The Role of Airpower in the Vietnam War
by Mike Nastasi
The use of air power in the Vietnam War would change the way wars were fought
for the Twentieth century and beyond. New technological advances and more
sophisticated weapons made the Vietnam War a testing ground for the U.S.
military. New tactics and approaches were used and to varying degrees of
success. Air power would be used as a bargaining tool and as punishment for
North Vietnamese acts of aggression. Vietnam also introduced the attack
helicopter as a vital weapon and it dawned a new age of tactics for the U.S.
military. Starting with the training and advising of the South Vietnamese Air
Force (VNAF), and culminating with the Christmas bombing of 1972, the U.S.
would be involved in the skies over Vietnam for over 15 years.
Consistent with U.S. military as well as political objectives the air war in
Vietnam gradually increased and built up throughout the campaign. Air
components of all four military services were utilized. Jet bombers and
fighters were used extensively for the first time in the history of modern
warfare. There are many differences of opinion regarding the effectiveness of
the air campaign during the Vietnam War, with many historians arguing that the
air war was too costly in lives and money. Proponents of the air campaign say
that it dawned a new age in warfare and actually helped bring the war to a
close. The air campaign was not without cost however. The North Vietnamese,
with the help of the former Soviet Union, had developed an extensive air
defense network, and the United States suffered heavy helicopter, plane and
pilot losses throughout the campaign.
The Dawn of a New Age
In the early days of the Vietnam War United States involvement was limited to
training and assistance to the South Vietnamese to help them defeat the
communist aggressors from the North. The U.S. had furnished the South
Vietnamese with planes, helicopters, and military supplies. Air bases were set
up in and around South Vietnam as well as Thailand, and the Philippines.
Utilizing air assets, the U.S. was also conducting reconnaissance and
observation of the North Vietnamese, as well as search and rescue operations,
troop transport, cargo and refueling missions. As the war intensified however,
U.S. involvement increased dramatically. The U.S. also set up a tactical air
command center for the VNAF to help them coordinate air-ground cooperation, and
to limit incidents of friendly fire. Despite the presence of 16,000 U.S.
military advisors, the war was not going well for the South Vietnamese, as
North Vietnamese units, as well as Vietcong infiltrators were carrying the
fight. The United States planned on a gradual pullout from Vietnam, but with
the situation deteriorating badly, U.S. decision makers had to make a decision,
let Vietnam fall to the communists or increase U.S. involvement. As it turned
out the North Vietnamese made the decision easy on the waters of the Gulf of
On August 2 1964, a U.S. Navy Destroyer, the Maddox, was conducting a
routine intelligence-gathering mission in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of
North Vietnam. The Maddox was sailing in international waters when three
North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked them. The Maddox called in
assistance from the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga. F-8 Crusader
fighter-bombers were dispatched, and together with gunfire from the
Ticonderoga, they sank all three North Vietnamese patrol boats. Two days later
the Maddox returned to the Gulf with another destroyer, the USS C. Turner
Joy. The crews of both ships received radar signals that suggested that
there were North Vietnamese boats in the area. The U.S. task force commander
interpreted this as an attack and reported this, and the news traveled up the
chain of command to President Johnson himself. President Johnson was enraged
and authorized a large-scale retaliation against North Vietnam. This was to be
the first large-scale air operation of the war, and it set the tone of things
to come. On August 5, Sixty-four naval aircraft from the aircraft carriers Constellation
and Ticonderoga, launched an early morning attack on a North Vietnamese
patrol boat base, and a fuel depot. The raid destroyed half of the North
Vietnamese patrol boat force as well as destroying 10 percent of the North
Vietnamese oil production. This raid was the beginning of the American
bombing campaign in Vietnam.
