The United States Air Force deployed combat aircraft to Thailand from 1961 to 1975 during the Vietnam War. Today, USAF units train annually with other Asian Air Forces in Thailand. Royal Thai Air Force Bases are an important element in thePentagon's "forward positioning" strategy.
During the Vietnam War, about 80% of all USAF air strikes over North Vietnam originated from air bases in Thailand. At its peak in 1969 a greater number of Airmen were serving in Thailand than were serving in South Vietnam.
Under Thailand's "gentleman's agreement" with the U.S., the bases were considered Royal Thai Air Force bases and were commanded by Thai officers. Thai air police controlled access to the bases; U.S. air police who helped them did carry guns. Command of the American units, however, remained with U.S. wing commanders and their Seventh Air Force/Thirteenth Air Force headquarters.
Out of the Thai bases flew the most extraordinary air-combat team that had ever been assembled. From Udorn, just 40 minutes by air from Hanoi, flew supersonic, unarmed RF-101 and RF-4C reconnaissance jets streaked over target areas immediately before and after a raid to photograph the damage so assessments of the attack could be made. From Korat, Takhli and Uboncame the F-105 Thunderchiefs and F-4C and F-4D Phantoms that actually deliver the bombs. From U-Tapao airfield on the Gulf of Siam, the largest airfield in Southeast Asia, four-engine KC-135 refueling tankers took to the air and refueled the aircraft just before and after they hit North Vietnam. From Takhli flew EB-66 electronic-warfare jets with special equipment that can detect the "fingerprints" of enemy radar in the sky and then send out a signal that fouls up the screen below. Flying out of Takhli, F-105s armed with radar-guided Shrike missiles had the job of knocking out SAM sites.
Finally, from Nakhon Phanom came every pilot's best friend: the air-rescue-and-recovery team. Flying ungainly looking, green and brown CH-3 helicopters, or "Jolly Green Giants," R. &. R. pilots had even gone into Hanoi's outskirts to rescue downed fliers.
These are the major bases the USAF operated from in Thailand:
- Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force Base, 1961–1970
- Major USAF Unit: 631st Combat Support Group, 1962-1970
- Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, 1962–1975
- Major USAF Unit: 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, 1965-1975
- Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Navy Base, 1962–1976
- Major USAF Unit: 56th Special Operations Wing, 1967-1975
- Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, 1961–1971; 1972–1974
- Major USAF Unit: 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, 1965-1971; Rotational units, 1972-1974
- U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield, 1965–1976
- Major USAF Units: 4258th Strategic Wing, 1966-1970; 307th Strategic Wing, 1970-1975
- Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, 1965–1974
- Major USAF Unit: 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, 1965-1974
- Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, 1964–1976
- Major USAF Unit: 432d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, 1966-1975
The circumstances surrounding the creation of these bases and the American deployment is a long and complex tale. Its origins lie in the French withdrawal from Indochina as a result of the 1954 Geneva Agreement, nationalism and the Cold War