The insertion of an AlN interlayer for tensile strain relief in GaN thin films grown on Si (111) on-axis and vicinal substrates by nitrogen rf plasma source molecular beam epitaxy has been investigated. The 15 nm AlN interlayer was inserted between the bottom 0.5 micron GaN layer and the top 1.0 micron GaN layer. The interlayer was very effective to reduce the tensile stress in the overall 1.5 micron GaN/Si film to the level required for complete avoidance of microcracks, which were present in high densities in GaN/Si heterostructures grown without an AlN interlayer. The strain of the AlN interlayer, as well as the strain in all the layers of the entire GaN/Si heterostructure was analyzed by x-ray diffraction (XRD) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) measurements. Reciprocal space map in XRD indicated that the 15 nm AlN interlayer was coherently strained with the GaN films. However TEM observations revealed that the AlN interlayer was partially relaxed in local regions. The AlN interlayer was also observed to interfere with the GaN growth process. In particular, above morphological features such as V-defects, GaN was overgrown with a large density of threading dislocations and inversion domain boundaries.