Linebacker: The Untold Story of the Air Raids Over North Vietnam
Twelve days that shook the world. The beginning of the end.
In late 1972, the Vietnam peace talks were stalled, with the war at perhaps its most crucial point. The United States was searching for a way to strangle North Vietnam’s war-waging capabilities by shutting down its supply pipelines in order to force it back to the negotiating table.
The solution: Linebacker II, a massive, intricately coordinated twelve-day assault by over 700 combat aircraft against vital targets around Hanoi and Haiphong, enemy cities heavily guarded by MiGs, SAM missiles, and radar-guided anti-aircraft.
Here is an unprecedented look at one of the most critical campaigns of modern air warfare, documented in rich, fascinating detail. It is told in the vividly personal words of the pilots and crews who flew the missions — men who dramatically helped to end the American role in the Vietnam conflict and to bring the POWs home.
About the Author
Karl J. Eschmann
Book Club Session
Air Force Historical Foundation Book Club
Linebacker: The Untold Story of the Air Raids Over Vietnam by Karl Eschmann
16 February 2023
Moderated by Mr. “Pepe” Soto and Mr. Mike “Mobile” Holmes (Brig Gen, USAF, Ret.); and featuring special guest, Mr. Karl Eschmann (Col, USAF, ret.)
Mr. Soto: Welcome to the first book club of 2023!
Mr. Holmes: Thank you to the team behind the scenes that helps put this together. From the Historical Society, we thank you for joining us and glad you are back with us this year.
The top three (leadership) in the squadrons in my generation (1983-1984) were almost always veterans of the Vietnam War. They carried with them the lessons from this war closely, took the mistakes personally and wanted to be a part of the Air Force that addressed these challenges for the future. Karl, we are in your debt, and thank you for putting this book together.
Mr. Eschmann: I was a brand new 2 Lt and never thought I’d end up in the conflict. I was an OIC in the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron. I’m going to give a brief history prior to provide context leading into the discussion of the book.
1972 (Feb-Mar) marked the end of the ROLLING THUNDER air campaign following the 1968 Tet Offensive. President Nixon was seeking a way to exit the conflict with honor, thus initiating the process known as Vietnamization to bring self-sufficiency to the South Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese knew they had to invade before this process was effectively completed– so during March 1972 – on Easter – the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched a 13 Division size invasion. South Viernam was in full retreat and desperately needed airpower support. At this point, all air assets had left the country and were either in Thailand or Guam (B-52s), and the Carrier groups had sailed east for home.
With the remaining 250 Tactical Air (TACAIR) assets and handful of B-52s, we had to counter the NVA. For the first time, the NVA was in the open conducting a conventional conflict. We were able to kill them by the thousands, but we needed to do more than provide close air support (CAS). However, CAS would no longer suffice. A major air interdiction campaign was required. President Nixon ordered interdiction and port mining, and POL/LOC/log targets.
Within two weeks, we doubled the amount of TACAIR in Thailand, returned the carriers, and plussed up the B-52s in Guam.
Six weeks following the NVA’s invasion, LINEBACKER I began – involving 117 aircraft. However, B-52s were targeting tactical targets in the south, and fighters were aimed at strategic targets in the north.
Additionally, NVA Air Defenses were the most dense on the planet at the time – hundreds of Air Surveillance and Ground Control Intercept radars, thousands of surface to air missiles, 4000 air defense guns, and just over 200 MiGs (fighter aircraft). Haiphong was the most densely covered but held the highest payoff targets for supply and rail yards.
LINEBACKER I wrapped up in early October 1972, and the campaign had destroyed all the bridges, POL and fuel farms; destroyed 60% of power grid, and severely damaged many priority adversary logistics and sustainment targets. The NVA was getting less than 20% of sustainment required, so they began falling back from all fronts in the South. As a result, the NVA resumed peace talks and LINEBACKER I ended. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was confident peace was at hand. Instead, the NVA used this time to rebuild and leverage the shift of the monsoons from the south to the north (more favorable for concealing NVA), and on 15 December 1972 the NVA abandoned the peace talks.
Incensed, President Nixon ordered a 24-hour massive bombing campaign to “bring these people to their knees.” Thusly, LINEBACKER II commenced.
