Home History How Operation Linebacker II Took the North Vietnamese By Surprise

How Operation Linebacker II Took the North Vietnamese By Surprise

by Enochadmin

At 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 18, 1972, Hanoi time, U.S. Air Pressure F-111 Aardvark assault plane initiated Operation Linebacker II by hanging six North Vietnamese airfields. One minute later, EB-66 Destroyer digital warfare planes began to jam enemy radars, and F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers started laying corridors of small metallic strips of chaff to confuse enemy radar and shield the primary wave of B-52 Stratofortress bombers approaching Hanoi and Haiphong.

Fully shocked and blinded, Hanoi’s Air Protection Command aimed its anti-aircraft artillery fireplace alongside the routes and altitudes utilized by B-52s in the course of the Linebacker I bombings of Could-October 1972, performed in response to the North’s huge floor offensive began throughout Easter weekend.

Floor-to-air missile websites launched Soviet SA-2 Guideline SAMs primarily based on the Linebacker I sample, solely to come back underneath assault from F-105G Thunderchief fighters-bombers code-named “Wild Weasels,” carrying missiles that homed in on the SAM websites.

A munitions crew on Guam prepares a “clip” of bombs that can be loaded into the bomb bay of a B-52 Stratofortress. B-52s and different Linebacker II plane dropped 20,000 tons of ordnance on North Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese launched MiG fighters towards the factors the place they’d intercepted Linebacker I planes. In the meantime, U.S. Marine Corps plane protected Air Pressure KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling planes whereas the U.S. Navy’s Job Pressure 77 struck coastal targets.

Placing Hanoi

The Vietnam Warfare’s ultimate bombing marketing campaign had begun. Not like earlier bombing operations, Linebacker II, Dec. 18-29, was a most effort to cripple if not destroy North Vietnam’s capability to proceed the battle within the South.

Hanoi’s intelligence providers had recognized since Dec. 16 {that a} main air operation was imminent however assumed the targets could be south of the twentieth parallel, sparing Hanoi and the encircling space, together with the large port at Haiphong. After bombing the Hanoi space in Linebacker I, the U.S. had shifted its bombing strikes to targets beneath the twentieth Parallel and interdiction missions to disrupt provide actions.

U.S. plane taking part in Linebacker II took off from three bases within the Pacific and 5 in Thailand on missions that converged over North Vietnam. The B-52 Stratofortress bombers flew from Guam and U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Base. They have been refueled within the air by KC-135 Stratotankers positioned at Kadena Air Pressure Base, Okinawa, Japan, and Clark Air Pressure Base, Philippines. 4 Thai air bases served a spread U.S. plane, together with EB-66C and E Destroyer digital warfare planes, F-105G Thunderchief fighter-bombers, F-4D and E Phantom II fighter-bombers, EF-4C Phantom II digital warfare planes, A-7D Corsair II assault plane and F-111 Aadvark assault plane.

If the large bombers ought to come farther north, Hanoi’s leaders believed they have been ready. A examine of B-52 Stratofortress operations indicated that the bombers tended to abort their missions after they knew they’d been detected by the Fan Track SAM fire-control radar that tracked and focused enemy plane.

With that in thoughts, the defenders moved two SAM and two MiG fighter regiments to cowl central and southern North Vietnam, though they retained their anti-aircraft artillery regiments across the capital area in case the U.S. despatched fighter-bombers and assault plane towards Haiphong. They knew the effectiveness of these plane could be lowered by December’s heavy overcast and intense rains. Additionally, the Air Protection Command had spent the previous two months rearming and repairing the air protection models depleted by Linebacker I.

Rejecting Peace Proposals

The North Vietnamese didn’t anticipate President Richard Nixon to danger the political fallout of hanging Hanoi. Whereas Republican Nixon had gained a landslide reelection over “peace candidate” Democrat George McGovern, the congressional elections had resulted in a majority decided to tug the U.S. out of Indochina. An anti-war delegation led by folks singer and anti-war activist Joan Baez arrived in Hanoi on Dec. 16 and was scheduled to go away Dec. 23. After the bombing began, the delegation was caught in Hanoi till Dec. 30.

Hanoi’s contacts in America’s anti-war motion indicated the brand new Congress would pressure an unconditional U.S. withdrawal. That satisfied North Vietnam’s political chief, Common Get together Secretary Le Duan, to reject Chinese language and Soviet stress to signal the newest peace proposal, placed on the desk Nov. 19.

