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Operation Bolo

This week marked the 57th anniversary of one of the most famous Air Force missions of the Vietnam War—led by a guy known for his large bullet-proof mustache.

On January 2, 1967, a package of 56 F-4 Phantoms (plus tankers, airborne radar, and jamming support) took to the skies to execute Operation Bolo. Led by legendary fighter pilot Robin Olds, over a 12-minute period they took on 8-9 MiG-21s (depending on the source) and downed 7 of them.

Those lop-sided numbers don’t tell the full story though.

The Backstory
The North Vietnamese had been using their new (and few) MiG-21s judiciously, specifically targeting the Air Force’s F-105 “Thud” fighter bombers. The strategy:

1) Threaten the F-105s so they jettison their bombs (no bombs = no threat)

2) Get them anchored in a dogfight (the F-105 was built for speed, not maneuvering)

3) Avoid F-4 Phantoms at all costs

Making matters worse was the graduated response campaign fittingly named Rolling Thunder, which imposed restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE), limiting the Air Force's ability to strike airfields, radars, or early warning sites. The North Vietnamese could literally see every attack coming.

Combined with hit-and-run tactics, the MiGs were tallying kills—and driving the morale of frustrated U.S. fighter pilots into the dirt.

To kill a MiG meant it needed to be airborne and somehow get it drawn into an engagement with the F-4—the fighter that the North Vietnamese were specifically trying to avoid. 

The solution was to trick the MiGs into a fight by disguising F-4s as F-105s.

Jets would depart from F-105 airfields, fly F-105 strike routes up to Thud Ridge, and use F-105 jamming pods along the way so the North Vietnamese could see them. Except they weren’t F-105s—they were F-4s in disguise.

The verifiable combination of radar tracks, ELINT, and COMMIT would draw the MiGs into the sky to engage the “F-105”. Robin Olds pitched the plan to his boss, Gen. William Momyer, and the mission was approved on Dec. 27th, 1966. On Jan 2, 1967, it went off without a hitch.

Air Force-owned NSA-operated C-130B-II Silver Dawn was listening to the MiG-21 pilots in real time. Declassified transcripts of the intercepted comm include these translated gems:

  • “The sky is full of F-4s!”

  • “Where are the F-105s? You briefed us to expect F-105s!”

  • “I’d like to come down now!” 

Fool me again: A variation of the ruse was repeated again days later. A pair of F-4C Phantoms mimicked an unarmed RF-4C photo reconnaissance mission profile and shot 2 MiG-21s down.

The Aftermath
In the span of 96 hours, over half (9 of 16) of all the MiG-21s had been shot down. The North Vietnamese were forced to pause flight operations and regroup, paving the way for months of more permissive strike operations—and sky-high morale.  

Operation Bolo: a constant reminder to the tech-centric Air Force that the real advantage is the deadly combination of technology and tactics.

Bolo: Stuff You Should Know

  1. The mission was named after the Filipino cane-cutting machete which doubled as a martial arts weapon. Sharp and deadly, the bolo does not appear to be a weapon until the opponent is drawn in too close to evade.

  2. Operation Bolo actually comprised 96 fighters—56 F-4Cs, 24 F-105s, and 16 F-104s. The F-104s and F-105s were used in supporting roles.

  3. Of the 56 fighters who participated in Operational Bolo, only the 26 in the west package entered the target area—and only 12 F-4s ever saw a MiG. But those 12 F-4s racked up 7 kills.

  4. The 7 kills required upwards of 28 missiles fired from three formations—par for the course for weapons reliability at the time.

  5. The plan was led by Robin Olds, but devised by the wing tactics officer Captain John “JB” Stone—he recruited two 1LTs to help plan the whole thing

In That Number


The Army plans put Raytheon on contract for a minimum of 6,000 Coyote counter-drone interceptors and 269 launchers.

The announcement doesn’t specify, but we assume it’s the Block 2 Coyote—the product that Anduril’s recently-released Roadrunner is chasing.

TRIVIA: How big was Robin Olds’ famous mustache when he led Operation Bolo?

A) peach fuzz
B) a work in progress
C) full up
D) what mustache?

On the Radar

Northrop Grumman is gearing up to triple production of E-7 Wedgetail radar. They only make 2 radars per year, so they plan to build 6 (#math). This mirrors Boeing’s current and potential capacity to build 6 E-7s per year. Wedgetail production went from a side show to a key pain point in a matter of 2 years—thanks to a stack of orders from the UK, US, and NATO to replace aging E-3 AWACS.

  • The Merge’s Take: There is both a capacity and speed issue. Capacity: going from building 2 to 6 annually sounds good….though by comparison, the P-8 production line—which is also based off Boeing’s 737—historically produces 18 P-8s per year. Speed: It currently takes 5 years to build each E-7 (the process described in the link is worth the click).

The Pentagon’s Replicator initiative continues to inch along. The Pentagon recently selected a small number of capabilities for the initial tranche of Replicator, an initiative to field thousands of low-cost unmanned systems in the next 13-19 months.

  • The Merge’s Take: If you follow this, you’ll know we’ve been bullish from the start since too many details didn’t make sense. You may notice we didn’t quote the program’s original 18–24-month goal (August 2025). Why: Since the announcement, they’ve burned 5 months (and counting) deliberating on what exactly to do. The most recent announcement isn’t exactly reassuring. Turns out they only selected potential capability areas—not the actual systems—so expect to burn a couple more months before industry gets a phone call.  

The Navy may not buy its final 20 F/A-18 Super Hornets, even though Congress gave them $1.15B to seal the deal. The issue is rising costs, meaning that money may now only buy ~10 jets. OBTW, the Navy already awarded Boeing $200m for the long-lead items for these jets last summer.

  • The Merge’s Take: If the deal doesn’t happen, the Navy won’t lose any sleep. The Navy didn’t want any of these and even criticized industry for "lobbying Congress to buy aircraft we don't need." The result of a decade of this help: the Navy’s Super Hornet fleet age average is ~13 years, and for a jet that is designed to last 30 years, they simply don’t need anymore.

  • The Merge’s Spicy Take: The Air Force’s fighter fleet age average is DOUBLE THE NAVY, anchored by decrepit 40-year old F-15Cs. Convert the Navy Super Hornet money into Air Force F-15EX money, it solves a bigger problem and Boeing still gets the money. How: Put congressmen in the back seat of ancient F-15Ds after getting a brief on all the structural issues and safety concerns—then let pilots do max speed/max G profiles until they are scared straight. Problem solved.

They Said It

“The name of the game of this program isn’t developing something new and novel. The name of the game of this is to field autonomy.”

— Neya Systems’ Kurt Bruck, on winning 1 of 3 contracts from DIU to integrate autonomy aboard the Oshkosh-made military trucks to prototype autonomous resupply conveys for the Army.

Knowledge Bombs

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D. Robin Olds was famous for his mustache during his tour in Vietnam, but when he led Operation Bolo—the mission he’s most famous for—he had not yet decided to grow a mustache.