As American military involvement in South-East Asia continued to grow in scope the USAF would eventually deploy every type of combat aircraft in its inventory in order to prevail over its opponents. Despite the loss of more than 2,000 aircraft and the brave men who flew and crewed them, it was not to be and in 1973 America’s senior political leadership decided to withdraw all USAF aircraft from the region.
Aircraft modified for the Vietnam War
The USAF had entered into the Vietnam War without any dedicated ground-attack aircraft optimized for counter-insurgency operations. In response, a number of measures were undertaken to solve the problem. One was the adoption of 242 units of a US navy prop-driven ground-attack aircraft designated the AD-5 and named the ‘Skyraider’. In USAF service, the Douglas-designed and built AD-5 was relabelled as the A-1E Skyraider. All were transferred to the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1973.
Another prop-driven aircraft employed by the USAF during the Vietnam War in the counter-insurgency role was the North American OV-10A, named the ‘Bronco’. The plane was first ordered by the USAF in 1966 and showed up in South Vietnam in 1968 as a Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft. It was eventually armed with machine guns and rockets. The USAF lost sixty-four of the OV-10A Broncos during the Vietnam conflict. It would remain in USAF service until 1991.
A jet-powered attack aircraft that saw limited use with the USAF during the Vietnam War was the supersonic Northrop F-5, named the ‘Freedom Fighter’. Never intended for combat service with the USAF, all those built would be supplied under military aid programmes to friendly foreign countries. However, as a test, a USAF squadron equipped with 12 F-5As, upgraded to a ‘C’ model standard, would see combat during the Vietnam War between 1966 and 1967.
A second lease of life with the USAF
Upon the fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975, the USAF took into operational service seventy-one units of the F-5E, named the ‘Tiger II’ and originally intended for delivery to the now defunct South Vietnamese Air Force. Between 1975 and 1990, the USAF would employ them as dissimilar aggressor training aircraft, intended to mimic the Soviet-designed MiG-21 fighter during mock aerial battles conducted at various training sites in the United States and overseas.
A trainer turned warrior
Another jet-powered aircraft adapted for use during the Vietnam War was the A-37. It was based on the T-37B trainer, which served with the USAF from 1957 until 2009. As an attack plane it came in two models – the A-37A and A-37B – and was named the ‘Dragonfly’.
Only thirty-nine units of the A-37A Dragonfly model were built. Twenty-five of these were sent to South Vietnam in 1967, there to be flown by USAF pilots to evaluate their effectiveness in combat. Positive results from that test pushed the USAF to order 557 units of an improved ‘B’ model of the aircraft.
Some 302 A-37B Dragonfly units were provided to friendly foreign countries under military aid programmes, the majority going to the South Vietnamese Air Force. Almost all would be lost upon the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.
In the 1980s, those A-37B Dragonfly aircraft remaining in the USAF inventory were assigned a new role as FAC aircraft. This new job resulted in the designation OA-37B Dragonfly. As an FAC aircraft, it would see service with the USAF during Operation URGENT FURY, the American military invasion of Grenada in 1983. The OA-37B Dragonfly would end its career with the USAF in 1991.
For use during the Vietnam War the USAF took fifty-three units of the Second World War-era Douglas twin-engine prop-driven C-47 transport planes and armed them with 7.62mm Miniguns. In this configuration they were designated the AC-47, and named the ‘Spooky’. The AC-47 first entered into combat in South-East Asia in 1964 but was pulled from action in 1969. During their time in service nineteen were lost, twelve of these in combat.
The bigger the better
The USAF replacement for the AC-47 and the AC-119G/ACP119K consisted of thirty Lockheed C-130 four-engine transport planes converted for the gunship role, the initial version being designated the AC-130A and named the ‘Spectre’. Reflecting the larger size of the AC-130 gunships, they were armed with a much wider assortment of weapons.
Six of the AC-130 Spectre gunships would be lost during the Vietnam War. Both the AC-130A and upgraded AC-130E gunships, eventually relabelled as the AC-130H Spectres, would go on to serve throughout the Cold War (which ended in 1991), in such conflicts as Operation URGENT FURY, Operation JUST CAUSE in 1989, the American military invasion of Panama, and Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, America’s first war with Iraq.
All the surviving AC-130H Spectre units were retired from the USAF inventory in 2014. Post-Cold War AC-130 gunships include the AC-130U named the ‘Spooky’ and the AC-130J named the ‘Ghostrider’. The newest AC-130 gunship is the AC-130W, referred to as the ‘Stinger II’.