That proposal included a provision Le Duan discovered unacceptable, an internationally supervised ceasefire. Moreover, it eliminated a provision Hanoi had proposed in a tentative Oct.8 settlement that known as for a Nationwide Reconciliation Council, a canopy identify for a three-party coalition authorities of chosen representatives from the Nationwide Liberation Entrance (Viet Cong), South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu’s authorities and unidentified “opposition events.”

Le Duan had delayed signing the October draft peace settlement to await the outcomes of the November elections. In the meantime, Thieu had been shocked when he discovered what was within the Oct. 8 settlement. His objections included sections that arrange the three-party coalition authorities, allowed North Vietnam to retain the territory it captured in the course of the Easter Offensive and opened communications throughout the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam, which might enable Hanoi to bolster and provide its forces in northern South Vietnam.

Makes an attempt At Diplomacy

On Oct. 19, Nationwide Safety adviser Henry Kissinger arrived in Saigon to steer Thieu to signal the treaty and guarantee him that the USA would implement the settlement and help South Vietnam. As a substitute, Thieu denounced the settlement in a broadcast on Oct. 24. His public opposition enabled Le Duan accountable South Vietnam’s chief for the settlement’s failure.

President Richard Nixon’s nationwide safety adviser, Henry Kissinger, confers with North Vietnam’s lead negotiator, Le Duc Tho, proper, in suburban Paris on Nov 23, 1972.  A peace settlement was signed on Jan. 27, about 4 weeks after Linebacker II ended on Dec. 29.

Most observers on the time, and plenty of historians right this moment, blame Thieu’s objections to the Oct. 8 draft peace settlement for the collapse of the peace talks and the bombing that adopted.

Le Duan believed Nixon needed to have an settlement in place earlier than the brand new Congress was sworn in on Jan. 3, 1973, no matter its contents. Nixon shared Le Duan’s evaluation of the brand new Congress however was involved that America’s postwar credibility could be harm if he pressured Thieu to signal an settlement Saigon discovered unacceptable. Furthermore, in contrast to Kissinger, Nixon didn’t belief Hanoi’s assurances that it will not reinforce its troops in South Vietnam.

Nixon’s Cupboard largely opposed a bombing marketing campaign alongside the traces of Linebacker I. Secretary of Protection Melvin Laird and Secretary of State William Rogers argued towards it. Joint Chiefs of Employees Chairman Adm. Thomas H. Moorer solely supported it if Hanoi violated a signed settlement. Kissinger was frightened that it will enhance the variety of prisoners of battle. Solely one of many president’s key advisers, deputy nationwide safety adviser Alexander Haig, supported sending the B-52s towards Hanoi and Haiphong.

Nixon’s Bombing plan

Nixon had met with Moorer and Laird a number of instances in November because the peace talks foundered. He had continued the bombing south of the twentieth parallel to take care of the stress on Hanoi, however North Vietnam’s intransigence satisfied him that wasn’t sufficient.

On Dec. 6, Nixon ordered the Joint Chiefs to ascertain a working group to plan for strikes on Hanoi. He directed that “the plan needs to be so configured to supply a mass shock impact in a psychological context.”

Nixon envisioned that accountability for the air battle over North Vietnam could be given to Navy Help Command, Vietnam, which managed all land, water and air fight operations inside South Vietnam. The seventh Air Pressure was MACV’s air element commander and directed all land-based operations of fighter-bombers and assault plane.

The Joint Chiefs gave the Strategic Air Command the planning authority for the operation’s B-52 bomber missions, a choice that violated unity of command and turned mission planning over to a employees that thought-about the Linebacker marketing campaign a distraction from SAC’s most important mission: getting ready for nuclear battle with the Soviet Union.

Nixon warned Moorer that he was giving navy leaders the whole lot they wished and would maintain the admiral “personally accountable” if the operation failed.

A bomb-laden B-52 will get its gasoline topped off en path to North Vietnam. KC-135 tankers flew from bases in Japan and the Philippines to conduct aerial refueling missions.

The president wished a 24/7 bombing marketing campaign to disclaim the North’s defenders relaxation and restoration time. Nixon additionally demanded the bombers press on to their targets regardless of enemy defenses so the North Vietnamese would “really feel the warmth till they noticed the sunshine.”

“If we renew the bombing,” he defined to Kissinger, “it should be one thing new, and that implies that we should make the large choices to hit Hanoi and Haiphong with B-52s. Something much less will solely make the enemy contemptuous.”

