The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Air Power, Role in War: Vietnam War

More than half of the $200 billion the United States expended to wage the Vietnam War went to support air operations, including Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines, Allied aviation, and civilian contract airlines. Although occasionally pivotal, especially in supporting ground operations, air power was never decisive. The role of air power in the war remains subject to controversy and myth.

Air power enthusiasts perpetuate the myth that if U.S. air forces had been unleashed, quick and decisive victory would have followed. To support their contention they point to the so-called "Christmas Bombing" of LINEBACKER II in December 1972. Advocates of air power claim that air operations did all they were asked to do and that they could have been more effective had their "hands not been tied."

The myth perpetuated by some in the antiwar movement is that a cruel technology was unleashed on the people of Indo-China. They claim that North Vietnam's cities were "carpet bombed" and that napalm was used indiscriminately throughout the war. Although many of these claims are the result of ignorance or shoddy scholarship, some, such as the contention that 100,000 tons of bombs fell on Hanoi during LINEBACKER II, border on the fanciful.

Indeed, from 1962 through 1973 the United States dropped nearly 8 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. South Vietnam received about half that tonnage, making it the most bombed country in the history of aerial warfare, a dubious distinction for an ally. The air campaign resulted in the U.S. Air Force losing 2,257 aircraft. Total air losses for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Army came to 8,588 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.

Although missions against North Vietnam caught the imagination and perhaps inspired the most controversy, the focus of air operations was South Vietnam. Nearly 75 percent of all sorties (one aircraft on one mission) were flown in support of U.S. and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) ground forces. Indeed, many veterans claim that they owed their survival to close air support by the Air Force and Marines. But air power played a larger role than dropping bombs. Helicopters provided unprecedented mobility to American and Allied forces by hauling troops and artillery to and from the battlefield. Medical evacuation helicopters carried wounded-many of whom otherwise would not have survived-to modern rear-area medical facilities, where specialists performed life-saving surgery. Air Force transports kept far-flung outposts such as Kham Duc and Khe Sanh supplied even when they were surrounded by Communist forces and cut off from land lines of communications. Twin-engine, propeller-driven, side-firing gunships, such as the AC-47 and, later, the AC-119, went aloft at night to keep the enemy from overrunning isolated Special Forces outposts. B-52 ARC LIGHT missions pounded supply caches and sometimes obliterated entire Communist regiments when they massed for an attack. They were particularly effective during the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968 and at An Loc in 1972.

The unprecedented weight of this effort indicates that the primary role for air power in Vietnam was in support of ground operations. This ran counter to the tenets of U.S. Air Force doctrine that held that air power could be better used in a strategic air campaign against North Vietnam. The argument can be made that air power played a strategically counterproductive role in South Vietnam. Images of napalm bursting over villages and huts, of denuded forests resulting from the use of Agent Orange, and of bombs tumbling from B-52s fed the claims of the antiwar movement. On a more rational level, it can be argued that the Air Force's ability to provide support for troops actually prolonged the war by making it possible for the Army and Marines to stay engaged in a conflict they really did not know how to win.

Air power used outside South Vietnam in so-called out-country operations accounted for nearly another 4 million tons of bombs. Out-country operations included three major air campaigns over North Vietnam, a series of interdiction campaigns along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, and various air operations over Cambodia. Of all the campaigns conducted out of country, only Operation LINEBACKER I, the air response to North Vietnam's Spring Offensive of 1972, was an unmitigated success. The rest either failed or are subject to conflicting interpretations.

Operation ROLLING THUNDER, the bombing of North Vietnam from March 2, 1965 to October 31, 1968, was the longest air campaign ever conducted by the U.S. Air Force. It was both an effort at strategic persuasion and interdiction. Although the vast majority of historians agree that ROLLING THUNDER failed to achieve its stated objectives, the most ardent air power enthusiasts claim otherwise. They maintain that Hanoi was on the verge of defeat when the bombing was curtailed following the 1968 Tet Offensive. Critics contend that the shift from what had been a guerrilla war, albeit with increasingly conventional aspects, to what had become much more a conventional war by 1969 was indicative both of Hanoi's ability to move supplies and troops to the South and the failure of ROLLING THUNDER.

LINEBACKER I, the air response to Hanoi's 1972 Spring Offensive, was the most successful employment of air power in the Vietnam War. The strategy of using conventional air power to stop a conventional invasion was effective. The nature of the war in the South had changed by spring 1972 and Hanoi's 14 divisions fighting inside South Vietnam needed up to 1,000 tons of supplies a day to continue their operations. Furthermore, LINEBACKER I was the first modern air campaign in which precision-guided munitions played an integral role in a coherent and effective strategy. The use of conventional air power to stop a conventional invasion made it the classic example of a successful aerial interdiction campaign.

