An Analysis of Linebacker II Air Campaign:

The Exceptional Application of US Air Coercion Strategy





















Author:  Trong Q. Phan, PhD

San Antonio, Texas

01 March 02


            The US air campaign Linebacker II is studied by investigating the Vietnam conflict and campaign background.  The study consisted of researching issues behind the conflict, the US political and military leadership, and the prevailing military doctrine at the time.  The campaign is analyzed by using the six-question framework developed by US Navy Admiral Philip Crowl.  The campaign execution is also briefly described to re-enforce the findings.  Linebacker II was successful due to the changing in North Vietnam's military strategy and to the US leadership's ability to capture and apply the knowledge learned from history, national and military objectives, military doctrine, experience, and observation. 

Table of Contents

TITLE................................................................................................................................... 1

ABSTRACT ........................................................................................................................ 2


INTRODUCTION............................................................................................................... 4


CONFLICT AND CAMPAIGN BACKGROUND............................................................. 5

..... Events and Issues of Vietnam Conflict.............................................................................. 5

..... Events and Issues leading up to Operation Linebacker II................................................... 6

..... Political and Military Leadership....................................................................................... 7

..... Prevailing Military Doctrine.............................................................................................. 8


ANALYSIS ....................................................................................................................... 11

National Interests and Policy Objectives......................................................................... 11

National Military Strategy vs. Political Objectives........................................................... 13

Limits of Military Power................................................................................................. 13

Alternatives.................................................................................................................... 14

Strength of US Home Front........................................................................................... 15

Lessons Learned from Previous Campaigns.................................................................... 16


AIR CAMPAIGN EXECUTION....................................................................................... 17


SUMMARY AND DOCTRINAL IMPLICATIONS ........................................................ 20

Bibliography............................................................................................................... 22


The purpose of this paper is to determine the rationale behind the US leadership's decision to choose the strategy for Operation Linebacker II.  The operation, ordered by President Nixon, lasted 11 days (18-29 December 1972).  The primary objective of the operation was to coerce North Vietnam to re-enter into purposeful negotiations concerning a peace agreement that helped end the war in terms acceptable to the US.  The operation employed strategic and tactical air power to the fullest in an attempt to break North Vietnam's fighting will by unrestrictedly destroying major strategic targets in Hanoi/Haiphong areas.  Unlike previous air campaigns, Linebacker II strategy provided US Armed Forces with specific objectives and removed many restrictions that previously frustrated the war fighters.  With the ability to understand the national interests, marry the political and military objectives, capture the strengths and limits of air power and US home front, learn lessons from past experience, and apply prevailing doctrine, US leadership chose and formulated the strategy for Linebacker II which achieved the combined political and military objectives.  To understand the US leadership's decision in Linebacker II, the paper will investigate the events and issues behind the Vietnam conflict and the operation in light of characteristics of the political and military leadership and prevailing military doctrine at the time.  The paper will use six questions authored by US Navy Admiral Philip Crowl on commencing a war as the analytical framework to probe the US leaders' decision on the operation.  The paper will also address the overall air campaign execution to highlight the objectives, plans, and resources of the operation.

Conflict and Campaign Background

Events and Issues of the Vietnam Conflict

In contrast to her underdeveloped landscape, Vietnam is an ancient country with a more-than- 2,000-year history.  From 111 BC to 939 AD, Vietnam was colonized by China.  Taking advantage of China's weakness in 939 AD, the Vietnamese, led by Ngo Quyen, won their independence.  From the 10th to 18th century, Vietnam expanded southward as far as the Mekong River delta, displacing prior inhabitants and assuming her contemporary dimensions.  In 1802, the Nguyen dynasty was incapable of defending against the unprecedented colonialism.  France did conquer all of Vietnam.  However, the French never were fully able to suppress untiring Vietnamese efforts to regain their independence.  Vietnamese Communists came to dominate all nationalist movements and finally regained Vietnam's independence from France in 1945.  In 1954, the country was divided by the Geneva Conference (1).  North Vietnam, now a communist state, immediately waged a revolutionary war against South Vietnam, which still struggled to establish her own democratic government.  Eager to win the war, North Vietnam gradually changed the conflict into a conventional battle during the Nixon years.  This change in warfare marked by two full-scale invasions by North Vietnam's regular forces.  Though the 1968 Tet Offensive was a substantial military failure, it politically shocked the American public, convinced many Americans that the war could not be won militarily, and tilted public opinion in favor of ending US intervention in Vietnam.  The second was the 1972 Easter Offensive in which twelve of thirteen North Vietnamese regular combat divisions crossed the DMZ to invade South Vietnam (2). This fundamental shift to a conventional warfare by North Vietnam vulnerable to US air power contributed to the success of Operation Linebackers (3).

