The 1968 year was a watershed year for both the Vietnam War and the trail. A year before, in 1967, the Vietnamese forces of the Vietnamese People’s Army conducted a series of powerful ground attacks against South Vietnam from the territory of Laos — the so-called border battles of the 1967. They showed that quite large forces could be deployed along the “trail” and be supplied in a volume sufficient to conduct an all-arms battle. Although these battles were lost by the Vietnamese, they succeeded in moving the American troops to the sections necessary for the Vietnamese — the latter were forced to make a major redeployment to repel the North Vietnamese attacks to the south, and exposed some territories.
According to the results of these events, the CIA concluded that there was a major attack ahead of the North Vietnamese, but no one knew the details.
"Trail" by that time has seriously grown.
If 1966 had 1000 kilometers of highways in its structure, by the beginning of 1968 of the year it was more than two and a half, and approximately one fifth of these roads were suitable for moving cars in any season, including the rainy season. The whole "path" was divided into four "base areas", with a huge network of disguised bunkers, warehouses, bunkers, parking lots, workshops and so on. The number of troops on the "trail" was estimated in tens of thousands of people. The power of the air defense trail has grown. While at first, its structure was almost exclusively the machine guns of the DShK and the trash left over from the French era, by 1968 many areas and logistic bases on the “trail” were covered with a dense network of anti-aircraft batteries, their number in some of the “base areas” was in the hundreds. True, at that time they were mostly 37-mm guns, but when attacking from low altitudes they presented a serious threat to Americans. Slowly but surely, “seepage” of guns with a caliber of 57 millimeters, dangerous for airplanes at medium altitudes, began on the trail.
The latter acted along with the guidance radars and artillery anti-aircraft fire control devices, which made them much more efficient than even old large-caliber guns.
The very "path" by the time "sprouted" through Cambodia. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled this country since 1955, at some point believed in the inevitability of the victory of communism in Southeast Asia and broke off diplomatic relations with the US in 1965 (really - for a lot of reasons). Since then, Vietnam has received permission to use the territory of Cambodia for the delivery of supplies in the same way as used the territory of Laos. "Trail", passing through the territory of Cambodia, allowed to deliver people weapon and materials right in the "heart" of South Vietnam. The Americans, who knew well about this route, called it the “Path of Sihanouk”, although for Vietnam both the Lao and Cambodian parts of the “path” were part of a single whole.
As the American bombing of the trail grew, the losses of the sides on it grew - more and more Vietnamese and Laotians perished under the American bombs, more and more often the Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunners shot down some American aircraft. He suffered losses and American special forces on the trail.
Thus, by the beginning of 1968, the trail was an extremely serious logistical route, but the Americans could not even imagine how serious and large-scale everything was.
30 January 1968, Vietnam launched a full-scale military offensive to the south, which entered the US military history as “Tet offensive” - “Tet offensive”, by the name of the Tet holiday, Vietnamese New Year. Whereas Vietkong fighters attacked most sections of the front, a regular army attacked the city of Hue. During the offensive were used Tanks and artillery.
US marines during the Khe San battles, "Tet offensive"
Heavy fighting cost the sides huge losses. Although the United States and South Vietnam won an overwhelming victory on the battlefield, there was nothing much to rejoice in: it was clear that the losses inflicted on the northerners would not make them abandon the continuation of the war, but the offensive on US public opinion had a crushing effect. The picture of the vast masses of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, operating in South Vietnam, literally amazed the American public at home. One of the outcomes of this offensive and its subsequent sequels (“mini-Tet” in May of 1968, and the attack of 1969) was the election of Richard Nixon as president of the United States with his policy of “Vietnamization” of the war, which ultimately led to the defeat of the Americans and their allies.
A crushing "surprise" for the US military and the CIA was not only the offensive itself, but also what huge masses of troops, military equipment and ammunition allows to transfer the "path".
Transfer BTR-40 on the trail.
With this, it was necessary to urgently do something.
At 1968, almost simultaneously with the Tet offensive, the United States launched Operation Igloo White, which had been prepared before that for two years. The content of the operation was scattering networks of seismic sensors created on the basis of marine radio-hydroacoustic buoys on the “path”. Initially, the scattering was carried out by the re-equipped anti-submarine aircraft "Neptune" from the Navy, and later, due to the risk of loss, they were replaced by specially retrofitted fighter scouts RF-4 Phantom and transport C-130. The data from the sensors was collected by specially equipped EU-121 aircraft. A little later, they were replaced by small-sized OQ-22B Pave Eagle.