LINEBACKER II, the "eleven-day war" (as it is called by some air power enthusiasts), took place between 18 and December 29, 1972. Some 739 B-52 sorties dropped 15,000 tons of bombs on targets in and around Hanoi, Hai Phong, Vinh, and other major North Vietnamese cities. Fighter-bombers added another 5,000 tons. The North Vietnamese launched virtually every SA-2 surface-to-air missile in their inventory to shoot down 15 B-52s, nine fighter-bombers, a Navy reconnaissance jet, and an Air Force HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter.

Air power advocates claim that LINEBACKER II "brought North Vietnam to its knees." They further contend that if air power had been used with equal resolve at any point after 1965, the war could have been concluded quickly and on terms favorable to the United States. Critics point out that just as the nature of the war in 1972 was different than it was earlier, U.S. demands on Hanoi were also different. By 1972 most American troops had been withdrawn. All Washington wanted was to get its remaining troops out and its prisoners of war back and for the Saigon government to survive for a reasonable interval. With its air defenses in shambles, however, Hanoi had little reason to test U.S. resolve. The bombing compelled them to sign an agreement that basically allowed for the continued withdrawal of U.S. forces and the return of prisoners of war held in North Vietnam and South Vietnam.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos was subjected to a massive aerial interdiction effort that dwarfed ROLLING THUNDER and LINEBACKER I combined. Bombing of the trail began in 1965 with Operations BARREL ROLL, STEEL TIGER, and TIGER HOUND. None of these had much effect on what was still a guerrilla war in South Vietnam. But as the war steadily escalated and the flow of supplies became more critical, the bombing increased. On November 15, 1968, two weeks after President Lyndon Johnson ended ROLLING THUNDER, Operation COMMANDO HUNT began. Before the U.S. stopped bombing Laos in February 1973, nearly 3 million tons of bombs were dropped, mostly on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

COMMANDO HUNT was a series of seven campaigns, each of about six months' duration. During this effort gunships like the four-engine AC-130s roamed over the trail at night using infrared sensors and low-light level television to find trucks, which were then destroyed by their computer-aimed 40-mm cannon or 105-mm howitzers. B-52s flew up to 30 sorties a day to dump bombs into "interdiction" boxes around Tchepone (a key transshipment point) and in the four passes leading from North Vietnam into Laos and from Laos into South Vietnam and Cambodia. During the day, when few trucks ventured onto the trail, fighter-bombers attacked suspected truck parks, storage areas, and antiaircraft gun emplacements. But in the final analysis this massive employment of air power, while generating statistical success, failed to curtail the flow of troops and supplies moving from North Vietnam into South Vietnam and Cambodia. In fact, air power never effectively shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Air operations over Cambodia made up the last component of the out-country air war. Beginning with the secret Operation MENU bombing in March 1969 through August 15, 1973 when Congress mandated an end to air operations over Cambodia, about 500,000 tons of bombs fell on PAVN, Viet Cong, and Khmer Rouge base camps and supply dumps. Although it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of this bombing, one can argue that the MENU bombing (March 18, 1969 to May 26, 1970) helped prevent a major buildup of Communist forces that would have preceded an attack toward Saigon. Had such an attack developed, Vietnamization and the continued withdrawal of American troops might have been jeopardized. On the other hand, despite the dropping of a half-million ton of bombs, the Khmer Rouge steadily increased its strength and extended its hold on the countryside to win the war in April 1975.

Despite what may seem to be a succession of failures, air power did some remarkable things. There were noteworthy technical and tactical innovations introduced during the Vietnam War. These included aerial defoliation of jungles and crop destruction, the development and employment of propeller-driven, side-firing gunships, and the use of forward air controllers (FACs) to coordinate air strikes in South Vietnam and northern Laos. One of the greatest success stories for the U.S. Air Force was the development of a superb long-range combat aircrew search-and-rescue (SAR) capability. Although the recovery of downed aircrews is a good operational capability to have, when rescuing downed pilots is a highlight of an air war, that says something about the overall performance of air power.

The United States was the first major power to lose a war in which it controlled the air. It was not, however, the last. In the 1980s the Soviet Union experienced some of the same frustrations in its long and bloody war in Afghanistan. What Vietnam did indicate for air power is that winning or losing in warfare is much more than a function of sortie generation and firepower on targets. It incorporates many factors to include politics, national will and resolve, geography, time, and the weather. Above all, warfare, especially limited warfare, is an art. U.S. air power leaders in Vietnam may have been masters of air power, but they were not masters of the art of war.

Earl H. Tilford Jr.


Further Reading
Berger, Carl, ed. The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973: An Illustrated Account. Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1984.; Clodfelter, Mark. The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam. New York: Free Press, 1989.; Momyer, William W. Airpower in Three Wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978.; Morrocco, John. Rain of Fire: Air War, 1969-1973. The Vietnam Experience. Edited by Robert Manning. Boston: Boston Publishing, 1986.; Morrocco, John. Thunder from Above: Air War, 1941-1968. The Vietnam Experience. Edited by Robert Manning. Boston: Boston Publishing, 1984.
 

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