Aerial Warfare

Between 1965 and 1975, more than 7.5 million tons of bombs were dropped by the United States and its allies on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This doubles the amount dropped on Europe and Asia during the Second World War. By tonnage, it stands as the largest aerial bombardment in history. The bombing of North Vietnam is divided into the Rolling Thunder campaign of the Johnson administration and the Linebacker operations of the Nixon years. The Linebacker campaigns pierced self-imposed boundaries set by Johnson, although by that time the U.S. was already on the way out of Vietnam.

Topgun: An American Story

By Dan Pedersen

Because the U.S. owned the airspace over their country, the North Vietnamese took to sending war matériel south under the cover of darkness. To counter this, the Americans flew at night, hunting for convoys heading south. U.S. rules of engagement made it much easier for North Vietnamese antiaircraft gunners. Washington had directed pilots to drop flares first, to identify trucks as military vehicles, then dive down under the flare light to attack. Gunners on the ground would lace the illuminated area with tracers and exploding antiaircraft shells. American pilots dove down through all that incoming and had a split-second opportunity to release their bombs.

Because the U.S. owned the airspace over their country, the North Vietnamese took to sending war matériel south under the cover of darkness. To counter this, the Americans flew at night, hunting for convoys heading south. U.S. rules of engagement made it much easier for North Vietnamese antiaircraft gunners. Washington had directed pilots to drop flares first, to identify trucks as military vehicles, then dive down under the flare light to attack. Gunners on the ground would lace the illuminated area with tracers and exploding antiaircraft shells. American pilots dove down through all that incoming and had a split-second opportunity to release their bombs.

The first generation of North Vietnamese fighter pilots were by any measure novices, tending to come from the ranks of the Viet Minh who had fought the French in the early 1950s. They would go up against well-experienced American pilots who were often combat veterans and masters of their machines. Many had arrived in Southeast Asia with over a thousand hours of flight time. However, dogfighting skills had been mainly ignored since the war in Korea. Conversely, North Vietnamese pilot candidates received only about 200 hours of flight training in Russia. Of the Vietnam People's Air Force's first ace, it was said “He went from the bicycle to the airplane with no stop in between.”

The first generation of North Vietnamese fighter pilots were by any measure novices, tending to come from the ranks of the Viet Minh who had fought the French in the early 1950s. They would go up against well-experienced American pilots who were often combat veterans and masters of their machines. Many had arrived in Southeast Asia with over a thousand hours of flight time. However, dogfighting skills had been mainly ignored since the war in Korea. Conversely, North Vietnamese pilot candidates received only about 200 hours of flight training in Russia. Of the Vietnam People's Air Force's first ace, it was said “He went from the bicycle to the airplane with no stop in between.”

This new addition to Osprey Publishing's Air Campaign series takes a look at Operation Linebacker I, a sustained air campaign launched in response to North Vietnam's 1972 spring offensive. In Linebacker I, the U.S. introduced a new generation of tactical aircraft, and made the first uses of laser and television precision guided munitions and modern electronic countermeasure devices. The author discusses the single glaring failure of the operation, namely U.S. Air Force inability to deal with the threat posed by Soviet MiG-21s and MiG-17s. Navy pilots fared better against the MiGs, due to the March 1969 creation of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, a.k.a. TOPGUN.

This new addition to Osprey Publishing's Air Campaign series takes a look at Operation Linebacker I, a sustained air campaign launched in response to North Vietnam's 1972 spring offensive. In Linebacker I, the U.S. introduced a new generation of tactical aircraft, and made the first uses of laser and television precision guided munitions and modern electronic countermeasure devices. The author discusses the single glaring failure of the operation, namely U.S. Air Force inability to deal with the threat posed by Soviet MiG-21s and MiG-17s. Navy pilots fared better against the MiGs, due to the March 1969 creation of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, a.k.a. TOPGUN.

