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The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam

Track My Order. My Wishlist Sign In Join. Be the first to write a review. Add to Wishlist. Ships in 7 to 10 business days. Link Either by signing into your account or linking your membership details before your order is placed. Description Table of Contents Product Details Click on the cover image above to read some pages of this book! Industry Reviews "[Clodfelter] has done us all a great favor with this book because he has stimulated thinking about our past and our opportunities for the future.

Introduction p. All Rights Reserved. In Stock. Overall, there are a number of conclusions that can be drawn about the effectiveness of air power, which rely on much support from the aforementioned case studies. One is that airpower should never be seen as end within itself, and is instead an enabler in that it provides strategic opportunities and, while it was credited with victory in the Kosovan war, this would not always be the case. Furthermore, it is often most useful in auxiliary, or combined arms, operations, working with effective synergy with ground forces. When facing insurgents the indirect role of aircraft is often underestimated, as it is particularly useful for inserting troops in hard-to-reach areas as well as providing useful intelligence — vital in small wars given that intense forms of warfare are often not permitted.

It is in this guerrilla warfare that the high-tech aspects of air are pivotal. Precision guided munitions help to achieve negative objectives by reducing collateral damage and, in recent years, the role of satellites has proven to be extremely beneficial, such as providing information on weather which may indicate the prime location and time for attacks, as nations continue to invest in the potential role of space as an extension of airpower.

Very rarely will air provide the only solution, and the political objective should always assume dominance, with air often being used in a heavy-handed fashion which often backfires. Rather, as with the war on terror, other factors cannot be ignored, such as implementing governmental, educational and economical reforms in a bid to win the hearts and the minds of the people. Clodfelter provides a valid evaluation of airpower as he claims we have created a modern version of it that focuses on the destructive capabilities instead of its use as a political tool.

Byman, Daniel L. Corum, James S. Dunne, Tim, Schmidt, Brian C. New York: Oxford University Press. Gray, Colin S.

Oxon: Routledge, Lambeth, Benjamin S. Pape, Robert A. Smith, James M. Et al, Spacepower for a new millennium, Space and U. S National Security, ed. Peter L. Stigler, Andrew L. Oxon: Routledge, , p. New York: Oxford University Press, p. Before you download your free e-book, please consider donating to support open access publishing. E-IR is an independent non-profit publisher run by an all volunteer team. Their grades were then combined and averaged. President Johnson reviewed the averaged grades, then personally selected the targets for attack.

Parameters of attack were deter-mined. For example, when the Hanoi and Haiphong POL storage facilities were authorized for attack in June , the following conditions were specified by the White House:.

DIRTY SECRETS of VIETNAM: The Aces of Southeast Asia

Given the myriad criteria for target authorization and attack, it is appropriate to ask: to what degree did the White House base its decisions on the law of war? The answer: very little, and then more by coincidence than choice. Had they done so and heeded that advice, Rolling Thunder undoubtedly would have concluded in a manner favorable to the United States and at a substantially lower cost. The law of war constitutes a balancing of national security interests, expressed in legal terms as military necessity , against the desire of the United States and other members of the international community to limit to the extent practically possible the effects of war to those individuals and objects having a direct effect on the hostilities, which is expressed as the avoidance of unnecessary suffering by those not taking part in the conflict.

The Air Force manual on the law of war defines military necessity as justifying "measures of regulated force not forbidden by international law which are indispensable for securing the prompt submission of the enemy, with the least possible expenditures of economic and human resources. This phrase implies the correct selection and use of weapon systems, maximum productivity from available flying effort, and careful balance in the allocation of tasks. What, then, are lawful targets? The inherent nature of an object is not controlling; its value to the enemy or the perceived value of its destruction is the determinant.

A comparison of the target systems recommended for attack in the JCS target list with those target categories recognized by the law of war as permissible targets will illustrate their consistency:. The JCS eschewed the attack of political targets, although their attack would have been lawful.

