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Published Airpower Journal - Summer 1990


The Air Force's Failure to Comprehend Insurgent
Doctrine during Operation Rolling Thunder

C2C Diego M. Wendt, USAFA

You ask: How then can we cope with the enemy's enormous war machine? There is the example of the monkey coping with the Princess of the Iron Fan. Though the Princess was a very formidable monster, the monkey, by changing himself into a tiny insect, found his way into her entrails and quelled her.

. . . Mao Tse-tung

THE Vietnam War is still, to this day, a great source of irritation in the entrails of US military strategists. Numerous studies have focused upon political, military, and societal concerns in attempting to unravel the mystery that made the Princess of the Iron Fan an alias for Uncle Sam. The enigma of a war won by an enemy that lost every battle of significance is a concept seemingly unfathomable to the dictates of reason.

Many works have laid the blame for the US defeat on political restrictions imposed upon the military, specifically the US Air Force.1 This contention is still held by many of the Air Force high command who served during the conflict. An assertion that embodies this attitude was stated by Lt Gen Joseph Moore, 2d Air Division commander in 1969, not long after the abandonment of operation Rolling Thunder. Moore contended that the Air Force "was not effective in knocking out the will to fight ... of the North Vietnamese, because we weren't allowed to hit those targets that would have done that."2

Whether his contention is true or not is immaterial. His statement may have a certain degree of validity, but one must remember that war is a means of achieving a political end. To deny this basic truth is to deny any purpose for the existence of the military other than gratuitous violence. In war, the political and the military are inextricably intertwined. Faulting one without acknowledging the other indicates that the military does not understand its subordinate role as a means to a goal. As long as there are wars, there will be political restrictions upon military actions and targets.

Limited war was not a new concept in the years just before the United States' formal entrance into the Vietnam War. The United States was only a decade beyond its involvement in the Korean War. Limited war had also reared its head in Malaya, Algeria, and Indochina just a few years before.

Neither were restraints upon air power a new concept. In Malaya (1948 -60) the Royal Air Force (RAF) was not allowed to strike rubber or timber holdings so as to avoid disrupting the Malayan economy.3 One of the first applications of political constraints on air power occurred at Chankufeng, China, in 1938 during the Sino-Japanese War. 4 At Chankufeng, a small town on the border with the USSR, the Soviets had struck at Japanese forces with air power in order to retake Japanese-held Soviet garrisons. Capt Kusaka Ryunosuke, operations chief on the Japanese naval general staff, advocated the withholding of air power to avoid enlarging the affair to include a war with the USSR.5 His advice was taken, and the Japanese were able to avoid a serious confrontation with the Soviets, allowing themselves time to build up their navy for the approaching world war.

All of the aforementioned conflicts fall under Bernard Brodie's definition of limited war, which he formulated for the Rand Corporation in 1958. Brodie, one of the most influential cold war theorists at the time, stated that "while limited war in the past meant limited effort ... for the present and the future it must mean restraint ... and a deliberate resort to use less efficient measures."6 Perhaps the Air Force's difficulties in understanding the necessity of restraint in Vietnam stemmed from its vague definition of limited war in 1960, defining it as "armed conflict short of general war in which the overt engagement of US military force is directed."7

In 1965, however, the Air Force did show some understanding of Brodie's definition of limited war; during Operation Rolling Thunder, whether deliberate or not, the Air Force displayed a particular knack for using "less efficient measures." Initiated in early 1965, Rolling Thunder was a strategic/interdiction campaign designed to convince the North Vietnamese that they could not win.8 This objective was to be achieved through graduated and increasingly intense bombing strikes upon military and logistics targets in North Vietnam. Stated specifically in a message from the commander in chief of the Pacific Air Forces (CINCPACAF) to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in 1965, Rolling Thunder's military objective was to

reduce the movement of personnel and supplies to support the VC [Vietcong and at the same time] develop and drive home to the DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] leadership the idea that our staying power is greater than theirs.9

Through both strategic and tactical interdiction,10 Rolling Thunder's specific objectives would be achieved (the Air Force--along with the Johnson administration--recognized, however, that total interdiction would be impossible).11 AFM 1--7, Theater Air Forces in Counter Air, Interdiction, and Close Air Support, the Air Force's tactical doctrine manual in 1965, saw the goal of interdiction as destroying or neutralizing "the enemy military potential before it can be brought to bear effectively against our own forces and to restrict the mobility of hostile forces by disrupting enemy lines of communication."12 AFM 1--7 identified four means to achieve this goal: isolating the battlefield, destroying supplies, delaying enemy forces, and harassing the enemy.13

Accordingly, the JCS advanced a target list that it felt would best be suited to achieve the military objective, while recognizing the necessity for restraint. The "94 target list" advanced by the JCS clearly indicated "that the JCS desired to wage a classic strategic bombing campaign and a complementary interdiction campaign against North Vietnam."14 The JCS plan called first for the destruction of airfields--attacks on petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) were given next priority followed by the "progressive destruction of the enemy's industrial web"15 --reverting to the Douhetan concept of "destroying the birds while still in the nest."

