The Use of Drones During The Vietnam War

The Use of Drones During The Vietnam War

Above Photo: January 1968, US troops test drones at Chu Lai in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, the use of drones became common, especially in reconnaissance missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and over North Vietnam, to test their air defences, and in POW surveillance operations.

Early versions of U.S. drones were programmed to fly a pre-programmed route and take still-photographs, but they kept crashing and throughout the war drone builders experimented with different types of models with different capabilities.

This drone flew 68 missions, when it was expected to only survive for two

The AQM-34 Ryan Firebee. The drone pictured flew 68 missions, when it was expected to only survive two.

The most popular drone was the AQM-34 Ryan Firebee, many of which were shot down over China and North Vietnam.

Sometimes they were used as bait for surface-to-air SAM missiles fired by the North Vietnamese, one drone drawing and avoiding eleven SAM missiles before it was finally shot down.

A North Vietnamese convoy of SAM 2 Missiles

A North Vietnamese convoy of Russian-made SAM Missiles

More than 1,000 AQM-34 Ryan Firebee drones flew in excess of 34,000 operational surveillance missions over Southeast Asia during the war, deploying from Japan, South Vietnam, and Thailand. They flew daytime and nighttime surveillance, leaflet-dropping missions, and surface-to-air missile radar detection over North Vietnam and southeast China.

Litterbugs - Over 50 BILLION propaganda leaflets were dropped over Vietnam, laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War

Litterbugs – Over 50 BILLION propaganda leaflets were dropped over Vietnam, laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War

Another type of drone was used to drop propaganda leaflets. The project was code-named Litterbug, but the troops called them ‘bullshit bombers”.

Many drones were lost over the South China Sea and North Vietnam, shot down by Chinese and North Vietnamese missiles and planes. Eighty were declared “missing in action” and one was even shot down by two US F-4 Phantom crews who mistook it for a North Vietnamese aircraft and fired missiles at it.

MIG Fighter bearing North Vietnamese Markings

MIG Fighter bearing North Vietnamese Markings

Some drones resulted in a few “kills” of North Vietnamese fighter aircraft. One Vietnamese MIG fighter ran out of fuel when the pilot chased the drone out to sea, and other fighters were lost due to “friendly fire” accidents while hunting the drones.

Drones were also used for surveillance of the Son Tay POW camp, in North Vietnam, in order to determine if US POWs were being held there.

Recon photo of Son Tay POW camp, North Vietnam

The drone overflights of the Son Tay camp were eventually stopped, since US intelligence officials felt that too many might make the enemy suspicious. Apparently they did, because when the camp was finally raided on November 21, 1970, there were no American POWs there.

The last drone flight in Vietnam was on the day that Saigon fell, on April 30th, 1975.

© Peter Alan Lloyd

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