Beginning in the early 1960s, communist North Vietnam (The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or DRV) began sending arms and reinforcements to the guerrillas of the National Liberation Front (NLF) fighting a war of reunification in South Vietnam. To combat the NLF and shore up the regime in the south, the United States sent advisors, supplies and combat troops. A war escalated that would see American soldiers engaging NLF insurgents and North Vietnamese regular troops in the field.
The supply lines for the war ran south across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam, or via Laos and Cambodia along the infamous 'Ho Chi Minh Trail'. The source of these supplies was the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. The road and rail network of the north was vital for transshipping materiel south. The hub of this network was the national capital, Hanoi.
In August 1964, the 'Gulf of Tonkin Incident', a skirmish between DRV and US Navy ships, gave the United States a pretext to launch air strikes against the North. The objective, outlined by President Lyndon B. Johnson, was to discourage further 'communist aggression' by launching punitive attacks against the DRV.
In late 1964 the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up a list of targets to be destroyed as part of a coordinated interdiction air campaign against the North's supply network. Bridges, rail yards, docks, barracks and supply dumps would be targeted. However, President Johnson feared that direct intervention by the Chinese or Russians could trigger a world war and refused to authorize an unrestricted bombing campaign. Instead, the attacks would be limited to targets cleared by the President and his Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara.
Beginning in 1965 Rolling Thunder was a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Early missions were against the south of the DRV, where the bulk of ground forces and supply dumps were located. Large-scale air strikes were launched on depots, bases and supply targets, but the majority of operations were 'armed reconnaissance' missions in which small formations of aircraft patrolled highways and railroads and rivers, attacking targets of opportunity.
Afraid the war might escalate out of hand, Johnson and McNamara micromanaged the bombing campaign from Washington. Rules of Engagement were imposed to limit civilian casualties or attacks on other nationals, such as the Eastern Bloc-crewed supply ships in Haiphong harbor or the Soviet and Chinese advisors helping train the Vietnamese military.
However, the American policy of 'graduated response' -- slowly ramping up pressure on the DRV leadership -- meant that more targets became available to airmen to bomb. The bombing moved progressively northwards toward Hanoi. Exclusion zones were maintained around Hanoi and Haiphong to keep bombers away from the population centers, but eventually raids would be authorized even into these sanctuaries.
To keep the US Air Force and Navy out of each other's way the DRV was divided into air zones called 'Route Packages' (RPs), each assigned to a service. The area around Hanoi included Route Packages 5 and 6a (the USAF's responsibility) and 4 and 6b (the USN's). Strikes into RP 6a or 6b were reckoned to be the toughest of all. The Vietnamese, with Soviet and Chinese help, had built a formidable air defense system there. Initially this consisted of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and MiG fighter jets, but from mid-1965 this was supplemented by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). A radar net now covered the country that could track incoming US raids and allocate SAMs or MiGs to attack them.
To survive in this lethal air defense zone the Americans adopted special tactics. Large-scale raids were assigned support aircraft to keep the bombers safe. These would include fighters to keep the MiGs away, jamming aircraft to degrade enemy radars, and 'Iron Hand' fighter-bombers to hunt down SAMs and suppress AAA. New electronics countermeasures devices were hurriedly deployed to protect aircraft from missile attacks.
By 1966 the air war in the higher Route Packages was getting hotter. Though most of the casualties came from AAA, there were an increasing number of encounters with SAMs and MiGs. MiGs were a particular problem because the Americans' poor radar coverage of the Hanoi region allowed obsolete jets such as the MiG-17 to get the jump on them. Airborne Early Warning aircraft had great trouble detecting MiGs at very low altitude.
Most of the USAF raids against the North came out of bases in Thailand. They would refuel over Laos before flying onto their targets. Sometimes the Americans would fly low and use prominent terrain features such as Thud Ridge to mask them from radar as they approached. After attacking the target -- usually by dive-bombing -- the raid would either head directly back to Thailand or exit over the relatively safe waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.
Navy raids would be launched from TaskForce 77's carriers cruising on Yankee Station. The complement of a carrier air wing was needed to form an ‘Alpha Strike'. The Navy aircraft would usually take the shortest way into and out from the target.
Bombing halts became a feature of the war. Some of these were politically enforced, as President Johnson tried a ‘carrot and stick' approach to coax the DRV into a peace agreement. Others were the fault of the weather that for six months a year made bombing near impossible. Attempts were made to overcome the weather by developing blind bombing techniques using radar or radio navigation systems, but at best they generated mediocre results and were often useless.
1967 saw America's most intense and sustained attempt to force the Vietnamese into peace talks. Almost all the Joint Chiefs' target list was made available to be attacked, and even airfields -- previously off-limits -- came in for a pasting. Only the center of Hanoi (nicknamed 'Downtown' after the Petula Clark song) and Haiphong harbor remained safe from harm. The Vietnamese reacted by becoming more aggressive with their MiGs and using AAA and SAM to rack up an impressive tally of US aircraft.
