacks, seek to pressure the incoming F-4s and also F-105s come jettison your bombs prior to getting ~ above target, a strategy that took full advantage of the encumbrance of united state rules the engagement and prevented the F-4s from mixing it up through the MiGs,” claimed Air pressure historian Walter J. Boyne.

In any type of case, the air campaign in phibìc Vietnam was of limited interest come officials in Washington. Back the battle was instigated, directed, supplied, reinforced, and sustained indigenous the North, US policy was the the outcome would be determined in the south.

By order of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, the only army goal of the air campaign was “to alleviate the circulation and/or rise the price of infiltration that men and also supplies from phibìc Vietnam to south Vietnam.” Confrontation through MiGs was incidental to that.

The phibìc Vietnamese acquired extra benefits from the sanctuaries and rules of engagement developed by united state policy.

Attacks to be forbidden in big prohibited areas roughly Hanoi and Haiphong. The major MiG basic at Phuc Yen was not struck until 1967, and Gia Lam was never ever struck. United state airmen could watch MiGs come out, taxi come the finish of the runway, and also run up your engines because that takeoff, yet could no touch them till they in reality took off. The MiGs could additionally escape end the border into China.

Visual identification of enemy aircraft was required rather than utilizing radar for target acquisition and firing long-range missiles before the MiGs could attack. “We forfeited our initial advantage of being able come detect a MiG in ~ 30- come 35-mile range,” stated Gen. William W. Momyer, commander of 7th Air force from 1966 to 1968.

An Air force report native the period detailed that “on numerous occasions us fighters uncovered that by the time visual identification of the MiG had been do they were no longer in the prescribed missile beginning or selection envelopes. The engagement then ended up being a short-range maneuvering encounter, which further compounded the problem of specific missile launch.”

Col. Robin Olds (third native left) celebrates perfect the famous MiG sweep, procedure Bolo, through airmen in ~ Ubon AB, Thailand. Photo: USAF


The major matchup was between the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II­—flown by the air Force, the Navy, and also the marine Corps because that bombing, combat air patrol, reconnaissance, and suppression of opponent air defenses—and north Vietnam’s MiG-17s and also MiG-21s.

The F-4 was arisen by the Navy and also entered business in 1962. It had impressive speed, range, and versatility, and also it remained the leading us fighter right into the 1970s. The initial Phantom was modified and employed in Vietnam as the Air pressure F-4C and also F-4D and also the marine F-4B and also F-4J. The ultimate USAF version was the F-4E, introduced in 1968 and adding a 20 mm cannon come the existing armament of air-to-air missiles.

The single-engine MiGs were half the dimension of the F-4 and more agile. The MiG-17, an advanced version of the korean War MiG-15, to be no longer top the the line, yet it performed well together an interceptor. The MiG-21 to be North Vietnam’s best fighter and also a close match in ability with the F-4.

The older MiG-15s were offered only for training purposes. The MiG-19, produced in China, go not show up until the last part of the war. The was less maneuverable than the MiG-17 and slower than the MiG-21.

The north Vietnamese counter their vulnerabilities by picking their times come fight. “MiG pilots only attacked under right circumstances, together as once USAF plane were bomb-laden, low on fuel, or damaged,” one Air pressure statement said. “The small, hard-to-see MiGs commonly made one-pass attacks at high speed, then escaped to a sanctuary.”

When the engagement was straight forward, the MiGs rarely won. The trick to be inducing them to connect at all, if the F-4s to be ready and configured to fight.

In procedure Bolo, the famed “MiG Sweep” the January 1967, a pressure of F-4Cs native Ubon entered North Vietnam pretending to be bomb-carrying F-105s. They complied with Thud ingress routes, and their radio calls simulated Thuds. The MiG-21s in ~ Phuc Yen to be deceived and rose up to accomplish them. In a swirling 15-minute dogfight, the Phantoms shoot down seven MiG 21s—almost fifty percent of the full possessed by phibìc Vietnam—with no ns of F-4s.

The F-4s did not account for all of the MiGs destroyed, though. The larger F-105 had been designed mostly for high-speed, low-altitude nuclear distribution missions. Momyer rated that “a an extremely poor airplane in a dogfight,” but it controlled to carry down more than 2 dozen MiGs. The Navy’s solitary engine F-8 Crusader bagged 15 MiGs.

The many surprising victories to be by marine propeller-driven A-1H Skyraiders, which shooting down two MiG-17s with their 20 mm cannons.

MiGs were the most flexible and also versatile part of the most lethal wait defense system US plane had ever faced—but the MiGs were not the biggest threat. USAF combat casualty in Vietnam were spread as 67 to MiGs, 110 to surface-to-air missiles, and 1,443 come antiaircraft artillery.

