ROCK KICK II 12 Apr 66

Office of Air Force History Version with some background

The Guam-based B-52s in March(1966) flew five missions against enemy concentrations near the South Vietnamese border. Three consisted of twelve aircraft each, and two of fifteen aircraft each. As with most other strikes, there was no ground followup, and the results of the attacks could not be assessed. Nevertheless, Westmoreland and other MACV officials again assumed that the missions contributed to the U.S., RVNAF, and allied military effort against the VC/DRV units in the neighboring South Vietnamese provinces."'

The fact that SAC bombings in Laos had elicited little publicity encouraged Westmoreland, at a conference of Sullivan and military commanders at Udorn on March 8, to recommend a B-52 assault on both sides of Mu Gia Pass on the Laos-North Vietnamese border above the 17th parallel. He said that about 75 percent of all truck traffic into Laos rolled through Mu Gia, and Air Force and Navy tactical air strikes had been unable to reduce it. The DRV was energetically defending the pass, having emplaced close to 300 antiaircraft sites in the area. Finally, U.S. intelligence indicated that the Soviets were about to unload truck-mounted 140-mm rocket launchers for the first time from their ships in Haiphong harbor. Boasting a range of 4 to 5 miles, these weapons were undoubtedly destined for South Vietnam and in all likelihood would, be transported through the Mu Gia Pass. If the launchers reached the enemy in the South, they would pose a new threat to American bases.

In response to Westmoreland's proposal Maj. Gen. William J. Crum, the 3d Air Division Commander, soon sent to the MACV commander a plan for conducting a series of B-52 strikes on road segments on both sides of the pass. Noting the inability of tactical aircraft ordnance to prevent DRV and Lao road crews from making repairs or creating bypasses in a few hours after an attack, the plan proposed using the B-52s to drop large numbers of variable fuzed bombs at irregular intervals. The location of the road segments would permit bombing by MSQ-77 radar.

Westmoreland found General Crum's plan satisfactory, but securing the approval of Ambassador Sullivan and Washington officials to strike the North Vietnamese as well as the Laotian side of the pass was another matter. In the coming week the MACV commander explored his proposal further with Admiral Sharp, SAC Commander Gen. Joseph J. Nazzaro, and General Wheeler. Sharp strongly backed the proposed bombings. Observing that MACV had reported at least 800 enemy trucks in February moving through the pass, he was convinced that a B-52 attack on the North's Route 15 leading to Mu Gia would cause heavy landslides and block traffic. He further believed that 4 near-simultaneous attacks on targets near South Vietnam's Quang Tri Province would afford sufficient "cover" for bombing the routes on the Laotian side of the pass. Wheeler, after conferring with high administration officials, obtained tentative approval for the dual assault but noted 2 troubling problems. One was domestic and international opinion that would likely construe the first ARC LIGHT bombing of North Vietnam as an escalation of the war. The other was uncertainty whether the attack on the Laotian routes, about 75 miles above the demilitarized zone, could be kept secret despite cover strikes somewhat farther south."

Ambassador Sullivan doubted if Sharp's suggested cover strikes for the Laotian routes would prove credible. More important, he noted that Souvanna Phouma was still in the dark about ARC LIGHT operations in Laos near the South Vietnamese border. The ambassador informed Washington that in this instance the prime minister should be consulted. Although his response could not be predicted, it could possibly be adduced from his position on the evening of March 30 when he "reacted negatively" to a suggestion that B-52s should be used in defense of Attopeu in the Laos panhandle.

Wishing to accede to Westmoreland's urgent request for saturation bombing of Mu Gia Pass, high administration authorities decided to "let sleeping dogs lie" and not consult Souvanna Phouma (he would not be informed of ARC LIGHT operations in Laos until September 1966). And, at the ambassador's insistence, the strikes would be limited only to targets on North Vietnam's side of the pass. On April 8, the JCS dispatched an ARC LIGHT execution message to Admiral Sharp and General Nazzaro, although the bombing did not occur until four days later .

Thus, on April 12, under the program RocK KICK II, the ARC LIGHT bombers flew their first mission against the pass in North Vietnam. A total of 30 bombers and 30 KC-135 refueling tankers--the latter had been weathered out on their home base on Okinawa--took off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Each bomber carried twenty-four 1,000-pound bombs internally and twenty-four 750-pound bombs exter- nally. All bombs were set for subsurface burst except thirty 1,000- pounders affixed with long-delay fuzes. Upon reaching their targets, 29 bombers (1 bomber's radar malfunctioned) released their ordnance from 35,000 to 37,000 feet over DRV territory on both sides of the pass. The ARC LIGHTERS carpeted a 3-mile segment of Route 15.