After two years of bombardment the Vietnamese were well equipped to handle US raids, having dispersed their supplies and developed the means to repair and rebuild the supply network after the raids had passed. Their strategy was long-sighted. They didn't have to defeat the Americans, merely absorb the punishment and outlast them.
By 1968 McNamara had become convinced that airpower could not win the war. In spite of the air campaign the Tet New Year holiday saw Hanoi and the NLF mount an offensive in the south. The Tet offensive was a military disaster for the North and their NLF allies, but it still broke the will of the American leadership. Hoping that Hanoi would enter into peace talks, President Johnson offered a bombing halt. The communists, licking their wounds after Tet, agreed to talks and the Rolling Thunder campaign came to an end.
The period from 1968 to early 1972 saw little bombing in the North – mainly reconnaissance flights by the US. Peace negotiations with the Vietnamese became deadlocked. In 1969 Richard Nixon succeeded President Johnson. Nixon ordered the withdrawal of troops from the South as part of a scheme to disengage America from the war. Meanwhile, by diplomacy he was able to isolate Hanoi from its allies in China and the Soviet Union. One consequence of this was that Russia delayed the deployment of modern SA-3 SAM missiles to Vietnam.
In March 1972 the DRV launched another great offensive -- this time with a conventional mechanized army. Early gains against the South Vietnamese were stemmed with the help of air power. In May Nixon ordered a full-scale offensive against the North -- a gloves-off assault from the air. The new campaign was known as Linebacker.
The Linebacker campaign began with the mining of Haiphong harbor, followed by massive air raids against supply and infrastructure targets. The USAF raids were now bigger than ever, with huge fleets of support aircraft protecting a handful of bombers. Both Air Force and Navy now had access to a new generation of guided ‘smart' munitions that were deadly accurate by comparison with old-style bombing with ‘dumb' bombs.
With few restraints, the USAF and USN bombed the North at will. In spite of this, results against the Vietnamese supply system were disappointing. But battlefield reverses in the war down south (bolstered by massive air power) had worn the communists down to the point where they would accept a ceasefire. In October, Nixon ordered Linebacker to end. But, at the last moment the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, sabotaged the peace agreement, hoping it would prevent a final American withdrawal.
In spite of the bombing halt, the war in the south continued while negotiators went around in ever-decreasing circles. Finally, Nixon's patience wore out and he ordered a 'massive and brutal' series of night attacks on Hanoi, using B-52 heavy bombers. The attacks, titled Linebacker II, went badly at first due to poor planning and execution. In the first few days B-52 casualties were so high that the bombers were briefly forced away from the Hanoi area and it looked as if the campaign would be defeated. However, the battle was turned around by the adoption of better planning and tactics. The B-52s became unstoppable. The Hanoi leadership, sensing they could now do nothing to stop the bombing, signed up to the ceasefire that was offered and agreed to hand over US Prisoners of War. Nixon bullied Thieu into accepting the terms before halting the bombing. The air campaigns against North Vietnam were over.
Aug 64. "Gulf of Tonkin Incident". Pierce Arrow reprisal raids launched.
Feb 65. Flaming Dart USN air raids on the DRV.
Mar 65. Rolling Thunder begins. Air attacks concentrate on targets in the Vietnamese 'panhandle'.
May 65. Rolling Thunder 15. The first raid above the 20th Parallel is launched.
Jul 65. First US casualties to SAMs.
Sep 65. First raids into Route Package 6.
Apr-Jul 66. Rolling Thunder 50. First attacks into the Hanoi and Haiphong restricted zones.
Oct 66. F-105s begin to fly with ECM pod protection against SAMs.
Jan 67. Operation Bolo, a fighter sweep against the MiGs, is a great success. Attempts to repeat the success fail.
Feb-Apr 67. Rolling Thunder 54. Thai Nguyen works bombed for the first time.
Apr-Mar 67. Rolling Thunder 55. First attacks on Kep and Hoa Lac airfields. Targets near Hanoi opened up.
May 67-May 68. Rolling Thunder 57. The summer sees the heaviest bombing of the campaign, with airfields and transport targets near Hanoi and Haiphong attacked for the first time. The bombing slacks off after Nov 67 because of poor weather.
Apr-Nov 68. Attacks are restricted below the 20th then 19th parallel, before the President halts Rolling Thunder in November.
Nov 68-Mar 72. Bombing halt in all areas north of Route Package 1.
Mar 72. DRV Nguyen Hue ground offensive opens. US initiates Operation Constant Guard to reinforce air power in the region.
Apr 72. Operation Freedom Train attacks DRV targets up to the 20th Parallel.
May 72. Operation Linebacker opens. Haiphong harbor mined. Targets throughout the DRV are attacked in a sustained campaign lasting until October.
Oct 72. Bombing halt. Peace is declared to be at hand, but South Vietnam sabotages the peace agreement.
Dec 72. Linebacker II opens and lasts for eleven days, with a break for Christmas Day.
Jan 73. Peace agreement signed in Paris.
Mar 73. American prisoners of war held by the DRV, most of them aircrew, are released.
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