The four objectives of the operation, (which evolved over time) were: To bolster the sagging morale of the Saigon regime in the Republic of Vietnam; To convince North Vietnam to cease its support for the communist insurgency in South Vietnam; To destroy North Vietnam's transportation system, industrial base, and air defenses; and to interdict the flow of men and material into South Vietnam. Attainment of these objectives was made difficult by both the restraints imposed upon the U.S and its allies by Cold War exigencies and by the military aid and assistance received by North Vietnam from its communist allies, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC).
The operation became the most intense air/ground battle waged during the Cold War period, indeed, it was the most difficult such campaign fought by the U.S. Air Force since the aerial bombardment of Nazi Germany during World War II. Thanks to the efforts of its allies, North Vietnam fielded a potent mixture of sophisticated air-to-air and ground-to-air weapons that created one of the most effective air defense environments ever faced by American military aviators. After one of the longest aerial campaigns ever conducted by any nation, Rolling Thunder was terminated as a strategic failure in late 1968 having achieved none of its objectives.
U.S. policy was for a time dictated by its perception of improvement in the Saigon government. No further commitment by the Americans would occur without tangible proof of the regime's survivability. Events in Vietnam, however, outraced this policy. By the beginning of 1965, it was stood upon its head - without further American action the Saigon government could not survive.
Questions then arose among the U.S. administration and military leadership as to the best method by which Hanoi (the perceived locus of the insurgency) could be dissuaded from its course of action. The answer seemed to lie in the application of air power. By 1964 most of the civilians surrounding President Lyndon B. Johnson shared the Joint Chiefs of Staff's collective faith in the efficacy of strategic bombing to one degree or another. They reasoned that a small nation like North Vietnam, with a tiny industrial base that was just emerging after the First Indochina War, would be reluctant to risk its new-found economic viability to support the insurgency in the south. Constantly affecting this decision-making process were fears of possible counter moves or outright intervention by the Soviet Union, the PRC, or both. The civilians and the military were divided, however, on the manner of affecting Hanoi's will to support the southern insurgency. The civilians thought in terms of changing the regime's behavior while the military men were more concerned with breaking its will.
In August 1964, as a result of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, in which U.S. naval vessels claimed to have been attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats, President Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes (Operation Pierce Arrow) launched against the north. This did not, however, satisfy the military chiefs, who demanded a wider and more aggressive campaign.
Instead, the U.S. launched more "tit-for-tat" airstrikes in retaliation for a 7 February 1965 NLF attack at Pleiku (Operation Flaming Dart) and for a bomb attack against an American enlisted men's billet at Qui Nhon on the 10th (Operation Flaming Dart II). These small-scale operations were launched against the southern region of the country, where the bulk of North Vietnam's ground forces and supply dumps were located.
Surrendering to continued NLF advances and pressures from the Joint Chiefs, Johnson formally authorized a sustained bombing program, codenamed Rolling Thunder, which would not be tied to overt North Vietnamese actions. Rolling Thunder called for an eight-week air campaign consistent with the restrictions that Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had imposed upon it. If the insurgency continued "with DRV support, strikes against the DRV would be extended with intensified efforts against targets north of the 19th parallel.
It was believed that selective pressure, controlled by Washington, combined with diplomatic overtures, would prevail and compel Hanoi to end its aggression. The military was still not satisfied, since, for the time being, the bombing campaign was to be limited to targets below the 19th parallel, each of which would have to be cleared individually by the president and McNamara.
The first mission of the new operation was launched on 2 March against an ammunition storage area near Xom Bang. On the same day, 19 VNAF A-1 Skyraiders struck the Quang Khe Naval Base. The Americans were shocked when six of their aircraft were shot down during the mission. Five of the downed crewmen were rescued, but it was a portent of things to come.
Targeting bore little resemblance to reality in that the sequence of attacks was uncoordinated and the targets were approved randomly - even illogically. The North's airfields, which, according to any rational targeting policy, should have been hit first in the campaign, were also off-limits.
