Donald Trump’s McCain insult shows ignorance of anti-air hell faced by pilots in Vietnam
Aviators showed extreme courage in face of Soviet-supplied North Vietnamese defenses that created ‘most sophisticated and intense anti-air environment ever’
The contretemps over Donald Trump’s dismissal of Senator John McCain’s military heroism has overlooked the circumstances that make it resonate throughout the military: not just McCain’s ability to endure torture, but the tremendously dangerous bombing mission that led him into five and a half years of North Vietnamese captivity.
Over the years, much attention has been focused on McCain’s torture at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. It has tended to obscure the bombing run that led McCain to maneuver his navy jet through intimidating air defenses – a circumstance that every pilot in a cockpit fears.
The risk of being shot down and captured, so searing during Vietnam, has led to generations of US military planners avoiding engagements where pilots face sophisticated air defenses and to the rise of drone warfare. Ironically, that has allowed public perceptions of the dangers of bombing missions in contested airspace to diminish to the point where a real estate developer can insult a veteran and not seem to realize how anyone flying a similar mission could end up in captivity.
“The implication that being shot down makes you a lesser man, aviator, whatever, is profoundly ignorant. [Trump] has not a clue as to the psychological dynamics of combat,” said retired air force lieutenant colonel Joe Guilmartin, who during Vietnam flew helicopter missions to rescue downed US aviators.
McCain’s time in captivity merits respect, regardless of anyone’s feelings about the Vietnam war or McCain as a politician. The son of an admiral, McCain refused a proffered early release, knowing he would be in for even more torture.
Few can understand that specific experience. Others, and especially those in uniform, can grasp the dangers of the missions McCain and men like him had to perform in Vietnam.
In 1967, then lieutenant commander McCain was a navy bomber pilot conducting bombing missions off the USS Oriskany. The missions were extremely perilous: McCain was in range of North Vietnam’s Soviet-provided missiles.
“We could see the SAMs [surface to air missiles] being transported to firing sites and put into place, but we couldn’t do anything about them because we were forbidden to bomb SAM sites unless they were firing on us,” McCain wrote in his 1999 memoir.
To dodge missiles, pilots, then as now, have to rely on their training, skill and perception and the engineering of their planes. Minute differences in reaction time determine life and death. The North Vietnamese missiles were among the first radar-guided missiles that US pilots confronted, adding another layer of peril.
On 26 October 1967, McCain flew his A-4 Skyhawk through what he remembered as a “nearly impassable obstacle course of antiaircraft fire and flying telephone poles. They scared the hell out of me.” Then the plane’s sensors informed him that a SAM was headed for him.
McCain recalled that his plane was capable of outmaneuvering the missile. But he could not dodge the missile and release his own bombs over the target: “I never would have had the time nor, probably, the nerve, to go back in once I lost the SAM.” McCain prioritized his mission. The missile destroyed the Skyhawk’s right wing. McCain tumbled from 3,500ft into an unimaginable hell.
“I’m not sure the public fully appreciated it even then, but the fact is, the defenses McCain and his fellow aviators faced in North Vietnam were the most sophisticated and intense anti-air environment ever,” said Guilmartin, now a professor of military history at Ohio State University.
It is partially because of experiences like McCain’s that the US military tries to avoid such missions. Rarely does the US send its pilots against modern air defenses. When it does, as in the 1991 Gulf war, the 1999 Kosovo war or the 2011 Libya war, those missile batteries and heavy machine guns are typically the first targets. Even those have been outmatched by US stealth and electronic-attack capabilities. Rarer still has been a fight against an adversary with its own capable air force.
Lately, the US has sent manned aircraft against enemies with crude or nonexistent air defenses, as in Iraq or Afghanistan. Fear of losing pilots has been instrumental in driving the development and deployment of remotely piloted drones, to the point where air-war planners now have to remind Congress and the public that the flying robots are too slow for use against powerful air-defense missiles. An overlooked piece of leverage the US had in its nuclear negotiations with Iran was Russia’s deferment of a sale of its formidable S-300 missile, leaving Iran far more vulnerable to a US or Israeli bombing run.
Military commanders facing real air defenses tend to emphasize the risks, sometimes to the dissatisfaction of hawkish politicians – like McCain. In 2012 a former air force chief of staff, knowing Iran’s existing missile defenses, wondered skeptically if bombing the country would achieve any lasting effect on its nuclear program. The outgoing chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, has warned for years that Syria’s air defenses complicate the Washington debate on bombing Bashar al-Assad.
“The American public has become inoculated or desensitized to the danger of air combat,” said Christopher Harmer, a former navy pilot and defense analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.
Trump “doesn’t understand combat. He doesn’t understand the courage of men who fly into those air defenses. He doesn’t understand the physical courage of men who face torture,” Harmer said.
“I desperately hope this spells the end of his ill-conceived candidacy for president. That is not a man who is ready to lead the United States military.”