This December marks 50 years since the ‘maximum effort’ Operation Linebacker II air campaign that forced the North Vietnamese regime back to the negotiating table. But are there lessons from the operation that should be considered in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian War? Dr Peter Layton thinks so – and they’re not just tactical implications, either.
Fifty years ago the American government was trying to end the country’s military involvement in Vietnam. It came not with a whimper but with a bang in the short, sharp Linebacker II air campaign (18-29 December 1972). This air campaign’s partially successful role in that particular war’s termination may offer some insights for today’s Ukraine war.
America entered the war between South and North Vietnam in earnest in mid-1965, quickly stabilising but not winning the conflict. Frustrated, the North ordered a major uprising that became the 1968 Tet Offensive which saw the destruction of the Viet Cong guerrilla warfare forces in South Vietnam. After that, only the North Vietnamese army could win the war for Hanoi and so was accordingly developed. In the 1972 Easter Offensive, the North launched a major land assault that was comprehensively defeated by the South Vietnamese Army and American air power. This second failure still did not convince the North to agree to a peace settlement at the talks underway since late 1968. Moreover, the South Vietnamese were very unhappy with a peace agreement negotiated without its participation or consent; it demanded changes to ensure the country’s survival.
US president Richard Nixon now decided ending the war required putting maximum pressure on North Vietnam. This included launching the large-scale, high-tempo Linebacker II bombing campaign. Linebacker II had the same basic targets as Linebacker (the successful interdiction campaign that helped defeat the 1972 Easter Offensive): logistic infrastructure, bridges, railways, storage depots, military facilities, airbases and surface to air missiles sites. The big difference was Nixon removed most political restrictions on bombing allowing air raids into Hanoi’s urban areas and demanded a maximum rate of effort; 20,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped and almost 2000 sorties flown in 10 days. This aimed to convince the North Vietnamese government it could not win by stalling the peace talks and to frighten the populace, convincing both that the war needed to be ended. It was a psychological assault as much as one for military gain.
At the tactical level, there were errors made in the first few nights with the 15 B-52 bomber losses arguably higher than should have been. Nevertheless, USAF crews learned fast and loss rates quickly dropped. Combining tactics improvements with attacks on the Northern air defence system meant that by the end of the 10 days, American air power was effectively unopposed. Bombing could continue unimpeded for as long as required – a situation readily apparent on the ground.
While there was much angst initially expressed, when reporters returned to Hanoi post-war the damage was much less than anticipated, confirming the bombing had been relatively accurate and restricted only to valid military targets (pp 2-30). However, the psychological impact on the people was significant as every night for almost two weeks they had to stay in bomb shelters while a major air war went on above. The North Vietnamese air defence forces fired several hundred Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) and hundreds of thousands of rounds of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire.
Politically, the Linebacker II campaign was effective in very quickly convincing the North to agree to the peace terms in Paris, allowing the US withdrawal under ‘peace with honour.’ The bombing also reassured the South Vietnamese government that if the North attacked again US air power would return and so it signed the peace accord as well.
That’s the good news. But after the Americans left, the North Vietnamese rearmed and in 1975 launched another major land force assault into the South, during which American air power did not return. This attack comprehensively defeated the South Vietnamese Army and Air Force (pp. 57-82). While Linebacker II ended the American phase of the war, its impact only lasted three years. It did not bring lasting peace, but was decisive only for the short-term.
Linebacker II bears some comparison with the present Russian air offensive in the Ukraine.
The Russian weight of effort is much less than Linebacker II and now involves mainly long-range missile and drone attacks. Moreover, today’s SAM and AAA are much more effective, seemingly with about 75% of the attacking weapons being shot down. However, the Russians are attacking Ukraine’s centralised energy network and its national grid; a few well-placed weapons are generating systemic effects. Additionally, the attacks are timed to leverage Ukraine’s harsh winters so as to cause considerable psychological impact on both the population and the government.
Furthermore, Ukraine’s allies are adamant it cannot retaliate and attack into Russia. South Vietnam was similarly hamstrung and needed the US air campaign to drive the North into negotiating an acceptable conclusion to the war. Russia has no incentive to seek peace; it can continue its missile and drone attacks as long as its weapon production rates allow, stockholdings permit and other nations such as Iran continue to sell.
Today is then more like the middle of 1972 when the North Vietnamese land offensive had failed and the North Vietnamese government was stalling for time. The Russian army has been rolled back and suffered heavy losses but President Putin will not begin peace talks until the ‘West’ recognises Russia’s annexations of four Ukrainian regions. In 1972, the aggressor refused to accept the country it attacked was a sovereign state; Russia is using the same tactic today in trying to ignore Ukraine and its agency.
Linebacker II was deemed a success but South Vietnam was invaded again in 1975. There is a real possibility that when Russia eventually agrees to peace, it may simply rearm for a future assault as North Vietnam did. NATO membership for Ukraine is being discussed; for an enduring peace it may be essential as a deterrent against further Russian adventures.
Linebacker II revealed that air power can have a major role in war termination through shocking an adversary and reassuring an ally. Worryingly though, it also highlighted that a permanent peace can be difficult to achieve.
Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, an Associate Fellow with RUSI (London) and author of the book Grand Strategy.