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Command and Control of Air Operations in the Vietnam War

Colloquium on Contemporary History January 23, 1991 No. 4

Dr. Dean C. Allard
Director of Naval History

I welcome you to our Colloquium on Contemporary History, the fourth in this series of semi-annual conferences focusing on the history of the American armed forces in the post-World War II era. The purpose of these gatherings is to promote a broader understanding of the key issues and events of the period by those of us in the Washington area who are involved in recording the modern contributions of the U.S. armed forces or have an interest in the subject. I might add that we welcome your suggestions for pertinent topics of discussion at future colloquia. Past conferences have dealt with strategy and military operations in the early Cold War years, the Dominican Republic intervention of 1965, and the Korean War, but every bit as pertinent would be such themes as military-industrial relations, the armed forces and society, weapons development, and arms control.

We hope that you find today's discussion informative and that it stimulates further interest in the defense establishment's recent, eventful past.

Dr. Edward J. Marolda
Head, Contemporary History Branch
Naval Historical Center

For the last week, an allied air armada, perhaps the most powerful ever assembled, has visited modern war on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. We have chased the Iraqi air force from the sky, neutralized Hussein's chemical, biological, and budding nuclear capability, forced the Republican Guard reserves to keep their heads down, and begun the isolation from support of his immobilized army in the environs of Kuwait City. This has been accomplished by the bombers, fighters, attack aircraft, electronic warfare planes, and helicopter gunships of each of the four American armed forces and seven allied nations. The United Nations air campaign has not been an example of absolutely flawless planning and unblemished execution. Certainly history teaches us not to expect such things. In this instance, the fog of war has turned out to be just that - fog. But I think we can safely say that the Desert Storm air campaign has seen major gains for allied arms.

Masterful command and control by our leaders can be credited, in large part, for the initial success of the operation. But of relevance to this morning's discussion, we can almost see floating around the heads of our political and military leaders a ghostly figure intoning, "no more Vietnams." Their adherence to this advice is clearly reflected in the nature of Desert Storm's direction and execution. For instance, while President Bush established clear political objectives at the outset, he has given the coalition's military commander, General Schwarzkopf, great latitude in taking those military actions the general deemed appropriate to defeat the enemy's armed forces, a far cry from Lyndon Johnson's approach; further, force has been employed quickly and massively against the foe; there have been no bombing halts in hopes of stimulating the enemy to negotiate. In short, to use the president's words, the military would not be compelled to fight this war with "one hand tied behind their back." Moreover, Air Force General Homer, Schwarzkopf's air deputy, following a single targeting plan - "a single sheet of music" - has had the ability to coordinate the actions of most, if not all combat aircraft in the Central Command operational theater. That includes the air assets of the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Army, as well as those of our coalition partners. Finally, unlike in Southeast Asia, the Commander in Chief, Central Command is the sole operational commander of Desert Storm.

Hence, our conference today on the "Command and Control of Air Power in the Vietnam War" could not have been more timely. As our speakers will detail, there were significant problems with our employment of air power in the Southeast Asian conflict. The confusion of political and military objectives, excessive fine-tuning of operations from Washington, a cumbersome theater command set-up, and different service doctrines and operational concepts marred execution of the Rolling Thunder and Linebacker campaigns.

At the same time, we should not lose sight of what worked in Vietnam. Operating from shore bases and aircraft carriers, the air forces of the United States ruled the air over Indochina, delayed and cut short the enemy's ground offensives, and saved the lives of thousands of "grunts" with effective close air support.

With the backdrop of such dramatic current events, I'm hopeful that our discussion today can add some insight to our evaluation of air power's role in Southeast Asia.

Admiral James L. Holloway III, USN (Ret.)
President, Naval Historical Foundation

These remarks are based mainly on recollections from the perspective of a carrier commanding officer and a fleet commander during the Vietnam War. From July of 1965 to July of 1967 I served as Commanding Officer, USS Enterprise, the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, which made two complete combat deployments to the SEVENTH Fleet for Vietnam combat operations during that time. Later in 1972 and 1973 I was Commander of the U.S. SEVENTH Fleet.

The operational chain of command for combat activities within the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) emanated from the National Command Authorities (NCA) -- the President and the Secretary of Defense; to Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC), the unified or theater commander; then to Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (USMACV), who further delegated operational authority to his subordinate service commanders. In the case of naval forces (in country) these were under Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam (COMNAVFORV). The forces assigned to NAVFORV were mainly military assistance people and the riverine forces. There were no major combatants assigned to NAVFORV.

The aircraft carriers and their task forces came under a different chain of command, originating with the NCA through CINCPAC, but then via Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), Commander SEVENTH Fleet (COMSEVENTHFLT), and Commander Task Force 77 (CTF 77), the Carrier Striking Force. The rationale for this separate chain of command was that COMSEVENTHFLT had broad area responsibilities throughout the Western Pacific, which included the command of major naval forces in employment plans and war plans covering a wide array of contingencies outside of the Vietnam conflict, and responsibility for the planning and the conduct of a general war with the Soviet Union, including the fleet's nuclear capability. The doctrine of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had for years included a provision for such a chain of command for naval forces, in consideration of their mobile character and the wide range of their responsibilities from contingency operations to general war plans. Under the JCS doctrine, naval forces in the SEVENTH Fleet operated "in support" of USMACV.

Task Force 77, the Carrier Striking Force, included all of the carriers and major combatants assigned to the carriers in a support role. Although the major surface combatants -- cruisers, destroyers and frigates -- were deployed from their administrative commands in the Continental United States (Cruiser Force, Atlantic Fleet or Pacific Fleet) to Task Force 75, the Surface Warfare Force of the SEVENTH Fleet, these units were transferred to Task Force 77 in order to form up the carrier task groups which were the basic tactical entities for carrier strike operations. A typical carrier task group would consist of one carrier, several destroyers, and three or four frigates. Occasionally a cruiser would be assigned to a carrier task group when it was not committed to gunfire support or other independent operations.

The major surface combatants rotated in and out of the carrier task groups to other assignments such as gunfire support (shore bombardment) and escort of the underway replenishment groups (URG). The carrier task groups (CTG) always remained about the same size, but the identity of the surface combatants in the group was constantly changing.

Commander Task Force 77 (an aviation vice admiral) and his staff did most of the tactical planning for the carrier air operations. In particular, CTF 77 was responsible for the coordination of carrier air operations with land-based tactical air operations of U.S. Air Force units based both in Vietnam and in Thailand. For this purpose, CTF 77 had a permanent representative at the USMACV headquarters in Saigon, usually a senior Navy captain. CTF 77 and his staff were embarked in a carrier. As the carriers rotated in and out of the SEVENTH Fleet on six or seven-month deployments, CTF 77 was continually shifting his flag. This also meant that when CTF 77's carrier flagship went into port after thirty days on the line for a week of maintenance, replenishment, and R&R, CTF 77 and his staff were absent from the Gulf of Tonkin.

To cover these absences of CTF 77, the position of Commander Task Group 77.0 was created. This was an aviation two star flag officer, one of the several carrier division commanders constantly being rotated to the SEVENTH Fleet on six or seven-month deployments from Air Forces, Atlantic Fleet and Air Forces, Pacific Fleet. CTG 77.0 was always on the scene in the Gulf of Tonkin and was assigned operational control (OPCON) of all of the carrier task groups in the gulf. The carrier task groups in the SEVENTH Fleet, and there could be as many as six, were assigned designations of CTG 77.1 through CTG 77.6.

The tactics employed by the carrier task groups and their embarked air wings were the standard doctrines set forth in the U.S. Fleet Tactical Publications and the Naval Air Training and Operational Procedures (NATOPS). NATOPS by that time had largely eliminated the differences that had grown up during previous years between the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. However some modifications to the NATOPS were made specifically for "special operations," the euphemism used to describe combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

The carriers and their air wings trained and exercised in these special doctrines during their work-up periods in preparation for deployment to the Western Pacific area.

The targeting, in terms of general policy, broad guidelines, and sometimes even specific objectives, came from Washington to CINCPAC. A specificity of the Washington targeting directions varied, depending upon political circumstances in the White House and the degree of involvement on the part of key individuals in the Pentagon. From the Washington guidance provided through JCS channels, CINCPAC prepared a target list, which was drawn on by MACV and CTF 77, who coordinated carefully to ensure that national and JCS priorities were followed, that all assigned targets were covered, and that Air Force and Navy units were given targets that best suited their special capabilities. CTF 77 and USMACV could also add targets, as long as the national requirements were fulfilled.

CTF 77's target list and general guidance was provided to CTF 77.0 who then assigned daily strike responsibilities to the carriers, depending upon how many carriers were on the line and the aircraft composition of their air wings. Upon receipt of the daily air plan, each carrier's operations department then assigned specific mission sorties to the squadrons. It was up to the squadrons to ensure that adequate planes were available and that pilots and strike leaders were detailed.

Over the period of the Vietnam war, the Navy carrier force level was stabilized at sixteen attack carriers, although this number included one antisubmarine or CVS carrier operating in the role of an attack carrier, or CVA. Administratively, nine carriers were assigned to the Pacific Fleet and six to the Atlantic Fleet. However all carriers, regardless of fleet assignment, shared in the combat deployments for special operations (SPECOPS). This was different from the Korean War when Atlantic Fleet carriers continued to exclusively deploy to the SIXTH Fleet in the Mediterranean, while the Pacific Fleet carriers made their deployments to Korea. For the Atlantic Fleet carriers deployed to Vietnam, Commander in Chief Atlantic (CINCLANT) retained administrative control (ADCOM) but the units were chopped (meaning that their operational control was changed) to CINCPAC when the ships entered the geographical boundary of CINCPAC's theater. In addition to keeping five or six carriers in the SEVENTH Fleet, the U.S. Navy also was committed to maintaining at all times two carriers in the SIXTH Fleet. The pressure of maintaining half the carrier force deployed over the long period of the Vietnam War eventually caused severe deterioration in the material condition of the ships, from which the carrier force really didn't fully recover until the late seventies.

General Westmoreland, as COMUSMACV, defined two air wars in Vietnam. The "in-country" war was that in which U.S. Air Force and Navy (including Marines) tactical aircraft operated in close support of U.S. and allied ground forces fighting in South Vietnam. The Air Force and Marine tactical air operated from bases both in Vietnam and Thailand. The other air war, known as special operations, were the strikes into North Vietnam. These operations, which had the code name of "Rolling Thunder," were conducted by SEVENTH Fleet carriers and U.S. Air Force tactical air units from Thailand. Marine A-6s from bases in South Vietnam also participated in "Rolling Thunder."

There was considerable difference in the character of these two wars. In the South, the operations were less complex, more efficient, and considerably less hazardous. The antiaircraft artillery (AAA) was not intense, there were no surface-to-air missiles (SAM), or fighter planes. As a consequence, the composition of the strike groups consisted mainly of weapons carriers. There was no need for flak suppressors or fighter cover. If a friendly plane was shot down, it was highly probable that the crew would be rescued because of the presence of friendly forces in the vicinity and the absence of a hostile civilian populace.