Although some of these restrictions were later loosened or rescinded, Johnson (with McNamara's support) kept a tight rein on the campaign, which continuously infuriated the American military commanders, right-wing members of Congress, and even some within the administration itself. One of the primary objectives of the operation, at least to the military, should have been the closure of Haiphong and other ports by aerial mining, thereby slowing or halting the flow of seaborne supplies entering the north. President Johnson refused to take such a provocative action, however, and such an operation was not implemented until 1972. There was also little consultation between Johnson and the military chiefs during the target selection process. Even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Earl G. Wheeler, was not present for most of the critical discussions of 1965 and participated only occasionally thereafter.
The majority of strikes during Rolling Thunder were launched from four Air Bases in Thailand: Korat, Takhli, Udon Thani, and Ubon. The aircraft would refuel from aerial tankers over Laos before flying on to their targets in the DRV. After attacking their targets (usually by dive-bombing) the strike forces would either fly directly back to Thailand or exit over the relatively safe waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. It was quickly decided that, in order to limit airspace conflicts between Air Force and Naval strike forces, North Vietnam was divided into six target regions called "Route Packages", each of which was assigned to either the Air Force or Navy and into which the other was forbidden to intrude.
Navy strikes were launched from the aircraft carriers of Task Force 77, cruising off the North Vietnamese coast at Yankee Station. Naval aircraft, which had shorter ranges (and carried lighter bomb loads) than their Air Force counterparts, approached their targets from seaward with the majority of their strikes flown against coastal targets.
On 3 April the Joint Chiefs convinced McNamara and Johnson to launch a four-week attack on North Vietnam's lines of communications, which would isolate that nation from its overland sources of supply in the PRC and the Soviet Union. About one-third of the north's imports came down the northeast railroad from the PRC, while the remaining two-thirds came by sea through Haiphong and other ports. For the first time in the campaign, targets were to be chosen for their military, rather than their psychological significance. During the four weeks, 26 bridges and seven ferries were destroyed. Other targets included the extensive North Vietnamese radar system, barracks, and ammunition depots.
The panhandle of southern North Vietnam, however remained the primary locus of operations and total sorties flown there rose from 3,600 in April to 4,000 in May. Slowly moving away from the destruction of fixed targets, "armed reconnaissance" missions, in which small formations of aircraft patrolled highways, railroads, and rivers, searching for targets of opportunity, were authorized. These missions increased from two to 200 sorties per week by the end of 1965. Eventually, armed reconnaissance missions would constitute 75 percent of the total bombing effort, in part because the system through which fixed targets were requested, selected, and authorized was so complicated and unwieldy.
The entire complexion of the American effort was altered on 8 March 1965, when 3,500 U.S. Marines came ashore at Da Nang, ostensibly to defend the southern airfields committed to prosecuting Rolling Thunder. The mission of the ground forces was expanded to combat operations and, from that point onward, the aerial campaign became a secondary operation, overwhelmed by troop deployments and the escalation of ground operations in South Vietnam. Until the third week of April, Rolling Thunder had enjoyed at least equal status with air missions conducted in the south. After that time, strikes that interfered with requirements for the southern battlefield were either cut back or cancelled.
By 24 December 1965, 170 U.S. aircraft had been lost during the campaign (85 Air Force, 94 Navy, and one Marine Corps). Eight VNAF aircraft had also been lost. Air Force aircrews had flown 25,971 sorties and dropped 32,063 tons of bombs. Naval aviators had flown 28,168 sorties and dropped 11,144 tons. The VNAF had contributed 682 missions with unknown ordnance tonnages.
U.S. reconnaissance discovered on 5 April 1966 that the North Vietnamese were constructing positions for what could only be surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries. The Air Force and Navy then filed a joint appeal to Washington for permission to strike the sites, but they were refused since most of the sites were near the restricted urban areas. It came as no surprise when, on 24 July, an F-105 was shot down by a SA-2 Guideline missile. Three days later, a one-time strike was authorized against the two offending missile sites. The Americans, however, fell for an elaborate trap when the sites turned out to be dummies surrounded by anti-aircraft artillery defenses. One American pilot described the action which followed as "looking like the end of the world. Six of the strike craft were destroyed (two of the pilots were killed, one missing, two captured, and one rescued) during the debacle.
