Document created: 16 May 01
Published Aerospace Power Journal - Summer  2001

To Hanoi and Back: The U.S. Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966–1973 by Wayne Thompson. Smithsonian Institution Press ( edu/sipress), 470 L’Enfant Plaza, Suite 7100, Washington, D.C. 20560, 2000, 416 pages, $31.95.

The Transformation of American Airpower by Benjamin S. Lambeth. Cornell University Press (, 512 East State Street, Ithaca, New York 14850, 2000, 352 pages, $29.95.

After German troops blitzed through France in 1940, achieving a near-record-breaking victory over Western Europe, Franklin Delano Roosevelt committed the United States to a path of industrial rearmament that put a strong air force at the top of the nation’s priority list. In May 1940, he addressed both houses of Congress and called for an increase in aircraft production capacity to at least 50,000 aircraft per year. Although the actual numbers never quite approached that figure, the role of airpower in achieving America’s military objectives was solidified into national policy. During the 61 years that have elapsed since that speech, the debate over airpower’s effectiveness in achieving the nation’s objectives continues unabated.

Two recent books illuminate important elements of the airpower debate that have occurred within most of our lifetimes: Wayne Thompson’s To Hanoi and Back and Benjamin Lambeth’s The Transformation of American Airpower. Dr. Thompson examines the history of the use of airpower in Vietnam from 1966 to 1973, giving us detailed and well-researched insights not only into the tactical and operational factors affecting the employment of airpower, but also the strategic and political constraints that were a reality in that war. Dr. Lambeth picks up the narrative from the end of 1973 to the present day. After summarizing the situation in which the United States found itself after the Vietnam War, he leads us through the next 25 years of airpower’s development, concentrating on the improvements made since the 1991 Gulf War. Each book was written for a different audience, and each offers airpower strategists different levels of analysis of both the history and effectiveness of airpower on the battlefield.

Dr. Wayne Thompson is an analyst at the Air Force History Support Office, an organization responsible for writing books, monographs, studies, and reports on the history of the Air Force. In 1990 he served in the Air Staff’s Checkmate Division as an analyst and remained there throughout the Gulf War and later as a historical advisor on the Gulf War Airpower Survey team. His studies have also included duty in Italy examining the effects of bombing operations during Operation Deliberate Force in 1995 and again during Operation Allied Force in 1999.

To Hanoi and Back is a sequel to a previously classified book by Jacob Van Staaveren, Gradual Failure: The Air War over North Vietnam, 1965–1966, which the Air Force History Office has recently declassified. Dr. Thompson draws extensively not only from the unit histories and records available at the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, but also from many personal interviews; collections from the presidential libraries; congressional records and testimonies; and, in some cases, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Soviet sources as well.

As its title suggests, the book is a history of the United States Air Force in Vietnam during these years, but it offers the reader much more than an operational narrative. It is written chronologically during the seven years that encompassed Operations Rolling Thunder, Linebacker I, and Linebacker II, as well as the many other minor operations during and between the larger ones. The real value of the book, though, for the airpower strategist is the skill with which Dr. Thompson weaves the contextual elements that ultimately decided how effective airpower could be during that period. As each operation unfolds, we are given both the details of the air campaign itself and the personalities and relationships among the various three- and four-star flag officers charged with planning and implementing the strategies. The political considerations and the lenses through which the president and key Cabinet members viewed the conflict are important factors that affected operations down to the tactical employment of individual units and aircraft. Dr. Thompson smoothly moves between the macro- and microview of how these pieces related.

In 1966 the major threat to the United States was the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism around the rest of the globe. The US military had armed itself to fight off this threat, primarily in Western Europe, as well as attack the Soviet Union with long-range bombers carrying nuclear weapons. Tactical aircraft were designed to carry nuclear weapons that could be used against the rolling Communist hordes as they swept through the Fulda Gap. Naval strategy concentrated on power projection ashore from both carrier-based aviation and nuclear submarines. The Korean War notwithstanding, no service had predicted or was well equipped with a force structure to fight a guerilla insurgency in a war of limited objectives, especially one in which the political leadership demanded restraint out of fear that an escalating conflict could cause an intervention by either China or the Soviet Union. These fears weighed heavily on President Lyndon Johnson. Dr. Thompson paints a vivid picture of Johnson’s being haunted by the twin images of President Harry Truman letting his generals (especially MacArthur) embroil him in a larger Korean War with the entry of China across the Yalu River—and again of Truman being branded as too soft on Communism after having "lost" China to the Communists in the first place. In light of his ambitious domestic agenda, which required robust economic and political support across the spectrum, Johnson would not relinquish control of the situation in Southeast Asia to the extent that it could derail his domestic plans in the press and in the public eye.

