In regard to Vietnam, it is too easy to focus on the perceptions of ultimate failure without understanding what the conflict was about from all protagonists’ points of view, and to ignore what actually worked which was an awful lot of it. Vietnam offers some great opportunities for ‘Yank-bashing’ but in reality, it was a learning experience for all the nations involved.
Did the air war over Vietnam suggest a ‘best practice’ for the employment of air power?
Yes and in so many areas. All of the following capabilities today owe their current ‘best practice’ to the Vietnam air war:
- modern air-to-air combat;
- Combat Search and Reascue (CSAR);
- aerial casevac and AME;
- fixed- and rotary-wing gunships;
- use of maritime patrol aircraft overland;
- fixed- and rotary-wing air mobility;
- Suppression of Enemy Air defences (like we would want to suppress friendly air defences) SEAD;
- airborne C2;
- Close Air Support (CAS);
- air-to-air refuelling;
- aerial special operations and support to COIN;
- Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR);
- precision strike;
- Air-Land Integration;
- airfield ground defence.
I may have missed one or two minor capabilities but the development of best practice, which lies predominantly at the tactical and operational levels, is largely separate from the outcome of the conflict, certainly from victory. In fact, it might be said that the best catalyst for learning is a good punch in the nose.
Curtis Le May said he could have ended the Vietnam War inside two weeks. Do you think this was possible?
Without a doubt. Le May was a strategic thinker and it is unlikely that he was only thinking in terms of targeting only North Vietnam. The two key enablers for North Vietnam’s war effort were the Soviet Empire and China and Le May would have been considering what things they might hold more dear that sponsoring a sideshow conflict in Indochina. This is not to say that he would propose physical attack on either nation or its assets but certainly the big stick might have been waved in other geographic and political areas. This was the time of Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s nuclear brinkmanship over Matsu and Qemoy, Berlin and Cuba.
Having said that, there has never been any doubt that the USAF and USN could have shut down the flow of ALL military aid into North Vietnam in a week: North Vietnam only has a very small number of ports and railway links through which this aid travelled and these were always off-limits to the campaign that was conducted. Without the external war aid, ranging from AK-47s to SA-2s, coming in by ship and rail, North Vietnam would have had little more than moral support to provide its forces in the south.
What do you think are the essential conditions for an interdiction, denial campaign to be successful? – and – were they met in the Vietnam War?
There are four key conditions to a successful air interdiction campaign:
- political will,
- clearly defined objectives,
- knowing what to strike,
- having the means to strike.
Only the latter two were consistently present in Vietnam until the Easter ’72 invasion and LINEBACKER II campaign at the end of the same year. Note, please, that both campaigns were successful…go figure…
The interdiction campaign was at the operational level while along the Trail and in South Vietnam itself tactical actions were conducted daily to constrain the flow of reinforcements and supplies to anti-government forces. If the operational campaign was successful, then the tactical actions would have been less challenged. It may also have meant that it would have been less necessary to conduct airstrikes into Laos and Cambodia, especially since North Vietnam’s ability to influence and intimidate those governments would have been reduced by a successful campaign north of the DMZ.
In considering current events, the current sham of a campaign in Libya only meets one of the four criteria, that of being able to hit things with a hammer…
Is it true to say that the Vietnam experience represented a massive failure of air power?
As per my response to the first question, not even.
Not only were most aspects of airpower employed well, many were developed and taken to a much higher level throughout the war. To fixate on one aspect of the air war, a relatively small one in the timeline when the various bombing halts are taken into consideration, and based on that one aspect, declare the whole campaign a failure of air power is grossly over-simplistic.
Was air power unduly restricted by political considerations?
Yes and this has been well documented since the end of the war. This is not to say that a strong political will in the White House would have led to a victory for South Vietnam as there are no guarantees in war, and less so in the complex environment that was post-war Indochina.
Johnson was an internalist, not an internationalist like the four Presidents before him and Nixon after him. Like Barack Obama, another internalist, he inherited a war he neither started nor wanted or cared about. Surrounded by senior advisors who understood systems but not politics, and who personified Eisenhower’s warning against the ‘military-industrial complex’, Johnson took it upon himself to personally run the air war bypassing his air power professionals. Unfortunately, this is nature of the military beast in most western nations where the military is subordinate to civilian control. All we can do is educate…or go start a junta in South America someplace…ours not to question why…
We can see another example of political considerations affecting the application of air power in the way that the false lessons of DESERT STORM led to the false perception that a similar approach would bring the Serbs to heel; and again in Iraq and Afghanistan where SECDEF Rumsfeld favoured the use of air power over the use of ground forces.