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John T Smith, 
The Linebacker Raids: The Bombing of North Vietnam, 1972

London, Arms and Armour Press, 1998. Pp.224. 20.00 (hb). ISBN 185409 450 5

by Dr. David Jordan
(University of Birmingham)

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 'Linebacker'.

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.