The B-52s Strike

On Dec. 14, Nixon ordered the plans finalized and someday later alerted all forces to be prepared for 3 days or extra of most effort. He accredited the ultimate plan on Dec. 15, with the assault to start out on Dec. 18, someday after Congress recessed for Christmas break. That morning Navy plane from Job Pressure 77 seeded minefields in Haiphong Harbor’s approaches.

About 4:30 p.m. North Vietnamese intelligence reported that B-52s had taken off from Guam. They intercepted a radio name at roughly 7:30 p.m. from a Navy aircraft patrolling forward of the B-52s and warning them to show south. That satisfied the Air Protection Command that the B-52s have been going to strike south of the capital area. The B-52 pilots, nonetheless, ignored the “warning” and stayed the course.

Naval plane struck North Vietnam’s coastal radar and SAM websites, adopted virtually instantly by Air Pressure F-111 Aardvarks hitting six MiG airfields. The surviving radar stations have been blinded by jamming and chaff clouds. By 10 p.m., the Air Protection Command realized that Hanoi was the goal space, nevertheless it was too late. North Vietnam’s defenses have been shortly overwhelmed. Confused, the defenders launched fighters to intercept the flight paths the B-52s utilized in Linebacker I, and anti-aircraft artillery fired barrages alongside those self same flight routes. Sadly for Hanoi, the B-52s have been flying completely different routes and at 32,000-34,000 toes, somewhat than the 14,000 toes utilized in Linebacker I.

Every B-52 wave was supported by eight F-105 Wild Weasel SAM suppression planes, 20 F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers and two chaff corridors, about 60 miles lengthy and 5 to 7 miles huge. The B-52s struck Radio Hanoi, two airfields, the Kinh No restore yards and the Yen Vien rail yard. The airfields and rail yards have been almost destroyed, and Radio Hanoi was closely broken.

An F-105G Thunderchief fighter-bomber of the seventeenth Tactical Fighter Squadron, armed with missiles that would destroy enemy radar, lands at Korat Royal Thai Air Pressure Base on Dec. 29, 1972, the final day of Linebacker II sorties.

Regardless of these successes, the outcomes additionally revealed weaknesses. Plane focusing on Hanoi’s air protection system, particularly Wild Weasel SAM hunters, have been unfold too skinny. The seventh Air Pressure requested SAC to scale back a four-hour separation between waves as a result of the lengthy interlude was forcing its plane to launch and maintain a number of chaff reseeding and radar jamming efforts.

Additionally the choice to have every wave fly the identical sample enabled the defenders to easily fireplace missiles alongside the anticipated route. Moreover, SAC required planes to make use of the identical post-strike flip level that pressured them to show into the jet stream, decelerating an plane because it was about to be engaged.

American Bombers downed

The eighth Air Pressure, which had tactical command of the B-52s on Guam, really useful that SAC change its techniques to maintain the North’s defenders off-balance. SAC planners rejected the suggestions, saying it was too late to alter their plans.

Hanoi, nonetheless, had discovered the People’ techniques and adjusted accordingly. The North’s Air Protection Command plotted the B-52 routes and repositioned its SAM websites to focus on flip factors and the bombers’ goal method routes. Search radars fed goal information to the air protection websites so the Fan Track fireplace management radars didn’t must be activated till a couple of seconds earlier than the missile launch. The defenders established SAM “engagement bins” to fireside missiles manually in concentrated barrages.

The 129 B-52s that flew the primary evening confronted 174 SAMs, which shot down three bombers and broken two. Nonetheless, no B-52s have been misplaced to MiG assaults—the truth is, one B-52 tail gunner claimed a MiG-21. Anti-aircraft artillery downed an F-111. Within the second day’s raid by 93 B-52s, none have been misplaced, convincing SAC planners their techniques have been sound.

First Lt. William Wilson, a weapons system officer on an F-111A Aardvark assault plane that was shot down, ejected together with pilot Capt. Robert Sponeybarger. Each have been captured and launched when the battle ended.

On Day Three, six B-52s have been downed. Solely the second of the three bomber waves returned dwelling unscathed. Le Duan, his confidence in his air defenses restored, remained steadfast, nonetheless believing the People would fold first.

Nixon, pushing apart the poor outcomes and criticism from the anti-war delegation in Hanoi, ordered three extra days of bombings.

