Streetwise Professor

October 9, 2014

To See How We’re Doing It Wrong, Consider When We Did It Right: Eastertide, 1972

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:17 pm

Watching the desultory air campaign in Syria and Iraq, and in particular the minimal strikes in defense of Kobani, brought to mind an example of what air power can do to rescue a beleaguered, poorly-led, and demoralized ground force: the crushing US air strikes against the North Vietnamese Eastertide Offensive in 1972.

This paper provides a very thorough history and analysis.

Particularly devastating were massive B-52 strikes, delivered in 3 ship “Arc Light” packages. Flying too high to be heard or seen, the first indication that the NVA soldiers on the ground had that they were Arc Light targets was the world exploding around them. Many of the dead were found without a mark, killed by the concussive force of the explosions. Gunships, initially AC-47s and eventually AC-130s, were also very effective in night-time raids. (The USAF also used B-52s with devastating effectiveness against Iraqi Republican Guard and regular infantry units during Desert Storm.)

For a Kobani comparison, look at the Battle of An Loc, where outnumbered and shaky PAVN units were saved by wave after wave of US air strikes.

Two things stand out. The first, to be decisive, the attacks were massed and unrelenting. Second, and this is particularly relevant in the Iraq-Syria context, was the vital role played by Tactical Air Controllers. You know, boots on the ground (gag) calling in the strikes.* Without them the NVA would have prevailed. They were the difference between success and failure.

The effort in 1972 was massive. But that’s because the NVA attack was massive, well over 200,000 strong, heavily supported by armor and artillery. The losses inflicted by the air campaign were also massive: the NVA lost over 100,000 casualties, perhaps half of those KIA.

The ISIS forces are much smaller, so such a massive effort would not be needed. Moreover, the advent of precision guided weapons allows the delivery of decisive fires with fewer sorties and fewer bombs dropped. The terrain is also more favorable, desert in which concealment is difficult vs. dense jungle.

Unlike the NVA, ISIS is unlikely to stand still and be pounded into dust. But that’s fine. They can’t advance, and they can’t win, if they are hunkered down.

Air power works best if it works hand-in-glove with ground forces. But the events of 1972 show that  air power can be decisive if employed in overwhelming force and is guided by expert soldiers and airmen on the ground.

At present the US is doing neither. Hence we will fail, and we will have chosen failure.

*I hate, hate, hate the expression “boots on the ground” by the way. It was annoying when first used years ago, by Colin Powell I think. It has only become more annoying through overuse by people who know less about the military than you could learn by watching Gomer Pyle reruns. I use it sarcastically here ¬†because it has been used ad nauseum in this context.


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  1. The paper also covers the importance of strategic bombing during Operation Linebacker and Linebacker II. The type of tactical bombing strikes against invading NVA troops were also accompanied by the removal of many of the restrictions put in place regarding bombing North Vietnam and a sustained, massive campaign against the North. Linebacker II in particular was extremely effective. The use of air power to destroy NVA forces in the South went hand in hand with destroying the ability and will to wage war in the North.

    The question is how does this translate to dealing with ISIS? ISIS doesn’t have the same infrastructure etc. or other more conventional military targets that a state like North Vietnam had. That said, large scale strategic bombing might still be effective at destroying ISIS as any kind of military force, but at the cost of massive civilian casualties. Then, even if short term casualties are less than those that ISIS would inflict if left unchecked, the question remains as to what would fill the vacuum left behind, and how to sell such strikes to the public at home and abroad.

    Comment by JDonn — October 9, 2014 @ 11:24 pm

  2. @JDonn. Linebacker II forced Hanoi to the bargaining table. It was definitely important and complementary to the strikes in the south.

    The fact that ISIS doesn’t have the same logistical/infrastructure liability is something of a problem. Strategic bombing is not really feasible. But I was focusing on the tactical effect of bombing, and what needs to be done if bombing is to have a tactical effect. The problem is that we are deploying tac air in a totally ineffectual way.

    The civilian casualty problem constrains our ability to use airpower to root out ISIS from Raqqa, Fallujah, Mosul, etc. But it shouldn’t constrain our ability to pound them to oblivion whenever they advance through the desert. What astounds me is that we haven’t done that.

    You are right that even if we would inflict large civilian casualties by pounding ISIS in its urban lairs, a utilitarian calculation would likely establish that these casualties would be less than the number of civilians that would die if ISIS remains in control of its current territories. But no western leader, least of all Obama, will make that case or make that decision.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 10, 2014 @ 7:43 pm

  3. Meanwhile the Snowden damage is quantified:

    Thanks Edward, you little punkass bitch.

    Comment by Green as Grass — October 11, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

  4. @Green-a small part of the damage he’s done has been quantified. Sadly, I think the impact on ant-terror operations is the least of the damage he’s done. What he’s compromised to his currently landlord and China is likely far, far more gravely important.

    It could have been worse. He could have won the Nobel Peace Prize.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 11, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

  5. Nobel Peace Prize?

    There’s still time.

    Comment by Green as Grass — October 13, 2014 @ 5:41 am

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