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The 11 Days that Ended 11 Years of War: the B-52 and Operation Linebacker II

B-52s run a nocturnal gantlet of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), in Jack Fellows’ painting "High Road to Hanoi.”

By the eleventh day of Operation Linebacker II, the North Vietnamese were at the mercy of the B-52. The North Vietnamese returned to the negotiating table. The US achieved its objective of letting go of the war. The BUFF had succeeded where all other tactics had failed.

Operation Linebacker II was a complex, multi-service operation over North Vietnam in December 1972. The B-52 missions flown during Linebacker II became the best-known B-52 operations of the Southeast Asia War. The first Operation Linebacker was the aerial interdiction campaign to halt the flow of supplies during North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive earlier that year. After the communists stalled peace negotiations, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) gathered an enormous force of B-52s – 99 B-52Gs and 53 B-52Ds at Guam and another 54 B-52Ds at U-Tapao. To force the communists back into serious peace negotiations, the US launched Operation Linebacker II. Beginning on the night of Dec. 18 and ending on the 29th, waves of B-52s attacked military targets in Hanoi, Haiphong and other places in North Vietnam with precision bombing.

As told by Walter J. Boyne in his book Boeing B-52 A Documentary History, the first pilot to take off on the first “Linebacker II” mission on Dec. 18, 1972, was Major Bill Stocker in Rose I (the aircraft took off and flew in three ship cells that were coded by colour, from prosaic Red and Blue to the more exotic Cherry, Slate or Ebony). He knew he was leading an armada which would be joined by a host of other US combat elements. There would be Douglas EB-66s, Douglas EA-3s, the bulbous old “Skynights”, and Grumman EA-6s to assist in jamming enemy frequencies. Flights of McDonnell Douglas F-4s, General Dynamic F-111s and Vought A-7 aircraft would attack airfields and keep the MiGs down. Republic F-105 “Thuds”, very sophisticated Wild Weasel aircraft, would use their Shrike radar homing missiles to suppress SAM sites. The fighter F-4s would be on hand to serve as a MiG combat air patrol, an air superiority force which would also provide escort home for any crippled B-52s.

Further out, tired old EC-121 Connies, their engines perpetually dripping oil, would monitor the frequencies and plot surface to air missile firings. Lockheed C-130s and Jolly Green Giants, the Sikorsky HH-53 choppers, would be on hand to provide rescue operations. As always, the Boeing KC-135A tankers of Kadena’s 376th Aerial Refueling Wing would provide pre-strike fuel for the thirsty D models, and if necessary, emergency post-strike refuelling.

Ships of the Seventh Fleet added to the monitoring and rescue capability. One ship, totally unknown to the crews other than by its call sign “Red Crown”, provided such extraordinary ground and air surveillance that it was still talked about admiringly in SAC ready rooms years later.

An ominous complicating factor to the operations, and one which still provokes anger from veteran crew members, were the instructions from SAC Headquarters that the aircraft were not to take evasive action either from SAMS or MiGs during the long run in from the Initial Point (IP) to Bombs Away. The concern was two-fold. First, SAC wanted to be sure that only military targets were hit, and second, it was felt that the electronic countermeasures integrity of the three-ship cell might be lost if evasive action were taken.

Pilot’s view of a typical, three-ship B-52 formation known as a cell.

There are sharply divided opinions about these instructions. One side maintains that the basic SAC tactical doctrine called for the specific evasive action manoeuvres which would have optimized the cell’s ECM capability, while another side maintains that the manoeuvres which were ultimately used were devised on an ad hoc basis in the light of accumulating experience. In any case, losses were to be severe.

When the bombers penetrated the target area, SAMs lit up the sky around Hanoi. A firing could be detected by a white city-block-square sized flash on the ground, followed by a streak through the sky that finished, in the clouds, in a mushroom shaped halo of exploding light of enormous proportions. The SAMs were plotted on the electronic equipment, too, signals from the ground to the missile (Uplink) and from the missile to the ground (Downlink) both being detectable. The crews would sit listening to the radio chatter signalling the launches, and could see out of the windscreen “wall to wall SAMs” as one pilot put it. The Electronic Warfare Officer would pick up on those signals that indicated a missile was closing. Thirty or forty or more SAMs were sometimes in flight all at once, all apparently aimed at one cell. One crew calmly broadcast “this one is going to get us”, and then went on to drop its bombs on target before being hit. It was a miracle of iron nerves and discipline.

For some “EWOs”, Electronic Warfare Officers, the signals were the first real representations of an electronic phenomenon that they had been practicing under simulated conditions for years; they took a real delight in the clarity of the signal presentation, fascinated by something they had been trained for all their careers suddenly coming to life, and ignoring the implicit danger.

The first attack broke new ground for both sides. Over 200 SAMs were fired, and two B-52Gs from Andersen and a B-52D from U-Tapao were lost.

