USAF Bomber Doctrine -Vietnam

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USAF planners wished to declare the Korean War a success and move on. Most of all, they wished to put the experience-which they viewed as an aberration-behind them. FEAF’s 1954 final Report on the Korean War repeated a conclusion that Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer had already drawn in 1950: the Korean conflict contained so many unusual factors as to make it a poor model for planning. In particular, the USAF wished to distance itself from the close air-support operations that had been a main a feature of the war. The report stated, “Because FEAF provided UN ground forces lavish close air support in Korea is no reason to assume this condition will exist in future wars.”

Air Force leaders were instead anxious to reassert their priority: preparing for strategic air war against the USSR. The funding allotted to the services as a result of the Korean War had greatly increased Strategic Air Command’s size and strength; now, more than ever, SAC’s mission reigned supreme in the USAF. General LeMay was appointed Vice Chief of Staff in 1957 and Chief of Staff in 1961; in 1964 three quarters of the Air Staff’s upper echelon came from SAC. Between 1954 and 1962 the United States’ total nuclear arsenal grew from 1,750 to 26,500 weapons. SAC, which controlled the majority of them, planned to deliver them in a “massive pre-emptive bomber assault.” Other contingencies received little attention. Despite the political upheaval in Southeast Asia in the 1950s, the Air University Quarterly Review published (in the whole of the decade) only two articles relating air power to insurgency movements there.

USAF Manual 1-8, “Strategic Air Operations” (May 1954), drew upon teachings of the Air Corps Tactical School and the interpretation of World War II experience to make claims much like those highlighted in the Air Service’s post-World War I assessment, Sherman’s 1926 Air Warfare, or the ACTS doctrine manuals of the 1930s. Long-range bombers would strike the enemy nation itself so as to collapse the enemy’s capacity and will to fight. Though nuclear weapons would make any claim to “precision” bombing absurd, the industrial fabric theory still took pride of place:

The fabric of modern nations is such a complete interweaving of major single elements that the elimination of one element can create widespread influence on the whole. Some of the elements are of such importance that [their] complete elimination . . . would cause collapse of the national structure. . . . Others exert influence which, while not immediately evident, is cumulative and transferable, and when brought under the effects of air weapons, results in a general widespread weakening and eventual collapse.”

The manual was not revised until 1965.

In the meantime, the USAF found itself in yet another limited war in Asia. Unlike the Korean War, it had no clear starting point. When President Lyndon Johnson and his advisors dramatically increased the U. S. commitment to South Vietnam, they hoped that air power might facilitate a quick, painless campaign that would not divert too much time or too many resources from their domestic agenda. They hoped that air strikes would demonstrate U. S. resolve, bolster morale in the South, erode the Viet Cong’s morale, and generally intimidate the insurgency’s leadership.

In April 1964, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had compiled a list of ninety-four bombing targets in North Vietnam. The air force wanted these attacked immediately and heavily, to impose psychological shock as well as physical damage. But the Johnson administration chose a more graduated approach that would punish, by reprisal, acts of terror by the Viet Cong. After guerillas struck a U. S. Special Forces camp at Pleiku in February 1965, American policymakers implemented Operation Rolling Thunder, an aerial interdiction campaign characterized by increasing pressure on the enemy. In August 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara rejected a JCS recommendation for attacks on North Vietnam’s strategic oil facilities and electric power plants. Hanoi began to disperse the nation’s limited industry and build up its air defenses, aided by supplies and workers from the USSR and China. Given this, the JCS called for expanded bombing late in 1965. Johnson did in fact expand the air campaign in 1966 and 1967: in June 1966, North Vietnamese oil storage was bombed for the first time; in May 1967, Hanoi’s main power station was attacked.

Unsurprisingly, the air force chafed at the early restrictions: both during and after the war the air force claimed that Rolling Thunder had been undermined by civilian meddling in timing and targeting. Gradual ism, they argued, flew in the face of well-established war-fighting principles. While it is true that all major targets were not destroyed until 1967 (whereas the air force would have preferred an all-out assault in 1965), the civilian intervention may not have been so consequential as the USAF has maintained. The JCS list grew from 94 to 242 targets shortly after Rolling Thunder began, and the latter number changed little through the rest of the campaign. In 1965, 158 of these targets were destroyed (nearly all of them military targets below the 20th parallel); in 1966, 22 more were destroyed. Johnson released nearly all the remaining targets for attack in 1967, and by December almost all of North Vietnam’s industrial war capacity had been destroyed. There was, by the end of the war, virtually no target left unbombed that might have been bombed. Indeed, during the course of the war the USAF dropped some 6,162,000 tons of bombs-vastly more than had been dropped by the Allied powers in all of World War II. Yet this had not brought capitulation.

Robert Pape has argued that there is “no evidence that executing the sharp knock in 1965, instead of 1967, would have produced better results.” Structural factors (including Vietnam’s economy and geography) and the nature of the war itself helped insulate the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong against interdiction and coercive air power. This insulation was furthered by evacuation programs in all major towns and villages. Finally, even if an earlier all-out air assault had convinced the North to stop supporting the Viet Cong, this was no guarantee that they would not have continued the war on their own, and at their own pace.

The Nixon administration instituted a program of “Vietnamization”- a means of reducing American involvement by returning the main responsibility for the ground war to the South Vietnamese. In addition, the president allowed the JCS to give more freedom to U. S. air commanders. Operation Linebacker, an aerial interdiction campaign to halt Hanoi’s 1972 spring offensive, largely succeeded and appeared to put a settlement within reach. But North Vietnamese negotiators stalled, prompting Linebacker II, an eleven-day campaign (18-29 December) to bring enemy negotiators back to the table to sign a final accord. Linebacker II concentrated on military assets in and around Hanoi. On 29 December, communist leaders indicated their willingness to resume serious negotiations. This reflected the success of both Linebacker campaigns, which were oriented toward fundamentally different circumstances and goals than Rolling Thunder had been.

Many observers, civilian and military, argued that if a Linebacker-style campaign had gone forward from the outset, the war would have ended much sooner. Frustrated over the political constraints placed upon them, airmen argued-in the tradition of Harris-that they might have won had they been free to fight as they saw fit. Writing in the June 1975 Air Force Magazine, General T. R. Milton, USAF (Ret.) argued that Linebacker II was “an object lesson in how the war might have been won, and won long ago, if only there had not been such political inhibition.” But this perspective overlooked the crucial differences between 1965 and 1972. Linebacker I’s success was facilitated by the fact that, when it took place, Hanoi had shifted to a conventional strategy that was far more vulnerable to air power’s effects than the earlier guerilla war had been. And when Linebacker II commenced, Hanoi had already achieved most of its political goals and was prepared to sign an accord that would put it, ultimately, within easy grasp of its final aims. These important distinctions often were overlooked, however, leaving a false impression of bombing’s utility and reinforcing proclamations about its future application in war.