The set of orders collectively known as the “rules of engagement” under which the Vietnam War was conducted were fundamentally different from those of earlier conflicts. Land-based and carrier-based aviation units, infantry and riverine forces each received their own individualized set of rules containing detailed instructions specifying which tactics were permitted and which were forbidden. The term best describing the level of involvement of civilian policymakers in the making of military decisions is “micromanagement”. The central assertion of this volume is that air power was misunderstood and misapplied in Vietnam through most of the conflict, and that when applied correctly it achieved results.

The set of orders collectively known as the “rules of engagement” under which the Vietnam War was conducted were fundamentally different from those of earlier conflicts. Land-based and carrier-based aviation units, infantry and riverine forces each received their own individualized set of rules containing detailed instructions specifying which tactics were permitted and which were forbidden. The term best describing the level of involvement of civilian policymakers in the making of military decisions is “micromanagement”. The central assertion of this volume is that air power was misunderstood and misapplied in Vietnam through most of the conflict, and that when applied correctly it achieved results.

Although Linebacker II had convinced North Vietnam to negotiate, to avoid further destruction, the B-52 operation continued after the 11th night. By that time consistently successful tactics had been established and any target in Hanoi could have been attacked, virtually unchallenged. Nevertheless, another B-52D was shot down by a four-SAM barrage on January 3, 1973, as it released its 500-pound bombs. One devastated the cockpit, cutting engine controls. Fuel cascaded into the navigator's compartment, causing chemical burns to two crew members. Fearing that operating any switches or ejection seats would spark an inferno, the "flying-bomb" was nursed out to sea at just above stalling speed.

Although Linebacker II had convinced North Vietnam to negotiate, to avoid further destruction, the B-52 operation continued after the 11th night. By that time consistently successful tactics had been established and any target in Hanoi could have been attacked, virtually unchallenged. Nevertheless, another B-52D was shot down by a four-SAM barrage on January 3, 1973, as it released its 500-pound bombs. One devastated the cockpit, cutting engine controls. Fuel cascaded into the navigator's compartment, causing chemical burns to two crew members. Fearing that operating any switches or ejection seats would spark an inferno, the "flying-bomb" was nursed out to sea at just above stalling speed.

Most Rolling Thunder bombing was conducted by Air Force F-105 Thunderchiefs, which flew more than 75 percent of all sorties, F-4 Phantoms, used by both the Navy and Air Force, or by Navy A-4 Skyhawks. All three aircraft suffered a basic deficiency: The lack of target-acquisition radar. Without that, pilots had to rely on visual sightings and therefore needed both daylight and good weather to locate their target. Under growing pressure to increase the tempo of the bombing campaign, the Air Force began to construct radar stations enabling ground-directed bombing. Radar stations were built in Laos to support bombing in that ostensibly neutral country, as well as to direct sorties over North Vietnam's Red River Delta.

Most Rolling Thunder bombing was conducted by Air Force F-105 Thunderchiefs, which flew more than 75 percent of all sorties, F-4 Phantoms, used by both the Navy and Air Force, or by Navy A-4 Skyhawks. All three aircraft suffered a basic deficiency: The lack of target-acquisition radar. Without that, pilots had to rely on visual sightings and therefore needed both daylight and good weather to locate their target. Under growing pressure to increase the tempo of the bombing campaign, the Air Force began to construct radar stations enabling ground-directed bombing. Radar stations were built in Laos to support bombing in that ostensibly neutral country, as well as to direct sorties over North Vietnam's Red River Delta.

This recent addition to the Osprey Air Campaign series uses specially commissioned artwork and maps to examine in detail U.S. Air Force mission planning and execution, as well as the valiant efforts put up by the North Vietnamese to defend their airspace. A former USAF colonel discusses critical decisions and failures by American and North Vietnamese commanders during Operation Linebacker II and reviews history's only example of Soviet SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile batteries being matched up against American B-52 strategic bombers. In the book's conclusion, an interesting look is taken into how campaign results were seen from both American and North Vietnamese points of view.

This recent addition to the Osprey Air Campaign series uses specially commissioned artwork and maps to examine in detail U.S. Air Force mission planning and execution, as well as the valiant efforts put up by the North Vietnamese to defend their airspace. A former USAF colonel discusses critical decisions and failures by American and North Vietnamese commanders during Operation Linebacker II and reviews history's only example of Soviet SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile batteries being matched up against American B-52 strategic bombers. In the book's conclusion, an interesting look is taken into how campaign results were seen from both American and North Vietnamese points of view.

