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Air Power In Vietnam
THE LIMITS OF INNOVATION:
ASPECTS OF AIR POWER IN VIETNAM
Dr. Donald J. Mrozek
INNOVATION, flexibility, and versatility are part of the vocabulary of virtue in the United States末praiseworthy qualities whose possession and exploitation enhance the prospects for success in whatever one chooses to do. The experience in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, however, gives reason for pause and reconsideration of this part of our unspoken creed. Although innovation proved quite possible, in some cases it may have brought more harm than good, more risk than opportunity. The difficulty lay largely in our inability to identify alertly and correctly where innovation turned into excess, where the effort to transcend old operational limits and restraints foundered on its own complexity and cost, and where innovation became an expression of preference about the war we wished to fight rather than an appropriate adaptation to the conflict that was actually in progress. Whether tactical or technological, innovation did not necessarily ensure coincidental respect for local conditions of warfare.
Viewing the war fundamentally as an insurgency, the Kennedy administration strongly supported measures to counter the enemy decisively within Vietnam. The Vietnam Combat Development and Test Center, a subsection of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), developed and improved fragmentation weapons, tested experimental defoliants, studied terminal guidance beacons, and considered improved shoulder weapons. The center's Deputy Director, William H. Godel, claimed that these and other measures might "bring [South] Vietnamese troops out of their Beau Geste forts and into active pursuit of the enemy."1
While DARPA fostered "higher technology," occasional voices questioned its pertinence to Southeast Asian conditions. For example, William J. Jorden of the State Department's Policy Planning Council, seeing the Vietcong problem as largely local in origin, favored dealing with it on a local and low-level basis. He recommended junk operations along the coast, riverine operations by the South Vietnamese, "small, special forces units" to make "hit and run" strikes against guerrilla substations along the infiltration trails, and "a few hard-hitting strikes" at enemy main bases "by tough, special forces outfits." Requirements would vary according to local conditions from the mountains to the delta, and Jorden warned against warping the war with alien, technocratic values.2
As the war continued, DARPA's efforts charted changes in how the conflict was perceived. By Senate hearings in 1967, for example, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara cited DARPA's research to improve the speed of helicopters and to develop prototype airborne weapons for antitank action. Also, DARPA promoted CH-54 "flying crane" helicopters to move heavy Army equipment over otherwise impassable terrain. Such experimentation favored improving large ground units and using air power more for conventional than counterguerrilla warfare.3
Even a small sampling of tactical and technological innovations pursued in Southeast Asia suggests that assumptions and preferences skewed performance. Although they also reduced the guerrilla's edge in night operations, fixed-wing gunships reflected long-standing reliance on firepower. Defoliation and crop destruction indicated both an inclination to see the war on a larger scale and a desire to defy natural restrictions. Even adaptation of transport aircraft and bombers to meet tactical needs was an interplay between traditionalist thinking and pressing current problems. Altogether, efforts at innovation seemed to wander in an uncharted "DMZ" between brilliance and self-indulgence.
Square Pegs, Varied Holes,
and the Penknife of Innovation
Although the Air Force's official history praises individuals who advocated fixed-wing gunships as proof of the enduring importance of the human element, the need for their extraordinary persistence reflected an underlying diffidence within the service toward their goals. Unlike various strategic weapons, the gunship, as a support weapon, won little enthusiasm at the concept or preliminary development stage. Even more significantly, later interest in gunships sometimes depended more on their potential for interdiction than for support of ground forces. In a sense, the "square peg " of the gunship was whittled by technological and tactical innovation in an effort to fill varied mission "holes."
The gunship program emerged almost despite institutions. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Gilmore Craig MacDonald introduced a proposal on "Transverse Firing of Rockets and Guns" to a Tactical Air Command (TAC) panel on 14 September 1961. It went nowhere within TAC. Ralph Flexman of Bell Aerosystems Company, while on a Reserve tour at Eglin Air Force Base late in 1961, met MacDonald and eventually submitted the proposal to Dr. Gordon A. Eckstrand of the Behavioral Sciences Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Another individual, Captain John C. Simmons, forwarded Flexman's proposal to the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory (AMRL) and the counterinsurgency group on base. Attempting to "sidestep local flight-support requirements," as an official history phrased it, he asked the U.S. Army Laboratory at Fort Rucker, Alabama, to test the dispersal pattern for guns fired from the side of aircraft. This innovating impulse swam against the institutional tide.4
According to Jack S. Ballard, author of Development and Employment of Fixed-Wing Gunships 1962-1972, progress was "crablike," as key personnel were called away from the program. Rescuing the idea from limbo depended on another individual末Captain Ronald W. Terry. He expected the C-47 gunship to serve ground units more reliably than fighter aircraft brought in by forward air controllers (FACs)末particularly in poor weather.5 Reluctantly, General Curtis E. LeMay, then Air Force Chief of Staff, approved combat testing of the C-47 in Vietnam. "It's not a very good platform and you can't carry the load," he later said. "You don't have the range, staying capacity, or anything else. They're too vulnerable both on the ground and in the air."6 But pessimistic suspicions regarding the side-firing C-47 owed much to the Air Force's emphasis on fast planes and heavy firepower. General Walter C. Sweeney, Jr., then commander of TAC, also feared that the gunship weakened the Air Force's case against the Army's use of helicopters for fire support. Ironically, General Sweeney and TAC were responsible for employing the gunships in combat.7 Although then Vice Chief of Staff General John P. McConnell justified the gunship to General Sweeney specifically in terms of counterinsurgency,8 apprehensions about a massive war in Europe weighed against them. The key was which war seemed more pressing末the one in progress or the one yet to be fought.