The mix of MiGs, SAMs and also guns was so reliable that in 1966, the USAF loss rate in Route pack Six, around Hanoi and Haiphong, to be one plane per 40 sorties. This made the odds an extremely tough for aircrews, who had actually to paris 100 missions to complete a complete combat tour.

Photo: USAF; Graphic: Mike Tsukamoto/staff


When the F-4 to be designed and developed in the 1950s, us planners believed the era of the dogfighter to be over. “Fighter architecture priorities emphasized the nuclear delivery and interceptor missions,” Jim Cunningham stated in an evaluation for air & an are Power Journal. “The underlying assumption was that nuclear tools would make typical wars obsolete and also that as a result, waiting combat maneuvering (ACM) was dead, overtaken by the interception mission, which compelled supersonic speed, high technology sensors, and also missile weaponry.”

The F-105 packed a fast-shooting 20 mm cannon, however early models that the F-4 walk not have actually a gun. This was a disadvantage in the subsonic, turning battles v MiGs where it was frequently awkward to rental missiles.

In 1967, a pistol pod an installed on a pylon was provided for the F-4D however the problem was not totally resolved till the an initial F-4Es with integrated guns come in southeast Asia in November 1968, just as the battle halt end North Vietnam entered effect. After ~ operations in the phibìc resumed in 1972, fifty percent of the USAF win were completed by guns.

Navy airmen also complained about the absence of a gun, yet a cannon in the sleep shifted the F-4’s center of heaviness too much forward because that carrier operations, so USN aircrews perfect the war with their missile armament.

The main US air-to-air missiles to be the radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow and the heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder. Sparrow had an effective selection of an ext than 10 miles, contrasted to about two miles for Sidewinder.

Overall, Momyer said, “most of our kills were made with missiles, and also in fact, 57.5 percent to be made with Sparrows. Navy fighters, ~ above the other hand, make almost every one of their kills with the Sidewinder.”

The marine kills, Momyer said, “were predominately MiG-17s and also they were made in close-in engagements. Together engagements required much more frequent employed of short variety weapons, and since the marine F-4s had no guns, the Sidewinder missile was their primary weapon.”

As because that the VPAF, the MiG-17 was basically a total platform. The MiG-21s had actually guns however relied mostly on their Atoll heat-seeking missiles.

The image of a north Vietnamese MiG-21 as viewed through the lens of a USAF gun camera throughout a dogfight. Photo: USAF


Despite the success of the Bolo operation, the Air force did not conduct any an ext fighter sweeps. “There weren’t enough fighters easily accessible to conduct arbitrarily fighter sweeps and additionally protect the strike force during their specified times in the target area,” Momyer said. “Even if fighters could have to be spared for daily sweeps, the shortage the tankers would have actually precluded together a tactic.”

“US Air force coverage ranged from spotty to missing over assigned to win routes,” said armed forces analyst wilhelm Sayers, creating in Vietnam Magazine. “Fighters escorting the bomb-carrying aircraft never ever knew whereby the threat would come from and also therefore typically stayed close to the planes they were protecting therefore they i will not ~ be caught out of position during an attack. Together a result, us Air pressure aircraft usually gone into engagements native a defensive and also reactive posture.”

“After action reports found that 65 percent the Air force losses were endured by aircraft fighting from a defensive posture, which required a fighter under attack to reverse positions to get a kill, a very complicated maneuver to make,” Sayers said.

The north Vietnamese air defense mechanism had much more than 200 radar framework that provided warning and also guidance because that the MiGs, SAMs, and guns.

“The MiG-21s to be operated under tight ground control,” said chronicler Boyne. “They frequently sought come stalk American formations from the rear, firing a missile and also then disengaging.”

At one point in 1967, Momyer thought that the MiG threat had actually been neutralized. The north Vietnamese fighter fleet stood in ~ 40, the which only 12 to be MiG-21s. However, the accident were quickly replenished through the Soviets and the Chinese. Once the air war resumed in 1972 after ~ the battle halt, the VPAF MiG complete was as much as 206, an all-time high.

North Vietnamese pilots space briefed top top dogfighting strategies in front of Chinese-made MiG-19s. These aircraft arrived so late in the war, were less maneuverable 보다 the MiG-17, and also slower 보다 the MiG-21. Photo: Vietnamese News Agency


In the last count the aerial combat credits and losses, us fighters in battle with the MiGs achieved an exchange ratio of 2.36-to-1. More than two-thirds of the MiG kills to be by the waiting Force, yet the USAF exchange ratio of 2.04 was not as great as the Navy’s 3.68.

