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Assessment of ROLLING THUNDER(Davis)

Assessment of ROLLING THUNDER(Davis)

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Published by Ian Davis
The ROLLING THUNDER campaign failed because it employed conventional strategies to achieve unobtainable objectives against an enemy prepared to fight a protracted war of national unification.
The ROLLING THUNDER campaign failed because it employed conventional strategies to achieve unobtainable objectives against an enemy prepared to fight a protracted war of national unification.

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Published by: Ian Davis on Dec 19, 2010
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MAJ Ian S. DavisThe ROLLING THUNDER Air CampaignEvaluate the ROLLING THUNDER air campaign. Why did it not achieve what theJohnson administration hoped?IntroductionPresident Johnson’s ROLLING THUNDER air campaign directed against NorthVietnam from 1965 to 1968 failed because the U.S. tried to achieve a quick victory usinga conventional warfare strategy against an adaptive and resilient enemy that was preparedfor a protracted war. The objectives of the campaign were to coerce the NorthVietnamese to halt the infiltration of men and supplies into South Vietnam and to forcethem to negotiate a peaceful settlement. To achieve these objectives, the U.S. initiated acampaign based on three conventional air power-centric strategies focused on inflictingcosts on the civil population in order to drive Hanoi to the negotiation table. TheROLLING THUNDER campaign failed because it employed conventional strategies toachieve unobtainable objectives against an enemy prepared to fight a protracted war of national unification. The campaign could not achieve these objectives because of threemain reasons. First, the rural nature of the North Vietnamese population negatedconventional strategies of coercion. Second, the majority of North Vietnam’s militarysupplies and materials came from external Communist supporters. Lastly, the NorthVietnamese were psychologically prepared to commit to Mao’s concept of protractedwarfare to achieve a unified Vietnam.Concept of the OperationThe Johnson administration’s ROLLING THUNDER bombing campaign thattook place from March 1965 to October 1968 was intended to use conventional air power to coerce the North Vietnamese government to stop its aggression against South Vietnam.1
 
MAJ Ian S. DavisThe ROLLING THUNDER Air CampaignThe administration believed that a limited war could be prosecuted in Vietnam and thatconventional coercion strategies based on American military air power would force the North Vietnamese to stop infiltrating personnel and equipment into South Vietnam andforce the North to the negotiating table. To achieve these objectives, the U.S. developeda strategy based on military doctrine and deterrence theories developed during WorldWar II and the Cold War (Clodfelter, pp. 39-72).The ROLLING THUNDER plan was an amalgamation of three separateconventional coercive strategies designed to incrementally increasing the costs on civilianand military infrastructure through the use of U.S. military air power. Civilian advisors,the Air Force, and the Army each detailed different strategies to compel the North to the bargaining table. Additionally, other factors influenced each strategy: driven by the fear of direct intervention by the Soviet Union and China, the target list was restricted andlimited to South of the 20
th
parallel and within the borders of North Vietnam and soughtto coerce, rather than destroy the North.The civilian advisors proposed threatening the North Vietnamese population andeconomy. Coercive airpower would threaten the North’s industrial base to create anincentive for them not to support the insurgency in South Vietnam. The U.S. wouldachieve this by destroying the North’s nascent industrial base, controlling the use of forceto safeguard U.S. hostages, gradually increase of pressure on the North, and thesimultaneous coordination of military action and diplomacy (Pape, pp. 178-180). TheAir Force recommended a plan focused on raising current costs instead of future risks bydestroying, rather than threatening, the North’s industrial base. The intent was to usespeed and shock to obliterate all industrial, major transportation, and air defense targets2
 
MAJ Ian S. DavisThe ROLLING THUNDER Air Campaignin order to weaken civilian morale (Pape, pp. 180-181). The Army plan advocated theexploitation of North Vietnamese military vulnerabilities through airpower to limit theinfiltration of men and equipment to support the insurgency in the South. By massingeffects on the North Vietnamese lines of communication, the insurgency in the Southwould be pushed past its breaking point through attrition of its resources an would not beable to sustain itself (Pape, p. 181). The three proposals were sequentially executed in afour-phase plan, but still failed to stop support to the insurgency in the South or bring North Vietnam to the negotiating table. Although the unrestricted conventional strategic bombing campaigns of World War II delivered devastating effects Germany and Japan,the limited war against North Vietnam presented different factors that essentially negatedthe intended coercive capacity of conventional air power (Clodfelter, pp. 73-76).Effects on the PopulationThe nature of the enemy and environment negated the desired effects of conventional strategies of coercion through air power focused on restricted targeting of  population and industrial centers of North Vietnam. While the nations of Germany andJapan relied on urban industrial centers for their war making capacity, North Vietnamrelied on a predominantly agrarian-based economy and thus had a largely rurallydisbursed population. Although the intent of ROLLING THUNDER was to increasecivilian hardship to coerce North Vietnam, the U.S. did not target civilian centers of gravity in order to achieve the desired effects envisioned by the architects of the U.S. air campaign.In 1965, the North’s industrial sector produced only 12 percent of $1.6 billiongross national product and constituted 24 targets for ROLLING THUNDER (Pape, p.3

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