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Vietnam War Articles
The Green Beret Affair: A Factual Review
The "Green Beret Affair"
America's Paradoxical Trinity
The Cambodian Incursion
Dien Bien Phu: A Battle Assessment
The Effects of Vietnamization
The Battle for Hue
Dien Bien Phu 50 Years Later
The Wild Weasels
Role of Airpower in Vietnam
The Role of Airpower in the Vietnam War
The Role of Airpower in the Vietnam War
by Mike Nastasi

Introduction

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 Tonkin.

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.[1]  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.

Air Cavalry

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 campaign.

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.[2]  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.[3]  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."[4]  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."[5]  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.[6]  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."[7]

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.

Conclusion

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.[8]  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.

Footnotes

[1]. Chinnery, Phil. (1987). Air War in Vietnam. New York. Bison Books Corp.
[2]. Ibid.
[3]. Ibid.
[4]. Ibid.
[5]. Herring, George, C. (1996). America's Longest War, the United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (Third Revised Edition). New York. McGraw-Hill, Inc.
[6]. Ibid.
[7]. Chinnery, Phil. (1987). Air War in Vietnam. New York. Bison Boooks Corp.
[8]. Ibid.

Bibliography

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: Microsoft Corporation.
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Copyright © 2001 Mike Nastasi.

Written by Mike Nastasi.
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