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Essay: The Limitations of Air Power in Vietnam War

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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  • Words: 1,072 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 5 (approx)

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At the start of conflict in Vietnam, the US military saw strategic bombing as the most effective tool of war. After all, it was successful in World War Two. However, in Vietnam, the political climate and nature of war was entirely different than that of World War Two. The world was at the brink of nuclear war and one unwisely dropped bomb could spark world war. Restrictions were put in place and pilots had to wait days to receive approval to bomb targets. The enemies, North Vietnam and the Viet Kong were hidden in dense jungle making strategic bombing challenging. American air power was ineffective in the beginning of the war due to the restricted nature of air operations in limited war and the nature of the enemy. However, once the full capability of air power was released and a more conventional enemy developed, strategic success was found and air power proved to be extremely effective.

As conflict in Vietnam escalated, the United States’ politicians and strategists controlling involvement in the region created a very limited war marked by Cold War tensions and fear that China and the USSR would become involved. Thus, when Operation Rolling Thunder began, strict rules of engagement (ROE’s) were enforced on the campaign, limiting the effectiveness of air power. In Captain John F. O’Connell’s book The Effectiveness of Air Power in the 20th Century, it is made clear how limiting the ROE’s were: “Very few attacks were permitted on electric power systems, the arms industry, oil facilities, the transportation network and the agricultural system. Enemy airfields and flak installations were off-limits. SAM sites could only be attacked if they were targeting U.S. aircraft.” (O’Connell). With air power so heavily restricted pilots were often confused as to which targets they were authorized to attack. The full and overwhelming force of the US Air Force was never unleashed and military commanders on the ground struggled to fight a war with their hands tied.

The man behind the restrictions was President Johnson as he chose to play an important role in the selection of bombing targets during Operation Rolling Thunder. Each week, he would sit down with his advisors and select the locations to be bombed. The President said of his involvement, “By keeping a lid on all the designated targets, I knew I could keep the control of the war in my own hands. If China reacted to our slow escalation by threatening to retaliate, we’d have plenty of time to ease off the bombing.” (Goodwin). There was legitimate concern behind the restrictions in place. The world was in a state of extreme tension and a bomb dropped in the wrong place that killed the wrong person could be enough to launch the world into nuclear war.

Effectiveness during Rolling Thunder was also hindered by the nature of the targets the United States bombed. Most bombs were dropped over jungles where intelligence suggested enemy troops might be. Strategic bombing is not well suited to combat guerrilla warfare. The Viet Kong and North Vietnamese had very small supply needs in the jungle and were receiving more than they would ever need via the Ho Chi Minh trail. Even if some supply lines were thwarted by the bombing, plenty of other supplies made it through to sustain their operations. The ability of US aircraft at the time also hindered effectiveness. In chapter five of A History of Air Warfare, Wayne Thompson addresses this: “Added to those political limitations, the limited ability of fighter aircraft in the 1960s to bomb effectively at night or in bad weather meant that Rolling Thunder was mostly a daylight, fair weather interdiction campaign—not one likely to have much success.” (Thompson). Ultimately, the political factors and nature of the conflict during Rolling Thunder made the bombing a strategic failure.

By the spring of 1972, the climate of the war was drastically different. President Nixon had been elected and as a part of his Détente efforts was beginning to ease tensions with the USSR and China. Nixon now had much less fear of sparking world war than Johnson had faced a few years earlier, allowing for more unrestricted military action in Vietnam. Coupled with this political advancement was an entirely different type of enemy. When North Vietnam launched the Easter Offensive, there was suddenly a much more conventional ground attack with exponentially higher supply needs and more tangible targets for strategic bombing. Linebacker was launched and found great success stopping the Easter Offensive in its tracks and almost eliminating foreign imports of supplies. Major cities of Hanoi and Haiphong were still restricted from bombing but the North Vietnamese soon became open to peace talks. South Vietnam rejected a peace treaty then fighting resumed, but overall, Linebacker was extremely effective in accomplishing its goals of stopping the Easter Offensive. Without air power, countless American lives could have been lost on the ground.

While air power was restricted throughout the majority of conflict in Vietnam, President Nixon finally decided to utilize air power to its full potential in Linebacker II. His main target was the capital city of Hanoi. 729 B-52 sorties were flown dropping 15,000 tons of bombs over the city. Railroad yards, SAM sites, airfields, and storage facilities were completely destroyed. (Boyne). Within 11 days, North Vietnam was willing to return to the peace talks and signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending the conflict in Vietnam for the time being. Though very brief compared to Operation Rolling Thunder, Linebacker II proved that air power was incredibly effective when under the command of military leadership and not politicians in Washington. Now utilizing air power to its intended extent, the Air Force was able to accomplish their mission and swiftly close out the conflict in a matter of days.

Air power has a time and place in which it is most effective. A scattered enemy in jungles conducting guerrilla warfare is a challenging target, especially when crucial locations like airfields, SAM sites, and storage facilities are restricted from bombing due to the political climate. When a more conventional enemy develops, supply lines become more crucial to their operation, and restrictions on bombing are lifted, air power can be utilized in its intended manner. While Operation Rolling Thunder was ineffective, Linebacker I and II proved that fully utilized air power is extremely effective and can bring a conflict to its end quicker than any other method.

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