Events and Issues leading up to Operation Linebacker II

Disregard the condition of war and Vietnamese communist warfare, US air campaigns applied in Vietnam were typical cases of conventional coercion. Each air campaign might have some differences in objective, but their general goals were to force Hanoi to cease supporting the insurgency in South Vietnam and negotiate seriously for a peace agreement in the conflict (4).  Operation Rolling Thunder was a code name for President Johnson's bombing campaign against North Vietnam from 1965 to 1968.  The campaign was designed by President Johnson and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, to induce North Vietnam to come to the negotiation table.  Also, the operation was used by the US as an interdiction campaign targeted at North Vietnam's supply lines to their insurgency efforts in South Vietnam and as a means to bolster South Vietnamese resolve (5).  President Johnson and Secretary McNamara maintained detailed tactical control of the missions.  President Johnson and his advisors chose the targets from an Armed Forces' suggested list at the White House's weekly tuesday luncheons (6).  For much of the campaign, high-value targets were off-limits.  This target selection method rooted in the President Johnson's Rule of Engagements (ROEs) established in 1965.  The restrictive ROEs reflected the administration concern that provocative military activities in the region would trigger a confrontation with the Soviet Union or China.  Under the intense political pressure from the US home front to reduce American involvement, Operation Rolling Thunder was gradually de-escalated and came to an end in November 1968.  Rolling Thunder failed not only because the coercive campaign was poorly planned and executed but, fundamentally, because North Vietnam was immune to conventional coercion due to its applied revolutionary warfare (7).

Frustrated after three and one half years dealing politically and militarily with Hanoi since his election in 1968, President Nixon resumed large-scale air campaigns against North Vietnam in 1972.  Operation Freedom Train began in April 1972 in response to the North Vietnamese Army's massive Easter Offensive invasion.  Freedom Train consisted of US Air Force, Navy and Marine strikes against North Vietnamese targets.  The operation was renamed Linebacker I in May 1972 (8).  Linebacker I's objectives were to halt the invasion by cutting the North Vietnamese Army's lines of supply and force North Vietnam to resume peace negotiations.  US military leaders were given wide latitude to exercise a full control of tactics and targeting within broad White House guidelines.  Categories of targets previously off limits were allowed to attack.  By mid-October, with depleted war materiel and stalled invasion, North Vietnam communicated its willingness to negotiate.  President Nixon decided to terminate Linebacker I to signal his cooperation (9).

Back at the negotiation table, North Vietnam created intransigence over details and South Vietnam refused to cooperate without US commitment to punish the treaty violator.  President Nixon decisively ordered Operation Linebacker II on 18 December 1972 to intimidate North Vietnam and reassure South Vietnam.  Within 11 days of the devastating bombing, Hanoi was forced to resume the delayed negotiations.  A week of talks between the US and North Vietnam resulted in a cease-fire agreement under international supervision in terms acceptable to the US.  North Vietnam was allowed to retain control over large areas of the south.  US had sufficient time to withdraw its troops and obtain the release of American prisoners of war.  South Vietnam received US promises of re-intervention if the agreement broke down (10).  Because of the Watergate scandal, Nixon's administration lost Congress support in honoring its promise with South Vietnam.

The Political and Military Leadership

Reviewing Mr. Nixon's political career, one could learn that Mr. Nixon's knowledge and experience of Vietnam War played a crucial role in his successful presidential campaign in 1968.  During his presidential campaign, Mr. Nixon promised a workable plan to end Vietnam War in an honorable fashion for the US.  President Nixon announced in the summer of 1969 to reduce the US ground troops in Vietnam by 25,000 by the year's end.  To make up for the reduction in US ground troops, President Nixon expanded the air war against North Vietnam (11).  In addition, the US International Relations Policy announced by President Nixon on 25 July 1969 held that US would support threatened allies, but rely on them to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for defense.  In Vietnam situation, President Nixon's policy was to initiate the “Vietnamization” program (12), a policy of turning the responsibility of fighting the ground war over to South Vietnam.  The goal was that South Vietnam could successfully oppose North Vietnamese aggression without US direct support.  The Vietnamization program indicated a decline in support for the war among US policy makers and the American public.

