Air Power Unleashed: The Linebacker Operations

The most famous supply route in history, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, consisted of many supply lines that ranged from a foot track to paved roads, and included river passages. These lines led from ports in North Vietnam to a thousand distribution points in South Vietnam. There were three principal routes: The first trail ferried troops by truck to Laos, from which they infiltrated on foot into South Vietnam. The second trail also ran through Laos, and was used primarily by trucks crossing through the Mu Gia and Nape passes. The third route used both trucks and boats, and passed through Cambodia.

The ability of American air power to stem the flow of supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail was irrevocably crippled when the decision was made not to attack shipping in Haiphong and other North Vietnamese ports. Instead of destroying supplies at their source and inhibiting their further importation, the civilian leaders in Washington elected to spend billions of dollars and far too much blood to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There resulted the curious spectacle of the most sophisticated aircraft, armament, and electronic equipment being directed against inexpensive Russian trucks, bicycles, and even porters carrying rice on their backs.

It was a losing battle, insane on the face of it, and recognized as futile by those who were tasked to fight it. Yet suppression of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, became, with the attempts to defeat Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam, the principal focus of American air power during the almost four years of the bombing halt. It was not a target that leaders in either the USAF or in naval aviation would have chosen; they knew that it was a misapplication of air power, and they bitterly resented its high costs in men, equipment, and ultimately, public esteem.

Early during this interval, in July 1969, Richard Nixon, making his first foreign trip as president, announced in a speech at Guam that “we will keep our treaty commitments” to Asian nations, but cautioned that “as far as the problems of internal security and military defense, except for a major power employing nuclear weapons, the United States . . . has a right to expect that this problem will be increasingly handled by . . . the Asian nations themselves.”

Nixon was moved to make this statement because after seven years of McNamara’s guidance, the war was irrevocably lost politically no matter what happened in the field. The greatest evidence of this fact was the Tet Offensive, which was a crushing defeat for the Communist forces, who lost 45,000 killed of the 84,000 troops participating. Despite this terrible loss, media of the United States turned Tet from a crushing tactical defeat into a smashing strategic victory for the North Vietnamese. Just at the moment when the North Vietnamese were at their weakest and most vulnerable, they were gratuitously handed a propaganda victory that ultimately decided the outcome of the war.

The speech at Guam became known as the Nixon Doctrine and was interpreted, against protests to the contrary, that it meant that the United States was withdrawing support from Vietnam—which was indeed the case.

In two earlier statements, one by General Creighton Abrams in 1968, and another by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird in the spring of 1969, the word “Vietnamization” was introduced. This became generally accepted as a code word for the training and reequipping of the South Vietnamese Army so that it could defend its homeland against North Vietnam without American forces, particularly air power, taking part. It also meant many other things, including improving the South Vietnamese political system and creating a viable economy.

The United States continued engaging in both open and secret discussions with the North Vietnamese leaders. The American negotiating position was weakened by the progressive withdrawal of United States forces that had fallen by April 1972 to 69,000, most of whom were not combat types. The North Vietnamese had been fighting for three decades, and their leaders, mostly military men, preferred a military victory that would cap their effort with glory, rather than a negotiated settlement, even if the ends they reached were the same.

It became evident in late 1971 that the North Vietnamese were going to invade South Vietnam. They also stepped up action in South Vietnam, shelling Saigon. The North Vietnamese anticipated that the prevalent antiwar feeling in the United States would preclude an American military response, particularly in the face of support for the offensive from China and the Soviet Union. They overlooked a factor that would be crucial. The regular troops of the North Vietnamese Army would require vastly greater quantities of supplies than that required by the Viet Cong guerrillas. It would be essential to keep a steady flow of fuel, munitions, and food to keep them fit for battle.

The offensive opened on March 30, 1972, and while the North Vietnamese advanced in a three-pronged drive and succeeded in defeating the initial ARVN forces, the offensive soon fell into a pattern. The North Vietnamese advance ran out of steam for lack of supplies, ARVN resistance stiffened, and United States air power, newly recalled to the region, forced the North Vietnamese to withdraw, pursued by ARVN forces. When the offensive ended, both sides claimed victory, but two facts had emerged. The first was that North Vietnam retained large areas of South Vietnamese territory, enabling it to prepare for another invasion. The second was that Vietnamization had failed because American air power was still the sine qua non of South Vietnamese resistance.

