Boeing B-52D. A 99th Bomb
Wing Boeing B-52D enroute to Hanoi during Operation Linebacker II in
In his 1832 book On War,
Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz described war as "continuation of
politics by other means." Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the
December 1972 bombing raids, dubbed "Linebacker II," on Hanoi in North
Vietnam. They were ordered by President Richard Nixon in response to North
Vietnamís exit from peace talks in Paris. Seeing popular and congressional
support for the war dwindling, Nixon had hoped that the talks would yield
a peace settlement by the end of the year and that the United States could
leave Vietnam gracefully. He had to show North Vietnam he would not stand
for a delay in negotiations. But Nixon also had to assure the South
Vietnamese that the U.S. commitment to them would continue after the
departure of American troops. And this had to be done before Congress
reconvened in January, when it was certain to cut off funds for the war,
effectively ending it. Consequently, Nixon ordered three days of bomber
strikes on North Vietnamís cities, which would be extended if Hanoi still
did not return to the talks.
Because December is monsoon
season in Southeast Asia, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, with its
all-weather bombing capacity, was chosen as the primary aircraft for the
campaign. Further, the B-52 was a cornerstone of Americaís nuclear
delivery triad, which also made it a particularly valuable weapon.
Bringing in massive numbers of this weapon was a signal that the United
States was serious about returning to the negotiating table. And it also
showed that the United States had the strength, power, and stable of
weapons needed to continue the war indefinitely. According to national
security advisor Henry Kissinger, it was the B-52ís "ability to shake the
mind and undermine the spirit" that made it the most desirable weapon for
Operating from Andersen AFB, Guam
and later U-Tapao Royal Thai Air Base, the B-52 was a major component of
many operations including Linebacker and Linebacker II.
But Nixon was playing a
risky game. The psychological boost to North Vietnam that could result
from downing a B-52 could encourage it to continue to fight. If too many
of the planes that were presented as Americaís greatest were shot down,
the United States would appear weak, an especially bad image to portray
during the Cold War. Just as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
symbolized Americaís nuclear might to the Soviet Union, Linebacker II was
to impress the Communist nations with Americaís strength.
The first day of Linebacker
II was December 18, 1972, five days after the Paris peace talks broke
down. At 2:41 p.m., 129 B-52s took off in three waves from Anderson Air
Force Base in Guam. The waves were made up of cells--groups of three B-52s
that flew together for electronic countermeasure (ECM) integrity and
targeting purposes. They had a large escort: the 7th Air Force and U.S.
Navy: KC-135 refuelling planes, F-4 fighter escorts, F-105 Wild Weasels
(to attack surface-to-air missile, or SAM, sites), Navy EA-6 and EB-66
radar-jamming planes, search and rescue teams, and F-4 chaff planes.
(Chaff planes are planes that release "chaff," strips of metal that are
dropped to confuse radar.)
On the first night, three
B-52s were shot down. But 94 percent of the bombs were released over their
targets. Because of the operationís size and the lengthy flights, the last
planes from Day One were landing back at Guam as the first planes for Day
Two were taking off. Crew debriefings were analyzed as quickly as possible
but not quickly enough to incorporate changes for the second dayís plans.
So Day Two proceeded along the same lines as Day One. Targets included
rail yards, power plants, and storage areas. And because of the low number
of casualties on Day Two, operations for Day Three continued in the same
way. This was to prove a fatal mistake.
The American crews were
learning the pattern, and were becoming complacent. Unfortunately, the
North Vietnamese were also learning the pattern. On the third day, the
waves of B-52s approaching Hanoi saw North Vietnamís MiGs in the distance.
But rather than attack, the MiGs reported the Americansí heading,
altitude, and air speed to ground forces. Heavy SAM activity and
anti-aircraft artillery firing directly into the planesí paths resulted in
the deadliest day of the operation: six B-52s were shot down. With the
loss of the $8-million bombers leading to congressional and public anger
and calls to end the bombings, it began to look as though Hanoi might be
able to hold off peace negotiations until Congress returned in January.