The evaluation of the operation as unsuccessful is often found, but it is not so: in fact, the sensors gave a lot of information, and the computers used by the Americans could already process these data files. It would be correct to say that the operation was not as successful as the Americans would have liked. But the operation has expanded their ability to attack the "path". This mainly concerned the detection of well disguised and moving at night and in adverse weather conditions truck columns.
Now it was necessary to have the strength and means to attack them. Previously used tactical aircraft, both jet in the areas bordering South Vietnam and the piston Skyraders and Counter Intruders in Northern Laos, simply could not technically destroy the trucks in the required quantity.
This could have been done successfully tested over the path “Ganshipy” AC-130. But they needed to be converted from C-130 transport “Hercules”, but these planes were not enough. The first “combat” “ganship” based on C-130 was received in the middle of 1968. Since the planes were needed urgently, the Americans again had to go to half measures, however successful ones.
In parallel with the АС-130 program, by the middle of 1968, the Americans were able to transfer a couple of experimental AC-123 Black Spot experimental attack aircraft to the Vietnam - C-123 Provider vehicles equipped with additional radar systems, night vision systems, a computerized aiming system for dropping bombs and, for one of a pair of airplanes, a system for detecting electromagnetic bursts arising from the operation of the ignition system of a gasoline engine (and all the trucks on the “path” were gasoline).
AC-123 Black Spot
At the same time, a program of reworking of large-scale obsolete C-119 piston transport airplanes in the “Ganships” was launched.
Efforts succeeded by early next year. The AU-123 allowed them to “roll in” the search and aiming equipment, which later became used on the AU-130, AU-119K with automatic guns and night vision systems immediately began to be used over the path and “closed the” equipment in the American Air Force, which was not managed to close the AC-130. K 1969-m and AC-119K and AC-130 began to appear over the "path" all in large and large quantities.
The account of the destroyed trucks went sharply into the thousands.
The Americans, true to themselves, drove the “ganships” into a squadron of special operations and used them from bases in Thailand. So all the AU-130A were summarized in the 16-th squadron of special operations.
If in 1966, A-26, flying from a Thai airbase, could destroy a hundred trucks a month, and even set a record, now, with the appearance of "sighted" Ganships "and a network of sensors, giving them indicative zones, where there was a sense to search for the enemy, a hundred trucks were destroyed overnight by a couple or a trio of aircraft. The Ganships turned the roads on the “path” into authentic “death tunnels”. Today, it is impossible to accurately assess the losses they have inflicted - the Americans overestimated the number of trucks they destroyed at times. But in any case we are talking about thousands of cars a year - every year. In one month of combat use alone, the AU-130 was usually destroyed by several hundred cars and several thousand people. “Ganshipi” became a real “scourge of God” for Vietnamese transport units, and every morning, when the trucks that came out of the flight counted the control trucks that the Vietnamese put between the crossings on the “trail”, dozens of cars were usually missed. Winged death collected a terrible harvest every day ...
“Ganships” were also involved in the destruction of numerous anti-aircraft batteries. Flying with RF-4 Phantom, AC-130 "Ganships", using external guidance from the "Phantoms", massively destroyed at night the anti-aircraft weapons on the trail, after which they wielded new cannons .
Despite the extreme success of the "Ganships" in the destruction of trucks, the main point of application of the efforts of their flights were not. In the air, the Americans continuously increased bomb strikes to completely destroy the infrastructure of the "trail", and increased the proportion of carpet bombing from B-52 bombers. The number of combat sorties over Laos after 1968 has consistently exceeded ten thousand per month, the number of bombers in one attack, as a rule, was more than ten, sometimes amounting to several dozen vehicles. The traces of these bombardments the land of Laos bears on itself so far and will carry dozens more, and in places hundreds of years.
Usually, when intelligence determined the approximate location of the “base” of the Vietnamese (and it could only be found “approximately,” all structures on the path were carefully camouflaged and removed under the ground), the area of its location was covered either with a series of massed air strikes or “carpets” from strategic bombers . The number of bombs in such raids was in any case in the thousands, and the covered strip was several kilometers across. The possible presence of near civilians was not taken into account. After striking the spot, special forces were being deployed, whose task was to record the results of the attack.
The same was done against bridges and crossings, intersections, sections of roads on the slopes of mountains and all more or less important objects.
Since 1969, the Americans have decided to start bombing the Cambodian part of the trail. To do this, first, ground reconnaissance revealed areas where the main Vietnamese transshipment bases were located in Cambodian territory, after which a series of “Menu” operations was planned with a limited number of Pentagon officers.
