Friday, March 31, 2017

THE DRAGON'S TALE


For American aircrews flying into North Vietnam some fifty years ago, the most notorious target in Southeast Asia was the Thanh Hoa Bridge.  Crossing a swift-flowing Ma River seventy miles south of Hanoi, the double-span bridge was dubbed “The Dragon’s Jaw” for its anchoring karsts.  It was both a vital point for war materiel headed south and a symbol of national pride.  Communist Party Chairman Ho Chi Minh personally dedicated the bridge when completed in 1964.

U.S. Air Force and Navy squadrons tried repeatedly to destroy the bridge throughout the dolorous Vietnam War.  The first attempt by four dozen F-105 Thunderchiefs on April 3, 1965, did little more than scrape the paint.  The follow-up effort the next day did no better, losing two “Thuds” to Vietnamese MiGs while another fell to flak gunners.  In all, six U.S. and South Vietnamese planes were lost in the two days with five pilots killed and one captured.

The problem was multi-tiered.  First, the Vietnamese seriously over-engineered the combined rail-highway structure, ensuring its immunity to conventional ordnance.

Secondly, the U.S. lacked the heavy weapons to destroy the steel structure.  One Thunderchief pilot who flew both missions said, “I laid my string of eight 750-pounders right across the bridge but when the smoke cleared the damn thing was still there.”

Follow-up air strikes over the next three and a half years also failed.  The rail tracks and approaches to the bridge were frequently disrupted but the industrious Vietnamese always repaired the damage.

Then in 1968 Democrat President Lyndon Johnson blew the whistle, ending the first half of “The Southeast Asia War Games.”  LBJ, who had escalated the conflict three months before the 1964 election, alternately tried to force and cajole Hanoi to the bargaining table.  There was no reason for the Communists to negotiate: they had large forces in South Vietnam with sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia, and much of the North.  All they needed was time.  And they had time a-plenty.

By then at least thirteen U.S. planes had been lost directly attacking the bridge with twenty fliers killed or captured.  The biggest loss occurred in May 1966 when an unconventional mission launched air-dropped mines from C-130 Hercules transports.  The first night’s effort failed but the “Herc” escaped.  When headquarters foolishly ordered a repeat the following night, the defenders were ready.  They shot down the big, slow target with all eight fliers killed.

At year-end Republican Richard Nixon won a landslide election.  After taking office in January 1969, Nixon relaxed some of the more onerous restrictions about bombing the North but generally pursued a wait-and-see approach.  The Hanoi politbureau—not surprisingly—saw Nixon’s patience as weakness.  In April 1972 the North launched a massive conventional army against the South,

After more than three years of fruitless negotiating by Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s ineffectual secretary of state, the gloves came off.  U.S. air power was unleashed against priority targets throughout the North, including Hanoi, the vital port of Haiphong—and Thanh Hoa Bridge.

Though the defenders had enjoyed years to improve defenses with anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles, the attackers also had prepared.  A new generation of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) improved upon the largely ineffective “smart” and “dumb bombs” used before. 

On May 13 the famed 8th Tactical Fighter Wing from Ubon, Thailand, rolled in on the Dragon’s Jaw with 2,000-pound bombs armed with laser designators.  The Paveways were deadly accurate—they knocked the western span of the bridge off its moorings.  And the strikers got away clean.

Two final losses occurred during 1972: an Air Force Phantom with crew recovered in late April, and a Navy photo-reconnaissance jet in mid-June.  The tailhook aviator was flying again the next day.

The Air Force and Navy continued sending conventional bombers against the bridge over the intervening five months, with little effect.  Therefore, on October 9, Vought A-7 Corsair IIs from the carrier USS America launched to slay the Dragon for good.  They put their one-ton TV-guided weapons on the remaining part of western span and snapped it in two—the remains toppled into the Song Ma.

Economists reckoned during the Vietnam War America expended about ten dollars to inflict one dollar of damage upon the Communists.  A large part of the effort was 3.3 million “iron bombs,” most of which inflicted no significant harm.  However, a relative handful of PGMs destroyed not only Thanh Hoa Bridge but other vital targets including additional bridges in the never-ending logistics battle.

