Air University Review, January-February 1968

Counterinsurgency From 30,000 Feet:
The B-52 in Vietnam

Robert M. Kipp

You don’t fight this fellow rifle to rifle. You locate him and back away. Blow the hell out of him and then police up.

Brigadier General Gleen D. Walker,
ADC, 4th Inf Div

Strategic Air Command always has possessed a capability to deliver conventional bombs. A number of bomber crews were scheduled to make an actual drop of high-explosive ordnance during each training period. The command did not accord the program much priority, however, until the early 1960s.  The Kennedy Administration placed renewed emphasis on improving the abilities of the nation’s armed forces in limited-war situations that did not call for the use of nuclear weapons.

The first SAC operations plan to specify units and the number of aircraft that might be called upon for limited-war operations using conventional ordnance was prepared to meet a requirement expressed in the Joint Chiefs of Staff's Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan. Completed in late 1961, this contingency plan remained in effect until early 1963. Succeeding plans in 1963 and 1964 were different only in the units designated and number of aircraft. It should be understood, however, that these early plans represented a kind of on-call capability. The command's responsibilities in limited war were still largely undetailed, and to the middle of 1964 similar plans prepared by theater commanders included no explicit provision for SAC conventional weapons support.

In early 1964 a definite acceleration in SAC contingency planning took place. The worsening situation in Southeast Asia and the continued national policy emphasis on flexibility of arms to counter aggression at any so-called threshold of violence had convinced General Thomas S. Power, then Commander in Chief, SAC, that his bombers should play a more prominent role in limited conflicts. He told the president of RAND Corporation that" . . . exploitation of SAC's potential for engaging in any level of conflict. . . would result in a greater economy in our national defense posture, produce more positive results, and increase national prestige by a clear demonstration of national resolve."l The CINCSAC received encouragement in the development of his plans from the then Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General J. P. McConnell, and from Secretary of Defense McNamara. On 1 July 1964, SAC published its most comprehensive contingency operations plan to date. It provided for a range of alternatives for delivery of conventional and nuclear weapons under conditions of limited war. Of particular interest, in light of subsequent events, was the provision for operation of a force of B-52s and tankers to support Commander in Chief, Pacific.

In the spring of 1964, bomb wings designated as having a contingency mission began an extensive testing program to verify and improve their ability to deliver conventional munitions. They continued the tests in May and early June, using a B-52F modified by affixing two sets of multiple-ejector external bomb racks to the wing pylons. This modification permitted the B-52 to carry 24 additional 750-pound demolition bombs and increased the total capacity to 51. In a more realistic test of capability, a B-52 flew 5200 miles from California to the Mariana Islands, dropped a full bomb load, and landed at Andersen AFB, Guam. Through the late months of 1964 testing of contingency units continued to insure that they could move quickly should they be so ordered. The year 1964 had seen substantial improvement in SAC’s ability to deliver conventional bombs. General Power in a sense summed up the importance of this not newly acquired but lately polished capability in a speech in October:

It is not generally known that SAC also has the capability to deliver conventional weapons, and it can do so on short notice, accurately, and from bases far beyond the reach of any limited-war opponent. Therefore, strategic airpower is an invaluable tool in limited war.2

No forces were deployed until early in February 1965. Then, as part of a series of actions to expand U.S. strength in the western Pacific, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered to Guam those forces which the contingency plan specifically assigned to the Far East. On 11 February bombers and tankers from Mather AFB, California, and Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, left for bases in the western Pacific. There they were to wait for several months before being called into service.

After several months of study it was decided that the B-52s could be used most effectively in the Vietnam war against enemy logistics centers. The reputation of the Viet Cong as a skilled sapper was well deserved. In the jungles of War Zones C and D, in the Iron Triangle, and in numerous less-well-publicized parts of South Vietnam, the VC had located his supply caches, training centers, hospitals, and communication centers. Facilities were widely dispersed. The tree canopy hid them from aerial observation. Tunnels, trenches, bunkers, and caves honeycombed the areas. For years these sanctuaries had been virtually inviolable from attack. Joseph Alsop has described their importance in the guerrilla's strategy:

Two or three night marches out from the base, one or two days fighting at the scene of his regiment's operation, and two or three night marches back to his regimental main-base area—that was about the maximum effort that was normally required each month. The balance of every month was spent resting, training, absorbing replacements, and doing meticulous sand-table exercises to prepare for the next sally against a government post. And all these weeks between operations were passed in the absolute security of a main base, with its simple but comfortable barracks, its reassuring fortifications, and its food caches. 3