Capable of reaching Mach 2 at high altitudes, F-105 Thunderchiefs carried out the majority of U.S. bombing missions during the early years of the Vietnam War. Victor Vizcarra flew 59 combat missions in Southeast Asia in the F-105D, nicknamed by its crews the "Thud". Vizcarra gives gripping, play-by-play descriptions of bombing missions over North Vietnam. One attention-grabbing episode recounts his rescue by a U.S. Navy helicopter after he experienced engine failure over North Vietnam, bailed out and hid in a cave. He has words of harsh criticism for Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara over their management of the war, arguing that their ill-conceived policies caused loss of life for many American servicemen.

Capable of reaching Mach 2 at high altitudes, F-105 Thunderchiefs carried out the majority of U.S. bombing missions during the early years of the Vietnam War. Victor Vizcarra flew 59 combat missions in Southeast Asia in the F-105D, nicknamed by its crews the "Thud". Vizcarra gives gripping, play-by-play descriptions of bombing missions over North Vietnam. One attention-grabbing episode recounts his rescue by a U.S. Navy helicopter after he experienced engine failure over North Vietnam, bailed out and hid in a cave. He has words of harsh criticism for Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara over their management of the war, arguing that their ill-conceived policies caused loss of life for many American servicemen.

Ed Cobleigh reached over and raised the red guard, pushing the toggle switch controlling the laser to the "on" position. With 100 percent of his available concentration, he focused on keeping the thin crosshairs in the laser scope superimposed over the gun pit. A 2,000 pound bomb impacted exactly in the center of the gun pit, vaporizing the gun, the stored ammunition, and the unlucky human gunners. As the smoke and dust drifted, clearing away, all that remained was a much larger, darker hole dug by the bomb. That bomb had enough explosive force in it to destroy the factory the gun was built in. Cobleigh was amazed. That thing actually worked!

Ed Cobleigh reached over and raised the red guard, pushing the toggle switch controlling the laser to the "on" position. With 100 percent of his available concentration, he focused on keeping the thin crosshairs in the laser scope superimposed over the gun pit. A 2,000 pound bomb impacted exactly in the center of the gun pit, vaporizing the gun, the stored ammunition, and the unlucky human gunners. As the smoke and dust drifted, clearing away, all that remained was a much larger, darker hole dug by the bomb. That bomb had enough explosive force in it to destroy the factory the gun was built in. Cobleigh was amazed. That thing actually worked!

As it was executed, the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign was more of a series conducted in fits and starts than a coherent air campaign. An exceptional degree of civilian input characterized its planning, oversight and execution. Johnson administration figures, untrained and inexperienced in military strategy, operations and tactics — particularly in air warfare — overturned established national security procedures by consolidating control over target selection and approval at the Executive Branch level. From the outset, the Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed reservations about Rolling Thunder's scope and intent, as did operational commanders and airmen.

As it was executed, the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign was more of a series conducted in fits and starts than a coherent air campaign. An exceptional degree of civilian input characterized its planning, oversight and execution. Johnson administration figures, untrained and inexperienced in military strategy, operations and tactics — particularly in air warfare — overturned established national security procedures by consolidating control over target selection and approval at the Executive Branch level. From the outset, the Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed reservations about Rolling Thunder's scope and intent, as did operational commanders and airmen.

Karl Eschmann saw the SAMs as his flight approached the target area. They were making white streaks of light as they climbed into the night sky, like a Fourth of July fireworks display. The airmen had been briefed not to make any evasive maneuvers during the bomb run, so that the radar navigator would be positive he was aiming at the correct target. If he wasn't absolutely sure, they were to withhold their bombs and jettison them into the ocean on their return trip to Guam. About halfway down the bomb run, the Electronic Warfare Officer called over the interphone that four SAMs had been fired at them. After bombs away, they made a right turn to exit the target area. Kaboom! They had been hit.