In Southeast Asia, the special effectiveness of the gunships in night operations became persuasive. Captain Terry said that saving forts or hamlets at night became "the only thing we ever got to do." The first night missions were conducted on 23 December 1964 when one gunship on airborne alert was sent toward Thanh Yend, which was under heavy Vietcong attack, while another was sent to aid Trung Hung. In the latter village, defenders testified that the Vietcong broke off the attack with the first burst of fire from the gunship.
In July 1965, the U.S. Air Force hierarchy finally approved sending a squadron of gunships to Vietnam on a permanent basis. From inception to deployment, the task had taken about four years. Those who complain that Americans will not fight a long war might ponder the effect of taking one presidential term to develop a suitable weapon.9
Notwithstanding their early successes in support of ground combat, the gunships were soon called to interdict Vietcong supply lines. To maximize nighttime capabilities, the Air Force initiated Project Red Sea to test forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems on the FC-47 aircraft. Although these particular systems were judged inadequate, the pursuit of interdiction continued.10
Meanwhile, the primary operational role of the aircraft, now designated as AC-47, remained that of providing support for ground forces. Seventh Air Force Operations Order 411-65 specified the mission: "To respond with flares and firepower in support of hamlets under night attack, supplement strike aircraft in defense of friendly forces, and provide long-endurance escort for convoys." Before members of the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees in 1967, General John P. McConnell, then Air Force Chief of Staff, cited persistent guerrilla and small-unit threats and supported the AC-47 to counter them. More broadly, he saw a world "where subversive insurgency continues to spread . . ."11 perhaps justifying special weapon systems to counter the tide.
Despite talk of counterinsurgency, gunship modifications played to interest in interdiction and to visions of a larger war. Thus, although the search for a more capable successor to the AC-47 stemmed first from such concerns as volume of fire and survivability, the issue gradually shifted from site defense toward interdiction.12 For example, the Air Staff, in a paper dated 5 January 1968, specified the mission of AC-130s as around-the-clock interdiction of enemy supply routes through Laos. This mission objective diverged from the initial emphasis on direct support of ground forces.13
In February 1968, calling for an AC-119 G/K force to go along with the AC-130, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown accepted two roles for gunships. Secretary Brown wrote: "I see a clear distinction between the more localized support and protective role of the AC-119 aircraft and the predominantly search-and-destroy concept envisioned for the AC-130."14 But the two basic roles did not appeal equally to Air Force officers. Seventh Air Force Operations Order 543-69 (July 1968) gave clear priority to "night interdiction and armed reconnaissance to destroy wheeled and tracked vehicular traffic on roads and sampans on waterways." Close support of friendly installations ranked third; and "offset firing in support of troops in contact by use of aircraft radar and ground beacons" was fifth. AC-130 missions turned away from the spirit that had given birth to the program.15 Moreover, although the AC-119 had "close fire support of friendly troops in contact with the enemy" as its primary role, a combat evaluation team concluded in 1970 that the aircraft had helped Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) effectiveness because "it was capable of destroying trucks and attacking targets as assigned." 16 Again, fire support was eclipsed by interdiction.
The continued operation of the gunships sustained internal debate in the Air Force. Those who advocated interdiction with jets doubted that propeller-driven gunships were effective. Although a JCS study in 1967 had shown propeller-driven craft to be nine times as effective per sortie as jet aircraft in killing trucks and watercraft, opponents noted loss rates four times greater than for jets. Just beneath the surface lay a doctrinal quarrel over force structure and the relative worth of Air Force roles. To some, the slower aircraft implied subordination to the ground effort and ground commanders; faster aircraft implied more autonomous air operations. The need to use F-4 aircraft to suppress antiaircraft fire against the AC-130s seemed to subordinate jet aircraft further.17 Thus, improvements to the AC-130, under the name Surprise Package, sharpened the quarrel. TAC, the Air Staff, and the JCS urged gradualism, while then Secretary of the Air Force Robert Seamans and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird backed rapid development of a full Surprise Package gunship force.18 The challenge was to improve performance today without damaging doctrine and the service's interests tomorrow.
Interdiction became a persistent theme, yet, in periods of acknowledged emergency, temporary changes in gunship operations restored the primacy of the fire support role. During the Tet offensive of 1968, for example, AC-47s attacking around Da Nang were credited with restraining the expected attacks. Also impressive was the defense of outlying camps, such as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) and Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) compound at Duc Lap in Quang Duc Province, which was attacked by enemy forces on 23 August. Army helicopters responded within 30 minutes; two AC-47s arrived shortly thereafter. Officers on the ground said that the firepower (761,044 rounds) strengthened their resolve.19 The withdrawal of friendly forces from the Ngoc Tavak outpost of the Kham Duc base depended on AC-47 Spooky gunships. On 10 May 1968, with Ngoc Tavak under attack by well-armed enemy forces, firepower from AC-47s and from tactical fighter sorties helped to prevent the forces from being overrun.20 Also, as General William Momyer later stated, during the North Vietnamese Easter offensive of 1972, An Loc "would have been lost without the day and night support flown by fighters and the AC-130 and AC-119 gunships."21 Debate persisted over the role of gunships in interdiction, but their contributions to site defense were clear.
