The Evolution of US Army Tactical Doctrine, 1946-1976

By Major Robert A. Doughty

(from Leavenworth Papers by Major Robert A. Doughty, Combat Studies Institute, August 1979)

ALTHOUGH the United States contended that counterinsurgency operations should be combated through a combination of military operations and social reform, the demands of tactical operations in the Vietnam War remained the most important concern of the US Army. The focus on combat action was especially true from the middle of 1966 when US forces launched their first prolonged offensive, through late 1968 when 'Vietnamization' of the war began in earnest. During the intervening period, South Vietnamese troops emphasized pacification duties while US units carried the brunt of the major fighting. In late 1968, South Vietnamese units began assuming an increasing responsibility for military operations. This responsibility continued to increase until the last US ground troops withdrew in August 1972.

Because of strategic and political considerations, the ground strategy remained that of a gigantic mobile defense. The strategy sought to defeat the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong (VC) forces and to permit the people of South Vietnam to manage their own affairs. Tactical operations within the mobile defense were predominately offensive, for the essential idea was to find and destroy the enemy. Such operations theoretically enabled the government of South Vietnam to extend its control over the people within an area. Military operations were thus an inherent part of the pacification effort even though their contribution to the pacification effort was often not immediately apparent at the local or village level.127

From the moment the US Marines first entered South Vietnam in March 1965, the war was characterized by its nonlinear and multidirectional nature. Following the arrival of the 173d Airborne Brigade in May 1965, American tactical operations concentrated on defeating or destroying the enemy within, an area rather than capturing terrain features or conventional objectives. Consequently, tactical methods were usually very different from those previously envisioned for a limited war, especially one similar to the Korean Conflict. Although tactical methods intended for a general war in Europe were often not applicable to combat operations in South Vietnam, the American movement toward a more dispersed battlefield in the 1950s proved to be a fortunate development.

By the early 1960s, major advances had been made in tactical communications, and when this was coupled with the great mobility of the helicopter, larger unit commanders were able to control their subordinate units in a fashion heretofore impossible. The improved communications, greater flexibility in command and control, increased American mobility and the nature of the enemy ensured that tactical operations in South Vietnam often bore little resemblance to those of the past.

There were some exceptions to the fighting in South Vietnam being very different from that of the past, for the shifting intensities and scale of combat sometimes included variations of conventional war. The invasion of Cambodia in April-June 1970, the South Vietnamese operation in Laos in February-April 1971 and the North Vietnamese offensives in March-April 1972 and March-April 1975 are clear examples of conventional operations. But the majority of the fighting remained non-conventional. The dilemma for American commanders was the continued threat of large-scale operations in an environment where relatively small-scale operations were the rule. Neither extreme, of the possible scale of operations could be ignored.

*** When US forces entered combat in 1965, the VC and NVA forces had recently changed their tactics from small-unit to larger unit operations. They were enjoying a considerable degree of success, and, as General William C. Westmoreland said, "The South Vietnamese government-already exhausted by a decade of struggle-was thus faced with defeat."128 Consequently, the initial phase of fighting by the Americans stressed "arresting the losing trend, stifling the enemy initiative, protecting the deployment of our forces, and providing security to populated areas to the extent possible."129

The "fire brigade" approach extended throughout 1965, and, according to General Westmoreland, "Attacks by air and artillery fire constituted the bulk of our offensive operations in early 1966 until our ground strength reached appropriate and effective levels." During the early phase of the war, ground operations were thus launched only against enemy forces constituting "an immediate and grave threat."130 By the spring of 1966, the possibility of an immediate enemy victory had disappeared, and, according to Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell, "the initiative began to pass to the allies."131

From the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in October-November 1965 through Junction City in February-May 1967, US Army commanders sometimes employed division or multidivision-sized forces to destroy larger VC and NVA units.132 Division or larger size units were also used after 1967 such as in the area around Khe Sanh in early 1968 or following the Tet offensive in January 1968.