Not as good
The USAF also took twenty-six of its twin-engine Fairchild C-119F transport planes and converted them into gunships. They came in two models: the AC-119G named the ‘Shadow’, and the AC-119K named the ‘Stinger’. The aircraft were not considered as successful as the larger four-engine prop-driven gunships and were not retained in service following the end of the Vietnam War.
The backbone aircraft of the Vietnam War
The USAF was very impressed by the McDonnell F-4A-1 all-weather fleet defence interceptor being tested by the US navy between 1959 and 1961 and named the ‘Phantom II’. The USAF therefore ordered 583 units of a modified version of the aircraft originally labelled as the F-110A and relabelled the F-4C Phantom II in 1962; this entered operational service in 1963 with the last unit being delivered in 1966.
The USAF saw the F-4C Phantom II as a multi-purpose aircraft equally capable as an all-weather fighter-bomber or as an air-superiority fighter. It was followed into service by progressively improved models labelled the ‘D’ and ‘E’ variants. Some 825 units of the F-4D were delivered to the USAF between 1966 and 1968, and 1,469 units of the F-4E between 1967 and 1976.
All three variants of the USAF F-4 Phantom II would see combat during the Vietnam War. As an interceptor it accounted for 107 enemy fighters during the conflict. The first and only USAF Phantom II pilot ace during the Vietnam War was Captain Steve Ritchie, who flew the F-4D and F-4E and accounted for five North Vietnamese MiG-21 fighters.
When the F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber was pulled from USAF service during the Vietnam War in 1970 due to high losses, it was replaced in that position by the various USAF models of the F-4 Phantom II. They would continue in that role until the American military withdrawal from the conflict in 1973.
Of the 445 USAF F-4 Phantom IIs lost in South-East Asia, 370 were destroyed in combat. Of those lost in combat, 33 fell to enemy fighters, 307 were shot down by anti-aircraft guns and 30 by surface-to-air (SAM) missiles. The last of the F-4E models of the F-4 Phantom II would be phased out of USAF service in the late 1980s.
Other F-4 series models
In addition to the fighter-bomber versions of the F-4 Phantom II, the USAF would also take into service 503 units of a photo-reconnaissance model designated the RF-4C, beginning in 1964. It was named the ‘Wild Weasel’. The last unit of the RF-4C was delivered to the USAF in 1974. The aircraft had the ability to employ air-to-air missiles and deliver nuclear weapons if required.
The first action for the RF-4C Phantom II took place during the Vietnam War, during which time eighty-three were lost, seventy-three of them in combat. It would remain in service long enough to be employed by the USAF during Operation DESERT STORM. The last of the RF-4C Phantom IIs would be retired from USAF service by 1994.
As a supplement to the RF-4C Phantom IIs, the USAF took into service beginning in 1978 the ‘G’ version of the aircraft, based on 116 converted ‘E’ models. It served in the SEAD role, was designated as the ‘Wild Weasel V’ and was equipped with ARMs. Like the RF-4C Phantom IIs, it would last in USAF service long enough to see combat during Operation DESERT STORM. It was finally retired in 1995, making it the last F-4 Phantom II variant in USAF service.
Another US navy fighter fills a void
A US navy subsonic fighter adopted by the USAF in a modified version was the Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) A-7D. It entered operational service in 1968 and was named the ‘Corsair II’. The aircraft differed in some details from its US navy counterpart, including a more powerful engine and different avionics
In USAF service the A-7D Corsair II, of which 459 units had been ordered, was primarily a fighter-bomber, hence the ‘A’ for attack in its designation code. It was the replacement in USAF service for the prop-driven A-1E Skyraider, the jet-powered F-100 Super Sabre and the F-105 Thunderchief.
The A-7D Corsair II would see combat during the last few months of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Six were lost in action before the American military withdrew from that conflict in 1973. The aircraft would last in service with the USAF until 1993.
Post-Vietnam War attack aircraft
The eventual replacement for the A-37B in the USAF was the Fairchild Republic A-10, named the ‘Thunderbolt II’. Some 713 units were ordered, with it entering operational service in 1976. Less than half remain in the USAF inventory today, all of which have been upgraded from the original ‘A’ model to the present ‘C’ model. Some of the A-10 Thunderbolt IIs were modified in the late 1980s for the FAC role and assigned the designation OA-10 Thunderbolt II.
