US Airpower Vietnam: Misuse Generates Misunderstanding


It is a truism to state that the long and tortuous war in Vietnam profoundly wounded the United States. It shattered one administration, triggered the greatest national wave of protests since the Civil War, profoundly demoralized the American military establishment, and left behind what some called a “Vietnam syndrome,” others a “paradigm,” that nearly two decades later threatened to cripple any attempt to halt Saddam Hussein’s aggression in the Gulf. Central to this notion was the idea that Vietnam had demonstrated the futility of military action; as Joshua Muravchik has written, the Vietnam paradigm

included the idea that the use of force had lost its utility. Even small countries, it seemed, could find the means to thwart large ones. This was held to be especially true for America because of the peculiar ineptness of our armed forces, which were hopelessly top-heavy and paralyzed by inter-service rivalry. And even in the unlikely event that America could employ force successfully, we would so alienate other people that the victory was bound to be pyrrhic. Further, economic power had become more important than military power, and the costs of arms and war made the whole undertaking almost inevitably self-defeating.

When critics of action in the Gulf spoke out over the fall and winter of 1990–91 (particularly in Congress), they talked less in terms of the Gulf crisis itself and more in reference to Vietnam. Vietnam dominated the debate and was the yardstick by which the Gulf was measured. Would the military do better than … Vietnam? Would we become bogged down as in … Vietnam? Would the Gulf trigger massive antiwar protests as had … Vietnam? Would the Gulf war trigger casualties on the order of … Vietnam?

Vietnam revealed very disturbing problems within the military establishment: increasing drug and alcohol abuse; profound deterioration of race relations leading, in some cases, to outright riots and mutinies aboard ship; “fragging” incidents of unpopular officers and NCOs; poor military and civilian leadership; and (fortunately very infrequently) ethical breakdowns such as My Lai. As a result, while many in America’s military came out of the Vietnam War with supreme confidence in their own abilities and those of their comrades, they had profound uncertainty about the ability of their service, the Department of Defense, and/or the government in general to achieve military goals, and little or no confidence in the American people to support them. Their experiences, the existing political climate, and fashionable social opinion all reinforced their fears and, indeed, bred disillusionment. Although too much can be made of it, it is nevertheless important to remember that returning Vietnam veterans were advised to change out of uniform before they arrived back in the States lest they be vilified. Occasionally, violent protests ranged across college campuses, and prudent ROTC students and instructors generally wore their uniforms only when inside their own classrooms. Such experiences inculcated an attitude of mistrust that manifested itself in bitterness toward senior military and civilian leadership. But those same experiences also drove a zealous desire for internal reform. One Vietnam-era officer, when asked by a prominent American military correspondent whether he would stay in the Army, said “I’m going to stay with the Army, but if I have anything to do with it, it’s going to be a different Army. Vietnam had one good result: It’s made us question the way things have been done.”

So Vietnam’s impact on the American military was dramatic. One had only to lecture or teach in the professional military schools in the 1980s—the Army War College, the Air War College, and Naval War College, for example—to immediately sense how their experiences had convinced most professional soldiers, airmen, and sailors to never expect subordinates to fight in the circumstances they themselves had fought in. Simply put, most military professionals believed that the Vietnam War had been ineptly conceived and badly run. Worse, many believed that their senior commanders had broken faith with their own services in not taking issue with some of the more egregious presidential, state, and defense decisions regarding the conduct of the war.

