The military leadership strongly disagreed with McNamara's assumptions, believing that his notions of graduated escalation were divorced from reality. They argued that air power should be brought to bear suddenly and in overwhelming force. On one point all parties were in agreement: once America's full military might was brought to bear, a favorable military decision could not be long in coming. Virtually no one high up in either the Johnson Administration or the military foresaw the possibility of a long and indecisive campaign, the length and indecisiveness of which would be increased by an impressive North Vietnamese air defense system. That system, present only in embryonic form in March of 1965, was to prove impressively capable and resilient. North Vietnam's air defense system was based on batteries of Soviet-supplied anti-aircraft artillery (AM) ranging from pre-World War 1137 mm cannon to modern, radar-directed 57 mm and 85 mm pieces and even, in the immediate vicinity of Hanoi, massive 130 mm guns. And AAA was only the beginning. As the conflict dragged on, the Soviets supplied North Vietnam with MiG-17 and
MiG-21 fighter aircraft, a sophisticated radar early-warning net and air intercept system and batteries of SA-2 radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The SA-2 had already been used in combat: one had downed Gary Francis Powers' U-2 over the Soviet Union in 1960 and another had accounted for Major Robert Anderson's U-2 during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But radar- guided SAMs had never before been used in the mass as components of a sophisticated air defense system under attack by a determined and well-armed foe.
The men and machines who would implement ROLLING THUNDER and the interdiction campaign in Laos constituted the most impressive tactical air force the world had seen. Political considerations ruled out the use of Strategic Air Command's bombers, so the burden of the air war against the north would be borne by America's fighter jocks, Air Force and Navy fighter pilots, navigators and radar intercept officers. Volunteers, they were well trained, confident in their abilities and eager to get into the fray. The attitudes chronicled by novelist Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, the story of the military test pilots who became America's first astronauts, were much in evidence; laconic and disciplined, their courage tempered with a dash of gallows humor, these men would do it if it could be done. To be sure, there were deficiencies their training - the Air Force had all but eliminated training in air-to-air combat for reasons of safety - but they knew their aircraft and could use them well. For the most part their equipment was up to the task, though there were deficiencies here as well. Engineers had concluded that air-to-air missiles had made World War II dogfights a thing of the past, and of the U.S. fighters in service, only the Navy F-8 Crusader was armed with guns; the months ahead would show the value of those guns... and those of the North Vietnamese MiGs. The principal Air Force fighter to take the war into North Vietnam, the F-105, had been designed to carry a nuclear weapon in an internal bay for use in Europe as a low-level nuclear penetrator, dependent on low altitude and speed to evade radar and SAMs. Lightly armored, however, it would actually have to operate over North Vietnam, in an intense AAA and small arms environment, carrying large loads of conventional bombs externally. Moreover, the F-105, like most of the aircraft which would bear the brunt of the war "up north" - Air Force and Navy F-4 Phantoms and Navy A-4 Skyhawks - could only bomb accurately by day. The sole exception was the Navy's A-6 carrier attack aircraft, just coming into service; although slow, the A-6 was designed for radar-directed, precision low-level attacks at night. Both Navy and Air Force tactical aircraft were deficient in electronic warfare. Neither service had foreseen that fighters and attack aircraft would routinely penetrate airspace defended by radar-directed AAA and SAMs at medium altitudes, and both radar detection systems to provide warning and jammers to spoof gun-laying and missile radars were still on the drawing board. The Navy had an air-to-surface missile, the Shrike, designed to home in on enemy radars but this had not yet reached the fleet.