However, the spectre of the Chinese intervention in Korea still hung over President Lyndon Johnson's head, and the JCS plan was rejected for fear of escalating the Vietnamese conflict into a war that would include the Chinese and the Soviets. Thus, only a small portion of the JCS target list was initially approved for bombing. Additionally, the administration involved itself in the strategic and tactical aspects of the war, establishing stringent rules of engagement--to the chagrin of the Air Force. After a short time, some of the reins were loosened following Air Force complaints that the administration was keeping the military from effectively performing its task. Nevertheless, the Air Force, grudgingly felt that it could still accomplish its mission and generally supported the campaign.16 Even so, the residual pain from the administration's rejection of the 94-target list manifested itself among the military after the abandonment of Rolling Thunder in October 1968. The inability to hit the enemy's "industrial web" early on was a point of contention for the Air Force. As stated by General Moore in 1969, "We had several military targets of some importance [on the list], such as a steel mill up near Hanoi ... a couple of other big cement plants [and] several POL storage areas."17 In the most basic sense, the 94-target list reflected an inability to identify the enemy's real vulnerabilities; the majority of the targets on the initial list were eventually hit over the three and one-half years leading to Rolling Thunder's inauspicious culmination, with little impact upon the outcome of the conflict.18 Regarding General Moore's complaint both the steel mill and cement plants were destroyed during Rolling Thunder with no significant effect upon the enemy.19 With respect to the POL storage areas, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army regulars in South Vietnam did not have much use for oil. As was stated by Gen Alejandro Bayo, the man responsible for training Fidel Castro's insurgent troops, "Feet and legs are the engine of the guerrilla."20

What, then, was the Air Force role in the failure of Rolling Thunder? Certainly, the political hierarchy was partially responsible, but as was stated earlier, the military must adapt to and work within the political restraints imposed upon it in warfare. Several developments after the Korean War hindered the application of a sound Air Force air power doctrine during Rolling Thunder. Disregarding the political aspects and focusing solely upon Air Force doctrinal inputs between the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts, several developments portended the ineffectual application of air power during Rolling Thunder. Basically, the Air Force high command's failure to comprehend the past lessons of limited war, counterinsurgent operations, and guerrilla warfare led to the establishment of an unrealistic objective and the reluctance to change tactics during Rolling Thunder--in addition to the reluctance to properly prepare for the contingency of people's war.21

The Korean War was a special case, and air power can learn little from there about its future role in the United States foreign policy in the East.
Thomas K. Finletter
Secretary of the Air Force, 1950-53

Ignorance at the strategic level was nurtured by a "tunnel vision" view of warfare, especially after the Korean War. The United States had mixed emotions about its outcome, experiencing a distaste for "victory" in which the enemy was not totally defeated. The anti-limited war sentiment was espoused in a "No more Koreas!" rally cry from the government, the American people, and the military.22 This feeling was present throughout most of the Air Force high command; the general consensus was that there were no lessons to be learned from Korea. In addition to Finletter's assessment, adding more fuel to the fire was the conclusion of the Far East Air Forces (FEAF) report published at the end of the war. The report stated that "any attempt to build an air force from the model of Korean requirements could be fatal to the United States."23 The Air Force developed a tunnel vision view of warfare, contending that the next war would be general, and one in which nuclear weapons could play a decisive factor.

