Air War Over North Vietnam
During the Vietnam War, the United States air campaigns encompassed more than just the geographical extent of that country and included a variety of missions beyond bombing the North Vietnamese. The effort was broken down into a series of air operations that covered North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In addition to the offensively minded bombing sorties, American air assets were responsible for interdiction of NVA/VC forces, ground support of allied troops, armed and photographic reconnaissance, medical and tactical airlift, and specialized missions such as defoliation and search-and-rescue. It is easy to dismiss the real advantages of the American air effort in the war when focusing only on the perceived failures of the bombing mission. However, by assessing the air campaigns in total, it is clear that the war which was fought in harsh and rugged conditions could not have been carried out or lasted as long as it did without the significant contributions of the aircraft and personnel of the United States armed forces.
In November 1950, the Military Assistance and Advisory Group, which served as the clearing house for American military and technical support to the French Union forces in Indochina, added an Air Force Section to its mission in order to better coordinate its efforts with the French in their struggle against the Viet Minh. While this date is seldom listed as one of significance during the American experience in Vietnam, it does mark the beginning of the United States air war. American air assets performed a number of missions, including support for the French Air Force in Indochina during the First Indochina War. They were also involved in the creation, training, and maintenance of the Vietnamese Air Force during the period of nation building, and the beginning of more active air missions such as reconnaissance and defoliation by the early 1960s. However, it was not until the questionable Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 that the United States began to flex its muscles over Vietnam. When Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, it gave the president the authority to defend American forces and installations in Vietnam against attack and use whatever force necessary to assist South Vietnam in its war. President Lyndon Johnson then initiated a series of the most impressive air operations ever seen in the world. In response to the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson ordered punitive air strikes against the naval facilities that supported the North Vietnamese boats thought to have been used in the attack, as well as the oil storage facility at Vinh. Operation Pierce Arrow, as the mission became known, succeeded in destroying 25 percent of the intended targets. While considered a success, the air operation did not impede the Vietnamese insurgents, known as the Viet Cong, who continued to escalate their attacks on South Vietnamese and American facilities and personnel over the next six months.
The myriad of events that occurred between August 1964 and February 1965 could have been enough for the United States to launch additional, punitive air sorties against North Vietnam. However, it was not until the February 7, 1965, Viet Cong mortar attack on Camp Holloway in the Central Highlands, which resulted in serious American casualties, that the United States decided to respond. In response, the Johnson administration launched Operation Flaming Dart, which targeted North Vietnamese facilities that had been suspected of supporting the increasing Viet Cong attacks. Air strikes against the Dong Hoi, Vit Thu Lu, Chap Le, and Vu Con barracks were conducted to demonstrate to the North Vietnamese that they would not go unpunished for supporting attacks against Americans in South Vietnam. A reconnaissance mission estimated that the targets had been effectively destroyed, but this did not deter the Viet Cong, who attacked the American billet in Qui Nhon on February 10, killing 23 Americans and wounding another 21. A second round of air sorties under Flaming Dart destroyed a significant portion of the Chanh Hoa barracks and prompted American officials to push forward a new, sustained bombing campaign. This was designed to force the North Vietnamese to suspend their support for the Southern insurgency, and negotiate a peaceful conclusion to the hostilities in Southeast Asia.
Even while the effects of Flaming Dart were being evaluated, the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed an air campaign, which became known as Operation Rolling Thunder, to interdict supplies and personnel infiltrating into South Vietnam from the North. The air campaign would have another purpose, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk explained: “Strikes into North Viet Nam should be considered as serving the political purpose of indicating to the North that they cannot expect to rely upon a sanctuary in the face of their increased infiltration and operations in South Viet Nam.” The JCS established a list of 94 targets from which the Air Force and Navy would attack for two days per week over eight weeks. Operation Rolling Thunder would become one of the most significant air campaigns in United States history, and an intense point of contention in America’s experience during the Vietnam War.
Despite delays caused by weather and South Vietnamese politics, the eight-week program began on March 2, 1965. United States aircraft struck at lines of communication between Hanoi and Vinh, as well as radar and communication facilities that supported infiltration. The air strikes were militarily successful, but, like so much of the Vietnam War, they failed to achieve the political goals desired by the United States. The United States expected the North Vietnamese to pull back when faced with overwhelming firepower but, instead, it continued its support for the Viet Cong and its struggle to incorporate South Vietnam into its fold. As the end of the eight-week program neared, it was understood that the United States had to maintain the pressure upon the North Vietnamese to induce them to negotiate acceptable peace terms. This translated to an extension of the initial air campaign, and propelled the United States into a more significant and lasting commitment to the defense of South Vietnam.