Fire support sometimes produced obvious results, but crews supposedly did not get satisfaction from it. In mid-1969, for example, AC-130s were diverted from Commando Hunt interdiction and AC-47s from operations in South Vietnam to counter North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao attacks on Lima Site support and operational bases used by friendly forces in northern Laos. No one could pinpoint the number of enemy attackers offset by one gunship or the number of gunship rounds needed to disintegrate enemy morale. Yet both benefits were cited during this emergency action.22 Nevertheless, the Air Force official history states, "Since their truck-killing could be verified quite closely, the gunship crews found the usual absence of specifics from their attacks to aid troops somewhat demoralizing."23
Debate over the gunship's worth in interdiction intensified in the 1970s even as its value in site defense enjoyed acceptance. In April 1971, the Air Staff advised Air Force commanders in Southeast Asia: "AC-130 BDA [bomb damage assessment] is the hottest thing in the theater this moment." The message continued:
Seventh Air Force is really concerned about the validity of the BDA reported by the AC-130 gunships in their truck killing operation. They stated all aircraft BDA for this hunting season indicates over 20,000 trucks destroyed or damaged to date, and if intelligence figures are correct, North Vietnam should be out of rolling stock. The trucks continue to roll, however.24
Meanwhile, the value of the gunships in night fire support-during Lam Son 719, for example末was generally beyond controversy.25
Nevertheless, the fragility of the "truck count" soon emerged. On 12 May 1971, for example, a test was undertaken on orders from Seventh Air Force Commander General Lucius D. Clay, Jr., at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. A direct hit from an AC-130 left a truck damaged but operable, while several other trucks were usable after only limited maintenance. Similarly, tests conducted during the autumn of 1971 at Hurlburt Field, Florida, showed that while a 105-mm M102 cannon could take out a truck with a single shot, the 40-mm gun could not.26 Overall, the "truck count" numbers in interdiction form a cloud hanging over claims for the interdiction program.27
Missions that sparked the gunship program in the first place (and which were reconfirmed during emergencies in the war's later stages) lost priority to more debatable ones with greater policy, doctrinal, and institutional appeal. Perhaps the technical and tactical virtuosity of U.S. personnel permitted末even encouraged末modifications which, rather than perfecting the innovation, actually changed it and undercut its initial purpose.
War and the Environment
Although the term operational environment has usually implied limitations within which armed forces act, innovative applications of air power permitted various U.S. officials both in and out of uniform to see the physical environment of Vietnam not as a given but as something to be changed. If various counterinsurgency programs might dry up the "sea of the people" in which Mao said the guerrilla-fish swam, might not jungles be thinned末even bared末 to expose the enemy? And if not everywhere, might not such landscaping be done at least selectively?
The practical advantages of changing the combat environment seemed obvious. By exploiting U.S. chemical and mechanical know-how, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops might operate where it was otherwise too dangerous. South Vietnamese road and rail lines might be made safer. Further, in an engagement, the cost to friendly forces might be contained.
However, the methods adopted to pursue such goals proved costly. Our persistence owed something to pride in and love of our technology (suggested in the advertising slogan "better living through chemistry"); it also might be attributed to our reluctance to take Vietnam on its own terms. Within the "life-cycle" of the defoliation effort in Operation Ranch Hand, for example, some divergence appeared between its use to defend friendly sites and its somewhat later use to restrict the enemy by destroying his crops. In a sense, this dualism in Ranch Hand recalled the assignment of gunships to interdiction, where institutional interests changed the early purpose of the innovation.
At first, expectations of what the Tactical Air Command's Special Aerial Spray Flight (SASF) might contribute to the Vietnam War were low, concentrating on insecticide application.28 By July 1961, however, interest in defoliation had risen. By August, the first test runs were undertaken in Vietnam, with President Ngo Dinh Diem personally selecting the target area for the second mission. The South Vietnamese president was willing to use even restricted chemical, biological, and radiological weapons (CBR). Defoliation to improve the combat conditions on the ground interested him less than crop denial. By October, the U.S. Secretaries of State and of Defense and President Kennedy were considering large-scale defoliation of Vietnamese jungles. President Kennedy delayed. Nevertheless, the Combat Development and Test Center, established in Vietnam with U.S. assistance and management, had already been testing defoliation and, by 23 September, had plans for a large operational program in border areas to "remove protective cover," defoliate Vietcong base areas, kill the manioc which the Vietcong used for food, and destroy the mangrove swamps where Vietcong forces hid. Taken together, the two phases of the program would have defoliated 31,250 square miles of jungle末about half the land area of South Vietnam末as well as 1125 square miles of mangrove swamps and 312 square miles of manioc.29
On 3 November 1961, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended a more modest program to Secretary McNamara, who, although officially undecided, directed the Air Force to provide aircraft and chemicals for it on a priority basis. Within a week of McNamara's order, William Bundy, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, summarized the benefits and disadvantages of the program, distinguishing between defoliation, which the United States might undertake, and crop denial, which would be handled by the Vietnamese. Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric and Secretary of State Dean Rusk supported the proposal, and President Kennedy approved the joint recommendation on 30 November 1961. Thus, within a five-month period, the modest basis for what eventually turned into an extensive program of defoliation and crop destruction was established.30
Soon, however, Defense Department officials were debating the effectiveness of the Ranch Hand experiment, as were members of both the mission in Saigon and the State Department. Ambassador Frederick Nolting, PACAF Commander General Emmett O'Donnell, and Secretary McNamara approached the matter from varying perspectives.31 On 10 March 1962, after reports that Ranch Hand's results had been at best ambiguous, TAC formally requested that Air Force headquarters return as many C-123s as possible to TAC in the United States. PACAF demurred, suggesting that retaining the C-123s would offset a possible Army encroachment in troop transport in Southeast Asia with its Caribous.32 In late November 1962, Secretary McNamara recommended, and President Kennedy approved, delegating joint authority to the Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) and to the ambassador to approve future defoliation operations short of crop destruction. The explicit purposes were "to clear fields of fire to inhibit surprise attack by the Vietcong" and to apply defoliants "in areas wherein attainment of a military objective would be significantly eased."33 In short, the principal intent was to give practical support to U.S. and South Vietnamese ground personnel.
