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Critique of Strategic Air Power in the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War proved extremely costly for the United States of America. Despite being the world’s most technologically advanced Superpower, America was held to a long stalemate by what was essentially a third world nation.[1] Before the effectiveness of American strategic air power is assessed, the intent must be explored and appreciated. Russian and Chinese support for North Vietnam made a quick decisive victory all but impossible. [2] America chose to enter the Vietnam War to ‘contain the spread of Communism’ based on the ‘Domino Theory’ of States succumbing to Communist rule. [3] To undertake this, the Americans hoped to eradicate the enemy’s will to fight, bolster the morale of the South Vietnamese[4] and ultimately bring a peace in Vietnam in line with the Foreign Policy of the USA.[5] This essay will demonstrate how political interference lead to the poor use of strategic air power during ROLLING THUNDER, and highlight the difference of those campaigns initiated by Presidents Johnson and Nixon. The three campaigns that will be covered are Operations ROLLING THUNDER and LINEBACKER I & II. ROLLING THUNDER will show the lack of success due to political interference and the inhibiting factors that had on the types of operation that could be executed. LINEBACKER I & II will show the link between lesser political restrictions and the use of air power to coerce North Vietnam to the negotiating table. Ultimately, strategic air power was insufficient to achieve the initial objectives of the United States, however the effectiveness increased during LINEBACKER I & II.

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Operation ROLLING THUNDER was a sustained American air campaign under the Johnson Administration that lasted from 1965 to 1968. The main goals were to bring Hanoi to the negotiating table, dissuade North Vietnam from infiltrating men and materials to the South, and to reaffirm American credibility for resisting revolutions in in third world countries. The administration had three different views on conducting the campaign, two of which lean from the theories of Douhet and Schelling, and one that involved industrial web theory that proved effective in the Second World War.[6] The common factor was that there would be a gradual increase in coercive strikes until Hanoi was brought to the table on American terms. This was expected to last ‘a few weeks, or at the most, a few months’[7] There were 3 separate strategies proposed by high ranking civilian and military officials in Washington, all backed by various political and military personnel. The Civilian strategy was coercion by threats against infrastructure. This strategy relied heavily on military action being tailored to suit secret diplomatic actions i.e. if the North didn’t bargain/negotiate their position, then the bombing would increase.[8] The Air Force’s strategy was based around a ‘genteel’ Douhet plan, where the preference was coercion through destruction instead of threats. This would have a knock-on effect for North Vietnam by making it too expensive to wage war in South Vietnam. This theory also attempted to shield the strategy from what turned out to be repeated criticism in America.[9] The third strategy was mainly targeting the infiltration lines that ran from North to South Vietnam. The theory for this was isolation through strangulation of supplies, diminishing the Vietcongs ability to fight. The Johnson Administration chose to use all three strategies, despite there being no recognisable change in the North Vietnamese strategy. The change in US strategies was ultimately driven by pressure from the public and Congress to find coercive leverage over North Vietnam, which worked briefly in 1968. The main disadvantage to ROLLING THUNDER was too much control from Washington. This out of theatre control established too many restrictions on the Operation, the most notable being the no-fly zones established around Hanoi and Haiphong which had a radius of up to 30 miles.[10] The Chinese border had a 30-mile buffer zone[11] too, imposed by Johnson, although this was more to do with keeping Chinese involvement as low as possible during the war. ROLLING THUNDER suffered greatly with its chain of command. Unlike modern air campaigns, the operation was ran from Washington, and the White House in particular. The greatest failure was the inability to gain leverage over the North using the three strategies.[12] Furthermore, the handling of the Operation from Washington gave the North an ability to sustain and persevere throughout the bombing[13]. The fact the operation was led from thousands of miles away opens up the first failure. Results of the air strikes could not be analysed straight away and follow up operations undertaken due to the delays in bomb damage assessment having to be sent to the US and direction sent back to Vietnam. Further evidence towards the level of Vietnamese resilience is the increase in tonnage and bombing runs between 1966 & 1968 from the Americans, with little or no progress made.[14] ROLLING THUNDER ended in October 1968 with little or no change to the progress of the war in Vietnam, but a loss of aircraft and experienced aircrew from all fleets.