The air war in the North was quite a different story. Strike groups had to penetrate what at that time was the most intense and modern air defense environment in existence. The strike groups faced fighters, high and medium-altitude surface-to-air missiles, and highly accurate automatic weapons fire at low altitudes. Flight groups had to be accompanied by fighter cover, "Iron Hand" anti-SAM pouncers, electronic jammers, antiradar missile shooters, plus rescue units held in reserve for downed aircraft. Most of the shoot-downs of friendly aircraft occurred in the North, and although in many cases survivors were able to eject and land safely in their parachutes, only a small percentage of the surviving air crews were rescued. The air defense environment encountered by rescue helicopters was simply too intense in most cases to penetrate any distance into North Vietnam to rescue downed air crews.

Except during the several bombing pauses that occurred during the war, the principal combat effort of the carriers was in the air war in the North. However some tactical air effort from the carriers was still employed in the "in-country" war in South Vietnam.

Carrier operations in the northern gulf were conducted from the vicinity of a geographic reference point Y, called "Point Yankee," so called because Y is "Yankee" in the phonetic alphabet. Carrier assignment to SPECOPS in the northern gulf came to be known as "Yankee Station."

Operations in the southern Gulf of Tonkin into South Vietnam were conducted from an area referenced to a grid lock point, "Point Dixie," so that carriers conducting the air war in the South were termed at "Dixie Station."

Normally three carriers were at Yankee Station at all times, each conducting air operations for twelve hours, and then repairing, replenishing, and doing maintenance for the next twelve hours. One carrier operated from noon until midnight, the second from midnight until noon and the third covering the daylight hours. This meant that targets were covered twenty-four hours a day, and the heaviest effort was during daylight hours when tactical air was most accurate and effective.

The large deck carriers - Forrestal and subsequent - normally had a complement of between 80 and 90 aircraft, consisting of two squadrons of F-4 Phantoms, two squadrons of A-4 Skyhawks or A-7 Corsairs, and one squadron of A-6 all weather Intruder medium bombers. In addition, the carrier operated helicopters, tankers, reconnaissance aircraft, and early warning E-2 aircraft in its organic air wing.

The Phantom squadrons flew combat air patrol (CAP), armed reconnaissance, and strike missions. The Skyhawk and Corsairs flew strike and air ground support missions, using visual detection and arming. The A-6 Intruder squadrons had the only real capability for all weather attack. In this role they proceeded individually into their targets, bombing by radar. The A-6 was also the main element in the major daylight strikes because of its heavy load-carrying capability. An A-6 could carry more than 15,000 pounds of bombs. The F-4s, A-4s and A-7s also flew night missions using flares to locate and illuminate targets for visual attacks by bombs and rockets. They, like the A6s, also operated either alone or in pairs at night.

The carriers employed two modes of flight operations, cyclic operations and Alpha strikes.

During cyclic operations, a carrier would launch and recover 25 to 40 aircraft every hour and a half during its twelve-hour assigned period of flight operations, conducting eight cycles or events during each flying day. The first event would launch, the second event would launch an hour and a half later, and the first event would immediately land. Planes from the first event would be quickly refueled and rearmed, pilots briefed, and then launched again before the second event landed. Launch and recovery times were staggered among the carriers during the day to keep planes over the target area at all times. The largest number of aircraft committed to a single target in one strike under the cyclical mode would be 15 or 20.

Alpha strikes were used when it was needed to put a very heavy weight of effort on a single target complex in a very short period of time, either for the shock effect or because of the necessity to penetrate very heavy defenses, such as in the case of attacks in the vicinity of Haiphong and Hanoi. On an Alpha strike, all available aircraft on the carrier were organized into a single strike group. Alpha strikes were normally coordinated with the other carriers on the line and quite often with major U.S. Air Force strike efforts coming out of Thailand. On occasion, as many as five carriers could be available on the line due to overlapping of carriers arriving and departing. Then five Alpha strikes could pound a single target within an hour, with the Air Force also coming in before and after the Navy effort. To prepare for an Alpha strike, air operations were suspended for about two hours prior to launch time to permit all aircraft to be refueled, rearmed, and spotted for the launch. It took up to an hour and a half after the recovery of an Alpha strike to resume cyclic operations, which could then continue for the rest of the flying day or night.

It is interesting to compare the Air Force and Navy tactical air operations during the Vietnam war. The Air Force flew out of bases mainly in Thailand. Because of the distances involved, the strike group would refuel once or twice enroute to the target, and after the strike would rendezvous over the Gulf of Tonkin and refuel from tankers under Navy control. Air Force tactical operations were basically a continuous series of Alpha strikes. On the other hand, the Navy conducted mainly cyclic operations, with occasional Alpha strikes when targeting demanded. In this way, more targets were being covered on a more continuous basis, but with much lower level of effort per individual target than was provided by either the Alpha strike or the Air Force system.

The carriers were able to move about within the Gulf of Tonkin to bring their aircraft closer to their targets, thereby eliminating or substantially limiting the amount of refueling necessary. This was important because aerial refueling facilities from the carriers were limited. Carrier-based tankers were normally used only in emergency situations when planes became inadvertently low on fuel because of unplanned occurrences, such as rescue operations or striking fleeting targets of opportunity. On one occasion, for example, for an Alpha strike on Haiphong, the Enterprise moved to within 30 miles of that port city to launch its strike group, and the A-4s were able to remove their drop tanks and carry three 1,000-pound bombs into the target.

One of the most remarkable features of the carrier operations in the Gulf of Tonkin was its logistic support. This entire effort came directly from the United States; there was virtually no transhipment through Far Eastern ports.

Although the carriers went into the naval base at Subic after almost every period on the line, this was mainly for ship repairs, the off-loading of dud aircraft (those which had received battle damage and were unable to be flown off), and crew R&R. More than 99 percent of all other logistical support ammunition, ship and aircraft fuel, food, and general supplies was delivered to the carriers from logistics support ships during underway replenishment at sea.

In turn, most of those underway replenishment ships were loaded out in U.S. ports. The ammunition ships (AE) would load out at the depot in Concord, California, and then transit to the Gulf of Tonkin. The AE would transfer ammunition to the carriers several times a day for a month or so until their holds were empty. Then they would go to a U.S. depot for another load of ammunition. The same routine applied to the general stores ships, which delivered fresh vegetables to the crews directly from California farms. The oilers carried both aviation fuel (JP-5) and ship's fuel. Although much of this came from the Continental United States, some was also picked up from U.S. petroleum, oil, and lubricant (POL) stocks at storage sites in the Pacific where it had been delivered by commercial tankers.

All of this provided enormous efficiencies in not having to move these supplies through a port in the Philippines to a depot, then move it from the depot to the port again, and have the carrier spend three or four days out-loading.

The entire logistics support operation was a model of efficiency. The underway replenishment groups, known as URGs, operated as task groups in the Gulf of Tonkin and consisted of an ammunition ship, a fleet oiler, and one or more store ships which carried a variety of consumables. Each carrier replenished virtually every twenty-four hours from at least one of the ships in the URG: from an oiler to top-off ship and aviation fuel, from an ammunition ship to fill the magazines, and from a store ship to take on food or replacement parts. By this system of constant replenishment, the carriers did not wait for their fuel bunkers or magazines to become low or empty. They were kept topped-off so that the ship always had about ten days supply of fuel and ammo n the event logistics support was interrupted, or so the carriers could be sent on an unsupported mission immediately without taking time to load out.

The URGs were supplemented by COD aircraft, COD meaning "carrier onboard delivery." The COD was reserved for high priority freight that could be efficiently air transported: people, lightweight replacement parts, and mail.

In a standard replenishment operation, the URG ship served as the guide and the carrier made the approach. With the URG steaming on a steady course at 18 knots, the carrier approached at 25 knots on the reverse course, made a 180 degree turn, and ended up with a 500-yard straight-away coming up from astern. As it pulled alongside of the replenishment ship at 25 knots, the carrier reversed its engines and then matched the URG's 18-knot speed to end up alongside, right in position to receive the refueling lines or replenishment rigs. A proficient carrier-oiler combination was expected to start pumping fuel in less than three minutes after the carrier's bow had crossed the oiler's stern.

With the carriers conducting replenishment almost every day, the crews became very proficient at these operations. Replenishment was conducted day and night under weather conditions up to gale winds and heavy seas, and when visibility was reduced down to a quarter of a mile. During my Enterprise cruises there were several occasions when the fog was so thick the replenishment ship could not be seen by the Conning Officer on the bridge, even as the Enterprise's bow crossed the other ship's stern.

The carrier and the replenishment ship were capable of maneuvering while transferring. This was necessary for several reasons. Usually it was to change course to keep the wind properly off the bow of the replenishment ship. Quite often it was necessary to maneuver the URG to avoid the Soviet trawlers which appeared to have a principal mission of getting a position directly ahead of our replenishing carriers in an attempt to disrupt the process and slow down our operations. It was not unusual for an URG to change course 180 degrees while transferring, simply to stay within the prescribed operating area.

Replenishment operations in the Gulf of Tonkin usually took about 45 minutes per URG ship, because most of the loads were top-offs. However, a carrier could make stops at three different replenishment ships in a single URG operation. Normally these operations took place right after flight operations were completed. Just after the last plane landed, the carrier immediately turned to head for the URG to commence its approach. In this way, the aircraft were respotted and the crew secured from flight quarters about the same time that replenishment was completed. The carrier then had about four hours before the next period of flight operations, to accomplish some of the other things that needed to be done, whether it be church services or shutting down a main engine for repairs.

Although replenishment operations tended to be short in the Gulf of Tonkin, there were times when refueling could be a long drawn out affair. The Enterprise departed San Juan, Puerto Rico, bound for the Gulf of Tonkin in the fall of 1965. The carrier proceeded at high speed around the tip of Africa and through the Indian Ocean, conducting flight operations and refueling its escorting destroyers, none of which was nuclear-powered, en route. As a consequence, the carrier's on board supply of jet fuel and fuel oil for its destroyers was running low when Enterprise was approaching the end of its transit. Therefore a replenishment from a U.S. Navy fleet oiler was scheduled at the east end of the Strait of Malacca. The two ships rendezvoused by radar at about 2100, hooked up and started pumping. Enterprise was alongside for almost eleven hours, receiving more than a million gallons of ship and aviation fuel. Enterprise then went directly on to the Gulf of Tonkin and launched its first combat strikes three days later, having proceeded to the theater of operations in the Gulf of Tonkin from the United States without having to stop at a port in the Pacific.

The character and tempo of the air war is well illustrated by a few key statistics.

The Navy lost a total of 67 air wing commanders, squadron commanders, and squadron executive officers in combat during the air operations in the Vietnam War.

More than half of all the combat sorties flown into North Vietnam were by naval aircraft.

