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For more information, see: Air operations against North Vietnam.

Operation ROLLING THUNDER was an air campaign, starting in 1965 and gradually disappearing by 1969, of the Vietnam War, principally proposed by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his staff, over the strong objections of the Joint Chiefs of Staff but enthusiastically supported by President Lyndon Johnson. It was not the only air operation, nor the only air campaign against the North. It did not include U.S. air operations in South Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos.

Its basic premise was twofold: retaliatory strikes against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) for attacks in the South, coupled with a gradual escalation that would "signal" determination to the DRV leadership. In other words, its goal was at the strategic level of war, but was not aimed at a physical center of gravity, but it did treat opinion in the North Vietnamese leadership as a center of gravity. It entailed retaliatory bombing anytime Communists struck at American forces, together with a gradual buildup of 22 bombing attacks against small military targets in the North. There was to be no bombing of cities or villages, and no attacks on the ships bringing Russian and Chinese arms to the port of Haiphong.

The Joint Chiefs, on the other hand, wanted to begin with a punishing strike[1].

Rolling Thunder proper was preceded by two individual retaliatory raids of Operation FLAMING DART in February 1965. A response to those was North Vietnamese and Soviet response to upgrade the North's air defenses, with the first S-75 Dvina (NATO reporting name SA-2 GUIDELINE) surface-to-air missile installation being spotted on April 5. [2] Under the gradual and indecisive pressure, the North Vietnamese welded their various defenses into an integrated air defense system.

The President approved ROLLING THUNDER on February 13, with the first mission taking place on March 2. The operation contrasted sharply with other major air campaigns in the theater of operations. ARC LIGHT operations, by B-52 heavy bombers, were tactical operations by "strategic aircraft", intended to destroy substantial targets, but purely in the South. The subsequent Operation LINEBACKER I was at the operational level of stopping supply to invasion in progress, where the subsequent Operation LINEBACKER II had both the strategic objective of preventing the import of those supplies and the grand strategic goal of forcing desired political behavior from the leadership of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Where Rolling Thunder attempted to influence, Linebacker II compelled.


Perhaps the most basic rationale came from the theories of the economist Thomas Schelling, who assumed that the national actors in a war acted rationally, and would stop when they recognized an inexorable trend against their interests. [3] This rational actor theory was quite different than the previous U.S. nuclear massive retaliation doctrine, and the traditional model of victory coming with the physical destruction of the enemy force in the field. McNamara believed that Schelling's model had been confirmed by the Soviet response to the limited but determined response in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

McNamara was insistent that the enemy would comply with his concepts of cost-effectiveness, of which Ho and Giap were unaware.

we believe that we can, militarily,

achieve the political objective by proving to the North Vietnamese that they cannot win in the south, while at the same time by bombing the North, forcing

him to pay a high price for his aggression.Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many

They were, however, quite familiar with attritional strategies.[4] While they were not politically Maoist, they were also well versed in Mao's concepts of protracted war (see insurgency).[5]

In July 1965, McNamara wrote to Johnson, that the air campaign in progress had not "produced tangible evidence of willingness on the part of Hanoi to come to the conference table in a reasonable mood. The DRV/VC seem to believe that SVN is on the run and near collapse; they show no signs of settling for less than complete takeover.""[6]


The FLAMING DART operations did not produce significant military results, for a variety of reasons ranging from weather to training. The systemic training problems continued into ROLLING THUNDER[7]

Training and doctrine

Several factors went into the lack of success. There were local issues such as bad weather, but more endemic was that the aircrews' training had emphasized the delivery of nuclear weapons, with a 750 foot circular error probability (CEP). A 750 foot CEP is not an issue with a nuclear weapon, but it is far too inaccurate for reliable delivery of high-explosive bombs against individual buildings.


The targets were primarily transportation lines, bridges, railway yards, storage dumps, and oil tanks; civilian areas were to be avoided. In line with a "signaling" model proposed by Harvard economist Thomas Schelling, LBJ refused to allow the most valuable installations, those around Hanoi and Haiphong, to be attacked. The idea was that damage future was more harrowing than damage present. In practice, the slow escalation gave Hanoi time to camouflage and decentralize its installations, and thus minimize the damage.The raids were closely controlled by the White House, which saw them as "signals" in a negotiating process with Hanoi. There is no indication, however, that Hanoi even perceived that signals were sent.