Operation LINEBACKER I was an air campaign from May to October 1972. Johnson had been replaced by Nixon in the Oval Office, thus lifting many of the political restrictions and giving the Military more freedom in selection and priority of targets.[15] Whilst fundamentally different to ROLLING THUNDER, the use of strategic American air power was still an overriding effect. The greatest difference between ROLLING THUNDER and LINEBACKER I is attributed to North Vietnam; however, America had learned some of the lessons from ROLLING THUNDER. LINEBACKER I was more effective because North Vietnam was now fighting a conventional war as opposed to a Guerrilla war.[16] Allied to the North fighting a conventional war, Nixon removed the restraints that affected the Military during the Johnson presidency, thus allowing an increase in air strikes across the landscape.[17] American B52 bombers struck major supply depots, rail systems and power plants in the North, bringing Hanoi to a powerless standstill. The Norths Easter Offensive proved to be an example of how crippling well directed and coordinated American air power can be, when not subject to political interference or direction. North Vietnam had its overland imports cut by 80%, and sea imports cut by a greater number to the point where 250000 tonnes of imports a month dropped ‘to a trickle’.[18] Furthermore, Nixon and Kissinger instigated LINEBACKER I as a political tool, given the landmark US-Chinese relations that had been re-established.[19] The political implications for superpowers brought about by LINEBACKER I were minimal, and worked in the US’s favour. China & the USSR both secretly urged Hanoi to end the war, mainly as it would impact the aforementioned Superpower relations. This does not mean that they wanted Hanoi to end the war conceding to America, much the opposite, merely removing the Americans from the war and setting about their goal afterwards. [20] This perceived change in policy by the USSR & China did Washington no favours. LINEBACKER I appeared to be a case of too little, too late.
Following the breakdown of the July 1972 peace accords, North and South Vietnam both backed away from the negotiating table. In response to the breakdown, mainly to appease the South Vietnamese President and to bring the North back to the table, Nixon ordered a new offensive starting on 18 December.[21] This new offensive was to be vehemently different to LINEBACKER I, since it was to shatter the Norths will to fight, and show unwavering support to the South.[22] LINEBACKER II was only 11 days in length, appearing to be a subsidiary operation in comparison to LINEBACKER I, and was instigated from the failed negotiations.[23] Nicknamed ‘the Christmas bombing’, the aim of LINEBACKER II was, as mentioned, twofold. Adding into the bringing about of new negotiations, the campaign was also more effective militarily. The movement of men and supplies to the South was severely limited compared to previous years.[24] The main tactic employed by the USAF B52 force was fear not interdiction, especially given the night attacks on Hanoi’s outskirts. The main reasoning for the B52 night attacks was using the darkness to avoid MIG’s, as they carried conventional bombs vs the guided munitions of the fighters.[25] The force multiplier was not related to Fast Jets or Bombers per se, it was the support aircraft that allowed them to get from various US bases to North Vietnam. In total there were just under 200 tankers to support various strike and reconnaissance sorties.[26] The initial sorties brought about a significant shock value to the North, as it was beyond anything they had expected. Despite this, the US couldn’t avoid giving warning signals that an attack was building. Allied to this, the Soviet Union had a trawler sitting off the main B52 base at Guam which gave significant early warning to the North.[27] It cannot be denied that the air strikes of LINEBACKER II were effective, the effect was mainly psychological, however the choice of targets emphasised this. The use of precision guided munitions was another aid to the effect of LINEBACKER II airstrikes, however they were limited from the F4 fleet due to a lack of available targeting pods in theatre.[28] Nixon’s goal of coercing the North back to the negotiating table was achieved through LINEBACKER II, as the volume of air strikes had demonstrated that coercion can be achieved through air power. The secondary motive for the campaign was to ensure that South Vietnamese President Thieu agreed, resulting in a tripartite signing of the accords. As per LINEBACKER I, LINEBACKER II was too late, irrespective of whether the political goal had been achieved through military means.