The result was the now-infamous Tuesday-afternoon targeting lunches in which the president, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would decide upon specific objectives for the next week’s air campaign. As reviled as these meetings have become in our collective military memory, Dr. Thompson gives us a balanced and objective view of the reasoning behind the administration’s decisions to exercise such tight, centralized control over the air war. First and foremost, the president had made a decision and a promise that the war would not seek an overthrow of the North Vietnamese regime. In order to guarantee this promise, Johnson and his Cabinet kept final approval for bombing targets in North Vietnam to themselves. Seventh Air Force, Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Pacific Air Forces, Strategic Air Command, and Pacific Command could only request that targets be considered for approval. Prohibited and restricted zones were placed around Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor, severely restricting and even eliminating the possibility of bombing within the confines of the capital and North Vietnam’s major port. Underlying all of these considerations was Johnson’s fervent hope that by fine-tuning the degree of force exerted upon the North Vietnamese, they would eventually seek to negotiate a settlement with the United States and South Vietnam. As Johnson deferred targets from the lists submitted by his field commanders, he hoped to offer carrots to the North Vietnamese in the form of bombing reprieves if they would only agree to sit down and negotiate—even over such minor concessions as promising not to increase their rate of infiltration into the south. Needless to say, these considerations were often invisible to the armed forces deployed in the theater.

Much to his credit, Dr. Thompson doesn’t once quote Carl von Clausewitz in his book. Most military professionals, however, are habituated to old dead Carl’s famous dictum that "war is merely the continuation of policy by other means." But the military’s view of Vietnam, perhaps more than any other war in recent memory, indicates that we might have paid only lip service to the true meaning of the idea behind this quotation. What seemed at the tactical level a bewildering array of restrictions and prohibitions was in fact an attempt by the leadership of this country to resolve the political problem of the spread of Communism without escalating into a larger war. Perhaps the technology at the time did not permit the sharing of relevant information by means of rapid dissemination across the various agencies. On page 89 of To Hanoi and Back, Dr. Thompson points out the example of President Johnson’s finally approving the bombing of the MiG base at Phuc Yen airfield and then placing it back on the disapproved list the next day. The State Department had informed Johnson that the Rumanian prime minister was to land at that base. The prime minister, a third-party negotiator on behalf of the United States, had been promised a bomb-free visit. Often, changes in the target list were tied to specific visits by US leaders to foreign capitals in order to strengthen negotiating positions.

The hope of airpower advocates and theorists has always been that airpower, properly employed, could yield such an economy of force that it could have strategic effects against an enemy state. By picking the right targets, one could force a major power to submit. Gen Muir Fairchild wrote a letter to Gen Hap Arnold in June 1940 stating that 100 well-placed bombs could effectively destroy the industrial capacity of the United States. This same idea so fired President Roosevelt’s imagination in 1940 that he promised to build that large air force. But perhaps this same belief in the strategic effectiveness of unrestrained airpower also compels leaders to carefully control its proper use. If airpower can indeed bring another country to its knees—the ultimate political act—then perhaps it is also in airpower’s nature to be more careful under the watchful eye of political leaders who want to ensure its proper application.

After the election of Richard Nixon, the context of the war changed radically. North Vietnam’s relationship with China had cooled while the United States had improved relations with both China and the Soviet Union. Détente and successful strategic arms limitation talks between the United States and the Soviet Union isolated the North Vietnamese from their key supporters. As North Vietnam became more desperate and launched more conventional and mechanized offensives against South Vietnam, Nixon began a much larger buildup of air forces, displaying much less restraint than his predecessor. Even so, the use of force could never be totally divorced from other political considerations. Dr. Thompson closely ties the increased bombing of Linebacker II in December of 1972 not only to the secret negotiations of Henry Kissinger, but also to the domestic considerations Nixon faced when a newly elected, opposition Congress raised his fears that it would force him to withdraw from the war without concessions from North Vietnam.

