The first week in January in 1968, Operation Niagara was launched by General Westmoreland in an effort to gather intelligence on PAVN activities in and around the Khe Sanh Valley. By the third week in January, this part of the operation (Niagara I) had been completed. On January 21st, the second phase of the operation was launched (Niagara II), and happen to coincide with the first PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam) artillery barrage at Khe Sanh – a barrage which began what many noted as the most rigorous use of aerial firepower in warfare history.
Each day, up to 350 tactical fighter-bombers and 60 B-52s could be found in the skies above the base, along with close to 30 light observation and/or reconnaissance planes. Acoustic and seismic ensors were also dropped during the second phase of this operation which the Marines at Khe Sanh with providing them with 40% of the total intelligence available to their fire support center.
Air Power Statistics
Statistics at the end of the Battle of Khe Sanh reported the following:
United States Air Force
- 9,691 tactical sorties flown
- 14,223 ton of bombs dropped
United States Marine Corps Aviators
- 7,098 missions
- 17,015 tons of bombs dropped
US Naval Aircrews
- 5,337 sorts flown
- 7,942 tons of ordnance dropped
Despite this incredible barrage of firepower, US officials were still questioning whether or not tactical nuclear weapons should be considered if the situation at Khe Sanh did not improve. Westmoreland did not feel it would be necessary. Responsibility to coordinate the air assets during this Operation Niagara were given to Air Force General William Momyer. His appointment did create some problem in regards to the Marine command, which had its own air squadrons operating under their own close air support doctrine. They were very reluctant to surrender authority over their aircraft to an Air Force General.
Difference in Doctrine
Previously, Air Force doctrine dictated that all command and control in Southeast Asia fall under a single air manager concept. The headquarters would in turn allocate and coordinate all air assets and dispensing where they determined the need to be most critical and should the situation warrant, transfer them. The Marines doctrine, however, did not have this type of central control.
A debate arose regarding the differences in these doctrines, but Westmoreland was so adamant, he threatened to resign if his single air manage concept was not enforced. As a result on March 7, 1968, the air operations were positioned under the control of a single manager.
By the end of the month, as a result of the massive air strikes by the US, PAVN began moving out of the area. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 North Vietnamese were killed or wounded, which attributed to Westmoreland taking a great deal of credit for defeating the North Vietnamese at the hands of US air power, ending Operation Niagara.