The Eleven Days of Christmas:
America's Last Vietnam Battle

Marshall Michel

October 2, 2002

Today, I would like to address two primary topics. First, I want to discuss the planning and execution of Linebacker II, the B-52 bombing campaign against North Vietnam in December 1972. Second, I want to quickly summarize my earlier book on air-to-air combat over North Vietnam. Both of these experiences were formative to the evolution of the US Air Force and, I believe, critical to the immensely effective combat organization that operates today.

First, let's look at Linebacker II. Occurring during December 18-29, 1972, Linebacker II is often cited as a case study in the successful application of coercion using airpower. However, as we'll see, this campaign, while in many ways successful, flirted with disaster.

It's important to view Linebacker II in the proper context. Throughout 1972, the US and North Vietnam were engaged in peace talks while US domestic opposition to the war was growing. Following President Nixon's reelection, the Senate made clear that funding for further operations in Vietnam would be cut off when they returned in mid-January 1973. The North Vietnamese leadership was aware of the US political situation and this, combined with the collapse of the October 1972 cease fire agreement, made the North Vietnamese decide there was no reason to negotiate further with the US. Given the stalemate with the North Vietnamese and looming Congressional action, President Nixon decided to order a massive air campaign in a final attempt force the North Vietnamese to sign an acceptable peace agreement. B-52s would sent to bomb Hanoi for the first time; while concerned about the effectiveness and potential losses of the campaign, US military planners issued the initial execution orders on December 14, with sorties to commence on December 18.

Planning for the campaign initially started in August 1972 under the auspices of the 8th Air Force (8AF) on Guam, the command unit for all B-52s in Southeast Asia. But when Nixon ordered the attacks, the planning for the bomber-centric operation was usurped by the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Omaha, Nebraska. SAC planners hastily threw together a plan that called for the B-52s to enter North Vietnam through Laos in the northwest, and turn south to hit Hanoi, then immediately turn west to exit. Among the many problems with the plan was that three waves were planned per night, each wave four hours apart (2000, 0000, 0400) and that each wave would fly the same route and bomb basically the same targets. Additionally, because of the distance between SAC HQ and the combat units, SAC had to complete each day's planning and get those plans to the units 42 hours before the missions took off. The long planning time meant that almost three days would elapse before any changes could be made to the missions, no matter what flaws actual combat showed in the mission plan.

One of the major problems appeared when the first raid arrived over Hanoi on December 18th. Based on standard operating procedures developed for the delivery of nuclear weapons, after delivering their conventional loads each B-52 immediately went into a 45-degree banked turn for about 50 seconds. However, the B-52's electronic counter-measures (ECM) systems were designed to face earthward to jam the guidance radars of the North Vietnamese SA-2 SAM (surface-to-air) missiles. As the B-52s commenced their 45-degree turns, their onboard ECM systems tilted skyward and away from any threatening SAMs at the exact time the radar cross section of the aircraft was to be maximized, all this over the heart of the North Vietnamese defenses. Combined with the SAC plan that called for the B-52s to come in single file at the same altitude and to bomb almost the same targets over Hanoi's experienced and skillful missile crews, losses were inevitable. Three B-52s were lost and two damaged on the first night.

On December 19 the B-52s flew the same pattern, but for a combination of reasons the North Vietnamese missile crews faltered and no B-52s were lost. While the crews and the combat leadership were still sharply critical of the predictable flight path, SAC planners felt validated and reinforced their control over campaign planning. But the North Vietnamese made changes based on the patterns of the first two days and the assumption that the US would be too inflexible to change. North Vietnamese SAMs were reinforced and, more importantly, re-sited and aligned to optimize their capability against the B-52s during the vulnerable high angle turns. On December 20, the B-52s again raided Hanoi in three waves in four-hour intervals. As the first wave dropped their bombs and commenced their turns, the well prepared North Vietnamese launched their SA-2s and three B-52s were lost. As a result of these unexpected losses, SAC recalled the second wave. But, unbeknownst to the US, the North Vietnamese SAM batteries had exhausted their immediate supply of missiles after the first wave, and the cancellation of the second wave allowed the missile batteries to be replenished in time for the third wave.

Meanwhile, the first wave's losses caused concern throughout the Pacific and the US, and there was pressure to cancel the third wave until the problems could be identified. But SAC was more concerned with the repercussions if it recalled the third wave, specifically in the American fighter forces and with the United States Navy, both of whom had been critical of the B-52s' stereotyped tactics. The third was wave ordered to continue, still flying the same routes and bombing the same targets as the every other mission. Three of the 30 of the B-52s attacking Hanoi in the third wave were lost.

