A month ago, we marked the 50th anniversary of Operation Linebacker II, the air campaign that damn near won the Vietnam War for the United States. Aircraft such as F-4 Phantoms and F-111 Aardvarks contributed to the mission’s success. But the leading role no doubt went to the B-52 Stratofortress, the heavy bomber known affectionately as “The BUFF” (“Big Ugly Fat F***er.)
The BUFF is still kicking butt and taking names after 71 years of service. Let’s take a look back at the top moments in the BUFF’s illustrious combat history.
Best of the B-52 BUFF Part I: Operation Linebacker II
As retired U.S. Air Force Col. and former National Air and Space Museum director Walter J. Boyne wrote, “All previous air campaigns, including the initial Linebacker carried out in May-October 1972, were ‘limited,’ designed to interdict the overland routes by which the North resupplied its regular units and Viet Cong forces operating in South Vietnam. Linebacker II was to be different. The intent was to destroy all major target complexes in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas.”
Linebacker II commenced on Dec. 18, 1972 and concluded on Dec. 29. Notwithstanding the “Christmas bombing” sobriquet attached to the operation, there was actually a one-day stand-down on Christmas Day. The targets consisted of rail yards and marshaling areas, petroleum storage facilities, missile storage sites, docks, and warehouses.
Ninety-nine B-52Gs and 53 B-52Ds launched from Anderson Air Force Base, Guam to take part in the mission. Another 54 B-52Ds based out of U-Tapao Airbase joined them.
Fifteen BUFFs were lost to enemy surface-to-air missile fire. Asnoted by Lewis Sorley in his highly acclaimed book A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, “North Vietnam fired 1,242 SAMs during the bombing raids, and eventually just ran out of missiles. The United States did not run out of B-52s.”
Meanwhile, American POWs holed up at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison, like Medal of Honor recipient Adm. James Bond Stockdale, noted how the B-52 strikes shattered the arrogance of their North Vietnamese tormentors: “The shock was there; our enemy’s will was broken.” The North Vietnamese made their way back to the negotiating table. Sir Robert Thompson – mastermind of the British victory against Communist insurgents in the Malayan Emergency – assessed Linebacker II thusly: “In my view…you had won the war. It was over!”
Best of the BUFF Part II: Arc Light and Khe Sanh
The Arc Light missions in Vietnam didn’t have the strategic significance that Operation Linebacker II did. But that didn’t mean they were lacking in tactical-level importance, especially to the American grunts who benefitted from the supersized dose of close air support.
This was especially true during Operation Scotland, the defense of the Marine Corps base at Khe Sanh. Mark W. Woodruff elaborates in his book Unheralded Victory: The Defeat of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army 1961-1973: “Directed onto target by radar while flying at 30,000 feet, the first sign of their presence was the sound of the huge bombs crashing to earth…’Damn it,’ said the colonel. ‘For every round they drop on us, we drop a whole planeload of bombs on them.’”
Best of the BUFF Part III: Operation Desert Storm
Naturally, once the Desert Storm air campaign kicked off, it was the mighty BUFF that was called to rain down hell upon Saddam’s elite troops with merciless and incessant carpet-bombing raids. Physical damage to Republican Guard assets was modest, with maybe 50 of the Guards’ T-72 main battle tanks destroyed. But the psychological damage inflicted by the American heavy bombers was disproportionately impactful. One Republican Guard officer said he surrendered his unit because of B-52 strikes. On being informed by his interrogator that his unit was never hit by B-52s, he replied, “But I saw one that had been attacked.”
The BUFF is a superbly effective PSYOP weapon.
Best of the B-52 BUFF Part IV: Operation Allied Force
Much like the Vietnam air campaign prior to Operation Linebacker II, Operation Allied Force – the NATO air campaign intended to stop Serbian strongman Slodoban Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo – was limited in nature and lacking in intensity. It failed to bring the full brunt of airpower’s potential to bear.
That was the case, at least, until B-52s were called upon to repeat the sort of history they had made in the Arc Light and Desert Storm missions, carpet-bombing the living hell out of enemy troop concentrations. A single such BUFF strike against a massed Serb troop formation of roughly 800 to 1,000 soldiers on June 8, 1999, wiped out more than half their number and left the rest to flee in abject terror.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).