On 29 June 1966, airstrikes against the north's petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL) storage areas were authorized by Johnson. The American military had advocated such strikes since the inception of the operation, believing that to deny North Vietnam its POL would cause its military effort to grind to a halt. The strikes at first appeared successful, destroying tank farms near Hanoi and Haiphong and leading the CIA to estimate that 70 percent of North Vietnam's oil facilities had been destroyed for the loss of 43 aircraft. The success proved only a short-term inconvenience for North Vietnam, however, since Hanoi had anticipated just such a campaign and had dispersed the majority of its POL stocks in 50-gallon drums across the length of the country. The POL attacks were halted on 4 September after U.S. intelligence admitted that there was "no evidence yet of any shortages of POL in North Vietnam.
The Navy's Task Force 77 took its orders via 7th Fleet from CINCPAC, a Navy admiral based in Honolulu, through his subordinate, the Air Force commander of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). Due to their influence, the Navy could not be persuaded to integrate its air operations over North Vietnam with those of the Air Force. General William Momyer, commander of the Seventh, had the impression that CINCPAC and PACAF wanted to keep the Thai-based aircraft out of his hands. "By denying Momyer, they were really denying Westmoreland and keeping air operations against the DRV under their control. To complicate matters, the U.S. ambassadors to Thailand (Graham Martin) and Laos (William H. Sullivan) exerted undue influence over operational and command arrangements.
This bizarre command structure went against the grain of the Air Force's single air manager concept, which dictated that one commander was to control and coordinate all aircraft within a combat theater. The chain through which operational strike requests had to flow gave some indication of the growing overcomplexity of the campaign. Requests for airstrikes originated with the 2nd Air Division and Task Force 77 in Vietnam and then proceeded to CINCPAC, who in turn reported to his superiors, the Joint Chiefs, at the Pentagon. After input from the State Department and the CIA, the requests then proceeded to the White House, where the president and his "Tuesday Cabinet" made decisions on the strike requests on a weekly basis.
Another problem exposed by Rolling Thunder was the unpreparedness of the Air Force for the operations it was undertaking. Its aircraft had been designed and its pilots trained for strategic operations against the Soviet Union - for nuclear, not conventional war. The new campaign exposed years of neglect in conventional tactics, while aircraft capabilities and armament were ill-suited to the task at hand. The Air Force was also embarrassed by the fact that the Navy was better prepared. It possessed the only all-weather fighter-bomber in the U.S. inventory in the new A-6 Intruder and was also responsible for the development of the F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber, which became ubiquitous during the Vietnam Conflict.
Once air-to-air combat began over North Vietnam, the Air Force was again found lacking. The mainstay missiles of the air war turned out to be the Navy-developed AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-7 Sparrow, not its own AIM-4 Falcon. The Air Force continuously opposed adapting to the conflict in Southeast Asia, since its leadership believed that it was an aberration that would be quickly resolved. It could then turn its attention (and its more modern weapons) against the greater threat posed by the Soviet Union. None in the Air Force high command foresaw that the conflict at hand could drag on for nearly a decade.
The Air Force did possess an aircraft which had an all-weather capability, radar-guided bombing equipment, and awesome destructive potential - the B-52 Stratofortress. The civilian administration, however, never considered utilizing the big bombers (whose operations remained under the control of the Strategic Air Command) very far north of the DMZ, believing that it was too overt an escalation. Air Force Chief of Staff John P. McConnell also opposed sending the bombers into the air defense environment in the north and limited B-52 strikes to Route Package One.
Compounding these issues was the one-year rotation policy adopted by the Pentagon in Southeast Asia. Although the first aircrews arriving in-theater were highly experienced, the rapidly growing tempo and ever-expanding length of the operation demanded more personnel. This exacerbated a growing lack of experienced aircrews. This dilemma was further compounded by an Air Force policy which dictated universal pilot training while proscribing involuntary second combat tours, which combined, had the effect of rotating personnel to different aircraft. Conversely, the Navy tended to maintain its aircrews within the same community for the duration of their careers, thereby retaining their expertise, but also incurring greater losses among experienced crews undergoing multiple combat tours.
