On March 12th, 1967, Colonel Jack Broughton leads F-105D Thunderchiefs of the 355th TFW out of Takhli Royal Thai Air Base against the large thermal power plant at Viet Tri, on the Red River, a short distance to the northwest of Hanoi. Taking the familiar route, approaching the target area flying down Thud Ridge, Broughton pushed his flight of four ships down to the deck and , “going like hell”, Broughton swung the leading Thuds southwest, just enough to give those on the ground the impression they were headed somewhere south of Viet Tri. Not quite abreast of the target, Broughton called the ‘pop’ and as the Thuds passed vertical they rolled to inverted going over the top, completing a giant wifferdill, attacking the guns from the opposite direction. Beneath them the big gun pits were lined up, their gunners confused by the maneuver, and before they could work out what was happening the F-105 pilots emptied their loads of CBU’s into the middle of them. Behind the Thuds came the strike force and, with the air cleared of the usual flak barrage, unloaded their bombs right onto the thermal power plant. The facility was destroyed in one of the best-planned and executed raids of the war.
Artist: Robert Taylor
Phantom Fury by Robert Taylor
The biggest, fastest, most powerful fighter of its day, the McDonnell Phantom was an awesome war machine that came to dominate aerial combat for over two decades. It may have been the size of many World War II bombers but it could out-perform anything that crossed its path; it was quicker, could turn faster, was better equipped with electronics, carried more ordnance than anything comparable, and it had an unbelievable rate of climb. The F-4 Phantom was the benchmark against which every fighter in the world came to be judged; it was simply the best. Robert Taylor’s powerful new painting shows Steve Ritchie, first into action, flying his lead F-4D Phantom through a hail of deadly enemy flak as he exits the target area after a typical FAST FAC mission on enemy installations in North Vietnam, 1972. Behind him a vast trail of devastation marks the mission’s progress, as his fellow Phantom crews continue to wreak havoc with their heavy ordnance, the target area exploding in a series of mighty detonations.
In 1961 Curtis Le May, Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, testified before Congress that American air doctrine had not changed since the formation of the US Army’s Air General Headquarters in 1935. Vietnam proved him right.
Strategic bombardment always loomed large in the American conception of how to make war in Vietnam. Planning for an air campaign against the North antedated the Tonkin Gulf Resolution by several months, a fact revealed to general chagrin by the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Sustained bombing began in February, ostensibly in reprisal for NLF attacks on American bases in the South. The campaign, called Rolling Thunder, was designed to achieve psychological and political, rather than strictly military effects, by inflicting gradually increasing punishment. At first the target list was limited to military bases and logistical targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and near the demilitarized zone separating North and South. Over time it would expand to include factories, fuel storage facilities and transportation infrastructure throughout the country. Although the escalatory nature of the plan would later be criticized, the alternative – a campaign that struck harder at the outset – was not obviously more promising, given the dearth of strategically significant targets in the North. A more concerted attack would still have been based on nothing more than psychological speculation about how best to impact enemy morale. To the extent that the Northern war effort depended upon an industrial and logistical infrastructure, its crucial nodes were in China and the Soviet Union, and were thus immune from direct attack.
Area bombing of Northern cities was ruled out; but as the target list expanded, civilian suffering did too. The CIA estimated that 2,800 North Vietnamese were killed each month in 1967. Hanoi always assumed a city-busting campaign was just around the corner, and took pains to disburse and protect its population. Many Northerners spent years living underground. In time, the North acquired formidable air defences, chiefly MIGs and SAMs from the Soviet Union, which felt that its credibility as the guardian of world communism was threatened by the American attack. Over nine hundred US planes were shot down in the course of delivering 643,000 tons of bombs against the North, far more than were dropped on Japan in 1944-5. In monetary terms, the cost of Rolling Thunder exceeded the value of the things it destroyed by a factor of ten. It also failed in its role as a signalling mechanism. The US suspended its bombing of the North seven times between 1965 and 1968, in a vain effort to communicate its willingness to negotiate. Hanoi used the breaks to rebuild and rearm.
The Air Force that Flew Rolling Thunder
The Air Force of 1965 was, in many ways, the Air Force of 1947-only bigger and faster. Its top leadership, to some extent, had stagnated. Its most senior officers had been commissioned as much as a decade before the Second World War. Some of its generals had attained their rank during World War II and had been generals for more than two decades. Many colonels had held their rank since the end of that war. The younger colonels, who had received their commissions in the final months of World War II, had spent their entire careers in an Air Force wedded to the concept of strategic bombing. Airmen like LeMay, who had been on, active duty since the 1930s, implemented the doctrine of strategic bombardment during World War II. Despite the controversy surrounding assessments of its results, airpower enthusiasts clung to their notions of the decisive impact of strategic bombing and advocated its use on North Vietnam.
Faith in technology, wedded to the doctrine that strategic bombardment would be decisive in any conflict, provided an underlying certainty that air power could accomplish virtually anything asked of it.
LeMay’s commitment to the efficacy of strategic bombing was unshakable. He had been a player in the Pentagon’s computer war games in 1964 in which scenarios were devised to reflect as closely as possible any situation that might arise in Vietnam. Two teams, Red and Blue, were assembled. Gen Earle G. Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Marshall Green, a foreign service officer with considerable Southeast Asia experience, made up the Red (Hanoi) team. The Blue team included John T. McNaughton, William P. Bundy, and General LeMay.