This was the first time the air campaign began bombing at night, with runs at 8pm, midnight, and 4am using the B-52 and A-6/F-111s out of Guam and Utapao, Thailand. The B-52s would ingress via NW Vietnam heading Southeast to strike targets primarily in Hanoi and Haiphong in three waves each night. However, there were an insufficient number of support aircraft available, making the ratio of combat support to strike unfavorable. B-52s also flew straight in to IP (Initial Point, the point at which weapons are released) for drop, no maneuvers were allowed in response to target tracking radars (TTRs), and would execute their post-target turns where NVA Air Defense systems were most dense and when onboard Counter Measures (CM) were least effective – exposing the B-52 aircraft at their most vulnerable.
On the first day, we lost three B-52s, but lost none on the second day – yet flew same routes as day 1 – not varying the altitude, direction, speed, IP, target, or turnouts. Meanwhile, the NVA was resetting the position and direction of their air defense systems. On day 3, we flew the same routes as the two previous days, the routes that the NVA had postured for, and we lost six B-52s. Nine in the first three days. It became obvious that we needed a new plan.
Days 4-7: Stage 2. B-52s attacked peripheral areas in single wave instead, and the ratio of support aircraft to bombers improved, and Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) support was tailored to the vulnerable parts of B-52 missions.
Days 8-11: Stage 3. Complete change of plan! 120 B-52s in a short period over Hanoi at different axis and routes. We lost 4 bombers on day 8, but on Day 10 we found where the NVA’s SA-2 resupply facility was and the B-52s went after that.
After 1364 Strike Sorties, the NVA was back at the negotiation table. However, this was after several years of war and numerous other US losses.
Why did you pick OPERATION LINEBACKER as a topic for your ACSC paper?
I wasn’t set on my subject until about a month before we moved. I went to dinner with my wife and our babysitter for the night was reading a world history book. I asked her if I could take a look at it, turning immediately to the section on Vietnam. I then found a section about LINEBACKER – and it claimed that there were thousands of civilian casualties! I knew this wasn’t true – and there were minimal casualties. I decided then and there that I would write about what really happened during LINEBACKER I and II. I was going to stick to the facts of the documents – and fortunately they had just recently declassified most of the documents from this period that I needed. I wrote about 234 pages, and had to hand draw all my diagrams. It was not a very popular topic, as there were some ugly realities in the operations and planning – our mistakes. I ended up winning the awards following ACSC for the paper – but the General commented that he didn’t understand how a non-rated guy could write about operations.
And how did this get turned into a book?
It was relegated to AU dustbins for a while– and then it was requested by a ROTC student’s father. It found its way to Random House who requested a refined manuscript. About nine months later, I sent it to them, and here we are.
Audience Question: If this had been done by LBJ (President Lyndon B. Johnson), how long would the air war have lasted? Do you think it would have affected target selection?
Good question, and it’s one we used to ask ourselves all the time. The problem is that LBJ did not unleash his military commanders to plan targets and tactical missions. We had strict rules of engagement during ROLLING THUNDER. As such, we allowed the NVA to train their pilots, get Surface to Air Missile Systems (SAMS) set up, and become a professional Air Defense force.
We could have stopped it then and before it started. We let them build one of the best Integrated Air Defense Systems any aircrew had yet to face. President Nixon eliminated all the sanctuary areas established under President Johnson – namely 10NM circles around Hanoi, Haiphong, dams, electrical grid, etc. These sanctuaries were known by the adversary, and the NVA put sustainment in them as a result. If we had tackled it earlier, I feel that it would have been different.
Also, during LINEBACKER, we had Laser Guided Bomb technology – which we didn’t have in ROLLING THUNDER days. This changed a lot in terms of targeting precision between these two operations. We could precisely put a bomb on a target without hitting civilians.
Mr. Holmes: I like how you took the emotion and politics out of it but brought in the first-hand accounts to make it realistic and personal to the reader. You describe the NVA Air Defense and all the support aircraft required to make missions work in this environment. What do you think of the cat and mouse changes to tactics by both sides, and what were the most important ones?
Zoom would have been great between us in Thailand! Instead, we flew everything by paper. Each day, we had a LINEBACKER summary conference. All planning entities flew in daily for a face-to-face meeting to debrief the day. It would fix the tactics for the day after next, as the next day’s missions had already been set and sent.
One example was that some of the Air to Surface missiles were unpredictable – normally the Weasels would do a preemptive shot of a Homing Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) to keep the Air Defense radars off. But, we would bring in dual launchers. We kept them (the NVA) guessing about how many HARMs the weasels would be carrying.