But defoliation was not undertaken exclusively for its direct effects on ground combat operations. For example, keeping the railroads operating in South Vietnam served the goals of psychological warfare, while inviting experimentation with defoliation to reduce the danger of Vietcong attacks by increasing visibility along the railroad routes. But applying chemicals along a tightly restricted corridor encouraged the use of ground spraying systems rather than aircraft.34 Air Force operational interests inclined in a different direction.
Gradually, Ranch Hand assumed an aspect broadly akin to interdiction. In December 1965, for example, Ranch Hand operations were extended into parts of southern and eastern Laos to clear, at least partially, areas through which the Ho Chi Minh Trail system passed. Ambassador William Sullivan in Vientiane first called the plan a "bottomless pit." But by November 1965 General William C. Westmoreland, Commander, MACV, and Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, CINCPAC, had come out in favor of it, and the plan won the support of the Secretaries of Defense and of State. Ambassador Sullivan eventually acceded. In May 1966, Westmoreland and Sharp also received Washington's approval for crop destruction (itself a kind of interdiction), although operations with that objective in mind never became extensive in Laos.35
Even as the defoliation effort grew, so did doubt over the program's effectiveness. In congressional hearings in 1967, General McConnell told Senator A. S. "Mike" Monroney that he did not "think there [was] anything we need to do that we are not doing, except just more of it." Only small jungle areas could be cleared, and the effort had to be continued to prevent new growth.36 In short, the effectiveness of defoliation hinged on substantial continuing costs, which could constrain the buildup of other assets needed for the war effort. In January 1968, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker in Saigon created the Herbicide Policy Review Committee, composed of members from the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), MACV, and the joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO), to evaluate defoliation. Although the committee claimed that many lives had been saved by the operations, the number was said to be "undeterminable."37
Defoliation thus remained hard to evaluate.38 The criteria for effectiveness shifted subtly but crucially over the lifetime of the program. At first, the intent was to secure specific sites and railroad lines; but gradually the primary goal became generalized to reducing U.S. casualties. Securing the South Vietnamese government thus yielded to the substantially defensive aim of limiting U.S. losses. Higher authorities' sense of where defoliation fit into the broader picture lost the accents of dynamism and initiative, and the program's focus split between ground support and interdiction efforts.
Meanwhile, the costs of defoliation remained extraordinarily difficult to calculate cleanly or to evaluate. Although Ambassador Bunker's committee knew the program had negative psychological, social, and economic potential, the long-term human and financial burdens were not estimated. In addition, the technical limits of defoliation changed what some had imagined would be a one-shot affair, into a continuing burden. Much like the bombing north of the DMZ, which, it was argued, could not be stopped without creating a negative psychological impression, defoliation became a self-sustaining requirement. Although conceptually plausible, defoliation and crop destruction faltered in the execution. Only the future will reveal their full cost.
Tactical Innovation and the B-52
One of the knottiest cases of innovation in the war involved the use of B-52s to support the ground war, which entailed both technological adaptation of aircraft and tactical or "mental" adaptation by military and civilian officials. Although the United States had considered using bomber-aircraft to support ground warfare before the 1960s, including a proposed B-29 raid to relieve the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, skepticism was widespread.39 A 1954 study from the Air Force planning staff observed that the effectiveness of bombing in such a war, especially by B-29 bombers, was limited by several factors. Notable were the mismatch between targets desired and targeting information available, the complex character and fluctuating level of ground operations, and the comparative unpredictability of the attitude of the local populations. The French experience against the Vietminh and the U.S. experience in support of the French left a legacy of doubt that air power could be used effectively as support for ground action, especially in the form of bombing missions by strategic aircraft. Confidence grew during the Vietnam War, and the reasons for doubt appear to have slipped from primary concern.
Opinions concerning B-52 support of ground operations varied according to time and conditions, including the precision with which areas were targeted and what results had been expected. The initial focus positively linked bombing to ground action. During the 1960s, General Westmoreland favored B-52 strikes against suspected Vietcong base areas. "Earlier attacks by tactical bombers had proven relatively ineffective," General Westmoreland recalled, "so deeply had the Vietcong dug in and dispersed their installations."41
On 14 May 1965, General Westmoreland wrote to Admiral Sharp, praising Operation Black Virgin One, conducted on 15 April 1965 against the, supposed Vietcong headquarters. Still, it took 443 sorties to deliver 900 tons of ordnance over the 12 square kilometers of target area. Clearly pointing toward the B-52s, he added, "If an attack could have been launched in which the bombs were evenly distributed, the results would have been far more effective."42
The basis for Arc Light bombing was being laid. The first strike occurred on 18 June; investigating patrols brought back enthusiastically positive reports.43 Commenting later on Operation Cedar Falls, 1st Infantry Division Commander General William DePuy concluded that bombing and artillery fire had "certainly disrupted VC activity" in the Iron Triangle. However, he added that "B-52 strikes and artillery bombardment could not be exploited with ground troops" since there were "simply no access routes, air or ground, into the heart of the Triangle."44 Bombing not tied closely to ground operations struck him as inconclusive.