Large units frequently conducted spoiling attacks or reconnaissances in force into enemy base areas. The focus on semi-conventional, large-unit operations came at the expense of the local pacification effort.133 From the Army's view, however, such a focus was essential given the circumstances of the US entry into the war. General Westmoreland explained, "We had learned that we had to take the fight to the enemy if pacification was ever to succeed." The threat of enemy main force units attacking local security forces had to be eliminated.134

Despite the number of large-unit operations in the initial phases of American involvement, tactical operations by brigades, battalions and companies comprised the bulk of the American effort throughout the war. Since allied units were scattered widely in order to control large areas and to increase chances of finding the enemy, aggressive and competent leadership for smaller units remained essential for all tactical operations.

Operation by units smaller than the division (or even brigade) were the key to the pacification effort and the key to finding the enemy. In jungle operations, small-unit tactics were essential, for heavy vegetation and broken terrain provided ideal concealment for the enemy. If a commander expected to find the enemy, he had to disperse his subordinate units even though reinforcement became extremely difficult when contact was made with the enemy.135 The need for small unit operations also applied to mechanized infantry, and one former battalion commander stated, "As I saw the war in Vietnam, it belonged to the company commander. He was the key to success-a planner, a doer, an independent operator, and a leader of men."136

After the end of the US ground role in Vietnam, two general officers noted that they had initially thought the best combat results were obtained from larger engagements rather than smaller ones. After smaller unit operations received greater emphasis, they discovered that the number of enemy casualties increased and that the great majority of these losses came in small contacts.137 Larger unit operations, however, were necessary to provide a protective shield for smaller unit operations and to destroy large enemy concentrations.

In the initial phases of US participation, the helicopter emerged as one of the most important innovations of the war. Its great mobility and carrying capacity provided the essential ingredient for operations in the diverse terrain of Southeast Asia against the enemy's light infantry. As a carrier of supplies, ammunition, equipment and wounded personnel, its functions ranged far beyond that of simply being a combat vehicle. Only the helicopter could accomplish the variety of tactical tasks ranging from the insertion of a long-range patrol to the vertical assault of an entire division.

Employment of the helicopter enabled the free world forces to mass men and equipment in a fashion fundamentally affecting tactical methods. Helicopters could transport units to a battle area and could also enable them to maneuver or to reinforce, displace or withdraw combat power during the battle. Helicopters could also be used to concentrate forces quickly. The dominant characteristic of the development of infantry organizations and tactics during the war was the increasing application of airmobile concepts and tactics.138

Before US troops entered the war, the Army had developed the operational terminology to describe the three basic types of operations conducted. The terms signaled the difference between the Vietnam War and previous American wars.

The first type of operation was "search and destroy."139 As is obvious from its title, operations of this type sought to locate the enemy and destroy him, and variations could be conducted from company to multidivisional level though the norm was probably a multi-battalion operation. No fixed model existed for such operations. "Horseshoes" could be formed by placing units in blocking positions, and ground thrusts could drive into the center of the horseshoe. Or, in a "hammer and anvil" operation, a blocking position could be occupied, and an attacking force could move toward it. Another variation included the emplacement of ambushes along likely avenues of escape. When an allied force moved into the area, escaping enemy units were ambushed as they attempted to flee. Straightforward attacks were also used. Ground forces often moved into enemy base areas, seeking contact and hoping to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy before he escaped.

In April 1968, the Army dropped the term "search and destroy" since it was, as General Westmoreland noted, "equated in the [American] public mind with aimless searches in the jungle and destruction of property."140 Other terms, such as combat sweep, reconnaissance in force and spoiling attack, replaced the term "search and destroy." But the original term was sometimes carelessly used in a blanket fashion to describe almost any kind of offensive operation.

Although "clearing" operations resembled search-and-destroy operations, they usually placed a greater emphasis on pacification. While search-and-destroy operations chased the enemy from an area or destroyed him, clearing operations kept him off balance and allowed the South Vietnamese government to extend its influence into the area.

