Air Power’s Lost Cause by Brian D. Laslie

Brian Laslie presents history in a formidable style that challenges the reader to evaluate facts and question the conclusions he derives from them. His latest book, Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (Rowman & Littlefield, 272 pp. $39, hardcover; $36, Kindle), divides and analyzes the U.S. Air Force’s combat in the Vietnam War into six parts. The book is part of the War and Society Series, which investigates the history of the conduct of war, along with its social consequences.

Laslie, who holds a doctorate from Kansas State University, is the NORAD and USNORTHCOM deputy command historian at Peterson AFB in Colorado and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and The Citadel.

I read and enjoyed Laslie’s previous book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (2015). In it, he said that inadequate pilot training was the primary cause of aircraft losses in the Vietnam War. Because of that the Air Force revised its training and Laslie explained how, under a new system, technology influenced training, which influenced tactics, which influenced doctrine. I found his arguments credible, although sometimes slanted.

Air Power’s Lost Cause includes material from The Air Force Way of War, but in greater detail. By separating Air Force operations into six phases, Laslie presents a sharper view of the differences between units at different stages of the war. Chapter 7, “Laos, Cambodia, and the War against the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” instantly attracted me because I flew on AC-130 Spectre gunships over Laos during 1970-71.

Laslie says that the U.S. military failed to interdict the Trail because of problems on the ground rather than in the air. He mentions airpower twice: short-lived, fast-FAC Misty F-100 missions in Laos, and B-52 bombings of NVA supply depots in Cambodia. He blames the failure on technical problems with Operation Igloo White’s sensor system, with Lima TACAN radar sites’ inability to function and survive under attack, and the fact that the Trail had no central artery to cut because it was a network of often-changing paths.

To my chagrin as a crewdog on Spectre missions over the Trail, Laslie never mentions those SOS operations in Southern Laos. He completely ignores the thousands upon thousands of trucks destroyed and damaged—sometimes amid controversy—year after year. Laslie’s omission was like leaving a story about a Yankees’ seventh World Series game out of the sports section of The New York Times.

North Vietnamese Army truck on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Two other segments deal with areas of the war I knew well: “The War in the South: Buildup and Close Air Support,” which I saw as a C-130 navigator in 1967-68, and “To Deter Hanoi…The War in the North,” which fighter jock friends have described to me at length and about which I have read in dozens of memoirs.

I found no surprises there. “The Buildup” massed aircraft of every design. “Close Air Support” employed fighters against Viet Cong and NVA troops using tactics that firmly bonded Air Force efforts to Army ground combat needs in the South.

“Up North” bombing did not work, Laslie says. The crux of the matter was that the U.S. used conventional weapons designed for conventional war against an unconventional enemy with minuscule supply needs. He includes a sound argument—with which he disagrees—that heavier bombing earlier in the war would have ended it sooner. He suggests that nothing short of a ground invasion of Laos could have cut the Trail. He mentions but does not analyze the disastrous 1971 Operation Lam Son 719.

With those facts and opinions in mind, here’s my analysis of the entire book:

Air Power’s Lost Cause abounds with declarative conclusions. It validates the idea that the whole war was overly compartmentalized. In the North, Air Force fighter-bomber tactics were predictable and costly. SAC refused to let go of its preferred method of war and paid a heavy price.

The Air Force used the wrong equipment in the wrong way. The Navy did it better. The air war often was a learning experience on tactics and technology, and the Navy immediately applied new lessons during the war while the Air Force waited until later. The Navy’s Top Gun school, for example, came up with a training program eventually used for post-war Air Force fighter pilot training.

Laslie’s chapter, “Air to Air War,” is an excellent summation of dogfighting combat. It includes a glimpse of North Vietnamese pilots.   

In showing the pros and cons of American air wars in Vietnam, Laslie avoids lengthy political analyses. He more than suggests, however, that many military problems were born outside of the military environment. He points out, for example, that away from the battlefields, American politicians interfered with military aims and objectives. In that regard, Laslie quotes David Halberstam: “America, like the French before them, tended to underestimate the bravery, strength, resilience, and the political dynamics, which fed the indigenous force they were fighting.”