Last, but not least, was the weather within the operational theater. The cyclical monsoon patterns meant that the weather was deplorable for flight operations eight months of the year (from late September to early May) when rain and fog tended to conceal targets. Lack of adequate all-weather and night-bombing capability made it necessary for the majority of U.S. missions to be conducted during daylight hours, thereby easing the burden on the air defense forces of North Vietnam.
Since gaining air superiority over U.S. forces was out of the question, the northern leadership decided to implement a policy of air deniability. At the beginning of the campaign, North Vietnam possessed approximately 1,500 anti-aircraft weapons, most of which were of the light 37 and 57mm variety. Within one year, however, the U.S. estimated that the number had grown to over 5,000 guns, including 85 and 100mm radar-directed weapons. That estimate was later revised downward from a high of 7,000 in early 1967 to less than a thousand by 1972. Regardless, during Rolling Thunder, 80 percent of U.S. aircraft losses were attributed to anti-aircraft fire.
Backing up the guns were the fighter aircraft of the North Vietnamese Air Force, which originally consisted of only 53 MiG-15 and MiG-17 Fresco aircraft. Though considered antiquated by the Americans when compared to their supersonic jets, the North Vietnamese turned their aircraft's weaknesses into strengths. They were fast enough for hit and run ambush operations and they were also maneuverable enough to shock the American fighter community by shooting down more advanced F-8 Crusaders and F-105 Thunderchiefs, which had to quickly develop new tactics. The newer missile-armed F-4 Phantom would become the American's primary dogfighting platform.
The simple appearance of MiGs could often accomplish their mission by causing American pilots to jettison their bomb loads as a defensive measure. In 1966, the 15s and 19s were joined by more modern Soviet-built MiG-21 Fishbeds, which could fight on a more equal footing with the U.S. aircraft. By 1967, the North Vietnamese Air Force was maintaining an interceptor force of 100 aircraft, many of which were based on PRC airfields and out of reach of American air attack.
To protect the northern economy, it was decentralized and large factories, located in the heavily-populated Red River Delta region, were broken up and scattered into caves and small villages throughout the countryside. In the more heavily-bombed southern panhandle, entire villages moved into underground tunnel complexes for the duration. Food shortages in North Vietnam became widespread, especially in the urban areas, as rice farmers went into the military or volunteered for service repairing bomb damage. When the nation's transportation system came under attack, destroyed bridges were repaired or replaced by dirt fords, ferries, and underwater and pontoon bridges. The system proved to be durable, well built, easily repaired, and practically impossible to shut down.
Perhaps North Vietnam's ultimate resource was its population, which was fired by nationalist zeal. During 1965, 97,000 North Vietnamese volunteered to work full time in repairing the damage inflicted by U.S. bombs. Another 370,000-500,000 worked part time. When the nation's lines of communication came under attack, railroad supply trains and truck convoys were split into smaller elements which traveled only at night. The logistical effort was supported by citizens on sampans, driving carts, pushing wheelbarrows, or man-portering supplies on their backs to keep the war effort going. They were motivated by slogans like "Each kilogram of goods...is a bullet shot into the head of the American pirates.
The nature of the gradual escalation had given Hanoi time to adapt to the situation. By 1967, North Vietnam had formed an estimated 25 SAM battalions (with six missile launchers each) which rotated among approximately 150 sites. With the assistance of the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese had also quickly integrated an early warning radar system of more than 200 facilities which covered the entire country, tracking incoming U.S. raids, and then coordinating SAMs, anti-aircraft batteries, and MiGs to attack them. During 1967 U.S. losses totaled 248 aircraft (145 Air Force, 102 Navy, and one Marine Corps).