The code name for the employment of American air power was Linebacker, a tip of the hat to Nixon’s fondness for football. In March, additional fighters were flown into the theater, followed by a massive buildup of bombers in April and May. These aircraft were augmented by six carriers, Constellation, Coral Sea, Kitty Hawk, Hancock, Midway, and Saratoga on station in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Unlike Rolling Thunder, Linebacker was not designed to send a message but to deliver ordnance that would slow down, then halt the invasion, and force the North Vietnamese to negotiate a peace settlement. Linebacker featured strikes on the standard North Vietnamese targets including transportation, petroleum storage, and power generation, but was expanded to mining harbors and rivers.

Air power was once again in the hands of politicians, but politicians of a different mind-set. While it is true that Secretary of Defense Laird and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Richard Helms, were still cautious about provoking China and the Soviet Union and believed that the battle had to be won in South Vietnam, Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, were determined not to take half measures. Nonetheless, half measures were taken, as the bulk of the bombing was assigned once again to fighter-bombers. The B-52s were assigned targets north of the Demilitarized Zone, but were not to attack Hanoi and Haiphong.

The order for Linebacker was signed on May 8, issued with some assurance because of the bold and quite successful diplomatic initiatives Nixon had undertaken with both the Soviet Union and Red China. The president was confident that neither country would make more than pro-forma objections to a new bombing campaign.

Except for the failure to apply the full strength of the B-52 weapon, Linebacker represented in large part what the Joint Chiefs of Staff had wanted to do since 1964. The attacks began on May 10, and featured a glimpse into warfare’s future with the employment of both electro-optically and laser-guided bombs. Among their achievements was the destruction of the previously invulnerable Paul Doumer bridge.

The results of Linebacker became evident early in June, as enemy columns suffered supply shortages, and the ARVN were able to score more successes. For many observers, this made Linebacker an even more significant demonstration of air power than Linebacker II. The North Vietnamese indicated their willingness to resume peace talks, and when these seemed to be making satisfactory progress, Nixon called a bombing halt in October as a gesture of goodwill.

As in every previous bombing halt, the North Vietnamese interpreted the gesture as a sign of weakness and became less cooperative at the peace table even as they accelerated building a store of supplies for a renewed offensive.

Linebacker II

The North Vietnamese had enjoyed “political air superiority” for most of the war. The term is an odious one, as it reveals that political shortsightedness handed air superiority to the enemy even as thousands of lives and billions of dollars were being spent in the air war. Linebacker and Linebacker II reversed the situation, seizing air superiority and making the most of it. President Nixon now used air power as had been advocated by General Curtis LeMay in 1963, and subsequently by Generals John P. McConnell, Earle Wheeler, and John Ryan, along with Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp. Air power was to be directed at its highest intensity and in all its forms against the enemy’s most important political and military targets. The object was perhaps ignoble: to force the enemy to agree to allow the United States to withdraw under the umbrella of a formal peace treaty, rather than simply to be thrown out of the country militarily.

The Paris peace negotiations broke down on December 13, 1972, and President Nixon issued an ultimatum to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) that it must return to the negotiating tables within seventy-two hours—or severe measures would be taken. Hanoi rejected the ultimatum, and Nixon ordered that the full array of United States air power be assembled for Linebacker II. (As the South Vietnamese, fearing betrayal, had also withdrawn from the talks, Linebacker II was designed to reassure them, so that they would agree to a settlement.)

The force included Boeing B-52s, General Dynamics F-111s, McDonnell Douglas F-4s, Vought A-7s, McDonnell Douglas EB-66s, Republic F-105 Wild Weasels, Douglas A-4s, Grumman A-6s, Vought F-8s, and a complete array of tanker, search and rescue, and electronic countermeasure aircraft.

The principal weight of the attack was to come from B-52s attacking targets in Hanoi and Haiphong. The first day called for 129 B-52 sorties; the second for 93, and the third for 99. Then B-52 pressure would be applied at the highest level possible.

Mines were sewn in Haiphong harbor on December 14, and the first B-52 in the bomber force took off from Andersen Air Base on Guam on December 18. The raids would be a learning experience for SAC, which had dictated that the bombers were not to take evasive action from either SAMs or MiGs on the long run in from the Initial Point (IP) to bomb release. This costly measure was enforced to ensure that the main targets were hit with a minimum of collateral damage.

