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Disjointed and dysfunctional, the application of American air power was severely hobbled by competing objectives and outdated thinking.

Joint warfare, or “jointness,” is accepted by all the U.S. services today as desirable and necessary for success in modern war, but that has not always been the case. With the advent of air power, such coordination became ever more crucial, but achieving it remained elusive. There were many reasons for America’s defeat in Vietnam, but it is clear the lack of air jointness was a significant contributing factor. Ultimately, the recognition of this failure was one lessons from the war that was indeed learned and put to use.

The problems in the air war over Vietnam began with different military service cultures leading to arguments over strategy, made the more unwieldy by a complicated and dysfunctional air command and control system.

Air, land and sea warfare are fundamentally different things. Soldiers, sailors and airmen think differently regarding the nature of war, the objectives and the strategies to be followed. This was clearly the case during the Vietnam War. The U.S. Army’s doctrine states that the main objective of surface operations is to close with the enemy and to decisively defeat him in battle. In the soldiers’ culture, “boots on the ground” and the occupation of territory are crucial to success. This view shapes the strategy of ground officers; they assume a ground battle is necessary for victory, and therefore their plans build toward such an event.

Sailors think otherwise. It is difficult if not impossible for a navy to come to grips with enemy ground forces and destroy them. Instead, sea power is traditionally a form of economic warfare—the objective of surface navies is to gain control of the seas and prevent enemy naval activity or trading, to blockade an enemy and slowly strangle its economy.

Whether land- or sea-based, airmen believe that air power can bypass the deadly land battle favored by armies and strike directly at an enemy’s centers of gravity. This is similar to the economic warfare of a navy, but is more direct and immediate.

In Vietnam, these very different views of the nature of war and strategy were at work, competing with one another.

The roots of jointess go back to World War II. Before then there had been little cooperation between the U.S. services for the simple reason that it was usually unnecessary. But a global war against powerful enemies meant the services would have to work together. Besides, the advent of air power made cooperation essential because airplanes could fly over land and sea, and both armies and navies realized that air power was pivotal to their success. Thus, the services insisted on controlling their own air assets to accomplish their own missions, and this led to inevitable conflicts over resources, priorities, training and targeting.

As a result, theater commands were established, some led by soldiers, some by sailors and a few by airmen. The theater commands were joint units with elements from all services working together. In the Pacific, however, there was also rivalry, as there were two major theaters, one commanded by a soldier, General Douglas MacArthur, and the other by a sailor, Admiral Chester Nimitz. While these two commanders did not always get along, it was in reality of little concern because the overwhelming U.S. power made victory inevitable.

Korea also presented problems. MacArthur was still around, but this time he was unquestionably in charge—there was no divided command in the western Pacific. In the air war, however, there was still little cooperation between Air Force, Navy and Marine air units. Although some pushed for an Air Component Commander, this was never established. Instead, the various air arms were expected to coordinate their efforts to avoid fratricide and provide unity of effort. This inefficient, poor command-and-control model was allowed to persist into the Vietnam War.

At the beginning of the war in Vietnam, the Navy claimed overall responsibility because it fell within its geographic command area—the Pacific—so the admiral at Pacific Command (PACOM) in Hawaii remained in charge. The Army sought to have its commander in Saigon—Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) run the war. This remained an area of tension throughout the war. Because sailors and soldiers think differently about war and strategy, there were inevitable disagreements between the general in Saigon and the admiral 6,300 miles away in Hawaii.

In addition, politicians in Washington, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), attempted to run the war from halfway around the world. Political leaders took a more direct role in military strategy, and even tactics, than had ever been the case previously, leading to tension between civilians and military commanders. As had been the case in Korea, command and control in Vietnam was a major problem because there was no Air Component Commander to ensure unity of command.

In late 1964 and early 1965, the Viet Cong attacked U.S. bases at Pleiku and Bien Hoa, killing 12 American military personnel, wounding 200 others and destroying or damaging more than 35 aircraft. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided that some type of response was necessary and air power was chosen because it was seen as the least politically risky. An invasion of North Vietnam, favored by the Army, might bring China into the war as had happened when U.S. troops ventured too close to the Chinese border in Korea in October 1950. The air campaign that Johnson and his advisers decided upon was coined Rolling Thunder, and it would last from March 1965 until November 1968.