Despite signing the report, Gen Otto P. Weyland, who commanded the FEAF from 1951-55, soon altered its opinion when subsequently serving the commander of Tactical Air Command (TAC). When asked in 1954 what he had learned from the Korean conflict and the respects of future warfare, Weyland started, "We have learned that a problem isn't necessarily stopped by the signing of a truce, or by a temporary political adjudication."24 When serving as commander of TAC in 1956, Weyland fell in line with the conclusion reached by a Rand study published in the same year regarding future warfare.25 Weyland said, "I feel rather strongly that the most likely conflict in the immediate future will be the peripheral type. In this event it will be primarily a tactical air war."26

Weyland's prophetic claims were not the first to be ignored and would not be the last. At a time when the Air Force was sending military aid and advisors to South Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese counter the threat posed by Ho Chi Minhbacked Communist insurgents, Brig Gen Jamie Gough, director of operations at Headquarters USAF, discussed how the RAF applied counterinsurgent (COIN) doctrine to the Malayan emergency in an article for Airman magazine. A British army commander advised General Gough that should the US involve itself in COIN warfare, "it should be ready for a long, drawn out affair."27

The lessons of current combat in COIN warfare abounded. The British had recently successfully completed a COIN action that had lasted from 1948 to 1960. Additionally, the French effectively used air power in the Algerian campaign (1954-61). The French success in Algeria was apparently the result of hard-learned lessons from their failure in Indochina (1945-54).

The advent of people's war posed perplexing problems to those forces trying to defeat insurgents. Combat against guerrilla forces had recently taken place in Malaya, Algeria, and Indochina, affording the Air Force the opportunity to learn relevant lessons at no cost. Ironically, the lessons, if any, that the Air Force did learn resulted in the ineffective application of air power during Rolling Thunder.

The army must become one with the people so that they see it as their own army. Such an army will be invincible.
--Mao Tse-tung

The British and the French did not believe in the infallibility of Mao's teachings. The British success in quelling a Communist insurgency in Malaya was a testament to the Royal Air Force's ability to adapt to and work within political restrictions and the significant problems inherent to COIN warfare. The French effort in Algeria, despite a political loss, was generally viewed as a very effective application of air power against a determined enemy.28 On the other hand, the problems posed by the Vietminh in Indochina were a significant factor in the French defeat of 1954. These same problems would appear again when the Air Force became actively involved (beyond the advisory role) in Vietnam several years later.

The situations Malaya and Algeria paralleled the Vietnam War in many ways. The Malayan emergency was strictly a ground war, fought primarily in dense jungle terrain, with the RAF having to deal with difficult weather conditions but enjoying the advantage of air superiority.29 The Algerian uprising shared the aforementioned similarities with one exception--the Moslem insurgents operated in terrain covering the spectrum from dense cities to open desert. Different from Vietnam was the fact that the insurgents never reached the conventional phase; the insurgent action was restricted it the first and second phases of people's war30 where guerrilla action was limited to intimidation, terror, and persuasion of the populace to support the Communist party.31

The British in Malaya and the French in Algeria viewed COIN warfare as primarily a matter of "identification, isolation, and annihilation of the enemy."32 Consequently, air strikes were relagated to secondary status while find it was primary importance was in the roles of aerial resupply, reconnaissance, and close air support.33 Aerial resupply was the most important role for the RAF because it allowed the foot soldier freedom of movement without being tied down to a logistical base. For the French, reconnaissance was the first priority of air power; reconnaisance allowed the French to "detect the enemy and keep him under surveillance until the effective force could be applied against him."34 Close air support (CAS) was employed when the army alone could not handle the matter.35

The effectiveness of the British and French CAS efforts sheds light upon the organizational structure employed. Each had a very simplified organizational system (a joint operations center) which allowed on-the-scene prioritization of resource allocation, strike authorization, and the issuance of skeleton operation orders.36 From the Malayan and Algerian campaigns, the Air Force could have learned the following lessons: expect a long confrontation, understand the importance of joint-service action, employ a simplified command structure, and realize that air power, although not decisive, still plays an integral role.

The effectiveness of French air power in the Algerian campaign was more than likely heightened by the lessons learned from the French-Indochina War. The French air force was able to adapt quickly to the needs dictated by combat. Additionally, the French in general understood guerrilla tactics, consequently applying the most effective force to counter the situation.37 In essence, the French COIN doctrine was dynamic in nature, allowing the French air force to act effectively, though not decisively.

Certainly, the French experience in Indochina, more so than in Algeria or the British in Malaya, had the most similarities to what the Air Force would see a decade later in the same region. In the enemy being fought, the type of war being waged, the area of battle, and methods employed, the war in Indochina was a veritable crystal ball--if only the Air Force had looked.

The enemy was the Vietninh, an insurgent force led by the leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. The military genius under Ho's leadership was Gen Vo Nguyen Giap, the subsequent military leader of the DRV (North Vietnam). Both of these men would lead guerrilla armies against US forces in South Vietnam a decade after their victory over the French.