Using B-52s even closer to friendly positions emphasized this tie of air to ground. Close use originated rather inadvertently when a B-52 mission flown out of U Tapao, Thailand, on 12 November 1967 during operations around Con Thien dropped bombs within the 3-kilometer safety zone. This strike came under General William Momyer's SLAM concept (for seeking, locating, annihilating, and monitoring the enemy). "Off and on for forty-nine days," General Westmoreland recounted in his memoirs, "SLAM strikes pummeled the enemy around Con Thien and demonstrated that massed firepower was in itself sufficient to force a besieging enemy to desist. . . ." Marine defenders, some 1.4 kilometers from the point of impact of the strike, appreciatively watched a tremendous array of secondary explosions.45
Even if close B-52 operations at Con Thien were something of a lucky accident, they gave precedent for improving support of the ground forces. On 8 January 1968, SAC personnel and representatives of the III Marine Amphibious Force discussed potential benefits from Con Thien's lessons. With Air Force personnel reluctant to discard the 3-kilometer safety limit, the Marines suggested tests and possible use of additional radar beacons. The basic ground direction for the B-52s came from Combat Skyspot installations, which also served attack planes and fighter-bombers. Without this all-weather capability, defending such sites as Khe Sanh would have been much more difficult and complicated; and the President and General Westmoreland might have been less willing to commit to Khe Sanh's defense without it.46
After more thought, Air Force General Selmon Wells, Commander of the 3d Air Division on Guam, concluded that additional beacons would merely complicate the Combat Skyspot mission and would be highly vulnerable to enemy attack. Finally, a B-52 from U Tapao carrying 108 500-pound bombs ran a test mission on 26 February, guided by Skyspot; the delivery was precise and equipment operated well. The following day, four missions were run close to the defenders at Khe Sanh. During March, forty-four close-support B-52 sorties were run, becoming routine.47
The wide range in judgments about the effectiveness and appropriateness of B-52 operations in Vietnam reflected, among other things, the considerable range in preparations made for them. Although mere dropping of bombs may sometimes hearten ground forces, bombing is really meaningful only when correctly targeted on worthwhile enemy facilities, resources, and concentrations. In Southeast Asia, this meant added intelligence through sensors coupled with other electronic systems. Thus the success with B-52s at Khe Sanh was not repeatable without technical preparation.
For example, B-52 strikes did not much lessen an enemy attack on a special forces camp at Kham Duc in May 1968. Although several hundred tons of bombs were dropped on suspected enemy positions, the enemy, secured in high ground over Kham Duc, was apparently little hindered.48 The following morning, renewed B-52 strikes were aimed at suspected enemy concentrations around Kham Duc. These strikes had become particularly critical, since Spooky AC-47 gunship attacks and fighter support supplied through the I Corps Direct Air Support Center (IDASC) had not prevented during the previous day the fall of the seven outposts ringing the main base.49 The B-52 bombing took place an hour before the morning fog lifted, but the several hundred tons dropped evidently did little to diminish the enemy's ground attack. North Vietnamese regiments came at the camp at 0935, and support and evacuation were now complicated by the enemy's advantageous placement around the airstrip.50 By the time ordnance could be delivered accurately, the enemy's proximity to Kham Duc and effective disposition made the use of air power extremely costly. The successful extraction of military and civilian personnel during the ensuing hours came at the cost of seven U.S. aircraft: a CH -47 and an A- 1E, as well as a Marine CH-46, one USAF 0-2, one Army UH-1C, and two C-130s. Some 120 U.S. Air Force tactical fighter and 16 Marine fighter sorties were flown on 12 May, as well as a C-130 ammunition airdrop and numerous Army helicopter gunship sorties. Some 1500 of the 1760 persons at Kham Duc on 10 May were safely removed on 12 May by the end of the operations at 1645; however, the cost and the urgency of the action made it no cause for unqualified elation.51 The B-52s, in this instance, may have proved more useful in attacking the camp after it fell (some 6000 bombs were dropped within 500 yards of the runway). Despite the fact that the camp was lost, the B-52s became more useful as the accuracy of their drops rose. Thus, Kham Duc did not suggest that the B-52 was irrelevant to tactical support, but it did show the urgency of precision.52
The great expectations encouraged at Khe Sanh evidently survived the frustration of Kham Duc, but some new operations did not match the conditions under which B-52s had been effective in the past. At the end of the 1960s, U.S. personnel engaged in cross-border activities into Laos apparently assumed the best of the B-52s. Randolph Harrison, an Army officer in the Daniel Boone-Salem House reconnaissance operations into the Cambodian border area, recalled that he "had been told that B-52 strikes will annihilate anyone down there." He added: "We were told that we would go in and pick some of these guys up [as enemy prisoners; and] if there was anybody still alive out there, they would be so stunned that all you will have to do is walk over and lead him by the arm to the helicopter."53 Such optimism was excessive. Harrison recalled that a reconnaissance team that went into Cambodia after one B-52 strike lost ten out of thirteen men; he wanted to say that they had been "slaughtered."54 In this instance, an Army major at the Military Assistance Command, Study and Observation Group (MACSOG) in Saigon who lacked requisite personal experience took direct control of what he called a special mission (again, because it used B-52s), and confusion was substantial. After the helicopters landed and the team cleared, the men came under heavy automatic weapons fire before they could reach the tree line. When the major decided to send a second team immediately into the same area, some men objected and urgently demanded their customary prerogative of specifying their own landing zone. Tested procedure was impeached once the B-52s came into play.55
Harrison and other junior officers seem not to have been cautioned about the limits of effectiveness of B-52 strikes. A well-delivered strike on hard-surface roads, reinforced bunkers, and base-camp shelters had obvious results, as did a timely strike on a troop concentration. However, when B-52 strikes began in Cambodia in 1969, planners could not carry out advance preparations to ensure an effective drop as readily as they could at Khe Sanh or Con Thien. If a B-52 strike hit enemy forces, its effect was "devastating." But if it did not destroy them, the effect was "the same as taking a beehive the size of a basketball and poking it with a stick"末enemy forces became "mad."56
