B-52s Over Hanoi: 40th Anniversary of Operation Linebacker II
A B-52 drops its payload over Vietnam
Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon issued two orders. He knew the first would not be followed, so he issued the second.
First, Nixon sent an ultimatum to North Vietnam on December 14, 1972: Return to peace negotiations in Paris within three days or else. He then issued an order to Admiral Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Prepare to bomb Hanoi.
The Republican President wanted what he eventually termed “peace with honor.” There would be a ceasefire and North Vietnam would release all American POWs. America would withdraw its troops from South Vietnam, but that country would remain independent.
Nixon thought that he could force the communists to agree to such terms by initiating massive bombing of North Vietnam. B-52 strikes on industrial and military targets in Hanoi, North Vietnam’s capital, and Haiphong, its principal port, were the key components to this operation. B-52s had never before struck the former.
The official name for the operation was Linebacker II, but it eventually became known as the “11-Day War,” or “The Christmas Bombings.” Linebacker I had been an interdiction campaign against North Vietnam.
On December 18th, 129 U.S. Air Force B-52s took off from Guam and Thailand: Target, Hanoi. To borrow from football terminology, in keeping with the name of the operation, the B-52s could not score by themselves—it took a team—but they were going to have the ball on every play.
The North Vietnamese had three means of defense: anti-aircraft guns (AAA), MiG fighters, and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAM).
By flying at around 35,000 feet, the B-52s eliminated the threat of North Vietnamese AAA, but the communist gunners fired anyway. Although American planners didn’t expect MiGs to be a significant threat, flying at night and a combat air patrol of American F-4s further minimized the MiG threat. The darkness also took away the SA-2′s limited optical capability.
Each B-52 carried its own electronic countermeasures (ECM), a pod of jammers that created an electronic “smokescreen” around each plane. They maximized this effect by flying in cells of three aircraft. EB-66 and Navy and Marine EA-6s and EA-3s increased the size and intensity of the smokescreen. F-4s laid down the final element, a corridor of tiny metal strips, chaff that created additional interference on North Vietnamese radar screens.
Fan Song fire control radars directed the SA-2s, but any Fan Song that transmitted for too long became a target for American F-4s, F-105s, and A-7s carrying missiles that homed in on their transmissions.
The B-52s that night carried out a plan developed at Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters in Omaha. Aircraft cells flew in single file and followed the same route in and out of the target area. The big bombers came in three separate waves over eight hours. They were ordered to fly straight and level during their bombing run to maximize accuracy and minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties. F-111s came as well, hitting a number of airfields but losing one aircraft in the process.
As the B-52s approached Hanoi, North Vietnamese radars tracked the cloud and telephoned its position to the SA-2 battalions. The battalions often found the jamming too intense to use their own Spoon Rest radars to acquire a B-52 in the electronic smokescreen.
Ideally, the Fan Song fire control radar automatically tracked its target, but the American jamming usually made automatic tracking impossible. Instead, the North Vietnamese relied upon manual tracking, a difficult process that required the guidance operators to manually keep the target in the crosshairs.
The battalions’ Fan Song fire control radars could only briefly discern the B-52s when they flew close by or when they made a post-bombing turn that reduced the B-52s ECM effectiveness and occasionally allowed for the Fan Song’s more accurate automatic tracking mode to be used. This is when the ground crews fired most of their SA-2s.
Often firing in salvos, the North Vietnamese may have fired off as many as 164 SA-2s. Three B-52s went down and two more were damaged. A B-52 tail gunner, Staff Sergeant Sam Turner, shot down a MiG-21—the first-ever air-to-air kill by a B-52.
The B-52s had struck MiG airfields and a rail yard. It was a long mission for the aircraft from Guam. By the time the last wave of the first day was returning, the first wave of the second day was on the runway preparing to take off.
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The strike created shock on both sides of the Pacific. The North Vietnamese were taken aback—but so was the American public. Only a few months before, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, had said that “peace is at hand.” Many Americans were tired of the war and simply wanted it to end. The sudden and surprising bombing gave the impression that the war was escalating, not ending. Nixon’s approval rating took a nosedive.
Ninety-three B-52s returned on the 19th using the same flight plan they had on the first night. They made some slight adjustments, such as tightening up the bombers’ altitude to better keep them in the chaff corridor. Targets included rail yards and a power plant. No aircraft were lost and only two were damaged. This gave the impression that the tactics in SAC’s plan were sound.
