A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force/Flexible Response and Vietnam
Flexible Response and Vietnam
President John Kennedy initiated a more activist, interventionist national strategy in 1961, one that brought profound changes to the overwhelmingly nuclear-strike Air Force. The Kennedy administration authorized the expansion of the Air Force's ICBM arsenal to 1,000 Minuteman and 54 Titan IIs, deployed mainly at isolated bases in the north-central United States. The Navy nuclear component grew to 41 Polaris submarines, while the Army field forces eventually increased from 12 to 16 divisions and included a counterinsurgency capability. This expansion was intended to give the President increased flexibility in ordering a military response to international crises. In the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, enormous American offensive power forced the Soviet Union to back down and prompted Secretary of State Dean Rusk to con clude, "We're eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked." Kennedy had immense nuclear power at his disposal in confronting the Soviet Union over its nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba, but at the time he had few conventional options. His military choices were an invasion of Cuba, with no guarantees of success, or an all-out countervalue thermonuclear war. After the crisis, won through a third alternative, a naval blockade referred to as a "quarantine," Kennedy hastened to adopt the "flexible response" as America's new war-planning doctrine. SIOP-63 introduced the potential for limited nuclear war, while preserving the possibility of an all-out countervalue strike.
Even while the SAC-dominated Air Force eagerly adopted the Eisenhower administration's New Look structure, it also maintained forward-based units in Japan, Korea, Guam, the Philippines, and elsewhere on the Pacific rim. With almost 1,000 aircraft in place, these units came under the command of the Hawaii-headquartered Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), which replaced FEAF as the air component of the Navy-led Pacific Command in 1957.
By 1957 the U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) had built up an even larger forward presence to bolster NATO. With more than 2,000 assigned aircraft of all types (not including SAC bombers also deployed in theater), USAFE's network of 32 primary installations stretched from England to Saudi Arabia. Reflecting NATO's "sword and shield" policy, USAFE focused on nuclear strike and air defense roles. By the time of the Berlin crisis of 1961, the command had shrank in size, but it was quickly reinforced by the largest deployment of tactical aircraft since World War II. After the crisis eased, USAFE began a 20-year effort to improve its conventional capabilities in line with the flexible response strategy, which NATO officially adopted in 1967.
This flexibility increased the Air Force's responsibilities, which now ranged from waging all-out nuclear war to supporting the Army in limited conflicts. Tragically, the lessons of Korea had to be relearned in the skies over Vietnam. During the French Indochina War, as early as 1954, the JCS considered Operation VULTURE, in which the U.S. Air Force would be deployed to save the French army at Điện Biên Phủ. The operation would involve nuclear and conventional bombing around the isolated French garrison. President Eisenhower vetoed this proposal, concerned, like General Omar Bradley during the Korean War, that this was "the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." The Geneva Agreement of 1955 left Vietnam divided at the 17th Parallel into the Communist north under Hồ Chí Minh, and the pro-Western south, under Bảo Đại and Ngô Đình Diệm. The desire to contain
the spread of Communism brought about America's involvement in Vietnam. When President Kennedy declared that the United States would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty," the stage was set. The Taylor-Rostow mission of October 1961 investigated the situation in South Vietnam and proposed the use of American air power against North Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1974 the United States would drop three times as many bombs in Southeast Asia as it did in all of World War II, but victory would prove even more elusive than in the Korean War.
Driven by its nuclear strategic bombing doctrine, the Air Force was ill-prepared for a limited war in Vietnam. Air Force training, technology, and strategy focused on general nuclear war with the Soviet Union. F–105 Thunderchief "fighters" had been designed to carry tactical nuclear weapons in an internal bomb bay, but were forced into use in Vietnam carrying 750-pound high-explosive bombs. F–104 Starfighters, the fastest fighters in the world, were designed to intercept Soviet bombers, but lacked the range and dogfighting ability to compete for air superiority over North Vietnam. Fortunately for the Air Force, the Navy had begun the development of two superb fighter-bombers, the F–4 Phantom II and the A–7 Corsair II, better suited to combat, although the absence of a machine gun in the former aircraft limited its usefulness as an air superiority fighter until the arrival of the gun-equipped E model.
U.S. Air Force aircrews flew combat missions in South Vietnam before 1964, but only if accompanied by South Vietnamese aircrews. The Gulf of Tonkin incident involving the Navy destroyers C. Turner Joy and Maddox in August 1964 resulted in a nearly unanimous Congressional vote of support for President Johnson "to take all necessary measures to prevent further aggression." As in Korea, however, there would be no declaration of war. Neutral sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia would be off-limits to aerial attack for much of the conflict. Targets close to China and in Hanoi and Haiphong would also be off-limits for fear an expanded fight would lead to a direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union and China, with the possible result of a nuclear holocaust. Vietnam would be another limited war. National objectives were, for the military, exasperating: "Don't lose this war, but don't win it, either." As President Johnson stated: "… not now, or not there, or too much, or not at all." The strategy was designed to hold off North Vietnam until South Vietnam became a viable nation able to defend itself. The Air Force would fight two wars―one against internal subversion by South
Vietnam-based Việt Cộng, the other against North Vietnamese aggression.