Another important political figure in this period was Henry Kissinger who played a prominent role in Vietnam War in the Johnson, Ford, and Nixon administrations.  He first undertook negotiations regarding Vietnam on behalf of President Johnson in 1967.  In 1969, Mr. Kissinger was appointed to start a secret negotiation with North Vietnam's representatives in Paris.  Mr. Kissinger was one of the most influential advisors to President Nixon and Ford on the US military and political conduct in the  war in Vietnam.  In relation to President Nixon policies toward the war, Mr. Kissinger backed the policy of Vietnamization.  When his political effort through negotiation was not fruitful, Mr. Kissinger was a supporter of President Nixon's bombing escalation policy against North Vietnam (13).

The Prevailing Military Doctrine

The first official document of US air power doctrine was developed in 1926 with the publishing of a War Department Training Regulation titled “Fundamental Principles for Employment of the Air Service.”  The present series of doctrinal publications (AFM 1-1) was developed in 1964, and has been updated occasionally.  The air power doctrines evolved considerably from the end of WW I to the beginning of WW II (14).  On the purpose of war, the view changed from crushing the enemy resistance to the elimination of the enemy economic power by destroying its production facilities.  From the accepted view of Napoleon and Clausewitz warfare (15) consisted of the destruction of the enemy's armed forces, US air leaders adopted the new concept of warfare pioneered by General Douhet and Mitchell (16).  By 1941, the Air Corps theorized the air offense would attack upon the key targets in the enemy national structure.  Air doctrine emphasized heavily the strategic offense role against the enemy air power and its national structure.  Due to the technical advancement in making large planes, the bombardment doctrine also evolved steadily.  The theory developed by Air Corps in this area was highly analytical, selective, and precise and departed from Mitchell and Douhet's envision of mass, indiscriminate bombings of enemy targets.  Air Corps leaders in this period showed a tendency in over-emphasizing in bombardment.  As a consequence, US entered WW II with inadequate preparation in escort, pursuit, and attack aviation (17).

Most of writings about WW II agreed that the US employed strategic air power played an important role in the execution of Allied strategy in the war.   The Combined Bomber Offensive helped create conditions favorable for the cross-channel invasion.  The strategic bombing also affected the surrender of both Germany and Japan.  These achievements would probably credit to the Air War Plans Division-1 (AWPD-1) document completed in August 1941.  The air mission derived from the AWPD-1 required a sustained air offensive against German military power and its allies.  Specifically, the air mission required the air force “to support a final offensive, if it becomes necessary to invade the continent” and “to conduct effectively air operations in connection with Hemisphere Defense and a strategic defensive in the Far East (18)”.  To support challenging “three lines of air actions” derived from the plan (19), the planners of AWPD-1 advocated a combination of daylight and precision bombing against principal targets.  The planners believed the escort planes (with range and speed slightly superior to the bombers) were contributory to US air power.  The planners reasoned the principal role of pursuit was defensive.  Bombers alone, they theorized, could achieve the air superiority (20).  The fortuitous WW II Operation Combined Bomber Offensive helped re-enforce the belief of US military leaders in strategic bombardment.  Many Allied and captured German military leaders thought the Combined Bomber Offensive was the principal responsibility for the destruction of Germany, making the invasion of Europe possible, and greatly reducing casualties in our forces (21). 

Back to Vietnam War, the situation in Vietnam from the US Air Force's perspective called for the application of strategic air power similar to that used in WW II.  But trying to meet the demands of USAF own doctrinal beliefs, the goals of the other services, and the desire of the administration to keep political influence over the use of military power, the air force leaders helped prepare the USAF mission in concert with the political objectives.  This political agenda could limit US air power to express its real capabilities.  In Linebackers, the US air power for the first time in Vietnam War was able to exercise their full potential and to concentrate their energies on the sorts of strategic targets that the air power had been designed to destroy.  The US successful destruction of strategic targets combined with Hanoi's shift to conventional warfare helped prove the doctrinal belief advocated by US military leaders.