The Limits of Airpower or the Limits of Strategy: The Air Wars in Vietnam and Their Legacies

Under White House direction, the original target list did not include targets in population centers. The latter restriction was not a law of war requirement; a legitimate target may be attacked wherever it is located. The law of war recognizes the inevitability of collateral civilian casualties; what it prohibits is the intentional attack of the civilian population per se or individual civilians not taking part in the conflict, or the employment of weapons or tactics that result in excessive collateral civilian casualties.

Historically, this standard has enjoyed a high threshold—requiring collateral civilian casualties that shock the conscience of the world because of their vast number — condemning only acts so blatant as to be tantamount to a total disregard for the safety of the civilian population, or to amount to the indiscriminate use of means and methods of warfare. Such latitude has been provided in recognition of the fluidity of civilians on the battlefield and the necessity for decision-making by military commanders in the fog of war — including "fog" created by the enemy in the way of lawful ruses and deceptions.

Naturally, this latitude or benefit of the doubt is qualified by the expectation that military commanders will make a good faith effort to minimize collateral civilian casualties, consistent with the security of their own forces. It was on this point that the Johnson administration made one of the more egregious errors of Rolling Thunder. It selected the hortatory admonishment to minimize civilian casualties as the campaign standard, rather than the law of war prohibition of excessive collateral civilian casualties. Although other reasons were cited on occasion, the buffer zones around Hanoi and Haiphong were placed there primarily to reduce to an absolute minimum civilian casualties among the enemy population.

In practice, the criterion for White House selection of targets slipped farther from approving only those targets that would minimize civilian casualties to one of authorizing attacks against only such targets as would result in a minimum of civilian casualties. This criterion was incorrect for several reasons. Whereas the question of whether a nation has utilized illegal means and methods of warfare generally is measured against an overall campaign or war, the Johnson administration elected to apply it against each individual fixed target; it chose to slide the standard to an increasingly stringent level, i.

Johnson’s Use of Airpower in Vietnam

While such humanitarianism is laudable, it ignored not only the law of war but fundamental concepts of warfare. As Euripides wrote in Heracles ," The standard was not applied without criticism. The JCS, in responding to a 14 October McNamara memorandum on Rolling Thunder, argued that if it were to be effective, "the air campaign should be conducted with only those minimum constraints to avoid indiscriminate killing of population," which would have been consistent with the law of war. Rolling Thunder drew to a close six months later.

There were other errors with respect to the application of the law of war in Rolling Thunder. The first lay in the failure to distinguish between civilian casualties as such and the law of war prohibition against excessive collateral civilian casualties. Casualties among civilians working in a facility that is a legitimate target cannot prevent attack on that facility; their injury or death as a result of the attack of that target is an occupational hazard and the exclusive responsibility of the defender. Moreover, a serious error was made with respect to the determination of who was entitled to protection as a "civilian.

Individuals supporting the war effort by moving military supplies and personnel down lines of communication into South Vietnam or repairing the roads and bridges making up those LOCs were taking a direct part in the hostilities and therefore were subject to attack. Personnel who manned AA sites, including those individuals trained in the "Hanoi habit" to run into the street with small arms to fire into the air during air raids, were similarly subject to attack while they participated in the conflict.

However, the North Vietnamese classified all of these individuals as protected "civilians" and included them in their civilian casualty reports, without challenge by the White House. Rather, casualties among civilians within military targets and among these unprotected civilians erroneously were included in civilian casualty estimates reviewed at the Tuesday lunch. The law of war is not a one-way street, imposing obligations on the attacker while absolving the defender of any responsibility for collateral civilian casualties. It expects each to act in good faith with respect to the minimization of collateral civilian casualties.

To the extent that the defender elects to disregard the law of war, he is responsible for the civilian casualties that flow from his actions. For example, civilian casualties or damage to civilian objects resulting from intentional actions by the defender to screen targets from attack are the responsibility of the defender exclusively. Knowing U. Similarly, MiG aircraft dispersals were placed in villages adjacent to airfields to screen the aircraft from attack. A military target does not change its character by being situated in a populated area.

The law of war does not prohibit their attack but places the responsibility on the defender for civilian casualties caused by its deliberate acts. Similarly, the defender rather than the attacker is accountable for damage or injury accruing from actions taken to thwart the attack of legitimate targets. Passes by MiG aircraft, the firing of air-to-air missiles, or the launching of SAMs to force attacking aircraft to jettison their ordnance may lead to civilian casualties for which the defender alone is accountable.

