Could Airpower Have Won the Vietnam War?

As America launches airstrikes on the Islamic State, a look to the past could provide some interesting insights. 

The US Navy and US Air Force enjoyed their greatest success of the Vietnam War in the Linebacker I operation of spring 1972.  North Vietnam launched what it hoped would be a war-winning conventional offensive of the South, designed to shatter Saigon’s armies and force a political collapse.  The invasion failed, in large part because of the effectiveness of US airpower at destroying People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) units and interdicting their logistics.  US air attacks cut the heart out of the invasion, resulting in a catastrophic defeat for the North.

Could a continued air commitment have maintained South Vietnam?  Potentially, but the promise of such a commitment depended on the will of the United States to remain engaged in Vietnam for a potentially very long period of time.  North Vietnam had multiple tools for attacking the South, not all of which were as easily deterred by airpower.  Indeed, it’s not obvious that the final offensives of 1975 would have triggered US intervention until it was too late; no one expected the full collapse of the South Vietnamese military.  And it’s exceedingly unlikely that the US public would have tolerated such a long-term commitment to Saigon’s security.

Conclusion

Used effectively, airpower can stop conventional military offensives.  However, it could not resolve the fundamental political problems that made South Vietnam vulnerable to the North.  Airpower could neither destroy North Vietnamese commitment to unification, nor sufficiently strengthen the Saigon regime’s ability to control its own territory.  Without changing these basic factors, North Vietnam’s victory was just a matter of time.

Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter:@drfarls.

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