For the USS Enterprise, the following statistics apply to a single combat cruise of that carrier in 1966-1967:

Air Wing Composition:

    24 F-4 fighters
    28 A-4 light attack
    9 A-6 medium attack
    4 RA-5 reconnaissance
    3 A-3 tankers
    4 E-2 AWACS
    3 H-2 helicopters


    14,000 sorties
    11,470 combat sorties
    6,740 strike sorties


    14,023 tons of ordnance
    114 tons per day
    2 tons per attack sortie


    20 aircraft
    18 aircrewmen


    230 days out of homeport
    47 oiler refuelings
    550,000 gallons per unrep
    39 ammunition unreps
    300 tons of ordnance per unrep

Washington's Management of the ROLLING THUNDER CAMPAIGN
Dr. Mark Jacobsen
Naval Historical Center

Rolling Thunder began in March 1965 and ended in October 1968. During this time, American aircraft dropped more than a million tons of ordnance, more than on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The tactical commanders wore uniforms, but the overall commander did not, because he was the commander in chief himself, Lyndon Johnson. Unlike more recent Presidents, who delegated tactical military decisions to the service commanders involved, Lyndon Johnson kept the reins of power firmly in his own grip. You may recall his boast that the Air Force couldn't bomb an outhouse in Vietnam without his say so.

In company with a handful of civilian advisers and cabinet members who lunched together almost every Tuesday and talked over national security affairs, Johnson determined not only which targets would be struck but the weight of effort of the total air war. Over this meal in the family quarters of the White House, he and his official family hashed over the issues and came up with a consensus on how the air war should be managed. The lunch group consisted of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and his successor Walt Rostow, and his Press Secretary, Bill Moyers, and then his successor, George Christian. After 1966, at Rostow's instigation, the lunch group expanded to include CIA Director Richard Helms and the Chairman of the Joint chiefs, Army General Earle Wheeler, the first and only member of the JCS to sit in on these meetings.

McNamara or Wheeler conveyed the decisions of the Tuesday lunches to the Joint Staff, which passed the execute orders to the Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC) at Pearl Harbor. In turn, CINCPAC, a joint commander, distributed the execute orders to the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and the Commander in Chief, Pacific Air Force. In turn, these service commands informed the relevant tactical commanders, the Seventh Fleet and the 2nd Air Division (later 7th Air Force). And down it went to the airmen.

The process by which the military made known its wishes operated in reverse, with CINCPAC coordinating requests for targets, sending a recommended list of targets and sorties required to the JCS, who in turn proposed this to Secretary McNamara, who in turn sought the approval of the Tuesday Lunch Group. We have the testimony of Admiral David McDonald, Chief of Naval Operations for the period, that the Joint Chiefs frequently scaled down CINCPAC's requests to minimize friction with the administration. In practice, the lengthy chain of command did not work well. A 1975 Navy study of Intelligence Lessons Learned in Vietnam, now declassified, observed:

Target lists issued by CINCPAC and JCS did not include those targets for which targeting materials had been produced [by tactical commanders]. Other [approved] targets were included that had been rejected on the scene. The lists [of approved targets) also included targets unknown to the strike forces that had been developed in Washington from photography and other sources not available to fleet intelligence.

Mechanics aside, I want to spend the remainder of the available time to examine to what ends Washington guided the bombing of North Vietnam.

Coercive Diplomacy

I want to make one fundamental point at the outset. When the U.S. began bombing North Vietnam in February 1965, it was not trying to smash North Vietnam through air power. Neither was it seeking merely to interdict the movement of supplies through North Vietnam and Laos into South Vietnam. Rather, the purpose of Rolling Thunder was to signal North Vietnam that the United States was serious about resisting Hanoi's sponsorship of the Viet Cong in the South. The general belief was that the mere use of American air power would convey this resolution unambiguously.

President Johnson and his advisers also tried to demonstrate American concern not to destroy North Vietnam itself or to endanger the lives of innocent civilians. In addition, the management of the bombing campaign aimed throughout to appeal to the court of world and national opinion. For example, at first, the choice of targets for bombing reflected a determination to strike back tit-for-tat at North Vietnam. The reprisal targets after the mortaring of the Green Beret base at Pleiku in South Vietnam were barracks in southern North Vietnam. The decision a few weeks later to strike at North Vietnamese railroads stemmed not from a determination to destroy the enemy's transportation system but to counter a wave of bombs laid along the Saigon to Hue railroad. For a time, the American Embassy in Saigon kept a book on all terrorist incidents in the South so that these episodes could be trotted out not only to justify but to select reprisal targets in North Vietnam.

Thereafter, the United States struck targets further north and of greater political sensitivity, including the North Vietnamese oil and fuel storage system in 1966. In 1967, Rolling Thunder began to strike selected targets in Hanoi and Haiphong, notably North Vietnam's power plants but also key bridges. The United States also now struck MiG-capable airfields. It's been a temptation for military writers, such as Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, CINCPAC in these years, to see in this trend the slow success of their powers of advocacy. The JCS themselves seemed to think that by this gradualistic approach of their own, by repeating their initial demands often enough, slowly but surely the full weight of American air power was unleashed over the North. Thus, they at last brought the White House to accept the correct approach.

I'm not so sure. To me, the guiding idea behind Rolling Thunder in 1965 and 1966 was a "slow squeeze," a program of steadily increasing pressures that would increasingly bend and finally break the will of North Vietnam to continue its war against South Vietnam. A key element in this supposedly carefully controlled air warfare was the notion that the United States could always at some unspecified time in the future strike harder than it had. That is, certain key targets would remain unstruck, rather in the way that the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was off limits to bombing during the Second World War. With each week, it was thought, the North Vietnamese would realize that certain high-prestige targets were purposely left unstruck. For example, its showcase heavy industries remained off limits for the first two years, so that North Vietnam would have an incentive to negotiate.

The very gradualism of it all, so widely condemned then and since by military men, was thought not only to be a more effective but a safer means of signaling North Vietnam than simply bombing all militarily significant targets in one short burst. The gradual approach preserved control and minimized the chances of confrontation with China, the USSR, and NATO allies who continued to trade with North Vietnam. The difficulty that the United States faced throughout Rolling Thunder was that the most lucrative targets, the ones that had the potential truly to bring home to North Vietnam the error of its ways, were those that carried with them the highest risks of triggering a confrontation with either or both of North Vietnam's patrons --China and the Soviet Union.

Everyone in the Johnson Administration, as well as regulars at these seminars, remembered what had happened when U.S. troops got too near the Manchurian border in 1950. And the Communist Chinese in 1965 did threaten to intervene both publicly and through diplomatic channels. In addition, the Johnson Administration believed that the United States, in fighting North Vietnam, was really fighting Red China, but no one wanted literally to go to war with China. Consequently, bombing was carefully regulated to insure that China did not feel threatened, and this meant avoiding airfields that held Communist bloc-supplied MiGs. In effect, this decision surrendered control of the air, but it avoided bombing that might appear to threaten the existence of North Vietnam and hence provoke Chinese intervention and sour relations with the USSR. Thus, throughout the war bombing was largely prohibited in zones encircling Hanoi and Haiphong and along the Chinese border to a depth of 25 to 30 nautical miles.

If we can jump ahead slightly in time, we can see how the administration's understanding of America's relations with the Soviet Union and China helped guide Rolling Thunder. After 1965, CINCPAC steadily advocated mining Haiphong, North Vietnam's main port, and systematically interdicting the two railroads from southern China to cut North Vietnam off from foreign supply. President Johnson turned down both ideas. During 1965 and 1966, he feared that bombing these railroads might trigger Chinese intervention. Not until 1967, when it was apparent that the Cultural Revolution would prevent the Chinese from mobilizing for war, did he permit Air Force and Navy aircraft to strike these two lines. He found it much harder to cut of f North Vietnam's supplies via Haiphong. The administration thought that mining Haiphong would impair détente with the USSR, a more powerful fear in that it existed only in the minds of policy makers. How it could be that the USSR, which supplied North Vietnam with surface-to-air missiles and with the trucks and munitions that sustained the war in the South, could be a valued friend of peace, a possible via media for ending the war, is a question I leave to you. For President Johnson, the reason not to bomb Haiphong was that to curtail Soviet supply was to diminish Soviet influence in the councils of North Vietnam and thereby to increase that of China, a nation with whom no reasoned discourse was possible. Thus, he could accept the desirability in 1967 of bombing the northwest and northeast railroads but not approve the sealing of Haiphong except through the inefficient and costly bombing of heavily defended land lines of communications.

Initially, Rolling Thunder was limited both geographically and qualitatively. Geographically, the bombing was limited at first to targets south of the 18th parallel. Then, it began to move northwards, a parallel of latitude further north every month. The State Department seems to have originated in the fall of 1964 the approach of moving the bombing slowly north, parallel by parallel, in order more effectively to signal North Vietnam. If North Vietnam failed to heed the warning, then the bombing would proceed further north until at last Haiphong and Hanoi felt the full weight of American air attack.

Similarly, bombing intensified qualitatively. As the bombing crept north, the weight of effort remained south of a specified parallel, but occasional targets north of it were still hit, to impress upon North Vietnam the threat that the United States kept in its pocket. Rolling Thunder was not a strategic bombing offensive any more than it was an effort to paralyze the North Vietnamese war effort by systematically destroying certain key sectors of its economy, the way in which the German economy was struck in 1944 and 1945. Rather, the guiding impulse of Rolling Thunder derived from nuclear targeting, at least as theorized by various civilian analysts and as understood by the second-level personnel who framed the options for President Johnson. The Bundy brothers, McGeorge and William; John McNaughton, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, to whom McNamara delegated primary responsibility for bombing policy; Walt Rostow; and others had drunk deeply from this well. In the contemporary writings of such as Herman Kahn or Thomas Schelling, who thought about the unthinkable, targets in a protracted nuclear war could be carefully chosen not so much to "win" the war but to signal resolve while avoiding a "nuclear spasm" and a sort of "On the Beach" war-termination scenario. Military targets could be carefully distinguished from civilian targets and the scope of the deadly conflict thereby limited. So the theorists believed. So thought the civilian policy makers who told LBJ what his choices were. Luckily, we don't know whether Kahn's views about the controllability of nuclear exchanges were correct or not. We do know the results of Rolling Thunder.

The July Crisis

The attraction of Rolling Thunder as approved in February 1965 was that it could be implemented quickly, thanks primarily to the presence of three aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, and it stood a chance of achieving results in the very short term. Of course, as we know, Rolling Thunder did not halt the deterioration in the fortunes of South Vietnam. Contrary to the hopes of Washington, the North Vietnamese leaders were not unnerved by the awesome spectacle of American air power deployed over their cities and countryside.

Thus, Rolling Thunder was quickly seen in Washington to have failed, and something else was tried. The Johnson administration always saw the air war over the North and the ground war in the South as antithetical. The question then became -- If Rolling Thunder couldn't quickly stabilize the situation, what could? The only possible answer at this time was the commitment of sizeable American ground forces. Again, the emphasis was on obtaining quick, decisive results. Because the criteria was speed of decision, Johnson rushed ground forces into South Vietnam and relegated the air war to a secondary role, increasingly that of a bargaining counter that could be surrendered in exchange for North Vietnam's agreement to negotiate.