In addition to the personal and political realities that affected airpower employment, Dr. Thompson also amply illustrates the technological and geographical constraints whose effect upon airpower employment is often underestimated. The goal of precision engagement of ground targets from aircraft has a long history. Billy Mitchell described it in his Provisional Manual of Operations of 1918. Army Air Forces planners in World War II hoped to achieve unprecedented bombing accuracy with the Norden bombsight. In Vietnam, as today, accurately bombing the desired target was a goal highly sought after, but the right technology had not yet emerged. Thompson traces the parallel development of Navy and Air Force weapons systems, from the Navy’s TV-guided Walleye bomb, to the use of LORAN to guide aircraft to their bomb-release points, to the final employment of laser-guided bombs with warheads large enough to take down the bridges that helped supply Hanoi with materials from the north. But perhaps more than any other factor, Dr. Thompson clearly shows us the enormous effect that weather had on the effectiveness of the air campaign over North Vietnam. Planners on both sides understood the effects of the large blocks of time lost during the monsoon season. Thompson even states that "the most effective North Vietnamese air defense had always been weather" (page 244). This operational reality can easily derail even the most elegant air strategy and can preclude political leaders from effectively controlling the application of force to achieve their stated objectives.

Overall, To Hanoi and Back is a very well researched and documented history, composed in a very readable style. It is written with the operator in mind, giving future air strategists, planners, and users a very comprehensive view not only of the restraints under which one must operate in a war of limited objectives, but also of an environment where airpower is still the main instrument (though perhaps not the optimal one) that our nation’s leaders have chosen to deliver the message they wish to send our adversary. The only possible improvement to the book would be the inclusion of more maps and charts so that average operators can visualize the many battlefields and data and thus appreciate the area of operations. Even so, this is an excellent book that every airpower professional should add to his or her personal library.

Benjamin Lambeth offers us a different book about airpower. The author is a senior staff member at the RAND Corporation, an organization chartered to assist policy makers and decision makers by giving practical guidance, formulating and clarifying issues, and addressing barriers to effective policy implementation. He is a civil-rated pilot and has flown a wide variety of US and foreign military aircraft. A specialist in the study of the Soviet air force, he has significantly contributed to the understanding of that nation’s military structure.

The Transformation of American Airpower picks up the trail where Dr. Thompson left it in 1973 and continues the discussion of the development and evolution of airpower as a military instrument. But the focus of Dr. Lambeth’s book is quite different than Dr. Thompson’s. In a sense, it is more of a technical history of the development of airpower and the ways in which technological improvements since Vietnam—especially stealth, precision targeting, and command and control of air forces—have exponentially improved airpower’s contribution to winning the next major theater war. Although Dr. Thompson addressed his book to an audience primarily interested in military history and the interplay of different levels of government in the execution of strategy, Dr. Lambeth writes for the policy maker who requires a greater appreciation of the technical and doctrinal issues involved in airpower’s effective application. The Transformation of American Airpower is a good period piece that helps to explain how we have arrived at our present thinking about airpower. In a style consistent with the mission of RAND, the book clarifies many of the technical, doctrinal, and effectiveness issues associated with airpower thinking over the last 25 years. By presenting all of the relevant debates and the various issues involved in airpower employment, Dr. Lambeth’s inductive method of analysis attempts to synthesize a future vision of airpower as exponentially more effective and decisive than any vision of the past.

His method of getting there, however, is not wholly satisfactory. Whereas the level of detailed research by Dr. Thompson involved extensive archival work, much of Dr. Lambeth’s book is based on secondary sources, and an inordinate number of them are periodicals and newspaper accounts of events—sources not always privy to the intricate details of an issue. He quotes a number of respected airpower theorists but often misunderstands the author’s message. In discussing Robert Pape’s theme in Bombing to Win, for example, Lambeth takes Pape to mean that airpower is best used against an enemy’s ground forces (page 7). He then uses this idea as a starting point to advocate airpower’s effectiveness against mechanized and armored formations. Unfortunately, this misses a crucial nuance of Pape’s argument. Pape discusses the use of airpower to deny an enemy the means to implement his military strategy in order to coerce him to do our will. Although fielded military forces are one way to achieve this coercion, it is not always the primary means of doing so, and it is an important consideration for a campaign planner when implementing an air strategy.