Though the lessons drawn from Vietnam War were very divergent, most strategists insisted that political and military leaders must examine carefully the nature of the war they would be involved.  And, when the question of “just war” was properly addressed, US leaders should formulate precisely the method in which US military power could best be applied to protect and obtain the national interests and objectives.  One of these strategists was Admiral Philip Crowl who established a set of fundamental questions to guide the US leaders in search for the decision in commencing a war.  The author uses Admiral Crowl's six-question framework (22) to analyze the decision of US leaders in commencing Operation Linebacker II.

National Interests and Policy Objectives

By 1945, when Vietnam regained her independence from France, the US considered Southeast Asia, particularly Indochina, as important to the US global interests.  Indochina was considered important for its raw materials, but it was more important in the perception that its loss to communist expansionism would lead to the collapse of other nations in the area.  This strategic assessment, so-called the domino effect, formed the principles for US policy in Vietnam since 1950 and led to the US massive involvement until the end of Nixon administration. 

Although promised to end Vietnam War in his presidential campaign, President Nixon held firmly the American commitment to South Vietnam through his continued escalation and massive buildup.  But when heavily involved in the conflict, President Nixon, was pressured by the American public, recognized the war must be ended and signaled to Soviet and China that the US was in search for a political settlement in Vietnam.  He remarked “I'm not going to end up like LBJ…I'm going to stop that war.  Fast (23).” and reset the objective of his administration through the paradoxical rhetoric:  “The true objective of this war is peace.”  His plan to end the war consisted of a gradual withdrawal of US ground troops and escalation of air coercion, while simultaneously strengthening South Vietnam to defend her own territory.  Prior to Linebackers, President Nixon's political objectives were revealing.  In this effort, he aimed to send a clear message to Soviet and China that using arms to influence events in Third World countries were unachievable.  He believed any sign of US softness in dealing with North Vietnam might invite communist block to escalate their support to North Vietnam.  At the same time, President Nixon tried to normalize relationship with Soviet and China.  President Nixon also would like to maintain his commitment to South Vietnam.  Therefore, he decided to use his military muscle in a clear and decisive manner.

Although valuable to US interests, President Nixon's policy objectives were finally attained with a huge cost in lives and monies.  The US suffered additional 20,553 casualties in the last four years of Nixon administration (1969 to 1973) with an enormous defense spending.  Vietnam was much worse with battle deaths from both sides amounted to more than 600,000 in this period (24).  In Linebacker II, the US lost 15 B-52s and 12 other aircraft. B-52s loss rate was slightly over 2 percent.  Forty-three crewmembers were listed as killed or missing in action.  Forty-one were captured by North Vietnam (25).  The overall loss rate was below 2 percent compared to the 3 percent expected loss.  Mr Kissinger argued that “Linebacker II costs much less than the continuation of the war, which is the other alternative (26).”  On the political front, the US was able to achieve the “peace with honor” but not without severe damages. Vietnam War polarized the American people who were now skeptical of US international involvement for many years to come.  For President Nixon, the extreme measures he took to defense his Vietnam policy led to the Watergate, which finally consumed his presidency.



National Military Strategy vs. Political Objectives

Initially, Vietnam was not a main concern of the US politics.  Domestic issues and the containment of Soviet and China were the US major preoccupation.  Thus, as many experts observed, US political objectives in Vietnam were not clear and consistent in most of the war.  In the Johnson administration, US policy makers were not able to connect the political ends to its military means for a desired outcome.  President Johnson recognized that crushing the fighting will of North Vietnam was vital to end the war.  But his limited use of air power through Rolling Thunder did not significantly damage Hanoi's war making capabilities.  Learning from the past and his own, President Nixon successfully linked the political with military objectives to achieve the administration goals.  He stunned North Vietnam with his decision to use devastating air power in 1972 through two consecutive campaigns.  His political goals in Linebacker I and II were to convince North Vietnam to give up its will and force it to seriously continue the Paris negotiations to reach a cease-fire agreement.  In concert with the political goals, the military objectives in 1972 were very concise and clear:  “The intent was to halt an enemy offensive that employed conventional methods and materiel (27).”  This 1972 military objective was tailored from the 1970 military objective, in which the main goal was “to eject enemy forces from a specific area to gain time for Vietnamization (28).”  This clarity helped the air leaders to define the specific and attainable objectives for Linebacker I and II air campaigns.

