A Brief look at U.S. Airpower in Vietnam

The United States Air Force proved effective in the Second World War, adopting offensive air strategies and campaigns both in the European and in the Pacific theatres. The Allies were relentless in a strategic bombing targeting the main factories and areas that would break the Axis powers economy and morale. A main example of their strategy is Operation Strangle. In the spring of 1944, the United States Air Force (USAF) dropped an estimated 25-30,000 tons of bombs on Germany and Northern Italy. The regions chosen were over 400 square miles, littered in towns and villages that would be subjected to relentless carpet bombing. Twenty years later, America faced a hidden enemy in South East Asia. Unlike their last large conflict in Europe, that played out generally conventional, the nature of the Vietnam War was the opposite being asymmetrical. The enemy was hidden amongst civilians in plain clothing, and often led raids and ambushes against uniformed U.S. soldiers, ill-prepared for thick mountainous jungle terrain.

American Air Doctrine in Vietnam

To understand American thinking on-air support and coercive tactics, we have to go back to the basics. Basic American Air Doctrine was first introduced in 1926 and stayed relatively untouched until 1959. 5 years later, a more separate, complex document of AFM1-1 was created, which serves as the present-day Air Doctrine. The AFM1-1 still remains based off the 1920s and 30s airpower argument by air theorists William Mitchell and Giulio Douhet. Their ideology runs on the belief that airpower alone, when applied correctly, could theoretically win wars. To do this, the theory has a four-point scheme:

  • Air superiority
  • Air forces had to be used in sizeable numbers in focused areas for the maximum effects,
  • Targets chosen had to be crucial for the enemy’s war-making ability or will to fight,
  • The decisive use of offensive aircraft when properly employed would always be able to reach their objectives.

These four tactics also became a general consensus of strategists throughout the Second World War, and when applied, proved successful.

As the strategy proved to be inevitably successful, applying it to the conflict in Vietnam seemed to be the logical way forward. In order to achieve air success in Vietnam, strategists came up with three main aims:

  • “To signal to Hanoi the firmness of the U.S. to resolve to defend South Vietnam against communist subversion and aggression.
  • To boost the sagging morale of the GVN.
  • To impose increased costs and strains upon the DRV if it confirmed its support of the southern insurgency.”

Each Presidential cabinet seemed to follow these aims, but how it was applied varied. During Lyndon Baines Johnson’s government, there was a debate between two approaches to the application of airpower. The first following a decisive and direct approach, with the idea of asserting immediate and devastating blows, the second approach being air power used gradually. The latter approach became the applied strategy.

“Refutation of the illusions of airpower enthusiasts.”

– Lewy, Guenter. America in Vietnam. 1978

The Honolulu Conference in 1965 agreed on demonstrative air strikes against the North to implement the bombing as aligned in the NSAM-288[1]. Within this, Robert McNamara ordered for the JCS[2] to outline a “graduated overt military pressure” or gradualism. Dave Richard Palmer, a former U.S. army officer commented that the gradual approach allowed the North time to adjust to America’s strategy and not live up to the aims America wanted to achieve. In essence, the initial attack from the air could be effective, but thereafter, even with the increased intensity, the effects of attacks would decrease and the losses would increase. To contrast under Richard Nixon’s cabinet, the airstrikes became less gradual and more liberal for field commanders to choose targets and call airstrikes with more immediate response and effect. However in spite of the contrasting strategies, Vietnam still remains as a “refutation of the illusions of airpower enthusiasts.”

Air Campaigns

Airstrikes were initiated in February 1965 as retaliation act to Viet Cong attacks on American installations. The first campaigns were that of Flaming Dart I and II in initial response to the assaults on the barracks at Pleiku and Qui Nhon killing over 20 American soldiers and wounding just over 100. The two Flaming Dart campaigns had strategic targets, yet only destroyed 22 buildings out of the 275 targeted. However the campaigns quickly encouraged a longer air campaign thus the start of Operation Rolling Thunder.

Under the strict idea of gradualism, the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder was described as “a few isolated thunderclaps” by America’s ambassador to South Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor. Johnson’s cabinet did not respond well to this criticism, so regimented a plan to have at least one air raid a week to lessen the erratic attacks it set out as and become more consistent, focusing on gradually making each attack more intense. The outcome of the three year bombing scheme, after 58 planned attacks, caused the North about $600 million worth of damages to their military facilities, capital stock, and production. Yet this did not seem to be a huge issue in North Vietnam, as they received around $2 billion in foreign aid during the 44 month bombing campaign. In fact, Americans lost $6 billion worth of aircraft, and coupled with the political losses, the bombings became even less favorable in the United States. The USAF encountered heavy loses with their favorable bomber, the F-105, sustaining 332 loses throughout the campaign. Along with the failure to fulfill the objective to “impose increased costs and strains upon the DRV” the morale in Hanoi was unbroken and contrary to the belief it would urge citizens against their communist government, strengthend the opinions against America’s intervention. 

General William Westmoreland commented on the failure of Rolling Thunder, that if the air strategy was applied more vigorously, it could have worked. Although, Westmoreland also states that the idea of sharp blow air war, as promoted by the JCS against gradualism, probably would not have deterred the North from sending men and supplies to the South, or forced the North to consider a peace settlement.