With four years to prepare, and a very limited geographical area to defend, the North Vietnamese were ready with the most powerful integrated air-defense system in history.

On the first night of operations, three B-52s were shot down by SAMs out of the 129 engaged in the mission, for a 2.3-percent loss rate. SAC rigidity was revealed on the second day, when the ninety-one missions were run with exactly the same procedures—aircraft attacking in three-ship cells (radar formations) over a seventy-mile-long axis. This time six B-52s were shot down and a seventh badly damaged—an unacceptable 6.6-percent loss rate, and 7.7-percent loss rate if the badly damaged aircraft is counted.

The losses dictated a change in tactics, and on each of the next two nights, only thirty-three B-52s attacked, and emphasis was shifted to destroying SAM installations and storage facilities. From December 20 to December 24, three more B-52s were shot down, but enemy resistance was perceptibly weakening.

After a thirty-six-hour stand-down for Christmas, bombing was resumed, with the intensity and the focus of the bombing stunning North Vietnamese leaders, who for the first time could see real air power in action.

December 26 saw renewed bombing, with new tactics. This time 120 B-52s struck ten different targets within a fifteen-minute period—the results were devastating, and the North Vietnamese leaders inquired of Washington if January 8 would be a suitable day for resuming negotiations. Two more B-52s were lost to SAMs, a sad but acceptable 1.7-percent loss rate.

Sixty B-52 sorties were flown in each of the next three nights, with the last two B-52s being lost on December 27. North Vietnam was defenseless; its SAM inventory had been depleted, and its remaining MiGs were a negligible force.

Linebacker II was the very essence of air power influencing history: North Vietnam agreed to all of Washington’s requirements for beginning negotiations again, and President Nixon ordered the end of Linebacker II by forbidding all bombing above the Twentieth Parallel.

The B-52s had flown 729 sorties, dropped 15,000 tons of bombs, with 15 B-52s shot down for an overall loss rate of 2.0 percent. The North Vietnamese had fired 1,240 SAMs to destroy the fifteen B-52s, a kill rate of 1.2 percent. Twelve other aircraft were lost in the supporting missions.

The bombing brought tremendous joy to one portion of Hanoi’s population—the prisoners of war who had been treated so cruelly for so long. Later, upon their release after the armistice, they reported the pure ecstasy in hearing the B-52s’ bombs, and in seeing the terror in the eyes of their guards, some of whom sought refuge in the prisoners’ cells. Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, a prisoner of war and a Medal of Honor recipient, had this to say about the effects of the bombing: “One look at any Vietnamese officer’s face told the whole story. It telegraphed hopelessness, accommodation, remorse, fear. The shock was there; our enemy’s will was broken.”

The USAF had proved that B-52s, supported by tactical air assets, were able to meet and decisively defeat the enemy. The result of Linebacker II was exactly what had been predicted by those who had advocated the full application of air power against North Vietnam: a military victory. If, as could have readily been done, the B-52 campaign had been extended, it could have attacked the previously off-limit dikes and continued to plow the rubble of urban and industrial areas. The result would have been a complete crippling of the North Vietnamese economy, as limited as it had been. The North Vietnamese could then have been subject to invasion by ARVN forces supported by United States air power. The South Vietnamese could at the very least have retaken the areas that the North Vietnamese had occupied during the two 1972 offensives.

The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, and within sixty days, 591 American prisoners of war had been released and were back in the United States. American forces continued their drawdown, with the principal effort being Military Airlift Command aircraft attempting to recoup some small portion of the vast amounts of supplies still stored in South Vietnam.

In the spring of 1975, after waiting for what Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described as “a decent interval” of about two years, Hanoi knew that it no longer faced a threat of retaliation from United States air power. It invaded South Vietnam and entered Saigon on April 30, 1975, uniting the two Vietnams under Hanoi’s totalitarian control.

There are many who argue that Linebacker II could have been launched in 1964 or 1965, when there were far fewer North Vietnamese defenses, and would have achieved a military victory. There might well have been associated political and military costs, but had air power been used as it could have been used in 1964, and was used in 1972, the war would have cost far less in lives, money, and civil unrest. Others maintain that the war in Vietnam could never have been won, no matter how air power had been applied. When one considers the results of Linebacker II, and the possible outcome of its extension over even a few weeks, it is difficult to accept the latter argument.

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