Another example was the VN549 SA-2 site near Radio Hanoi. We always suspected that the Russians were manning that site, and they had shot down 4-5 B-52s. The Weasels had zeroed in on the site, but due to weather they couldn’t see it – they fired an AGM-45 (HARM) anyway and hit, allowing the F-4Es to finish it off. There were stories like this daily.
We learned things in LINEBACKER I that we could apply to LINEBACKER II to better protect the BUFFs (B-52s) – but (Strategic Air Command) SAC was not aware. The lesson that ended up saving them was the recognition that an adequate TACAIR support ratio to the BUFFs was needed. By the end of LINEBACKER II, we had learned that very well. Between LINEBACKER I and II, the B-52s were working farther north and recognized they needed more TACAIR support integrated to protect them from the increasing threat density. We didn’t have a manual or a guide – this was all learned in process.
Can you draw any lessons from Vietnam and apply them to the situation in Ukraine and US involvement there?
The lessons are always the same, it is only the equipment that changes. There is no difference I can see in a lot of the things.
You need to have your targeting and integration of forces figured out. There was no Air Boss in Vietnam – centrally controlling the air assets within theater. We’ve fixed that. There was certainly no coordination between the joint forces.
Now, with the Ukrainians – they are fighting for their lives. They have good equipment, tactics, and leadership. Despite having more equipment and airplanes, the Russians aren’t using them properly and are losing as a result.
Audience Question: I am curious about how we talk about how we allowed the adversary to build stronger. The fall of Saigon looked a lot like the fall of Afghanistan. would be interested in the author’s comparison of Vietnam and Southwest Asia?
It’s not just that. The thing that has always irritated me is that we won the battles, but we lost the will. A congressionally mandated end date resulted in cutoff of support. We reneged on our commitment to the South Vietnamese to provide fuel, training, and other supplies. It’s similar in Iraq – but ISIS came in and had to go back in. Afghanistan – same story – we allowed them to corner us in Kabul while we had the resources to kill them, but didn’t. At this point, I’ve seen the fall of Saigon repeated at least three times.
Audience: I was a Forward Air Controller (FAC) during this. How do you assess our rescue efforts during LB and LB II? USAF, USN, Air America (Laos)?
When I was at Korat (Thailand), the C-130 Command Post for rescue was there. We diminished our A-1E rescue force by providing the aircraft to South Vietnam. However, the A-7s that came to theater quickly learned how to support. If we had an aircrew went down, we stopped the campaign and put every resource towards rescuing them. Most nations in the world do not understand why the US puts so much emphasis on saving those they can. There are hundreds of stories of Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts that were successful – I can remember an instance (17 Sep 72) we lost a Weasel crew. They had gone for a target in the north and a SA-2 shot them. Ultimately, they ejected near the coast and near the coastal guns, which opened fire as they came down into the water they were likely killed under chute.
Audience: Any thoughts about the role BG Sullivan may have played in changing B-52 tactics and risking his career to speak out?
Sullivan recognized that it wasn’t a good plan, so he allowed his aircrews to do things differently than as directed by higher headquarters – such as maneuvers. He went around his chain of command to argue that tactics and planning needed to change – but it wasn’t taken well by SAC. Every Airman in his squadron looked up to him for doing the right thing and doing everything he could to keep them alive. Ultimately, we adopted everything he suggested.
What would you like our guests to takeaway as a key lesson learned, for today’s Airmen, from your book?
I would always target Air Defense in the wargames, and win. If you’re going to do something, do what we did in Iraq: pound them to death in the first hours with sufficient forces. You build up your forces – which means you go at your own time. You don’t fight a war in such a way that allows the adversary to adjust (as LBJ did with his escalatory staging strategy). You fight a war in a way such that your opponent quickly realizes he is not going to win in the end.
Mr. Holmes: Air Superiority must be fought for by brave men and women. We lost more airplanes in LINEBACKER than we have lost in all of our conflicts (combined) since. If we have to fight again in the future, our Airmen will need to be brave. I want our young men and women to see what that looked like, and your book shows us.
Mr. Eschmann: Also – the British republication (with F-4s on Cover) does not include any of my original hand-drawings and diagrams. If you are going to buy a version, I recommend you buy the original print since it has all my work in it!