Throughout the early months of Rolling Thunder, the American air strikes concentrated on damaging installations, barracks, and supply depots. Of particular interest was the destruction of transportation choke points between the 17th and 20th parallels. Even when choke points were destroyed, the damage did not eliminate transportation; rather, it only hindered it. The North Vietnamese were very adaptable to changing conditions. If a bridge was destroyed, it would not take long for the establishment of an alternative, if more arduous, route fueled by human and animal power. When, on April 11, 1966, the first B-52 bombers struck North Vietnam at the Mu Gia Pass, which was one of three major supply routes to Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the 585 tons of bombs produced impressive results. However, a reconnaissance mission the next day discovered that the craters had been filled with dirt and rock, and trucks were moving through the pass. The air campaign to destroy railways, roads, and bridges was strategically sound; but in Vietnam where many people had survived for years without such conveniences, the hardship of a destroyed bridge was minimal.
After the initial success of Rolling Thunder, the Johnson administration proposed the first of what would become seven major bombing pauses. The pause, which began on May 13, 1965 to coincide with the days of Buddha’s birthday, resulted from a hint from the North Vietnamese that it would consider negotiation toward a peaceful resolution. It became clear very early in the pause that the North Vietnamese officials had little interest in compromise, and would only consider a resolution to the crisis on their own terms. On April 8, 1965, North Vietnam premier Pham Van Dong established four points that had to be met before a peaceful resolution to the conflict could be considered. They included: Vietnamese independence; non-intervention by foreign powers; political settlement; and reunification. The last of these points was non-negotiable for the United States, and the air campaign resumed on May 18.
When it set the precedent of a bombing pause and the threat of restarting air strikes as a part of its strategy in the air war, the United States made a significant mistake. The North Vietnamese used the time to restructure and supplement their air defense system and repair much of the damage caused by Rolling Thunder. They also correctly interpreted the division within the Johnson administration over how the air campaign should proceed, as well as what constituted progress. The American strategy of using the carrot-and-stick failed to impress the North Vietnamese, and it did not alter North Vietnamese support for the Southern insurgency. The frequent bombing pauses and the gradual build-up in intensity of the air campaign did allow the North Vietnamese to construct what would become one of the strongest air defense systems in the world.
After the first bombing pause, the North Vietnamese introduced the Soviet-built SA-2, a surface-to-air missile, around Hanoi. The SA-2, while not the most effective weapon in air defense, did change the nature of the air war over North Vietnam. The SA-2, when combined with antiaircraft artillery, proved to be an effective deterrent. AAA was used primarily for low-altitude attack, while SA-2 missiles were more effective at high altitude. The blending of these weapons systems assured that United States airpower would face some type of concentrated threat when entering North Vietnamese air space. By 1966, an integrated air defense system, which included the Soviet-built MiG fighter, formed a protective ring around strategic centers in North Vietnam. While it can certainly be argued that the threat was ineffective, given the total number of sorties flown over North Vietnam, it did provide the North Vietnamese with a way of combating the unseen enemy, and raising morale when an American aircraft was shot down.
It is clear that Rolling Thunder affected North Vietnamese strategy, and it most certainly caused them to divert valuable resources away from offensive action, but the air campaign did not result in the psychological damage American officials had hoped for, nor did it bring an end to the war. It is ironic that the intensity of Rolling Thunder might have had a reverse psychological effect on the Vietnamese people. The air campaign forced the North Vietnamese to mobilize its entire population.
Critics of Rolling Thunder also often point to the numerous restrictions placed on the air sorties over North Vietnam as a reason why the air campaign did not have the desired effect. From its first phase in March 1965, Rolling Thunder was limited by restrictions. At first it was geographic – only targets between the 17th and 19th parallels – but even when this was lifted, other restrictions came into force. Air sorties were ordered to avoid populated regions, which included a protective 30-nautical-mile ring around Hanoi and a ten-nautical-mile ring around Haiphong. The border with China was off limits, in order to avoid any direct or accidental contact with Communist China, which might expand the war. Finally, authorized air strikes could not attack non-military targets such as dykes, dams, questionable civilian structures, and hydropower plants. Air sorties on military targets at or near such targets were severely limited. These significant restrictions were among the many that plagued the air campaign, even though the limits followed a logical pattern given the objectives of the air campaign. The objective was not to win the war but to force the North Vietnamese to negotiate peace. These restrictions hindered air strikes against a mobile force that relied on nineteenth-century modes of transportation, and exploited American restraint to its advantage. Coupled with the restrictions was an evolving air defense system that protected the bulk of North Vietnam’s capacity to wage war and counteract the American build-up of forces in South Vietnam.