American newsmen, citing official briefings in Saigon, characterized the attack as the biggest single bombing mission of the Indochina war and the largest since World War II. Observing this was the first use of the superbombers in the North, newsmen predicted more strikes. A few, quoting "usually reliable sources," repo'ted that the superbombers had hit the Laotian side of Mu Gia Pass. In this instance the sources, unaware that a closely held decision was made not to bomb Laos territory opposite the pass at this time, were unreliable,"" Saigon press spokesmen publicly claimed the raid was a "marked success," having caused huge landslides leading to the pass. Barely twenty-four hours after the attack, however, visual and photo reconnais- sance confirmed the communists were again shuttling traffic through the historic gateway into Laos. On the 17th, upon receiving reports of more traffic sightings, Westmoreland asked higher authorities to permit Air Force and Navy tactical attacks immediately following the next ARC LIGHT assault. To assure accuracy, he recommended using the Air Force's B-66/F-105 "buddy-bombing" technique developed over North Vietnam. Admiral Sharp and Ambassador Sullivan supported the re- quest, the latter noting reports of another step-up in DRV infiltration through the emplacement of more antiaircraft weapons in the Mu Gia Pass area.+ The antiaircraft threat was underscored on April 19 when enemy gunners near the pass shot down two more American fighters. General Crum in Guam also wanted another crack at the infiltration target. Because of a blurred radar image induced by the accident of terrain, ROCK KICK II had been marred somewhat by bombing inaccura- cies. Crum assured Westmoreland the SAC pilots would do better on a second try. Even the slight off-target bombing on the first mission had left road slides and some temporarily trapped trucks vulnerable to follow-on tactical aircraft.

Washington wished to defer sanctioning immediately a second ARC LIGHT attack until the outcome of ROCK KICK II could be properly evaluated . But on April 20, Westmoreland recommended shelving further study of ROCK KICK II, *because current Air Force and Navy tactical attacks on Mu Gia Pass had obscured its results. With some reluctance, Washington agreed and finally approved another ARC LIGHT strike for April 27.

This second B-52 operation against the pass went more smoothly than the first. SAC crewmen possessed better targeting data, the operational aiming points were more easily identified, and all aircraft delivered their ordnance as planned. Westmoreland sent SAC personnel a congratulatory message. The only untoward incident occurred when two SA-2 missiles launched from a site not far from the pass scored a hit on a USAF tactical escort but did not down the plane.

Poststrike aerial photography showed thirty-two craters along North Vietnam's Route 15 near the pass. But commanders were chagrined to note that after a lapse of only eighteen hours, all of the craters were filled and enemy trucks were again able to use the road into Laos.

To Westmoreland the rapidity with which the communists reopened the pass signaled the importance they attached to this traffic artery and fully justified further U.S. bombing to keep it closed. He urged a new series of B-52 bombings on both sides of the Mu Gia entry point. These would be followed quickly by tactical attacks on backup traffic and road crews and by airdrops of leaflets warning road-repair gangs of the danger in continuing their labors. With the annual southwest monsoon approaching, the MACV commander believed the pass should be struck frequently while weather permitted. Then heavy rains would fill bomb craters and frustrate truck travel.

Sullivan and Sharp, however, now interposed objections against further ARC LIGHT Strikes on the pass. Sullivan fretted about the danger of publicity in striking the Laos side of Route 15 and whether he should consult Souvanna Phouma. He questioned the efficacy of the B-52s, their waste of scarce munitions on not very lucrative targets that could be readily struck by FAG-controlled tactical aircraft, the safety of a roadwatch team near one of several newly proposed targets, and the accuracy of the bombers. He noted that on the night of April 25/26 along the Laos-South Vietnam border, B-52s had bombed through a Navy mission apparently working over an identical target.

Sullivan's denigration of ARC LIGHT effectiveness raised the hackles of military officials. Vice Adm. Lloyd M. Mustin of the JCS relayed the ambassador's dispatch to USAF Lt. Gen. Paul S. Emrick, PACOM's Planning Chief, asserting that it "gives you a rough idea of how the amateur field marshal is doing." Westmoreland took personal umbrage, finding Sullivan's views "disturbing" by their "inference on judgment, decisions, and execution of military operations" concerning the B-52s, and were "obviously" based on inaccurate assumptions and misinforma- tion. He stoutly defended his proposal to unleash the superbombers again on Mu Gia, insisting among other things they would come no closer than four miles to the nearest roadwatch team. He noted SAC bombers occasionally had bombed safely within one mile of friendly huts and villages and within two miles of friendly maneuvering troops.