Even against falsely high expectations, however, ground troops tended to want B-52 operations. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Thomas J. Marzullo, formerly an Army sergeant in Special Operations, doubted that bombing took a high direct toll on the enemy but thought that it forced them to disperse supply bases and be more secretive. (Others have argued, however, that this dispersal widened the zone of combat deeper into Cambodia.) Although the B-52s had mostly killed "a few monkeys and some birds and tore up a lot of vegetation," Marzullo still said the program was "definitely helpful."57
Similar testimony in support of B-52 strikes came from Air Force Lieutenant Gerald Joseph Greven. Uninformed of B-52 strikes in Cambodia when he was stationed at the Special Forces camp at An Loc, Greven observed overflights of B-52s in May 1969, followed by numerous large flashes on the horizon. He later called it "visually the most destructive raid I had ever witnessed," claiming that "numerous base camps and staging areas had obviously been destroyed as the materials scattered in the treetops indicated." Although he observed no bodies, Greven pronounced the strike effective.58
Later reliance on aerial firepower yielded varied assessments of B-52 effectiveness. During the North Vietnamese Army's Nguyen Hue offensive in 1972, Army Brigadier General John R. McGiffert called the B-52 force "the most effective weapon we have been able to muster." B-52 raids, he noted, force "the enemy to break up his ground elements into small units and make it difficult [for him] to mass forces for an attack."59 Yet using B-52s for strikes discouraged using well-trained provincial militia to overcome the enemy independently, and some strikes were counterproductive. For example, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam's (ARVN) 25th Division commander chose to bomb the enemy out of positions at Trung Lap in Hau Nghia province. The ensuing air strikes came in for some thirty-six hours, all but obliterating the village. According to U.S. personnel on the scene, the destruction of some 50 percent of the village overall末including the almost total disappearance of one of its hamlets末played into the hands of the Communists. The challenge, then, was to determine when such strikes were genuinely necessary.60
Augmentation of ground operations with air power made sense. Substitution of air power for manpower was another matter entirely, inviting as many problems as it handled末problems lethal to the overall war effort. That excessive dependence on air power can be demoralizing is suggested by rises in morale when troops, whether militia or regular, defeated the enemy without air strikes or gunships. Although there was much that air power could do, there were some things that might be done best by men末in part, to inspire them to fight with dedication and persistence.61
Despite the long-standing concern to preserve the B-52's identity as a strategic weapons system, it proved possible to use the B-52 in Southeast Asia in tactical support of ground units with some success, provided preparations were appropriate. Where preparations were sparse and where strikes were undertaken with little or no ground exploitation, results were nonadvantageous or ambiguous. Comprehensive assessment of B-52s in Southeast Asia remains a contentious issue, but perhaps the value and effectiveness of adapting these aircraft to augment tactical operations on the ground may be evaluated largely by how the ground combat developed.
Officials who praised the adaptability of U.S. forces were far less eager to note that innovations related to air power not only were often expensive and complicated but also could have made our forces highly vulnerable if the United States had not enjoyed air control. Innovations added new problems and challenges. General Wallace Greene, Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, for example, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee on 24 March 1966, spoke proudly of Marine expeditionary airfields.62 But their aluminum matting (as at Chu Lai) was often damaged by the shock of landings and by the blast of jet-assisted takeoff (JATO). Marine officials called for stronger materials and favored installing catapults and arresting gear, much like those on aircraft carriers. But at Khe Sanh, the vulnerability of even a strengthened metal strip to wear by friendly aircraft and to damage from the enemy made the value of such systems limited. Moreover, to make expeditionary airfields workable and the aircraft using them mission-capable, pressures were created on other elements of air power. While the Chu Lai field was still 3300 feet long (its original length), aircraft with full ordnance could be launched only by using JATO末and then only with reduced fuel loads. After launch, the attack aircraft had to refuel from KC-130 tankers. One tanker was kept constantly on 15-minute alert. In a sense, the expeditionary airfields created a ripple effect of requirements and each ripple might have offered lucrative targets to an enemy with greater air capability.
Certainly, innovation is not inherently a poor or risky business, but it is not inherently beneficial either. Its success depends upon pertinence to the situation, and pertinence is often decided in a turmoil of competing ideas driven by predispositions and clouded by illusions of scientific neutrality. The ultimate limits of innovation are set in the human mind and in the environment of prevailing policy末unfortunately all too often tied only loosely to the material needs of forces actually deployed. The limits in the hardware that we develop are more easily overcome than those inherent in our own "human software." During the Vietnam War, the apparent success of technological innovations over the short run encouraged the illusion that these adaptations were working in the long run. This self-deception contributed to failure in the war, in part, because it deflected attention from fundamental strategic and managerial defects that needed addressing. Meanwhile, as innovative "fixes" created the false perception that they were resolving problems created by U.S. policies, there was sporadic movement away from the initial purposes of various innovations, and pursuing important tasks explicitly in support of ground forces faltered before the allure of autonomous operations. Whether such preference can be safely accommodated in a future war remains to be seen. Yet one might do well to suspect innovations that coincide nicely with what one feels like doing, since these alterations may suit institutional traditions and parochial interests more than the material problems of the war at hand.