The war actually followed Mao's three phases of classic people's war. Immediately after World War II, signs of unrest among the population appeared, directed towards the French leadership in Vietnam.38 Ho Chi Minh's poorly equipped guerrilla forces struck in earnest on 19 December 1946, as the Vietminh launched attacks on French-held garrisons. These attacks did relatively little damage but attracted the attention of the French, who sent in 100,000 troops determined to crush the Vietminh insurgency.39

The Vietminh remained within Mao's first two phases, gaining recruits and procuring weapons until 1949, the turning point for the Vietminh. The success of Mao's insurgency in China offered the Vietminh an ally who provided a great deal of Soviet and Chinese weaponry in addition to a sanctuary for supplies and forces. This development portended the evolution of the Vietminh to a truly conventional force. In 1950 the Vietminh moved into the third place of operations, destroying French outposts along the Chinese border, allowing the increase of supplies to Giap's army. In 1951 the Vietminh engaged French forces, overwhelming their garrisons but sustaining enormous losses. Ho's forces withdrew to phase-two operations until 1952.40 In that year the Vietminh returned to conventional operations, establishing a solid presence in Vietnam north of the 17th parallel (what was later the line between North and South Vietnam).41 In early 1954 the Vietminh attacked the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, overrunning the French position on 7 May and securing a French surrender.42

French air force officers believed in 1954 that the loss occurred as the result of the misuse of air power. The main complaint was that air power was tied too much to the army when a better application would have been to use it in an air interdiction role. When the French did begin interdiction operations in 1952, they claimed to have reduced Chinese aid from 1,500 to 250 tons per month. The Vietminh reacted by moving at night and employing varied routes, effectively countering the French interdiction effort.43

The French air force encountered a significant problem in the application of close air support; the enemy was often difficult to locate, except in battle. When not engaged, the Vietminh were dug in and "artful when it came to dispersal, camouflage and concealment."44 The Vietminh would also mingle with the populace, making it difficult to distinguish them from the civilians. Finally, the Vietminh would often begin attacks at night to limit the capability of air power. If a battle lasted into the daylight hours, the Vietminh avoided air attack by "clinging" to the enemy, thus neutralizing French air power for fear that friendly forces might be hit.45

The countermeasures, strategies, and tactics employed by the Vietminh would again be seen in Vietnam in 1965-68. It appeared as if air power had no role in COIN operations; interdiction was ineffective, CAS was difficult, and airlift was inefficient. The British applied air power effectively in Malaya under somewhat similar conditions. What was the problem? A Rand study completed for the Air Force in 1961 concluded that the French loss was not due to tying air power to the army as the French air force officers felt; rather, the French loss was the result of their determination to "adhere to their accustomed methods of warfare even when they were no longer paying off."46 (Along with the countermeasures strategies, and tactics of the Vietnminh, the reluctance to change would also make an unfortunate reappearance in 1965--68.)

In a previously classified US document analyzing the effectiveness of Air Force interdiction from the beginning of Rolling Thunder to May 1966, the following assessment was made:

Although the strikes have achieved some reduction in the capabilities of the LOC [lines of communication] system and are making logistics operations difficult and costly, the ability of the NVN [North Vietnamese] to support activities in Laos and SVN [South Vietnam] with men and material has not been significantly affected.47

The Air Force continued its support of Rolling Thunder because it still believed it could achieve the objective of persuading the North Vietnamese that they could not win. All that had to he done was to increase the effectiveness of its interdiction operations. How did the Air Force intend to do this? The same report cited that an enemy battalion had a consumption rate of 34 tons per day. This was calculated from the North Vietnamese current engagement rate of once every 30 days (the report failed to mention the Vietcong engagement rate). The report then cited that the enemy requirement would be increased to 138 tons per day if he were forced to engage once every seven days.48 The fact that the Air Force was still pursuing the notion that the North Vietnamese could be convinced that US "staying power was greater than theirs," and that the Air Force felt it could do this by forcing the enemy to engage on a massive scale, displays one thing: a great deal of ignorance regarding the basics of insurgent doctrine.

If the enemy attacks, I disappear; if he defends, I harass; and if he retreats I attack.
--Mao Tse-tung

The above quote is insurgent warfare in a nutshell. The insurgent has no set timetable; the insurgent cannot be forced to attack; if the enemy attacks, the guerrilla will be very hard to find.