SAC and the Pacific Air Pressure Command reevaluated their techniques. B-52Gs have been prohibited from flying over the North due to their much less highly effective digital radar jamming gear and smaller bomb hundreds. The Guam-based B-52Ds have been additionally excluded due to the longer flight time. That resulted in smaller raids of 30 B-52Ds from U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield that have been comparatively simpler to guard.

No Letting Up

Sadly for them, SAC didn’t change its flight techniques. Day 4’s raid struck three targets however misplaced two B-52Ds to SAMs. SAC shifted to Haiphong to keep away from Hanoi’s denser defenses. No B-52s have been misplaced on Day 5, Dec. 22. Nonetheless, one stick of bombs overshot Hanoi’s Bach Mai Airfield and hit Bach Mai Hospital, killing 28 hospital personnel and a still-unconfirmed variety of sufferers.

In the meantime, the North’s deal with downing the B-52s benefited U.S. fighter-bomber operations. Though not completely appreciated on the time, these Air Pressure, Navy and Marine plane confronted lighter defenses in the course of the day as a result of Hanoi was resting its air protection groups to interact the B-52s. Fighter-bomber sorties exceeded 100 a day, and losses have been a lot decrease than in Rolling Thunder or Linebacker I. Bombing effectiveness additionally improved.

Nixon instituted a 36-hour bombing halt on Dec. 25, a pause that each side used to reevaluate all facets of their operations. SAC transferred planning and operational authority to the eighth Air Pressure on Guam, tightening the operational construction and bettering coordination.

Le Duan interpreted the pause as a victory, very like earlier bombing halts. Nevertheless it was really a pause for the flight crews. Nixon wished a large assault on Hanoi beginning on the evening of Dec. 26 with no letting up.

A crowd gathers for funeral providers at Bach Mai hospital, which was unintentionally hit by bombs focusing on a close-by Hanoi airfield on Dec. 22. The bomb strike killed 28 hospital staffers and an unsure variety of sufferers.

Incorporating classes from Linebacker I and ideas from B-52 crews, the eighth Air Pressure determined there could be no extra lengthy traces of bombers following similar routes to their targets. The bombers would fly in 4 waves, every compact and coming at Hanoi from a unique axis and exiting by way of completely different routes.

The Thailand-based plane would recuperate in Guam and the Guam-based plane in Thailand. Because the 4 waves approached their targets, they cut up into seven serials of assorted dimension to assault 10 targets. Seven targets have been hit concurrently. Every wave flew a separate route at a unique altitude. The compressed waves enabled the Navy and Air Pressure fighters and jammers to pay attention their assaults towards radar and SAM websites. F-111s joined the assaults on SAM websites. Twelve of the North’s 32 SAM websites have been put out of motion.

The chaff corridors have been denser, and as an alternative of 60 to 90 minutes of publicity to enemy defenses, every wave was out and in in underneath quarter-hour. Though two B-52s have been misplaced on Dec. 26, the overwhelming majority of the bombers have been capable of stay inside the chaff corridors, and the numerous routes confused the defenders. The North Vietnamese fired their SAMs alongside the outdated routes and switch factors. The MiGs obtained misplaced and needed to seek for their targets.

Paris Talks Resume

The combating consumed greater than 10 p.c of the SAMs, and Hanoi was frightened about resupply. About 800 missiles have been in storage, however they wanted meeting and supply to the SAM battalions. The storage depots have been additionally underneath assault. Two have been destroyed on Dec. 26. Henceforth, SAM launches have been rationed and their use restricted to engagements with B-52s.

Le Duan realized that Nixon wasn’t going to ease up and extra bombs have been more likely to drop. The effectiveness of North Vietnam’s air defenses was declining quickly. Le Duan frightened about his personal help inside the Politburo if future raids proved equally profitable. On Dec. 27, he despatched a message to Nixon saying he wished to renew negotiations on Jan. 8, 1973. Nixon informed Kissinger to suggest Jan. 2.

The bombing continued for 3 extra days. North Vietnam’s final air protection success got here on Dec. 28 when a SAM downed a B-52. The Dec. 29 raids reported few SAM launches and suffered no losses. Linebacker II formally ended at 6:59 a.m., Hanoi time on Dec. 30. Le Duan had agreed to renew the Paris talks on Jan. 2.

North Vietnamese haul a purported piece of a B-52, their “trophy,” to a surface-to-air missile battery.

