The first aircraft in service for the Vietnamese Armed Forces were two trainers, a de Havilland Tiger Moth and a Morane-Saulnier, which were initially the private property of the emperor Bảo Đại. In 1945, Bảo Đại gave the aircraft to the Vietnamese government. Until 1950, even though the Vietnam People's Army (VPA) had acquired credible offensive capabilities on the ground, it was almost powerless against reconnaissance or attacking operations from the French Expeditionary Air Force. On 9 March 1949, General Vo Nguyen Giap was authorised to establish the Air Force Research Committee (Ban Nghiên cứu Không quân) under the General Staff to study ways to deal with the air war. The first Vietnamese service aircraft flight was made by the Tiger Moth on 15 August 1949. A small-scale training was carried out in the following years.
Further development of aviation in North Vietnam began in 1956, when a number of trainees were sent to the USSR and China for pilot training. They were organised into two groups, for pilots and mechanics, respectively; and among others, utilised the Czechoslovak Zlín Z-226 and Aero Ae-45. The first unit of the VPAF was the No. 919 Transport Regiment (Trung đoàn Không quân Vận tải 919), organised on 1 May 1959, with An-2, Li-2, Il-14 aircraft, followed by the No. 910 Training Regiment (Trung đoàn Không quân 910) with Yak-18 trainers. In 1963 the Air Force and Air Defence Force were merged into the Air and Air Defence Force (Quân chủng Phòng không – Không quân).
The first North Vietnamese combat plane was a T-28 Trojan trainer, whose pilot defected from the Royal Lao Air Force; it was utilised from early 1964 by the North Vietnamese as a night fighter. The T-28 was the first North Vietnamese aircraft to shoot down a US aircraft, a C-123, on 15 February 1964.
The North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) received its first jet fighter aircraft, the MiG-17 in February 1964, but they were initially stationed at air bases on Mainland China, while their pilots were being trained. On 3 February 1964, the first fighter regiment No. 921 (Trung đoàn Không quân Tiêm kích 921), aka "Red Star squadron", was formed, and on 6 August it arrived from China in North Vietnam with its MiG-17s. On 7 September, the No. 923 fighter regiment, aka "Yen The Squadron", led by Lt. Col. Nguyen Phuc Trach, was formed. In May 1965, No. 16 bomber company (Đại đội Không quân Ném bom 16) was formed with Il-28 twin engine bombers. Only one Il-28 sortie was flown in 1972 against Royal Laotian forces.
The North Vietnamese Air Force's first jet air-to-air engagement with US aircraft was on 3 April 1965. The NVAF claimed the shooting down of two US Navy F-8 Crusader, which was not confirmed by US sources, although they acknowledged having encountered MiGs. Consequently, 3 April became "North Vietnamese Air Force Day". On 4 April the VPAF (NVAF) scored the first confirmed victories to be acknowledged by both sides. The US fighter community was shocked when relatively slow, post-Korean era MiG-17 fighters shot down advanced F-105 Thunderchief fighters-bombers attacking the Thanh Hóa Bridge. The two downed F-105s were carrying their normal heavy bomb load, and were not able to react to their attackers.
In 1965, the NVAF were supplied with supersonic MiG-21s by the USSR which were used for high speed GCI controlled hit and run intercepts against American air strike groups. The MiG-21 tactics became so effective, that by late 1966, an operation was mounted to especially deal with the MiG-21 threat. Led by Colonel Robin Olds on 2 January 1967, Operation Bolo lured MiG-21s into the air, thinking they were intercepting a F-105 strike group, but instead found a sky full of missile armed F-4 Phantom IIs set for aerial combat. The result was a loss of almost half the inventory of MiG-21 interceptors, at a cost of no US losses. The VPAF (NVAF) stood down for additional training after this setback.
Meanwhile, the disappointing performances of US Air Force and US Navy (USN) airmen, even though flying the contemporary advanced aircraft of those times, combined with a legacy of successes from World War II and the Korean War, resulted in a total revamping of aerial combat training for the USN in 1968 (Top Gun school; established 1969). The designs for an entire generation of aircraft, with engineering for optimised daylight air-to-air combat (dog fighting) against both older, as well as for emerging MiG fighters, were being put to the drawing board. US forces could not consistently track low flying MiGs on radar, and were hampered by restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) which required pilots to visually acquire their targets, nullifying much of the advantage of radar guided missiles, which often proved unreliable when used in combat.
