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Poor Strategic Air Power in Rolling Thunder

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, its intent must be understood.   Soviet 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 respectively.  The basis of analysis will stem from Operations Rolling Thunder and Linebacker I and II.  In the case of of Rolling Thunder, political interference and lack of understanding led to a failure of air power.  Whereas, during Linebacker I and II it will be shown that reduced political restrictions enabled air power to coerce North Vietnam to the negotiating table, but will also emphasise the role played by a change in North Vietnamese strategy.  Whilst the effectiveness of air power increased during the Linebacker operations, this essay will show that ultimately strategic air power was unable to achieve the overall goals and objectives of the United States.

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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 and dissuade North Vietnam from injectting men and materials through to the South; hoping that capitulation through lack of supplies would occur.  This all sought to reaffirm American credibility for resisting revolutions in in third world countries.  There were 3 separate strategies proposed and backed by high ranking civilian and military officials in Washington, two of which stem from the theories of Douhet and Schelling, and one that involved industrial web theory that had proved effective in the Second World War.[6]  Douhet’s theory is to strike quickly, thus inflicting the greatest possible damage to an enemy in the shortest amount of time; however, the distinction between combatant and non-combatant was eroded.[7]  Schelling’s theory is to argue that coercive leverage is gained from anticipation of future damages, thus not destroying the entire target list in one swift action.[8]  Meanwhile, industrial web theory relies on targeting the economic and military ‘vital centres’ of an enemy, believing that destruction of those nodes will disrupt the capacity of the opponent to make war.  The common factor was that there would be a gradual increase in coercive strikes until Hanoi was brought to the table on American terms.  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 did not bargain/negotiate their position, then the bombing would increase.[9]  The air force’s strategy was based around a ‘genteel’ Douhet plan, where the preference was coercion through destruction instead of threats.  A significant difference marking this strategy as ‘genteel’ compared to a more purist Douhet strategy, is that there were refinements in distinction between combatants and non-combatants.  This strategy would have a knock-on effect for North Vietnam by making it too expensive to wage war in the South.  The third strategy targeted the communist infiltration lines that ran from North to South Vietnam with the aim of isolation through strangulation of supplies, diminishing the Norths ability to fight.  The Johnson Administration chose to use all three strategies, despite failing to understand 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 restrictive 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]  Furthermore, the handling of the operation from Washington gave the North an ability to sustain and persevere throughout the bombing[11].  Results of the air strikes could not be analysed straight away and follow up operations were undertaken slowly due to the delays in bomb damage assessment having to be sent to the US and direction sent back to Vietnam.  Rolling Thunder suffered greatly with its chain of command; this led to an inability to gain leverage over the North using the three strategies.[12]  The regime in Hanoi knew that they did not have a good chance of defeating the Americans in a conventional war, and thus sought to fight a sustainable guerrilla war of attrition in the south.  Further evidence for the strength of Vietnamese resilience was the increase in tonnage and bombing runs between 1966 and 1968 from the Americans.[13]  Rolling Thunder ended in October 1968 with little or no change to the progress of the war in Vietnam, despite 300,000 sorties flown, 864,000 tonnes of bombs dropped and $370 million in damages, thus proving that despite overwhelming use of force, political interference and lack of understanding rendered this an unsuccessful campaign.[14]
Operation Linebacker I was an air campaign from April to October 1972.[15]  Johnson had been replaced by Nixon in the Oval Office, and many of the political restrictions were subsequently lifted, giving the Military more freedom in selection and priority of targets.[16]  In comparing Rolling Thunder to Linebacker I, the greatest difference is attributed to North Vietnam; allied to this, 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.[17]  Nixon removed the restraints that affected the Military during the Johnson presidency, thus allowing an increase in air strikes across the landscape.[18]  American B52 bombers struck major supply depots, rail systems and power plants in the North, bringing Hanoi to a powerless standstill.  The response to the 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, thus resulting in speedier decision making.  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’.[19]  Furthermore, Nixon and Kissinger (Nixon’s National Security Advisor) instigated Linebacker I as a political tool, given the reestablishment of US-Chinese relations.[20]  The political implications for superpowers brought about by Linebacker I were minimal, and worked in the US’s favour.  The USSR and China both secretly urged Hanoi to end the war, as they believed it would impact the aforementioned Superpower relations.  Rather than wanting Hanoi to end the war by conceding to America, their purpose was to remove the Americans from the war and set about their goal of a communist reunification afterwards.[21]  This perceived change in policy by the USSR and China did Washington no favours meaning that Linebacker I appeared to be a case of too little, too late in terms of the effectiveness of American air power.
Following the failure of the July 1972 negotiations, North and South Vietnam both backed away from the 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.  This new offensive was to be fundamentally different to Linebacker I, since it was designed to shatter the Norths will to fight, and show unwavering support to the South.[22]   Nicknamed ‘the Christmas bombing’ due to its 11-day duration, the aim of Linebacker II was, as mentioned, twofold.  The main tactic employed by the US B52 force was fear not interdiction.  The B52 air strikes delivered a predominantly psychological effect; despite only carrying conventional munitions, a B52 flying over Hanoi at night posed a greater psychological threat than a fleet of F4s during daytime.  The deduction for this is that the population cannot see where the B52 is heading for and react accordingly.  The initial sorties brought about a significant shock value to the North, as the bombardment was beyond anything they had experienced previously.  Despite this, the US could not avoid giving warning signals that an attack was building.  Furthermore, the Soviet Union had a trawler sitting off the main B52 base at Guam which gave significant early warning to the North.[23]  The use of precision guided munitions was another aid to the effect of Linebacker II airstrikes, however the strikes were limited from the F4 fleet due to a lack of available targeting pods in theatre.[24]  Despite being a lesser tonnage in terms of ordinance dropped than the B52’s, it did allow the Americans to hit specific targets with lower collateral damage such as the Hanoi powerplant, Bridges and Artillery.[25]  Furthermore, the movement of men and supplies to the South was severely limited compared to previous years.[26]  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.  As per Linebacker I, Linebacker II was too late to change the course of the war through the application of air power, irrespective of whether the political goal had been achieved through military means.
American air power in Vietnam did not yield the success it should have given the vast resources used.  Political planning and running of Rolling Thunder was the not the major inhibitor of American success on the battlefield.  The main inhibitor was a failure to apply basic Clausewitzian theory to Vietnam and thus America did not understand the war that was being fought.  There was a significant use of air power against resupply but the nature of those routes, especially the Ho Chi Minh trail, and the nature of the insurgent meant that even this would be ineffective; So, America used their overwhelming air power to fight a conventional war.  It was not due to the change of President, but rather when the North Vietnamese changed their tactics that there was a rise in the success of American air power during Linebacker I and primarily Linebacker II.  However this 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 with America spending up to $10 for every $1 of damage in Vietnam.  Vietnam was a humiliating defeat for the United States, not just their air power, as air power sits within the wider context of failure and understanding of their enemy.  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.[27]

