Operation Rolling Thunder was a significant air campaign conducted by the United States against enemy ground targets during the Vietnam War. Aimed to undermine the North Vietnamese government and force it to cease its support for the communist insurgency in South Vietnam, the U.S. forces launched a sustained aerial bombing campaign from 1965 to 1968. The massive airstrikes targeted military and industrial infrastructure, transportation networks, and supply lines in North Vietnam, carried out by the U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft. The objective was simple: suppress and destroy—to degrade North Vietnam’s ability to wage war and weaken its resolve.

However, Rolling Thunder didn’t really work out as planned. It faced significant challenges and ultimately did not achieve its intended objectives. The operation ended in 1968 due to increasing public criticism and a shift in U.S. strategy towards a negotiated settlement.

The article below explores the critical role of the “Wild Weasels” in countering the Soviet-built surface-to-air missile (SAM) threat from North Vietnam. These SAMs posed a significant challenge, as they were successfully downing American strike aircraft during Operation Rolling Thunder. In response, the U.S. forces were compelled to develop innovative tactics and advanced equipment to neutralize these deadly missile systems.

Countering North Vietnam’s SAM Threat in Operation Rolling Thunder

Following the commencement of Operation Rolling Thunder in March 1965, the North Vietnamese began fortifying their air defenses. In May 1965, the discovery of the first SAM sites armed with Soviet S-75 Dvina missiles, NATO codename SA-2 Guideline, and the accompanying Fan Song radar intensified the threat faced by American aircraft. The impact of these new deadly missiles became evident when an SA-2 missile shot down a USAF F-4C Phantom II and an American reconnaissance drone, prompting the need for countermeasures.

Retaliatory strikes against SAM sites proved challenging due to North Vietnamese deceptive tactics and the increased risks faced by American aircraft. The SAM threat forced strikers to fly within anti-aircraft artillery range at low altitudes, requiring innovative measures to counter the deadly threat.

A Republic F-105D-30-RE Thunderchief in flight fully equipped with M117 750 lb bombs. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

In response, Project Weasel was initiated in October 1965, gathering a group of U.S. Air Force aviators at Eglin Air Force Base. Their mission was to develop new equipment and tactics to counter the SAM threat over Vietnam. Equipped with radar homing and warning receivers, the aviators operated F-100F Super Sabre aircraft and flew perilous sorties ahead of strike packages, diverting attention from North Vietnamese air defense emplacements.

“It was really hush-hush,” describes retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel Allen Lamb, “and they were really depending on us.”