American air power in Vietnam did not wield the success it should have given the vast resources used. Political planning and running of ROLLING THUNDER was the major inhibitor of American success on the battlefield, not just in terms of controlling the Operations; they also failed to apply basic Clausewitzian theory to Vietnam and thus did not understand the war that was being fought.[29] America should have used their overwhelming air power to fight a counter insurgency war, but due to factors already mentioned, they believed they were fighting a conventional war. It was when there was a change of President, and when the North Vietnamese changed their tactics that you saw a rise in the success of American air power during LINEBACKER I and primarily LINEBACKER II, but it did little to alter the will or capability of the Communists to fight. The use of Strategic air power did not quicken the war, in fact quite the opposite. Air Power delayed the inevitable, which was an invasion of the South by the North when America had withdrawn all her forces in 1975. As well as lengthening the war, it was a massive drain on US resources. Financially $168 billion was poured into the conflict, and had zero return for the American tax payer with America spending up to $10 for every $1 of damage in Vietnam[30]. This in turn had a massive impact on the US economy.[31] Vietnam was a humiliating defeat for the United States, shattering the myth that they were invulnerable. Moreover, the defeat undermined American confidence in their military, and commitment to internationalism. American air power was left reeling with the scars of Vietnam until operations in the Gulf in 1990/1991.

  • Clodfelter, Mark (2006). The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam. 2nd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 73, 119, 134, 148, 149, 177, 204.
  • Lawrence, Mark Atwood (2008). The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. New York: Oxford University Press. 99, 154, 155.
  • Ledwidge, Frank (2018). Aerial Warfare. New York: Oxford University Press. 116.
  • Menand, Louis. (2018). What Went Wrong in Vietnam. Available: // Last accessed 3 September 2019.
  • Pape, Robert A (1996). Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. New York: Cornell University Press. 178, 179, 180, 189, 201, 210.
  • Rohn, Alan. (7 April 2016). How did the Vietnam War affect America? Available: // Last accessed 3 September 2019
  • Thompson, James Clay (1980). Rolling Thunder: Understanding Policy and Program Failure. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press. 25, 29.
  • Thompson, Wayne (2010). To Hanoi and Back: The United States Air Force and North Vietnam 1966-1973. 2nd ed. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific. 118, 277, 278.
  • Weist, Andrew (2002). The Vietnam War 1956 – 1975. Great Britain: Osprey Publishing. 9, 19.

[1] Weist (2002), p.19.
[2] Ledwidge (2018), p.116.
[3] Weist (2002), p.9.
[4] Thompson (1980), p.25.
[5] Clodfelter (2006), p.204.
[6] Clodfelter (2006), p.73.
[7] Thompson (1981), p.29.
[8] Pape (1996), p.178/179.
[9] Pape (1996), p.180.
[10] Clodfelter (2006), p.119.
[11] Thompson (2005), p.24.
[12] Pape (1996), p.189.
[13] Lawrence (2008), p.99.
[14] Clodfelter (2006), p.134.
[15] Thompson (2010), p.118.
[16] Clodfelter (2006), p.148.
[17] Clodfelter (2006), p.149.
[18] Pape (1996), p.201.
[19] Lawrence (2008), p.154.
[20] Lawrence (2008), p.155.
[21] //
[22] Clodfelter (2006), p.177.
[23] Pape (1996), p.201.
[24] Eade (1973), p.5.
[25] Thompson (2010), p277.
[26] Thompson (2010), p277.
[27] Thompson (2010), p277.
[28] Thompson (2010), p278.
[29] Pape (1996), p.210.
[30] Menand (2018), // .
[31] Rohn (2016), // .

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