Raids were calibrated so that each month they became more punitive, at least in the American value system. This theory, centered in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, was that sooner or later Hanoi's pain threshold would be crossed and they would agree to negotiate a plan that would allow SVN to survive.

A classic error, which generations of professional intelligence analysts have been taught to avoid, is mirror-imaging. The Johnson Administration treated the North Vietnamese as mirror images of themselves, rather than people with a radically different mindset.

At the same time, the JCS view that North Vietnam could be crippled with a short, intense campaign also had aspects of mirror imaging, if a mirror could be added so that the images were of industrial powers such as Germany or the Soviet Union, and North Vietnam. The DRV did not have huge logistical facilities, and, while they used trucks, a substantial amount of the material moved down the Ho Chi Minh Trail was moved by human power. An innovation of the North Vietnamese was a cargo bicycle, not that was ridden, but handled much as a pack animal: it was laden with supplies, and pushed along by human guides.

Over time, North Vietnam did develop, for the time, an impressive air defense system. As mentioned, the first surface-to-air missile was seen in early April. Civilian staff in the Department of Defense refused permission to attack them. John T. McNaughton, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, said, “We won’t bomb the sites, and that will be a signal to North Vietnam not to use them.” On a visit to Vietnam, McNaughton told Moore at 2nd Air Division, “You don’t think the North Vietnamese are going to use them! Putting them in is just a political ploy by the Russians to appease Hanoi.” A political ploy, presumably, shot down a F-4C fighter-bomber flown by the United States Air Force. [8]

ROLLING THUNDER rules of engagement only allowed attacks on air defenses actually shooting at U.S. aircraft; a suppression of enemy air defense campaign was explicitly forbidden. In one instance, Navy pilots discovered 111 SAMs loaded on railcars near Hanoi, but were denied permission to bomb them. “We had to fight all 111 of them one at a time,” one of the pilots said.

Air defense installations, especially airfields and control centers, were prohibited targets until very late in the war. With conscious irony, the initial Gulf War air attack proposal, initially focused on command and control and the KARI air defense system, was codenamed INSTANT THUNDER.


Operation Bolo was the first serious offensive counter-air efforts against the North. In April 1967, attacks began on all but one of the North Vietnamese fighter airfields; Phuc Yen, the international airport, remained off limits. Approximately half of the North Vietnamese fighters were shot down in May.


McNamara was insistent that a rational enemy would not accept the massive casualties that indeed were inflicted on the Communists. The enemy, however, was willing to accept those casualties. [9]

Historians (on all sides) are unanimous that Rolling Thunder was a total failure.[10] North Vietnam was a very poor agricultural country with few likely targets in the first place. Unlike Germany and Japan in World War Two, it did not manufacture its own munitions, but imported them from China and Russia. LBJ vetoed plans to mine Haiphong harbor and cut the railroad lines at the Chinese border.


  1. The document listing these targets, 7 Sep 1964 JCS Talking Paper for CJCS, "Next Courses of Action for RVN" indeed starts with 1 and ends with 94, but it only contains 93 distinct targets
  2. Correll, John T. (March 2005), "Rolling Thunder", Air Force Magazine
  3. Schelling, Thomas C. (1960), Strategy of Conflict
  4. Vo Nguyen Giap (2001), People's War People's Army: The Viet Cong Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries, University Press of the Pacific
  5. Mao Tse-tung (1967), On Protracted War, Foreign Languages Press
  6. McNamara, Robert S. (20 July 1965), Notes for Memorandum from McNamara to Lyndon Johnson, "Recommendations of Additional Deployments to Vietnam,"
  7. Drew, Dennis M. (October 1986), Rolling Thunder 1965: Anatomy of a Failure, Air University, CADRE Paper, Report No. AU-ARI-CP-86-3
  8. Correll, John T. (March 2005), "Rolling Thunder", Air Force Magazine
  9. Adams, Sam (1994), War of Numbers: An Intelligence Memoir, Steerforth Press
  10. Col. Dennis Drew, Rolling Thunder 1965: Anatomy of a Failure (1986); Merle L., Pribbenow, II, "Rolling Thunder and Linebacker Campaigns: the North Vietnamese View." Journal of American-East Asian Relations 2001 10(3-4): 197-210. Issn: 1058-3947