Reconnaissances in force, combat sweeps or other offensive operations continued to be conducted, but the greatest emphasis in clearing operations was placed on eliminating local or main force enemy resistance and destroying his support base. Local commanders and political authorities, for example, often used cordon-and-search operations141 to "clear" a village or area. Thus, clearing operations usually lasted longer than search-and-destroy operations.

The final type was the "securing" operation. These operations protected pacification accomplishments, but concentrated on eliminating local guerrilla units and the enemy's political infrastructure and support base. Although multi-battalion offensive sweeps could be used to secure an area, the norm was probably saturation patrolling and cordon and searches of hamlets. With effective Vietnamese, police assistance, these efforts emphasized thorough interrogation and identification of the civilian populace, They also included an intense civic action program and such things as medical assistance.142 Such efforts demonstrated the commitment of the South Vietnamese government and the free world forces to protect the civilian population and to maintain control within an area.

Theoretically, the proper sequence of operations was search and destroy, clear and secure, with the final phase being dominated by the South Vietnamese Regional and Popular Forces and the police. While search-and-destroy operations engaged the enemy's main force and provincial battalions, the remaining smaller elements were rooted out with clearing and securing operations.

The ideal models for types of operations, however, often resembled actual operations only in their purpose rather than in their specific techniques. Given the wide diversity of terrain, weather and enemy throughout South Vietnam, commanders who unimaginatively applied ideal models to less than ideal conditions were more likely to meet failure than success. Innovation and diversity were the rule rather than the exception, and orthodox procedures were often revised in Vietnam's non-conventional environment.

From the perspective of most ground commanders, the primary purpose of ground tactical operations was to defeat enemy forces. Consequently, "find, fix, fight, and finish" the enemy became a much-repeated slogan during the Vietnam War. The goal of destroying enemy forces eventually assumed a greater importance than the theoretical sequence of search-and-destroy, clear and secure operations. An underlying reason for this focus on attrition was the nature of the enemy. His great mobility and unpredictability frequently forced the free world forces to conduct search -and-destroy operations or fight major battles in areas that had supposedly been freed from most enemy influence.

*** The tactics employed by American ground troops in South Vietnam were heavily influenced by the enemy's organization and tactics. The enemy's armed forces essentially consisted of three major groups-local and provincial VC guerrillas, main force VC units and members of the regular North Vietnamese Army.

The local VC guerrillas usually operated as part-time soldiers who blended into the civilian population by day and became effective fighters at night. They operated in-small units (usually squad, platoon or company).

The provincial Vietcong (usually organized into battalions) consisted of forces recruited from local villages. They normally operated in the province from which the unit's members were drawn.

Main force VC units were organized into battalions and regiments, but could also be organized into divisions for operations throughout South Vietnam. They were better equipped and trained than the local and provincial VC units and were fully capable of relatively large-scale and violent operations. Yet they could also break down into squads and platoons and could operate in the same fashion as the local Vietcong.

Because of their detailed knowledge of local terrain, extensive combat experience in guerrilla warfare and often intense dedication to their cause, the VC soldiers were formidable opponents throughout the war. One American officer described the Vietcong as "a fanatically dedicated opponent who would take on tanks, if necessary, armed only with bow and arrow."143

The NVA units were better equipped than the VC units and usually operated as battalions, regiments or even divisions. The NVA units possessed greater combat power than the Vietcong, as is illustrated by their eventual employment of heavy artillery and tanks, particularly in the latter phases of the war. Except for the greater firepower and usually larger units, NVA methods of operation resembled those of main force Vietcong.

At times, the NVA units also conducted light and highly mobile guerrilla operations, similar to those of the local Vietcong, but such operations were often not as successful as those conducted by local forces. Because of his lack of familiarity with South Vietnam and relatively easy identification as a foreigner, the NVA soldier sometimes could not blend into the local population. By mid-1967, large-scale offensive operations by free world forces had flushed the enemy's larger units from many of their base camps and sanctuaries near large urban areas in South Vietnam. Thenceforth, NVA units often operated in border areas where they could elude pursuing free world units by fleeing across the Vietnamese border into relatively safe sanctuaries.

