Vietnam Air War

Vietnam: Air War 1965-1973

90th Fighter Squadron, 3rd Wing pilot with F-100 in Vietnam
90th Fighter Squadron, 3rd Wing pilot with F-100 in Vietnam.

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Vietnam: The Air War 1965-1973

U.S. airpower was critical in Vietnam and contributed mightily to success in ground operations as well as to the strategic and diplomatic ends of the Johnson and Nixon Presidencies. However, the involvement of millions of Americans in the ground war, and a much smaller number in the airwar, has contributed to neglect of the role of airpower in the Vietnam War.

B-52D, serial number 56-695, on display at Tinker Heritage Airpark,  Tinker Air Force Base, OK.  This aircraft served in Arc Light and Linebacker operations in Vietnam
B-52D, serial number 56-695, on display at Tinker Heritage Airpark, Tinker Air Force Base, OK. This aircraft served in Arc Light and Linebacker operations in Vietnam.

While limited by political considerations, the overall air combat effort in the Vietnam War was enormous, involving combat support and strategic bombing in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia by U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aviators. A few statistics on the air war:

  • The Vietnam War lasted twice as long as World War II and the USAF flew twice as many sorties in Southeast Asia as Army Air Forces carried out in World War II
  • American aircrews flew more than 1,248,000 fixed-wing combat sorties between 1965 and 1973
  • 6.2 million tons of munitions were dropped, three times the amount in World War II.
  • USAF destroyed or damaged 9,000 military vehicles, 1,800 railcars, 2,100 bridges, and 2,900 anti-aircraft artillery guns (1965-68)
  • USAF built an in-theater fleet of 1,840 combat and support aircraft (1969) augmented by US Navy carrier based planes and Marine aircraft

Air operations began early in the war. In 1961, an Air Force unit with a few tactical aircraft were dispatched to Vietnam to assist the U.S. Advisors. Immediately after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, jets from the aircraft carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation took off for the first bombing raids against patrol boat bases and an oil storage depot, Operation Pierce Arrow. A plane was lost and the pilot, Lieutenant Everett Alvarez, Jr., became the first of nearly 600 downed American airmen who would be held as prisoners of war (POWs) by the Communists. Alvarez was not released until the peace treaty was signed eight years later.

In February 1965, Johnson ordered a bombing campaign, Flaming Dart (became Rolling Thunder in March), to punish continuing attacks in S. Vietnam and to break the will of the Communists. B-52s dropped their first bombs on South Vietnam in June 1965 and by the end of 1965, there were about 500 American aircraft based in Vietnam and three US Navy aircraft carriers with more than 250 aircraft off the Vietnamese coast. But, the effectiveness of the air campaigns was hampered by political considerations, just as other aspects of the conduct of the War in Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1968 Johnson halted the bombing 16 times and fielded dozens of peace initiatives, the last announced with his withdrawal from the 1968 presidential campaign on March 31. President Johnson attempted to entice Hanoi to negotiate, with little result. Massive tonnage of bombs were dropped on the jungle while inviting targets in N. Vietnam were off-limits. Incrementalism, gradualism, and hesitation squandered the impact of airpower.

Presidential micromanagement was pervasive. Air Force operations were so tightly leashed that Pres. Johnson once boasted, "They can't even bomb an outhouse without my approval." In the 1965-68 Rolling Thunder air campaign against the North, targets and even tactics were set in Tuesday luncheon meetings in the White House, with no USAF officers present. Rolling Thunder ended in November 1968, when North Vietnam agreed to concessions.

While the focus of the air war -- at least under President Johnson -- seemed to be Rolling Thunder, in total, North Vietnam (NVN) absorbed only about one million tons of bombs or about 12 percent of all bombs dropped in Southeast Asia during American involvement in Vietnam. By contrast, approximately four million tons fell on South Vietnam, three million on Laos, and 500,000 on Cambodia. When Nixon became president, political circumstances constrained him from initiating a new bombing campaign over NVN, even if he had wanted to. There were exceptions to these restrictions, such as "protective reaction strikes" against targets in NVN’s southern panhandle and one-time raids such as Operation Proud Deep Alpha and the Son Tay raids; but for the most part, the air war shifted to South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in 1969.

A large percentage of sorties were in support of ground forces operating in South Vietnam. USAF also mounted extensive attacks on North Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian targets, despite heavy political restrictions. Seventh Air Force, Marine, and Navy strike aviation and Air Force airlift were major factors in turning Hanoi's 1968 Tet Offensive into a stunning defeat. At roughly the same time, the siege of the Khe Sanh Marine fire base was resisted, then broken, with the cooperation of Air Force, Marines, and Navy Task Force 77 (off the coast of Vietnam) providing ground strikes and resupply.

The human cost in the air during the Vietnam War was high. The Air Force lost 2,586 airmen (1,745 in combat and 841 by other means). The Navy contributions to the bombing campaigns resulted in the death or capture of 881 Navy pilots and other aircrew and the loss of 900 aircraft. The Air Force lost 2,255 aircraft, of which 1,737 were combat losses. The Marine Corps had 13,091 combat deaths, many related to the air war.

On two occasions airpower was unshackled. In early 1972, North Vietnam's "Easter Offensive" with 40,000 troops and 600 armored vehicles was halted and then turned back largely by US air attacks supporting ARVN troops. Then, in December 1972, the B-52-led Linebacker II raids on Hanoi and Haiphong forced North Vietnam to halt its aggression and return to finalize the peace terms in the Paris negotiations. The operation began with 127 B-52Ds taking off from Andersen AFB at the rate of one every minute in a night radar bombing raid of Hanoi and Haiphong. They were joined by F-4s, E-111s, F-105s. A-6, A-7s, and other U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine aircraft to form one of the greatest air armadas in history. In 11 days, the bombers flew 729 sorties, dropping 15,000 tons of bombs.

Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of the Linebacker II campaign:

Airpower, given its day in court after almost a decade of frustration, confirmed its effectiveness as an instrument of national power in just nine-and-a-half flying days.

The major air campaigns of the Vietnam War are listed on the Vietnam War Campaigns & Operations page of this section on the history of the Vietnam War. The contribution of Naval Air to these campaigns is expanded in The Naval War page of this section.

Recommended Books about the Air War in Vietnam