Armed Reconnaissance

The secondary role chosen for air power was to interdict the movement of North Vietnamese men and material into the South through "armed reconnaissance" missions. Armed reconnaissance means sorties flown not against designated targets but against targets of opportunity (these were carefully specified, of course) along a particular stretch of enemy highway, railroad, or coast or within a given area. By late 1965, Rolling Thunder was an armed recce program.

We can track how Rolling Thunder grew. Initially, in March 1965, American flyers were permitted to fly only three armed recce sorties along specific roads south of the 20th parallel. By May, the Navy and Air Force were flying 200 a week and were reaching north of the 20th parallel. In June, it was 250, and aviators were flying everywhere over North Vietnam except the Red River Delta. After the July decisions on expanding the ground forces in South Vietnam, armed recce increased to 300 sorties a week. By September, it was 600. Armed reconnaissance won support because it was relatively cheap in lives (American and Vietnamese), in aircraft, and in terms of international opinion. By year's end, 70 percent of sorties were armed recce.

In March 1966, the President approved a total of 8,100 sorties monthly for both Laos and North Vietnam -- to be divided between attacks on a handful of fixed targets approved and armed recce. By November, the sortie total had grown to 13,200. As a result, in 1966, armed recce grew to more than 99 percent of all Rolling Thunder and Laotian sorties. In February 1967, President Johnson rejected ambitious proposals from CINCPAC for bombing North Vietnamese target systems but instead awarded 14,500 sorties. And then he rested.

The Capitol Hill Style of Decision-making

Johnson seldom asked the advice of the military, but he knew their views. Just as fear of international repercussions worked to moderate the use of military power in Vietnam, so fear of domestic repercussions pushed Johnson towards utilizing the air weapon, which appeared to the public to offer more decisive results at less cost in American lives than did the ground war. A product of post-1945 America, Johnson believed that the services were immensely popular throughout the country. Throughout the conflict, Johnson worried that the Joint Chiefs and General Westmoreland might go public with their discontent. In terms of congress, he feared a backlash from conservative southern committee chairmen, who could bottle up the domestic legislation upon whose success Johnson had pinned his hopes for political immortality.

Johnson's leadership was nurtured on Capitol Hill, where competing interests are balanced against one another and the solution most acceptable to the most senators is selected and a decision thereby reached. Perhaps the decision does not satisfy everyone, but those on Capitol Hill live in an imperfect world and know it well. In the fashion of the Capitol Hill power broker that he had been, Johnson the President identified parties with an interest in the air war -- the Chiefs, the Army, NATO allies, the Russians, the Chinese, the North Vietnamese, international opinion, the UN, and so forth. Throughout, he strove to preserve relations with as many of the players as possible. He chose the policy options that kept the military "on board" while paying the least domestic and international cost -- and this was armed reconnaissance.

What I want to argue is that, although President Johnson was very cautious in approving strikes at controversial fixed targets, he feared being accused of not using air power to the maximum possible. Thus, he continued to turn down targets and target systems that posed unacceptable risks, but to avoid the danger of the U.S. military going public with its discontent, he steadily awarded more and more armed reconnaissance sorties.

Why didn't the bombing work in 1965?

1) The United States gave mixed signals. At the same time as it threatened North Vietnam with worse, it proclaimed its willingness to negotiate at any time, at any place. What was Hanoi to make of the mailed fist of the 2nd Air Division and the Seventh Fleet when the United States proclaimed that it wanted to negotiate an end to the war? Of course, making war while negotiating was the essence of coercive diplomacy, but the subtleties of the process were apt to be lost on the enemy as well as on domestic opinion.

2) The Johnson Administration radically misjudged the nature of North Vietnam. North Vietnam was and Vietnam today is a state organized solely for warfare and internal control. It had no industrial plant whose destruction would have made its rulers change their minds. No civilian privations would sway its rulers. The American administration thought that merely bombing North Vietnam would so overawe Ho Chi Minh and his associates that they would recognize what folly they were engaged in. Instead, they redoubled their efforts.

Why didn't the bombing work after 1965?

Both the military and civilian leadership of the United States misjudged the vulnerability of North Vietnam to war damage. Its war effort was not sustained by its domestic industry; rather the war industries of Russia and China kept it going, and so long as supply from overseas was ensured, the population of North Vietnam could bear any burden to continue its war. For fighting a "People's War," either as soldiers in the South, AAA gunners in the North, or, most of all, coolies repairing roads and transporting material south, the people of North Vietnam sustained the war effort. But they were off limits. So was crop destruction through the breaching of North Vietnam's dikes.

The thought I want to leave with you is this: as executed, Rolling Thunder amounted to a massive and sustained armed reconnaissance program. The tremendous tonnage figures I quoted at the outset have little meaning and less effect. The North Vietnamese adapted. They moved at night, too, and pressed on. Apart from the famous A-6 Intruder, the United States had no night bombers, and they were reserved for strikes at more important fixed targets. Most U.S. aircraft flew only during the day, so most pilots found nothing worth bombing. Neither are jets best suited to drop small bombs with pinpoint accuracy. It's no surprise to learn that the CIA calculated in late 1966 that it was costing $8.70 to inflict a dollar's worth of damage on the North Vietnamese war effort. Armed reconnaissance kept the numbers up. It delivered the ordnance, racked up the sortie rates and flying hours, but it did not contribute significantly either to the ground war in the South or to persuading North Vietnam. Given the political considerations that were uppermost in the minds of President Johnson and his advisers, it's unlikely that any application of air power would have worked.

Dr. Graham A. Cosmas
U.S. Army Center of Military History

Airpower, both fixed and rotary wing, profoundly affected the way in which the United States fought the Vietnam war - whether for good or ill is still a matter of debate. The availability of airborne fire support, of air transport for troops and cargo, and of aerial reconnaissance permitted Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) to carry out ground operations otherwise impossible and to occupy and hold positions otherwise untenable. In addition, until the final years of American involvement in the conflict, airpower was the principal, if not the sole, means the United States was willing to use to strike at North Vietnam and to attack enemy bases and lines of communication in nominally neutral Laos and Cambodia.1

General William C. Westmoreland, throughout his tenure as COMUSMACV, viewed airpower as a key weapon in his effort to defeat enemy forces in South Vietnam. In June 1965, as Viet Cong main force attacks on the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) were becoming more frequent and deadly, Westmoreland declared that "air capabilities...constitute the current difference between keeping the V. C. buildup under reasonable control and letting the enemy get away from us throughout most of the countryside.2

Westmoreland's campaign in South Vietnam, however, was only one of three air wars being waged simultaneously over Southeast Asia by the end of 1965. The other two were the bombing offensive against North Vietnam, code named Rolling Thunder, and a cluster of overt and clandestine operations in Laos aimed at harassing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and bolstering the wavering fortunes of Souvanna Phouma's regime. These campaigns competed with that in South Vietnam for a theater pool of American airpower that was controlled and allocated by Westmoreland's immediate superior, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, CINCPAC.

These wars were carried on by several air forces tied together by a complex, convoluted set of command relationships. United States and Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) units in South Vietnam operated essentially as a single pool of aircraft under the control and coordination of the Seventh Air Force, MACV's Air Force component command. However, the large 1st Marine Aircraft Wing flew its missions under operational control of the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), the corps equivalent headquarters that directed U.S. ground forces in the northernmost portion of South Vietnam. The Army's thousands of helicopters likewise were outside the Air Force control system. Further complicating the situation, the B-52 force upon which MACV relied to break up enemy troop concentrations and base areas remained under operational control of the Strategic Air Command, although it received its targets from MACV. Finally, the Navy carrier planes that flew missions over North Vietnam and Laos and the Air Force jets based in Thailand were controlled respectively by Admiral Sharp's Navy and Air Force component commanders, CINCPACFLT and CINPACAF.

Direction of the three air wars likewise was divided. Westmoreland, as COMUSMACV, essentially ran air operations within South Vietnam, using the Commanding General, Seventh Air Force, as his Deputy COMUSMACV for Air; he shared direction of the bombing campaigns in Laos with the American Ambassador in Vientiane. However, Admiral Sharp, under close supervision from Washington, conducted the air war against North Vietnam, employing as necessary planes from all the various air forces. Under this arrangement, the Seventh Air Force commander simultaneously served two masters. He provided planes for Rolling Thunder under direction of CINCPAC through CINCPACAF while at the same time supporting allied forces in South Vietnam under General Westmoreland.

These arrangements were made necessary by international diplomatic considerations and service doctrine. The Johnson administration insisted that the wars in Laos and South Vietnam, while militarily closely related, be treated as separate conflicts with separate command arrangements. Thai political sensitivities forced the separation of the American military commands in South Vietnam and Thailand and prevented use of Thai-based U.S. aircraft in South Vietnam, but not in Laos and North Vietnam. The Strategic Air Command refused to place its B-52 nuclear bombers under theater command. Admiral Sharp retained a string on all his airplanes in Southeast Asia so as to be able to respond rapidly to other contingencies in his large sphere of responsibility. Within South Vietnam, the Army and Marines both stubbornly held on to their organic air forces, which they regarded as integral elements of their respective combined-arms teams. They rejected Air Force arguments that theater airpower could function at full efficiency and effectiveness only under unified Air Force direction. The services waged their arguments over air command and control with considerable intensity, not only because of the merits of the issues in the Vietnam conflicts, but because of the likelihood that the results in Vietnam would set precedents for future joint operations.3

General Westmoreland's objectives with regard to airpower were simple: to obtain as much of it as possible to support his ground operations within South Vietnam, and to influence the air wars in Laos and North Vietnam for the purpose of interdicting enemy reinforcements and supplies to the south. Westmoreland's priorities at times conflicted with those of Admiral Sharp. Sharp regarded Rolling Thunder as having equal importance to air operations in South Vietnam and believed that COMUSMACV on occasion overstated his support requirements. Sharp declared after the war that Westmoreland always wanted "to get the absolute maximum of ordnance dropped on every objective he could find," some of which, in Sharp's opinion, "could just barely be justified." Westmoreland, nevertheless, had Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara on his side. The Defense Secretary, from the start of the major American force commitment in 1965, consistently favored priority for South Vietnam in the allocation of air resources, a position only reinforced by his increasing doubts about the effectiveness of Rolling Thunder. Admiral Sharp had no choice but to comply.4