Dismayed by the losses and the stereotyped tactics, the commanding officer of the B-52s at U-Tapao, Brigadier General Glenn Sullivan, bypassed the 8AF CC and sent a message directly to CINCSAC, General Meyer. The message criticized the inflexible SAC plan and suggested changes. Just after Meyer received Sullivan's message, Admiral Moorer, Chairman of the JCS, and General Alexander Haig from the White House called General Meyer and demanded to know what was causing the heavy losses. They were assured that SAC was taking appropriate action to sustain the campaign.

Stunned by the third night's losses and unable to change the fourth night's plan because of time constraints, SAC lost its nerve and simply cancelled the first two waves scheduled to attack at 8PM and 12AM. Unfortunately for SAC, the North Vietnamese were again nearly out of missiles -- had the two attacks launched, they would have faced almost empty missile launchers. By the time a single wave of 30 B-52s arrived over Hanoi at 4AM, the North Vietnam mustered sufficient missiles to defend against the single wave and two more B-52s were lost. With eight B-52s lost in two nights, SAC halted strikes against Hanoi itself, and instead struck targets throughout the rest of North Vietnam. When the North Vietnamese saw this, they felt they had won an "aerial Dien Bien Phu," and completely cut off negotiations in Paris.

For the next two days, the evidence suggests that the White House believed Hanoi was still a primary B-52 target, when in fact it was not. Upon discovering this, President Nixon, with Haig's encouragement, ordered the B-52s back to Hanoi the night after Christmas, December 26-27.

This raid was qualitatively different from previous raids in both planning and results. SAC acknowledged the initial attack plans were flawed and ceded most of the planning authority to 8AF on Guam. Rather splitting the bombers and sending them over their targets at regular intervals, 8AF planners developed a plan that sent 120 B-52s to multiple Hanoi targets, arriving from different directions in the space of 15 minutes. Despite SAM reinforcements by the North Vietnamese, this 8AF plan overwhelmed their manual air SAM system and only two B-52s were lost. On December 27th, the day after this raid, the North announced they would return to peace negotiations. The B-52s attacked Hanoi in large numbers again the next night and again overwhelmed the North Vietnamese defenses. By late January 1973, the North had agreed to return all US POWs but otherwise retain its forces in South Vietnam, but America was out of the war.

Given this effect, many in the military proclaimed that such a bombing campaign could have achieved "victory" earlier. However, I see two problems with this interpretation. First, prior to this period, few senior military officers in any of the Services saw a need for a strategic bombing campaign against Hanoi. For virtually the entire war, the military consensus was that the US was winning the war, and that killing civilians in Hanoi would not hasten that result.

Second, the limited objectives achieved by Linebacker II did not reflect a change in the basic North Vietnamese aim of uniting the country. The North Vietnam only chose to return US POWs and temporarily stop further advances in the South, and in return the Unites States withdrew its forces. The temporal quality of the North's acquiescence was reflected in the timing of the final invasion of the South - after President Nixon's resignation in August 1974 and the clear loss of any American will to return to Vietnam in a combat role.

I also would like to briefly discuss my second book, Clashes, which centers on the USAF role in air-to-air combat during the Vietnam War. The central theme of the book is that the strategic bombing foundations of the Air Force dramatically constrained the preparedness and capability of the Air Force fighter forces. By the late 1940s SAC generals controlled the Air Force and the focus was on delivering nuclear weapons at a moment's notice. Former SAC generals controlled the air force and developed plans that emphasized rigidity and consistency - plans that would minimize the occurrence of nuclear mistakes. Such an aversion to mistakes led to unintended consequences throughout the tactical air forces. For instance, early generation air-to-air missiles were tested in relatively benign improvements against cooperative targets rather than admit mistakes (and thus generate improvements). Once missile-only USAF fighters engaged in air-to-air combat over Vietnam, the shortfalls of these missiles became obvious and American aircraft were relatively unsuccessful in air-to-air combat, with Air Force kill ratios often 1:1 or less. As a result of these failures, the post-Vietnam Air Force made massive changes in its tactical air forces, especially in training and weapons. Cooperation between the US Navy (whose "Top Gun" training program graduates had been very successful over Vietnam) and the Israeli Air Force (30:1 kill ratio in the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars) provided the Air Force with new directions that lead to a variety of successful programs, notably the Red Flag training program at Nellis AFB, NV. Indeed, I believe the recent successes of the present Air Force stem directly from its reactions to failures over Vietnam.

During Marshal Michel's twenty-six year career in the US Air Force, he flew F-15s, was the Joint Chiefs of Staff Israel/Lebanon desk officer during the Marine deployment in Lebanon, the chief of Air Force combat systems analysis, and the United States air planner at NATO Headquarters during the Gulf War. He is the author of two books, "Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972" and "The Eleven Days of Christmas: America's Last Vietnam Battle." Currently, Mr. Michel is working on his PhD at Auburn University.

Rapporteur: Oliver Fritz

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