Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968) was the first of four distinct phases of the air war against North Vietnam. As initially conceived the campaign had three objectives:
- To reduce infiltration into the South
- To boost South Vietnamese morale
- To indicate to Hanoi that continuation of support to the insurgency in South Vietnam would be increasing expensive.
In Hanoi however Rolling Thunder was seen as one more obstacle in the struggle to remove foreign influence in their plans to force a unification of the country.
The campaign commenced on the 2 March 1965 with an attack on an ammunition depot at Xom Bong (35 miles above the DMZ) involving F-100D Super Sabre and F105D Thunderchiefs escorting a force of Martin B57 bombers. Whilst considerable damage was done to this target it was unfortunately at a great cost to the attackers (two F100D and three F105Ds being lost, and in addition the humiliation of having USAF pilot Hayden J Lockhart becoming the first American pilot to be taken prisoner).
From the very beginning the campaign Rolling Thunder would attract serious criticism. The planning of operations was a complex and unwieldy business that began in the Situation Room in the White House where President Johnson retained a firm control over what could and could not be attacked. The USAF HQ in Saigon was permitted to make target recommendations, and indeed Lt Gen Joseph Moore, commanding the 2nd Air Division was constantly making suggestions for an effective campaign against North Vietnam, only to find that targets were being approved by the White House on what appeared to be a purely random basis.
Furthermore improving air defences in the North, with modern radar directed AAA, SAM missiles and modern MiG fighters would make the campaign increasing costly for the American airmen. Dismay at the loss in aircraft and the rising toll of civilian casualties would even result in operations being temporarily suspended for a while, but ultimately Rolling Thunder would neither reduce the flow of supplies to the South nor to bring the Hanoi government to the peace table. It was a rude awakening to those who had supposed that the war could be ended by air-power alone.