Two days after the raid on August 5, the United States congress passed the Gulf
of Tonkin resolution. In sum and substance this resolution gave President
Johnson the authority to conduct military operations against North Vietnam
without a formal declaration of war. With that resolution the United States had
officially committed itself to the defense of South Vietnam Although given the
autonomy to prosecute the war, President Johnson elected to gradually step up
military pressure against North Vietnam, instead of an all out, hard hitting
campaign that the military leaders had suggested. This micro managing of the
air campaign by the Johnson administration was to continue throughout the war
and it frustrated many military leaders. This was demonstrated by the actions
of the U.S. throughout the end of 1964. The military buildup into South Vietnam
continued however, and by February 1965, the stage was set for the most intense
period of the air campaign.
Rolling Thunder and the Ho Chi Minh Trail
After several small and ineffective raids into North Vietnam, U.S. military
leaders pressed for more aggressive actions against North Vietnam. The North
Vietnamese were utilizing a network of trails leading from North Vietnam
through Laos and Cambodia, into South Vietnam. This was the North's main
infiltration and support network into South Vietnam. This trail was commonly
known as the Ho Chi Minh trail, named after the Communist leader of North
Vietnam. Many small air attacks were directed at the trail during the early
years of the war, but the North Vietnamese continued on and built the trail
into an extensive network of trails and support systems. U.S. military leaders
recognized that for the war to be successfully prosecuted, the trail would have
to be cut, and they urged President Johnson for more aggressive action. In
February 1965, President Johnson authorized an air warfare campaign against
North Vietnam. This campaign came to be known as OPERATION ROLLING THUNDER.
Although it did not satisfy the U.S. military leaders, ROLLING THUNDER was
a step in the right direction. It was a campaign of slow gradual attacks
against the North, increasing in intensity as the war drew on with the aim of
bringing North Vietnam to the negotiating table. This campaign lasted for four
more years, with stops and starts in between. The military leaders that were in
charge of administering the campaign believed that a strong interdiction effort
should be made and strikes deep into North Vietnam should be conducted.
President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara rejected this notion
however, believing that an increase in attacks directed at North Vietnam would
draw the Soviet Union and China into the war. For the next several years
McNamara and Johnson picked the targets, the times, even the amount of aircraft
and weapons to be used, much to the chagrin of the military. Despite all the
restrictions however, the United States air forces continued to build up and
prosecute the war. An effort to disrupt North Vietnamese rail lines as well as
intensified strikes began, and the air war began to really take shape, bringing
to bear the full fury of United States weaponry.
Jet fighters and bombers were introduced on to the battlefield like never
before. ROLLING THUNDER mobilized the best modern aviation had to offer.
Aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom, the A-6 Intruder, the F-105 Thunderchief, the
B-52 Stratofortress, and many more were used extensively during the air
campaign. New tactics and missions were used for the first time in modern
warfare. To deal with the ever growing North Vietnamese anti-aircraft defense
system, a squadron of F-105 Thunderchiefs were tasked to take on the
anti-aircraft sites using anti-radar missiles and bombs. These missions came to
be known as Wild Weasel missions and they were universally accepted as one of
the most dangerous assignments of the air war. Wild Weasel missions are used
today and are an integral part of any successful air campaign. (Today the USAF
describes Wild Weasel missions as SEAD missions, suppression of enemy air
defenses). Another successful aircraft discovered during the air campaign was
the attack helicopter. The Vietnam War was the birthplace of the modern attack
helicopter, and it would change the way wars would be fought forever.