In complete, 2,003 strike sorties into Vietnam delivered 20,237 tons of ordnance towards 59 targets in North Vietnam. B-52 bombers delivered 75 p.c of the tonnage dropped (15,237 tons) in 729 sorties, whereas fighter-bomber and assault plane garnered 25 p.c (5,000 tons) in 1,274 sorties—769 Air Pressure and 505 Navy/Marine fighter-bombers. Half of the Navy/Marine sorties (277) have been flown at evening.

North Vietnam fired between 289 and 487 SAM missiles towards the bombers, downing 15, damaging 4 past restore and eight later restored to service. The losses of fighter-bombers and assault plane have been lighter, with the Navy and Air Pressure every shedding 5 and the Marines two.

In aerial fight engagements, Air Pressure fighters downed two MiG-21s, the Navy one and B-52 gunners one confirmed, probably one other. North Vietnam’s rail yards acquired half of the bomb tonnage. All the North’s industrial services, rail yards and hubs, 80 p.c of its electrical producing capability and each main navy facility had been destroyed, as had two-thirds of the SAM storage and meeting stock.


Nonetheless, the marketing campaign revealed a number of command and planning shortfalls past SAC’s inflexible flight schedules, which simplified the planning course of but additionally aided enemy defenders.

For one, there was the failure to contemplate the North Vietnamese air protection’s Achilles’ heel—its SAM provides. Linebacker II planners ignored Hanoi’s SAM storage and meeting models till the ultimate three days. Destroying these services early on would have lowered the missile risk. The eighth Air Pressure’s planners, after they obtained extra authority in the course of the Christmas pause, addressed that oversight, proving what a professionally deliberate air marketing campaign can obtain.

The Paris peace talks resumed on Jan. 8, and an settlement remarkably much like the October draft was signed on Jan. 27. It differed solely in modifying the necessities for a Nationwide Council of Nationwide Reconciliation and Harmony. The October model would have introduced an unidentified third occasion right into a Saigon authorities consisting of Thieu and the Viet Cong.

Within the ultimate settlement, the 2 South Vietnamese events have been required to ascertain a 3 “phase” reconciliation council to supervise implementation of the settlement and nationwide elections. “Phase” was not outlined. North Vietnamese forces retained the territory they’d captured as much as that time and permission to resupply them by way of the DMZ and different means.

In Hanoi’s sarcastic view, the bombing drove the North to signal an settlement that contained all of America’s concessions. Regardless that Le Duan was the one pleading for a resumption of the talks, Nixon was in no place to ring any extra concessions out of the communists. Each knew that Congress was prepared to ban additional U.S. navy motion in Vietnam. There could be no extra bombing, and absent that leverage, Le Duan had no incentive to compromise.

The 591 POWs held by North Vietnam have been launched and introduced dwelling by April 4, 1973. The U.S. turned over thousands and thousands of {dollars} of navy gear to South Vietnam, however that didn’t embrace the intensive logistic help and provides required for the South to struggle as its forces had been educated.

Neither Saigon nor Hanoi conformed to the settlement. Le Duan rebuilt and deployed his forces over the following two years. He launched an offensive in January 1975, pausing after the preliminary advances to measure the U.S. response. Seeing none and noting the discount in funding to resupply South Vietnam, Le Duan ordered the ultimate drive that conquered the South on April 30, 1975. The final South Vietnamese resistance ended three days later.

Linebacker II demonstrated {that a} correctly deliberate and employed strategic bombing marketing campaign can obtain navy aims to ship political stress. Nevertheless it additionally confirmed {that a} well-trained and outfitted built-in air protection pressure can inflict heavy losses on an inadequately ready or poorly employed air attacker.

The U.S. loved air superiority over North Vietnam all through the battle, however at an pointless value. Earlier than Linebacker II, America’s leaders made no sustained try and crush North Vietnam’s air defenses. Le Duan’s memoirs present he interpreted Rolling Thunder’s bombing halts not as gestures requiring reciprocation from him however as alternatives to rebuild his forces and proceed the battle. Linebacker II modified his calculations. Nonetheless, it got here seven years too late to make sure South Vietnam’s survival as an impartial nation.

Carl O. Schuster is a retired Navy captain with 25 years of service. He completed his profession as an intelligence officer. Schuster, who lives in Honolulu, is a trainer in Hawaii Pacific College’s Diplomacy and Navy Science program.

This text appeared within the Winter 2023 difficulty of Vietnam journal.

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