The North Vietnamese utilized all these actions to screen and protect their military targets from attack, without response from the Johnson administration. Like limited war, the law of war depends on both parties to a conflict adhering to agreed standards. Whereas the United States considered the Vietnam War to be a limited struggle, to the North Vietnamese the conflict was total.

To the extent the United States undertook Rolling Thunder to induce the North Vietnamese to limit the conflict, it was singularly unsuccessful. The United States might have been more successful in enforcing the law of war, for the law of war provides specific sanctions to induce compliance. Again, however, apparent ignorance of the law resulted in inaction when transgressions occurred. In addition to parking military convoys in civilian residential areas and storing military supplies in such places as the Haiphong cultural center, normally a civilian object protected from attack, the North Vietnamese maximized for military purposes their use of objects enjoying special protection under the law of war.

Not the least of these was the utilization of hospitals as AA sites. In relating his experience in attacking the rail facilities and associated equipment at Viet Tri, one pilot noted sardonically:. They had one large complex of buildings just north of town that was billed as a hospital, and [it] was naturally off limits. If it was in fact a hospital, it must have been a hospital for sick flak gunners, because every time we looked at it from a run on the railhead, it was one mass of sputtering, flashing gun barrels.

The Geneva Convention relating to the protection of the wounded and sick is explicit in providing for discontinuance of protection for hospitals when they are used for "acts harmful to the enemy. Given the insistence on widespread photographic coverage of air strikes over North Vietnam, U. Had the North Vietnamese ignored the demands, appropriate action could have followed.

Again, however, the North Vietnamese succeeded in placing the United States on the defensive early in the Rolling Thunder campaign by alleging that the United States was bombing hospitals intentionally. Apparently lacking the capacity for sparring with the North Vietnamese in the world public opinion arena, the White House never entertained any thought of availing itself of its legal remedies. Rolling Thunder was one of the most constrained military campaigns in history.

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But ignorantia juris neminem excusat ignorance of the law excuses no one. The law of war evolves through one of two processes or a combination thereof. First, it is the product of the widespread practice of nations over an extended period of time and in numerous conflicts. Alternatively, a rule may be drafted and codified in a treaty by virtue of multilateral negotiations.

History also records that where such rules have not accurately codified customary practice or met the preceding requirements, they have been disregarded in the ensuing conflicts. If one accepts these lessons, then recognition should be provided the corollary that while the law of war generally is considered to be the minimum standard of conduct acceptable from a nation at war, those laws relating to the use of force may very well also reflect the maximum limitations a nation may accept and still succeed.

One may exceed the minimum legal ration for a prisoner of war by feeding him the very best and have no effect on the war except to repatriate a healthy, overweight prisoner of war on the cessation of hostilities. However, to the extent that a nation exceeds those minimum standards through such unreasonable restrictions as those imposed on the Hanoi POL strike forces, it does so to its peril. In his commencement address at West Point on 27 May , President Reagan wisely cautioned against an overreliance on negotiation of treaties and agreements to the detriment of military strength. The latter was the folly of Rolling Thunder.

General William W. Professor Thompson describes himself as a DOD intelligence analyst at the time of Rolling Thunder, but his precise position or association with the campaign, if any, is not made clear. Navy F aircraft in international airspace on 19 August Henry F.

The latter posed no viable threat after , if it ever did. Although a lawyer, McNaughton had no international law or law-of-war background. Nonetheless, he declined to consult the law-of-war experts in OSD General Counsel on the basis that a lawyer does not need to talk to other lawyers.


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IV London, , pp. Lieutenant Colonel James L. RTSH, p. The pilot subsequently was lost on his seventy-seventh mission attacking a single truck. Graff, pp. He stated RTSH, p. The evidence is to the contrary. Four U. Futrell et al. It was followed by the day "Christmas" bombing halt 27 December to 30 January Most sorties were flown against targets within 40 to 60 miles of the demilitarized zone, in part owing to the northeast monsoon season from late January through March.