From the start of serious consideration of escalation, Westmoreland was skeptical of the proposition that bombing North Vietnam would weaken the enemy he faced in the South. Nevertheless, Westmoreland made repeated bids to control the raids on the North. He suggested to Sharp as early as August 1964, after the Tonkin Gulf reprisals, that his headquarters act as CINCPAC's agent in directing out-of-country air operations, claiming that MACV was in the best position to nominate targets, plan strikes, and coordinate the forces involved. He repeated this suggestion again in March 1965, after the Flaming Dart reprisals that preceded the opening of Rolling Thunder. In each case, Sharp emphatically rejected Westmoreland's proposals. In March 1966, after strong representations from Westmoreland, Sharp did turn over to COMUSMACV direction of strikes in Route Package I, the portion of North Vietnam immediately above the Demilitarized Zone, on grounds that this area had become for all practical purposes an extension of the southern battlefield. However, later in the year he rebuffed Westmoreland's bid to extend his control farther north into Route Package II.5

In return for Sharp's concessions, Westmoreland, apparently partly as a genuine convert, partly out of loyalty to Sharp and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earl G. Wheeler, and partly from a desire to maximize all pressure on the enemy, supported Rolling Thunder during the growing public and intra-administration debate over its value. With Sharp and Wheeler at times almost literally feeding him his lines, Westmoreland regularly produced briefings and reports that detailed how Rolling Thunder allegedly was contributing to the campaign in South Vietnam. Even in supporting Rolling Thunder, nevertheless, Westmoreland emphasized its importance in assisting the struggle in South Vietnam rather than its merits as an independent air operation.6

In contrast to his attitude toward Rolling Thunder, Westmoreland placed great stock in air operations against the Ho Chi Minh Trail network in Laos. He employed MACV's SOG (Studies and Observation Group) reconnaissance teams primarily to target air strikes against the trail, and he sought in vain permission to launch major ground offensives into the Laotian panhandle. Westmoreland, as CINCPAC's coordinator of air operations over Laos, planned and executed strikes. However, the American Ambassador to Vientiane, William Sullivan, possessed veto power over SOG cross-border activities, target selection, and in some instances the types of aircraft and ordnance used.

At frequent meetings with Sullivan at Udorn, Thailand, and through appeals to Sharp and Wheeler, Westmoreland persistently sought greater freedom of action in Laos, both for his SOG teams and for aircraft, and permission to employ every weapon, including napalm and CS gas. Sullivan, while sympathetic to MACV's requirements, was concerned both with preserving the facade of Laotian neutrality and with safeguarding the operations of the Royal Laotian Army and CIA-supported tribal irregulars directed by the embassy. He only gradually expanded Westmoreland's strike authority; and he rejected absolutely all suggestions from COMUSMACV that he step aside from case-by-case review of MACV's plans. Sullivan declared at one point that divided authority over the Laotian air war could end only if the President either gave Sullivan command of MACSOG or appointed Westmoreland Ambassador to Laos. In spite of the inherent tension of their situation, Westmoreland and Sullivan maintained a civil working relationship, enlivened by occasional badinage about Sullivan's pretensions as a "field marshal." Over time Westmoreland gained increasing scope for air and ground action, including employment of B-52s, although never the untrammeled operational discretion he desired.7

Within South Vietnam, Westmoreland had an almost completely free hand in employing airpower, although he had to obtain Admiral Sharp's concurrence in his command and control arrangements and negotiate with Sharp for employment in the South of aircraft from Navy carriers. Westmoreland, in making his air command arrangements, also had to thread his way through conflicting service interests and doctrines. His solutions, while they served his purposes as theater command, did not fully satisfy the contending services.

General Westmoreland viewed the conflict in the South as essentially a ground war, and very largely an Army one, with airpower playing a supporting, albeit vital role, necessitating its tight control by COMUSMACV. Consistent with this view, he persistently resisted Air Force demands for increased high-level MACV staff representation, notably tor the post of Deputy COMUSMACV. Throughout Westmoreland's tenure, indeed throughout Military Assistance Command's existence, the Army dominated MACV headquarters, both in numbers of personnel and control of key slots. Only two general staff sections, the J-5 (Plans), and the J-6 (Communications-Electronics) had Air Force chiefs. The best the Air Force could obtain, after much JCS pressure on Westmoreland, was the double-hatting of the Commanding General, Seventh Air Force as COMUSMACV's Deputy for Air. Air Force officers found their limited representation at MACV especially frustrating because MACV retained control of most strike targeting, for both in-country aircraft and B-52s, rather than delegating it to Seventh Air Force.8

The degree of control that the Deputy for Air should exercise over non-Air Force aircraft was an even more bitter bone of contention. Commanders of the Seventh Air Force, especially the forceful, articulate General William M. Momyer (1966-1968), with strong backing from their service superiors in Washington, argued that they should have operational control over all fixed-wing aircraft based in South Vietnam. This issue, during Westmoreland's tenure, was primarily an Air Force-Marine Corps one, since the Air Force, under the Johnson-McConnell agreement of April 1966, had given up its earlier claim to control Army helicopters in return for Army transfer of its fixed-wing transports to the Air Force. The Marines held to their own doctrine that their 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, as part of an air-ground team, should remain outside the Air Force control system and under operational control of the Commanding General, III MAF.9

Until early 1968 Westmoreland, with the backing of Admiral Sharp, essentially accommodated the Marines. He left the Marine air wing under III MAF, with the proviso that the Marines' fixed-wing aircraft would be under Seventh Air Force for air defense purposes and that the wing daily would make available for assignment by Seventh Air Force any fixed-wing sorties not needed for support of Marine operations. Westmoreland and Sharp adopted this compromise in order to avoid what they knew would be a bruising doctrinal battle with the Marine Corps and because, as long as only Marine units were deployed in I Corps, the division of command had little adverse practical effect on support of ground operations.10

The introduction of Army divisions into I Corps during 1967 and early 1968 led Westmoreland to change his position. To ensure adequate air support of the Army units, as well as effective coordination of the massive air effort in support of Khe Sanh, Westmoreland in March 1968 adopted a so-called "single management" system. Under it, General Momyer, as Westmoreland's air deputy, gained operational control, called "mission direction," of the Marines' fixed-wing strike and reconnaissance aircraft. Westmoreland justified this action with the claim that III MAF and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing had not been sufficiently responsive to Army requests for air support in I Corps. However, the move also resulted from determined lobbying by Momyer and from Westmoreland's general doubts of the ability of III MAF headquarters to control increasingly complex joint operations.

Westmoreland's decision, endorsed after initial hesitation by Admiral Sharp, produced the predicted interservice battle. The Marines carried their protests all the way to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Passions on all sides ran high; Westmoreland later claimed this was the only issue during his tenure as COMUSMACV over which he had been ready to resign if he did not get his way. In the end, over Navy and Marine Corps opposition, the Joint Chiefs and Secretary McNamara upheld single management. However, after Westmoreland and Momyer left Vietnam, the Marines succeeded in "outmanaging" the system so as to get most of their aircraft back, de facto if not de jure.11

By the time Westmoreland imposed single management, MACV had brought its many air forces together into a tactical instrument of great power and responsiveness, as the successful air support of the Marine base at Khe Sanh amply demonstrated. Westmoreland clearly did an effective job of defending his interests as COMUSMACV on issues of command and control of airpower. To the frustration of any Air Force leaders, he kept control of key air-related functions in his Army-dominated MACV staff. On questions of service doctrine, Westmoreland was flexible and conciliatory, as shown by his handling of the Marines, until service interests appeared to him to be in conflict with the provision of support to his forces. Then he was prepared to override the services --or, in the case of single management, to adopt one service's position over that of another. Westmoreland maintained satisfactory working relations with Admiral Sharp and Ambassador Sullivan, so as to minimize the military ill effects of politically mandated divided command and secure maximum influence over air operations on the immediate approaches to his theater, Whatever the merits of Westmoreland's overall strategy for fighting the war, be displayed considerable skill at organizational maneuver and enjoyed substantial success in controlling airpower as an instrument of that strategy.


1. For a comprehensive analysis of the impact of airpower on the war in South Vietnam, see Donald J. Mrozek, Airpower and the Ground War in Vietnam (Washington: Pergamon-Brassey's. 1989). The air campaign against North Vietnam undergoes critical review in Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: The Free Press, 1989).

2. Msg, Westmoreland to Admiral U. S. G. Sharp (MAC 3052), dtd 110745Z June 65, Westmoreland Msg Files, 1 Apr - 30 June 65, in William C. Westmoreland Papers, U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH); hereafter Westmoreland Msg Files. Unless otherwise noted, the essay is based on material in the Westmoreland Msg Files and in his History Backup Files (HBF), also in the Westmoreland Papers, CMH, for the period 1965 through 1968.

3. The divided control of air is well summarized in John Schlight, The War in South Vietnam: The Years of the Offensive, 1965-1968 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1988), pp. 129-130; hereafter Schlight, Years of the Offensive.

4. Westmoreland clearly states his air priorities in Msg to Sharp (MAC 3052), dtd 110745Z June 65, Westmoreland Msg Files, 1 Apr - 30 June 65. Quotation is from Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, Reminiscences of Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, USN (Ret.) (2v. Tnscrpt of Intvws by Commander Etta Belle Kitchen, USN (Ret.) for Oral History Program, U.S. Naval Institute, 20 Sept 69 - 7 Jun 70), pp. 369-370; hereafter Sharp Intvw. Schlight Years of the Offensive, pp. 32-33, recounts the setting of air priorities.

5. Westmoreland's views on bombing the North are summarized in General William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1976), pp. 105-106, 109-113; and in Sharp Intvw, p. 370. Robert F. Futrell,The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The Advisory Years to 1965 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1981). p. 232. Msgs, Westmoreland to Wheeler and Sharp (MAC 1061 and 2027), dtd 010650Z Mar 65 and 121140Z Apr 65; Westmoreland to Sharp (MAC 2165 and 2275), dtd 171210Z and 220220Z Mar 66; Sharp to Westmoreland, dtd 262350Z and 262351Z Mar 66; Westmoreland Msg Files, 1 Jan - 31 Mar 65, 1 Apr - 30 June 65, 1 Jan - 31 Mar 66.

6. For an example of Westmoreland's support for Rolling Thunder, see Msgs, Wheeler to Westmoreland (CJCS 1594-67), dtd 012229Z Mar 67; Westmoreland to Wheeler (MAC 2086), dtd 022052Z Mar 67; and Westmoreland to Wheeler and Sharp (MAC 2102), dtd 030512Z Mar 67; Westmoreland Msq Files, 1 Jan - 31 Mar 67.

7. Ambassador Sullivan's direction of the war in Laos is summarized in Charles A. Stevenson, The End of Nowhere: American Policy toward Laos since 1954 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), pp. 208-218. SOG operations are covered in unclassified form in Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, pp. 107-109; and Brigadier General Donald D. Blackburn, Interview by Senior Officers Oral History Program, U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI), Carlisle Barracks, PA, 1983, pp. 347-351, 362. For typical examples of Westmoreland's meetings with Sullivan, see Tab C-l, Westmoreland HBF no. 3 (20 Dec 65 - 29 Jan 66); Tab E, HBF no. 8 (17 July - 17 Sept 66); and Tab B, HBF no. 17 (1-31 May 67). Also Msg, Westmoreland to Sharp info Wheeler (MAC 2054), dtd 131145Z Mar 66, Westmoreland Msg Files, 1 Jan - 31 Mar 66.

