Review of Marshall Michel's "The Eleven Days of Christmas: America's Last Vietnam Battle"

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Steven Bording
  • 36th Operations Support Squadron commander
"Nixon knew sending the B-52s involved significant risks. Still, Nixon felt the risks he would take by not using the big bombers were even greater. He was sure that Congress would cut funds for the war when it returned in January, so he had only three weeks to force the North Vietnamese back to the peace table to sign the modified agreement and also to show Thieu that the US could protect South Vietnam. A successful B-52 blitz of Hanoi appeared to be the only hope."

Operation Linebacker II is synonymous with U.S. military might. Many Americans associate Operation Linebacker II as the air campaign that ended the U.S. war in Vietnam. However, Marshall Michel's account of Linebacker II is quite different than the official Air Force accounts. He offers an extremely well-researched, unbiased account of the operation that may cause many to re-evaluate previous thoughts and beliefs regarding Linebacker II. President Nixon set Linebacker II's strategy "with clear concentration of effort against essential national assets designed to achieve psychological and physical results." The B-52 crews and mission planners had developed their tactics and procedures to successfully drop bombs and defeat surface to air missiles during seven years of ARC LIGHT missions into Vietnam. It would be up to the Air Force and specifically the Strategic Air Command to conduct the operational level of war. However, the SAC-way was to be "in the weeds", with a highly centralized organization that micromanaged even the smallest decisions. Instead of focusing on the critical operational level, SAC focused almost solely at the tactical level.

Despite winning nearly every battle in Vietnam, the U.S. somehow lost the war. "When America finally unleashed its full military capability--symbolized by Linebacker II--the North Vietnamese quickly signed a peace agreement." The Air Force felt their operations had been ineffective because both presidential administrations had tried to be the general in chief instead of the commander in chief thus hampering military effectiveness and preventing the U.S. military from winning the war in Vietnam. However, according to President Nixon, Linebacker II would be different. Just days before Operation Linebacker II was to begin, President Nixon encouraged Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer "to use military power effectively to win this war" and assured Moorer that the White House would not interfere with target selection. Finally, the Air Force could conduct its air campaign the way it wanted. However, the Air Force would quickly discover that operations in Vietnam would simply shift from being controlled from Washington to Omaha.

"For years, the Air Force had complained about having its operations micromanaged from Washington. Now a president had given them almost complete free rein in planning and executing its missions, and the Air Force simply substituted micromanagement from SAC headquarters for micromanagement from Washington." Shortly after receiving guidance from the Joint Chiefs, General John Meyer, SAC Commander, made a critical decision that would negatively impact the success of the Linebacker II missions; SAC Headquarters in Omaha, not the B-52 mission planners in theater, would plan the bulk of the B-52 missions into North Vietnam. Michel uncovered just how out of touch SAC was with modern conventional tactics and procedures despite the fact B-52s had been operating in Vietnam since 1965.

SAC's plan had the B-52 formations attacking Hanoi from the same direction, same altitude and the same exit routes. The crews were forbidden from performing defensive maneuvers against SA-2s on the bomb runs and were directed when (and if) they were allowed to jam the Vietnamese surface to air missile radars. These tactical decisions were being made at SAC headquarters in Omaha Nebraska, half way around the world. SAC was unwilling to take inputs from the crews returning from previous night's missions. The aircrew's combat experiences and valuable lessons learned were disregarded by SAC since they went against SAC's strict adherence to published procedures and top-down decision making.

The Vietnamese have a simple yet optimistic view of Linebacker II, obvious from the name they have given it; "Dien Bien Phu in the skies." Travelling throughout Vietnam, Michel discovered that the Vietnamese view Linebacker II as the victory that drove the Americans out of their country and served as a major step towards unifying their country. The bombing served to unify the North Vietnamese population that had begun to wane under years of unending war especially now that the war had been brought to Hanoi, the heart of their country. There are strong psychological reasons why the 'Dien Bien Phu in the skies' has a unique place in the ranks of historic Vietnamese victories. The B-52s were a legendary force, a symbol of the technological might of the United States, a technology the Vietnamese could never hope to match. The B-52s were defeated, not due to superior weapons, but because of the bravery and cleverness of the Vietnamese soldiers. For them, the events that took place during the eleven days of Christmas are the ultimate modern David and Goliath story, their own Battle of Britain.

In order to conduct operations in Vietnam, SAC hoped to use its nuclear procedures simply adjusted for a conventional fight and failed to integrate other airpower capabilities. Paranoia and fear of exposing their own vulnerabilities, SAC did not ask the Navy or Tactical Air Command (TAC) for planning help or accept their recommendations for ingressing and egressing the target. They forced non-SAC escort and jamming assets to break up their standard employment packages in order to support unrealistic B-52 timelines and routes. SAC had the B-52 crews fly predictably over Hanoi for most of the operation despite pleas from the crews. These flight-paths and tactics were not altered until aircraft losses became unacceptable to national leadership. SAC never attempted to disrupt the opponent's system. If SAC had encouraged synergy between the US Navy, TAC, and themselves and would have allowed the B-52 crews to use their combat experiences and lessons learned to fight the North Vietnamese, the crews would have been able to negate the SAM threat and destroy the overall defensive system.

If SAC had focused on the operational level of war instead of on the tactical level, Operation Linebacker II could have been more successful and fewer B-52s would have been lost. SAC should have admitted that they lacked the data showing the B-52's capability against the SA-2 and stateside flights should have been conducted testing B-52 jamming procedures and equipment against captured SA-2s. Had these tests been conducted, SAC would have discovered how critical maneuvering the aircraft was in order to defeat an SA-2 and how B-52 jamming capabilities were degraded during the 45-degree post-target turn. SAC should have allowed the mission planners at Guam and in Thailand to plan the missions and given control of the B-52s to Seventh Air Force based on their years of combat experience in theater.

This exceptional book should be mandatory reading for Air Force senior leaders and especially B-52 leadership and aircrew members. It is educational and controversial and directly applies to today's bomber force. The U.S. Air Force has had many nuclear related "incidents" in the past few years and many senior Air Force leaders called for a more "SAC-like" approach to handling nuclear weapons and nuclear procedures. As a result, a new major command has been created. Air Force Global Strike Command became operational in August, 2009, to address nuclear deterrence and global strike operations. It is vital for AFGSC to focus on the operational level of war and to allow the skilled and trained men and women of today's bomber units to drive the tactics and continue to lead the Air Force in order to prevent an Operation Linebacker II type planning and execution fiasco in the future. Michel's book does an outstanding job of identifying how SAC was too focused on tactics and failed to address issues regarding the operational level of war. Ultimately, Michel exposes what went on behind the "SAC-curtain" and finally sheds some light on Operation Linebacker II's mythical status as the operation that won the Vietnam War.