Its meaning was as follows. Each identified base in the Cambodian part of the trail received a code name, for example, “breakfast”, “dessert”, etc. (hence the name of the series of operations - “Menu”), after which the operation of the same name was carried out to destroy it. It was necessary in absolute secrecy, without taking any responsibility and not telling the press anything, to erase these basic areas from the face of the earth with powerful carpet bombing blows. Since there was no Congress sanction for such use by the US Air Force, a minimum of people were devoted to the details of the operation. The only strike weapons used over Cambodia were the B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers.
Above Laos, 1966 year.
17 March 60 bombers launched from the US Air Force Andersen Air Base on the island of Guam. In their flight missions, targets were specified in North Vietnam. But when approaching Vietnamese territory, 48 of them were retargeted to Cambodia. During the first strike on Cambodian territory, he dropped 353 with the American code name Breakfast (“Breakfast”) 2400 bombs on the base area of 353. Then the bombers returned several times, and when the strikes on the 25000 area ended, the number of bombs. dropped on it, reached 353. It should be understood that the area 1640 was a strip of several kilometers in length and the same width. The estimated number of civilians in the area at the time of the beginning of the bombing is estimated as XNUMX people. It is not known how many of them could survive.
Subsequently, such raids became regular and were carried out until the end of 1973 in an atmosphere of absolute secrecy. Strategic aviation the US Air Force command carried out 3875 raids on Cambodia and dropped 108 tons of bombs from the bombers. Over a hundred kilotons.
Operation Menu itself ended in 1970 year, after which a new operation “Freedom Deal” - “Freedom Deal”, which had the same character, began. In 1970, a coup d'état took place in Cambodia. Right-wing government headed by Lon Nol came to power. The latter supported the actions of the Americans in Cambodia, and not only in the air, but also on the ground. According to some contemporary researchers, the massacres of Cambodians during the American bombardment ultimately generated the support of the Khmer Rouge in the countryside of Cambodia, which allowed them to later seize power in the country.
The secret air war over Cambodia remained secret until the 1973 of the year. Earlier, in 1969, there were several leaks to the press about this, but then they did not cause any resonance, as well as protests at the UN by the government of Sihanouk. But in 1973, Air Force Major Hal Knight wrote a letter to Congress that the Air Force, without the knowledge of Congress, was waging a secret war in Cambodia. Knight did not object to the bombing, but was against the fact that they were not approved by Congress. This letter caused a political scandal in the United States, led to several broken careers, and during the impeachment of Nixon they tried to impute this war as another article on which he was to be dismissed, but as a result, this particular charge was not brought against him was
The government of North Vietnam, interested in concealing the fact of the presence of Vietnamese troops in Cambodia, never commented on these strikes.
Massive (including carpet) bombardment of the “trail”, raids of attack aircraft and “ganships” from Thai air bases, search operations of special forces on the trail continued throughout the war and only after 1971 of the year they began to decline, and stopped completely only after the United States left the war . Attempts to continually introduce various innovations did not cease, for example, in addition to “hunting”, an assault variant of the B-57 tactical bomber — B-57G, equipped with a night vision system and 20 mm guns, was created specifically for hunting trucks. This was very opportunely, because since 1969, all the A-26s were finally removed from the Air Force due to concerns about the strength of the fuselage.
By the time the air defense "trails" has reached significant power. Being unable to bring down Americans in large quantities, air defense nevertheless frustrated many attacks on base areas and trucks. The DShK and 37-mm guns were supplemented with 57-mm guns, often Soviet C-60, which formed the basis of North Vietnamese air defense systems, or their 59 Type Chinese clones, and later 85-mm anti-aircraft guns were added to them, and a little later - 100-mm KS-19 with radar guidance. And with the 1972 of the year, the Vietnamese finally had a means to protect the columns of trucks - Strela MANPADS. At the beginning of 1972, the Vietnamese were able to isolate the C-75 air defense system to protect the paths, which made it difficult for Americans to bombard them. 11 January 1972, the United States intelligence service recorded the transfer of the air defense system to the "path", but the Americans continued to operate by inertia. 29 March 1972 calculation of MANPADS "Strela" over the "path" was able to bring down the first AC-130. His crew managed to jump with parachutes, and later the pilots evacuated the helicopters.
And 2 on April 1972, the C-75, showed a new facet of reality in the sky over Laos - another AC-130 was shot down by a rocket, and this time none of the crew survived. After that, the “ganships” never flew over the trail, but the tactical jet attacks continued.