Karl Eschmann saw the SAMs as his flight approached the target area. They were making white streaks of light as they climbed into the night sky, like a Fourth of July fireworks display. The airmen had been briefed not to make any evasive maneuvers during the bomb run, so that the radar navigator would be positive he was aiming at the correct target. If he wasn't absolutely sure, they were to withhold their bombs and jettison them into the ocean on their return trip to Guam. About halfway down the bomb run, the Electronic Warfare Officer called over the interphone that four SAMs had been fired at them. After bombs away, they made a right turn to exit the target area. Kaboom! They had been hit.

As the bombs fell away, the electronic warfare officer called out that a surface-to-air missile was tracking their aircraft. The copilot saw the missile out of the window and warned the crew they were going to be hit. The missile seemingly passed through the series of bombs and hit about a second after the final bomb dropped away. The explosion ripped through the front lower part of the B-52 knocked out all the aircraft's power, seriously wounding three crewmen. A few minutes later, very close to the Laotian border, the engines flamed and the crew made a controlled bail out. The aircraft commander was the last one out, but not before noting that he was one of the few people to fly a B-52 solo.

As the bombs fell away, the electronic warfare officer called out that a surface-to-air missile was tracking their aircraft. The copilot saw the missile out of the window and warned the crew they were going to be hit. The missile seemingly passed through the series of bombs and hit about a second after the final bomb dropped away. The explosion ripped through the front lower part of the B-52 knocked out all the aircraft's power, seriously wounding three crewmen. A few minutes later, very close to the Laotian border, the engines flamed and the crew made a controlled bail out. The aircraft commander was the last one out, but not before noting that he was one of the few people to fly a B-52 solo.

Marshall L. Michell III is a retired Air Force colonel who is a veteran of the Linebacker bombing campaigns over North Vietnam. HIs extensively researched volume is presented in two parts: The first covers the Johnson administrations's Operation Rolling Thunder and the second covers the Nixon administration's Linebacker I and II campaigns. The Air Force and Navy made drastically different attempts to correct for problems encountered during the Rolling Thunder, such as the impressive performance by enemy MiG-21s and the dismal accuracy of American air-to-air missiles. The Navy responded much more effectively to these challenges than the Air Force did, for reasons explained in the book.

Marshall L. Michell III is a retired Air Force colonel who is a veteran of the Linebacker bombing campaigns over North Vietnam. HIs extensively researched volume is presented in two parts: The first covers the Johnson administrations's Operation Rolling Thunder and the second covers the Nixon administration's Linebacker I and II campaigns. The Air Force and Navy made drastically different attempts to correct for problems encountered during the Rolling Thunder, such as the impressive performance by enemy MiG-21s and the dismal accuracy of American air-to-air missiles. The Navy responded much more effectively to these challenges than the Air Force did, for reasons explained in the book.

The Vietnam Air War: First Person

By Col. Dennis M. (Mike) Ridnouer

A flight of two A-1H Skyraiders from Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand had cornered an enemy convoy of trucks under low fog-type clouds and had requested more firepower. They were anxious to oblige, but it was midmorning and the cloud cover hadn't burned off yet. They were near Ban Ban in northern Laos and the trucks were in a steep, narrow ravine. The lead flight had made several passes to keep the trucks boxed in, and they were basically trapped between two peaks. He rolled in, in order to mark their location. What happened next, God only knows for sure, but he never reemerged above the cloud cover. When some barely visible smoke and vapor rose up through the clouds, their worst fears were essentially confirmed.

A flight of two A-1H Skyraiders from Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand had cornered an enemy convoy of trucks under low fog-type clouds and had requested more firepower. They were anxious to oblige, but it was midmorning and the cloud cover hadn't burned off yet. They were near Ban Ban in northern Laos and the trucks were in a steep, narrow ravine. The lead flight had made several passes to keep the trucks boxed in, and they were basically trapped between two peaks. He rolled in, in order to mark their location. What happened next, God only knows for sure, but he never reemerged above the cloud cover. When some barely visible smoke and vapor rose up through the clouds, their worst fears were essentially confirmed.