Monday, June 09, 2014

The Limits of Air Power - Mark Clodfelter

I saw my dad this weekend, and you know what that means: Lots of and lots of books, mostly about military history! It's kind of staggering how many there are out there, you know.

The Limits of Air Power is about exactly what the title says, though as the subtitle explains, it focuses primarily on the bombing on North Vietnam, with some early discussion of World War II and Korea, as those experiences relate to American bombing doctrine.

One thing Clodfelter references frequently is the idea of positive and negative political goals. Negative goals are ones that limit application of military power. So LBJ's desire to not drag China or the Soviet Union in Vietnam, and how that tended to keep bombing south of the 20th parallel, would be a negative goal. Positive goals are ones that release limits on military power. In World War II, FDR's demand for total surrender by the Axis was a positive goal. It meant, ultimately, that the Allies could bomb the crap out of anything in the Axis countries, rather than being restricted solely to military targets.

Clodfelter examines the major bombing campaigns - Rolling Thunder, Linebacker I, Linebacker II - and assesses the relative success they had, their objectives, and what negative and positive goals were working on them. He notes that the military chiefs are of the opinion that Rolling Thunder failed because they were too restricted in what they could hit, and how often they could hit it, and they point to the success of the two Linebacker campaigns as proof.

Clodfelter argues the goals and situation Nixon faced when he authorized those were completely different from LBJ's for Rolling Thunder. Nixon was able to use diplomacy to exert pressure to convince China and the USSR to stay out of the way, and he wasn't trying to force North Vietnam to recognize South Vietnam as a separate nation with a legitimate government. He was simply trying to get them to stop trying to take it over, so he could withdraw American forces.

LBJ didn't have favorable situations enabling him to exert pressure on the major Communist powers (like the Soviets needing grain) in his favor. Also, he was pushing for North Vietnam to recognize South Vietnam as a legitimate separate nation, which they were not inclined to do. And even if they had been so inclined, the Viet Cong would not have cared if North Vietnam did agree. Bombing North Vietnam wasn't going to stop them, because they were already in South Vietnam, and the nature of their battle was such that supply requirements were very low. There was essentially no way the U.S. could do a sufficient amount of damage to North Vietnamese infrastructure to seriously impair their ability to supply a force that only fought an average of one day in 30, as Clodfelter describes it. When the bombing campaigns did have success, during the Tet Offensive and the later invasion by 12 North Vietnamese Army divisions, it was because the U.S. faced a force fighting a conventional war, the one they had been training to fight, and the supply demands placed upon that army were great enough the bombing could have an effect.

It's only about 210 pages (not counting notes and bibliography), so it isn't a long book. I already knew about a lot of the broad strokes of it - the U.S. not understanding the people they were fighting, thinking that strategies which would work against us would work just as well against them, choosing to view things that don't work as an aberration, rather than a trend to learn from, military and political leaders being hostile to one another and blaming each other for failure - but some of the specifics were interesting. It made me think of Neptune's Inferno, the book I read last year about the Navy's battles around Guadalcanal, in the sense of how the different services were interdependent. The soldiers needed the ships for supplies, and the ships needed planes to protect them from enemy planes during the day. But the planes need soldiers to defend the airfield from enemy ground forces, and ships to protect it from enemy fleets at night. Clodfelter doesn't really get into that, but there is a sense that the bombing campaign can't be the end-all, be-all. It has to be used in accompaniment with other forces, and even so, there are limits to what it can accomplish in regards to other goals.

'Ginsburgh's comment indicated the depth of the air leaders' conviction that their bombing doctrine suited the nature of the war. In fact, air commanders had molded the war to suit their doctrine. Most air chiefs viewed the war as a conventional conflict in which the enemy required essential logistical support, not as an infrequently waged guerrilla struggle. Those few who perceived Vietnam as a "people's war" thought that the North attached great value to its nascent industrial establishment, which included the transportation and POL systems. In like fashion, the air chiefs' emphasis on destroying the "modern" elements of the Northern state obscured Johnson's negative goals and caused many commanders to dismiss the President's fears of Chinese or Soviet intervention. Air leaders thus proceeded in Vietnam much as their predecessors had in World War II - they aimed to wreck the enemy economy to produce a prostrate foe. They seldom paused to consider whether or not their perception of the war was correct, or if it confirmed to that of their political leaders.'

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