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air defense in North Vietnam was a thoroughly integrated combination of radars, AAA, SAMS, and MIGs. It was Soviet in design and operation."37 This combination of high speed aircraft (MIGs), antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) like the SA-2, and numerous radar sites posed a serious threat to allied air superiority. To insure the primacy of allied air power, this enemy challenge had to be met with increasingly more sophisticated American weapons systems and andair procedures- Before the ceasefire, these methods included jamming enemy radars using electronic counter-measure (ECM) aircraft such as the Air Force EB-66 and the Marine Corps EA-6A, high speed avoidance maneuvering (possible with low-flying, very maneuverable, tactical fighters-F-4s, A-4s, and A-7s), sophisticated detection devices installed on specific aircraft (code-named Wild Weasel) to detect, harass, and destroy SAM sites, and introduction of antiradiation missiles, precision-guided munitions (PGMs, such as laser-guided "smart bombs"), and chaff bombs (full of metallic strips used to confuse NVA radars attempting target identification).38

Although most of the Communist air defense system remained in place in North Vietnam, some of it appeared near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in 1972. When North Vietnam launched the Easter Offensive in April 1972 it deployed SA-2s, radars, and a handheld weapon, the SA-7, in support of its army. The presence of this modernized, mobile, ground air defense system in South Vietnam had immediate consequences for the United States and significant long-term effects for the VNAF: "No longer was it feasible to operate below 10,000 feet without using countermeasures."38 The presence of the SA-7 with its heat-seeking missile meant that "low and slow" aerial delivery of munitions was unsafe and, as such, outdated. The alternative was to fly higher where the results were much less predictable. The SA-7, in effect, had removed a third of South Vietnam's attack aircraft from the battlefield as the Soviet-built weapon virtually "put some aircraft such as the A-l out of business."40

In 1972, the United States countered this NVA move with new ECM and anri-SAM tactics including more sophisticated chaff delivery, flares to confuse the SA-7, and introduction of a new Jamming aircraft, the Marine Corps' EA-6B Prowler. As successful and necessary as these measures proved to be, the United States, bound by the terms of the 1973 Paris Accords, had no choice but to remove its aircraft and highly technical weapon systems from South Vietnam. Overnight, the VNAF arsenal lost its means of suppressing the enemy's ground air defenses. The United States had bequeathed the South Vietnamese Armed Forces an air-ground team absent its most essential element, air supremacy. General Momyer succinctly summarized, "The contest for air superiority is the most important contest of all, for no other operation can be sustained if this battle is lost. To win it, [one] must have the best equipment, the best tactics, the freedom to use them. and the best pilots."41 The South Vietnamese Air Force had none of these. Possibly worse, it had no all-weather attack aircraft like the A-6A Intruder, no navigational bombing punch in the form of F-4 Phantoms equipped with special electronic equipment (Lo-ran), and no B-52s. Instead, out of necessity, the VNAF relied on the belief that, when needed, U.S. air power, technological aid, and money would be forthcoming. This belief would persist until the bitter end. Former Commandant of the Vietnamese Marine Corps and a member of the Joint General Staff JGS), Lieutenant General Le Nguyen Khang, expressed the psychological and emotional importance of that faith: "We needed only one American plane to come in and drop one bomb to let the North Vietnamese know we were still getting strong U.S. support. We felt at that time (1975) if we could get one plane or a little bit of air support the war might change."42

Compounding their strategic problems were tactical and logistical problems. By l January 1975, the South Vietnamese had suffered the loss of 370 aircraft as a result of operational training and combat. None of these aircraft was ever replaced. The South Vietnamese simply could not afford replacement aircraft. Additionally, 224 aircraft were placed in flyable storage because the spare parts and petroleum products needed to keep them flying could not be funded within the constraints of the new $700 million U.S. budget package. The 1,481 operational aircraft in the South Vietnamese inventory on l January 1975 reflected a two-year attrition of nearly 25 percent. The debilitating effect of unreplaced aircraft losses and an imposing NVA antiaircraft threat had combined to produce a South Vietnamese Air Force simply incapable of neutralizing the North Vietnamese firepower advantage.43

With South Vietnam's air force nearly impotent, the navy represented a potential alternative. The U.S. Navy had provided gunfire support for ground operations prior to the ceasefire and many South Vietnamese military leaders expected the same level of firepower from the Vietnamese Navy (VNN). The concept of a navy to serve the coastal nation of Vietnam began

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