6 Ways Aircraft Changed the Course of the Vietnam War

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More than four decades after its end, the Vietnam War remains synonymous with unrest in the U.S. After all, the country entered the fray in earnest in the 1960s, the decade that ushered in all kinds of change across the land. But those shifts weren’t all cultural. As engineers applied the lessons learned from the century’s earlier wars, huge advancements in military weaponry were afoot, or rather, in the air. mental_floss examines the ways aviation technology drove the Vietnam War.

1. AT FIRST, THE U.S. FOCUSED ON AERIAL OPERATIONS. 

The "War to End All Wars" didn’t exactly do so; neither did the international conflicts after it. But aerial weapons research started during WWII did greatly affect U.S. military strategy in Vietnam. By the mid-1960s, the U.S. had built an impressive fleet of aircraft. Its arsenal included everything from stealth jets used for reconnaissance, such as the Lockheed SR-71 to gunships including the AC-130 Spectre, one of the deadliest aircraft ever, to bombers including the Martin B-57B. The sheer number and variety of aircraft in the U.S. forces’ arsenal made it seem as if victory from above would be imminent. When President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, the idea was to stop the spread of Communist forces while avoiding a land war and minimizing the loss of American lives. Instead, it went on to become the longest sustained aerial bombing campaign in U.S. history, and fully pulled the U.S. into the lengthy conflict.

2. AMERICAN POWS WERE MOSTLY PILOTS AND OTHER AIRMEN. 

Aerial attacks may have weakened North Vietnamese and Communist forces, but they also served to strengthen their resolve. With help from China and the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese Army soon deployed surface-to-air missiles and radar-controlled anti-aircraft artillery. The highly effective Soviet S75-Dvina was one of the first high-altitude air defense systems designed to be mobile. (Now, of course, most modern systems focus on mobility.) The massive success of these defensive machines helps explain why, for the first time, the majority of American prisoners of war were pilots and other airmen.

3. HELICOPTERS ENABLED SMALL SEARCH AND RESCUE MISSIONS, SAVING LIVES. 

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There’s a reason Vietnam is referred to as The Helicopter War. Though the U.S. first used helicopters in World War II and then later in the Korean War, they relied on them like never before during Vietnam. With their ability to fly at low altitudes while holding heavy weaponry, including machine guns and missiles, they made targeted strikes easier. They could also accurately drop in supplies to troops on the ground. But it was really the choppers’ ability to land in small spaces that made them useful for evacuating killed or wounded soldiers, turning them into Medevac units. One copter in particular, the Bell UH-1 helicopter—affectionately referred to as the “Huey”—became an unofficial symbol of U.S. troops. “It’s the noisy one. It’s the one that really hacks into the air and makes that whomp noise,” explains former U.S. pilot Richard Jellerson, who wrote and produced the 2001 documentary The Personal Experience: Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam. “It was like a truck, it was easy to fix and could take any amount of punishment. Some of them came back with so many holes, you just wouldn’t believe they’d ever fly again. As a matter of fact, some of them didn’t fly again—but they did land, and the crew walked away.”

4. CHOPPERS MADE A WHOLE NEW MILITARY DIVISION POSSIBLE: AIR CAVALRY. 

Yes, helicopters aided in search and rescue efforts as well as in attacks themselves. But their ubiquity also helped bring about a brand new military division: air cavalry, or light infantry deployed by helicopters. The 1st Air Cavalry Division arrived in Vietnam in August and September 1965. Its missions included everything from providing recon by going behind enemy lines and conducting raids to providing supplies to ground troops. The Division saw its first (hard-won) victory in late fall of 1965 with the 34-day Ia Drang Valley campaign, in which it located North Vietnamese fighters and engaged in close combat, before being swooped up then dropped elsewhere in swiftly choreographed maneuvers. In 1968, air cavalry were brought in to relieve the U.S. Marines under siege at Khe Sanh during the Communist forces’ Tet Offensive [PDF]. The battle was considered proof of air mobility’s importance and served as a basis for the military’s future AirLand Battle technique, focusing on coordinated land and air attacks.

5. MASSIVE BOMBER PLANES GOT THE U.S. OUT OF THE REGION. 

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The U.S. first became entangled in Vietnam warfare through its use of planes, and that’s how the country ultimately ended its involvement, too. The B-52 heavy bomber was developed in the late 1940s by Boeing, and that feat of engineering allowed U.S. forces to drop a volume of bombs unlike anything that had been seen before. (In fact, the B-52 is still in use today, making it the longest running craft in America’s fleet.) It was B-52 bombers—129 of them—that dropped the 20,000-plus tons of explosives on Hanoi and its surrounding areas over the Christmas strike on North Vietnam in 1972. The strike, which was ordered by President Richard Nixon under the name Operation Linebacker II, was meant to force the North Vietnamese back to the table following a failed round of peace talks. As Vietnamese BBC journalist Ha Mi, who was 10 years old at the time, later recalled, “The fighter jets were faster and would only drop one or two bombs, then they were gone.” In contrast, the slower B-52s cast a wider net and terrorized local populations, she said: “Boom, boom, boom, for a longer period of time. It’s more threatening.” The Christmas bombing of Hanoi caused massive Vietnamese casualties, and is typically credited as leading to the Paris Peace Accord—signed the next month and sealing the United States’s withdrawal from the conflict.

6. EVENTUALLY, INTERNATIONAL LAWS CONCERNING CHEMICAL WARFARE WERE ESTABLISHED. 

The U.S.’s heavy reliance on aerial warfare led to arguably the most infamous element of the Vietnam War: widespread chemical warfare in the form of napalm. A chemical compound developed during WWII, napalm is a mixture of a gelling agent and gasoline (or a similar fuel), and releases large amounts of carbon monoxide when it explodes. Its “sticky” property also means that it will cling to surfaces—including human skin—as it burns, making napalm a particularly cruel weapon. In 1980, the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons settled on new protocols banning weapons considered both excessively injurious and indiscriminate—i.e., those that might harm civilians, a definition that would cover the incendiary weapon napalm. (Under international law, napalm and similar substances can still be used to attack military targets. Also of note: The U.S. didn't ratify these protocols until 2009, and it may void its participation if it decides the use of napalm against enemies would save civilian lives.) For decades after the Vietnam War, choosing a method of destroying the excess liquid fire proved difficult, expensive and controversial, and the U.S. housed more than 34,500 canisters of napalm in their original 10-foot bullet-shaped canisters. By 2001, all had been recycled by a firm in Dallas Park, Texas, without incident.

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