In the beginning, the primary role of the A-10 Thunderbolt II was the destruction of Soviet and Eastern Bloc tanks if a Third World War should occur in Western Europe. Reflecting this specialized job, the aircraft was armed with a power-driven seven-barrel 30mm cannon in its forward fuselage. The effectiveness of this gun against tanks was proved in both Operation DESERT STORM and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM during which it destroyed numerous Soviet-era-designed Iraqi tanks.
A fighter in name only
A supersonic aircraft that was in reality a bomber and not a fighter was the General Dynamics F-111, named the ‘Aardvark’. When first envisioned it was seen as a fighter, and when it entered initial operational service in 1967 it had some fighter features such as an internal 20mm automatic cannon (eventually removed), and the provisions for mounting air-to-air missiles. However, these weapons were never employed in the fighter role.
A 1962 USAF order for the aircraft called for eighteen pre-production units and 140 series production aircraft labelled the F-111A Aardvark. Eventually, all the preproduction units were brought up to the ‘A’ standard. Follow-on models of the F-111A included ninety-six units of a ‘D’ model and ninety-six ‘E’ models converted from F-111As. The final model of the F-111 Aardvark was the ‘F’ version, with ninety-four units delivered. They would remain in USAF service until 1996.
The ‘D’ model of the F-111 was the first USAF combat aircraft to have new digital displays in the cockpit, referred to as multi-function displays (MFDs), in lieu of the long-serving analogue cockpit instruments.
In 1968, six F-111A Aardvarks were sent to South-East Asia to see how they would perform in combat. In less than a month three were lost to unknown causes, the test was quickly cancelled and the aircraft withdrawn from that theatre of operation. A subsequent investigation showed that the planes were lost due to a design flaw and not enemy action. The USAF redeployed the F-111A Aardvark to South-East Asia between 1972 and 1973, where they saw productive employment performing missions that no other aircraft in the USAF inventory could undertake.
A number of F-111E and F-111F Aardvarks would also see combat during Operation DESERT STORM. Employing laser-guided bombs, they were credited with the destruction of a large number of Iraqi armoured fighting vehicles during the conflict. The last of the F-111 Aardvark series would be withdrawn from USAF service in 1996.
In 1972, the USAF had forty-two units of the F-111A converted into an electronic warfare (EW) version designated the EF-111A and named the ‘Raven’. Unofficial nicknames for the aircraft included the ‘Electric Fox’ and ‘Spark ’Vark’. These would remain in USAF service until 1998.
Possible B-52 replacements
An evolutionary development of the General Dynamic F-111A Aardvark was the FB-111A model Aardvark. It was intended as a stopgap strategic bomber to replace the Convair B-58 and the earlier models of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses until a new strategic bomber entered the USAF inventory. The FB-111A began operational service in 1969, with 124 units constructed. All were pulled from the inventory in 1992.
The intended replacement for the interim FB-111A Aardvark was the supersonic Rockwell International B-1A, development of which began in 1969. Like the FB-111A Aardvark, the B-1A was a variable-geometry-wing aircraft that was supposed to fly effectively at both low and high altitudes.
The high costs of the B1-A and USAF anticipation that a newer, more capable bomber would soon appear resulted in it being cancelled in 1977, with only four prototypes having been built.
Because the anticipated bomber was delayed due to a host of serious design issues, the USAF began showing a renewed interest in fielding the B-1A. This resulted in an improved model designated the B-1B being authorized in 1981. It was named the ‘Lancer’ and the first of 100 units built entered USAF operational service in 1986. Two of the B-1A Lancer prototypes were also updated to the ‘B’ standard.
Of the 100 units built of the B-1B Lancer, there are sixty-five remaining in USAF service today with two being employed as test aircraft. Ten of them have been lost in accidents. The B-1B Lancer has seen service in a number of different conflicts, including Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. It features many stealth-like features but is not considered a true stealth aircraft.
The first stealth plane
Concerns that the B-1B Lancer would be unable to penetrate Soviet air defence networks eventually resulted in the USAF placing fifty-nine units of the Lockheed F-117A into operational service in 1983. The aircraft was named the ‘Nighthawk’ and was the service’s first stealth plane. Despite the fighter designation, which was given to mislead the Soviet Union, it was strictly a subsonic bomber.