Nixon, however, still extended the three-day action to an operation of
"indefinite" length. Military planners had to find a way to succeed.
And there were many
problems to fix. The bomber waves were each 70 miles (113 kilometres)
long. Nicknamed the "elephant walk," the long line was slow, predictable,
and an easy target. The "chaff corridor" showed where the bombers would be
headed. It was like the "Yellow Brick Road" for SAM operators. And after
dropping their bombs, the B-52s left their targets in a steep 180-degree
turn that made a large, bright flash on the enemyís radar screens.
Although bomber cells date
from World War II, they became essential to survival with electronic
warfare. B-52sí ECM worked only when the cell remained together and
retained their integrity. Commanders threatened court-martials for anyone
who knowingly compromised cell integrity. This tough measure proved
justified when two planes, lost on Day Three, had been without full ECM
capabilities because they were missing the third plane in their cells
(they had aborted for technical reasons). Evasive manoeuvres, the best way
to avoid SAMs but also a destruction of cell integrity, were forbidden.
Evasive manoeuvres also
threatened to cause bombing mistakes, leading to civilian casualties. Bomb
targeting needed bombs to be released at a certain altitude and location.
If any components were changed, the bomb would be off target and might
land on civilians. Radar navigators were also ordered to bring their bombs
back if they were less than 100 percent sure they were on target, and all
maps showed schools, hospitals and prisoner-of-war camps clearly marked.
The F-111A in this photo is on
display at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. It is marked as it
was in 1972-73 when assigned to the 474th Tactical Fighter Wing during
Linebacker II operations in Southeast Asia.
In light of the 20,000 tons
of bombs that were dropped on the citizens of Hanoi and Haiphong, there
were relatively few casualties. Only 1,318 people were killed in Hanoi and
306 in Haiphong, a truly remarkable number. By comparison, during nine
days of bombing on Hamburg, Germany, in 1944, less than 10,000 tons were
dropped and 30,000 people died.
North Vietnam spent the
36-hour Christmas stand down restocking their SAM arsenals. They hoped
that if they shot down enough bombers and could hold strong until January,
the U.S. Congress would reconvene and legislate the end of the war. U.S.
Air Force planners spent the holiday completing plans for the next phase
of the operation--the targets were airfields and SAM storage and assembly
sites. By knocking out the air defences, B-52 losses would be reduced. And
the United States would have freedom of the skies, able to attack at will.
December 26, 1972, was the
day the new tactics were put into action. Crews were now allowed to take
evasive manoeuvres against SAMs except during the bomb run itself. The
sharp post-target turns were changed to long, shallow ones. And most
importantly, in place of the elephant walk, crews were given multiple
flight paths they could follow to the targets that would still get them
there at roughly the same time. The corridors of chaff became clouds--the
chaff was dropped in large formations around the target, which were less
likely to lead the enemy to the bombers.
Day Eight was a
success--Hanoi blinked and contacted Washington about resuming talks. But
Nixon would not call off the bombings until talks had actually resumed.
The final two days of Linebacker II encountered only one problem: a lack
of suitable targets. Linebacker ended on December 30. On January 23, 1973,
the cease-fire was signed, to take effect four days later.
Many in the air force
erroneously believed that if they had been allowed to run a similar
bombing mission in 1965, the war would have ended sooner. They failed to
recognize that in 1972, the war was winding to an end and the bombing was
only the final push. Also, U.S. relations with China and the Soviet Union
had changed in the intervening years, and bombing in 1965 would have
encouraged them to join the fight, which perhaps would have escalated into
a nuclear conflict. The terms of peace had also changed as the United
States went from wanting victory to settling for an easy exit. The success
of Linebacker II was part tactic, but mostly timing.
The USS Ranger, shown in
this photo, was one of the carriers participating in Linebacker II. The
others were the USS Enterprise, USS Saratoga, USS Oriskany, and USS