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Fifty Shades of Friction Combat Climate, B-52 Crews, and the Vietnam War

By Mark Clodfelter NWC Case Study 2

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Fifty Shades of FrictionIntroduction

“Four elements make up the climate of war: danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance,” wrote Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz in his seminal On War.1 He observed that collectively, those four elements comprised the notion of friction, which he defined as “the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.”2 Friction has disrupted the implementation of war plans since the dawn of civilization, and despite efforts to minimize its effects, it will continue to do so.

From the Airman’s perspective, friction looms especially large because of the importance of the technology needed not only to fight in the third dimension above the surface of the Earth, but also to live there, or at least to secure a presence in that environment. The possible breakdown of equipment or structural failure of an airframe could heighten stress and danger regardless of whether an enemy attempts to shoot down an aircraft. Additionally, unanticipated weather conditions could have a tremendous impact on aerial operations and their prospects for achieving success, or even occurring at all. Clausewitz remarked, “Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—continue to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal.”3

Friction’s impact on achieving the intended goal with airpower has served as a theme in Air Force doctrinal manuals, in particular after the December 1984 publication of Barry Watts’s The Foundation of U.S. Air Doctrine: The Problem of Friction in War.4 In that important work, Watts examined how instructors at the Air Corps Tactical School during the interwar years developed what they believed to be a war-winning concept of high-altitude, daylight, precision bombing, only to find that friction disrupted their formulaic plans to implement that notion during World War II. He noted, “While the conduct of war clearly involves engineering, it cannot be reduced

to engineering.”5 Watts maintained that Air Force doctrine in the post–World War II era had continued to stress the merits of a mechanistic approach to applying airpower while ignoring the likelihood of friction. The March 1992 edition of the Air Force’s Basic Doctrine Manual, the first published after Watts’s study, took his emphasis on friction to heart and highlighted the notion throughout its two volumes. Yet the manuals that followed have progressively downplayed the importance of the concept. The current edition of the Air Force’s Basic Doctrine Manual, dated February 27, 2015, acknowledges that friction “can impede” activity in war and can make “even simple operations unexpectedly and sometimes even insurmountably difficult,” but those are the only two occasions where the manual addresses friction and its ramifications.6

If the Air Force is to succeed in achieving its mission of “flying, fighting, and winning in air, space, and cyberspace,” it must devote attention to examining how friction affects the individuals charged with actually accomplishing that mission. This guidance seems straightforward, though Clausewitz would quickly add that “everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”7 When war plans go awry, often the apparent reason for failure is the inability of uniformed personnel on “the pointy end of the spear” to deal with instances of chance, uncertainty, danger, or stress. Likewise, when war plans succeed in achieving the desired political outcome, those in harm’s way have often overcome episodes of friction that they faced. Such observations are incomplete, however, because the amount of friction occurring on some missions stems not only from the happenstance conditions encountered by Airmen on the spear’s pointy edge but also from decisions made by political and military leaders before the missions ever depart the runway. Friction is endemic to any military operation; it can never be completely eliminated. Yet political and military leaders alike can limit its prospects by realizing that their orders will likely correlate to the magnitude of friction faced by those who must fly and fight. Accordingly, a renewed emphasis on the importance of friction is essential for future Air Force doctrinal manuals, as well as for the professional military education of future Air Force leaders.

The following case study is an effort to reveal how a specific group of Airmen—the crews flying the B-52 “Stratofortress”—dealt with friction during the course of a single conflict, the Vietnam War. For multiple reasons, the experiences of B-52 crewmembers in Vietnam provide an intriguing case for examining the impact of friction on Airmen. First, the amount of friction encountered in the “in-country air war” that occurred over South Vietnam usually differed from the friction comprising the “out-country air war” transpiring over Cambodia, Laos, and especially North Vietnam. Second, aeronautical engineers designed the B-52 to deliver nuclear bombs, and converting the aircraft into a platform that could deliver conventional ordnance also created additional frictional elements for the crews in Southeast Asia. Third, the B-52 was in fact an aircraft requiring a “crew” to fly. Together, six men made the bomber operational, and the need for “crew integrity” among those six increased friction’s probability.

Equally important “frictional factors” originated from high-level command decisions. The verdict to employ the B-52 in Vietnam not only spurred significant modifications to the airframe but also heightened friction for aircrews trained for nuclear operations in Strategic Air Command (SAC). SAC’s choice of how to send those crews to war further increased friction’s likelihood. Once President Richard Nixon ordered B-52s against targets in the North Vietnamese heartland during Operation Linebacker II, the 11-day air campaign in December 1972, the decisionmaking of Air Force commanders profoundly affected the volume of friction encountered by the crews flying those raids. Yet throughout the Vietnam experience, the factor that perhaps most affected the prospect of crewmember friction was the failure of U.S. political and military leadership to articulate exactly what the crews needed to do to achieve success. The  absence of a clear definition of victory intensified the stress that many crewmembers suffered because they could see no end to the missions that they flew or the war that they fought in. With no way for crews to gauge progress in a seemingly ceaseless conflict, the demons of uncertainty, chance, danger, and stress appeared only to grow in magnitude. Crewmembers thus devised their own measures to determine success, but the ostensible lack of an overall purpose for the war hampered their ability to limit friction’s impact.

The case study that follows draws heavily on survey responses received from 85 B-52 crewmembers who flew in the Vietnam War. Those veterans responded to a series of questions addressing such topics as the adequacy of the training that they received, their perception of the threats that they encountered, and their views on the competency of the leadership, both military and political, that directed them. All of the questions related to dealing with friction, and survey participants could choose from among many listed responses that produced computer-tabulated percentages; they could also elaborate on their choices in written commentaries. Many took advantage of that last option, and some used extensive followup emails as well as telephone interviews or letters to make their points. Those additional inputs have endnotes associated with them, while the comments provided as part of the original survey do not. All of the contributions received, though, were essential components of this case study.

Besides the survey, other sources provided key information for this work. The firsthand accounts from B-52 crewmembers in the We Were Crewdogs series, edited by Tommy Towery, complemented the survey responses, as did primary source documents from the conflict. In addition, the case study relies extensively on four important secondary works: William F. “B.A.” Andrews, “To Fly and Fight: The Experience of American Airmen in Southeast Asia” (Ph.D. diss., George Mason University, 2011); James R. McCarthy and George B. Allison, Linebacker II: A View from the Rock (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Airpower Research Institute, 1979); Marshall L. Michel III, The Eleven Days of Christmas: America’s Last Vietnam Battle (Encounter Books, 2001); and John Schlight, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The War in South Vietnam—The Years of the Offensive 1965–1968 (Office of Air Force History, 1968). Of those secondary sources, B.A. Andrews’s “To Fly and Fight” was by far the most important and in fact provided the spark that led to this case study. “B.A.” was an F-16 pilot and hero in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He was also a tremendous colleague at the National War College and the Eisenhower School and a dear friend who passed away much too soon. Without his ground-breaking efforts—and inspiration—the following work would not have happened.


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