From the outset, the critical players in the U.S. war effort saw the air campaign’s objectives in several different lights. President Johnson viewed the purpose of the retaliatory airstrikes against North Vietnam in political terms: “I saw our bombs as my political resources for negotiating a peace. On the one hand, our planes and our bombs could be used as carrots for the South, strengthening the morale of the South Vietnamese and pushing them to clean up their corrupt house, by demonstrating the depth of our commitment. On the other hand, our bombs could be used as sticks against the North, pressuring North Vietnam to stop its aggression against the South.”

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, by contrast, wanted the bombing first, “To give us a better bargaining counter across the table from the North Vietnamese and, second, to interdict the flow of men and supplies from the North to the South.”

The National Security Council, in its memorandum to the JCS on November 10, 1964, described the bombing as a stopgap operation to buy time: “To hold the situation together as long as possible, so that we have time to strengthen other areas of Asia.”

The JCS Chairman at the time, General Maxwell Taylor, envisioned airstrikes as “A slow but inexorable barrage of air attacks advancing to the north, capable of convincing the Hanoi government that everything in the Hanoi area was going to be destroyed unless the leaders mended their ways.”

The PACOM commander, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, viewed the war in terms broader than just Vietnam: “To cause the DRV [North Vietnam] to cease and desist in its support of the insurgency in Southeast Asia.”

Given the differing views of key leaders, what were the objectives that Rolling Thunder was expected to achieve? Different objectives required totally different types of air campaigns, and these would call for different aircraft, weapons and targets.

Several proposals were put forward for the campaign. The first, usually termed the Air Force proposal even though it was a joint plan, listed 94 key industrial and transportation targets in North Vietnam such as electrical power plants, armaments factories and bridges. The intent was to neutralize all of these targets very quickly—within 16 days. It was believed that a rapid air campaign would deliver a psychological as well as a physical blow to the enemy. The JCS plan also envisioned the mining of Haiphong Harbor and the blockade of the coast, as well as the introduction of American ground troops into South Vietnam to combat the insurgency. The objective of this plan was to damage both the enemy’s capability and his will.

The Army believed that the war could only be won in the South, so its expectation for the air campaign was to isolate the battlefield. In this concept, Rolling Thunder would be an interdiction campaign of constant, heavy pressure over a long period of time—rather than the quick and sharp attacks of the Air Force plan. The objective was the enemy’s capability—it didn’t matter about his will. If supplies and reinforcements headed south could be stopped by airstrikes, then the Viet Cong and those North Vietnamese Army units in South Vietnam could be defeated by American, South Vietnamese and allied ground troops.

These different service views on war resulted in contradictory military strategies.

What was actually adopted was dubbed the “civilian” plan because it came from an all-civilian executive group. The objective of this approach was to influence the will of the enemy’s leadership by coercing him into negotiations and concessions. The idea was to send a signal with the bombing—certain behaviors were acceptable, while others were not. The United States would bomb only somewhat important targets initially, while holding more valuable targets as hostages. This would signal to the enemy that we would gradually increase pressure until it became unbearable for him. Therefore, the logical thing for him to do was to concede before he was strangled. The intent was to choke the enemy gradually, letting up when he was good, and increasing pressure when he was bad. The metaphor generally used to describe this concept was a ratchet.

The gradually escalating air campaign of Rolling Thunder actually unfolded from the panhandle region of North Vietnam and, over a period of several months, moved north. This slow and deliberate pace was intended to give the North Vietnamese the opportunity to submit to U.S. will. Instead, it actually allowed them to prepare a better defense and to grow accustomed to the airstrikes.

The choice of targets to be hit in Rolling Thunder was another ongoing source of friction. Although airmen in Vietnam and Hawaii nominated targets, those that were actually approved emerged from an all-civilian committee that met weekly in the White House, consisting of Johnson, McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, the head of the CIA and a few others. None of these men had any real experience with air warfare, although Walt Rostow, Bundy’s deputy who sometimes attended, thought he knew something about air operations based on his experiences as a World War II target planner. After two years of urging, an infantryman—General Earle Wheeler, who followed Taylor as chairman of the JCS—was allowed to join these meetings and give what was presumably the air point of view. Given the differing perspectives on the war and the air campaign between soldiers and airmen, however, this proved to be an unsatisfying solution for the Air Force.

Disagreements over the fundamental purpose of Rolling Thunder, in large part a result of unique service views of war, led to a schizophrenic air campaign.

Command and control of all the allied air assets employed in the Vietnam War was also a major problem. Rejecting the concept of air unity of command, North Vietnam was divided into geographic areas. These “route packs” were split between the Air Force and Navy/Marines, and inside them the services carried on their own wars, largely independent of each other.