The VPAF (NVAF) was a defensive air arm, with the primary mission of defending North Vietnam, and until the last stages of the war, did not conduct air operations into South Vietnam; nor did the NVAF conduct general offensive actions against enemy naval forces off the coast. However it did conduct limited attacks on the opposing naval vessels, notably damaging the United States destroyer USS Higbee in 1972. In a separate incident, MiG-17s that ventured over water were shot down by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) fired by US warships. The VPAF also conducted an air attack mission against a USAF radar and navigation installation in Laos.
The VPAF (NVAF) did not engage all US sorties. Most US aircraft were destroyed by SA-2 surface-to-air missiles or anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), and in some cases, even small arms. Typically, VPAF MiGs would not engage unless it was to their advantage. Some of the aerial tactics used were similar to Operation Bolo, which lured the NVAF to the fight.
On 24 March 1967, regiments Nos. 921, 923 and 919 were incorporated into the 371st Air Division "Thăng Long" (Sư đoàn Không quân 371). In 1969, No. 925 fighter regiment was formed, flying the Shenyang J-6 (the Chinese-built MiG-19). In 1972 the fourth fighter regiment, No. 927 "Lam Son", was formed.
VPAF flew their interceptors with superb guidance from ground controllers, who positioned the MiGs in perfect ambush battle stations. The MIGs made fast and devastating attacks against US formations from several directions (usually the MiG-17s performed head-on attacks and the MiG-21s attacked from the rear). After shooting down a few American planes and forcing some of the F-105s to drop their bombs prematurely, the MiGs did not wait for retaliation, but disengaged rapidly. This "guerrilla warfare in the air" proved very successful. In December 1966 the MiG-21 pilots of the 921st FR downed 14 F-105s without any losses.
The U.S Air Force and the US Navy continued to lay down great expectations on the F4 Phantom, assuming that the massive arms, the perfect on-board radar, the highest speed and acceleration properties, coupled with the new tactics would provide "Phantoms" an advantage over the MiGs. But in encounters with lighter VPAF's MiG-21, F-4 began to suffer defeat. From May to December 1966, the US lost 47 aircraft in air battles, destroying only 12 enemy's fighters. From April 1965 to November 1968, in 268 air battles conducted over North Vietnam, VPAF claimed to have shot down 244 US or ARVN's aircraft, and they lost 85 MiGs (including 27 F-4s and 20 MiG-21s).
In one of their few offensive air attacks by the VPAF during the entire conflict, on 12 January 1968 a four aircraft formation of Antonov An-2 biplanes was reported flying towards a secret USAF TACAN and radar site in Laos guiding American bombers over Northern Vietnam. Two aircraft flew on to the strike, while the other two split off. As the two continuing An-2s flew over, their crews dropped 120 mm mortar shells as bombs through the aircraft's floor and also strafed their targets with 57 mm rockets from the wing pods. However, as the two aircraft flew back and forth attacking the facility, one aircraft was heavily damaged by ground fire from the facility and crashed. Meanwhile, crew at Lima Site 85 managed to call in a nearby Air America helicopter; a crew member aboard the helicopter armed with an assault rifle fired on the last biplane and caused it to crash. The site was eventually overrun by People's Army of Vietnam commando climbers.
In the spring and summer of 1972, to illumine the theatre of war 360 tactical fighters of the US Air Force and 96 Navy fighter, a great number of which were F4 Phantom of recent modifications, opposed only 71 VPAF's aircraft (including 31 MiG-21).
The culmination of the struggle in the air in the spring of 1972 was 10 May, when the VPAF's aircraft completed 64 sorties, engaging in 15 air battles. VPAF claimed 7 F-4s were shot down (U.S confirmed five F-4s were lost). Those, in turn, managed to shoot down two MiG-21s, three MiG-17s and one MiG-19. On 11 May, two MiG-21, which played the role of "bait", brought the four F-4 to two MiG-21s circling at low altitude. MiGs quickly stormed the "Phantoms" and 3 missiles shot down two F-4. On 18 May, Vietnamese aircraft made 26 sorties in eight air engagements, which cost the 4 F-4 Phantom;Vietnamese fighters on that day did not suffer losses. On 13 June, a MiG-21 unit intercepted a group of F-4, the second pair of MiGs made a missile attack and was hit by two F-4 and did not suffer losses.
