Book Review
Rolling Thunder
Rolling Thunder 1965-68, Johnson's Air War Over Vietnam
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by: Frederick Boucher [ JPTRR ]

Why do we build models and read history? A chicken-or-the-egg question indeed and yet obviously many of us are inspired to model a subject we read about, as well as decide to read about the interesting airplane we just built a model of. Modelers of Vietnam-era airpower should be inspired by Rolling Thunder 1965-68 from Osprey Publishing LTD, the 3rd title in their new series Air Campaign. Dr. Richard P. Hallion PhD is the author and the book is illustrated by Adam Tooby. This softcover book is 96 pages in length. It is also available in PDF and ePUB. Osprey catalogues it with their short code ACM 3, and universally it is catalogued as ISBN 9781472823205.

In the nuclear age it has been said that war is too important to leave to the generals; insomuch as military action is an extension of politics and politics is a main ingredient of warfare, Rolling Thunder is the epitome - or close to it - of the worst melding of those elements in a military campaign. Osprey describes the subject thusly:

    Operation Rolling Thunder was the campaign that was meant to keep South Vietnam secure, and dissuade the North from arming and supplying the Viet Cong. It pitted the world's strongest air forces against the MiGs and missiles of a small Soviet client state. But the US airmen who flew Rolling Thunder missions were crippled by a badly thought-out strategy, rampant political interference in operational matters, and aircraft optimized for Cold War nuclear strikes rather than conventional warfare.

    Ironically, Rolling Thunder was one of the most influential episodes of the Cold War - its failure spurring the 1970s US renaissance in professionalism, fighter design, and combat pilot training. Dr Richard P. Hallion, one of America's most eminent air power experts, explains how Rolling Thunder was conceived and fought, and why it became shorthand for how not to fight an air campaign.

If war is too important to leave to the generals, this book presents an example of why the generals should at least be listened to by their civilian masters."

Rolling Thunder 1965-68 is presented through 10 chapters and sub-sections in 96 pages:
    Attackers' Capabilities
    Defenders' Capabilities
    Campaign Objectives
    The Campaign
    Aftermath and Analysis
    Further Reading

Dr. Hallion has extensive knowledge of air warfare and I was very interested to read his assessment of Rolling Thunder.

First, the author clarifies and dispels some of the deeply rooted legends and myths of the Vietnam War in Introduction. Chronology sets the phases of the campaign. Next Attackers' Capabilities and Defenders' capabilities lay the historical, technical and doctrinal background of the aircraft, weapons, support equipment and (exasperating for the US) command and control of the antagonists. Outside of the flaw of the campaign - disgusting political mismanagement - the second major flaw of Rolling Thunder can be summed up by the subsection, Preparing for the wrong war. Contrasting and compared to the US efforts the in-depth communist North Vietnamese (DRV) preparations are detailed, including the Vietnam People's Air Force (VPAF) MiG forces, communist Vietnam's intentions, and Soviet and Maoist support that the American political leadership completely misunderstood. Despite those factors and the convoluted and contradictory chain of command, the top US commanders of Vietnam, CINCPAC Admiral Sharp and General Taylor, managed to make the best of a horrible situation.

Campaign Objectives and The Campaign gets into the meat of just how badly the Johnson Administration and the McNamara "whiz kids" completely failed their tentative commitment to South Vietnam. If you want descriptions of dogfights or statistics of turn rates and acceleration of jets, this book is not what you want. The text also hints at a moral bankruptcy of the very top American military leadership; the one high level resignation in protest of the situation was CIA Director McCone. The horrific meddling of even tactical planning by Johnson-McNamara and its trickle-down to the squadron level is spotlighted. One example is that they would not allow attacks on the first SA-2 Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) sites under construction because they were convinced that the missile batteries were a bluff, North Vietnam never intending to launch one!
    When briefed...on the danger of the SA-2 - and the necessity of immediately bombing the sites - John McNaughton, Assistant Secretary of defense for International Security Affairs, and the man who prided himself on his analytical and quantitative skills [emphasis added], reacted with astonishment, even ridicule. "You don't think the North Vietnamese are going to use them?" he exclaimed to Moore, adding with some condescension "Putting them in is just a political ploy by the Russians to appease Hanoi." To Westmorland, it was a shocking and revelatory moment. "'It was all a matter of signals,' said the clever civilian theorists in Washington," he wrote mockingly; 'We won't bomb the SAM sites, which signals to the North Vietnamese not to use them.' Has it not been so serious, it would have been amusing."