The United States had two tactical air forces that fought in Vietnam: the Seventh, headquartered in Saigon, and the Thirteenth, based in the Philippines. Aircraft based in South Vietnam were controlled by Seventh Air Force and were usually not allowed to strike targets in Laos. Aircraft stationed in Thailand were controlled by Thirteenth Air Force, but they were generally not permitted to hit targets in South Vietnam. When either air force flew into North Vietnam, PACOM in Hawaii determined the targets. When targets were struck in South Vietnam, the Army staff in Saigon chose them. There were two different air command posts in Saigon—one termed “in-country” for strikes occurring in South Vietnam, and the other called “out-country” for strikes against the North or in Laos. Thus, from one day to the next, aircraft could fly against targets in three different countries, be controlled by two different agencies and receive targets from two other agencies.

It was extremely confusing.

The president and his civilian advisers in Washington would tell the secretary of defense what the targets would be in North Vietnam. These would be passed through the Joint Chiefs to PACOM, who would then dole them out to either Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) or the Pacific Fleet—both also headquartered in Hawaii—which would then relay them to operational units in Vietnam or offshore. The various air components were expected to coordinate their efforts through an Air Coordinating Committee.

The number of sorties flown in each route pack—a number that was rigidly controlled from Washington—was not always seen as fair. The PACOM commander tended to give more missions to the Navy, but these were seen as safer because they generally involved coastal targets—which meant the planes did not have to penetrate as deeply into enemy airspace and face as many surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery as did the Air Force planes. This seeming inequity—more imagined than real since there were no easy targets in North Vietnam—was an ongoing source of irritation to Air Force pilots.

For targets in the South, COMUSMACV would pass targets to the air components working for him—the Air Force, Army and Marines. Again, there was little or no coordination between these three air arms. On top of all this, the South Vietnamese air force had its own command-and-control system largely independent of the United States.

The Eighth Air Force was also involved, and it contained the B-52s and KC-135s of Strategic Air Command (SAC). Because these assets needed to be available for the nuclear deterrence mission against the Soviets, SAC refused to relinquish control of them either to PACOM or even to their own airmen at PACAF. These assets were therefore controlled from Offutt AFB—in Nebraska— through an Eighth Air Force forward headquarters based on Guam. Furthermore, strategic airlifters such as C-141s and C-5s belonged to Military Airlift Command, which was headquartered at Scott AFB in Illinois. Regarded as global assets, they did not come under the control of the theater commanders, either.

The foolishness of this situation came to a head during the siege at Khe Sanh in 1968. The main problem was unity of command versus service control over air assets in a specific geographic area.

The northern portion of South Vietnam—the I Corps area—contained only U.S. Marine Corps units during the early years of the war. The III Marine Amphibious Force consisted of two ground divisions supported by the 1st Marine Air Wing. Geographic division worked adequately until the fall of 1967 when General William Westmoreland began shifting more U.S. Army forces, South Vietnamese forces and South Korean marines into the I Corps region. Soon, this force grew to the size of a field army, of which the Marine contingent was only one part. However, Marine air supported only the Marine ground forces. The Seventh Air Force was therefore responsible for supplying air to the other ground forces.

As things began heating up in the I Corps ground campaign, Westmoreland sought to reorganize for better efficiency. He wanted to appoint a single manager for air to control all air assets in the region, with his air deputy, the head of Seventh Air Force, to be the air commander. The Marines objected. Nonetheless, in January 1968, Westmoreland directed the change as a result of the attack on Khe Sanh earlier that month. The Marine commander in I Corps complained to the commandant of the Marine Corps, and the issue was referred to the JCS. They could not agree either, and so the problem was kicked upstairs to the secretary of defense, who, finally, agreed with Westmoreland on May 15.

This was a nasty interservice fight over the control of air assets that all ground commanders agreed were essential to their success—and in the case of Khe Sanh, to its defenders’ very survival. Westmoreland had to worry about all the forces under his command in the I Corps region, not just the Marines. He believed that allowing Marine air assets to support only Marine ground units was inefficient and dangerous. What if those airplanes were needed to support an Army unit that was being overrun?

The Marines, however, were adamant about not surrendering control of their planes to the Army or the Air Force because the Marines are, essentially, light infantry units that do not have organic heavy artillery support but instead rely on air power. They were understandably very sensitive about who controlled these essential air assets.