In general, of the thousands of trucks destroyed on the trail, the share of the “huts” is an impressive 70%.
In turn, the fire of the Vietnamese air defense from the ground led to the loss of hundreds of American aircraft and helicopters. Only by the end of 1967, this number was 132 machines. This number does not include those cars that, being damaged by fire from the ground, could then “hang on” to their own. Giving an estimate of this number of downed aircraft, it is worth remembering that the “path” was not included in the unified air defense of North Vietnam and that most of the war was defended by extremely outdated small-caliber anti-aircraft guns, something more or less modern started to arrive there in the middle of the war. , and the air defense system - at the very end.
We should also mention the air operations of the Navy against the "path". They were limited. Deck Naval Aviation attacked, jointly with the Air Force, the objects on the trail during the previously mentioned operations Steel Tiger and Tiger hound, in the area of their conduct over the central and southern parts of Laos. Later, when these operations were combined into a general “Commando Hunt”, joint strikes with the Air Force on the areas mentioned continued. But the Navy had another “problem” place - the Mekong Delta.
The Mekong River originates in Cambodia and flows from there to Vietnam and further to the sea. And when the flow of goods for the Viet Cong went through Cambodia, the Mekong River was immediately included in this logistics network. Cargo for partisans were delivered to the river in various ways, after which they were loaded onto boats of various types and delivered to Vietnam. The importance of river routes increased particularly during the rainy season, when ordinary roads became impassable, often even for cyclists.
The Navy naturally took action. In the 1965 year, during Operation Market time, they cut off the supply of the Viet Cong by sea, and then, using fairly numerous and well-armed river flotillas, began to “crush” river routes.
In addition to river armored boats, the Americans used the floating bases of the river forces converted from old tank-landing ships that could support the actions of both small tanks and several helicopters. A little later, after the appearance of light attack aircraft OV-10 Bronco, the Navy began to use over the river and them too. Boats and squadron VAL-10 "Black pony" reliably blocked the movement of boats on the river in the daytime, but at night it was impossible to do.
The response of the Navy were their own "ganships" - heavy strike aircraft. In 1968, four anti-submarine aircraft P-2 Neptune were converted into a shock version. The aircraft installed a night vision system and radar similar to those used on deck-mounted A-6 attack aircraft, added radar antennas on wingtips, installed six 20-mm automatic guns built into the wing, one 40 mm automatic grenade launcher and wing-mounted hanger units. The magnetometer was dismantled, and a stern gun mount with twin 20-mm automatic guns was installed instead.
Stern rifle installation - against the boats, oddly enough.
In this form, the aircraft flew to search for boats and conducted patrols over the “paths” adjacent to the Mekong River. The main area of "patrol" was the border of South Vietnam with Cambodia.
From September 1968 to 16 on June 1969, these aircraft made about 200 combat missions, roughly 50 per vehicle, which was 4 departure aircraft per week. Unlike the Air Force, Navy aircraft were based only in Vietnam, at Kam Run Bay (Cam Ranh) airbase. In the future, these operations of the Navy recognized as ineffective and "Neptune" went to storage.
Air strikes along the “trail” continued until the very end of the war, although after 1971, their intensity began to fall.
The last component of the US air war against the “path” was the spraying of a defoliant - the infamous Agent Orange. The Americans, who began to spray defoliant in Vietnam, quickly appreciated the benefits of the destroyed vegetation and over the "path" too. From 1966 to 1968, the United States Air Force experienced specially upgraded C-123 Provider aircraft, modified to spray sprays from the air. The aircraft were equipped with tanks for the sprayed composition, hp pump power 20. and underwing sprayers. There was a valve emergency drain "cargo".
From 1968 to 1970 year, these aircraft, adopted as UC-123B (later, after upgrading UC-123K) sprayed defoliants over Vietnam and Laos. And although basically Vietnam was the area of dispersion, the territories of Laos, along which the “path” passed, also got what they called. The number of people affected by defoliants is unlikely to ever be accurately calculated.
They did not know...
However, the Americans' attempts to destroy the Vietnamese logistics route were not even close to an air war.
Congress did not give permission to invade Laos or Cambodia, but the American command and the CIA always had various workarounds. The Americans and their local allies made several attempts to disrupt the work of the “path” by ground forces. And although the participation of US troops in these operations was expressly prohibited, they were still there.
The ground battles for the “path” were quite brutal, although they began later, as a result of air strikes. And it was in these battles that the Americans managed to achieve serious success.
To be continued ...