Weapons and tactics are discussed, including the evolution of anti-SAM tactics, Iron hand, and the legendary Wild Weasels. North Vietnam countered with flak traps and other ruses that completely mocked McNamara and his minions.

An interesting story revolves around the unwillingness of Johnson-McNamara to hit airfields. In early October 1968, Colonel Robin Olds was passing through Washington enroute to taking command of the Air Force Academy when he was summoned to the White House for a publicity stunt. When perfunctory asked about the war, Col. Olds characteristically did not mince words even with his Commander-In-Chief.
    Olds left to take up his appointment, recalling afterwards "I only wanted to get the hell out of there." But that may not have been the end of it: it is quite possible that, on October 23 , Johnson looked around at his advisors - collectively a colorless group of professional bureaucrats risking nothing - and, thinking of the charismatic fighter ace who had boldly risked his career in the Oval Office.., opted for his airmen; if so, good for him - and good for Olds.

Finally, Aftermath and Analysis examines the statistical and long term effects of Rolling Thunder:
    i. Rolling Thunder in numbers
    ii. Rolling Thunder in retrospect
    iii. The contrast with Linebacker I/II
    iv. The military legacy
    v. Rolling Thunder through the eyes of its airmen

That last section is meaningful in that experiences in Rolling Thunder directly shaped the air war of Desert Storm.

To his dying day, McNamara was unrepentant about his mismanagement of the war. (He even indicted himself late in life in an interview when he commented that he never thought his policies would work.) The author chronicles that as America and Vietnam are healing our wounds, even signing defense agreements. Despite the losses of their brothers-in-arms, veterans are returning to Vietnam; veterans of Rolling Thunder voice a standing bitterness not towards their communist Vietnamese hosts but rather towards Johnson, McNamara, the Congress and the western media they see as having betrayed South Vietnam. Even Vietnam credits wartime media bias as a significant factor in their eventual victory.

Unfortunately, some Presidents learned nothing from Rolling Thunder and the author exposes how micro-management over the former Yugoslavia, Libya, Syria and Iraq have endangered the missions with Rolling Thunder-like and "gradualism and political hesitancy."

Photographs, Artwork, Graphics
Many photographs support the text. Most are black-and-white although some are color. Plenty of stock and familiar photos of aircraft, SAMs, guns, and pre- and post-strike images enhance the pages. Several soldiers and politicians are included.