The Limits of Military Power

When comparing the will and resources to wage a war between the US, North Vietnam, and their allies, one may find that the scale tilted toward North Vietnam.  Linebacker I destroyed important targets that crippled North Vietnam's Easter Offensive, but, within a few months, North Vietnam was able to restock their war materiel and rebuild lines of supplies from Soviet and China sources to the battlefields in South Vietnam.  The strength of North Vietnam's air defense system during Linebacker II proved that Soviet and China continued their military and advisory aids to North Vietnam regardless of US diplomatic efforts.  Secondly, Hanoi and the National Liberation Front determined that they were willing to sacrifice any cost to achieve their territorial ambition.  Their losses in lives and materials as shown during the Nixon administration proved this determination.  On the US side, President Nixon remarked in many of his announcements that the Congress could vote him out of the war at any moment.  The American public support for the war in Vietnam reached an all-time low at the end of Nixon administration.  The US political objectives in Vietnam were constantly changing and often not connected with the military objectives.  In addition, the international community criticized the US military coercive method.  These factors undermined the exercising power of US military machine in Vietnam.  From the history of air power and his own experience in air coercion, President Nixon learned that air power could not do the job alone and air coercion was extremely hard to use.  The conventional coercion could be attained only if the leaders were fully prepared to impose their demands by a decisive force.

The Alternatives

With an enormous pressure imposed by the US Congress and American public wanted to find a solution for Vietnam problem, President Nixon faced a challenge that bore very few alternatives.  He realized that only a peace agreement from all parties could gracefully end the war for the US.  Therefore, when North Vietnam intentionally lengthened the talk and South Vietnam questioned the US commitment, President Nixon left with no alternative but to resume the powerful air coercion.  He made absolutely clear with the US military leaders that he aimed to inflict the maximum damage to North Vietnam.  To keep his options open, President Nixon communicated to Hanoi that he would stop the bombing if they would seriously negotiate again for the settlement.  Hanoi consented to talk after 11 days of devastating bombing and temporarily withheld their long-term goal.

The Strength of US Home Front

The American antiwar movement emerged in 1965 when President Johnson increased American involvement in Vietnam.  In the political circle, the war also generated intense debate on American interests in Vietnam.  Some Republicans showed disbelief in the policy of limited war and favored a total effort to defeat communist expansionism in Vietnam.  Some criticized that politicians prevented the military from winning the war.  Some Democrats questioned the American involvement in Vietnam and believed the war was in a stalemate.  Most Americans supported the idea of seeking a solution to end the war with North Vietnam and quickly using a decisive military strategy in combination with negotiations.  By 1968, antiwar sentiment even affected electoral politics.  President Johnson decided to withdraw from the presidential race.  Mr Nixon with the promise to end the war defeated the democratic and third party opponents.  

The public support for President Nixon wore thinner every year since 1969 with the administration inched toward the “end of war” promise.  From the revival of My-Lai incident and NY Times' release of “Pentagon Papers”, many Americans were now convinced that Kennedy and consequently Johnson administration misled them about the intervention in Vietnam.  Some started question the political leaders' decision to send American troops to Vietnam or even the morality of the war.  The public approval of President Nixon's policy toward Vietnam dropped to a low of 31 percent (29).  President Nixon learned that he had to reach a peace agreement with North Vietnam in order to win the re-election.  North Vietnam detected the vulnerability of the administration during the election year.  They timely launched the Easter Offensive.  With the home front's disillusionment with the war and North Vietnam's strong belief in its victory, President Nixon responded in kind with Operation Linebacker I in April 1972.  Linebacker II followed in December 1972 to complete the political objectives.

Lessons Learned from Previous Campaigns

What made the US leaders in 1972 believe that air power could achieve the established political objectives?  This belief perhaps was a legacy of the experience derived from President Johnson's Rolling Thunder and Nixon's own Freedom Train and Linebacker I campaigns.  The concept of “controlled” and “gradual” escalation which characterized the use of air power in Vietnam were applied in President Johnson's Rolling Thunder and Nixon's Freedom Train air campaigns.  In most of his presidency, President Johnson limited air power in both duration and scale.  He and his White House staff strictly controlled the plan and execution of Rolling Thunder.  Rolling Thunder was finally terminated in October 1968 and regarded by many authorities as a failure.  From an air power doctrine, this failure was inevitable.  The campaign was not a concentrated effort and did not aim to destroy the strategic targets that would crumble Hanoi's will and capability to wage war.

