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Operation Arc Light

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Operation Arc Light
Part of Second Indochina War
(VietnamLaosCambodia), Combat Skyspot
TypeClose air support operations
Commanded byUnited States Air Force; National Security Agency; Lyndon B. Johnson; Richard Nixon
TargetVietnam, Laos, Cambodia
Executed byU.S. Air Force, Strategic Air Command, Combat Skyspot; National Security Agency
Casualties16 B-52 Stratofortresses lost

During Operation Arc Light (sometimes Arclight) from 1965 to 1973, the United States Air Force deployed B-52 Stratofortresses from bases in the U.S. Territory of Guam to provide battlefield air interdiction during the Vietnam War. This included strikes at enemy bases, supply routes, and behind the lines troop concentrations, as well as occasionally providing close air support directly to ground combat operations in Vietnam.[1]

The conventional bombing campaign was supported by ground-control-radar detachments of the 1st Combat Evaluation Group (1CEVG) in Operation Combat Skyspot. Arc Light operations usually targeted enemy base camps, troops concentrations, and supply lines.[citation needed]

Aircraft used[edit]

Previously dedicated to carrying nuclear weapons, the U.S. Air Force began to train strategic bomber crews in 1964 to deliver conventional munitions flying the B-52F.

The B-52Fs were deployed to Andersen Air Force Base on Guam and U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield in Thailand, southeast of Bangkok. To add conventional bomb capacity, Project Big Belly modified all B-52Ds to enable them to carry 30 tons of conventional bombs.

By mid-April 1966, all B-52Fs were redeployed back to the U.S. and were replaced by Big Belly-modified B-52Ds.[citation needed] Later in the Vietnam War, the B-52G was also deployed with the B-52D.[2]

B-52Ds were also used from the 376th Strategic Wing of Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan. The 96th Strategic Air Wing from Dyess AFB, Texas, deployed for Arc Light in June 1970 for 180 days. Upon completion of the Arc Light deployment, the 376th SW B-52Ds either returned to the continental U.S. or were sent to U-Tapao. The 376th SW then ceased bomber operations, but continued flying Young Tiger tanker missions.

Operations in Laos and Cambodia[edit]

Congressional investigations of secret CIA activities in Laos revealed that B-52s were used to systematically bomb targets within Laos and Cambodia.

Operational use[edit]

The bombers were first used in Southeast Asia on June 18, 1965. Flying from Andersen AFB, Guam, 27 aircraft dropped 750-pound (340 kg) and 1,000-pound (455 kg) bombs on a Viet Cong stronghold.[2] During this mission two B-52Fs were lost in a mid-air collision on June 19, 1965,[3] while circling over the South Pacific Ocean, approximately 250 miles (400 km) offshore at the point of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), unable to conduct mid-air refueling in awaiting arrival of KC-135A tankers for pre-strike air refueling.

Missions were commonly flown in three-plane formations known as "cells". Releasing their bombs from the stratosphere, the B-52s could neither be seen or heard from the ground. B-52s were instrumental in destroying enemy concentrations besieging Khe Sanh in 1968,[2] and in 1972 at An Loc and Kontum.

Bombs from B-52 Arc Light strike exploding

Arc Light was re-activated at Andersen on February 8, 1972, when President Richard Nixon resumed bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to move peace talks along. Operation Bullet Shot saw over 15,000 men were sent to Andersen on temporary duty over the next 90 days. With limited barracks and other facilities, tents were set up for use by men working 80-hour weeks. Bullet Shot included B-52-D and B-52-G aircraft.[citation needed]

Arc Light missions continued until the cessation of hostilities by U.S. forces on August 15, 1973. Between June 1965 and August 1973, 126,615 sorties (B-52D/F/G) were flown over Southeast Asia. During those operations, the U.S. Air Force lost 31 B-52s; 18 were lost from hostile fire over North Vietnam and 13 from operational causes.[citation needed]

The typical full bomb loads were:[citation needed]

  • B-52D: 108 500-lb. bombs, or a mixed load of 84 500-lb. bombs in the bomb bay and 24 750-lb. bombs on underwing pylons.
  • B-52F: 36 500-pound (225 kg) and 750-pound (340 kg) bombs in a mixed load, or 51 500-lb. bombs, 27 in the bomb bay and 24 on underwing pylons.
  • B-52G: 27 bombs, all in the bomb bay, no external bombs were carried.


Communication leaks undermined the effectiveness of the campaign. According to Stephen Budiansky, "Despite NSA's occasional success in tightening up particularly leaky communication practices, the problems continued throughout the war. On Andersen the Vietcong were given as much as eight hours' warning and often revealing exact launch times and likely targets, because of a Soviet trawler stationed off the island listening to conversations and seeing actual B-52 launches."[4]

Combat Skyspot Memorial[edit]

Nineteen technicians of the 1st Combat Evaluation Group were lost in ground combat.[5] On September 21, 2010, President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to the sons of Chief Master Sergeant Richard L. Etchberger for his actions in the battle of Lima Site 85. A memorial to all 1CEVG technicians is located directly behind the Arc Light memorial.[6]


  1. ^ Bowman, John S. (1985). The Vietnam War: an Almanac. New York: World Almanac Publications. p. 118. ISBN 0911818855.
  2. ^ a b c Operation ArcLight from The Air Force Historical Studies Office. Archived November 9, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "B52 performance satisfies generals". Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Associated Press. June 20, 1965. p. 2.
  4. ^ Budiansky, Stephen (2016). Code Warriors. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 262–264. ISBN 9780385352666.
  5. ^ 1CEVG member. "Combat SkySpot". unit history. Tripod. Archived from the original on 1 November 2010. Retrieved 26 July 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ member. "The COMBAT SKYSPOT memorial at Andersen AFB Guam, September, 1999". unit history. limasite85.us. Retrieved 23 Sep 2010. The memorial consists of an AN/MSQ-77 (AN/TSQ-81) parabolic antenna poised at 45 degrees elevation…situated directly behind the ARC LIGHT Memorial, a B52D Stratofortress…. The aircraft and the radar are facing the Vietnam theater, in solemn tribute to the men who flew the weapons and the men who directed them over targets of opportunity.