From these secure bases the VC lately had been emerging in battalion strength to challenge the government of South Vietnam. Consequently, General William Westmoreland, Commander of United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam (COMUSMACV), assigned a high priority to attacking them with air power. Tactical aviation had proved unsuitable for the job because precise information regarding elements within the target area necessary for pinpoint bombing was not available. The B-52 seemed the ideal means to deliver a large amount of high explosives in a short period of time on these area targets. The bomber's all-weather capability also would be valuable during the seasonal monsoon weather. The JCS and Secretary of Defense agreed that the B-52s should be committed. Mr. McNamara explained later: ". . . the military commanders felt—and I believe that this was a proper use of the weapon—that these strikes would destroy certain of the Viet Cong base areas. . . there is no other feasible way of doing it."4

The target selected for the first B-52 strike on 18 June 1965 was a typical Viet Cong jungle sanctuary, measuring two by four kilometers, in the Ben Cat Special Zone, Binh Duong Province, northwest of Saigon. From this area the VC had been launching attacks against traffic on nearby Route 13. Intelligence indicated that troops were massing there for a suspected offensive. The mission of 18 June was not an auspicious beginning. Two bombers collided during the refueling phase of the mission and crashed into the South China Sea off the Philippines. Another aborted prior to reaching the target. Twenty-seven B-52s reached the target, but one did not bomb because its bomb-bay doors malfunctioned. The tragedy of the lives lost and the destruction of the aircraft tended to overshadow all else, especially since ground reconnaissance teams could find little evidence that the strike had caused any VC casualties or significant damage to facilities.

 As might be expected, sections of the press were critical of what seemed to be an unorthodox use of strategic aircraft (the analogy of using a sledgehammer to kill gnats found its way into print again), but attention focused on the costly accident and the contrasting small loss to the enemy. The military command in Saigon chose to evaluate the strike within the context of the Vietnam war itself, which by its very nature permits few spectaculars, even when using B-52s. The ordnance got to the target as planned, ground troops were able to penetrate, without loss, an area heretofore considered unassailable, and coordination of the mission had been excellent. Those responsible for running the war in the theater felt the B-52 strikes should continue. If the VC was not home today, he would be home tomorrow. The B-52's mission would be to harass the enemy, disrupt his normal activities, permit him no respite from attack even in his jungle redoubts, and wear him down psychologically. The accomplishment of these objectives pointed to a long campaign, the end of which could not even be predicted. It was within this context that the first B-52 mission assumed its proper perspective.

After one mission in June and five in July 1965, B-52 conventional bombing activity accelerated during the next five months in proportion to expansion of U.S. participation in the war. By the end of the year missions were being flown almost daily. The bombers ranged from Quang Tri, South Vietnam's northernmost province, to An Xuyen, its southernmost province. Over 1500 sorties were effective over the target. Forces used ranged from 30 to 6 aircraft per mission. The standard ordnance dropped was the 750-pound bomb, although late in the year SAC began to use the 500-pound bomb in the bomber's internal bays. Almost 26,000 tons of high explosives were dropped during the first six months of operations.

It was admittedly an expensive operation. Secretary of Defense McNamara estimated that the cost of the bombs alone was $30,000 a sortie.5 But the Secretary had also said earlier that what the U.S. sought in South Vietnam was a limited objective, and it would be accomplished with the lowest possible loss of lives and not necessarily with the lowest expenditure of money.6

The magnitude of operations continued to increase during 1966. Twice as many sorties were flown in the first half of the year as during the last six months of 1965. In number of sorties launched, which is a more accurate measure of activity than mission totals, the increase was more than 700. Also a greater variety of ordnance was carried, and heavier tonnages were dropped after the B-52F was replaced by the B-52D, which had been modified with a high-density, internal bomb bay capable of holding a maximum load of eighty-four 500-pound bombs. Add to this the 24 bombs carried externally, and the total load became one hundred eight 500-pound bombs. 

As for targets, there was no change in the overall priority. The VC encampments continued to receive the most attention. Additional strikes were made against targets previously hit or in areas adjacent to prior targets. As a direct result of improved intelligence, more information was received of particularly worthwhile targets, usually of troop concentrations, which had to be struck quickly for maximum results. When this happened, previously planned missions were delayed.

In April 1966 B-52s hit North Vietnamese territory for the first time. Two missions struck the Mu Gia Pass, a natural supply interdiction point on the Laos-North Vietnam border. In the summer months, as infiltration of North Vietnamese troops increased, particular attention was given to targets in the vicinity of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam. Increased direct support of ground troops also was given. In late 1965 SAC bombers twice had assisted infantry actions, in Operation Silver Bayonet (Battle of the Ia Drang Valley) and Operation Harvest Moon. In this capacity the heavy bombers performed as long-range artillery (an analogy often used

by ground commanders), hitting suspected enemy strong points and reported troop concentrations. By December 1966 it was estimated that more than half the strike requests came from field commanders. Such targets demanded immediate response. Beginning in July 1966 SAC designated a portion of the Guam bombers as a quick-reaction force. This force used preplanned routes to the target for bombing close to friendly troops. Thus planning was reduced to the minimum, and reaction time was little more than the time required to fly to the target.

