The author of Rolling Thunder makes another
contribution to the ever-increasing corpus of literature examining the role of American
air power in Vietnam. Following Mark Clodfelter's magisterial The Limits of Airpower (Free
Press, 1989), it is no easy task for an author to say anything new on the subject of air
power in Vietnam. The problems faced by airmen are now well-known. That the Linebacker
raids (May -October 1972 and December 1972) probably constituted the most successful
employment of US air power during the Vietnam conflict is also a well-established fact.
Consequently, it is not unreasonable to ask if Smith can contribute anything original to
our knowledge and understanding of this testing period for American military aviation.
That he does is praiseworthy. Unfortunately, he takes an awfully long time to get around
to doing this.
The book suffers from a number of structural failings.
Perhaps the most serious is that the book does not live up to its title: Linebacker is
covered only after an introduction and two chapters. The Introduction sets out the
essential theories of air power, ranging from the practical use of aircraft by the British
Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, through the theorising carried out by such
luminaries as Douhet, Mitchell and Trenchard. Smith carries this off well, demonstrating
that the theories remained just that, disproved by events in the Second World War. Sadly,
he does not drive home the argument by assessing the Linebacker raids.
We are then treated to a chapter in which the author
struggles valiantly to compress eleven years of air warfare into two chapters running to
39 pages. Sadly, we have no real sense of how effective (or otherwise) operations before
Linebacker were. Smith, as with so many authors, is apparently seduced by the 'glamour' of
air combat. While air combat was important in highlighting the deficiencies in American
pilot training and in the weapons systems, it made up a tiny proportion of the missions
flown. The assessment of other types of mission is accurate enough but rather shallow.
This is a pity, since Smith writes well, and generally knows his subject. The flow of the
book is not helped by the regular provision of information about how the Vietnam War
itself was progressing and references to events in Washington. These simply get in the
way, and are totally out of place, apart from the explanation for Nixon's launching of
Smith tackles Linebacker I and Linebacker II with some
aplomb, although he again veers off into air combat. While the then-Lieutenant Randall
Cunningham's achievement of becoming the US Navy's only 'ace' of the war (five aerial
victories) undoubtedly merits praise, there can be no excuse for every author on the air
war in Vietnam to treat readers to exactly the same details of the combat. Although the
events occurred during Linebacker, Smith could have avoided quite a lot of the detail. His
obvious confusion over Cunningharn's fifth victim, the mythical 'Colonel Tomb' - he spells
the name three ways, none of them correctly if we acknowledge other accounts -
demonstrates this. When he escapes from enemy fighters, Smith is lucid id and provides
interesting information. His comparison of electro-optically guided weapons in Vietnam
with the Gulf War of 1991 is useful. His assessment of laser-guided bombs, again so
familiar from the video footage from Allied Headquarters in Riyadh, is equally valid.
Unfortunately, there appear to be errors here too. Smith talks of the use of the 'Paveway'
designation system over South Vietnam and the employment of the much more complex 'Pave
Knife' system in missions over the North. There are several problems. 'Paveway' is the
name given to the actual laser-guided bombs themselves, not the designation system. The
description of how the designation of the target was carried out is rather uncertain. No
mention is made of the two other designator systems, 'Pave Spike' and 'Pave Sword', both
of which were more important to the accuracy of laser-guided bombs than 'Pave Knife' by
virtue of their greater availability. These faults should not arise in a work which
purports to be dealing with bombing operations.
At this point, it might be tempting to write the book off as
disappointing, but it is saved from this fate by a splendid late rally. Its description of
'Linebacker II, the North Vietnamese reaction to the raids and the conclusion are
excellent. While general in nature, the chapter on 'Linebacker IF is hard to fault. The
discussion of the North Vietnamese reaction is fascinating, and makes points which are not
often raised, if at all. Smith notes that the essence of strategic bombing is to destroy
key targets in the enemy homeland: unfortunately for proponents of such bombing, North
Vietnam was not a 'target rich environment', making it difficult to achieve the stated
aims . Smith's contention that the Vietnamese were thus able to sit out the worst of the
raids which then failed in their objective of forcing them to modify their goals is
perhaps pushed a little too far, but its general thrust should be taken seriously. The
book concludes with appendices of high quality dealing with a variety of issues, including
the effectiveness of bombing. It is tempting to suggest that the book ought to have
followed the structure of the appendices to have lived up to the billing on the dust
jacket. While rather disappointing in some key aspects, this work is not without merit. As
an introductory guide to events, it fills a useful niche, but those looking for an
in-depth analysis may wish to look elsewhere to have their questions answered.