Admiral Sharp opposed further B-52 bombings of Mu Gia Pass for three reasons: their cost, especially in the use of ordnance now in short supply; their demonstrated ineffectiveness in cratering roads and blocking traffic; and their vulnerability to SA-2 missiles apparently now being installed in the vicinity of the pass. Clarifying his second objection, he said that by traveling only ten miles-per-hour at night, the DRV could readily send through Mu Gia an average of fifty trucks with one hundred tons of supplies to and from distant points in minimum time. As for the missile threat, the PACOM commander observed that available tactical aircraft were unable to give B-52 pilots adequate warning of an SA-2 firing, thus leaving the superbombers, which had limited maneuvering capability, without adequate protection. The major success in countering the SA-2 missiles to date in North Vietnam, he said, had not been the result of finding and destroying them on the ground nor because of electronic jamming. Rather, it was due to the defensive tactics of tactical aircraft who were able to "evade missiles either as a result of FLINT [electronic intelligence] warning or alert eye-ball vigilance." Further, Sharp believed that the primary B-52 mission should consist of finding and destroying war-making materials, not blocking routes.'"' Westmoreland remained unpersuaded. In the following weeks he and Sharp remained locked in a verbal battle over the issue. The MACV commander marshaled various arguments for resuming the bombing of Mu Gia Pass. Among them was the rising number of enemy personnel in Laos, South Vietnam, and Cambodia, and thus the need to attack before the heaviest monsoon rains began in June. He believed the bombers could avoid SA-2 missile radars if they flew to their targets at low altitude, taking advantage of terrain shielding.'" Considering low-level B-52 missions out of the question because of the enemy's heavy antiaircraft concentrations in the target areas, Admiral Sharp reaffirmed his objections against employing the bombers for road cratering. Ambassador Sullivan adhered to his earlier view that cover strikes for ARC LIGHT bombing of Laotian routes so far above the demilitarized zone could not be concealed indefinitely. Hence Souvanna Phouma should be consulted if the routes were to be rebombed. Persuaded by Sharp's arguments and still disinclined to discuss ARC LIGHT bombing with the prime minister, Washington authorities refused to accede to Westmoreland's request. Mu Gia Pass would not be struck again by the bombers until December 12, 1966.

Meanwhile, no major debate arose over continuing the unpublicized B-52 strikes on communist troop bivouacs, rest areas, truck parks, road-construction and supply sites, and other targets opposite the 5 northernmost South Vietnamese provinces. For the first 6 months of 1966, the ARC LIGHT bombers flew 406 sorties in Laos, mainly in April through June. An average mission consisted of 9 to 12 aircraft, sometimes as many as 18. The tropical terrain as usual prevented most strike damage assessment, but some prisoner-of-war reports suggested the heavy bombings hurt enemy morale. Since these operations were covered by near-simultaneous strikes on targets just inside the South Vietnamese border, they drew little attention from the news media. Secrecy within the services was kept by adding the ARC LIGHT Laotian sorties to those flown within South Vietnam.

Ambassador Sullivan and his staff continued their close oversight of the B-52 operations in Laos, often nonconcurring in Westmoreland's strike requests. Between May 27 and July 5, for example, the ambassa- dor vetoed for various reasons 25 proposed ARC LIGHT missions totaling 216 sorties. In most instances, the targets were too far (9 to 25 miles) from the South Vietnamese border, too close to population centers or tribal roadwatch teams, or of doubtful validity. That Washington authorities upheld Sullivan's objections irritated Westmoreland. He believed that the B-52 requirements in Laos were overriding, and the arguments for disregarding them were invalid or unimportant. The disagreement over the use of the bombers intensified in the succeeding months.

In addition to their frustrations over tactical and B-52 restraints on attacking enemy infiltration in Laos, air commanders were deeply concerned about dwindling supplies of certain types of ordnance and fuzes. The problem was theater wide.

The most compelling need was for area-denial ordnance. A short- term remedy, widely employed, was to use time-delay fuzes on available ordnance, but there was a fuze shortage. New types of area-denial ordnance, such as antipersonnel mines (nicknamed DRAGONTOOTH and GRAVEL) were months away from mass production.

Interdiction was also hampered by a shortfall of CBU-2s and 500- and 750-pound bombs. The huge B-52s in particular had a voracious appetite for the 750-pounders. Other reasons were the late arrival of munitions and the civil strife at Da Nang in the spring of 1966 that delayed unloading of a ship with vital ordnance supplies. Air Force planes were called upon to redistribute munitions.

Source "Interdiction in Southern Laos"

Center For AF History