In the 18 months from June 1965 through December 1966, SAC B-52s in Southeast Asia dropped more than 130,000 tons of high explosives on nearly 800 missions. During this time almost 98 percent of all bombers launched dropped their bombs over the target as planned. The B-52 proved a very reliable instrument for delivering high explosives. Air and ground crews displayed a high degree of professional skill in accomplishing their tasks. No less a standard had been expected when SAC was called into action, and, indeed, this was part of the reason why it was called. What SAC had done, it had done well. But what had it done?

General Westmoreland has emphasized on a number of occasions his satisfaction with the results of the air campaign to date. The heavy bombers provided him with the means to lay down a concentration of firepower on relatively large target areas during day or night and in all kinds of weather. He did not have this capability before. He was convinced that the cumulative results of such missions would prove the concept valid. That troops were able to penetrate areas previously in the sole possession of the VC was itself significant. Westmoreland took personal interest in the selection of B-52 targets to insure that the bombers were being used profitably. He also visited Guam in June 1966 to talk to bomber crews and explain how their efforts fitted into the bigger picture of the war.

With the limited amount of information available to date, it is not possible to arrive at a substantive conclusion regarding bombing effectiveness, but some observations can be made, based on what has been learned.

Aerial photography, the most common means of accounting bomb damage, followed each mission, but the character of the terrain and the enemy's tactics of tunneling and underground storage made assessment of damage by this means alone unreliable. Ground exploitation was considered the best means of assessing bomb damage. More than once troops combing the target area found supplies and facilities that had not been detected in photographs. During the first months of B-52 operations there were relatively few U.S. troops in South Vietnam, and they were needed on higher priority missions. Also, many of the targets were deep in VC-controlled areas and thus inaccessible. By the end of 1965 only about one-third of the targets had been exploited by ground troops. When infantrymen did go in, the chances of their finding that the strike had been effective were about fifty-fifty, according to General McConnell. Half the time the enemy camps were where intelligence said they would be, and the VC were hit hard; the other half, intelligence was faulty, and the camps were either not there or the VC had not been in the target area when the bombs fell.7 The number of ground follow-ups increased with the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Continued emphasis was given to improving the quality and increasing the number of Army observations.

Those entering a typical B-52 target area found the landscape torn as if by an angry giant. The bombs uprooted trees and scattered them in crazy angles over the ground. The tangled jungle undergrowth was swept aside around the bomb craters, sometimes revealing previously hidden field fortifications and openings to tunnel systems. The holes blasted in the jungle canopy made convenient landing zones for helicopters supporting the advance of the infantry. Upon occasion caches of enemy materiel (rice, salt, clothing, ammunition, weapons, medical supplies, and documents) were located and either confiscated or destroyed. Only rarely were any enemy dead found, although reports often spoke of trails of blood, used bandages, and a "smell of death" which lingered in the area. The Viet Cong were usually quite thorough in carrying off their wounded and dead or burying them in the interval between the end of the bombing and the arrival of troops.

It was equally difficult to assess the immediate effect of B-52 bombings on enemy morale. Because many strikes were in areas tightly controlled by the VC, people with knowledge of the strikes were difficult to find in any number. Still, with time, prisoners, defectors, and refugees did provide some information of what it was like to be on the receiving end of what one VC soldier-poet called "the chain of thunders." Most discouraging to the VC, it seemed, was the effect of delay-fuzed bombs on their cave and tunnel complexes. General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the JCS, has said: ". . . the weight and acceleration of the 750 and 500-pound bombs are such that they will penetrate deep into the ground before they go off, and then will collapse the tunnels and cave complexes which the Viet Cong had been led to believe were absolutely invulnerable from any sort of bombing."8 The VC took measures to mitigate the effects of the strikes-more frequent movement, wider dispersal when in bivouac, and deeper tunnels. But perhaps the most realistic response to the B-52s was the one explained by a former VC platoon leader: "All of us, including our superiors, have been instructed to run as soon as we heard the roaring from the high sky. . . no matter how deep the tunnels."9 General Westmoreland has said that prisoners and defectors list the B-52 as the most feared of all weapons arrayed against them.10

Not surprising, then, by the end of 1966 more than half of all calls for B-52 support in Vietnam came from field commanders. These were given first priority because the requesters were usually in contact with the enemy. The unparalleled, lavish use of firepower as a substitute for manpower is an outstanding characteristic of U.S. military tactics in the Vietnam war. Israeli General Moshe Dayan, who visited the country in the fall of 1966, witnessed its application:

The Americans carry out their counterattacks and pursuits in the jungle not with infantry but with firepower. . .

