Air War – Vietnam


The duel!


F-102As of the 509th FIS over Vietnam, November 1966.


The Martin P5M Marlin was the follow-on aircraft to the Martin PBM Mariner and was the last operational flying boat used by the U.S Navy. Primarily designed to hunt down and destroy the USSR’s huge cold war submarine threat, it was equipped with the latest electronic gear available in the 1950s. Marlins saw combat service in the Vietnam War mainly as a patrol aircraft. The Marlin was also used by the U.S. Coast Guard and the last of the P5Ms, known as SP-5B by then, were retired and flew their last missions in May of 1967. A total of one hundred twenty-one P5M-1s were built with another one hundred seventeen more P5M-2s built on what turned out to be Martin’s last aircraft production line.


A-26A Counter-Invader. Used for interdiction along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.


AC-47 Vietnam Gunship. 53 C-47 transports were converted for use as gunships. These AC-47Ds were fitted with three 7.63mm mini-guns which could fire 6000 rounds per minute. Typically 16,500 rounds were carried, plus 48 Mk.24 MOD3 flares with 2 million candle power, 3 minute burn.

The air war was one of the most controversial features of the American war in Vietnam. The United States dropped more than twice as much bombing tonnage in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Vietnam War than the total bombing tonnage dropped during World War II. About half of that tonnage was dropped on America’s ally South Vietnam, making it the most bombed nation in history. And, after all of that destructive force, the United States failed to achieve its objective of preserving the survival of an independent South Vietnam. Some historians have argued that bombing was never an appropriate method for winning political support for the Saigon government and, in fact, turned people away from the regime. Some critics charged, during and since the war, that the use of air power was cruel and immoral. Conversely, other analysts have claimed that bombing could have achieved success for American aims if it had been greater in amount and better targeted, especially toward North Vietnam. Regardless of the merits of each of these views, it is evident that winning and losing in war is determined by a complex combination of factors and that destructive power alone does not assure victory.

Within South Vietnam, a wide variety of aircraft, from propeller-driven fighters to huge B-52 bombers flying what were called “Arc Light missions,” provided tactical air support for ground operations or attacked enemy troop concentrations and supply areas. In addition to this bombing, both fixed-wing and helicopter gunships delivered massive devastation from the air. Another aspect of the air war in the South was defoliation with explosives or chemicals to expose enemy positions in forest and jungle areas. In Operation Ranch Hand the U.S. Air Force sprayed the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, which was later blamed for serious health problems in people exposed to it.

Several air operations targeted North Vietnam. From March 1965 to October 1968, Operation Rolling Thunder was a sustained bombardment of selected targets in North Vietnam. These bombing sorties were intended to weaken the will of the DRV to continue the war and to encourage the RVN to persevere in the conflict. The civilian population of Hanoi was not marked for attack. The principal targets were military facilities, roads, bridges, railroads, and power plants. Most analysts consider Rolling Thunder to have been ineffective, although some have claimed that this long campaign could have achieved its goals if it had been allowed to continue even longer.

Linebacker I and Linebacker II were heavy air attacks ordered against North Vietnam by the Nixon administration in 1972. Linebacker I was launched in May in response to North Vietnam’s so-called Easter Offensive. This largely conventional assault by NVA troops against the South provided clear targets, such as supply lines and troop formations, that exposed themselves to air power. Consequently, this U.S. air operation was largely successful in halting the offensive. Linebacker II took place from December 18 to 29 and was consequently dubbed the Christmas Bombing by journalists. Air power advocates have credited this heavy attack, which included B-52 raids not far from the center of Hanoi itself, for bringing the DRV back to the conference table for the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement in January 1973. They also claim that more bombing of the North, if used earlier in the war, could have forced the DRV to accept a settlement years earlier. Skeptics of air power and of Nixon’s motives for the bombing have noted that Hanoi had agreed to peace terms in October and that it was the Saigon, not Hanoi, regime that remained as the obstacle to settlement in December. These doubters have also observed that Washington had scaled back its objectives by 1972, compared to the goals at the outset of the war, and it was the American diplomatic concessions, not air power, that opened the way for settlement.

Throughout the war a number of aerial interdiction operations, such as Barrel Roll and Commando Hunt, were carried out along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These campaigns eventually totaled about 3 million tons of high explosives dropped on the North’s infiltration routes, but the resilient enemy managed to keep its troops and supplies moving into South Vietnam. The Nixon administration also conducted a secret bombing operation in Cambodia, code named Menu, which lasted from March 1969 to August 1973. Like the other campaigns of the air war, Menu sparked disagreement. Some observers have said that it denied the Vietcong access to sanctuaries in Cambodia and thus protected the gradual transfer of ground operations, from U.S. forces to Saigon’s troops, in South Vietnam. Critics have claimed that the bombing placed intolerable strains on the fragile political structure of Cambodia and eased the way for the ruthless Khmer Rouge to take power.


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