Over the course of the air war, between 3 April 1965 and 8 January 1973, each side would ultimately claim favourable kill ratios. A total of 201 air battles took place between American and Vietnamese planes in 1972 sorties. VPAF lost 54 MiGs (including 36 MiG-21s and one MiG-21US) and they claimed 90 U.S aircraft were shot down (including 73 F-4 fighter and two spy RF-4C)
US Navy ace Randy Cunningham believed that he shot down a Mig-17 piloted by the mythical "Nguyen Toon" or "Colonel Tomb" while flying his F4 Phantom. However, no research has been able to identify Col. Tomb's existence; Cunningham most likely downed a flight leader of the 923rd Regiment. Legend states Col. Toon downed 13 US aircraft during his tenure. Many North Vietnamese pilots were not only skilled but unorthodox, as Cunningham found out after making elementary tactical errors. The resulting dogfight became extended. Cunningham climbed steeply, and the MiG pilot surprised Cunningham by climbing as well. Using his Top Gun training, Cunningham finally forced the MiG out ahead of him and destroyed it. In fact, there wasn't any pilot in VPAF named Nguyễn Toon, he was a fictional character of the American pilots and they often made jokes with the dissertation. An invention of the American pilots, Colonel Toon was a combination of good pilots in Vietnam, like the "solo artist" lonely night bombing in World War II was called Washing Machine Charlie.
There were several times during the war that the US bombing restrictions of North Vietnamese Airfields were lifted. Many VPAF (NVAF) aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and those that were not, were withdrawn to a sanctuary in the north west of the country or in China. In December 1972, the North Vietnamese air defences nearly exhausted their supply of surface-to-air missiles trying to down the high-flying B-52 raids over the North. The North Vietnamese Air Defence Network was degraded by electronic countermeasures (ECM) and other suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) measures. Though the North Vietnamese forces claim over 81 US aircraft as shot down during Operation Linebacker II, (including 34 B-52s, two attributed to the VPAF),, U.S sources acknowledge only 27 aircraft lost by the Americans (including 15 B-52s).
Within 12 days of the operation "Linebacker-2" (18–29 December), during the eight air battles seven US aircraft (including four F4 Phantom) and three Vietnamese MiG-21 were shot down.
After the negotiated end of American involvement in early 1973, the No. 919 transport air group (Lữ đoàn Không quân vận tải 919), was formed; and equipped with fixed-wing aircraft, as well as helicopters (rotor-wing) in November.
During the 1975 Spring Offensive, the bombing of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the only airstrike conducted by the VPAF, occurred on 28 April 1975, just two days before the Fall of Saigon. The operation was carried out by the VPAF's Quyet Thang Squadron, using captured A-37 aircraft flown by VPAF pilots and RVNAF defectors led by Nguyen Thanh Trung who had bombed the Presidential Palace in Saigon, less than one month earlier before defecting to the north.
During the Vietnam War, NVAF used the MiG-17F, PF (J-5); MiG-19 (J-6), MiG-21F-13, PF, PFM and MF fighters. They claimed to have shot down 266 US aircraft, and US claimed to have shot down or destroyed 204 MiG aircraft and at least six An-2s, of which 196 were confirmed with solid evidence (100 MiG-17s, 10 MiG-19s and 86 MiG-21s). However, VPAF admits only 154 MiGs were lost through all causes, including 131 in air combat (63 MiG-17s, 8 MiG-19s and 60 MiG-21s)). Using those figures, total kill ratio would be 1:1.3 to 1:2. With the number of losses to MiGs confirmed by US (121 aircraft shot down and 7 damaged), the kill ratio turns 1.6:1 against the MiGs, or 1.1:1 even accepting the VPAF's figure of only 131 in air combat. However, this ratio does not include the number of ARVN's aircraft shot down by VPAF (One source claims 72 ARVN's aircraft were shot down by VPAF)
The VPAF did not play a major role during the Ho Chi Minh Campaign in 1975. The only sorties flown were conducted by five captured VNAF A-37s. SA-2s were transported into South Vietnam to counter possible US military air strikes. The US could not bring back their air power during the 1975 offensive, which had proven decisive in 1972, and the VNAF did not have the capability to strike targets in the north nor to defend against the onslaught in the south.
After the end of the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam) in May 1975, more regiments were formed. No. 935 fighter regiment "Đồng Nai" and no. 937 fighter-bomber regiment "Hậu Giang", followed by no. 918 transport regiment "Hong Ha" and no. 917 mixed transport regiment "Đồng Tháp" were created in July 1975. In September 1975, the four newly created regiments were formed into the 370nd Air Division "Lê Lợi" and the 372nd Air Division "Hai Van" was formed, including among others the 925th fighter regiment.
