Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam

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As the North Vietnamese army became more heavily involved in the conflict, Johnson steadily increased the number of American forces in Vietnam. Although North Vietnam did not have much of an air force, its leaders managed to mount an effective defense against the bombing raids. With assistance from China and the Soviet Union , the North Vietnamese constructed a sophisticated air-defense system. Using surface-to-air missiles and radar-controlled anti-aircraft artillery, the North Vietnamese shot down hundreds of American planes over the course of the bombing campaign.

As a result, pilots and aircraft weapon systems operators accounted for the majority of the American prisoners of war who were captured and held by North Vietnam.

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North Vietnamese leaders also took a number of other steps to reduce the impact of the American bombing raids. They constructed networks of bombproof tunnels and shelters, and dispatched crews by night to rebuild the roads, bridges, communication systems and other facilities struck by bombs. Additionally, the communists used the destructive air strikes for propaganda purposes to increase anti-American sentiment and patriotism among North Vietnamese citizens.

The sustained bombing of North Vietnam lasted for more than three years, with occasional brief interruptions. Johnson finally halted the campaign on October 31, , in order to pursue a negotiated settlement with the Communists. Historians differ in their assessments of the strategic value of Operation Rolling Thunder. They argue that rules of engagement put in place to avoid provoking communist China and to minimize damage to Hanoi and Haiphong made it impossible for the U. They also assert that U.

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In , Nixon unleashed another massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam called Operation Linebacker. By the time the last American combat troops left Vietnam in , the U. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! Subscribe for fascinating stories connecting the past to the present.

On June 22, , Adolf Hitler launched his armies eastward in a massive invasion of the Soviet Union: three great army groups with over three million German soldiers, divisions, and three thousand tanks smashed across the frontier into Soviet territory. The invasion covered As a people with experience in extended campaigns, the North Vietnamese concluded that their patience was greater than that of their opponent.

The greatest effect of gradualism was to occur in the area President Johnson believed he knew best, the domestic arena. While bombing causes no greater suffering among noncombatants than any other means of war--more innocent civilians died as the result of acts of terrorism by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese during the Tet offensive than in all of Rolling Thunder--the self-agonizing that has been experienced since the World War II strategic bombing campaigns indicates that the average U.

Certainly this was true at the top; gradualism reflected the almost apologetic manner in which President Johnson elected to undertake a major military campaign. Communist propaganda campaigns against U. The worst effect of gradualism, however, was that it sought from the American public the one virtue it lacks: patience. The JCS plan and its target list recognized the necessity for attack of all parts of the interdicted target. This was not revolutionary thinking but the application of long-established air power doctrine. By attacking the sources from which [the] armed forces are maintained infinitely more effect is obtained.

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In the same way, instead of attacking the rifle and the machinegun in the trench where they can exact the highest price from us for the smallest gain we shall attack direct the factory where these are made. Secretary McNamara did not accept this line of thinking, stating that "Physically, it makes no difference whether a rifle is interdicted on its way into North Vietnam, on its way out of North Vietnam, in Laos or in South Vietnam.

It can be argued that because the flow into South Vietnam is a larger fraction of what passed through Route Packages I-III than it is of what passes through Route Packages IV-VI, an amount of material destroyed in the former area has more effect than the same amount destroyed in the latter.

This is true, but to argue that sorties in the northern region are therefore less important overlooks the fact that this very gradient is established largely by the attrition throughout the LOG. In analogous transport or diffusion problems of this sort in the physical world e.


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The arguments of Secretary Brown and the JCS were only partially successful over the course of the campaign. Rather, the civilian leadership embarked on a long-term campaign emphasizing armed reconnaissance of lines of communication in the lower Route Packages, expecting more from these limited efforts than the history of aerial interdiction in protracted campaigns promised. For example, in , of , sorties over North Vietnam, only were against the 22 fixed targets authorized for attack by the White House; the balance were devoted to the armed reconnaissance interdiction campaign, with two-thirds of the strikes occurring in Route Packages I and II.

This highly uneconomical misuse of expensive, high-performance aircraft to seek out and destroy individual trucks prompted this response by one Air Force pilot to Senator and former Secretary of the Air Force W. Stuart Symington:. I am a regular. Nobody drafted me, and I expect to risk my life for my country.

Additional restraints were imposed on strike forces by the White House. Notwithstanding repeated justification of Rolling Thunder as a campaign for denial of sanctuaries to North Vietnam, 11 the White House established a series of political, military, and geographic sanctuaries throughout North Vietnam in which attacks of otherwise legitimate targets were prohibited. Attacks on targets within populated areas were to be avoided, a restriction that was quickly changed into a prohibition by subordinate commanders fearful of the repercussions of any incident real or fabricated by the North Vietnamese.

Restricted areas of 30 and 10 miles were established around Hanoi and Haiphong, respectively. Targets within these areas could not be attacked without specific White House approval; once authorized, there was limited restrike authority. Prohibited areas of 10 and 4 miles were placed within the restricted areas of Hanoi and Haiphong. Attack of targets within those areas also required White House authorization, which was less likely than for targets within the restricted areas.