Ironically, Mao's teachings, along with Giap's and various works about insurgencies and how they have been countered in the past (Malaya, Indochina, Japan, the Philippines, the Arab revolt, the Germans in World War II), appeared in the USAF Counter-Insurgency Orientation Course book. The aforementioned was only a small portion of the course book, which was required reading at the Air Command and Staff College in 1962. Throughout the course book, the theme of the protractedness of guerrilla warfare was emphasized. The very man the Air Force was trying to "outlast" had this to say about guerrilla warfare:

This strategy must be the strategy of long-term war.... If from the outset, the conditions are favorable to the people ... the revolutionary war can end victoriously in a short time. But the war of liberation of the Vietnamese people started in quite different conditions: we had to deal with a much stronger enemy.... In a word, it was impossible for us to defeat the enemy swiftly.49

General Giap was talking about the French-Indochina War; he could just as well have been talking about the war to follow in 1964.

But when Giap spoke, the US Air Force did not listen. The Air Force felt that it could handle any situation that arose because it was technologically superior. However, the Air Force ignored an important fact when assessing its COIN capabilities; guerrillas are able to choose when and where they want to fight, thus keeping tight reins over the initiative. The insurgent compels the enemy to fight a reactionary war; if the conditions do not suit the guerrillas, they merely revert to the second or even the first phase of people's war. The US Air Force did not have a grasp of this concept. At the Vietnam Symposium in May 1967, Maj Gen Gilbert L. Meyers, deputy commander of Seventh Air Force from July 1965 to August 1966, concluded, "The fact that the North Vietnamese ... have not mounted a sustained offensive in over a year, substantiates the effectiveness of our interdiction efforts."50 Gen John P. McConnell, chief of staff, offered this assessment to the audience at the Air Force Association convention in March 1967:

[The enemy] can still harass and ambush and smile; but lie no longer has any chance of winning; he knows it and our men know it. Our bombing of selected targets in North Vietnam is contributing an important share in that end. The enemy's hue and cry about such bombing is compelling proof that our strikes are hurting him and impeding the flow of supplies to the South .... I am convinced that the mounting pressure of such "strategic persuasion" will ultimately prove a major factor in making the Communists amenable to negotiations.51

Had Air Force planners read their lessons regarding guerrilla warfare, they might have found that making the guerrilla "amenable to negotiations" is a rather insignificant, if not irrelevant, goal. One of the tactics of the guerrilla is to negotiate only in order to further "protect" the war. The guerrilla has no interest in compromise. According to Mao, negotiation "is undertaken for the dual purpose of gaining time to buttress a position (military, political, social, economic) and to wear down, frustrate, and harass the opponent."52

All the information necessary to understand guerrilla warfare was available to the Air Force years before the American entrance into the Vietnam War. Why did the Air Force not do its homework?53 Why did the Air Force not feel the need to establish some sort of doctrine applicable to counterinsurgent warfare?

In the most basic sense, the Air Force failed to prepare for COIN warfare because it thought it could handle any contingency. The general feeling was summed up best by a previously classified Air Force file in 1958:

It has been postulated that if we prepare adequately for total war, then we can handle limited wars in stride with the forces so created. Opponents to this idea raise objections that: Total war forces cannot efficiently perform limited war tasks, i.e., the idea of using a sledgehammer to kill a gnat.54

Though stated in 1958, there is evidence that the sledgehammer mentality was still present just prior to Vietnam. In a 1962 special study done for the Air Force titled Basic Problems in Counter-Guerrilla Air Operations, the author states, "It seems unlikely that nuclear weapons will find usefulness in the early, bandit-like stage of guerrilla operations.... They may be very useful when warfare begins to enter the third, more conventional, stage."55 A statement made in 1963 by then Lt Gen Gabriel P. Disosway, a little over a year before becoming commander of TAC, reflected the same line of thinking. In reference to guerrilla warfare, which he deemed a threat of "the greatest magnitude," Disosway said, "One sortie and one low-yield nuclear bomb would do the same job on a specific tactical objective as 8,000 sorties with 25 million pounds of napalm."56 The optimist might note that he was at least not talking about a sledgehammer-a ball peen hammer maybe, but not a sledgehammer. It was this type of ignorance regarding the basics of limited warfare and why "less efficient measures" must be used that was severely detrimental to the preparation of the Air Force for COIN warfare.

