Vietnam War: Air Campaigns

F-5A Freedom Fighter (Tiger) aircraft in process of refueling from a KC-135 tanker, on the way to a strike agains a Viet Cong position in South Vietnam.  The F-5A was first sent to Vietnam in October 1965
F-5A Freedom Fighter (Tiger) aircraft in process of refueling from a KC-135 tanker, on the way to a strike agains a Viet Cong position in South Vietnam. The F-5A was first sent to Vietnam in October 1965.

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Vietnam War: Table of Air Campaigns

See also these sections of the History of the Vietnam War:

In addition, visit these summary pages on the river war, air war, and naval war aspects of the Vietnam War.

Air Campaigns
Barrel Roll
June-December 1964

In the spring of 1964, Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese troops drove Laotian forces from the Plain of Jars. On 9 June 1964, President Johnson ordered an F-100 strike against the enemy in retaliation for the loss of a U.S. airplane. These Plain of Jars operations, expanded by December 1964, were named BARREL ROLL and were under the control of the U.S. ambassador to Laos who approved all targets before they were attacked.

Arc Light
18 June 1965 - December 1972

Arc Light was the name given to the SAC B-52 conventional bombing missions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The first Arc Light mission was flown 18 June 1965 when Guam-based B-52s were used to attack a Viet Cong jungle stronghold with conventional 750-pound and 1,000-pound bombs. B-52s were used primarily in saturation bombing of Viet Cong base areas, but also were used in direct tactical support of operations such as the Marine Corps’ Operation Harvest Moon and the First Cavalry Division’s fight in the Ia Drang Valley. In 1966, operations were mostly against targets in S. Vietnam, but expanded to include approaches to the Mu Gia Pass in North Vietnam on 12 and 26 April 1966, to interdict the northern Ho Chi Minh Trail. Bombing activity increased tremendously in 1967, almost doubling the number of sorties flown in 1966, supporting ground troops and attacking enemy troop concentrations and supply lines in the A Shau Valley.

The 1968 defense of Khe Sanh was the largest and most significant air campaign to date in Southeast Asia, helping to break the siege on Khe Sanh and force the North Vietnamese to withdraw. In 1969, the B-52 conventional bombing operations in Southeast Asia continued at a steady pace with greater emphasis on harassment and disruption of enemy operations than in previous years, particularly around Saigon. SAC bombers also continued to hit enemy supply dumps, base areas, troop concentrations, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. The number of sorties flown in support of Arc Light bombing operations declined from November 1969 until ceasing temporarily in August 1970.

Guam-based B-52s resumed flying in February 1972, in a surge of Arc Light activity named Bullet Shot, reaching a peak by mid-1972 exceeding all previous records of Arc Light performance as the U.S. pushed the Communist forces hard to force peace negotiations. After the Paris Peace Accords ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam in January 1973, Arc Light operations continued in Laos and Cambodia, until the end of U.S. combat operations on 15 August 1973.

The Arc Light Memorial at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, is dedicated to the 75 men who lost their lives flying Arc Light B-52 missions.

Iron Hand

North Vietnam’s air defense system was an integrated combination of AAA, SA-2 SAMs, and MiG aircraft, considered at the time to be the world’s most formidable air defense environment. The tactics employed on the Iron Hand missions were primarily designed to suppress the SA-2 and gun-laying radar defenses of North Vietnam during the ingress, attack and egress of the main strike force. An Iron Hand flight consisted of one F-100 or, later, F-105 Wild Weasel to seek out SAM radar emissions and three other F-105s carrying bombs or rockets to attack the site. Iron Hand operations reduced SAM accuracy, but did not succeed in stopping the barrage firing. Radar bombing of SAM sites was also ineffective.

Rolling Thunder
24 February 1965 - October 1968

USAF and Navy aircraft engaged in the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign designed to force Ho Chi Minh to abandon his ambition to take over South Vietnam. The operation began primarily as a diplomatic signal to impress Hanoi with America’s determination, essentially a warning that the violence would escalate until Ho Chi Minh "blinked," and secondly it was intended to bolster the sagging morale of the South Vietnamese.

The Johnson administration also imposed strict limits on the targets that could be attacked, for China and the Soviet Union were seen as defenders of communism who might intervene if the North Vietnamese faced defeat. Consequently, the administration tried to punish the North without provoking the two nations believed to be its protectors. In the view of the Air Force leadership, the campaign had no clear-cut objective nor did its authors have any real estimate of the cost of lives and aircraft. General LeMay and others argued that military targets, rather than the enemy’s resolve, should be attacked and that the blows should be rapid and sharp, with the impact felt immediately on the battlefield as well as by the political leadership in Hanoi.