Adam Tooby's artwork helps bring the text to life and illustrate tactics:
    1. Map: Fighter Airfields of the DRV and Radar Detection Ranges: 12 airfields, 3 radar coverage patterns.
    2. Layout of a Typical SA-2 Site: color diagram with 7 items.
    3. Map: The South East Asia Theater: 12 airfields, aerial refueling tracks, and Route Packs.
    4. Air Force F-105 Alpha Strike Package into Route Pack VIA against Thai Nguyen, 1967: color artwork keyed to 11 events and dozens of US and VPAF units, targets, and altitudes.
    5. Wild Weasel's First Kill: color diagram keyed to 9 actions.
    6. F-105 ECM Formations: 3 formations by planform, profile, head-on.
    7. Dive-bombing the Phuong Dinh Bridge: color centerfold of A-4s attacking through heavy flak.
    8. First Strike on Hanoi's Oil Plants: color centerfold of F-105s diving into heavy flak to attack.
    9. Task Force 77 Alpha Strike Into Route Pack VIB, 1967: color diagram narrated with 8 events, keyed with a dozen US and VPAF units, targets, and altitudes.
    10. Debut of the F-111: March 25, 1968: color centerfold.
    11. The Shape of Attacks to Come: diagram of basic Paveway Laser-Guided Bomb delivery tactic.
    A. Land-Based and Naval Strike Aircraft as Rolling Thunder Matured.
    B. Principle Land-Based and Naval Strike Aircraft at the Onset of Rolling Thunder.
    C. SEA Command and Control Relationships During Rolling Thunder.
    D. US Air Order of battle, July-August 1965: USAF, USN, MACV.
    E. North Vietnamese Air Order of Battle, July-August 1965.
    F. The F-105 Over North Vietnam During Rolling Thunder, 1965-68.
    G. Selected USAF Combat Losses Over North Vietnam and Cause.
    H. VPAF Losses by US Type and Service, 1965-68.
    I. SA-2s Fired Versus Aircraft Lost, 1965-68.
    J. DRV Command Post-Reorganization.
    K. Rolling Thunder Strike Sorties by Service, 1965-68.
    L. US and South Vietnamese Attack Sorties Over North Vietnam, 1965-68.
    M. US Attack Sorties In Southeast Asia by Country and Service, 1965-68.
    N. Targets Reported Damaged or Destroyed by Category, 1965-68: dozens of categories, by year, by aircraft and loss rates.

Rolling Thunder 1965-68, Johnson's Air War Over Vietnam an exceptionally satisfying book from Osprey. I am very satisfied by the author's tone in the book and conclusions he arrived at. This book will make many readers mad. If ever there was an aerial military campaign linked directly to politics, Rolling Thunder is a bitter example. Regardless of one's views on Vietnam, Rolling Thunder demonstrates political hubris dismissing professional experts to the detriment of a mission.

Within its 96-page format constraints it provides an educational and informative exposure of Rolling Thunder. The book is clearly written and supported with quotes and anecdotes. Excellent artwork and many photos support the text. The author cuts through decades of legend and myth to clarify the historical and philosophical morass of America's Vietnam War; his exposure to military air power allows a good presentation of the strengths and weaknesses of US and PVAF weapons and tactics.

I found no typos or informational errors. I have no real complaints about this book.

Modelers and historians should find this presentation of Rolling Thunder an excellent addition to their library. I enthusiastically recommend it.

Please remember to mention to Osprey and retailers that you saw this book here - on AEROSCALE.
Highs: Detailed text, clearly written and supported with quotes and anecdotes. Excellent artwork and many photos support the text.
Lows: Nothing really.
Verdict: Modelers and historians should find this presentation of Rolling Thunder an excellent addition to their library.
  Scale: N/A
  Mfg. ID: 9781472823205
  PUBLISHED: Mar 12, 2018
  NATIONALITY: United States

Our Thanks to Osprey Publishing!
This item was provided by them for the purpose of having it reviewed on this KitMaker Network site. If you would like your kit, book, or product reviewed, please contact us.

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About Frederick Boucher (JPTRR)

I'm a professional pilot with a degree in art. My first model was an AMT semi dump truck. Then Monogram's Lunar Lander right after the lunar landing. Next, Revell's 1/32 Bf-109G...cried havoc and released the dogs of modeling! My interests--if built before 1900, or after 1955, then I proba...

Copyright 2021 text by Frederick Boucher [ JPTRR ]. Images also by copyright holder unless otherwise noted. Opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of AeroScale. All rights reserved.


I didin`t read any better review of a Vietnam-themed book before. That inspired me to watch for an unknown time the Vietnam serries on youtube. Lovely! Don`t know what to say more. Awesome review, awesome topic, i`m sure the book is even greater!
MAR 12, 2018 - 11:44 PM

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