Freedom Train campaign was initiated in April 1972 with an effort to corrupt North Vietnam endurance.  As similar to the early stage of Rolling Thunder, the campaign aimed to create a recognizable pattern of bombing escalation.  Though Freedom Train was a massive deployment of air power, its strategy was superficial effort to manipulate civilian morale (30). The Nixon administration learned the flaw of their Freedom Train strategy and quickly adopted the interdiction strategy for the successful Linebacker I.  Linebacker I's military objectives were to destroy and prevent the flow of war material already in Vietnam and interdict the flow of troops and materiel from North to South Vietnam (31).  Linebacker I aimed to strike a broad set of major military targets in North and South Vietnam and mined Haiphong ports.   In combination with South Vietnamese forces, Linebacker I helped thwart the Easter Offensive and brought North Vietnam's delegate back to Paris. 

Air Campaign Execution

Back in August 1972, the Air Force prepared a plan for the all-weather air campaign that was suitable for the B-52s.  It was a winter monsoon season in North Vietnam.  The B-52s were selected because they could operate in all weather, carry a huge bomb load for maximum destruction, and represent the US determination.  The planners examined and selected strategic targets that their destruction could produce great impact to North Vietnam and, at the same time, minimize Vietnamese civilian and US POWs casualties in Hanoi.  To minimize non-combat casualties, the planners not just avoided population concentration areas, but designed the bombing procedures that would help avoiding the population impact (32).  At the end of the operation, North Vietnamese claimed 1318 Vietnamese civilian deaths.  Since Hanoi fired more than 1000 SAMs at US aircraft, many of these SAMs might land back to the vicinity of Hanoi and Haiphong.  Many of these civilian deaths could attribute to North Vietnamese defense's error (33).  Regarding the training, since the force consisted of aircrews who had experience in different type of B-52s, the well-planned training was expanded to cover both models of the B-52 and to handle the increased build-up in crew numbers.

On 14 December 1972, President Nixon sent Hanoi an ultimatum giving Hanoi 72-hour to come back to serious negotiations.  Hanoi maintained its course.  Operation Linebacker II was finally ordered by President Nixon, directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and initiated on 18 December. President Nixon commanded to Admiral Moorer at the JCS “this is your chance to use military power effectively to win this war and if you don't I will consider you personally responsible (34).”  The White House through the JCS provided US Air Force and Navy with specific objectives and unleashed many frustrated restrictions for air commanders to achieve the operation and consequently the political objectives. The primary political objective of the operation was to force North Vietnam to come back into serious negotiations concerning a peace agreement, which had been pursued coercively for many years by the administration.  Though the overall military objective of Linebackers remained the same, two air campaigns were distinctive.  Linebacker I's military purpose was widespread interdiction.  Linebacker II's military objectives included: (a) destroy war making industry and support infrastructure in North Vietnam, (b) choke the external supplies shipped to the port of Haiphong or arrived by rail from China, and (c) destroy North Vietnam's internal transportation system (35). The operation employed strategic and tactical air power to the fullest to destroy important targets such as radio stations, railroads, POL and power plants, and airfields located in the Hanoi/Haiphong areas and to mine Haiphong port. 

Although bad weather was pervasive during the operation, Air Force's B-52s and Navy's tactical aircraft bombed and attacked around-the-clock selected targets of the North Vietnamese heartland.  B-52s struck Hanoi and Haiphong at nights with F-111s and Navy tactical aircraft providing suppression strikes on airfields and surface-to-air missile sites.  A-7s and F-4s carried out daylight operations.  Air Force EB-66s and Navy's EA-6s performed escort duties and broadcast jamming signals to confuse the radar-controlled defense of North Vietnam.  In addition, the Strategic Air Command used KC-135s to provide the in-flight refueling for US aircraft participating in the operation.   Navy tactical air strikes were targeted the coastal areas around Hanoi and Haiphong such as surface-to-air missile sites, anti-aircraft artillery sites, army barracks, POL storage, Naval shipyards, railroad and truck stations.  At least five US Navy carriers participated in the operation.  One of the most significant tasks to stop Hanoi's sea lines was the aerial mining of Haiphong performed by Navy aircraft from the Seventh Fleet.  During the operation, Andersen Air Force Base in Guam (nick name The Rock) witnessed one of the most massive buildups of the US air power history.  At one time during the operation, The Rock housed more than 15,000 operational support crews and 150 B-52s.  The Rock launched 729 bomber sorties in 11 days of the operation (36).