There were other problems areas regarding air power throughout the war. MACV in Saigon controlled all targets for airstrikes in South Vietnam and also in Route Pack 1—the area just north of the DMZ. Soldiers dominated the MACV staff, which had only a small number of airmen and very few sailors. As a result, airmen had very little say about which targets were to be struck or why.

The use of refueling tankers also became an area of friction between the Air Force and the Navy. The Air Force purchased more than 700 KC-135s beginning in the late 1950s for the purpose of supporting its B-52 bombers in the nuclear strike mission. Vietnam showed, however, that fighter planes also needed to be air refueled, not only to deploy to the theater, but also to fly against North Vietnam. Virtually every strike sortie flown by Air Force fighters against North Vietnam required multiple air refuelings by the KC-135s. Although the Navy planned missions so that their route packs and targets were within range of their carriers, there were still instances when Navy airplanes could have used air refueling. The Air Force’s reluctance to share the KC-135s was a source of irritation during— and long after—the war.

There was one situation in which interservice rivalry was always forgotten—when an airman went down. Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) was a joint mission that saw all the services selflessly work together. When an aircraft went down, it was common for assets of all services—air, ground and sea—to move toward the area and cooperate to rescue the downed airman.

When bullets are flying, people tend to forget the color of their uniform and simply work together, out of necessity, to get the job done. Thus, when jointness did occur, it usually took place at the tactical level. At higher levels of command, however, there were continual disagreements over the nature of the war: Was it a conventional war or an insurgency? Was the center of gravity in Hanoi or among the Viet Cong in the South? What was the correct strategy to achieve U.S. objectives? And, of course, what targets should be hit to achieve those objectives?

At the tactical level, airmen of all services and countries displayed professionalism and courage. Airmen were adaptive and clever in attempting to achieve their mission, because their lives depended on it. Yet this was a classic example of outstanding tactics being insufficient to overcome a flawed strategy.

The use of air power was extremely disjointed during the Vietnam War. Although the targets in North Vietnam were nominated by airmen, civilians with little or no understanding of air power’s strengths or its limitations made the ultimate calls. The division of the North into route packs guaranteed that there was little or no coordination between the services over trying to achieve a unified effort against the enemy. If the targets to be hit were in the South, an Army commander in Saigon selected them, and he seldom shared with airmen what effects he hoped to achieve. In the B-52 Arc Light strikes for example, the crews were simply given coordinates to bomb—they seldom had any information about the target they were supposed to be hitting.

At Khe Sanh, this division in air command posed a serious problem that threatened the lives of forces on the ground, and only a decision by the secretary of defense placed all air assets under the control of a single airman who could best orchestrate the air defense of Khe Sanh. This concept of a single airman in charge, to eliminate redundancy and waste and achieve unity of command, was seldom seen elsewhere in Vietnam.

There were major command-and-control problems experienced in air operations during the Vietnam War because there was no centralized control of air assets. As a result, the Air Force, Navy, Marines, Army, South Vietnamese—and even separate parts of the Air Force—operated under their own systems with little coordination between them. This was a gross violation of the principle of unity of command. Too often the U.S. application of force was fragmented and confused, simply because all the components wanted their air assets working under their control to complete their missions. The joint mission suffered as a result.

In the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, the issue was one of the first to be taken up by the new joint doctrine process. It was not, however, an easy journey, and not until 1986—more than a decade after the Vietnam War had ended—did joint doctrine finally include a provision for appointing a Joint Force Air Component Commander. Even so, there were still those who resisted, and it took a major war in the Persian Gulf in 1991 to make everyone finally realize that such unity of command was essential. In Desert Storm there were more than 2,000 combat sorties being flown every day by all the U.S. services as well as those of a dozen coalition countries. Unity of command was essential to ensure effective operations and to prevent fratricide.

If there is any possible benefit to be gained from failure, it must be to learn from your mistakes. The U.S. military learned from some of its mistakes in Vietnam—at least those regarding the command and control of its powerful, multiservice air assets.


Phillip S. Meilinger, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel with 30 years service as a pilot, staff officer and educator, flew C-130s and HC-130s in Europe and the Pacific and was a staff officer in the Pentagon during Desert Storm in 1991. After receiving a Ph.D. in military history, he taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval War College, was dean of the School of Advanced Airpower Studies and worked as a defense analyst. His latest book is Hubert R. Harmon: Officer, Aviator and Father of the Air Force Academy.

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here