The problem faced by an American infantry unit engaging the Vietcong is not how to storm the enemy positions but how to discover where they are. The storming and assault will be done by the 155s and aerial bombs. These are not restricted to jungle paths and are not vulnerable to ambush.

The most effective weapons the Americans have for this function are their heavy bombers and they can operate no matter what the weather or visibility.11

Reporting on this kind of support during Operation Harvest Moon, Major General L. W. Walt, Commander of the Third Marine Amphibious Force, described the effect of a B-52 strike as "awesome to behold" and added that as a result: "The enemy has abandoned his prepared positions and much of his equipment in great confusion, and this is making our part of the job easier."12 Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson, Commander of the 173d Airborne Brigade, emphasized the precision of the strikes: ". . . I have observed several dozen, the strike comes in at the appointed moment and it hits exactly where we asked it to. They are accurate. They're extremely good."13 Perhaps Major General F. C. Weyand, Commander of the First Field Force during Operation Attleboro, best summed up what the heavy bomber strikes mean to the infantry:

These B-52 strikes are of incalculable value. . . They do tremendous damage to enemy installations and base facilities; they destroy enemy fortifications; and most of all they constitute a Sword of Damocles over the heads of VC field commanders that must enter into any of their plans that would call for massing units preparatory to a large scale attack.14

It seems reasonable to suggest that the main contribution of B-52s to date in the Vietnam war has been the constricting effect the bombings have had on the enemy's freedom of movement and range of action. Emphasis then focuses on the psychological effect on the enemy of being bombed—or what is perhaps almost as disturbing, the threat of being bombed—and its debilitating effect on enemy plans for major operations. There is increasing evidence that the bombings are lowering enemy morale and, according to General Westmoreland, have " . . . frequently resulted in the enemy being thwarted in his plans for an offensive and his being prevented from massing and carrying out his planned maneuver."15 This kind of total pressure, for which the B-52 is uniquely qualified, is calculated ultimately to destroy the cohesion of the enemy's organization. To date, success in this endeavor has been encouraging.

Hq Strategic Air Command


1. Ltr, General Thomas S. Power to Mr. Frank R. Collbohm, 17 June 1964. 

2. Address by General Power at the anniversary banquet of the Strategic Industries Association, Los Angeles, 17 October 1964.

3. Joseph Alsop, "Why We Can Win in Vietnam," Saturday Evening Post, 4 June 1966, pp. 83-84.

4. Testimony of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in Hearings, "DOD Appropriations for 1966," before the Subcommittee on DOD Appropriations, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. Senate, 89th Congress, First Session, Part 2, p. 794.

5. Ibid., p. 824.

6. Secretary McNamara in interview on Columbia Broadcasting System, 8 February 1965, quoted in Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 15 February 1965.

7. Interview with General McConnell by William Randolph Hearst, Jr., et al., appearing in New York Herald Tribune, 20 March 1966.

8. Testimony of General Earle G. Wheeler in Hearings, "Fiscal Year 1966, Supplemental Authorization for Vietnam," before the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 89th Congress, Second Session, p. 4930.

9. Quoted in UPI dispatch, Omaha World Herald, 6 February 1966.

10. Interview with General Westmoreland in U.S. News and World Report, LXI, 22 (28 November 1966), 46, 49.

11. Diary of Major General Moshe Dayan, published in Washington Post, editorial section, 16 October 1966.

12. Msg, CG III MAF to CINCSAC, I3/1113Z Dec 65; msg, CG III MAF to CINCSAC, I5/0I30Z Dec 65.

13. Statement by Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson at press conference upon his return to the U.S., 8 March 1966, appearing in Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, April 1966, No. 4-1966.

14. Ltr, Major General Fred C. Weyand to Major General W. C. Cramm, Commander, Third Air Division, 11 August 1966.

15. Msg, 27473, COMUSMACV to CSAF, from West moreland to McConnell, "B-52 Strikes," 09/0346Z Aug 66.


Robert M. Kipp (M.A., Ohio University) is Chief of the History Branch, History and Research Division, Headquarters Strategic Air Command. He served in the U.S. Army overseas, 1946-49. He has been in the USAF historical program for twelve years, first with the Air Rescue Service of Air Force Logistics Command and for the last ten years at Hq SAC. During 1963 he worked on Project Forecast.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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