One key point of contention was the issue of gradualism; nowhere was this more criticized than among the airmen who had flown in the war, for they were the ones who paid the price—sometimes with their lives, sometimes with years of brutal captivity, sometimes with both. Every major strategist and theorist of war, from Sun Tzu through Carl von Clausewitz and Henri Jomini, recognized that military force should be applied decisively, not as a means of sending signals. Yet that is what happened in Vietnam, and particularly in the case of air power: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and George W. Ball—respectively the president, secretary of defense, and secretary and undersecretary of state—fought an air war to send signals and messages (all the while being overly concerned that U.S. actions not cause the North Vietnamese an excessive loss of prestige!) while the North Vietnamese fought to win. (This led to a cynically apt Air Force aphorism after Vietnam: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”) So air power was misused in Vietnam, with that misuse often clouding results attributed to the limits of air power when they really stemmed from limits on air power. Air power therefore was subjected to further belittling and denigration in the years after the war, and (perhaps even worse) was not recognized for what it had done well in the war. Over two decades later, decisionmakers—both military and political—were still arguing whether or not air power could actually be relied upon should the UN coalition go to war against Iraq, failing to recognize that it was its misuse—a product of the purposes to which it was employed in Vietnam and the organization and tactics of its usage—that created this image of “failure.”

There was another serious problem: officials thousands of miles away from the scene of combat directed the active day-to-day conduct of air warfare at the operational and tactical levels of war. This reflected the managerial style of both Lyndon Johnson and his secretary of defense, and, unfortunately, set a pattern and established a legacy for subsequent management practices that lasted through the 1970s and even into the first years of the 1980s, as Desert One and the Marine bombing in Beirut showed. Individual targets and rules of engagement were selected and established at White House luncheons each Tuesday, and seemingly added, dropped, restricted, or qualified for the most ephemeral of reasons. In one case, as a result of a Tuesday luncheon, “pilots learned that they had authority to strike moving targets such as convoys and troops, but could not attack highways, railroads, or bridges with no moving traffic on them.”

Not all problems were caused exclusively by the political climate, however. It was in Vietnam that the shortsightedness of overemphasizing nuclear war—fighting became most apparent. Aircraft designed for a nuclear war environment—such as the Republic F-105, intended to carry a single nuclear bomb deep into enemy territory—now had to be hastily modified to fulfill conventional missions. How to run a strategic air campaign day after day in the face of intensive enemy opposition had to be relearned for the war in the North, as did the operational art and techniques for a tactical air support campaign in the South. To prosecute the counterinsurgency war in the South, the Air Force modified trainers as strike airplanes, upgraded World War II—vintage bombers and transports, and bought quantities of the Navy’s propeller-driven A-1 attack airplane. Planners divided North Vietnam into a series of “route packages,” for which the various services had strike responsibility, contributing to a dilution of the air effort and the perception of “Air Force” and “Navy” targets. There was a severe bomb shortage, for in the nuclear era, many conventional “iron” bombs had been sold for salvage. At one point, the United States had to buy 5,000 discarded 750-pound bombs back from West Germany, which had purchased them as scrap for $8,500; the Department of Defense bought them back for $105,000.

Obsessed with measures of merit, Defense Department officials and service chiefs settled on two that quickly became goals in and of themselves: body counts for the ground war and sortie rates for the air war. Artificial means were pursued to inflate both; to keep sortie rates high in the midst of the bomb shortage, aircraft were sometimes launched with a single bomb or two, unnecessarily endangering multiple crews and reducing the amount of lethal force an individual aircraft could bring to bear on its target. High-performance jet aircraft proved vulnerable to antiaircraft fire and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). (So unanticipated had this latter threat been—even though a SAM had claimed Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 in 1960—that when American strike aircraft began operating over the North, they lacked even rudimentary radar and SAM warning receivers.) The SAM threat forced an increased reliance on electronic protection and suppression, coupled with antiradar missiles to destroy launch sites. Worse, in the air war over North Vietnam, both the Air Force and Navy experienced disturbing losses to enemy fighters. In comparison to an 8 to 1 victory-loss ratio in World War II and a 10 to 1 ratio in Korea, the United States mustered no better than a 2.4 to 1 ratio over North Vietnam, and for a while it was roughly 1 to 1. These losses stemmed from three reasons: fighting under the limitations of politically determined rules of engagement; the poor air-combat training of American pilots (in one fighter squadron, only four of thirty pilots had ever had any aerial gunnery practice); and the unsuitability of many American aircraft, designed for anticipated nuclear war interception or strike missions, to engage in the swirling “furball” dogfights of Southeast Asia.

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