Four years after the cessation of Rolling Thunder, Operation Freedom Train under the new Nixon administration was launched in April 1972. Freedom Train also looked to coerce Hanoi to finish it’s ground offensive and accept a ceasefire agreement. This time, the bombing was limited to the south of the 18th parallel, targeting storage areas and supply lines for the first few days of the offensive, but later expanding to below the 19th to accommodate key missile sites, and even later to the 20th parallel.

After the bombing stopped, North Vietnamese ignored peace papers and statements issued by Nixon, continuing their offensive on the ground. The failure of Freedom Train, is again, blamed on the gradualism of the program.

Following the failure of Freedom Train, several short air campaigns were put in place. First, the aerial mining of Haiphong harbor began, only a week after Freedom Train. Known as Operation Pocket Money, the mining of the harbor meant that supplies and aid from the sea to the North was curbed, forcing trade routes to travel differently in order to stop imports and also tighten the economy of the North. Pocket Money saw an approximate of 2000 lbs of mines dropped in the Haiphong harbor. The next campaign was Operation Bullet Shot. The aim of this operation was to reinforce the air units in South East Asia, preparing for the larger scale air campaigns of Linebacker I and II. The augmentation of aircraft numbers including B-52 and KC-135 aircraft, meant that the conventional applied strategy would deem more effective. Especially with a higher use of these aircraft rather than that of the F-105s.

Operation Linebacker, became the next big aerial offensive after Rolling Thunder, again setting out to compel Hanoi to cease its ground offensive and accede to a ceasefire. With a buffer zone of 25-30 miles off the Chinese Border, the campaign granted the USAF authority to bomb military targets within North Vietnam. Being less restrictive than its predeceasing campaigns, Linebacker I incorporated naval aircraft in association with Operation Pocket Money as well as USAF tactical fighters, Navy carrier planes and SAC B-52s. The United States C7F[3] was directed to commit the majority of it’s fleet consisting of cruisers and destroyers to focus on air and costal attacks on the North’s communications and logistics at sea. The Linebacker campaign again was sent on the conventional strategic bombing aims, but with the refined American political intentions, and the North’s change of theatre from asymmetric to conventional war.
During Linebacker I, 155,548 tons of bombs were dropped on North Vietnam, only a quarter of tonnage dropped during Rolling Thunder, but causing more damage. With the North’s Easter Invasion, came their conventional reliance on material resources such as factories, logistical pathways and traditional military bases, the targets USAF had been targeting from the very beginning of the war. The outcome of the campaign at first seemed to be the start of the end with the promise of peace negotiations and a ceasefire. However, these were delayed by the South so much so that the North resumed its invasion at a higher rate.
Despite the success of the first Linebacker Operation, it failed to tie up the loose ends of the war and failed to cease the North’s invasion, Linebacker II or the Christmas Bombings were implemented on the 18th December 1972, lasting 12 days. The round the clock raids forced the North back into its position at the end of the first Linebacker campaign, but this time followed through with the ceasefire and peace talks. This marked the beginning of the end.


An Important factor to consider with American application of air power is technology. America as a belligerent state has always been forward with technology and firepower, and the Vietnam War is no exception.

With the end of WW2, the discovery of nuclear and atomic power, radar and laser guided missiles, the 1960s and 70s are a key point in the revolution of military affairs. Unfortunately with the evolution of technology there needs to be complimentary evolutions of strategy and tactics. In America’s case in Vietnam, it was only “when technology was combined with innovative tactics and organizations that it had real impact.”

On paper the USAF was superior in its aircraft, with it’s Republic F-105 Thunderchief being the most popular aircraft utilized. The F-105 at the time was the fastest low altitude aircraft, but due to its initial development of being an air combat plane, and later modification to be a nuclear bomber, meant that it’s maneuverability was exceedingly poor and lead to it being nicknamed as the “lead sled” and “thud.” Another popular aircraft used by the United States included the Navy F4 Phantom II, F-8 Crusaders, US Navy A-4 Skyhawks and A6 Intruders, were all equipped with supersonic and Air-to-Air Missiles.

Technologically, these aircraft were highly superior to the Soviet MiG-17 utilised by the North Vietnamese. In comparison the MiG-17 was subsonic and equipped with cannons, but in horizontal flight could outrun and perform a USAF aircraft in supersonic, giving the MiG-17 an edge in dogfights. Along with superior aircraft, the United States also possessed superior equipment with laser guided bombs for their bombing campaigns. These proved highly successful in the Rolling Thunder sorties with the improved accuracy on targets. In the Linebacker operations, this was noted and continued to use this technology, combined in more complex air raid formations to achieve maximum effect. In countering the USAF, North Vietnam had SAMs[4] a radar tracking missile system effective in taking down offensive aircraft. During Rolling Thunder campaigns, the North fired between 5,366 and 6,307 SAMs.


[2] Joint Chief of Staff
[3] https://www.public.navy.mil/surfor/pages/SeventhFleet.aspx
[4] Surface to Air Missiles



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