Air operations in the Vietnam War

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For more information, see: Vietnam War.

Before the partition of French Indochina, air operations played a relatively small part in the Vietnam War. While there were some notable exceptions, the main effort was by the United States. During the fighting between the French and the Viet Minh, there was certainly close air support and air mobility for the French, with the most significant successful air operation being the Battle of Vinh Yen in 1951[1] and the most disastrous the attempt to supply Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

In the period from the early 1960s until the fall of South Vietnam, the United States conducted air operations against North Vietnam. Some of these missions were information-gathering intelligence missions that might not actually cross into North Vietnamese airspace. Others were intended to fight the North Vietnamese, usually attacking specific ground targets or sometimes aspects of the increasingly integrated air defense system (IADS). There were also various covert air operations against the north, with a general goal of increasing internal stress, pressure, and diverting resources. Prior to these attacks, there were increasingly extensive support operations in the South.

The combat operations against the North several into four rough phases, perhaps separated by cease-fires during which intelligence collection and other support missions (e.g., weather reporting, search and rescue, transport would continue. Those phases were:

  1. Retaliation for specific Communist attacks against non-Communist land or sea targets, or the belief there was an attack (e.g., Operation PIERCE ARROW) in response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident
  2. Operation ROLLING THUNDER, a period of attacks to "signal" the seriousness of U.S. attack, rather than necessarily to achieve a specific tactical, operational, or strategic result,
  3. Various operations against infiltration from the North into the south, often through the [Ho Chi Minh Trail]] sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, with the operational goal of making the ground forces in the south less efficient,
  4. Operation LINEBACKER I, a campaign of attacks, in the spring to fall of 1972, intended to achieve the operational goal of stopping the Eastertide conventional invention of the South by disabling the logistical support infrastructure; it was understood this infrastructure could be repaired. As far as targeting, however, a truck preparing to go onto the the Trail or moving onto the Trail, as well as facilities on the Trail, were fair targets. A ship bringing, into North Vietnam, the supplies to go on that truck was less of a target; the goal was more preventing it from unloading rather than destroying it.
  5. Operation LINEBACKER II, a strategic and operational campaign of short duration but greatly increased intensity, with the grand strategic goal of forcing the North Vietnamese back to the abandoned Paris Peace Talks, and the operational goals of massive destruction of the logistical infrastructure needed to get supplies in and out of the north, as well as disabling the air defense system and disruption command and control.

These efforts were generally separate from combat and noncombat air support to combat in the South, with overlap involving attacks on the Trail between the North and South, or supply distribution in the South. Indeed, the early emphasis on air interdiction was in Laos, with Operation FARMGATE, partially based in South Vietnam but nt fighting there.

Combat operations against the North

Retaliatory raids

From roughly August 1964 to began with the response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, followed by a pair of responses in February 1965, under the Operation FLAMING DART, to Communist attacks against allied facilities and troops in the South. [2]


Essentially starting in March 1965 and extending until the Nixon Administration took control in January 1969, Operation ROLLING THUNDER attacks were intended to signal implacable U.S. determination to the Northern Government.Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many This determination was intended to be perceived as meaning intensity would gradually increase until the damage became unacceptable to the North, but refrained from actually causing extensive damage.

There were also covert air operations by MACV-SOG against the North, with goals of psychological pressure, possible intelligence collection, and diverting defenses.[3]


Air support of Vietnamization

Grand strategic pressure

Combat operations against forces moving to, and in, the South

Close air support to ARVN troops

Air mobility

U.S.-led air assault



  1. Fall, Bernard B. (1972 (4th edition copyright 1967)), Street without Joy, Shocken p. 36-37
  2. Drew, Dennis M. (October 1986), Rolling Thunder 1965: Anatomy of a Failure, Air University, CADRE Paper, Report No. AU-ARI-CP-86-3
  3. Shultz, Richard H., Jr. (2000), the Secret War against Hanoi: the untold story of spies, saboteurs, and covert warriors in North Vietnam, Harper Collins Perennial, pp. 57-58