Immortalized in the film, Apocalypse Now, the Air Cavalry was invented and
utilized for the first time during the Vietnam War. The Huey AH-1B attack
helicopter was the most prominent of the attack helicopters used during the
war. With the battle lines not clearly drawn U.S. forces on the ground
implemented a series of "Search and Destroy" missions to carry the fight to the
enemy. The helicopters were used to hunt down enemy positions and eliminate
them so U.S. ground forces could overrun their position. The AH-1B helicopter
became the ground soldier's best friend during ground operations, because it
also could be used to extract soldiers if the situation on the ground became
untenable. Whole squadrons of attack helicopters were used to precede any
large-scale ground operations to "soften" any hardened ground resistance. The
U.S. Marines utilized a variant of the Huey attack helicopter, the AH-1G
"Cobra" for close air support to the Marines on the ground. The Cobra was an
upgrade to the AH-1E that the Marines were utilizing earlier in the war. The
Cobra is still in use today and was an integral part of the Allied war effort
in OPERATION DESERT STORM in 1991. Helicopters were also extensively
used for search and rescue missions, medivac, and troop transport throughout
The success of the attack helicopters during the Vietnam War set the stage for
future conflicts and how ground operations were conducted. With the help of the
helicopters the air war raged on throughout 1966 and into 1967, and the
military buildup continued. U.S. manpower in Vietnam numbered almost half a
million men. However a change in policy by the Johnson administration in 1968
put a stop to OPERATION ROLLING THUNDER, and U.S. air assets would not reach
into North Vietnam again for four years. The North Vietnamese carried out an
all out attack into South Vietnam in the early part of 1968, commonly known as
the Tet offensive, this attack, although a military failure, was a political
victory for North Vietnam. Public opinion had swayed against the war in the
U.S., and President Johnson capitulated and felt the best course of action
would be to negotiate a settled peace. The air war in the South still raged but
the North was not bombed, and the North Vietnamese gained precious time to
re-supply and send fresh forces into the South. Serious bombing did not resume
against the North again until 1972, with President Johnson's successor
President Richard M. Nixon at the helm.
Linebacker and Vietnamization
On November 5, 1968, Richard M. Nixon became the 37th President of the United
States, and with him came the new American foreign policy in Vietnam,
Vietnamization. Under this plan, South Vietnam was to be supplied with arms and
equipment and advice while U.S. forces were withdrawn. One of his first acts as
President was to authorize bombing campaigns into the forbidden areas of Laos
and Cambodia. New interdiction campaigns were begun on the Ho Chi Minh trail in
Laos and Cambodia. Operation Breakfast was the code name for a secret
bombing campaign into the enemy strongholds in Cambodia and President Nixon
regarded it as an extremely sensitive operation not to be leaked to the public.
100,000 tons of bombs were dropped into Cambodia by U.S. B-52 bombers over the
next 14 months. This operation was just a prelude of things to come
over the next 3 years.
With Nixon's policy of Vietnamization in full swing, the U.S. troop withdrawal
began gradually and the transfer of arms and supplies to the South progressed
rapidly. U.S. air assets were also reduced drastically during the same period.
As a direct result air operations in the South decreased dramatically and
infiltration by the North into the South increased. President Nixon had warned
Hanoi several times to ease off in the fighting or suffer the consequences. It
became obvious that the North Vietnamese were not impressed by the Presidents
threat and by the end of 1971 it looked like the North Vietnamese were poised
for a major operation against the South. U.S. reconnaissance flights showed the
North stockpiling weapons and increasing the numbers of troops moving into
position closer to South Vietnam.
As a deterrent to the seemingly inevitable invasion, the President authorized OPERATION
PROUD DEEP, an extensive bombing campaign directed at the heart of
North Vietnam. The bombing lasted for five days, with over 1025 sorties flown
against targets in North Vietnam. With peace negotiations going
nowhere President Nixon felt drastic action was necessary. On May 10, 1972 a
massive bombing campaign began into North Vietnam, this was combined with the
mining of Haiphong harbor and a naval blockade of North Vietnam. The Operation
was code named LINEBACKER 1, and it was the largest bombing campaign in
the war. President Nixon took the gloves off, so to speak, and gave the
military commanders the flexibility and command to prosecute the war. North
Vietnam felt the full fury of U.S. airpower, with B-52 bombers, and other jet
bombers delivering new laser guided bombs and other high tech ordnance. Fuel
depots, rail lines, power plants, industrial centers, bridges and numerous
other targets were slammed by accurate bombing by the U.S. LINEBACKER was
considered a great success and it prompted one former aide to the Johnson
administration to say " Linebacker had a greater impact in its first four
months than Rolling Thunder had in four years." North Vietnam was sent
reeling and sought to reopen peace negotiations, and as a result President
Nixon ordered a bombing halt on October 23, 1972. Peace looked like it was
close at hand at last.