8. For Air Force complaints about MACV staff representation, see Schlight, Years of the Offensive, pp. 76-77, 126-127; and Ltr, Lieutenant General J. H. Moore, USAF, to Westmoreland, subj: Air Force Representation on MACV Staff, dtd 8 Oct 65, Tab F-7, HBF no. 1 (29 Aug - 24 Oct 65). For an example of Westmoreland's justification of Army predominance, see Msg to Wheeler info Sharp (Mac 5387), dtd 29 Oct 65, Westmoreland Msg Files, 1 Oct - 31 Dec 65.

9. The Marine-Air Force argument is conveniently summarized in Schlight, Years of the Offensive, pp. 110-111. For the Johnson McConnell agreement, see Lieutenant General John J. Tolson, Airmobility 1961-1971 (Washington: Department of the Army, 1973) , pp. 104-107.

10. Jack Shulimson and Major Charles M. Johnson, USMC, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup. 1965 (Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 1978), pp. 151-152, outlines the terms of the compromise. For an example of MACV's rationale for it, see Memo, Major General William E. DePuy to Westmoreland, subj: Tactical Air Control, dtd 3 Mar 66, William E. DePuy Papers, MHI.

11. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports. pp. 342-344, tells his side of the controversy. Sharp Intvw, pp. 641-649, gives the CINCPAC view. For a Marine's view of Momyers 5 role, see Lieutenant General John R. Chaisson, USMC, Oral History Transcript,

Washington:?History and Museums Division, HQUSMC, 1975, pp. 235-

236. The story of the Marine's erosion of the system is recounted in Graham A. Cosmas and Lieutenant Colonel Terrence P. Murray, USMC, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: Vietnamization and Redeployment. 1970-1971 (Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 1986), pp. 273-279.

Bernard C. Nalty
Office of Air Force History

If I may resort to a cliche - the phrase find, fix, and finish - Operation Niagara represented an attempt to find and fix the enemy using ground forces and then finish him with aerial bombing and artillery. ". . . I gave it the code name Niagara," says the memoir of General William C. Westmoreland, "to invoke an image of cascading bombs and shells."1The sparsely populated region around the Khe Sanh combat base in the northwestern corner of South Vietnam served as the site of Operation Niagara. Located near the village of Khe Sanh, the combat base sat atop a large hill mass that dominated a major highway leading into southern Laos and the enemy's north-south infiltration route, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In late 1967 and the early weeks of 1968, Westmoreland was thinking of using Khe Sanh as the jumping-off place for an attack against the Ho Chi Minh Trail like that launched in 1971 by South Vietnamese troops.2

Finding the enemy proved to be no problem for the architects of Operation Niagara; indeed, scarcely had the Marines established themselves at Khe Sanh and made improvements to the airstrip, when the North Vietnamese appeared. Before the year 1967 ended, American intelligence detected signs that North Vietnamese forces were moving southward toward the Demilitarized Zone and Khe Sanh. Skirmishing began early in January 1968, and on the 20th a North Vietnamese officer, angered at being passed over for promotion, deserted and warned that his former comrades would attack the base and its Outposts that very night. As he predicted, infantry tried unsuccessfully to overwhelm the outpost on hill 861, northwest of the base, and occupied Khe Sanh village to the west, while artillery fire destroyed stockpiled fuel and ammunition at the base itself. Westmoreland seized the opportunity and directed his deputy commander for air, Air Force General William W. Momyer, to execute Operation Niagara. To fix the North Vietnamese so that the cascade of high explosive would have the deadliest effect, Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, Jr., the commanding general of the Marines in northern South Vietnam, reinforced the Khe Sanh garrison to a strength of about 6,000, flying in an additional Marine battalion on January 22 and a battalion of South Vietnamese rangers five days later.3

The tactics chosen for the defense of Khe Sanh were not new. In the fall of 1967, air strikes and counterbattery fire all but silenced the North Vietnamese artillery shelling the Marine combat bases at Con Thien and Gio Linh, northeast of Khe Sanh, nearer the South China Sea. General Momyer, who commanded the Seventh Air Force besides serving as Westmoreland's deputy for air, had already coined an acronym, SLAM, standing for Seek, Locate, Annihilate, and Monitor, to describe the use of ground and aerial reconnaissance and firepower to find, fix, and finish an enemy.

The B-52 bomber emerged as the key component in Momyer's SLAM concept, for this huge aircraft could carry as many as 108 500-pound bombs internally and on racks under the wings. A cell of three B-52s could saturate with high explosive an area measuring one by two kilometers, but the very size of the target box created a safety problem, even though the bombers released their loads on signal from a radar operator on the ground. At Con Thien planners imposed a safety margin of three kilometers between the impact area and friendly troops. Despite the reliance on radar, one of the 8-525 in action there dropped its bombs within the safety zone, where they exploded about 1.4 kilometers from the Marine bunkers, shaking the defenders, without causing injury, but detonating ammunition the enemy had stockpiled. This error demonstrated that the B-52s could bomb much closer than three kilometers without undue danger to friendly forces and that doing so was worthwhile, since the enemy was taking advantage of the safety zone to push his men and weapons forward and stock them with ammunition. During Operation Niagara, target boxes only one kilometer from the Khe Sanh combat base erupted suddenly, as bombs dropped from 25,000 feet, far beyond the reach of the available AAA, exploded on target.4

In terms of tonnage dropped and spectacular explosions, the B-52s made the greatest contribution to Operation Niagara. Before the eyes of the Marines at Khe Sanh, an entire tract one kilometer wide and two kilometers in length would dissolve in geysers of earth and smoke as the bombs detonated. Neither flesh nor steel, it seemed, could survive such a battering. The huge bombers dropped more than 59,000 tons of high explosive out of the 98,000tons of bombs and 160,000 artillery shells that deluged the enemy.Westmoreland credited the B-52s with making a critical contribution; indeed, he told the men of the 3d Air Division, who maintained and flew the bombers, that "the thing that broke their backs was basically the fire of the B-52s."6

This tribute to the B-52s should not, however, obscure the fact that fighter-bombers and attack aircraft of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps combined to deliver the balance of the torrent of bombs, some 39,000 tons. If the B-52s served as Westmoreland's battle-ax, these smaller aircraft were his rapier. They thrust at compact targets too close to the combat base or its outposts for the use of B-52s; they suppressed enemy fire to enable transports to land at the Khe Sanh airstrip and helicopters to resupply the outposts; and, sometimes after dropping their bombs, they provided combat air patrols in the event North Vietnamese fighters should try to intervene.7

Since so much of the devastation, especially by B-52s, took place in areas that Marine patrols could not penetrate, aerial photographs produced most of the information used to assess the effect of the bombing and shelling. Largely on the basis of collapsed trenches, damaged artillery pieces, and demolished bunkers, Westmoreland's intelligence specialists credited Operation Niagara with killing or wounding 10,000 NVA, a total that represents little more than an educated guess.8

The camera also helped locate targets for air strikes or artillery; however, in the selection of targets, electronic sensors demonstrated their value in an operation for which they were not really intended. The initial plan called for them to detect North Vietnamese infiltration by road and trail into South Vietnam and report the enemy's movement to an infiltration surveillance center at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, which would call for air strikes. Instead, the sensors now kept watch beyond the hills and ridges around Khe Sanh and reported through the surveillance center to a fire support coordination center at the base. Some 250 of the electronic devices, dropped by aircraft, monitored the routes the enemy was likely to use. pebble-sized mines detonated when stepped on and triggered the individual sensors to broadcast a signal to the surveillance center, where analysts interpreted the data and alerted the combat base to patterns of hostile activity.9

The massive use of firepower that constituted Operation Niagara tended to overshadow the role of transports and helicopters, usually escorted by fighter-bombers or attack aircraft, in supplying the Khe Sanh Combat Base and its outposts. Lockheed C-130s and Fairchild C-123Ks of the Air Force delivered more than 4,000 tons of cargo and 2,600 persons to Khe Sanh and carried out some 1,500 passengers, including 306 wounded men. In addition, the C-130s parachuted another 8,000 tons of cargo to the defenders. Marine helicopters hauled 4,600 ton, of cargo and 14,500 passengers, usually on shuttle flights to and from the hilltop outposts.10

Operation Neutralize, the attack on the North Vietnamese batteries shelling Con Thien and other Marine Corps outposts south of the Demilitarized Zone, provided a precedent for the massing of air power and artillery in defense of a base, and the operation also foreshadowed the problems of coordinating these weapons within a confined space, as at Khe Sanh. During Neutralize, to minimize the danger of collision between Air Force aircraft and Marine Corps artillery shells or airplanes, Momyer had sent a liaison team to the control center operated at Dong Ha by the 3d Marine Division.11 Facing a similar problem of coordination at Khe Sanh in January 1968, Momyer proposed to do more than merely send a liaison party. He intended, he said, to "get the air responsibilities straightened out as we had them in Korea and World War II."12

By "straightened out," Momyer meant that he should assume operational control over Marine Corps tactical aircraft. During World War II, in the Solomons, an officer of the Army Air Forces had exercised operational control over Navy and Marine Corps aviation units; but the converse was equally true, for in the Central Pacific, on Okinawa, and at times in the Solomons, Marine Corps or Navy airmen had controlled elements of the Army Air Forces. In Korea, poor communications frustrated early attempts to give the commander, 5th Air Force, "coordination control" over Marine aviation. Eventually a joint operations center received nominal control over tactical support by Air Force and Marine Corps squadrons, but this agency actually exercised its authority through the commander of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, who made the final decision how to use his resources. The Marines, however, objected even to this degree of control, arguing that aviation formed an integral part of an air-ground team; no outside headquarters, they said, should have the ability, however seldom it might be used, to divert aircraft from battlefield targets chosen by the Marines.13

On January 18, 1968, Westmoreland advised Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, the Commander in Chief, Pacific, that he intended to assign Momyer greater control over Marine Corps aviation during the impending fight for Khe Sanh. Sharp, however, advised against a sudden move because of the possible adverse impact on interservice relations. As a result, Momyer had to settle for less, negotiating an agreement, based partly on geography, that introduced an Air Force airborne battlefield command and control center into the control network. The command and control mechanism adopted on January 21, at the outset of the battle, adhered to the principle that a Marine control agency should handle the strikes nearest the base, while the Air Force airborne battlefield command and control center directed aircraft against more distant targets. Since aircraft attacking close to the base and its outposts ran the risk of straying into the path of artillery shells, the fire support coordination center at Khe Sanh, which meshed artillery and air support, could veto any close-in air strikes.14

