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Powered flight was born exactly one hundred years ago. It changed everything, of course—but most of all, it changed how we wage war.
November/December 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 6
Sure, the predictions exceeded the achievements, but the achievements were absolutely crucial. We didn’t choke them so that they died in place, but we choked them so that they couldn’t push any further. The North Koreans admitted that the strikes against their supply lines were all that prevented a communist victory. With interdiction you never get it all, but if you don’t stop as much as you can, a committed and reasonably effective enemy that greatly outnumbers you will win. Historically, the Air Force has argued that close air support of fighting troops is always less effective in the long run than interdicting supplies. And I think the Air Force was right, especially in Korea. Because the communist forces were so well dug in and were such able soldiers, close air support was not the most effective use of our air power. I mean, we have to take our hats off to our enemies in that war. They were able to fight all day on a handful of rice, and they were willing to die when the time came.
And you believe that air power provided the strategic stability that kept the Cold War from turning into open war?
It did, and in a number of ways. Our unprecedented air transport capabilities let us keep Berlin supplied, which was the first Cold War crisis. We achieved something there that dwarfed the task the Luftwaffe had set for itself at Stalingrad, and at which it had failed. We succeeded. While conventional air power let smaller American forces hold their own in open war under what would otherwise have been impossible conditions, as in Korea, strategic air power let outnumbered U.S. forces face down huge communist armies by backing the deterrent of our conventional forces with the threat of nuclear attack. Our nuclear capability kept the peace. We now know that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was the closest we came to war, it was the 20 percent of our nuclear arsenal that was circling Russian airspace in our bombers that made the Soviets back down.
The Vietnam War is often cited as the worst example of inflated claims made on air power’s behalf. You see it differently, don’t you?
Vietnam was a case of the misuse of air power, but it is important to understand that despite that misuse, air power was finally the key to victory, a victory that was then thrown away. Until the very end the United States applied its air power in incremental doses, under foolish self-imposed constraints. For instance, Haiphong Harbor was off-limits. Instead of attacking ships there containing hundreds of trucks, we tried to destroy the trucks later, one at a time, in the jungle. We didn’t even go after the handful of dredges that kept the harbor operational.
What else did we do wrong?
The whole tempo of operations was disastrous. We applied our air power so gradually, and with so many pauses, that we taught the North Vietnamese how to adjust to it, and we gave them plenty of time to do it. When we started Rolling Thunder, the campaign that began in 1965 and lasted three years, the North had very few anti-aircraft guns and no missiles, but each year it became increasingly difficult for us, because they had more and more, and the tragic thing was that we trained them. It was as if a champion boxer had taken a young up-and-coming fighter and shown him just how to beat him. That’s ultimately what happened to us. We trained them so well that we couldn’t take them.
DURING THE KOREAN WAR, “ON THREE DIFFERENT OCCASIONS THE ONLY THING THAT SAVED US WAS AIR POWER.”
They slowly built up the most effective air defense system in the world, a mix of anti-aircraft guns, missiles, radars, and fighters. We were using air power as a form of communication in a negotiating process, and that was crazy for a number of reasons; but giving our enemy the time to counter our air power was the worst of it. RollingThunder was a terrible misuse of resources. Most of the bombing was directed at targets in South Vietnam. If we’d been permitted to hit North Vietnamese targets in a well-conceived and unrestricted campaign, I think we would have won before 1968.
What about the argument that although we could have destroyed the North Vietnamese economy very quickly, they did not need their own economy to make war, that they were fighting with the output of the Russian and Chinese economies?
That’s true for military equipment, but they had to get that equipment to their troops, and they had a limited supply of soldiers. We could have targeted their transport and their troops much more effectively. Remember that the Vietnamese communists did not win any battles in Vietnam until the end, and then only by introducing North Vietnamese regulars. If we had taken those out, as we could have, I think that we would have stopped them in their tracks.
But how can you be so sure air power could have won, given that it didn’t?