  • Clodfelter, Mark (2006). The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam. 2nd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Lawrence, Mark Atwood (2008). The Vietnam War: A Concise International History. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Ledwidge, Frank (2018). Aerial Warfare. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Nalty, Bernard. (27 April 2011). 1972 – Operation Linebacker I. Available:  Last accessed 9 November 2019.
  • Pape, Robert A (1996). Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. New York: Cornell University Press.
  • Taylor, Lisa. (November 2016). Vietnam War: Air Power. Available:  Last accessed 9 November 2019.
  • Thompson, James Clay (1980). Rolling Thunder: Understanding Policy and Program Failure. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.
  • 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.
  • Weist, Andrew (2002). The Vietnam War 1956 – 1975. Great Britain: Osprey Publishing.

[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] Pape (1996), p.180.
[8] Pape (1996), p.67.
[9] Pape (1996), p.178/179.
[10] Clodfelter (2006), p.119.
[11] Lawrence (2008), p.99.
[12] Pape (1996), p.189.
[13] Clodfelter (2006), p.134.
[14] Taylor (2016),
[15] Nalty (2011),
[16] Thompson (2010), p.118.
[17] Clodfelter (2006), p.148.
[18] Clodfelter (2006), p.149.
[19] Pape (1996), p.201.
[20] Lawrence (2008), p.154.
[21] Lawrence (2008), p.155.
[22] Clodfelter (2006), p.177.
[23] Thompson (2010), p277.
[24] Thompson (2010), p278.
[25] Thompson (2010), p230.
[26] Eade (1973), p.5.
[27] Thompson (2010), p282.

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