From the military standpoint, Linebacker II was a successful campaign.  During the 11 days of devastating bombing, most of the desired targets were destroyed or became inoperative that broke down the war-making capability of North Vietnam.  Reports from US POWs and foreign diplomats showed that North Vietnamese morale crumbled under the weight of the bombing.  After years of restrictive engagements, US air power was able to defeat the most formidable air defense system.  The efficiency of the bombing could be judged by the comparatively small loss of US/North Vietnamese casualties in the operation. 

On the political front, Linebacker II obviously forced North Vietnam return to the peace negotiation with a different attitude.  Mr Kissinger and other American negotiators observed that renewed negotiations and a peace agreement resulted from the bombing of Linebacker II.  The final treaty was signed with little change from previous version drafted back in October 1972.  The US was able to end the war in terms favorable to the US, to bring her POWs home, and to assure South Vietnam of the US commitment for their cause.  Unfortunately, this promised assurance to South Vietnam did not last long as desired by the Nixon administration.

Although Linebacker II was overall successful, it had some serious problems in the execution of the operation, especially in the area of tactical strategy.  Since operated in a much safer environment of South Vietnam in the mid-60s, B-52s bombing tactics used in the first days of Linebacker II became inflexible and predictable.  This tactics explained for the high number of B-52s losses in the first eight days of the operation.  However, this mistake was quickly corrected and the US planners effectively created new tactics for B-52s with greater flexibility and elements of surprise.


Summary and Doctrinal Implications

With the ability to understand the national interests, marry the political and military objectives, capture the strengths and limits of air power and US home front, learn lessons from past experience, and apply prevailing doctrine, the US leadership formulated the most effective strategy for Linebacker II which successfully achieved the combined political and military objectives.  The US leadership decided to adopt Operation Linebacker II for several reasons.  After failing to win the war through escalation and coercion, President Nixon was eager to settle Vietnam War using diplomatic means.  He believed that ending the war this way would preserve the “peace with honor” for all involved parties.  President Nixon's decision also reflected the will of the American public and US Congress who were more impatient about the Vietnam situation.  In addition to sending an emergency aid to South Vietnam, President Nixon used the devastating air campaign to assure South Vietnam for their cooperation in the negotiation.  From the success of Linebacker I that stalled Hanoi's Easter Offensive and crumbled its war-making capability, President Nixon learned that the strategic air power like Linebacker I could force Hanoi back to the negotiation table by inflicting the maximum loss to its war infrastructure.  With these reasons, President Nixon decisively ordered Linebacker II. 

The US air campaigns in Indochina, particular the Linebackers, generated a high number of studies due to their influence in future air doctrines.  For doctrinal implications, Operation Linebacker II offered many interesting lessons.  One of the most intriguing lessons was that the air coercion might work on an enemy who adopted a conventional warfare vulnerable to air power.  Since adopting the conventional warfare during Linebacker campaigns, Hanoi's capabilities were severely weakened due to the destruction of their war making materiel and infrastructure.  Secondly, Air coercion might not be effective on some enemies who were willing to bear tremendous costs to achieve its ultimate goals.  Conventional harms inflicted on the morale of Hanoi's population, who was forced to bear any cost for their government strategic goal, did not make a significant difference during President Johnson administration (37). 

Comparing Nixon's Linebackers and Johnson's Rolling Thunder, one can learn that the outcome of an military campaign depended on the leaders' abilities to link the political with military objectives and capabilities to correlate one's military objectives with an enemy's strategic goals (38).  In addition, the success of Linebackers surely came from the US leaders' abilities to connect the divergent objectives and formulate the clear and concise objectives for the operations. The effective use of air power required a precise and realistic understanding of its strengths and weaknesses from the leaders who called it into action.  Learning from Johnson's Rolling Thunder, President Nixon gave the US air warriors the mission and conditions that they were well prepared to perform (39).

On the technological side, the usage of strategic bombers, B-52s, in Linebacker II provided some invaluable lessons to the US designers and practitioners.  Linebacker II taught the USAF planners about the effectiveness of the manned bomber force in case of a nuclear war.  Secondly, the application of B-52s in Linebacker II reassured and validated the fundamental design features for future strategic bombers, such as the B-1.  Finally, unfriendly weather experienced by Linebacker II campaign allowed only limited usage of guided munitions.  This experience suggested the USAF planner to design and use a mix of guided and unguided munitions in future campaigns in case of adverse weather (40).