The Air Force initially intended to destroy North Vietnam's industrial fabric and then to interdict its supplies to Viet Cong units in South
Vietnam by attacking its railroads and ocean shipping and mining its harbors. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell Taylor vetoed the air plan, however, because it might prompt Chinese or Soviet intervention. Like that in Korea, the strategy in Vietnam was to punish the enemy until it agreed to a ceasefire and peace, not to provoke the Chinese or Soviets.
The Air Force, they stated, would provide close air support for Army units operating in South Vietnam. The sustained bombing of North Vietnam began when circumstances changed in South Vietnam. On February 8, 1965, Operation FLAMING DART I launched tit-for-tat retaliatory bombings in response to enemy attacks on American installations in South Vietnam. Such an attack on the Pleiku Special Forces base resulted in limited air strikes against oil supplies and naval bases in North Vietnam. The strikes were intended to deter the enemy with the "potential" of American air power.
These circumscribed efforts gave Ho Chi Minh time to construct perhaps the strongest air defense network in the world at the time. Eventually, it included over 8,000 antiaircraft artillery pieces, over 40 active surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, and over 200 MiG-17s, -19s, and -21s. Continued Communist ground action in South Vietnam brought the Air Force into the teeth of this network. Operation ROLLING THUNDER began in March 1965 and continued until October 1968. It was a frustrating air campaign marked by limits at every turn, gradualism, measured response, and, especially, restrictive rules of engagement. Doctrine drove the Air Force to strike against industrial web, but Air Force and Navy aircraft would be bombing a nation with a gross national product of $1.6 billion, only $192 million of which came from industrial activity. Like those of Korea, the industrial sources of North Vietnam's power were in China and the Soviet Union, beyond the reach of American air power.
ROLLING THUNDER's initial targets were roads, radar sites, railroads, and supply dumps. Because of bad weather the first mission of March 2, 1965, was not followed up until March 15. The Johnson administration did not permit attacks on airfields until 1967. SA-2 surface-to-air missile sites went unmolested; North Vietnam was permitted to establish SAM sites, and only after missiles were launched from them could they be attacked. Another rule restricted operations in a 30-mile zone and prohibited operations in a 10-mile zone around Hanoi. In 1965 and 1966 165,000 sorties against the North killed an estimated 37,000, but the war intensified in the South, with 325,000 American troops stationed there by the end of 1966.
In the summer of 1964, the JCS had proposed a list of 94 strategic targets as part of an intensified bombing campaign over which President Johnson and his advisers maintained careful control, assigning targets during Tuesday luncheon meetings at the White House. They doled out enough to pressure Ho Chi Minh but too many to prevent peace negotiations or to invite Soviet or Chinese intervention. Of the many bridges bombed, the two most famous were the Thanh Hoa bridge eight miles south of Hanoi and the Paul Doumer bridge in Hanoi itself. Both were critical to transport supplies flowing from China into North and South Vietnam. Hundreds of bombing sorties conducted over several years failed to bring down the solidly-built Thanh Hoa bridge. When the Johnson administration finally permitted the bombing of the Doumer bridge in 1967, fighter-bombers quickly dropped one span. After several weeks, repair crews put the bridge back into operation and it had to be bombed again. Over France in World War I, American airmen contested with Fokkers for air superiority and over Germany in World War II, with Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts. Over Korea they fought MiGs. Over North Vietnam they fought fewer MiGs as the struggle became primarily directed against surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery. When the Johnson administration approved the cessation of bombing north of the 19th parallel in the spring of 1968, North Vietnam agreed to negotiate. Peace negotiations began in Paris in November 1968, and the United States halted ROLLING THUNDER. The JCS then limited Air Force operations in North Vietnam to protective reaction missions. Aircraft would conduct reconnaissance and would strike only if attacked.
Meanwhile, in South Vietnam, the ground war worsened. In 1965 American commander, General William Westmoreland, oversaw the change of commitment in South Vietnam from a coastal enclave strategy for the protection of large cities, to direct ground involvement ("search and destroy" missions) into the interior after Communist forces in a massive campaign of close air support and interdiction. By 1968 over half a million American troops were engaged. Again, as it had in Korea, American strategy called for substituting air power for ground action whenever possible to reduce Army casualties. Ironically, while dropping less than one million tons of bombs on North Vietnam, the enemy, the United States dropped more than four million tons on South Vietnam, the ally. When Westmoreland ordered a major offensive into the "Iron Triangle" northwest of Saigon, more than 5,000 Air Force tactical strike sorties, 125 B-52 strikes, and 2,000 airlift sorties paved the way.