When Rolling Thunder failed to weaken the enemy’s will after the first several weeks, the purpose of the campaign began to change. By the end of 1965, the Johnson administration still used air power as an attempt to change North Vietnamese policy, but bombing tended to be directed against the flow of men and supplies from the North, thus damaging the enemy militarily while warning him of the danger of greater destruction if he maintained the present aggressive course.

To persuade the North Vietnamese to negotiate, President Johnson restricted the bombing of North Vietnam to the southern part of the country on 31 March 1968, in effect, bringing Operation Rolling Thunder to an end. Preliminary discussions began in Paris in May but bogged down over trivial issues. In November, Johnson made another concession, ending the bombing throughout the north, and serious negotiations began in January 1969.

Commando Hunt
1968 - 1972

USAF carried out the Commando Hunt series of aerial interdiction campaigns against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos, trying, in conjunction with ground actions, to use air power and electronics to impede the movement of soldiers and supplies from North Vietnam to the battlefields of South Vietnam. There were seven successive Commando Hunt operations, beginning in the fall of 1968 and lasting until the spring of 1972, when the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive invasion of South Vietnam changed the nature of the war.

18 March 1969 - 26 May 1970

Menu was directed at Cambodian base areas and logistics networks supporting Communist operations in South Vietnam. Pres. Nixon ordered these raids to punish Hanoi for their continued fomenting of fighting in S. Vietnam while they simultaneously avoided serious peace negotiations and to gain time for Vietnamization to prepare S. Vietnam's forces. Anti-war protests in the U.S. limited Pres. Nixon's options since further bombing of North Vietnam would be politically unacceptable, so the Cambodian sanctuaries were targeted.

During the Menu series of raids, B-52s flew 3,630 sorties and dropped 100,000 tons of bombs. Individual missions in the Menu series were named Breakfast, Supper, Lunch, Dessert, and Snack, thus the name Menu bombing. Menu raids continued until 26 May 1970, when the bombing campaign was exposed by the New York Times after the start of the Cambodian Incursion by ground troops.

While the Arc Light raids were open and authorized through channels, Menu missions were not. The classified missions were directed by the White House and personnel involved had to deceive USAF officials and falsify official records. Knowledge of the operations was highly compartmentalized; even the Air Force Chief of Staff and the SEC-AF were not informed. Arc Light raids were used to cover the Menu raids. Formations were sent together, sometimes in the same groups, sometimes at the same time. While Arc Light groups hit southern targets, Menu groups crossed the border into Cambodian air-space. Menu pilots later falsified reports, stating they had bombed South Vietnam.

6 April - 23 October 1972

The aerial interdiction campaign against North Vietnam's Easter Offensive began on 6 April 1972 with attacks in the southern part of the country, then expanded rapidly. On 16 April, B-52s, escorted by fighter and aircraft specializing in electronic countermeasures and suppression of surface-to-air missiles, bombed the fuel storage tanks at Haiphong, setting fires that, reflected from cloud and smoke, were visible from 110 miles away. Shortly afterward, carrier aircraft joined Air Force fighter-bombers in battering a tank farm and a warehouse complex on the outskirts of Hanoi. When these attacks failed to slow the offensive, naval aircraft began mining the harbors on 8 May, and two days later the administration extended the aerial interdiction campaign, formerly known as Freedom Train but now designated Linebacker, throughout all of North Vietnam. When Linebacker drove the N. Vietnamese back to the peace talks in October, the bombing was halted. After several months, the N. Vietnamese again left the peace talks.

Linebacker II
18-29 December 1972

The primary objective of Linebacker II was to once again coerce North Vietnam to re-enter into the peace negotiations to end the war in Vietnam. The operation employed almost unrestricted strategic and tactical air power, night and day, against major strategic targets in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas. In the eleven days of the campaign, U.S. planes dropped over 49,000 tons of bombs, devestating North Vietnam. They returned to the talks at the end of December and the Peace Agreement was signed in January 1973, bringing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War to a close.

Recommended Books about the Campaigns of the Vietnam War

The most complete reference text of the basic facts of the Vietnam war is Vietnam Order of Battle: A Complete Illustrated Reference to U.S. Army Combat and Support Forces in Vietnam 1961-1973 , by Shelby L. Stanton.

Other recommended books:

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