The data from debriefed crews was assessed as soon as possible, but the second day’s first wave was launched on the basis of the pre-strike plan. It encountered heavy SAM opposition, but no losses. It was evident that the dictum of no evasive action from IP to Bombs Away was too costly. The word was sent to the second and third waves that coordinated evasive action could be taken, if ECM integrity was maintained, and if the bomber was straight and level immediately prior to bombs away.

Data analysis provided some new methods for jamming the SAMs, and on better use of evasive tactics. New black boxes were conjured up and installed. It was hoped that the third attack would benefit from all the information, but instead it incurred the highest losses of the war. A total of four B-52Gs and two B-52Ds were shot down out of the 93 aircraft launched. The aircraft had made their customary breakaway over the target, and turned into over a 100 knot jet stream that seemed to stop them in their tracks. In addition, the breakaway banked the aircraft to a critical attitude that blanked out some of their ECM capability.

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MiG-21s had been observed flying parallel to the bomber formations, just as the Germans had done in World War II, radioing speeds, altitudes and headings back to the SAM sites. At least 220 SAMs were fired, some in salvoes at the turn-point, when the bombers were most vulnerable.

The losses caused tremendous concern at every level of headquarters, and in the national press. General Meyer, CINCSAC, went over every detail of the last three days’ efforts, analyzing every aspect, US and North Vietnamese. Six B-52s out of a force of 93 was almost a 7% loss rate. Three or 5% was considered acceptable; more than this was not, for there was no B-52 production line any longer, and the US could not afford to sacrifice either its nuclear deterrent or its heavy artillery to the SAMs of Hanoi.

Meyer decided that the enemy had been hurt, too, and that the 8th Air Force would press on. Instead of the three days originally planned, the intensity of bombing would be sustained for an indefinite period. Ground crews would get no respite as they went through the endless process of refuelling, rearming, and servicing the bombers; aircrews would fly every two or three days. Meyer’s decision to go on was the correct one. The new tactics, which had featured destruction of SAM sites, coupled with the depletion of the SAM inventory, had turned the tide decisively for the B-52. The bomber effort of the next two missions was confined, as planned, to U-Tapao’s B-52Ds, while Andersen began preparing for another maximum effort.

During this period a decision had been made to seek out and destroy the SAM storage depots, in an effort to cut off supplies at the source. The enemy defences seemed to be having trouble coping with the much more varied tactics being employed by the BUFFs. Three successive days went by without any B-52 losses or damage from SAMs. The MiG-21s, which had occasioned real worry prior to the start of “Linebacker II”, had not shown any aggressive desire to engage the bombers, and at least two had been shot down, one by T/Sgt Sam Turner and another by A1C Albert More. Three others were claimed but not confirmed.

Christmas day saw a stand down; crews at both U-Tapao and Andersen had a day’s respite, and even the ground crews got a few hours off. To many, retrospectively, it was a bitter mistake, for the North Vietnamese spent Christmas transporting SAMs to the firing sites, catching their breath for the inevitable resumption.

On Dec. 26, entirely new tactics were tried. All Andersen aircraft, 33 B-52Ds and 45 B-52Gs, were launched in a compressed 2 hour and 29 minute period. Four waves of these aircraft, from four different directions, were to converge simultaneously over Hanoi, while three other waves were to strike Haiphong at the same time. There were 120 targets, all with the same bomb release time and there were 110 support aircraft in the air.

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Colonel James R. McCarthy, Commander of the 43rd Strategic Wing, was airborne commander for this raid, despite a raging case of pneumonia. The attack was heavily opposed by SAM launches. Weather conditions were difficult, with 100 knot winds which made the simultaneous release of bombs from forces approaching from opposite directions doubly difficult. Ground speeds differed by as much as 200 knots, and the navigators had their hands full to bring their aircraft into position on time.

The attack went off with precision, bombs dropping on target at exactly the predicted times; despite the heavy increase in SAM firings, only two B-52s were lost. The ascendancy of SAC over Hanoi was established.

For the next two days, the B-52s turned eagerly, with the fighters, to the destruction of individual SAM sites, and henceforth the accuracy of the missile firings declined noticeably. The last two B-52s to be lost were shot down on the ninth day of the raids.

The tenth and eleventh raids were without incident; the bombs went on target, primarily SAM storage depots, and the word came down from Headquarters that “Linebacker II” was over. The North Vietnamese had returned to the negotiating table. The US was to be able to achieve its objective of letting go of the war. The B-52s had succeeded where all other tactics had failed.

In those 11 days, the only days that SAC fought the war as it wanted to fight it, in ageing airplanes, some over 17 years old, SAC had flown 729 sorties across the most heavily defended territory in history, dropped 15,000 tons of bombs, and sustained 15 losses, or less than 2% of the sorties. About 1,240 SAMs had been fired against them.

By the eleventh day, the North Vietnamese were at the mercy of the B-52.

A U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52G-125-BW Stratofortress (s/n 59-2582) from the 72nd Strategic Wing (Provisional) waits beside the runway at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam (USA), as another B-52 takes off for a bombing mission over North Vietnam during Operation Linebacker II on 18 December 1972.

Top Image: Jack Fellows, ASAA; Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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