The arrangement adopted in January, essentially a compromise, satisfied neither Momyer nor the Marine Corps. The Air Force general protested that Marine airmen were ignoring the airborne battlefield command and control center, and to remedy this he called during February for adoption of a "single manager system" in which all requests for tactical air support would be routed through the Seventh Air Force control center. As single manager he would be able to obtain the greatest efficiency and economy of force in apportioning air power among targets at Khe Sanh, in the northern provinces of South Vietnam, throughout the rest of that country, and in the adjacent portions of southern Laos and North Vietnam. Whereas Momyer thought in terms of using a limited number of aircraft to attack an increasing number of targets over a wide area, the Marines focused on providing the swiftest and deadliest support for the man with the rifle. They insisted that the presence of the airborne battlefield command and control center already impeded their ability to respond; any requirement to channel requests for air support through a single manager would, they maintained, result in worse delays and the possible mismatching of munitions to targets.15

This time Admiral Sharp accepted Momyer's reasoning. When Westmoreland asked to appoint a single manager for Air Force and Marine Corps tactical aviation, the admiral approved, justifying his decision on the grounds that the northern provinces of South Vietnam no longer formed a Marine Corps sector. Westmoreland had moved Army forces northward and established the equivalent of a corps headquarters to control them. Momyer formally became the single manager for air on March 7, but the new system did not become fully operational until the 22d. By the time the impact of centralized management began to be felt, the North Vietnamese were pulling back from around Khe Sanh; the principle of a single manager had no effect on the outcome of the battle that occasioned its introduction. The Marine Corps protested the new policy all the way to President Lyndon Johnson, who upheld Sharp and Westmoreland. In actual practice, however, the Seventh Air Force soon began releasing blocks of sorties to the Marines, at first to escort helicopters but later to use as they saw fit. Within a year, the techniques of control actually in use closely resembled the arrangement in Korea 20 years earlier, which was not the kind of highly centralized system that Momyer had described.16

Although hailed by General Westmoreland as a victory won largely by the firepower of the B-52s, Operation Niagara no longer seems the classic example of the successful use of air power, including air transport, in the defense of a beleaguered base. Indeed, doubts have arisen about the enemy's intentions. Did Vo Nguyen Giap, the senior North Vietnamese general, actually plan a second Dien Bien Phu, a true battle of annihilation, as Westmoreland insisted? A number of considerations suggest that Giap actually was trying to lure American troops away from the cities, which were the objectives of the Tet Offensive. For one thing, the North Vietnamese did not attempt to cut off the flow of water to the base, although they might have dammed or polluted the single stream. For another, according to Peter Braestrup, a journalist who studied the battle and its coverage by the American news media, the enemy subjected Khe Sanh to a reasonably light bombardment, except on February 23, when some 1,300 artillery and mortar shells exploded on the base. Braestrup also believes that Giap would have deployed additional antiaircraft guns to cover the approaches to the airstrip in preparation for an assault. At Dien Bien Phu, after all, the North Vietnamese general had shut down the airstrip entirely and disrupted attempts by the French to supply their troops by parachute; surely he would have done as much if he had been intent upon seizing Khe Sanh.17 On the other hand, those who believe that American firepower frustrated another Dien Bien Phu can cite the large number of hostile troops massed in the vicinity of Khe Sanh, far too many, if intelligence estimates were correct, to serve merely as decoys. Moreover, the bombardment of February 23 preceded a flurry of enemy activity that, thanks in part to the electronic sensors, brought down a deluge of American bombs and shells. This violent reaction could conceivably have thwarted the opening moves in an attempt to overwhelm the base.18

Uncertainty also clouds the destructive effects of Operation Niagara. The estimates of enemy casualties are imperfect at best. As was true throughout the Vietnam War, it was easier to measure effort than results; indeed, the scope of the operation may well have influenced the estimate of the effects. Since a torrent of high explosive inundated the enemy, his losses had to be disastrous.19

One thing that can be said for certain is that the single manager took control of tactical aircraft too late to have any impact on the defense of Khe Sanh. Moreover, the single manager system achieved true centralization for a very brief time, if at all. Referring to operations in the summer of 1969, a senior Marine airman, Major General Charles Quilter, said that "we hardly . . . knew of single management because we got everything we wanted."20

If the Marines got what they wanted, and the Air Force did not need to ration air power, what was the point of the single manager system? I suggest this interpretation. Tactically, the single manager meant nothing. Doctrinally, however, it affirmed a principle, centralized control, that the Army Air Forces and the U.S. Air Force had consistently championed, and in doing so, it established a precedent for the future.

End Notes

1. William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), p. 412.

2. Ibid., pp. 408-409; Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History. 1946-1975 (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988), p. 496.

3. Davidson, Vietnam at War, pp. 501-502; Moyers Shore, II, The Battle for Khe Sanh (Washington: Historical Branch, G-3, Headquarters USMC, 1969), pp. 31-39.

4. Hist, 3d Air Division, July-December 1967, exhibits 191 and 192; Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, pp. 246-248; John Schlight, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The War in South Vietnam: The Years of the Offensive. 1965-1968 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1988), pp. 269-271.

5. Dir/Ops, HQ USAF, "Trends, Indicators, Analyses," July 1968, p. II: 2; Shore, Khe Sanh, pp. 106-107; 1st MAW Command Chronology, March 1968, pp. 11:2.

6. Hist, 3d Air Division, Jan-Jun 68, exhibit 180.

7. See footnote 5.

8. Hist, USMACV, 1968, Vol. I, pp. 423-424.

9. Hearing before the Electronic Battlefield Subcommittee of the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, 91st Congress, 2d Session, Investigation into the Electronic Battlefield Program, pp. 84-85, 88, 110-111; intvw, Bernard C. Nalty and Charles W. Hildreth with Colonel William L. Walker, USAF, Dir/Int, Task force Alpha (which operated the infiltration surveillance center), June 8, 1971.

10. Bruce W. Pollica and Joe R. Rickey, 834th Air Division Tactical Airlift Support for Khe Sanh, January 21-April 8, 1968, pp. 15, 86; Shore, Khe Sanh, pp. 76-89.

11. Schlight, Years of the Offensive, p. 270.

12. Robert M. Burch, Single Manaoer for Air in SVN (HQ PACAF, Project CHECO, March 18, 1969), p. 5.

13. Robert F. Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea. 1950-1953 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, reprinted 1983), pp. 212-214, 490-491, 706-707; Lynn Montross, Hubbard D. Kuokka, and Norman Hicks, U.S. Marine Corps Operations in Korea, 1950-1953, Vol. IV, The East-Central Front (Washington: Historical Branch, G-3, HQ USMC, 1962), pp. 15-18.

14. Schlight, The Years of the Offensive, pp. 285-286.

15. Warren A. Trest, Single Manager for Air in SVN (HQ PACAF, Project CHECO, July 1, 1968), pp. 25, 27-28, 82-83.

16. Schlight, The Years of the Offensive, p. 256; Charles R. Smith; U.S. Marines in Vietnam: High Mobility and Standdown, 1969 (Washington: History and Museums Division, HQ USMC, 1988), pp. 224-226.

17. Davidson, Vietnam at War, pp. 510-512; Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977), Vol. I, pp. 346-348, 350.

18. Davidson, Vietnam at War, pp. 504, 508.

19. Robert Pisor, The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982), pp. 262-263.

20. Smith, High Mobility and Standdown, p. 225.


Dr. Jack Shulimson. Marine Corns Historical Center. I have a comment rather than a question. I would just suggest that General Westmoreland was the coalition commander, the coalition being the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Marine Corps. I'd like to reinforce what Bernard Nalty has been saying about Khe Sanh and the enemy's intentions. Some of the same units that were identified at Khe Sanh were met by the 1st Cavalry Division outside of Hue two weeks later. There is a suggestion by recent translations or recent histories by the North Vietnamese on the Khe Sanh Front (their rear headquarters) that their purpose was to draw as many American forces into Khe Sanh as possible. Perhaps we frustrated the North Vietnamese by not placing many ground forces there. It is most likely that the NVA would have taken Khe Sanh if they thought they could. But they weren't about to go in there.

I would like to add to what Graham Cosmas has suggested; I think the question of single manager was not only a question of control of air assets; it was a question of Westmoreland's doubts about the entire Marine Corps command. Westmoreland had two back channels to Washington; one was through CINPAC and one was directly to General Wheeler. To CINPAC and through CINCPAC to General Wheeler he suggested that he was going to implement single manager and he was also going to change the command and control in two northern provinces by establishing MACV forward headquarters. Directly to General Wheeler he mentioned doubts about Marine Corps tactics, Marine Corps generalship, and whether the Marine Corps could respond. He was even suggesting taking over direct control, putting an Army corps into two northern provinces and taking control away from III Marine Amphibious Force. I think, in a sense, single manager was again a back down sort of compromise.

Q Dr. Dean C. Allard. Naval Historical Center. Admiral Holloway, in light of all the interest today in the front page of the paper about bomb damage assessment, I wonder if you can make some comments about your role both as a carrier commander and then later as the Seventh Fleet commander, or your interest in the assessment of the damage hopefully inflicted ashore.

A Admiral James L. Holloway III. Let me go a little further back to the time I was a gunnery officer of a destroyer in the Seventh Fleet; in 1944, I think it was. In Leyte Gulf the Japanese Battle Fleet was moving to the north; as you recall, Admiral Halsey's task force was intercepting it and Navy carrier pilots were being launched on cyclic operations to strike the Japanese force coming up from the south outside the islands headed for the straits near Samar. And my impression -- and this is not as a historian; I'm an old veteran, so what I give you are my impressions, which you historians can clean up -- my impression was and I think the folklore at the time was that the Navy pilots coming back from their strikes on that force were claiming so many hits on the cruisers and the carriers that the BDAs [bomb damage assessments], which were only available when the pilot landed, were inaccurate. At that time the intelligence officer said, "What happened?" And the pilot said, "Oh, I put a 1,000-pounder right down the stack." And he probably thought he had, but to be honest with you, you're looking over your shoulder dodging Zeros and flak at the time so that kind of BDA was not very accurate. It was my impression that the pilots came back with the feeling that that Japanese force had been much more severely damaged than it was, and that's how the battle of Samar occurred.

Let me go back then to my second experience, which was as an F-9F pilot flying off a straight-deck carrier during the Korean War. Incidentally, when I retired from the Navy they said, "Would you do it all over again?" And I said, "Every bit of it except flying an F-9 of f a straight-deck carrier." But that was a fascinating time, because we were totally dedicated to supporting the forces ashore. Virtually all of our missions were either close support or close interdiction. Although we had photo planes, the technique was not very good and the intelligence officers debriefed every flight and again there was a tendency for a pilot to attribute more success to his effort than was realized. You have to remember, even a 500-pound bomb kicks up a lot of dirt and smoke and you look like you've really knocked the bejeebers out of things. But, you know, if you missed it by 10 feet and it was a strong bunker, you probably didn't put that gun emplacement out of business.