1.      Gettleman, Marvin E. et al., Vietnam and America, New York, Grove Press, 1995: p. 3.


2.      Parks, Hays W., “Linebacker and the Law of War”, Air University Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, (January-February 1983): p. 2.


3.      Pape, Robert A., Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1996: p. 200.


4.      Ibid., p. 174.


5.      Thies, Wallace J., When Governments Collide: Coercion and Diplomacy in the Vietnam Conflict, 1964-1968, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1980: p. 36.


6.      Humphrey, David C., “Tuesday Lunch at the Johnson White House:  A Preliminary Assessment”, Diplomatic History 8 (Winter 1984):  p. 82.


7.      Pape, p. 200.


8.      Parks, p. 6.


9.      Pape, p. 199.


10.  US Treaties and Other International Agreements, “Paris Peace Accords”, Vol. 24, 27 January 1973.


11.  Nixon, Richard M., The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Vol. 2, New York, Warner Books, 1978.


12.  Nixon, Richard M., “Vietnamization”, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States:  Richard Nixon, 1969, (Washington DC:  US Government Printing Office, 1971): pp. 901-909


13.  Kissinger, Henry A., The White House Years, Boston:  Little, Brown, 1979.


14.  Greer, Thomas, The Development of Air Doctrine in the Army Air Arm, 1917-1941, Office of Air Force History, 1985: pp. 76-139.


15.  Paret, Peter, "Clausewitz," in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Princeton University Press: Princeton University, 1986: pp.186–213.

16.  Douhet, Guilio, The Command of the Air, Office of Air Force History, 1983


17.  Greer, p. 139.


18.  Futrell, Robert F.,  “AWPD-1:  Air Planning for War”, Reprinted from Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine:  Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, 1907-1960, Vol. 1, Air University Press, December 1989: p. 109.


19.  Ibid., p. 110.


20.  Ibid., p. 112.


21.  Frankland, Noble, “The Combined Bomber Offensive: Classical and Revolutionary, Combined and Divided, Planned and Fortuitous”, From “Command & Commanders in Modern Military History”, Proceedings of the Second Military History Symposium, USAF Academy, Published by the Office of Air Force History, USAF Headquarters, 1968.


22.  Crowl, Philip A., “The Strategist's Short Catechism:  Six Questions Without Answers”, Reprinted from The Harmon Memorial Lectures in Military History, No. 20, Harmon Memorial Lecture, US Air Force Academy, 1977: pp. 1-14.


23.  Safire, William.  Before the Fall, New York, 1975: p. 121.


24.  Herring, George C., America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, New York, McGraw-Hill Inc, 1979: p. 282.


25.  History of Air Force Intelligence Service, 1 July 1972-30 June 1973:  Linebacker II Summary III, K2 [USAFHRCK142.011], Center for Naval Analyses, “US Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force Fixed Wing Aircraft Losses and Damage in Southeast Asia (1962-1973), part 1:  List of Aircraft Lost, 1977:  pp. 191-193, 223, 488-492.


26.  Kissinger, p. 1457.


27.  Cerami, Joseph R., “Presidential decision making and Vietnam: Lessons for Strategists”, Journal of the US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Winter 1996-1997, p. 12.


28.  Ibid., p. 12.


29.  Harris, Louis, The Anguish of Change, New York, 1973, p. 72.


30.  Pape, p. 198.


31.  Clodfelter, Mark, The Limits of Air Power:  The American Bombing of North Vietnam, New York, Free Press, 1989, p. 216.


32.  Werrell, Kenneth P., “The Decisive Use of Air Power”, Virginia, Radford University, an expanded version of a paper delivered at the Northern Great Plains Conference at Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 1986: p. 4.


33.  Parks, p. 14.


34.  McCarthy, James R. and Allison, George B., Linebacker II:  A View from the Rock, USAF Southeast Asia Monograph Series, Volume VI, Monograph 8, Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force, Washington DC, 1985: p. 242.


35.  Cerami, p. 10.


36.  McCarthy, p. 14.


37.  Pape, pp. 209-210.


38.  Clodfelter, p. 236.


39.  Ulsamer, Edgar, “The Lessons of Vietnam: USAF Prepares for Future Contingencies”, AF Magazine, June 1973: p. 36.


40.  Ibid., pp. 36-38.



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