Several factors added to the difference. Marine airmen, flying off carriers in the Tonkin Gulf, gotten in Vietnam v their backs to the sea and the MiG risk in front of them. This limited the possibility for the MiGs to usage their favorite tactic of surprise assaults from the rear.

Whereas the huge majority of Air force encounters were v MiG-21s, about half of the navy engagements were versus MiG-17s and -19s. Furthermore, many of the marine targets were close to the coast and also did no require considerable time to be spent in enemy territory.

Without doubt, marine aviators additionally got a performance rise from the optimal Gun combat training presented in 1969 through the navy Fighter tools School. The Air pressure did not have anything similar until the Red Flag program began in 1975.

The biggest benefit for navy F-4s, though, was most likely Red Crown, a picket delivery stationed a couple of miles offshore that detailed radar coverage and also warning of MiG activity. That signal reached right into the Red river delta as much as the airfields approximately Hanoi and also directed intercepts the the MiGs. A variety of Air force aircrews attributed Red Crown with an essential assistance come them together well.

Air pressure results versus the MiGs improved markedly in the last 6 months of united state involvement in Vietnam. In 1972, a fusion center come pull together intelligence information from every reconnaissance resources was developed at Nakhon Phanom air basic in Thailand through the call sign “Teaball.”

Teaball screened, combined, and also analyzed a huge volume of data in bespeak to provide the earliest possible MiG warning come the strike forces. Controllers notified aircrews not just of the location of a MiG, but likewise whether it to be a MiG-17, -19, or -21. Having tracked the plane from time the takeoff, Teaball might determine when they were short on fuel.

Gen. John W. Vogt Jr., command of 7th Air force from 1972-1973 explained Teaball together “by much the most efficient instrument in the battle with the MiGs.” part disagreed with that assessment, about Red Crown and also other intelligence sources as an ext important.

As chronicler Wayne Thompson has actually noted, though, there was an “obvious correlation” in between the beginning of Teaball to work in august 1972 and also 7th air Force’s “dramatically boosted performance against MiGs. Throughout the next three months, the score was 20 MiGs under at a cost of only 4 F-4s,” raising the exchange proportion to 5-to-1 in the USAF’s favor.

Click here or top top the image above to watch Air pressure Magazine’s full-size infographic as a PDF. Photo: USAF; Teaser Graphic: Dashton Parham/staff


In civilization War II, hundreds of US airmen came to be aces, attributed with five or an ext aerial victories. Through contrast, the Vietnam War developed only five aces, 3 from the air Force and two native the Navy.

The leading united state ace in Vietnam was Air force Capt. Charles B. DeBellevue with six victory credits. He was a navigator, flying together a weapons device officer, in the earlier seat of the F-4. Waiting Force and also Navy officers assigned come the earlier seat of the Phantom to be not forced to it is in pilots, and also full credit for a MiG was awarded come the airmen in both seats.

Only two of the Vietnam war aces—Air force Capt. Richard S. “Steve” Ritchie and Navy Lt. Randall H. Cunningham­—were pilots. Air pressure Capt. Jeffrey S. Feinstein was, favor DeBellevue, a WSO. Navy Lt. Wilhelm Driscoll to be a naval flight officer flying together a radar intercept officer. Except for DeBellevue, the united state aces had five MIG credits each.

North Vietnam well-known 16 VPAF aces. The leader to be Nguyen van Coc, with nine credits awarded, seven of them for us aircraft and also two because that Firebee drones. In accumulating his credits, the flew combat missions from 1967 come 1969.

Thirteen of the phibìc Vietnamese aces flew the MiG-21 and three flew the MiG-17. There to be no MiG-19 aces.

One that the enduring legends the the battle was “Colonel Toon,” supposedly the greatest of every North Vietnam’s MiG pilots through 13 small red win stars ~ above the fuselage of his airplane, signifying us fighters shooting down. The legend to be embellished v the supposition that on might 10, 1972, Randy Cunningham­—on the mission in i beg your pardon he came to be an ace—shot under Colonel Toon. Wilhelm Driscoll remained in the ago seat that day.

In reality, Colonel Toon never ever existed. The stars on the fuselage, if they were there at all, to be the cumulative credits by a number of pilots flying the airplane. The imagine Colonel Toon to be traced in part to man by signals intelligence operators hearne to phibìc Vietnamese radio communications.

In broad context, the united state fighters in Vietnam thrived in their air-to-air objectives, and the MiGs go not. From start to end—from procedure Rolling Thunder early on in the war to Linebacker in the finale—the strike forces got through to your targets. The MiGs, try as lock might and also despite occasional periods of success—could not avoid them.

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John T. Correll to be editor in cook of Air force Magazine because that 18 years and is a frequent contributor. His many recent article, “From out of the Shadows,” appeared in the September issue.