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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
It did. Despite all the earlier mistakes, when air power was applied without constraints, it worked. In March of 1972 the North Vietnamese Army launched an offensive against the South Vietnamese Army, and it failed. Why? Because U.S. air power was recalled to the region, interdicted North Vietnamese Army supplies, and hit vital targets in North Vietnam—transportation, petroleum storage, ports—and we also mined harbors and rivers. That was the first of the Linebacker operations, and it routed the North Vietnamese Army. Even then, our heavy bombers were not allowed to hit Hanoi and Haiphong. But there was a foretaste of new weapons that would vastly increase the effectiveness of air power: Precision-guided munitions destroyed the previously invulnerable Paul Doumer Bridge.
Then, in December, the Paris peace talks broke down, and President Nixon ordered Linebacker II. This time U.S. air power was used with even fewer constraints, and we defeated the North Vietnamese; by the end of the year they had run out of missiles and were more or less defenseless. They agreed to all of President Nixon’s requirements for renewing negotiations. Had the North Vietnamese refused, we could have gone on to attack the dikes, which were still off-limits, and the South Vietnamese could have invaded with the support of U.S. air power. We had won.
“AIR POWER HAS COMPLETELY TRANSFORMED THE EFFECTIVENESS OF OUR CONVENTIONAL FORCES.”
So why did the North Vietnamese keep at it and eventually win?
Because they realized that they wouldn’t have to face the force that had smashed them in 1972. In 1975, when U.S. air power had been withdrawn from the fighting, the North Vietnamese attacked in the South and took Saigon. One can argue that the South Vietnamese had become addicted to our air power and just wouldn’t fight without it.
How would you describe the effect of air power on history since the Vietnam War and into the future?
Since Vietnam, American air power has only grown in power. If you look at the Gulf War of 1991 and then the Iraq War, you see that the use of American combined arms allows incredibly one-sided victories by the United States, that American air power has completely transformed the effectiveness of our conventional forces. The revolution in air power is in part new technologies—precision-guided weapons plus stealth— but we are also seeing the applied results of a new generation of air power theorists who have worked out how to employ the new weapons.
Most of them are hardly household names, even among many specialists, but they are good people, and I’d like to mention a few: John Boyd, David Deptula, Benjamin Lambeth, Philip Meilinger, Karl Mueller, and John Warden. Warden is the one some people have heard of; he worked out much of the strategy and some of the tactics for Desert Storm.
So the increase in the effectiveness of air power, in a world where we are so far the only ones who can afford it and are willing to pay for it, means a fantastic increase in the relative military power of the United States; we may be a couple of generations ahead of any current adversary. The Russians know this, and I suspect that the Chinese know it too. Our new military prowess can deter states. Whether it will deter non-state terrorists is another question, but as we have seen, our air power does give us the ability to avenge the terror attacks of independent actors by destroying any state that shelters them. I only hope that this deters our enemies in the years to come.