Hanoi signed the “peace agreement” in January 1973, a cynical arrangement that neither side expected to last.  The Communists completed their “reunification” of Vietnam in 1975 when the U.S. Congress refused to send additional military aid to Saigon.

In the blush of peace—or its reasonable facsimile—the Viets began rebuilding the bridge.  The wartime structure was scrapped and replaced in the mid 70s, with additional spans added downstream, the most recent a modern structure erected by a Japanese firm.

There the story lingered for decades.  The Viets claimed 104 Yankee Air Pirates downed in the area around Thanh Hoa, an oft-repeated claim.  However, my search of daily records shows about fifteen losses specifically targeted against the bridge.

Then last July a former Navy attack pilot brought the Dragon’s Jaw back into focus.  Stephen Coonts, best-selling author of Flight of the Intruder and more than twenty other books, announced his intention to tell the full story of Thanh Hoa Bridge.

He said, “Barrett Tillman and I are in the early stages of writing a book about The Dragon’s Jaw: The Thanh Hoa Bridge. I was very reluctant to emotionally go back to Vietnam, so this project dragged for a couple of years. Finally I decided to suck it up and do it while I was still able and many of the men who flew the missions were still above ground to talk to…I am soliciting your help.  If you flew one or more missions against the Dragon’s Jaw…or against the associated rail-yard, barracks, SAM or flak sites, we would like to hear from you.”

And did we ever hear from “you.”  Not only aircrews but weaponeers, structural engineers, and a surprising variety of Vietnamese sources answered our call.  Their responses will enable us to tell the Dragon’s Jaw tale from both sides—or all sides, depending on how they’re reckoned.

History has a shelf life, and some of the participants in the Thanh Hoa story have departed the pattern.  But we got an early enough start to tell The Dragon’s tale, and the manuscript will be delivered to the publisher next year.

Watch this space.



Tuesday, January 31, 2017

AIRCRAFT CARRIERS: THE TRUMP CARD



President Donald Trump wasted no time after his inauguration.  That week he repeated his campaign pledge to rebuild the U.S. military, worn down from 15 years of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
        
Naval aviation figured prominently in Trump’s reckoning as he expressed willingness to slash the trouble-plagued Lockheed-Martin F-35 triservice fighter-bomber.  Defense Secretary James Mattis has directed a thorough investigation of the perennially late, over-budget Lightning II, still incomplete in its twentieth year of development.  Trump has mentioned possibly upgrading the Navy and Marine Corps’ current FA-18 Hornet, less capable than intended for F-35 but a proven entity and far more affordable.

Meanwhile, the new administration appears willing to continue the new-generation aircraft carrier.  The USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78) also has suffered significant delays and cost over-runs, and likely will be delivered without full operational capability.  But two sister ships have been approved, and they are unlikely to be cut.  Thus, the Trump administration seems to grasp the world-historic significance of American seapower.
        
In December 1941 the aircraft carrier burst upon the world stage in a 20th century version of Shock and Awe.  Literally overnight the flattop leapt into the global spotlight with the stunning Pearl Harbor attack.  Thus, the carrier resembled the proverbial country-western musician who worked twenty years to become an overnight sensation.

The U.S. and Japanese navies had commissioned their first carriers in 1922, beginning two decades of perfecting ships, aircraft, operating technique and doctrine.  But the global leader was the British Royal Navy, which initiated the carrier to combat in World War I.  In 1917 the battle cruiser HMS Furious was converted to operate Sopwith biplanes, and the next year she launched what a future generation termed a “power projection” mission against a German Zeppelin base.

Actually, the aircraft carrier’s origins predated the Great War.  In November 1910, pioneer flyer Eugene Ely of the Glenn Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company demonstrated the potential of ship-based aircraft by taking off from a platform rigged on a U.S. Navy cruiser.  Two months later he plunked his pusher down on the improvised deck of another warship, dragged to a stop by hooks that snagged ropes stretched across the platform.  The captain of USS Birmingham declared Ely’s feat the most important landing since the dove returned to Noah’s ark.

