1. Bibliographic Entry. The Limits of Airpower

2.  Author: Mark Clodfelter

          USAF Academy historian

3.  Scope & Context:   The three  major air campaigns in Vietnam: Rolling Thunder, Linebacker I, and Linebacker II.  Author analyzes political context and airpower’s successes or failures

4.  Evidence/credibility:  Heavily influenced by POTUS and advisor’s interactions

5.  Central Proposition/Thesis: Airpower can be decisive, or can be a failure, but simply looking at Linebacker II and declaring victory is too short sighted.  There are reasons why some air campaigns are a success, and others aren’t, and these reasons are both numerous and unique to the circumstances of the war.  Ultimately, airpower can achieve success if clearly defined and attainable national strategic objectives are first established, and the air campaign is properly matched to these objectives with maximum application within appropriate restraints. 

6.  Sub-themes:

a.     RT is set up for failure by Johnson’s inability to link strategic objectives with a plausible military strategy.  Administration is still trying to figure out the who, what, where questions as they are applying poorly construed air strikes – but not applying airpower

b.     RT is applied in a haphazard manner.  A few strikes one day, then a few days off.  A few days of continual strikes, then a break.  Targets are not linked to any succinct objective, just throwing some iron here and there at a broad target set.  Taught the enemy how to live with air strikes, while failing to pressure them with an air campaign.  Poor use of airpower.  Johnson loses his interest.

c.     Author uses the concept of positive objectives (things the military can actually go do in order to achieve victory), and negative objectives (things the military can’t do or allow in the pursuit of victory).  Positive – bomb north Vietnam in pursuit of the objective to defend south Vietnam.  Negative objective – don’t bomb north Vietnam in such a manner that invokes Chinese or Russian involvement – hence restricted targets.

a.     PTP:  You can’t win a war through achieving negative objectives alone, you can only keep from losing it – and that’s a questionable proposition at best.  You can only achieve victory through meeting positive objectives.  So watch out for too many negative objectives.  If the war can’t be won under the constraints, then you should probably pursue an alternate course of action that makes another instrument of national power primary.

d.     Planners struggled to find targets that would actually matter against an agrarian/subsistence economy. They considered POL, electricity, railroads, dams..  target sets are a critical aspect of strategic planning. 

e.     McNamara and Johnson undermine RT by never applying airpower correctly. Ill conceived pauses, poorly construed restrictions, and half-hearted sortie rates relegate RT to more of a rumble than a thunderous strike.  Airpower is best applied in mass, and as rapidly as possible with no opportunity for the enemy to catch his breath and learn how to recover.

f.      LB-1 had greater success due to the ability to mass, to strike with resolve, to strike hard/fast/and sustain it, to strike against horizontal target sets simultaneously, to operate more freely from negative objectives, and perhaps most importantly, because the NVA transitioned to conventional forces conducting conventional war.  This presented more appropriate targets and vulnerabilities for US strike planners

g.     LB-2 was also successful for a few additional reasons.  First, it informed the enemy that no target was off limits, and US resolve would stop at nothing to achieve objectives.  Also, it was an air campaign that stood a chance of achieving the strategic objectives  - allow a US withdrawal from Vietnam.  Airpower can deliver the enemy to a peace table that is in pursuit of a realistic goal, and LB-2 did just that.


Ix The President and the staff sergeant both ignore the essence of why bombing "worked" in 1972-because it was the proper instrument to apply, given Nixon's specific goals and the political and military situation that then existed. The President had two aims in 1972, and both were limited: an American withdrawal that did not abandon South Vietnam to an imminent Communist takeover and, after October, convincing South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that the United States would back the South if the North resumed hostilities. Having received a free hand in Vietnam from the Chinese and Soviets, Nixon could apply air power without many of the restraints plaguing his predecessor. Moreover, for the first time since America's full-fledged involvement in 1965, Hanoi's leaders decided to wage a sustained conventional war, an effort requiring vast logistical support that was vulnerable to air attack. This specific combination of goals and conditions was not present until 1972.

Xi In the final analysis, the supreme test of bombing's efficacy is its contribution to a nation's war aims. Clausewitz's definition of war as "a continuation of political activity by other means" provides the only true measure for evaluating air power's effectiveness. My goal is to provide such a Clausewitzian appraisal of the air war against North Vietnam.

Xii What I hope emerges from this work is a realization that conventional air power's effectiveness as a political instrument varies according to many diverse factors

36 The campaigns against Germany and Japan seemed to vindicate the ACTS philosophy of striking a nation's vital centers to destroy its warfighting capability. Korea, while considered a victory for air power, was a success flawed by political controls that prohibited attacks against the source of Communist war-making capacity.

Air leaders insisted that future attacks directed against a nation's capability to fight would weaken its will to resist. By destroying a nation's key industries, air power would wreck the social fabric of an enemy nation, and the Air Force now possessed the supreme weapon to devastate industrial capability-the atomic bomb

37 World War II and Korea revealed that American political resolve influenced the effectiveness of air power as a political instrument. The distinctive nature of each conflict, which produced military and operational controls on bombing, further affected air power’s political efficacy.

39 Yet the two wars presented key differences: The geography of the conflicts varied greatly; the United Nations did not fight in Vietnam; the South Vietnamese government lacked the stability of its South Korean counterpart; and the Vietnam War, during the Lyndon Johnson era,  was primarily a guerrilla struggle, while the war in Korea was throughout a conventional conflict.2

42 Johnson and his civilian advisers placed an overriding emphasis on preventing Chinese or Soviet active participation in the conflict.