Without preparedness superiority is not real superiority and there can be no initiative either. Having grasped this point, a force which is inferior but prepared can often defeat a superior enemy.
Mao Tse-Tung

The US Air Force was poorly prepared for the problems posed by people's war. The tunnel vision previously alluded to significantly hindered the development of an applicable tactical doctrine. This reluctance to take the threat of insurgent warfare seriously was evident in Air Force tactical manuals. The 1964 version of AFM 1-1, United States Air Force Basic Doctrine, the basic Air Force doctrinal manual, devoted only two of 13 pages to conventional air operations. The rest of the manual discussed air operations in the context of general war, with the emphasis upon the employment of nuclear Weapons.57

AFM 51-44, Fighter and Fighter-Bomber Employment in Tactical Air Operations, was the operational manual in use at the commencement of Rolling Thunder. Published in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, the manual provides startling insight into how much effort the Air Force felt was necessary in preparing its fighter pilots for conventional operations. Stationary trucks (trucks in general were a prime target during the interdiction efforts of Rolling Thunder) were to be attacked only after the pilot was able to detect whether it was a decoy. According to the manual, trucks are sometimes camouflaged by making them look inoperable; the pilot can determine if the truck is a decoy by noting that "the condition of the windshield and the tires usually indicate the condition of the target."58

Of course, that was predicated upon the fighter-bomber being able to find and hit the target. The average number of trucks damaged or destroyed per 100 sorties over the first year of Rolling Thunder was rather small (3.7).59 Perhaps this number was so small because the pilots heeded the advice of AFM 51-44 regarding camouflage detection:

Detection of vehicles in heavily wooded areas ... is extremely difficult because of the dense foliage.... The pilot must fly low and slow enough to look under and through the frees to detect the enemy; Any unusual mound of freshly cut foliage, would be investigated and, if necessary, fired into.60

These recommendations, no matter how impractical, did at least show that the Air Force knew that the enemy would be difficult to locate during COIN warfare. Nevertheless, judging from the low number of trucks damaged or destroyed, the Air Force did a lot of weed killing.

The primary emphasis on nuclear weapons delivery by TAC, after the Korean War was a significant factor contributing to the Air Force's low truck-kill total in Vietnam. In order to keep Tactical Air Command a viable force in the face of a shrinking budget, General Weyland (commander of TAC) began training pilots for a nuclear role in the mid-1950s.61 Weyland, whose prophetic cries regarding future warfare were ignored, displayed his inability to comprehend the need for restraint in limited war in a statement in which he reminisced about Korea:

I vividly remember during, the Korean War the tremendous number of high-explosive bombs our B-29s rained on the bridge over the Han River.... One low-yield atomic weapon delivered by a tactical fighter ... would have destroyed that bridge.62

By the time Operation Rolling Thunder began rolling, pilots had loosened to a 750-foot circular error probable (CEP)--the radius from the aim point that half of the bombs dropped will fall within. This number is sufficient for the impact of a tactical nuclear weapon but is far from adequate for conventional weaponry. It took several years for the CEP to be lowered to a manageable 365 feet.63

The general lack of preparedness for what Vietnam would hold in store for the Air Force was best summed up by a study titled Tactical Warfare and the Limited War Dilemma. Done for the Air Force in 1961, the report came to the conclusion that

TAC is without a reasonable sense of mission, present resources, or an adequate development program; SAC [Strategic Air Command] is clearly inappropriate for this role and should not be diverted from its main deterrent mission in any case; MATS [Military Air Transport Command, now Military Airlift Command] is equipped and deployed for peacetime logistics and "pipe-line" operations and only now is beginning to think seriously about developing a believable capability to support tactical operations.64

But then, who was going to argue with a princess carrying a sledgehammer?

After three and one-half years of bombing North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder came to an inconclusive end on 1 November 1968. The North Vietnamese agreed to negotiate with the United States in Paris but in no way indicated that they were prepared to stop fighting in the South or that they had been forced to come to the conference on US terms.65 What was the Air Force role in the failure of Rolling Thunder?

At the root of the Air Force failure in Rolling Thunder was a basic misconception about limited insurgent warfare despite the evidence of teachings at the Air Command and Staff College and the lessons available to the Air Force through Malaya, Algeria, and Indochina. Ignorance regarding the needs and motives of insurgents allowed the Air Force to support a highly questionable objective that was never achieved. The Air Force's own ignorance regarding people's war resulted in a reluctance to change tactics that were essentially ineffective. This reluctance to change was nurtured in the years before Vietnam and hindered the Air Force's abilities to recognize the potential threat posed by people's war. Consequently, the Air Force lacked the foresight necessary to prepare for such a contingency.

This last consequence is a bit of a surprise considering how intimate the Air Force is with the teachings of Italian air marshal Giulio Douhet. It was he who said, "Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.66


1. An interesting work is W. Hays Parks's "Rolling Thunder and the Law of War." Air University Review, January-February 1982, 2-23. Parks contends that the loss was a result of political ignorance regarding an unwritten "law of war." See also Col Dennis M. Drew's Rolling Thunder 1965: Anatomy of a Failure. AU-ARI-CP-86-3 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, October 1986). Drew provides intriguing insight into the political/military interface problems priority and during Rolling Thunder, establishing that its failure was in part due to the distrust bred between the Johnson administration and the JCS (34-49).