By 1968, the United States had been actively involved in the Vietnam War for three years, and had committed a significant amount of its resources toward the conduct of Rolling Thunder. While the war continued without end, major political and psychological setbacks emerged after the 1968 Tet Offensive and Johnson’s decision not to seek another term in the White House. Meanwhile, the United States Air Force offered a more positive view of its air campaign over North Vietnam. According to bomb damage assessment reports, Rolling Thunder had made significant inroads into diminishing the North Vietnamese ability to sustain its wartime infrastructure. It was estimated that 22 percent of its industry, 47 percent of its transportation system, 65 percent of its petroleum, oil, and lubricant capacity, 58 percent of its electrical power plant capacity, and 73 percent of its military facilities had been destroyed or made inoperable. Rolling Thunder had achieved remarkable results, but it had not accomplished its primary mission. Despite the 643,000 tons of bombs delivered (in the Pacific Theater during the World War II, the US had dropped 537,000 tons), it did not stop infiltration of North Vietnamese resources to the South, nor did it force the North Vietnamese to negotiate. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were able to launch the largest coordinated attack of the war during Tet 1968, which caused many to question the effectiveness of the air campaign, and in fact American strategy in Vietnam as a whole.
On March 31, 1968, Johnson shocked the nation when he announced that he would not seek nor accept his party’s nomination for the presidency. In the same speech, though lost in the pronouncement, was a new strategy to suspend air strikes north of the 19th Parallel, with the intention of resuming negotiations to end the war. This move was primarily political, designed to induce the North Vietnamese to go to the peace table. It was also practical, because the number of targets left above the 19th Parallel was limited, and interdiction strikes between the 17th and 19th parallels were more effective. The psychological effects of these two announcements was to reinforce the North Vietnamese determination to carry on the war until it achieved a successful resolution. The American overture of peace through the suspension of bombing in 1968 was the culmination of a failed strategy. It demonstrated the unique inability of American officials to understand the nature of total war in North Vietnam, and the historical precedents of the longue-durée in Vietnamese wars for independence. The North Vietnamese, once again, used the latest bombing pause to repair bomb damage and improve their infrastructure for a future push south.
While the United States continued to focus its air campaign on interdiction through 1968, any momentum gained through three and a half years of Rolling Thunder had been lost. A few days before the 1968 presidential election, on November 1, Johnson ordered the suspension of all air operations over North Vietnam. The move was designed to bolster the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey, who was losing the presidential race to Richard Nixon. Like much of the air campaign, this last move was too little, too late.
It would be nearly another three and a half years before North Vietnam would once again be the object of intense bombing. The last and most effective air campaign of the war occurred in 1972, when North Vietnamese forces invaded South Vietnam in what became known as the Easter Offensive. President Richard Nixon responded to the offensive by initiating Tactical Air Command Operational Plan 100, referred to as Constant Guard, to provide ground support for the beleaguered South Vietnamese armed forces and the remaining American personnel under attack. Supplementing the defenses was a new air campaign against the North. On April 6, 1972, the United States launched Operation Freedom Trail, which concentrated on targets south of the 20th Parallel that supported the invasion. This air campaign, and the one that followed, were different from Rolling Thunder in that many of the restrictions imposed had been lifted and guidelines relaxed. Another difference was that Freedom Trail was not gradual. For more than one month, this air campaign bombed northern targets with intensity.
On May 9, Nixon announced the beginning of Operation Linebacker, which replaced Freedom Trail and expanded the bombing north of the 20th Parallel. While there were still restrictions on targets near the Chinese border and within Hanoi, Linebacker was relatively free of constraint. With this air campaign, and the mining of the major port of Haiphong, American airpower helped to stem North Vietnam’s offensive, and assisted in pushing back the invading forces to near their starting points. With the failure of its invasion, North Vietnam indicated that it was willing to resume the negotiations that had been going on in Paris for over three years. When it became clear that this indication was nothing more than a ploy to gain time to recover from the failed invasion, Nixon ordered another round of bombing, to begin on December 18.
Also known as the Christmas bombings, Operation Linebacker II lasted until December 29. This air campaign was unique in that there were no restrictions placed upon target selection for nearly 2,700 sorties, which delivered approximately 20,000 tons of munitions. The operation had its intended effect: the North Vietnamese agreed to resume negotiations and agreed to the final Paris Peace Agreement on January 27, 1973. Both Linebacker operations were successful in achieving their results. Linebacker I was pivotal in the defeat of the Easter Offensive, while Linebacker II brought North Vietnam back to the negotiating table. Many within military and civilian circles argued that it was unrestricted American airpower that caused these successes. While that is true to a certain degree, it is also important to note that North Vietnamese strategy altered drastically when it launched the Easter Offensive. The large-scale, conventional attack was susceptible to air strikes, and suffered as a result. The success of Linebacker I was due, in large part, to the exposure of North Vietnamese personnel and weaponry, which offered lucrative targets to the American air sorties. Linebacker II did force the resumption of peace talks, but the North Vietnamese quickly turned that to their advantage by negotiating favorable terms, including the withdrawal of American armed forces from Southeast Asia. It would take a little over two years for North Vietnam to overrun the South. With the United States, and its air assets, out of the fight, the war’s conclusion was inevitable.