The existence of the F-117A Nighthawk was not declassified by the USAF until 1988. In accordance with the 1962 Congressionally-mandated Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System, it should have been relabelled either ‘B’ for bomber or ‘A’ for attack after its existence was confirmed but that did not happen.
The first combat mission for the F-117A Nighthawk took place during Operation JUST CAUSE, the American military invasion of Panama in 1989. During an American military operation in Yugoslavia in 1999, referred to as Operation NOBLE ANVIL, a single F-117A Nighthawk was shot down.
In the two Gulf Wars, Operations DESERT STORM and IRAQI FREEDOM, no F-117A Nighthawks were lost in action. Due to newer, more capable stealth-type aircraft entering service the USAF decided to pull the F-117A Nighthawk from use in 2008. However, some were placed into storage.
Post-Vietnam War fighters
In the late 1960s, the Soviet Air Force unveiled two new supersonic jet-powered interceptors: the MiG-23 and MiG-25. Both would pose a serious threat to the USAF multi-purpose F-4 Phantom II fighter. In response, the USAF decided that they needed a new clear-weather air-superiority fighter. This would result in the development and the operational fielding in 1976 of the McDonnell Douglas (Boeing as of 1997) F-15, named the ‘Eagle’.
The initial models of the F-15 Eagle acquired by the USAF were the single-seat ‘A’ model and a two-seat trainer version designated the ‘B’ model. The USAF eventually took into the inventory 384 units of the ‘A’ model and sixty-one units of the ‘B’. The F-15A Eagle was considered the replacement for the F-106 Delta Dart dedicated interceptor-fighter.
Beginning in 1979 and continuing until 1985, the USAF took in 483 units of a newer more advanced model designated the F-15C and ninety-two units of the two-seat trainer version of that aircraft known as the F-15D. During Operation DESERT STORM, the USAF deployed the ‘C’ and ‘D’ models of the F-15 Eagle in that theatre of operation. They would account for thirty-six Iraqi fighters in aerial combat during the conflict, with no losses to themselves.
As of 2015, there are a combined total of 470 units of the F-15C and F-15D still in USAF service. The F-15A and F-15B have already been retired by the USAF, with budget cuts threatening the remaining inventory of F-15C and F-15D planes. A major problem with the remaining F-15 Eagles is that due to heavy use they are reaching the end of their useful service lives.
The fighter-bomber version of the F-15 Eagle
The final version of the F-15 Eagle taken into service by the USAF is designated the F-15E and named the ‘Strike Eagle’. Between 1985 and 2001 a total of 236 units were delivered, with 210 still remaining in service. The F-15E Strike Eagle was the replacement for the F-111 Aardvark in the medium-range attack role
Unlike previous versions of the aircraft that are clear-weather interceptors, the F-15E Strike Eagle was designed from the beginning as an all-weather fighter-bomber, with a secondary mission as an air-superiority fighter.
During Operation DESERT STORM two F-15E Strike Eagles were lost to Iraqi antiaircraft fire. A single F-15E Strike Eagle was lost in combat during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in 2003. Present USAF plans call for the F-15E Strike Eagles to remain in service until 2025, at which point a next-generation fighter-bomber will hopefully replace it.
A less costly alternative
Entering operational service with the USAF in 1980 was the General Dynamics-designed and built F-16, named the ‘Fighting Falcon’. It was the simpler, low-cost alternate to the much more complex and costly F-15 Eagle in the clear-weather air-superiority role.
General Dynamics sold its military aircraft division to the Lockheed Corporation in 1993. Two years later, Lockheed merged with Martin Marietta and the two combined corporations became Lockheed Martin.
As with the F-15 Eagle, later models of the F-16 Fighting Falcon have been successfully adapted to perform the all-weather fighter-bomber role. The F-16 Fighting Falcon saw service in Operation DESERT STORM and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, with three lost in the first conflict and five in the latter.
In total, the USAF acquired 2,232 units of the F-16 Fighting Falcon in a number of versions, labelled ‘A’ through to ‘D’. The initial production types included the singleseat F-16A and the F-16B two-seat trainer. Most of these have now been retired from USAF service, with many placed into storage.
At present, the USAF inventory contains approximately 1,000 F-16 Fighting Falcons. These include the single-seat F-16C model and a much smaller number of two-seat trainers referred to as the F-16D. All have been put through a number of upgrade programmes during their time in service.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon is slated to remain in USAF service until 2025, provided the USAF receives enough next-generation replacement fighter aircraft to replace it in the inventory.