Both ships were anchored, and neither stunt was repeated.  But the seed had been planted; it germinated, sprouted, and cropped.
During the 1920s and 30s ships and aircraft evolved, forming an increasingly potent binary.  Fabric-covered biplanes gave way to all-metal monoplanes with greater speed, range, and ordnance capacity. 

When World War II erupted in 1939 the Royal Navy was confronted with enemies in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean—and potentially in the Pacific.  Though possessing the world’s most powerful fleet, Britain had to allocate its ships according to geo-strategic need.  Thus, in November 1940 HMS Illustrious launched 21 obsolescent Swordfish biplanes to attack the Italian fleet in Taranto Harbor.  The nocturnal attack was a spectacular success, sinking or sidelining three enemy battleships.  The naval balance in the Middle Sea had shifted—overnight.

Historians still argue the influence of Taranto on Japanese plans for Hawaii, but the similarities are obvious. 

Carriers defined the Pacific War: in fact, only flattops could have launched the attack against Hawaii in December 1941.  The Imperial Navy showed the world the way to naval supremacy by grouping six carriers into a unified striking force—something that no one else had remotely approached.  When the smoke cleared on December 8, the world’s greatest ocean became a giant chessboard with squares defined by degrees of latitude and longitude.  With America’s naval kings—battleships—sidelined, the mobile, long-range queens carried the fight. 

Over the next four years aircraft carriers were essential to both navies.  Four major carrier battles were fought in 1942, providing America essential victories at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal.  Midway in June proved decisive: U.S. carrier planes sank all four Japanese carriers engaged, with one American flattop lost.  Thereafter Japan never regained the strategic initiative.

A new generation of U.S. carriers spearheaded the Central Pacific offensive of 1943-45.  With new aircraft on their decks, Essex and Independence class ships enabled nearly every amphibious operation of the Pacific War.  Their victory off the Mariana Islands in June 1944 ended the Imperial Navy as an offensive arm, and provided roosts for General Curtis LeMay’s firebirds as B-29s began searing Japanese urban-industrial areas.

Meanwhile, carriers proved vital in the Atlantic.  U.S. and British escort carriers—small, slow ships operating specially-trained antisubmarine squadrons, helped defeat Admiral Karl Doenitz’s U-boats.  The mission largely was accomplished by May 1943, clearing the translatantic convoy routes that enabled the D-Day landings 13 months later.
        
Since then the carrier has never lost its prominence on the world’s oceans.

But new threats arose in new realms.  Only five years after VJ Day, when America possessed 99 carriers of all types, merely fifteen remained in commission.  When General Quarters sounded in Korea, just five were assigned to the Pacific Fleet.

For the next three years U.S. and British carriers launched an endless succession of strike and interdiction sorties against Communist forces.  During the critical weeks of summer 1950, tailhook aircraft were essential to staving off total defeat for the South Korean and American armies.  Compressed into the shrinking Pusan pocket, with few Air Force units remaining on the peninsula, allied ground forces could not have survived without naval aviation.  Later that year, blue airplanes helped offset the enormous disparity of ground forces when China’s quilted masses spilled south of the Yalu.

Long story short: aircraft carriers helped save the Republic of Korea.
        
Throughout the Cold War, carriers stood sentry on the periphery of the Soviet empire, a capability that Russia still cannot match.  Naval aviators logged more than half the sorties over North Vietnam, and however misdirected “Mr. Johnson’s War,” tailhookers were always there, always “ready on arrival.”
        
Since then, carriers have launched jets in an immense variety of seas and missions, including Britain’s Sea Harriers that enabled retaking the Falklands in 1982.  Subsequently sea-based airpower has been felt repeatedly in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and now Syria. 
        

War at sea is nearly extinct, and there can never be another Midway, let alone a Leyte Gulf.  But for territorial independence and oceanic power projection, the carrier remains unrivaled as America’s world-spanning ace card.