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.
Editor’s Note: Please see previous works by Robert Farley including: The Five Most Overrated Weapons of War and America’s Troubled F-35: Five Ways to Replace It.
With the advent of a new air campaign against ISIS, American involvement in the Iraq War appears to have rekindled. If we take the assurances of the President seriously, this iteration of the war will not include the US of American ground forces, instead concentrating almost exclusively on airpower.
Effectively, the Obama administration has decided to rely on airpower in its efforts to limit the catastrophic, ongoing chaos caused by the Iraq War. Thinking about the operation against ISIS in these terms almost inevitably evokes similar thoughts about previous catastrophic wars. For example, could airpower have won the Vietnam War, or at least limited the extent of our defeat?
Certainly, lots of people believed so at the time. While the United States Air Force may have viewed the Rolling Thunder campaign as sub-optimal, given its desire to attack a much wider range of targets, the commanders at the time viewed it as an opportunity to show that the service could win a war on its own. Taking a look at the strategic, tactical, and joint aspects of the use of airpower in Vietnam, we can get to an answer of “Maybe, but…” with an emphasis on the “but.” The United States could have used airpower more effectively in Vietnam than it did, but even the most efficient plans likely could not have saved the Saigon regime.
The Rolling Thunder strategic bombing campaign sought to destroy Hanoi’s will to fight by steadily increasing the costs of its unification efforts. Rolling Thunder failed, in large part, because the United States insufficiently understood the nature of the North Vietnamese commitment, and had no good appreciation of how to adjust Hanoi’s cost-benefit calculus.
Could a differently structured campaign have had more of an effect? Unlikely. Rolling Thunder barely shook Hanoi’s control of the North Vietnamese countryside, and the US bombing actually strengthened hardliners. North Vietnam’s war effort depended on its ability to draw supplies from three sources; China, the Soviet Union, and the South Vietnamese countryside. Rolling Thunder couldn’t touch any of these, or at least not for any prolonged period of time. With respect to North Vietnamese morale, there is little indication that a broader or more extensive campaign would have undercut the ability of the Hanoi regime to control its population.
Debate over Linebacker II, the final strategic bombing offensive of the Vietnam War, continues in both Vietnam and the United States. At most, the offensive produced a willingness on the part of Hanoi to temporarily moderate its efforts to destroy the Saigon regime. More likely, it simply sent a misleading message of US commitment to Saigon.
One of the biggest lessons of the Vietnam War was that strategic bombing campaigns don’t work, even when they’re conducted on a huge scale by major, modern air forces against weak foes. There’s little reason to imagine that configuring the strategic campaign differently would have made much of a difference.
Airpower is bigger than the Air Force, and involves more than just airstrikes. The Vietnam War saw the first large scale development of the concept of air mobility, the idea that aircraft could make ground forces mobile and effective in tactical, as well as operational and strategic, contexts. The air mobility revolution in the US Army involved taking advantage of control of the air to move (comparatively) huge numbers of fighting men over great distances in a short period of time.
The tactical problem of insurgency lies in the inability of conventional armies to put firepower on insurgents. Guerrillas attack when they have the advantage, then disappear either into the population or the countryside. The US Army sought to solve this problem by using helicopters and light aircraft to make infantry more mobile. Helicopter borne troops could deploy quickly to battle zones, and could even supply fire support for engaged forces.
The US Army enjoyed a great deal of success with its airborne forces in the Vietnam War, but this success never extended beyond the tactical and operational. Moreover, the US Army could not create the conditions under which South Vietnamese forces could replicate this success. Finally, bitter inter-service conflict between the Army and the Air Force over control of helicopters, light transport aircraft, and close air support limited the ability of the US to take full advantage of its mobility. A more concerted effort (or a different organizational structure) might have improved US efforts somewhat, but could not have completely reorganized the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), or completely eliminated the advantages enjoyed by Communist forces.
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.
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.