2. Mal Samuel E. Riddlebarger and Lt Col Valentino Castellina, USAF Oral History Interview of Lt Gen Joseph H. Moore (U), interview no. 41, 22 November 1969, 67. (CONFIDENTIAL) Information extracted is unclassified.

3. Robert L. Hardie, Airpower in Counterinsurgency Warfare, Professional Study no. 3373 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air War College, 1967), 29.

4. Alvin D. Coox, "Restraints on Air Power in Limited War: Japan vs. USSR at Chankufeng, 1938," Aerospace Historian 17 (December) 1970): 118.

5. Ibid., 118-19.

6. Bernard Brodie, The Meaning of Limited War, Rand Report RM-2224 (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, 1958), 1.

7. Instruction Circular no. 61-10, Unit X: Limited War (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air Command and Staff College, 1961),1.

8. Drew, 11.

9. Message, 120314Z, commander in chief Pacific, to JCS, May 1965.

10. For our purposes, strategic interdiction will be defined as "having payoffs that are only indirectly and in the long term related to [friendly] ground force success," (the point of manufacture); while tactical interdiction "has payoffs directly and immediately related to the success of friendly ground forces" (points of dissemination up to the battlefield). Edmund Dews, A Note on Tactical vs. Strategic Air Interdiction, Rand Report RM-6239-PR (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, April 1970), 1-3.

11. Message, 120314Z.

12. AFM 1-7, Theater Air Forces in Counter Air, Interdiction, and Close Air Support, 1954, 2.

13. According to AFM 1-7, isolation serves to "(1) compel the enemy to consume his forward supplies, (2) prevent reinforcements from being moved into the area, (3) prevent the withdrawal of forces, (4) prevent the shifting of forces within the area, (5) impose an untenable position on hostile forces." Destruction of supplies serves to reduce the level of resources readily available and "delay or deny critically needed resources for combat use." Delay gains time for friendly maneuvering and buildup while preventing the enemy from acting at his desired rate. The objective of harassment is "to cause the enemy general inconvenience, i.e., force the enemy to take extra measures to safeguard his resources." AFM 1-7, 13-14.

14. Drew, 30.

15. Ibid.

16. Message, 120314Z.

17. Interview of Lt Gen Joseph H. Moore, 13.

18. Although some might argue that air strikes are less effective when carried out over a long period of time-rather than early, intense, and short-the Air Force still emphasized the "vital" and decisive nature of these targets throughout Rolling Thunder until their destruction.

19. Interview of Lt Gen Joseph H. Moore, 13.

20. Quoted in USAF Counter-Insurgency Orientation Course (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air Command and Staff College, 1962), N-1-31.

21. Throughout this article, people's war, guerrilla warfare, and insurgent warfare will be used interchangeably.

22. Drew, 27.

23. Robert F. Futrell,The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950-1953, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1983), 693.

24. Otto P. Weyland, "Can Air Power Win in Little Wars?" U.S. News & World Report, 23 July 1954, 57.

25. N. C. Peterson, Comments on Warfare in the Next Ten to Twenty Years, Rand Report P-889 (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, 1956).

26. Quoted in M. J. Armitage and R. A. Mason, Air Power in the Nuclear Age, 2d ed. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 44-45.

27. Jamie Gough, "Airpower and Counter-Insurgency," Airman 6 (August 1962): 5.

28. The French were militarily effective in the Algerian uprising because they were able to isolate the Moslem insurgents from the rest of the population by the end of the conflict, in great part due to air power. However, the campaign was a political loss for the French because France could no longer economically maintain the ownership of its colony, Guerrilla Warfare and Airpower in Algeria, 1954-1960 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: US Aerospace Studies Institute, 1965), iv-vii.

29. Hardie. 23-25.

30. People's war-as defined by Mao and practiced by Communists in China, Malaya, Indochina, Cuba, and subsequently employed in South Vietnam--generally attempted to follow three phases. The first phase is characterized by terrorist strikes of an isolated nature against the enemy while the insurgents try to win the population over to their side. The second phase is characterized by increasing direct action against the enemy (ambushes, attacks on poorly defended outposts, sabotage, etc.); its primary purpose, is to procure arms and other essential material while continuing to enlist recruits. The last phase is the "decisive phase" where the guerrilla force "completes its transformation into an orthodox establishment capable of engaging the enemy in conventional battle." Mao Tse-tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1961), 21-23.

