B-52 History 1960s - Vietnam
Even as the B-52 was losing support for its traditional strategic nuclear strike role, a brush-fire insurgency in South Vietnam was beginning to test the flexible response capability of the conventional forces. By 1965, SAC's B-52's were being called upon for bombing support for friendly forces in South Vietnam. Initially, raids were conducted by B-52F's carrying 51 750-pound general purpose bombs, but rapid plans were made to increase the conventional capability of the B-52D force for a sustained SAC operational presence. This program, dubbed Big Belly, upped the internal weapons load of the D model from 27 to 84 of the 500-pound bombs and added a 24-weapon carriage externally. With the completion of Big Belly, the B-52D would carry nearly 60,000 pounds of ordnance. Although other models of the B-52 were also used in Southeast Asia, only the B-52D was modified for the high density conventional capacity, a capability that no existing aircraft can rival. This rapid change in missions for the B-52 was made possible only because of the volumetric capacity, enormous lifting abilities of the aircraft, and structural integrity of the basic design. The net result was a geometric increase in conventional firepower.
The surge requirement for World War II type area bombing generated other changes within the B-52 force. As a large portion of the active B-52 fleet was integrated into the war effort, the aircraft underwent modifications to improve ECM effectiveness against the SAM and interceptor threat possessed by the North Vietnamese. The firepower versatility of the B-52 was expanded by certifying the aircraft for a greater number of conventional weapons such as mines and cluster bomb units. Such weapon payloads boosted the psychological value of the strategic bomber as a terror weapon to the adversaries.
On 06 July 1966 B-52's operated for the first time using a "combat sky spot" bombing system. This marked the beginning of a new close support capability for the ground commander. This system enabled a ground radar control to direct the bomber over the target and also indicate the exact moment of bomb release in almost any kind of weather. Now the big bombers could be used on targets of opportunity with a great deal of flexibility. The B-52's were not new to Vietnam and, in fact, had made their first strike in War Zone D more than a year before on 18 June. Since that time they had flown more than 3,700 sorties using the code name "Arc Light." B-52's stationed on Guam were being used increasingly on enemy supply routes and suspected bases that were located by the combined intelligence effort of the US and Vietnamese forces. The new system employing ground radar control also incorporated a quick reaction force of six B-52's which were on continuous alert at Guam. A single B-52 usually carried 36,000 pounds of "iron bombs." To some the use of a heavy bomber, designed for strategic nuclear response, in a counter insurgency environment was analogous to using a sledge hammer to swat flies. The B-52 was an awesome weapon which could destroy the deepest Viet Cong tunnel structure, open up instant landing zones, and strike terror into the hearts of the enemy.
The initial experience in Southesast Asia of long-range B-52 operations in a hostile air defense environment caused a change in thinking regarding the utility of strategic aircraft. The war diverted funds needed for strategic modernization, while at home independent studies into the need for a new penetrating bomber generated a wide difference of opinion. The Air Force sought an immediate replacement for the B-52, requiring an aircraft that had broad spectrum applications that was capable of supporting both the traditional nuclear role and the newly emphasized conventional role. The Secretary of Defense, however, sought less costly options with the hope that weapons improvements and/or tactics changes would provide the desired survivability for the penetrating bomber force. With the B-52 beginning to prove its value in actual combat over Vietnam, its worth as a nuclear penetrator was being viewed with increasing skepticism. During the mid 1960's the Soviet air defense system blossomed to approximately 9,000 SAM missiles and 3,500 interceptor aircraft. These large numbers and the practical experience of Southeast Asia demonstrated the density and sophistication of the defense environment. This served to reinforce both Air Force and DOD studies which predicted high attrition rates for the existing attack profiles of current bombers in the high threat environment.
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