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Operation Iron Hand was a joint Air Force and Navy operation conducted during the Vietnam War. It was intended to suppress Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems in North Vietnam. The tactics employed on the Iron Hand missions are primarily designed to suppress the SA-2 missiles during the ingress, attack and egress of the main bombing strike force.

With the gathering momentum of Operation Rolling Thunder and the increasing frequency of American air strikes, it was only a matter of time before the North Vietnamese took strong defense measures. On April 5, 1967 an RF-8A from the USS Coral Sea (CV-43) brought back photography of the first SAM site to be positively identified.[1] Soviet installations had a distinctive six-pointed star arrangement that made them easy to identify, and the installations in Viet Nam were being built to the same arrangement. Over the next several months more SAM sites were discovered but permission to mount a strike on these sites was refused. Not until several American planes had been shot down–-the first Navy losses were VA-23 A-4s from the USS Midway (CV-41) in August—that official sanction was given to anti-SAM missions.[2]

Operation Iron Hand began on August 12, 1966, but the first actual strike against a SAM site was not accomplished until the morning of October 17. Four A-4Es from the USS Independence (CVA-62), with an A-6 Pathfinder, found a site near Kep Airfield, north of Hanoi, and destroyed it.[3]

For the Navy, the A-4 Skyhawk and A-3 Skywarrior’s played pivotal roles during Iron Hand anti-SAM missions; the two aircraft were armed with anti-radiation ("beam-riding") Shrike missiles, which could be launched against SAM sites.[4] A typical “Iron Hand” mission involved an F-8 fighter escorting a slower A-4 ahead of the main Alpha strike force of 20 aircraft and would attempt to eliminate enemy SAM sites; first the A-4 would launch the anti-radar Shrike missile at the SAM site and then the F-8 would strafe the site with 20-millimeter cannon fire.[5]

A more common application of Iron Hand was thus: for a Navy Iron Hand mission, an A-4 Skyhawk or A-6 Intruder, armed with Shrikes, would fly low-level ("above deck"), detectable by SAM search radar while still having ready access to much lower, radar-free altitudes ("hard deck"). The pilot's avionics would detect a SAM radar's acquisition ("lock") onto his aircraft; then the pilot would dive for the hard deck, choose another approach track, suddenly pitch 15 degrees up without re-entering the SAM radar field ("cone") and launch the Shrike into the cone. The Shrike would then acquire the SAM radar's location, fly to it and destroy it, thus disabling SAM missiles associated with the particular radar, allowing American aircraft to conduct their missions unharassed.

An Air Force Iron Hand mission was similar. A group of four fighter/bombers went in ahead of the strike package to suppress SAMs. One or more would be two-seat F-100F or F-105F Wild Weasels with SAM detection and analysis electronics. Initially, the fighter/bombers had to attack SAM sites with gravity bombs. When F-105F Wild Weasels arrived, they brought the Shrike Anti-Radiation missile for limited stand-off capability. Later, F-105G Wild Weasels could also be armed with the Standard ARM.

North Vietnamese forces eventually attempted to defeat Iron Hand missions by using SAM radar intermittently or shutting off radar entirely if they felt threatened; this worked with the initial iron bomb attacks and with the initial Shrike anti-radiation missile, which would could not 'remember' the location of the enemy radar source if the radar was turned off. Later Iron Hand aircraft carried the Standard ARM missile, which was capable of locking in the location of the source even if the radar was turned off.

Because most of the losses that occurred during the bombing raids into North Vietnam were caused by SAMs, Iron Hand missions continued to be of vital importance throughout the war.

External links


  1. Merky, Peter, and Polmar, Norman. (1986). The Naval Air War in Vietnam. The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America.
  2. Merky, Peter, and Polmar, Norman. (1986). The Naval Air War in Vietnam. The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America.
  3. Merky, Peter, and Polmar, Norman. (1986). The Naval Air War in Vietnam. The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America.
  4. Sherwood, John, Afterburner – Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War, New York University Press, New York, New York. (2004)
  5. Sherwood, John,. (1999). Fast Movers – America’s Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience. New York, New York. The Free Press.

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