- Historic Sites
From Saigon To Desert Storm
How the U. S. military reinvented itself after Vietnam
November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
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Yet, despite the growing quality of its soldiers, the U.S. armed forces, with 2.1 million active-duty personnel in 1982, remained badly outnumbered by their Communist counterparts. The U.S.S.R., which had not abolished the draft, could field a force of more than 3.5 million men in the 1970s, increasing to more than 5 million by the early 1980s. The Soviet advantage was equally great in tanks, artillery, and aircraft. Back in the 1950s and 1960s the United States could rely on its nuclear edge to deter Soviet aggression, but that had disappeared by the end of the 1970s.
It became increasingly clear to strategists in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations that they would have to develop a new generation of conventional weapons to offset the Soviet numbers. It was at just about this time that microprocessors were revolutionizing the computer industry. The Soviet Union, of course, had no Silicon Valley of its own. Here was one advantage that the United States still had, and the Pentagon was intent on exploiting it.
Since the dawn of the gunpowder age, projectiles had been on their own once they left a gun barrel or, later, an airplane bomb bay. No matter how carefully a gunner or bombardier might aim, once the trigger had been pulled he no longer had any control over where the munitions went. They were at the mercy of the laws of ballistics and gravity, and hence not very accurate.
With the exception of the stealth aircraft, which remained secret until 1988, every new weapons system was extremely controversial.
That first began to change in World War II. The Germans took the lead; their Fritz X, a radio-controlled bomb, was used against the Allied landing fleet at Salerno, Italy, in 1943. But most of their efforts were not terribly successful; more than half the V-2 rockets aimed at London missed the metropolitan area altogether because of their primitive gyroscopic steering mechanisms. U.S. scientists didn’t fare much better with their initial guided bombs in World War II and the Korean War, and the whole field languished in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The U.S. Air Force was the natural outlet for smart bombs, but until the mid-1960s its bomb development was delegated to the Army and Navy ordnance departments, making it a bureaucratic orphan. Who needed accurate munitions, anyway, if (as the working assumption had it) the bombs of the next war would be atomic? It took the Vietnam War to revive interest in precision-guidance technology and to spark a general renaissance in air warfare.
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The U.S. Navy and Air Force, which had put all their energies into getting ready for nuclear conflict against the Soviet Union, were woefully ill prepared for the type of conventional combat they encountered in the skies over North Vietnam. Heavy jet fighters, such as the F-105 Thunderchief, were not agile enough to dogfight against Soviet-built MiG-17s and MiG-21s. They had even worse luck in dealing with ground fire, which had been revolutionized by the development of surface-to-air missiles after World War II. The Soviets supplied their North Vietnamese allies with SA-2 radar-guided batteries and radar-controlled flak guns, later supplemented by SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles. The U.S. Air Force and Navy, both of which operated aircraft over North Vietnam, initially had neither the equipment nor the tactics to deal with this menace. As the war went on, American pilots learned to avoid enemy batteries with evasive maneuvers and to disrupt them with radiation-seeking missiles and electronic jamming equipment, giving birth to the techniques that would be utilized with such success against Iraq decades later. The United States paid a heavy price for these lessons: More than 1,500 of its aircraft were downed in Indochina, 95 percent of them by ground fire.
Besides leading to the death or capture of many pilots, heavy ground fire disrupted bombing patterns and made it hard for U.S. aircraft to achieve their objectives during the Rolling Thunder campaign against North Vietnam from 1965 to 1968. Pilots were further handicapped by the fact that unlike in World War II or the Korean War, they could not simply undertake indiscriminate area bombing. The Johnson administration was sensitive to the political ramifications of “collateral damage” and enforced strict limitations on where and when U.S. aircraft could strike. But with bomb accuracy only slightly improved since World War II, U.S. aircraft lacked the capacity to execute pinpoint raids.