To survive in this ever more lethal air defense zone, the U.S. had to adopt newer, more specialized tactics. Large-scale strikes, known as force packages in the Air Force and multi-carrier "Alpha strikes" by the Navy, were assigned numerous support aircraft to protect the fighter-bombers. First into the target areas were specialized Iron Hand flak suppression missions. These consisted of F-105 Wild Weasel hunter/killer teams configured with sophisticated electronic equipment to detect and locate the emissions associated with SAM guidance and control radars. The Navy established a patrol station for a RADAR picket cruiser with radio-linked computer systems to maintain an aircraft Positive Identification RADAR Advisory Zone (PIRAZ) over the Gulf of Tonkin between Yankee Station and North Vietnam.
The Wild Weasel also carried electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment to protect themselves. They directed flak suppression strikes and carried AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles (another Navy development), which homed in on the radar systems of the SAMs. The SA-2 had greater range than the Shrike, but if the Shrike was launched and the radar operator stayed on the air, the American missile would home in on the signal and destroy the radar source. A sophisticated cat and mouse game then ensued between North Vietnamese radar operators and the Wild Weasel pilots. The Navy also utilized aircraft in a similar role, but did not create a specialized unit like the Wild Weasels to conduct SAM suppression. Next came the bomb-ladened strike aircraft protected by escort fighters (Combat Air Patrol or MIGCAP) and electronic jamming aircraft to degrade enemy radar. New ECM devices had been hurriedly deployed to protect aircraft from missile attacks, but they remained subject to frequent breakdowns because of climate conditions in Southeast Asia. Also included in the missions were KC-135 aerial tankers and Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters, which were, in turn, protected by propeller-driven A-1 escorts.
From mid-1966 until the end of 1967, President Johnson continued to dole out sensitive targets one by one to the generals while simultaneously trying to placate the doves in Congress and within his own administration with periodic cutbacks and half-hearted peace initiatives. In the end, this erratic course satisfied no one and did little to alter the course of the conflict.
The nature of the targets and the risks involved in striking (and re-striking) them began to take a toll. Chief of Naval Operations David McDonald reported to his co-chiefs after a trip to South Vietnam in September 1966, that Rolling Thunder aircrews were angered with the targeting process and that they faulted the campaign due to "guidelines requiring repetitive air programs that seemed more than anything else to benefit enemy gunners. During 1967, the second full year of Rolling Thunder operations, 362 U.S. aircraft had been lost over North Vietnam. (208 Air Force, 142 Navy, and 12 Marine Corps).
Later in the year, the U.S. launched its most intense and sustained attempt to force North Vietnam into peace negotiations. Almost all of the targets on the Joint Chief's list had been authorized for attack, including airfields that had been previously off-limits. Only central Hanoi, Haiphong, and the PRC border area remained prohibited from attack. A major effort was made to isolate the urban areas by downing bridges and attacking LOCs. Also struck were the Thai Nguyen steel complex, thermal and electrical power plants, ship and rail repair facilities, and warehouses. North Vietnamese MiGs entered the battle en masse as their capital was threatened and kill ratios fell to one U.S. aircraft lost for every two MiGs. During 1968, MiGs accounted for 22 percent of the 184 American planes (75 Air Force, 59 Navy, and five Marine Corps) lost over the north. As a result, operations against the last of North Vietnam's airfields, previously off-limits to attack, were authorized.
Despite the best interdiction efforts of Rolling Thunder, however, the NLF and PAVN launched their largest offensive thus far in the conflict on 30 January 1968, striking throughout South Vietnam during the lunar new year holiday. The Tet Offensive concluded as a military disaster for North Vietnam and its NLF allies, but it also adversely affected U.S. public opinion, which in turn affected the will of Washington. Fortunately for North Vietnam, many U.S. bombing advocates (including Air Force Chief of Staff McConnell) did not want to risk the one aircraft capable of delivering a lot of bombs in bad weather - the B-52. Without them, there was little that could be done over the north in response to Tet, since bad weather minimized fighter operations until the beginning of April.
On 9 August 1967 the Senate Armed Services Committee opened hearings on the bombing campaign. Complaints from the armed services had sparked the interest of some of the most vocal hawks on Capitol Hill. The military chiefs testified before the committee, complaining about the gradual nature of the air war and its civilian-imposed restrictions. It was obvious that McNamara, the only civilian subpoenaed and the last to testify before the committee, was to be the scapegoat. The Secretary of Defense marshaled his objections to an indiscriminate air war and adeptly rebutted the charges of the military chiefs. He bluntly admitted that there was "no basis to believe that any bombing campaign...would by itself force Ho Chi Minh's regime into submission, short, that is, of the virtual annihilation of North Vietnam and its people.