Laslie ends the book with a story from Mark Bowden about former U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers, who “told a North Vietnamese counterpart, ‘You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ to which the Communist officer replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'”

The aim of Air Power’s Lost Cause is to tell the complete history of Laslie’s six air power groups from the beginning of American involvement until final withdrawal. He definitively does so, but leaves some loopholes for a reader to challenge his thinking. 

—Henry Zeybel

The Air Force Way of War by Brian D. Laslie

Long ago—in the 1950s and 60s—Strategic Air Command bombers ruled the world. SAC, for one thing, controlled ninety-five percent of the Free World’s striking power. Its city-busting thermonuclear war plans held top priority. Tactical fighter pilots hated SAC’s dominance.

Then came the Vietnam War and fighter jocks began doing the bombers’ job—deep-penetration attacks on strategic targets in North Vietnam. The jocks paid a heavy and disproportionate toll in losses, but gained heroic superiority.

Following years of obliterating tactical targets such as remote jungle outposts in Laos, SAC B-52s began to strike strategic targets in North Vietnam during the penultimate month of the war. But it was too late for SAC. The many years of role reversals had allowed tactical air force thinkers to gain equality in air war planning.

Working from this background, NORAD deputy command historian Brian D. Laslie examines what happened after the Vietnam War in The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 256 pp.; $40, hardcover; $38, Kindle). Laslie convincingly shows that inadequate training was the primary cause of combat losses in Vietnam. He points out that studies revealed that the first ten “actual combat missions” over North Vietnam took the greatest toll on pilots. Consequently, the Air Force revised pilot training to make it as realistic as the first ten actual combat missions.

Laslie goes on to explain the steps that revised the approach to training: creation of “designed operational capability,” agreement on “thirty-one initiatives” with the Army, evolution of Red Flag war games, and development of new aircraft. In other words, under the new system, technology influenced training, which influenced tactics, which influenced doctrine.

Of course, Laslie holds fighter pilots in high esteem (rightfully so, especially those who flew over North Vietnam) and therefore strongly supports their views. As an old B-47, B-52, and Spectre gunship crewdog, I occasionally found his arguments credible but slanted.

 Vietnam War B-52 Stratofortress taking off

At the same time, I admire his honesty. He names generals who accepted mediocrity based on their inability to recognize the need for change. And he lauds leaders who championed crew survivability. Laslie should have said more about inadequate pre-strike intelligence, but perhaps he considered that weaknesses as a given.

The book’s final chapters describe the impact of improved training methods on combat operations starting with the attack on Libya in 1986. Swept up in the fighter pilots’ quest for control, Laslie makes the following pronouncements: “Many have dubbed the air war over Iraq and Kuwait as a ‘strategic air war.’ In the purest use of the term, this is a misnomer. The air war over Iraq and Kuwait was actually a tactical air war that caused strategic level effects.  Everything about air power in the way it was traditionally conceived was overturned during Desert Storm.” Along with winning Desert Storm, fighter pilots also finally won control of the United States Air Force.

And: “Perhaps the most damning statement in [a GAO] report was that the B-52’s contribution to the overall war effort was minimal and did not ‘stand out’ over that of the far more numerous tactical fighters.” Basically, the report said that SAC had no role “outside the nuclear realm.” Clearly, fighter pilots wanted to run the Air Force without compromise.

Laslie best captures the mood of the time in his account of planning for Desert Shield. Personality clashes created scenes of drama equal to the most intense you can find on a good TV miniseries.

Brian D. Laslie

As a wrap-up, Laslie explains the 1992 restructuring of the entire Air Force. He clarifies the merger of TAC and SAC into the Air Combat Command by saying: “The former members of SAC moved into ACC seamlessly as they reorganized the bomber doctrine and made it fit with what the tactical community had been doing for years.”

Laslie offers a postscript by analyzing USAF participation under NATO in the Balkan Campaigns. He finds faults in NATO’s lack of planning and clear objectives. But he credits Red Flag training for the good things that have happened, including the USAF’s ability to conduct day-and-night operations. He does not delve into air operations in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The book has excellent endnotes, along with a “Flag” appendix, bibliography, index, and seven pages of photographs.

—Henry Zeybel