In Vietnam and our problem there, I think we learned by experience, and after virtually every strike mission, particularly an Alpha strike, we sent in the RA-5C for bomb damage assessment. And here is an aircraft that was probably the best we could have produced for that mission. It was supersonic; it was a redesign of a strike aircraft but built for very high speed, very high performance, and it would go in after the strikes and take the photographs. Unfortunately, we lost so many RA-5Cs in that process that we really had to rely on drones to a large extent by the time I came back as Commander Seventh Fleet. You can see the RA-5Cs' position; you just had 60 Air Force tactical aircraft and 60 Navy tactical aircraft bombing the bejeebers out of these gunners down there and consequently when one RA-SC comes in wings level at 5,000 feet, he had very slim chances of survival. That was one of the problems getting bomb damage assessment and I think we always tended to be a little optimistic for a number of reasons; we were participating in the war and we wanted to believe that we had done a little better than we had done in the past. Today, with the overhead systems and the kind of interpretations that they can give you, I think it's going to be much more accurate. I really take issue with the press's point that they are not getting the BDA fast enough, because photo interpretation is not just looking at the rubble, but trying to determine what is functional. For example, you can have a power plant that has been beaten up pretty badly with all the windows blown out. But, that generator is still working inside and that takes quite a bit of collateral photo interpretation to see if there is evidence that there is still power being put out. On the other hand there could be a building that looks almost undamaged but you have destroyed its function inside because it was perhaps a function that required a lot of people or a lot of very specialized equipment. I've taken too long to answer your question, but I see BDA improving in quality and its usefulness to the commander and that you're just not counting the bricks that are in that half-acre. You're trying to determine and tell the commander whether the function of that target has been interrupted, and if so, is it restorable.

Q David Isby. BDM Corporation. While of course we currently all focus, rightly so, on the events in the Persian Gulf, perhaps in the slightly longer term one area where the command-control relations of seaborne forces' air power may be more vital is in Europe; in operations of NATO as forward deployed American forces are reduced and the longstanding ability of the carriers to support NATO becomes more important. Do you feel that there are any historical lessons that we can apply to our evolving command-control relations for the use of carrier-based air in NATO?

A Dr. Edward J. Marolda. Would you like to expand a little more on that?

Q Isby. It perhaps shows first of all the need for the interoperability of air power. U.S. air power will be rendered much more in an allied sense than, for example, in Vietnam where allied air power was very largely American and the divisions were between services rather than nations. However, the carriers present a unified, concentrated group of air power which in a Europe which will have less concentration of forces, the forces may be deadlier, may have higher technology, but they will probably have less concentration than we had in the 1980s. Therefore, the need to integrate carrier air under theater command will probably be at a higher level, but I think the need is going to be there for a degree of carrier integration at theater level; at SACEUR rather than SACLANT.

A Admiral Holloway. Can I just offer a footnote on that? It has to do with a centralized command. It's been an observation over the years, and it's a personal observation, that completely centralized command is terribly inefficient. On the other hand completely decentralized command won't work either. There is a point some place between those two extremes that is best for the situation. And an observation over time is that in the beginning of a campaign or an incident you want very tight centralized command, and that's usually the President of the United States. As a matter of fact, in the Cuban missile crisis and in the Gulf of Tonkin, when you are concerned not only with military operations but political ramifications, you find that centralization is very much focused on a single person who is probably the National Command Authority. Frankly, and this may be wrong, but an impression I have, having served both in the field and in the Pentagon during Vietnam, was that the Pentagon wanted to retain that centralization of command as long as they could, until it was more than they could handle. And then it devolved more and more on the field commander. Because, and I guess it's a very cruel thing to say, but I think once the novelty of playing field marshal wore off on the part of a lot of people in town or it became too big for them, then they sort of let the military take it over again. But, in a general sense I would say at the beginning of a campaign you have a fairly highly centralized system and then you begin to delegate command and responsibilities for a number of reasons. One of which is you gain a certain amount of confidence in your subordinates; they get confidence in themselves; and you feel that you can tell Harry to take it because you have a pretty good idea what Harry's going to do and he's going to do it well.

Q Dr. Thomas Hone. Defense Systems Management College. I want to ask a question of Admiral Holloway. It was clear in 1965 that the Russians and Chinese would probably not intervene unless serious action was taken by the United States against North Vietnam. What if that action had been taken? Did you have the weapons and the plans to deal with the Chinese, for example, if they entered the war in force?

A Admiral Holloway. The answer is that during that period of time, we had our NATO responsibilities for fighting a war. I think there became sort of popular mind-set that if we went to war with the Soviet Union, the war would be fought in Europe. We forgot the fact that the Soviet Union is also a Pacific power. If something ever started in Germany, it's impossible to conceive of the Soviets in the Pacific not fighting and it would be a threat to Japan. During the time we were engaged in Vietnam, the Pacific Fleet, and particularly the Seventh Fleet, had responsibilities to support our forces for the defense of Japan. The same thing could have been said about a war with the Chinese. Consequently, we had in effect to withhold a part of our capability so that it could be made available to go up to Japan. Three carriers on the line in the Gulf of Tonkin; one of the other two carriers -- I'm sure this is declassified now, it's been so long ago -- but one of the other two carriers was on a very short notice to steam north and provide nuclear weapons to fill in the nuclear weapons plan for the defense of Japan. I believe I'm right in saying that while we were fighting in Vietnam, the Pakistan-Indian War [1971] erupted and we actually deployed carriers to the Indian Ocean to protect our interests at that time. So that is an example of why the Navy was so insistent upon taking a position of operating in support of the forces ashore. Because, they felt . . . I'm sure the JCS felt that they had to have those forces which are not specialized. Again, I go back to the fact that the Navy's conventional and nuclear war forces at that time were centered around the fast carrier striking group, as it was called. And if you're going to have a naval presence that made any difference, those were the forces that had to be deployed in the Indian Ocean, off Japan, or in a general war or to look after contingency interests some place else.

A Dr. Mark Jacobsen. Naval Historical Center. I think the United States was very, very much afraid of Chinese intervention and I hope with certain declassification eventually talking about Chinese intervention in 1965 and 1966. These were very, very vivid fears. And there was a considerable amount of good evidence that the Chinese would have intervened.

Q Jan Herman. Navy Bureau of Medicine. With the current situation, the current war going on in the Persian Gulf, I think perhaps some of us are tempted to think of parallels. Obviously, it was the most recent war we had experienced -- Vietnam. The use of, let's say B-52s in Khe Sanh, is something that's been brought up in recent days. Using that as a parallel for trying to, say, take out or soften up, if you will, the Republican Guard, do you see any other parallels? Or is that a valid parallel?

A Bernard Nalty. Office of Air Force History. There are some memoirs by North Vietnamese defectors who, while in South Vietnam organizing and supplying the troops, were caught in B-52 strikes and without exception it was a deadly, shattering experience. But still, as for Khe Sanh itself, our intelligence hadn't really gotten good enough to tell you exactly how the bombs had hit, or whether these enemy units were shattered, or for that matter exactly what units were where. The parallel between Khe Sanh and Saudi Arabia I find very, very divergent.

Q Dr. William Hammond. U.S. Army Center of Military History. To give you an example of the power of the B-52s . . . late in the war the United States ran a B-52 strike into Laos and then afterwards attempted to put a team of Green Berets and South Vietnamese in to survey the damage. And they were supposed to spend 3 or 4 days out there and then come back. Well, within about 24 hours they were on the radio requesting extraction. And the question came back, "Well why? You are supposed to be out there 2 more days." And they said, "Well, apparently you caught a huge number of the enemy in the open and we didn't bring enough water and all the streams are running red with blood."

A Nalty. That was one incident, but there was another incident where the team went in immediately after a B-52 strike and had to be extracted immediately because they were receiving so much fire from the ground. You can cite examples either way.

A Marolda. We can only hope its having a positive effect right now with the Republican Guards in the Iraqi-Kuwait border area.

Q Dr. Diane Putney. Air Force History. With the concept of fighting a war with one hand tied behind one's back, did anyone come upon in your research any evidence of not having enough aircraft to train pilots or ordnance or fuel because of our NATO commitments or because we were fighting these three air wars in Southeast Asia in the larger context of the Cold War? We couldn't put all the forces we actually had into Southeast Asia; we had to keep forces for our NATO responsibilities. Did you find that part of why we might have had our hands tied behind our backs was that we just didn't have enough to do three air wars in Southeast Asia in the context of the Cold War?

A Jacobsen. Supposedly at that time the United States had the capability to fight 2 1/2 wars. Vietnam was only a half-war. I'd like to toss out for general consideration that the month before the Tet Offensive opened, the North Koreans seized the Pueblo in its waters. I'm convinced that they did want to draw off the USS Enterprise. I'm convinced that that itself was a partly coordinated effort to draw down American resources in South Vietnam and to facilitate the success of the Tet Offensive.


Admiral James L. Holloway III, USN (Ret.), currently President of the Naval Historical Foundation, has had a distinguished career as a U.S. naval officer and public servant. The admiral served in combat in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, during which he received numerous decorations for valor. Relevant to his paper above, the admiral led naval forces during the Vietnam War as Commanding Officer of nuclear-powered carrier USS Enterprise and as Commander Seventh Fleet. His 39 years in the U.S. Navy culminated with his service as Chief of Naval Operations from 1974 to 1978. After retirement, he was especially active in naval aviation, merchant marine, education, and historical matters. In addition, he chaired the Special Operations Review Group investigating the aborted attempt to rescue hostages from Iran, served as the Executive Director of the Vice President's Task Force on Combating Terrorism, and in 1986 was appointed the Special Envoy of the Vice President to the Middle East.

Dr. Mark Jacobsen took the MA and Ph.D degrees as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Irvine. He coauthored, with the late Arthur Marder, Old Friends. New Enemies: The Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy, published by Oxford University Press in 1990. Dr. Jacobsen served as the historian of the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego from 1985 to 1988, after which he joined the staff of the Naval Historical Center's Contemporary History Branch. He is now preparing The Rolling Thunder Campaign, 1965-1968 in the series The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict.

Dr. Graham Cosmas holds advanced degrees in history from the University of Wisconsin. His professional career includes teaching experience at the University of Texas, Austin, and the University of Guam. During 1984-1985 he served as the Harold K. Johnson Visiting Professor at the U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks. He has authored or coauthored several histories, including An Army For Empire: The U.S. Army in the Spanish-American War and The U.S. Marines in Vietnam: Vietnamization and Redeployment. Dr. Cosmas has been employed by the Marine Corps Historical Center and the U.S. Army Center of Military History. He is now embarked on a study of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and its direction of the war.

Bernard C. Nalty has had a long and productive career as a government historian, having served in the history offices of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the U.S. Air Force. He has published a number of well-received books, including Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military, an official volume on Marine operations in the Pacific during World War II, and Air Power and the Fight for Khe Sanh, the latter of which was the basis for his paper above. He is currently preparing a monograph for the Air Force on the air war in southern Laos from 1968-1972.


Note: The views or opinions expressed or implied are those of the speakers alone and not those of the Department of the Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.


Published: Thu Aug 31 08:50:29 EDT 2017