31. Hardie, 30.

32. Ibid., 44.

33. Gough, 6.

34. Hardie, 25.

35. Special operations also played a role as air power was used to drop leaflets and transmit recorded messages to help undermine the persuasive efforts of the Communists. Hardie, 25.

36. Hardie, 25. Granted, this sort of freedom was not available to the Air Force for strikes within North Vietnam, but there were no such restrictions upon air power (in the tactical interdiction role) in South Vietnam. The command structure employed throughout Vietnam extremely complex. North Vietnam and Laos were divided into seven route packages (RP) for the purpose of air operations. Each RP came under the authority of a different command, requiring separate inputs for target validation and strike authority. The various RPs came under the authority of the commander of US Military Assistance Command. Vietnam (COMUSMACV), the JCS, commander to chief of Pacific Air Forces (CINCPACAF), and the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT). PACAF-Corona Harvest; The USAF in Southeast Asia, 1970-1973; Lessons Learned and Recommendations; A Compendium, 16 June 1975.

37. Guerrilla Warfare and Airpower in Algeria, 16-17.

38. All of Vietnam (both North and South) had been a French colony before World War II but eventually fell under Japanese authority during the war. The political vacuum created by the absence of Japanese authority at the end of the war allowed the Vietminh to establish themselves as the de facto government of North Vietnam before the French could reoccupy the territory. The French recognized the DRV government as a free state within the French Union but would not grant it full independence. Bernard B. Fall, Street without Joy: Insurgency in Indochina, 1946-63, 3d rev. ed. (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1963), 24-28.

39. Phillip B. Davidson. Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975 (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1988), 42-47.

40. Fall, 29-57.

41. Davidson, 137-52.

42. Davidson provides an in-depth and exciting account of the battle at Dien Bien Phu, describing its origins, the strategies used, and the tactics employed (193-269).

43. George K. Tanham, "Communist Revolutionary Warfare," in USAF Counter-Insurgency Organization Course, vol. I (Maxwell AFB, Ala.; Air Command and Staff College, 1962). L-36.

44. Ibid., L-37.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid., L-38.

47. Headquarters USAF,Analysis of Effectiveness of Interdiction in SEA, Second Progress Report, May 1966, 33.

48. Ibid., 3.

49. Vo Nguyen Giap, People's War, People's Army; The Viet Cong Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1962), 46.

50. Maj Gen Gilbert L. Mayers, "Why Not More Targets in the North?"Air Force 50, no. 5 (May 1967); 77.

51. Gen John P. McConnell, "What the Air Force Is Learning from Vietnam," Air Force 50, no. 5 (May 1967): 45.

52. Mao Tse-tung, 22.

53. Some may argue that both the Johnson and Nixon administrations were also to share in the blame for not realizing the true nature of the negotiation process. However, civilian errors in judgment regarding military affairs should be anticipated in time of war; it is the military advisors' job to understand the enemy's intentions and persuade the president accordingly.

54. Project no. Au-1-57-ESAWAC, "The USAF in Limited War," 20 March 1958, 1, Special Collections, United States Air Force Academy Library.

55. John L. Phipps, Basic Problems in Counter-Guerrilla Air Operations (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air Command and Staff College, 1962), 56.

56. Lt Gen Gabriel P. Disosway, "Tactical Air Power," Ordnance 48 (July-August 1963): 47.

57. AFM 1-1. United States Air Force Basic Doctrine, 14. August 1964, 5-1 through 5-10.

58. AFM 51-44, Fighter and Fighter-Bomber Employment in Tactical Air Operations, 1953, 37.

59. Headquarters USAF,Analysis of Effectiveness, 37.

60. Ibid.

61. Gen Otto P. Weyland, "Air Power in Limited War," Ordnance 44 (July-August 1959):41.

62. Ibid., 43.

63. George Weiss, "TAC Air: Present and Future Lessons, Problems, and Needs," Armed Forces Journal, September 1971, 31.

64. Robert B. Johnson, Tactical Warfare and the Limited War Dilemma (Santa Barbara, Calif.: General Electric Co., 1961), 6.

65. Jon M. Van Dyke, North Vietnam's Strategy for Survival (Palo Alto. Calif.: Pacific Books, 1972). 22.

66. Giulio Douhet,The Command of the Air, Trans. Dino Ferrari (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1983), 30.


Cadet Diego M. Wendt is currently assigned to Cadet Squadron 33 at the United States Air Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado.


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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