F-104 Starfighter deployment
During the early days of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, North Vietnamese fighter aircraft became a problem for attacking USAF and US Navy strike aircraft. On April 3, 1965, three North Vietnamese Mig-17s attacked a strike package near the Dong Phuong Thong bridge and damaged a Crusader and then escaped unscathed. The next day, two MiG-17s attacked a flight of four F-105s and shot two of them down.
In response, the 476th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing from George AFB, California sent fifteen F-104 Starfighters to Da Nang in April 1965. Their job was to fly MiG combat air patrol (MiGCAP) missions to protect American fighter bombers against attack by North Vietnamese fighters. They flew these missions armed with their single M61A1 20-mm cannon and four AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The 476th would rotate with the 435th TFS in 180-day deployments.
The effect of F-104 deployment upon NVN and PRC MiG operations was immediate and dramatic—NVN MiGs soon learned to avoid contact with USAF strikes being covered by F-104s. During the entire deployment of the 476th only two fleeting encounters between F-104Cs and enemy fighters occurred. From April 20 to November 20 of 1965 they carried out 2,927 missions of machine-gunning, bombing and escorting strike aircraft, sometimes in North Vietnamese air space.
On August 1, two F-104Cs were lost to enemy SAMs in a single day, and it was concluded that it was too dangerous to operate the F-104C in support of Wild Weasel missions, especially when they were not equipped with ECM gear. It was decided to withdraw the F-104C from support of strike missions over North Vietnam, unless and until the MiG threat reappeared. By late August, these F-104Cs were involved in airstrikes against targets in both Laos and South Vietnam, exchanging its role of air superiority for that of ground attack. However, losses were heavy, with three F-104s being downed by ground fire and SAMs in the next couple of months. The F-104C was not very well suited for the ground attack role, being incapable of carrying an adequately large offensive load. In addition, it could not carry out operations in bad weather and could not sustain a lot of battle damage.
By late 1966, all F-104s in Southeast Asia had received APR-25/26 RHAW gear under Project Pronto, and once again began flying escort missions over North trek Da Nang Vietnam. The Starfighter took part in Operation Bolo on January 2, 1967, which was a successful attempt to lure North Vietnamese fighters into combat. However, the F-104s were not used to actively entice and engage MiGs, but were used instead to protect the egressing F-4 force. The F-4 Phantoms scored heavily during this engagement.
The Air Force decided to replace these F-104Cs by more efficient McDonnell F-4D Phantoms starting in July 1967. The 435th was then rotated back to George AFB for the last time.