The Christmas Bombing and Peace
After 2 months of negotiations talks between the U.S. and North Vietnam broke
down in early December 1972. This enraged President Nixon and a new round of
air attacks was conceived. LINEBACKER II was initiated and it was more
aggressive than ever before. Nixon left the ball in the court of the military,
stating to Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, " I
don't want any more of this crap about the fact that we couldn't hit this
target or that one, this is your chance to use your military power to win this
war, and if you don't Ill hold you responsible." For the next 12 days
U.S. B-52 bombers and other aircraft dropped 36,000 tons of bombs on North
Vietnam, exceeding the tonnage for the past two years before. By
December 30, the North Vietnamese were practically out of surface to air
missiles and the U.S. continued to rain destruction deep into the heart of
North Vietnam. The eleven day "Christmas Bombing" of 1972 had accomplished what
hadn't been done in over 14 years, it brought the North Vietnamese to the
negotiating table. Sir Robert Thompson, a British advisor to Vietnam summed up
the operation, "In my view, on December 30, 1972, after 11 days of those B-52
attacks on the Hanoi area, you had won the war, it was all over! They had fired
1242 SAM's, they had none left, and what would have come in over land from
China would be a mere trickle. They and their whole rear base at that point
would be at your mercy. They would have taken any terms. And that is why of
course, you actually got a peace agreement in January, which you had not been
able to get in October."
Peace was finally reached on January 27, 1973. The longest, most controversial
conflict in U.S. history had finally come to an end. All U.S. aircraft were
gone from Vietnam by the middle of 1973, and all U.S. ground forces were now
withdrawn. The war would rage on between the North and the South for two more
years. The North finally overran the South in April 1973, realizing the worst
fears of the U.S. government; another country had fallen to Communism, despite
the best efforts of the U.S. and its military.
The air war over Vietnam began as a small, localized campaign and ended as a
furious all out bombing campaign. New weapons and tactics were introduced onto
the battlefield like never before in the history of modern warfare. Jet
fighters and bombers streaked across the skies over Vietnam for over Ten years.
New smart weapons and ordnance was used and changed the way wars were to be
fought forever. The advent of the attack helicopter was one of the most
significant new developments of the Vietnam War, with the same tactics and
doctrines still in use today. Many historians argue about the effectiveness of
the air campaign in Vietnam, although one thing seems clear, once the true
might of the U.S. military was brought to bear against North Vietnam, it had no
choice but to negotiate lest it be destroyed entirely. However the U.S paid a
heavy price in lives and money to exact that punishment, and ultimately in the
final analysis they lost the war.
The war in Vietnam cost the U.S. over 58,000 lives including hundreds of pilots
and aircrews. Helicopter and fixed wing aircraft losses totaled 8,588, at a
cost of over seven billion dollars. The U.S. abandoned South Vietnam
in 1975 and the North eventually took it. 14 years of involvement in the
conflict at such a high price paid no dividends in the end. Ironically, the
last U.S. aircraft to fly over the skies of Vietnam was a Marine Corps CH-53
helicopter evacuating the Marine guards at the U.S. embassy in Saigon, ending
the air war and U.S. involvement in Vietnam forever.
. Chinnery, Phil. (1987). Air War in Vietnam. New York. Bison Books Corp.
. Herring, George, C. (1996). America's Longest War, the United States and
Vietnam, 1950-1975 (Third Revised Edition). New York. McGraw-Hill, Inc.
. Chinnery, Phil. (1987). Air War in Vietnam. New York. Bison Boooks Corp.
Chinnery, Phil. (1987). Air War in Vietnam . New York: Bison Books
Inc. Herring, George, C. (1996). America's Longest War, The United States and
Vietnam, 1950 – 1975 (Third Revised Edition). New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
McNamara, Robert, S. (1995). In Retrospect: The Tragedy and lessons of Vietnam
. New York: Vintage Books, Inc.
Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia (1999). [Computer Program]. Redmond WA:
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Copyright © 2001 Mike Nastasi.
Written by Mike Nastasi.