May 2023

The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam

Tracing the use of air power in World War II and the Korean War, Mark Clodfelter explains how U. S. Air Force doctrine evolved through the American experience in these conventional wars only to be thwarted in the context of a limited guerrilla struggle in Vietnam. Although a faith in bombing’s sheer destructive power led air commanders to believe that extensive air assaults could win the war at any time, the Vietnam experience instead showed how even intense aerial attacks may not achieve military or political objectives in a limited war. Based on findings from previously classified documents in presidential libraries and air force archives as well as on interviews with civilian and military decision makers, The Limits of Air Power argues that reliance on air campaigns as a primary instrument of warfare could not have produced lasting victory in Vietnam. This Bison Books edition includes a new chapter that provides a framework for evaluating air power effectiveness in future conflicts.

About the Author

Mark Clodfelter

Dr. Mark “Clod” Clodfelter is professor emeritus of strategy at the National War College in Washington, DC, where he taught for 22 years. He has also taught at the Air Force Academy, the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and was an Air Force officer for nearly 23 years. During that span he led UNC’s Air Force ROTC detachment from 1994-1997. Clod has published widely and is the author of The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (Free Press, 1989; University of Nebraska Press, 2006), Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), Violating Reality: The Lavelle Affair, Nixon, and the Parsing of the Truth (National Defense University Press, 2016) and Fifty Shades of Friction: Combat Climate, B-52 Crews, and the Vietnam War (National Defense University Press, 2016). In spring 2023, he completed his first novel, Between Two Shades of Blue, published by Air University Press, the first novel that AU Press has published since its 1953 founding. Clod’s areas of interest are military theory and strategy, with an emphasis on air power and limited war. He has a BS from the Air Force Academy, an MA from the University of Nebraska, and a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Clod is a die-hard fan of Carolina basketball, Air Force football, and St. Louis Cardinals baseball. He and his wife Donna are retired and live in Chapel Hill.

Book Club Session

Session Notes:

Air Force Historical Foundation Book Club (Session Eight)
The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam by Mark Clodfelder
17 May 2023
Moderated by Mr. “Pepe” Soto and Mr. Mike “Mobile” Holmes (Gen, USAF, Ret.); and featuring special guest, Dr. Mark Clodfelder
Key Take-Aways:
– Competition between Air Force and Navy and no unity of command in Air war over North Vietnam
– Per Clausewitz, There are 2 types of courage, both of which a nation must have for a successful military
o 1. Courage on the battlefield, but the more important is
o 2. Moral courage, which is the ability to think through problems & a willingness to sacrifice a career to do that
Opening Remarks by Mr. Pepe Soto and Ret Gen Holmes who introduced Dr. Clodfelter as a radar controller and a teacher at the Air Force Academy. He finished his career as the Professor of Aerospace Studies and Commander of the USAF ROTC detachment at UNC Chapel Hill. We’re going to talk about his books about his limits to air power in Vietnam. You can also download “Between Two Shades of Blue” from Air University press about the Air Force Academy and the experience of a young man who attends the Air force Academy as a member of the Class of 1977.
Dr. Clodfelter: I’m a 1977 graduate from the USAFA and did not serve in Vietnam as I was a high school student during the conflict. I remember when Nixon did his LINEBACKER 2 bombing offensive during Christmas. The thing I remember the most about that month was my appointment to the Air Force Academy.
I had a couple of factors that led me to serve as my dad was a corporal in WWII on Tinian when the Enola Gay conducted the fateful mission on Hiroshima. My dad made sure I saw all of strategic bombing movies about WWII and about B-17s or B-29s. When I got to the AFA in 1973, all of my instructors who were military flew and shared what they did in Vietnam. The instructors told me that if Lyndon B. Johnson had turned them loose like Nixon did in 1972, the Vietnam war would have ended much earlier.
Once I got out, I was a Ground Control Intercept (GCI) controller and most pilots I controlled also flew in Vietnam and I thought, “WOW, these guys were there!”
The spark that got me going what when I was a 1st Lt in Korea and my boss was John Allen who was in Hanoi during LINEBACKER II. He talked about what it was like on Dec 20th, when they lost 6 B-52s and 2 were heavily damaged. They had a mile between aircraft and three lines between cells and he told us about how terrified they were. All of a sudden, 7-8 miles ahead of them, a B-52 had taken a SAM hit in a Bombay. For LBII, they often had absolutely no radio or intercom for 30 solid seconds. On the 26th of Dec there were100 B-52s over Hanoi and Haiphong which was very different than what had occurred
previously. On the 29th of December with various missions throughout the night to include one at 5 AM, Allen said this one, there was just a little bit of light with thousands of people evacuating Hanoi. At that point, the North Vietnamese had shot off all SAMs, they had North Vietnamese on ropes and Nixon made them stop.
John Allen then asked “Clod you were the history major, why did he make us stop?” I said, “sir, I don’t know.” So, my mission in school was to answer John Allen’s question as a grad student in UNC Chapel Hill. My work consisted of 3 weeks at Maxwell, 10 min on the phone with Robert McNamera, 2 hours with Sec State Dean Rust who was a law professor at the University of Georgia and in Spring 1987 I left UNC feeling pretty good about my findings. Dr. Peter Walker was Carolina’s expert on the civil war & Vietnam and asked me in my dissertation defense “as a hypothetical question, in the mid-1960s, if you want to use Air Power in Vietnam and can only select on type of aircraft, which would it be?” I thought this was a perfect/ideal question and I was not giving a biased or parochial question so I answered the Navy A-6 Intruder which was night, precision and all weather capable. To that, Walker said, “what do you think about helicopters?” I realized I went with the normal Air Force mindset of Airpower equating to a jet. I shrunk into my seat and the next 2 ½ hours of dissertation defense were not as fun as I expected! Ultimately, I think if we’d done as Nixon did it in 75, we would have ended the war in 2 years.
Question from the audience: Are you planning to update the book now as more information has become declassified?
Dr. Clodfelter: After conducting two sabbaticals at War College and studying with B-52 crew members, I’ve looked at classified info, but everything I saw that has been declassified didn’t change my views.
Mr. Soto: I liked the way you broke down the use of airpower into three distinct air campaigns, ROLLING THUNDER, LINBACKER I and LINEBACKER II. But in one of your lectures, you do a much deeper break down of the air wars into six air wars in South Vietnam (Army, USMC, Navy, USAF/Fighter, USAF/Bombers and the VNAF) and three outside of the South (Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam) Can you elaborate on how you came to this breakdown (which I very much agree with)?
Dr. Clodfelter: Talking about the entire war, you have to mention the six Air Wars. The statistics are staggering in which they dropped one million bombs in North Vietnam, three million bombs in Laos and Cambodia and four million bombs in the country of our Ally, the South Vietnamese.
The biggest resemblance in the wars is that there was no unity of command, which meant that B-52s were off limits to the 7th Air Force Commander. It allowed for the MATV commanders to control the area and B-52s which meant that there was never anyone in Air Force blue controlling the theater. I Corps was in the south and the Navy had the South China Sea. The job was to bomb the north and coordination with the Air Force was minimal. It was sad because there were two services who were committing all sorts of manpower and materiel to attack the targets in the north and the Air Force and Navy ended up getting into competition. This resulted from political control in the white house and eventually the Pacific CC ADM Sharp finding it