There was no restrike authority for targets within prohibited areas. In addition to the geographic sanctuaries surrounding Hanoi and Haiphong and within the buffer zone, strike forces were restricted in their attack of targets of opportunity within Route Package VI. When the first U. Fishing boats, dikes and levees, locks and dams, and hydroelectric plants were not authorized targets. Bridges, including bridges on LOCs, were considered fixed targets requiring White House strike authorization.

The White House also discouraged the preparation of a comprehensive plan for attainment of Rolling Thunder objectives by approving target packages a week at a time in the initial phases of the campaign, and subsequently in monthly increments. Although requested by the JCS, attack on them was not immediately authorized.

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The SAM threat was permitted to expand without significant interference through early During that time, SAM sites were developed as ambush positions along the anticipated flight paths of strike forces — a tactic forced upon the North Vietnamese by the limited availability of SAMs but facilitated by the White House decision to select weekly target packages. By the end of , more than sixty sites had been identified around the vital Hanoi-Haiphong military-industrial-transportation complex.

Authorization for their attack was limited. Sites were authorized for attack only after photographic evidence had established that they were occupied, an impractical criterion during the period of SAM mobility. As SAMs increased, the threat to U. S aircraft similarly increased.

Altitudes for ingress decreased from the preferred 25,, feet to 12,, feet, which required more fuel and placed strike aircraft within range of North Vietnamese antiaircraft. Strike forces had to adopt echeloned operations by small groups.

Restrictions on attack of SAM sites remained, however, particularly with regard to those sites in and about Hanoi and Haiphong. SAMs within the prohibited areas of those cities could not be attacked. With their range of seventeen nautical miles, the SAMs were able to offer protection to the key portions of the North Vietnamese military transportation and supply system while themselves immune from attack. SAMs within the restricted areas but beyond the prohibited areas could be attacked if they were preparing to fire upon U.

The North Vietnamese became aware of this last restriction and offset the U. Screening their SAM and AA positions from counterattack, rather than locating them immediately adjacent to high-value targets, appeared to be the prevailing criterion for North Vietnamese positioning of their SAM and AA defenses. SAMs located in populated areas could be attacked only if they actually were firing at U. Authorization to attack the entire SAM system was never granted during the course of Rolling Thunder.

The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam

The North Vietnamese were not reluctant to take advantage of the restrictions imposed on U. Gradualism permitted them time to organize, coordinate, and refine their defenses; sanctuaries and restrictions on attack of the defenses enabled them to undertake optimum utilization of SAMs, MiGs, and AA. The greatest concentration of their defenses was in the Red River Valley area extending southeast from Yen Bai to the Gulf of Tonkin, with a substantial portion in a mile by mile wide ring with Hanoi as its hub.

Like their MiG defenses, SAMs frequently were used to force strike aircraft to jettison their ordnance during the course of evasive maneuvers. Alternatively, they forced aircraft taking evasive action into the fire of the more than antiaircraft weapons that ringed the area.

Throughout this area, civilians by the thousands had been issued small arms ranging from. The North Vietnamese advantage was further enhanced by the White House requirement for visual identification of targets; if attacking pilots had to eyeball their targets, it assured them that they were capable of being eyeballed by their less-than-congenial hosts. The North Vietnamese were quick to seize upon other weaknesses in the manner in which the campaign was waged by the United States. None was more controversial than the issue of the dikes. The Red River delta, the most populated area of North Vietnam, is little more than a marshland and rice paddies broken up by dams and dikes to permit controlled irrigation and prevent flooding.

The earthwork dikes require continuous maintenance. As the North Vietnamese called on the local population to maintain the military lines of communication, labor was drawn away from dike maintenance. The problem was exacerbated by the placement of air defense equipment AA and GCI on the dikes and the resulting deterioration caused by the vibration of the guns. North Vietnamese SAMs that missed their mark often fell back to earth before exploding, causing additional damage to the dikes.

Given the North Vietnamese tactic of forcing U. As the dikes deteriorated, however, the North Vietnamese sought a way to continue to fight the war and maintain the dikes. In order to extract a greater effort from their population, they turned the issue into one that would rally the people, alleging that the United States was bombing the dikes intentionally in order to flood the entire delta. Foreign visitors were provided tours of damaged dikes — photographic coverage indicates that most visitors were taken to the same "damaged" dike over a period of several years — to exploit the issue in the foreign press.

In some circumstances, dikes can be legitimate targets from either a military or law of war standpoint, as evidenced by the successful campaign by the Royal Air Force Bomber Command and the USAAF Eighth Air Force against key points in the Dortmund-Ems and Mittleland canals as part of the attack on German lines of communication in late The North Vietnamese allegations were vigorously denied by the White House.

Continued strong emphasis by the Johnson administration of the point that U. In addition to increasing the number of AA positions, petroleum, oil, and lubricant POL drums were stored along their length. Little was done to counter the North Vietnamese actions until Linebacker I commenced in April , when AA and GCI sites were attacked with antipersonnel munitions napalm, cluster bomb units, and strafing that were effective in neutralization of the personnel and military equipment while avoiding structural damage to the dikes.

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