The B-52s then ran the same play for the third straight night. The SA-2 is a transportable system, and the North Vietnamese had shifted some of them to be closer to the B-52s’ flight path, where the Fan Song radars could burn through the jamming. The SA crews also practiced how to engage by only briefly using their Fan Songs and practiced firing when the B-52s made their post-bombing turn.
The North Vietnamese shot down three B-52s of the first wave. SAC was in shock. Part of the problem was equipment. Some B-52Gs carried ECM gear that was not as effective as that carried by the B-52Ds. So SAC recalled six B-52Gs from the second wave, which carried out its attack with no losses.
SAC Commander in Chief, General John C. Meyer (pictured at left), made a difficult decision and ordered the third wave to “press on,” even though it included B-52Gs. Two were downed, as well as a B-52D.
Meyer came under a lot of pressure. Brigadier General Glenn R. Sullivan, commander of the B-52s of the 17th Air Division at U-Tapao, Thailand, had seen enough. He sent a message directly to General Meyer requesting a number of changes in tactics. The B-52 commanders on Guam agreed with his requests.
The White House was also angry. The B-52s were supposed to bring North Vietnam to the table quickly, not give them encouragement with so many American aircraft losses. A Democratic-majority Congress would be back in session in early January, and Nixon believed they would most likely terminate funding for the war.
Only 30 B-52Ds struck North Vietnam on December 21st. A few changes in tactics, such as changing the post-target turn and reducing the distance between aircraft cells, were implemented. The targets were hit in just 15 minutes, but two more B-52s were still shot down during a raid on Bac Mai airfield.
SAC shifted away from Hanoi for three days, the 22nd through the 24th. Thirty B-52s bombed targets in Haiphong as well as SAM sites close to the Chinese border. The B-52s started using multiple approaches and varying their altitude, and Navy aircraft suppressed the SAM sites as the B-52s approached. No B-52s were lost, but an F-111 was.
There was a stand-down on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. President Nixon sent a message to the North Vietnamese offering to halt the bombing if they returned to the peace negotiations. The North Vietnamese did not respond.
The B-52s returned to Hanoi on the 26th. The 8th Air Force developed much of the plan. Like the first night, the strikes on the 26th consisted of over 120 B-52s. That is where the similarities ended.
Seventy-eight hit Hanoi and 42 hit Haiphong. The B-52Gs with the inferior ECM suites were used away from Hanoi. The B-52s came in all at the same time from multiple directions and altitudes, hitting all the targets in one quarter-hour span in a brilliant feat of aircraft coordination and flying over a small geographic area. Chaff was used much more extensively, creating more of a cloud than a corridor. Two B-52s were lost, but both were in broken cells of less than three aircraft. The reduced ECM capability made them vulnerable. In future, if a cell lost an aircraft, the remaining two would join another cell to form a five-cell formation and preserve ECM effectiveness.
The mission of the 27th saw 60 B-52s striking Hanoi, including the return of B-52Gs. Two more aircraft were lost while striking SAM sites.; bad weather throughout the operation had prevented tactical aircraft from destroying these sites. The same number of bombers struck SAM warehouses and a freight yard over the next two nights. None were lost, and there was little resistance compared to earlier strikes.
Nixon told the North Vietnamese that the bombing would continue until they returned to the negotiating table. Once they agreed, the bombing would end within 36 hours. The North Vietnamese agreed, and Nixon ended Linebacker II.
North Vietnam’s supplies, petroleum reserves, and power generating capacity had all been greatly reduced. The B-52s had flown over 700 sorties, losing 15 bombers shot down by SA-2s. Tactical and support aircraft had also flown hundreds of sorties and had suffered their own losses. Their effort had made the B-52 strikes possible.
The President had the North Vietnamese on a glide path to an agreement. Now he had to deal with the South Vietnamese government in Saigon, which had previously resisted elements of the accord. Nixon stressed that the proposed agreement was not perfect, but it was the best he could do given the circumstances. The South Vietnamese reluctantly agreed to go along.
The Administration and North Vietnamese implemented a ceasefire on January 27rd, 1973. The American POWs came home and the U.S. withdrew its forces from South Vietnam. Nixon did not present the agreement to the Senate for ratification. By the summer, Congress passed legislation by a veto-proof majority that prohibited further U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Congress also agreed to continue military funding to South Vietnam.
By August 1974, Nixon had resigned from the Presidency as a result of Watergate. There would be no Linebacker III. South Vietnam was unable to resist a North Vietnamese invasion the following spring and ceased to exist as an independent country.
For more on Operation Linebacker II, see “The 11-Day War,” by Robert O. Harder, from Aviation History magazine, on our partner site, HistoryNet.
Hans Johnson is a freelance writer living in Naples, Florida.