It had now become clear to President Johnson that McNamara had become a liability to the administration. In February 1968, McNamara resigned his position and was replaced by Clark Clifford, who was chosen because of his personal friendship with Johnson and his previous opposition to McNamara's suggestions that the number of troops in the South Vietnam be stabilized and that Rolling Thunder be ended. McNamara's position, however was almost immediately taken up by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, (until then an ardent advocate of the bombing campaign). Rusk proposed limiting the campaign to the panhandle of North Vietnam without preconditions and awaiting Hanoi's reaction. Within months Clifford too began to adopt the views of the man he had replaced, gradually becoming convinced that the U.S. had to withdraw from an open-ended commitment to the conflict. Disappointed by perceived political defeats at home and hoping that Hanoi would enter into negotiations, President Johnson announced on 31 March 1968, that all bombing north of the 19th parallel would cease. As a result of that decision, into the area between the 17th and 19th parallels, the Air Force and Navy began to pour all the firepower that they had formerly spread throughout North Vietnam. The Air Force doubled the number of sorties sent into Route Package One to more than 6,000 per month with the campaign concentrated on interdiction "choke points", road closing, and truck hunting. Once again, the military commanders were faced a familiar dilemma: having opposed the bombing cutback, they then decided that the new policy had a lot of merit, especially when considering the alternative of no bombing at all. The North Vietnamese responded by doubling the number of anti-aircraft batteries in the panhandle, but most of their SAM batteries remained deployed around Hanoi and Haiphong.
Hanoi, which had continuously stipulated that it would not conduct negotiations while the bombing continued, finally agreed to meet with the Americans for preliminary talks in Paris. As a result, President Johnson declared that a complete bombing halt over North Vietnam would go into effect on 1 November 1968, just prior to the U.S. presidential election. Although the bombing halt was to be linked to progress in the peace talks, the Joint Chiefs were skeptical that the administration would reopen the bombing campaign under any circumstances. They were correct.
Due to combat and operational circumstances, 506 U.S. Air Force, 397 Navy, and 19 Marine Corps aircraft were lost over or near North Vietnam. During the operation, of the 745 crewmen shot down, the U.S. Air Force recorded 145 rescued, 255 killed, 222 captured (23 of whom died in captivity), and 123 missing. Figures on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps casualties were harder to come by. During the 44-month time frame, 454 Naval aviators were killed, captured, or missing during combined operations over North Vietnam and Laos. Estimates of civilian deaths caused by American bombing in operation Rolling Thunder range from 52,000 to 182,000.
Rolling Thunder had begun as a campaign of psychological and strategic persuasion, but it changed very quickly to interdiction, a tactical mission. Its ultimate failure had two sources, both of which lay with the civilian and military policy-makers in Washington: First, neither group could ever conceive that the North Vietnamese would endure under the punishment that they would unleash upon it. The civilians, moreover, did not understand airpower well enough to know that their policies might be crippling it; Second, the American military leadership failed to initially propose and develop, or later to adapt, an appropriate strategy for the conflict at hand.
Along the way, Rolling Thunder also fell prey to the same dysfunctional managerial attitude as did the rest of the American military effort in Southeast Asia. The process of the campaign became an end unto itself, with sortie generation as the standard by which progress was measured. Sortie rates and the number of bombs dropped, however, equaled efficiency, not effectiveness. Moreover, North Vietnam's ability to turn its weaknesses into strengths, the personal sacrifices borne stoically by its population, and the iron determination of its government made it a formidable enemy. Fortunately for North Vietnam, its military effort was not sustained solely by its domestic industry, but rather by substantial support from China and the Soviets. If enough of the supplies necessary to maintain its operations could be imported and distributed (by whatever means), that nation could not (and would not) be coerced into the capitulation of its goals.