As the game evolved, Hanoi countered every Blue team move. When Blue bombed, Red moved men south. Because Blue was bombing Red, it was assumed that Red would retaliate in kind. Thus, Blue deployed Hawk sites around its air bases. Instead of sending its bombers (which presumably would have been Chinese since North Vietnam possessed only a handful of MiG jet fighters) against these batteries, Red used sappers to disable the Hawk sites forcing the Blue team to deploy troops to protect the missile sites. The Red team developed as many options as the Blue team, countering every move and forcing an escalation with each step. When Blue expanded the bombing, Red moved prisoners of war and school children into its factories.
LeMay supposedly became furious. During one intermission he reportedly engaged in a heated exchange with Bundy over the political restrictions under which Blue was forced to act. LeMay said Blue was swatting flies when it should be “going after the manure pile,” as he referred to Red’s dikes, oil depots, and ports. He is said to exclaimed, “We should bomb them into the Stone Age.” To which Bundy is supposed to have answered “Maybe they’re already there.” The results of this war game aside, everyone involved in the decision on whether to bomb North Vietnam seemed to focus more on the political events at home.
The Air Force was the most adamant about bombing, always recommending the strongest actions against the North. As early as March 1964, when the commander in chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), developed a three-phased operations plan for bombing in Laos, eastern Cambodia, and North Vietnam, the JCS drew up its 94-targets list. The Joint Chiefs based their list of targets on the assumption that the North was an industrialized country actively engaged in furnishing massive support for the insurgency in South Vietnam and the civil war in Laos. When the administration opted for a more moderate tit-for-tat retaliatory policy in 1964 out of political expediency, the Air Force advocated provoking North Vietnam into actions to which the United States could then retaliate in force. The Air Force proposed launching a massive aerial offensive and reducing the number of ground forces called for in CINCPAC OPlan 37-64 should North Vietnam or China introduce regular forces into the fighting in Laos or South Vietnam.
On 1 November 1964, election eve, word arrived at the White House that Vietcong sappers had attacked Bien Hoa Air Base, a burgeoning complex outside Saigon. Six Air Force B-57 bombers were reduced to smoldering rubble, a dozen others damaged, and five American servicemen killed. The Air Force recommended B-52 raids on Phuc Yen, a MiG-capable airfield outside Hanoi. President Johnson, sensitive to the political realities of election eve, decided against any immediate retaliatory action. The president, however, did ask for options for future actions focusing on bombing North Vietnam. On 11 November, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton’s team at ISA developed a draft memorandum entitled, “Action for South Vietnam,” in which he proposed three options. Option A was to continue the present course with reprisal actions designed to deter and to punish North Vietnam for attacks in the South. Option B, the one favored by the Joint Chiefs, was dubbed the “full court press” and called for systematic attacks on the North-bombing rapidly, widely, and intensely. Option C was labelled “progressive squeeze and talk,” a compromise combining covert air strikes in Laos with bombing in the North, beginning at a low level of intensity in the panhandle and moving upward, both in latitude and violence toward the lucrative targets in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas. Option C reflected deterrence theory in that it provided for increasing pressure to be applied until the desired outcome was achieved. It also provided the sense of consensus for which the president longed.
The president decided on a modified version of option C. Accordingly, in December covert activities in Laos increased with the beginning of Operation Barrel Roll-armed reconnaissance missions flown along the infiltration routes developing in the Laotian panhandle. In the first week of Barrel Roll the US flew two missions of four aircraft each. The idea was to send a signal to Hanoi. No one knows if anyone in Hanoi was even aware that these missions took place.
Rolling Thunder Begins
The Flaming Dart raids were intended to link actions in South Vietnam to reprisals against the North. The earlier bombings had been in direct response to a North Vietnamese provocation aimed at American forces outside of South Vietnam. Flaming Dart I and II were directly related to the actions of the outside instigator as manipulator of the insurgency in the South. As such, the raids were intended as a signal that the United States planned to hold the North Vietnamese responsible for Vietcong activities in South Vietnam.
After Flaming Dart II, President Johnson huddled with his principal advisors to confirm the direction set by the raids. Later he told Doris Kearns, “Suddenly I realized that doing nothing was more dangerous than doing something.” President Johnson had decided on a course of action: movement toward an expanded bombing of North Vietnam. It was not, however, a well-defined course devised to deliver victory in the classic military sense. The details of Rolling Thunder, as the bombing was dubbed, were vague and centered around option C, the compromise position between those who advocated restraint and those who wanted a larger program. What it did provide was the flexibility and the sense of control that Johnson wanted.
The first Rolling Thunder strikes were flown on 2 March 1965. At the time no one thought the bombing would last longer than a few months. The Air Force submitted a proposal for a 28-day intensive campaign that would have struck all the targets on the JCS list. The Joint Chiefs, however, proposed a program that would do the same things, but do them over a three-month period. No one-not the civilians in the Defense Department or the State Department, not the president, and certainly not the generals believed North Vietnam could endure the bombing for more than six months.