In describing the major technological and doctrinal issues that have played important roles in the evolution of airpower employment, Dr. Lambeth gives the reader a good look at operational issues that planners have faced. The book attempts to give a fair hearing to other issues that have affected the success or failure of particular operations; indeed, the text includes arguments against many of the issues that Dr. Lambeth raises. However, by attempting to include such opposing elements, the book leaves one with the strong impression that these are minor considerations for Dr. Lambeth, compared to the importance of airpower. In describing the success of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) air strikes during Operation Deliberate Force in 1995, the narrative clearly favors the decisive element of airpower in the Serbs’ accession to NATO demands. Embedded in a single sentence at the bottom of page 177 are three other considerations in the Serbs’ decision: "increased allied artillery fire, the credible threat of a Croatian ground attack, and mounting diplomatic pressure and other sanctions." Col Robert C. Owen’s Deliberate Force: A Case Study in Effective Air Campaigning (Air University Press, 2000), however, describes the air campaign as unintentionally aiding the offensive operations of the Croatian army, noting that the Serbs’ rapid capitulation occurred more in response to the threat of further territorial losses to the Croats (page 195).

In other areas, the use of airpower to halt enemy ground offensives is taken as a novel and decisive application of force—most notably, the success of airpower against Iraqi forces at Al Khafji. Although the success of coalition air efforts against those forces was unquestionably decisive, the employment of airpower against enemy columns has a long and distinguished history—one requiring little transformation. In 1944 IX Tactical Air Command halted a German counteroffensive that threatened to cut off American lines of communications (see Benjamin F. Cooling’s Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support [Office of Air Force History, 1990], 274). In June 1950, F-80s were able to destroy a North Korean column backed up behind a blown bridge, destroying upwards of 150 vehicles and tanks (see Eduard Mark’s Aerial Interdiction in Three Wars [Office of Air Force History, 1994], 273). To speak of airpower transformed without digging deeper into its history leaves the reader wondering at the author’s intention. In fact, The Transformation of American Airpower walks a fine line between analysis and advocacy. As evenhandedly as the author claims to approach his subject, the result is a book that clearly favors and defends the Air Force’s current policy and approach to employing airpower. Indeed, Dr. Lambeth often uses airpower and Air Force interchangeably, notwithstanding his claims to apply the former term to the totality of air assets used in a campaign.

On its own, his advocacy does not negate any of his claims; however, agreeing with his conclusions becomes more difficult since the bias is so evident. His characterizations of Army thought and leadership leave the reader with a picture of traditionally minded ground officers once again trying to hold back the advancement of the air arm—airpower is misunderstood and misapplied by dinosaurs. In fact, the book probably will not change many minds on either side of the debate. Ground-power advocates will look at it as another unfulfillable promise by airmen, while airpower advocates will look at it as a concise vision of what airpower can deliver tomorrow—if properly funded today.

The book lacks a deeper analysis of the political implications of employing airpower, such as the one Dr. Thompson gave us. As good an edge as technology provides us, no halt-phase strategy can work if the political will and decision to use force are not forthcoming. A useful, counterfactual argument that Dr. Lambeth could have made ponders how different our air strategy in Vietnam would have been if we had had the technological edge he says has now transformed airpower. The planners and operators in Vietnam were no less ingenious than we in applying technology and airpower. But if our options are constrained, no amount of technology will force a solution over a political problem.

If nothing else, The Transformation of American Airpower will be a useful book for historians down the road who wish to research the thoughts and debates that surrounded the question of airpower at the dawn of the twenty-first century. For today’s readers, the book gives almost any second lieutenant, first-term airman, or government official with no background in airpower history, theory, or doctrine a succinct description of how US Air Force technology and doctrine have developed to bring us to where we are now.

Maj Mustafa "Kujo" Koprucu, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


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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