07 May 21
Posted by: Geoffrey Till

This is a remarkable book, far from the usual style in format and approach. In effect, the reader is first of all taken into the briefing room and given a full but concise and very business-like guide into all relevant aspects of the US Navy’s conduct of the ROLLING THUNDER campaign to bomb North Vietnam to the conference table between 1965 and 1968. An account of operations then follows, detailed by year. Finally, there comes the conclusion. Each of the three stages of the book is different but effective in its own way.

The initial briefing is quite simply the best short review of the Vietnam naval air war in the late 1960s that I have ever come across. The focus is on one carrier, the Oriskany and one air wing and chiefly on its operations against the North launched from Yankee station southwest from Hainan. There is some account of the much safer close-air support operations of the US and Vietnamese army in the south, that were conducted from Dixie station, but the emphasis is on the northern campaign.

This was a campaign that gradually escalated as the target sets shifted and widened, rules of engagement loosened and as both sides grew more proficient. The nature and increasing strength of the North Vietnamese air defence system is reviewed, its heavy anti-aircraft gun batteries (some manned by the Chinese), its 100 plus SAM sites, many with Russian advisers and its effective defensive MiG-15 to MiG-21 fighters, some flown by the North Koreans and, again, others by the Chinese. The agility of the North Vietnamese in switching the emphasis from one component of the system to another as circumstances warrant and opportunities offer is stressed. The weather, both at sea and over the target was often a problem, and the topography challenging. When the focus of the war was on the interdiction of supplies ‘dropping’ bridges with ‘iron bombs’ in heavily defended sites was a real challenge, calling for detailed and complex tactical planning. The air jargon has to be hoisted in – big ‘Alpha’ strikes of many aircraft against particularly important targets, ‘armed reconnaissance’ interdiction operations, ‘Iron Hand’ missions against SAM sites, Flak suppression and anti-fighter missions, Operation BLUE TREE photo reconnaissance, electronic warfare and early warning flights and finally armed search and rescue operations behind enemy lines. It was a gruelling, complicated campaign against a ruthless, determined and resourceful adversary.

Just how gruelling it was emerges from the middle and longest section of the book, a detailed and personalised narrative account of the day-to-day operations of Air Wing 16, broken down chronologically, year by year. These accounts show just how different from Hollywood-style ‘Top Gun’ encounters these terrifying operations often were. Perhaps because of that the pilots had to adopt a ‘kick-the-tires-and-light-the-fires’ attitude simply as a way of keeping going. This is riveting, frequently appalling stuff. Some of the most incredible of the many stories in the book are of the search and rescue missions and the extraordinary lengths to which pilots would go to get their people back, even from the outskirts of Hanoi, or die trying.

The last and shortest section of the book is in effect the conclusion, although the reasons for ROLLING THUNDER’s failure are manifest throughout. Peter Fey, does not mince his words. This campaign was a failure. Between June 1967 and January 1968, the Navy lost over half its assigned aircraft and a third of its pilots. The North Vietnamese did not yield and pull back from running the military campaign in the South. The reasons for the failure emerge with an effect all the more powerful through being presented with a level of concise certainty and detail that convinces. Above all, the problem was the whole idea of trying to use ‘strategic’ bombing against a determined pre-industrial adversary, when its few significantly lucrative targets were protected by tight and often grossly unrealistic rules of engagement. Against such a target, how do you assess success and plan the campaign accordingly?  Incredibly, the key performance indicator was ‘sortie rates’ in which it made more accounting sense to send out three aircraft with one bomb each rather than one aircraft with three bombs. Poor inter-service relations with the US Air Force was a problem too. Continuing shortages in carriers, pilots, bombs bedevilled operations.  And of course, the North Vietnamese enemy was adaptive, skilled and able to exploit every weakness they found.

So, this not an easy, fun read, but a crucial one all the same. It illuminates not only the nature and the conduct of the ROLLING THUNDER campaign, but also does much to explain the extraordinary success of the air campaign against Iraq in 1991, just over twenty years later, since the US was determined never to fight such a campaign again. Bloody Sixteen is very highly recommended.