On 31 May 1977, the Vietnam People's Air Force (Không quân Nhân dân Việt Nam) was separated from the Air Defence Force (Quân chủng Phòng không).
When South Vietnam was overrun by PAVN forces on 30 April 1975, approximately 877 aircraft were captured by PAVN. Of that number, 41 were F-5s and 95 were A-37s. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, former VNAF A-37s flew most of the ground support missions. These aircraft were more suited to the role than the MiGs. Former VNAF F-5Es, C-123s, C-130s, and UH-1s were used by the VPAF for many years after the end of the War.
In the years between 1953 and 1991, approximately 700 warplanes, 120 helicopters, and 158 missile complexes have been supplied to North Vietnam by the USSR and PR China (primarily the MiG-19 (J-6 series). Even today, three-quarters of Vietnamese weaponry has been made in post-Cold-War Russia.
Today the VPAF is in the midst of modernisation. It still operates late model MiG-21s, Su-22s, aircraft of the Cold War era. However, it has recently been modernising its air force with models of the Su-27-SK air superiority fighter following closer military ties, and an array of arms deals with Russia. To date, Vietnam has ordered and received 12 of these aircraft. In 2004, it also acquired 4 modified variants of the Su-30 MK2V, newer models of the Su-27. In May 2009, they inked a deal to procure additional 12 aircraft from the Russians to bolster their ageing fleet. The Vietnamese air force has also acquired new advanced air defence systems, including two S-300 PMU1 (NATO designation: SA-20) short-to-high altitude SAM batteries in a deal worth $300 million with Russia.
In the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese pilots had notable achievements, and were honoured in as "aces".
The organisational levels of Vietnam People's Air Force, from highest to lowest are:High Command of Vietnam People's Air Force
Air Division (Vietnamese: Sư đoàn không quân)
Air Regiment (Vietnamese: Trung đoàn không quân)
Air Flight (Vietnamese: Phi đội)
Air Section (Vietnamese: Biên đội)
Air Division and Regimental Names of the VPAF Recent base information is from the Vietnamese Wikipedia VPAF article.
Some airbases in the south were built by the French, Japanese* (World War II), United States Air Force or United States Navy for South Vietnam. The northern bases were likely built with assistance and/or use by the French, China or Soviet Union during the Vietnam War.Kép Air Base (VVKP)
Bien Hoa Air Base (VVBH/VBH)
Đồng Hới Airport (VVDH/VDH)
Hòa Lạc Air Base (VVHL/VHL)
Gia Lam Airbase (VVGL/VGL)
Anh Son Airfield
Thanh Son Airbase (VVPR/VPR)
Tho Xuan Airport – (VVTX) training school for Vietnam fighter pilot.
Truong Sa Airfield (VVSA)
Tan Son Nhut Air Base (VVTS)
Yên Bái Air Base – (VVYB) training school for Vietnam fighter pilot.
Cam Ranh Airport (VVCR/CXR) – open for commercial flights in 2005
Vũng Tàu Airfield (VVVT) operates for offshore helicopter services
Cần Thơ Airfield – (VVCT/VCA) open and upgrade for logistic support air group.
Phúc Yên Air Base – 921st Fighter Regiment
Nha Trang Air Base
There are two Air Force museums in Vietnam: Vietnam People's Air Force Museum, Hanoi and Vietnam People's Air Force Museum, Ho Chi Minh City.
Most of the aircraft were supplied by the Soviet Union, but hundreds were left over by the United States via the Republic of Vietnam, most which are no longer in service.
Some notable combat aircraft that were operated by the air force consisted of the MiG-15UTI, MiG-17F, MiG-21, the American F-5 Tiger II, and the A-37B Dragonfly. Transport aircraft were the C-47 Dakota, C-130 Hercules, An-2 Colt, and the Beriev Be-12 amphibious aircraft. Helicopters consisted of the Ka-25 Hormone, Mil Mi-6, Mil Mi-4, and the CH-47A Chinook Most of these aircraft have now been sold off or scrapped, due to loss of parts. Vietnam's rapid economic development is opening the country to foreign investment and has resulted in Hanoi’s new acquisition of more modern equipment. The air force is deemed efficient but financial problems mean its improvement programs will be slow at best