Operations included an extensive defoliation campaign (RANCH HAND) in which C-123 Providers and other transports sprayed 19 million gallons of herbicides over the jungles that provided convenient hiding places for Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese regular units out to ambush American ground troops. The overwhelming firepower brought by America to Vietnam gave Air Force airlift a major role in the war. Because jungle roads were rarely safe, Allied forces called on Army helicopters and Air Force C-47 Skytrains, C-119 Boxcars, C-123 Providers, and C-130 Hercules to move mountains of supplies around South Vietnam. C-141 Starlifters and C-5 Galaxies, augmented by commercial airlines, helped move in personnel and critical supplies from the United States.
Despite the fact that many targets were obscured much of the time by Vietnam's triple canopy jungles, the key to limiting ground casualties was close air support. As in earlier wars, the solution was to drop more bombs to inundate an area. Carpet bombing by B-52 Stratofortresses, each dropping up to 108 500- and 750-pound bombs, was the favored technique. Directed by LORAN, occasionally to within one thousand feet of American units, these ARC LIGHT missions flew at 30,000 feet. Bombs fell without warning. After the war, Vietnamese who survived this deluge described the ARC LIGHT experience as the most terrible they had faced. Another technique involved employing newly-developed gunships, including the AC-47 Spooky (known popularly as Puff the Magic Dragon), AC-119 Shadow, and AC-130 Spectre. The latter carried four 7.62-mm machine guns and four 20-mm cannon, each firing 6,000 rounds per minute, and 40-mm and 105-mm cannon. Orbiting over enemy concentrations at night, they covered the jungle with a rain of projectiles, well-appreciated by American soldiers nearby.
Again, as it had in Korea, the Air Force in Vietnam learned that the most difficult function of air power was interdiction; its major effort involved interdicting the flow of enemy troops and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. Many
Transport Aircraft in Vietnam
targets were merely geographical coordinates superimposed over the vast green jungle of Southeast Asia. Others were the smoke and dust kicked up by enemy forces as they moved down the trail by day. At night, they were campfires, hot engines, and other man-made infrared signatures picked up by airborne sensors. Fighters soon compelled the enemy to move only by night, when gunships took over. But using $10 million aircraft to destroy $10,000 trucks was no solution. Three Soviet ZIL-157 six-wheel drive trucks or 400 bicycles carrying 75 pounds each could provide the fifteen tons of supplies to Communist forces in South
Vietnam each day. More came from plundered American and South Vietnamese storehouses.
On January 30, 1968, enemy units launched the Tet Offensive, striking cities and other targets throughout South Vietnam. In February alone, Air Force units launched 16,000 strike sorties in support of ground operations, helping to blunt the offensive. The focus of the Air Force's operations, however, was the besieged firebase at Khe Sanh, where 6,000 Marines faced three North Vietnamese divisions. President Johnson told General Westmoreland that he did not want another "damn [Dien Bien Phu]." Air power would have to hold off Communist attacks. Three months of Operation NIAGARA totaled 24,000 fighter-bomber and 2,700 B-52 strikes, 110,000 tons of bombs, and nightly assaults by gunships. Additionally, the Air Force airlifted 12,000 tons of supplies to the surrounded Marines. Air power guaranteed that there would be no repeat of the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu.
The Tet offensive proved a military defeat for the Communists, who lost between 50,000 and 80,000 soldiers, but it represented a political victory that galvanized the antiwar movement in the United States. It led many other Americans to question the war's objectives, especially in the face of General Westmoreland's announcement just before its launching that he could see "the light at the end of the tunnel." The Tet offensive (and a poor showing in the New Hampshire primary) convinced President Johnson not to run for reelection. It also brought to the Oval Office a new president, Richard Nixon, committed to ending American involvement in the war and turning it over to the South Vietnamese. F-5 Freedom Fighters strengthened the South Vietnamese Air Force while Nixon withdrew American ground units. On March 30, 1972, the North Vietnamese Army invaded South Vietnam with 12 divisions from the north and west. Although South Vietnamese forces were no match for the invaders, the Spring offensive was a major miscalculation. American ground forces were gone, but U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy aviation remained. For the first time in the war, the Air Force was up against the kind of conventional war it could win. Eighteen thousand fighter-bomber and 1,800 B-52 sorties stiffened South Vietnamese resolve. In the desperation of the moment, fighter pilots found themselves aiming 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs at Communist tanks―not cost effective, but effective nevertheless. The massive employment of air power bought more time for South Vietnam.