44 Johnson's negative objectives combined to produce the main principle of American strategy in Vietnam: gradual response. America's political leaders believed that military force was necessary to guarantee the South's existence, yet, because of negative objectives, they could not commit unlimited military power.

Many individuals, including large numbers of high-ranking officers, viewed the military effort as an uncoordinated series of fits and starts.

46 They also expressed anxiety over the lack of specific military goals in Vietnam. "Their first obligation," they insisted, was "to define a militarily valid objective for Southeast Asia and then advocate a desirable course of action to achieve that objective." As a result of this perceived void, they called for the "destruction of the North Vietnamese will and capabilities as necessary to compel the Democratic Government of Vietnam to cease providing support to the insurgencies in South Vietnam and Laos."

47 "We recommended what we called a sharp, sudden blow which would have, in our opinion, done much to paralyze the enemy's capability to move his equipment around and supply people in the south,'

51 [he Joint Chiefs recommended that the United States provoke Hanoi into taking actions that would allow retaliation through the ninety-four-target  scheme. Rusk disagreed, arguing for an examination of all means of persuasion short of bombing. Both Taylor and McCone considered an air campaign against the North dangerous because of the Saigon regime's weakness. McNamara too felt that Southern instability ruled out an air effort but suggested that bombing should begin if ... the Communists widened the war. Johnson was skeptical of bomb- . ing's ability to improve the situation and scribbled "Can we really strengthen the government of South Vietnam?" on a note pad.

59 Johnson officially ordered the sustained air campaign known as "Rolling Thunder" on 13 February.  The advisers still could not agree, however, III the goals of an air effort.

60 He had intended to use air power to demonstrate American resolve to Hanoi in hopes that the North Vietnamese would shrink before a display of United States military prowess. He had not wished to begin an air campaign without a secure Southern government. Yet to avoid South Vietnam's fall, some action was essential, and Rolling Thunder appeared to be a logical step after Flaming Dart.

63 Taylor bemoaned the limited effort. "I fear to date that Rolling Thunder in [North Vietnamese] eyes has been merely a few isolated thunder claps," he cabled the President on 8 March. Urging a campaign of increasing intensity that advanced steadily northward, the Ambassador suggested a program of several weeks that would convince Hanoi's leaders of the threat to "their sources of power."

65 The pessimistic evaluations of Rolling Thunder by McNaughton and Bundy stemmed from Hanoi's failure to submit to a limited air campaign.

67 Johnson used Rolling Thunder to interdict the highways . and railroads south of the 20th parallel throughout April and early  May. On 7 April, after a month of continuous bombing, he publicly announced his willingness to negotiate if Hanoi stopped supporting the Viet Congo The North Vietnamese dismissed the offer.

The North Vietnamese did not respond to the pause, and shortly after its conclusion the Viet Cong began heavy attacks on South Vietnamese forces

Yet the President did not significantly increase the scale of Rolling Thunder.

70 Meanwhile, the air campaign "should increase slowly from the present level of 2,500 sorties a month to 4,000," McNamara omitted the previous requests for mining and for attacks against targets other than lines of communication.

71 Although he accepted the bulk of McNamara's July proposals, Johnson had not lost faith in air power. He had, since issuing NSAM 328, lost faith in air power's ability to give him a quick victory.

73 Like President Johnson's principal civilian advisers, his air chiefs  lied on experience to guide Vietnam planning. In fashioning an r offensive against North Vietnam, they turned to the perceived lessons of World War II strategic bombing. Commanders viewed  le "unrestricted" campaigns against Germany and Japan as proper actions of air power. 

While having some understanding of the President's negative objectives, the air chiefs did not believe that those goals warranted limitations on Rolling Thunder beyond what they themselves would have applied.

Ir chiefs targeted North Vietnam’s economic d military "vital centers," in the belief that by destroying the north’s war-making capability they would also disrupt its social fabric.

117 Rolling Thunder's failure to achieve decisive results did not stem entirely from the controls placed on it. Of equal importance was the failure of civilian and military leaders to appreciate the type of warfare waged by the enemy. Despite frequently stating that the Communists were conducting guerrilla warfare, both groups assumed that the destruction of resources necessary for conventional conflict would weaken the enemy's capability and will to fight unconventionally.

America had also fought only one limited war in the atomic age. Air commanders in the early 1960s considered Korea an aberration and prepared for global conflict with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, civilian leaders witnessed the Soviet retreat in Cuba from the threat of American air power.

Instead of facilitating victory, the air power convictions of civilian and military chiefs served as blinders obscuring the true image of the Vietnam war

148 In certain respects, Nixon's "linebacker" campaign against North Vietnam differed little from Johnson’s Rolling Thunder. Air Force strategic bombing doctrine guided both offensives, and pilots attacked many 0£ the same targets in Linebacker as they had earlier, Both campaigns were also political instruments. Yet the peace that Nixon sought was not the same as that pursued by Johnson, and the campaigns differed greatly in their utility as political tools. Because of revamped American political objectives and the North's decision to wage conventional war, Linebacker proved more effective than Rolling Thunder in furthering U.S. goals in Vietnam.

209 Air power was ineffective throughout the Johnson era of the Vietnam War because both civilian and military leaders possessed preconceived ideas that affected its application. Much like European political and military leaders in 1914, American officials in Vietnam encountered a war that differed from experience and expectations.

210 Until air commanders and civilian officials alike realize that air power is unlikely to provide either "cheapness" or "victory" in a guerrilla war-and that success in such a conflict may well equate to stalemate-the prospect of an aerial Verdun will endure.