Even more suspect are innovations altering the character of the war itself or, even worse, confirming predispositions of what kind of war it really was or is. Innovations should ease winning the war, not add to bureaucratic tension. At times, some vision other than one's own may better serve this end. Similarly, one must be open to recognizing that some "innovations" sustain operations only long enough to bring frustration, not ever delivering favorable results. Defoliation along Vietcong supply routes in Laos末opposed by Ambassador Sullivan and favored by General Westmoreland and Admiral Sharp末is an example. Such innovative practices, as they were carried out, represented the convictions of neither side of the debate; and it remains worth considering why, under such circumstances, they should ever have been done at all. "Compromises" of this type suggest that the underlying value of innovation may be in its finessing of bureaucratic hostilities. Military officers who denounced the way a program was being conducted nonetheless advocated that the operations be continued, failing to sense that what seemed militarily "marginal" was worse than worthless because it contributed to incoherence in the U.S. military effort as a whole. Such cases suggest that welcome limits for innovation might start with the limits of common sense.
Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
This article was written while the author was a Visiting Research Fellow in the Airpower Research Institute, Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education (CADRE). It draws on material from a book-length study to be published by CADRE in 1985.
1. William H. Godel, Deputy Director, Vietnam Combat Development and Test Center, DARPA, "Progress Report: Vietnam Combat Development and Test Center," 13 September 1961, in Kennedy Papers, National Security File, Countries file, Vietnam (9/61) folder.
2. Memorandum from Robert H. Johnson for Walt Rostow, 8 August 1961, in Kennedy Papers, National Security File, Countries file, Vietnam (8/61) folder; Godel, "Progress Report," loc. cit.; memorandum from William J. Jorden for Maxwell Taylor, 27 September 1961, in Kennedy Papers, National Security File, Regional file, Southeast Asia General (10/6/61-10/10/61) folder.
3. Testimony of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, U. S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services and Subcommittee on Department of Defense of the Committee on Appropriations, Military Procurement Authorizations for Fiscal Year 1967, Hearings, 89th Cong., 2d sess., 23 February 1966, pp. 162-63.
4.Jack S. Ballard, Development and Employment of Fixed-Wing Gunships 1962-1972 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1982), pp. 1-3. Ballard specifically indicates that the importance of fixed-wing gunships grew because a guerrilla war prevailed末that is, the gunships appeared valuable to the extent that one saw the war as an encounter with elusive guerrillas who were conducting a complicated insurgency. In other versions of what sort of war the conflict in Vietnam was, the gunships might not seem as valuable.
5. Ballard, pp. 3-10.
6. Interview of Dr. Thomas G. Belden with General LeMay, 29 March 1972.
7. Ballard, pp. 13-14. Also see Kenneth Sams, First Test and Combat Use of AC-47 (Hickam AFB, Hawaii: Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, Project Checo, December 1965).
8. Ballard, pp. 14-15.
9. Ibid., pp. 20-21, 25-26.
10. Ibid., pp. 33-34.
11. Testimony of General John P. McConnell, U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Armed Services and the Subcommittee on the Department of Defense of the Appropriations Committee, Military Procurement Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1968, Hearings, 90th Cong., 1st sess., 2 February 1967, p. 842. For information on gunships and air base defense, see Roger P. Fox, Air Base Defense in the Republic of Vietnam 1961-1973 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1979).
12. Ballard, pp, 35-36. Also see Marvin Cole, Fixed-Wing Gunships in SEA (July 1969-July 1971) (Hickam AFB, Hawaii: Headquarters Pacific Air Forces Directorate of Operations Analysis, 1971).
13. Ballard, pp. 94-97; Richard F. Kott, The Role of USAF Gunships in SEASIA (Hickam AFB, Hawaii: Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, Project Checo, 30 August 1969), p. 26.
14. Quoted in Ballard, Fixed-Wing Gunships p. 179.
15.Ballard, pp. 106-07.
16. Ibid., pp. 204-05. The AC-119 was subsequently described in this official history as the "main interdiction force in Cambodia" at the start of the 1970s.
17. Ibid., pp. 110-11; Message, Joint Chiefs of Staff to CINCPAC, Subject: The Use of Propeller and Jet Aircraft in Laos, 20174OZ December 1967.
18.Ballard, p. 142.
19.Ibid., pp. 61-62.
20.Alan L. Gropman, Airpower and the Airlift Evacuation of Kham Duc (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Airpower Research Institute, Air University, 1979), pp. 7-8.
21. General William W. Momyer, Air Power In Three Wars (Washington:GPO, 1978), p. 332.
22. Ballard, pp. 67-69.
23. Ibid.. p. 239.
24. Message quoted in Ballard, p. 169.
25. Ballard, p. 171.
26. Henry Zeybel, "Truck Count," Air University Review, January-February 1983, pp. 36-45.
27. See, for example, the elaborate tables on the performance of gunships in Kott, The Role of USAF Gunships in SEASIA. Also see cost-effectiveness data prepared by the staff of Secretary of the Air Force Brown, such as Memorandum, Hugh E. Witt to Assistant Secretary Robert H. Charles, Subject: "Estimated Cost to Destroy/Damage a Truck in Laos," 2 May 1968.