Although American air power had repelled the invasion, implications for Nixon's Vietnamization strategy were clear. American hopes for ending the war revolved around the Air Force's applying greater pressure on North Vietnam to influence its negotiators to return to the Paris peace talks. The LINEBACKER I bombing campaign from May to October 1972 was a major escalation of the war and included the mining of Hai Phong and other ports. Bridges that had resisted bombing now fell before precision laser-guided and electro-optically-guided bombs. Before LINEBACKER, peer pressure and pride drove American aircrews, even as they asked: "What the hell is this all about?" During LINEBACKER they had a clear and limited objective―forcing the regime in Hanoi back to Paris.
In Paris some progress was made, but in December 1972 Communist negotiators became recalcitrant. Their delaying tactics prompted President Nixon to order the most concentrated bombing campaign of the war―LINEBACKER II. For 11 days beginning on December 18, with a Christmas break, SAC B-52s struck at rail yards and other targets in the outskirts of Hanoi and Haiphong. On the first mission, 129 B-52s pene-
trated the area, supported by a wide array of Air Force and Navy aircraft. F-4s dropped chaff in wide corridors. EB-66s, EA-3s, and EA-6s jammed enemy radar with electronic countermeasures. F-105 Wild Wea-
LINEBACKER I and II operations, 1972. In missions carried out from May to October and in December to compel enemy negotiators back to the Paris peace talks, intercontinental Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses, top, form up to take off for intensive bombing missions over North Vietnam. A General Dynamics variable-sweep wing F-111 tactical fighter, center, provides high-precision bombing. The aerial photograph of a military weapons storage area, bottom, in Hà Nội reveals widespread bomb cratering and demolished buildings.
sels with Shrike radar-seeking missiles attacked enemy radar sites. SR-71s provided reconnaissance. EC-121s fed early warning information to the attacking aircraft. F-4s, A-7s, and F-111s struck airfields, storage sites, and other precision targets. F-4s flew MiG suppression. KC-135s orbited over the Gulf of Tonkin, ready to feed thirsty jets. This was the air war the Air Force had wanted from the beginning. A B-52 tail
gunner shot down a MiG on the first night, but 200 surface-to-air missile launches claimed three B-52s―the first 3 of 15 lost.
By December 27 North Vietnam had depleted its supply of SA-2 missiles and much of its antiaircraft ammunition. Interdiction strikes against rail lines and bridges coupled with mines in Haiphong Harbor prevented resupply from China or the Soviet Union. By December 30, LINEBACKER II had destroyed many industrial and military targets in the Hanoi and Haiphong area, although its major impact was on North Vietnam's morale. To Captain Ray Bean, an F-4 crewman imprisoned in the "Hanoi Hilton," the B-52s "got the attention of the North Vietnamese" because the United States seemed to have forsaken precision attacks on purely military and industrial targets in favor of "whole-sale destruction." North Vietnam witnessed the path of devastation a single B-52 could create, especially in an urban environment. Its negotiators returned to the peace talks, agreeing to a cease-fire in January 1973 and signing a treaty in April. Before the year was out Congress cut funds for Southeast Asian operations and passed the War Powers Act, which limited the President's options.
Two years later North Vietnam launched a final offensive against a South Vietnam operating without American air support. After 55 days, on April 29, 1975, Saigon fell. In Vietnam, the United States lost 58,000 men and women. The war helped cause a decade of inflation and alienated a generation. The Air Force had invested over 1.2 million fixed wing sorties, 6.2 million tons of explosives, 2,118 dead, 599 missing in action, and 2,257 aircraft (at a cost of $3.1 billion).
The Air Force learned the dangers of political and military micromanagement, of gradualism, and of being used to influence the conduct of America's enemies instead of defeating them. Restrictive rules of engagement caused aircrews to die and left little room for initiative. "Route packages," artificial divisions of North Vietnam in which Air Force and Navy aircraft operated separately, guaranteed a dilution of effort. A generation of future air leaders came away convinced that "body counts," sortie rates, and tons of bombs dropped were all poor means for judging air power's effectiveness. They also relearned the importance of air superiority, but with a twist―air superiority now involved not only overcoming an enemy's air force; it involved also overcoming an enemy's air defenses on the surface. Air power had to be focused, united, and coordinated in what was termed "jointness" after the war.
Most of all, the Air Force learned the dangers of strict, uncompromising adherence to doctrine. In the years after Vietnam a new generation of air leaders realized that the Air Force had focused almost exclusively on the strategic bombing of industrial chokepoints without regard for the character of the society to be bombed or the type of war to be fought. Training, technology, and doctrine revolved around the destruction of a developed nation's industrial fabric or the nuclear destruction of a nation's cities. The Air Force had become imprisoned by a doctrine established in the years before and after World War II. Applied against undeveloped states such as North Korea and North Vietnam, each equipped and supplied by other countries, and unable to use nuclear weapons because of the Cold War and moral considerations, strategic bombardment and its related strategies did not prevail.