difficult to show progress in 1966. Since the North was divided into 7 different routes with the Navy over Haiphong and the AF over Hanoi, consolidating success was tough.
Question from the audience (Michael Brazelton): I was an F-105 pilot in 66 and flew a total of 111 missions. I was unfortunate enough to be shot down on the 111th and spent most of the war as a POW. My question is, if tactical Aircraft could have gone against steel mills, cement factories, oil storage facilities early in the war, would that have made a difference?
Dr. Clodfelter: Research shows that it would not have made a big difference. We bombed Haiphong for the first time in 1966, but the great problem was that the Vietcong were able to fight with few supplies from North Vietnam daily. (more explanation available in video recording)
Question from the audience (Darrell Whitcomb): In reference to General Lavelle and his exoneration, the White House tapes that were declassified from Nixon/Kissinger in 2002 offer evidence that he was thrown under the bus for what Nixon ordered him to do. What happened here and what is going to happen?
Dr. Clodfelter: In 2010, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) (based on 2009 Obama request) examined whether or not to restore 2 Stars to make Lavelle a 4 star general in retirement, after he was fired and lost two stars for allegedly ordering illegal bombing runs in Vietnam. Carl Levine was the SASC Chair with Senator McCain at the time and they decided they couldn’t endorse it, although members of the senate provided a list of evidence required.
I also found things that indicated that Lavelle was innocent. I always thought that if you make it to the rank of General or Admiral, you’re a pretty standup guy, but realized I was naïve throughout my career. I found out that Gen John Ryan (CSAF), Admiral Thomas Moorer (CJCS), and Gen Creighton Abrams (Commander of Forces in Vietnam and then CSA) did not tell the truth regarding Lavelle. Documents indicate that the 3 and 4 stars didn’t want a stain on their records and painted Lavelle as a bad apple.
There were so many things that were wrong in Vietnam to include the lack of unity of command, which helped lead to the creation of the JFACC today and spurred the Goldwater Nichols act which took the CJCS and the Service chiefs (to include the CSAF) out of the operational chain of command.
Mr. Whitcomb: 43 Generals all signed that Lavell should get his stars back, but Goldfein, Wilson and Mattis had to restart the process [after the 2010 SASC decision to not exonerate Lavelle.]
Question from the audience (Bill Strandberg): President Johnson was concerned about Chinese entry into Vietnam as happened in Korea. General Kenney was impressive in WWII and it appeared that Army Air Corps support was better in the Pacific at that point. Did we lose something between the end of WWII and Vietnam?
Dr. Clodfelter: In WWII, the reason it worked so well is because MacArthur and Kenney had a deep respect and appreciation for one another. MacArthur’s staff was a group of simple folks so
when Kenney shows up at MacArthur’s HQ and picks up a white piece of paper, puts dot on the piece of paper and says this is how much you know about airpower, the rest of the paper was what Kenney knew about Airpower, it made a clear point. If you ask for the definition of victory in Vietnam, you’ll get 10 different answers. McNamara and others created a culture of animosity and service parochialism. They made it a fight to see who could do the most.
Question from the audience: Why do you think AF leadership did not demand honest criticism & questions from their subordinates?
Dr. Clodfelter: Tactics were flawed. Leadership ordered people to fly sorties but instilled a fear of getting honest evaluations and a fear of questioning commands. We say we want innovation, but if you criticize policy or program it’s frowned upon.
This gets back to Clausewitz who says there are 2 types of courage:
1. Courage on the battlefield, but the more important is
2. Moral courage, which is the ability to think through problems & a willingness to sacrifice a career to do that
A nation must have both to be a successful military. We were in a tight conflict for most of Vietnam and you couldn’t tell if you were winning or losing because you couldn’t’ see if enemy forces were pushed back. Like Clausewitz states, the enemy’s resistance is equal to two things: their capability and their will. It’s often hard to determine what the enemy is doing and what you can affect, and looking at Vietnam now, it’s easy comparatively speaking with all of the inputs commanders face from outside sources.
Additionally, you need to think about what you do against an enemy that does disinformation operations. There are a lot of similarities between Vietnam and the more recent conflict in Afghanistan. Looking at Russian versus Ukrainian political objectives, Ukraine seeks to expel Russia and maintain western support, while Russia has very few negative objectives, like to not use nukes.
Closing Remarks
Mr. Holmes: You helped prepare a generation of young airmen and officers across War College on how to build opinions from various sources. As part of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, in 1986, one of the exercises was built to demonstrate how to work Air Power & an Air War Plan, which this book also speaks to. Thank you for this book and your time, Clod!