28. William A. Buckingham, Jr., Operation Ranch Hand: The Air Force and Herbicides in Southeast Asia 1961-1971 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1982), pp. 6-8. The Cornell University Air War Study group included the effects of bombing (such as cratering) in a comprehensive judgment on the environmental impact of U.S. efforts in Vietnam. See Ralph Littauer and Norman Uphoff, editors, The Air War in Indochina (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972 rev.). For additional critiques, see T. Whiteside, Defoliation (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970); B. Weisberg, editor, Ecocide in Indochina (San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1970); and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Ecological Consequences of the Second Indochina War (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1976).
29. Buckingham, pp. 13-15.
30. Ibid., pp. 16-22.
31. Ibid., p. 45.
32. Ibid.. p. 46.
33. Ibid., p. 67.
34. For specific information on ground-spraying operations for railroad security, see Cable 18, COMUSMACV to RUHLHQ/CINCPAC, 18 January 1964, in Johnson Papers, National Security File, Countries file, Vietnam Cables Vol. II (12/63-1/64).
35. Buckingham, pp. 116-19. Also see Pacific Command (PACOM) Scientific Advisory Group, "Crop Destruction Operations in RVN during CY 1967" (a 1967 report) and John F. Trierweiler, "Vegetation Control in Southeast Asia" (Kirtland AFB, New Mexico: USAF Weapons Laboratory, 1968).
36. Testimony of Secretary Harold Brown and General John P. McConnell, U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services and Subcommittee on the Department of Defense of the Committee on Appropriations, Military Procurement Authorizations for Fiscal Year 1967, Hearings, 89th Cong., 2d sess., 30 March 1966, pp. 945-46.
37. Buckingham, pp. 145-46; AMEMBASSY Saigon, "Report of the Herbicide Policy Review Committee," 28 May 1968, quoted in Buckingham.
38. Among the contemporary efforts to evaluate defoliation is Congressional Research Service, Impact of the Vietnam War (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971), prepared for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, especially p. 10ff. Also see Congressional Research Service, Agent Orange: Veterans' Complaints Concerning Exposure to Herbicides in South Vietnam .(Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1980), and Major Alvin L. Young, "Agent Orange at the Crossroads of Science and Social Concern," Air Command and Staff College Research Report (Maxwell AFB, Alabama, May 1981). For an unflattering commentary, see J. Lewallen, Ecology of Devastation: Indochina (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971). Also see W. B. House et at., Assessment of Ecological Effects of Extensive or Repeated Use of Herbicides (Kansas City, Missouri: Midwest Research Institute, 1967).
39. See Robert F. Futrell with Martin Blumenson, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The Advisory Years to 1965 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1981), pp. 24-25.
40. "Study, Directorate of Plans, 19 April 1954," in History of the Directorate of Plans, USAF, January-June 1954, pp. 90-92.
41. General William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976), p, 137.
42. Quoted in U. S. Grant Sharp, Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect (San Rafael, California: Presidio Press, 1978), pp. 87-88.
43. Ibid. Even the Arc Light bombings, for which considerable success could be claimed and in which considerable security could be enjoyed by B-52 crews, were not without their hazards . The first Arc Light strike on 18 June 1965 was marred by the loss of two B-52s, which collided in midair in their refueling area. Although there were five refueling tracks, all were at the same altitude, and the 20-nautical-mile separation of the tracks proved inadequate. Later, to correct for timing discrepancies, provision was made to fly a triangular pattern just before entering the refueling area. Charles K. Hopkins, SAC Tanker Operations in the Southeast Asia War (Offutt AFB, Nebraska: Office of the Historian, Headquarters Strategic Air Command, 1979), p. 14.
44. Bernard William Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City: A Turning Point (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1974), p. 78.
45. Bernard C. Nalty, Air Power and the Fight for Khe Sanh (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1973), p. 116. Tactical air strikes at Khe Sanh were brought in as close as 400 yards. Westmoreland, p. 340.
46. Nalty. pp. 66-67.
47. Ibid., p. 116.
48. Gropman, p. 9. Somewhat ironically, sensors originally set out as part of the McNamara Line at the DMZ were relocated around Khe Sanh during the Niagara operation preparatory to the extensive use of B-52s.
49. Ibid., pp. 11-12.
50. Ibid., pp. 14-15.
51. Ibid. P. 29.
53. Testimony of Randolph Harrison, Hearings, U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Bombing in Cambodia, Hearings, 93d Congress, 1st sess., p. 245.
54. Ibid., p. 235.
55. Ibid., pp. 247-48.
56. Ibid., p. 239.
57. Testimony of Thomas J. Marzullo, U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Bombing in Cambodia, Hearings, 93d Congress, 1st sess., p. 271.
58.Testimony of Gerald Joseph Greven, U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Bombing in Cambodia, Hearings, 93d Congress, 1st sess., p. 279.
59.Quoted in Drew Middleton et al., Air War末Vietnam (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1978), p. 102.
60. Stuart A. Herrington, Silence Was a Weapon: The Vietnam War in the Villages (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1982), p. 129.
61. Ibid., pp. 132-33.
62. Testimony of General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services and Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations of the Appropriations Committee, Military Procurement Authorizations for Fiscal Year 1967, Hearings, 89th Cong., 2d sess., 24 March 1966, pp. 670-71.
Donald J. Mrozek (A.B., Georgetown University; M.A., Ph.D., Rutgers University) is Professor of History at Kansas State University, Manhattan. He has been a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education and the Airpower Research Institute, Hq Air University. Dr. Mrozek is coeditor of A Guide to the Sources of U.S. Military History (1981) and has written articles that have appeared in Military Affairs and other publications, including the Review.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.