Despite the variety of units, the enemy's forces operated in an interdependent fashion. There was no notion of each type unit fighting in its own way without regard to the methods or mission of other units. Local force Vietcong, for example, provided important logistics support for main force units while continuously harassing allied troops. Similarly, main force units bore the brunt of the heaviest fighting in the larger operations, but, without the intelligence, preparation and assistance of the local forces, their successes would have been extremely limited.

The Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army used essentially infantry tactics, and mobility was the key to all operations, from the small actions of the local forces to the larger actions of the regular forces. The enemy rarely accepted battle in unfavorable situations and only accepted decisive contact under exceptional circumstances. His operations were usually ruled by the maxim: "When the enemy advances, withdraw; when he defends, harass; when he is tired, attack; when he withdraws, pursue...."144 If unexpected developments prevented an operation from being executed according to plan, the enemy often broke contact and awaited more favorable circumstances. Yet the Tet offensive of February 1968 demonstrated that the enemy was more than willing to accept massive casualties if he deemed it necessary, and his tough defense after the offensive of March-April 1972 demonstrated that he was willing to stand and fight.

The enemy's tactics attempted to compensate for his relatively weak firepower. Since his light infantry units did not possess the same firepower and staying power of most of the allied units, he sought to inflict the most casualties with his rifles and automatic weapons in the early minutes of an engagement. The VC and NVA forces often employed the ambush with excellent results. Whether in the jungle or along routes of movement, no patrol or column was safe.

Various techniques of ambush were often used effectively. For example, the "lure and ambush" sometimes drew pursuing soldiers into carefully prepared traps. Another variation often accompanied a sharp, violent attack on an installation or unit. When a relief column rushed forward to assist or relieve the threatened position, it sometimes found itself to be the real prey. The Vietcong were especially adept at harassment. Sniper fire, booby-traps, mines and mortars constantly harassed free world forces.145

The enemy also employed rapid strikes against allied weak points. An example of such tactics occurred on 10-11 March 1975 when Ban Me Thuot was captured. According to General Van Tien Dung, the NVA chief of staff, his troops avoided defensive positions on the outer perimeter of the city and struck the command and control centers of the South Vietnamese inside the city. After capturing the command centers, NVA troops moved outward to capture perimeter positions, Such tactics enabled the North Vietnamese Army to capture Ban Me Thuot in just over 32 hours.146

NVA and VC units also used mass assaults, sometimes supported by heavy supporting fires. Rapid, violent attacks against carefully selected objectives enabled the Vietcong and North Vietnamese to maximize the combat forces of their infantry and to inflict casualties on the defender. Such attacks were minutely planned, meticulously prepared and frequently rehearsed, but weak tactical communications often forced the enemy to adopt highly inflexible plans. Regardless of the method used, the enemy normally sought to inflict casualties and then escape.147

VC and NVA units used several other techniques to weaken the effects of the allied firepower. One of the most important of these was night fighting. Their ability to operate at night under the concealment of darkness often served to nullify an overwhelming firepower advantage of an American unit.

If the Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army were forced to defend or were to remain immobile for a period, they built elaborate networks of trenches, bunkers and tunnels which provided protection against the firepower of attacking allied units. The enemy also engaged allied units at very close distances, especially in jungle fighting. By "hugging" an opposing unit, the VC and NVA units could limit the allied use of artillery, air strikes and helicopter support. Their stress on surprise and mobility also enabled them to strike and escape before allied firepower could be concentrated against them.

The individual soldiers, nevertheless, remained vulnerable, and the VC and NVA units often suffered casualties-even in favorable circumstances-far beyond those of their opponents. Such losses inevitably affected the quality of the enemy forces as a whole, for many superbly trained and well-motivated soldiers fell victim to superior allied firepower. But the enemy's willingness to accept heavy casualties and ability to strike without warning forced the free world forces to approach every movement and action as if it were a combat operation.148

*** Because of the enemy's light, highly mobile and unpredictable nature, finding him emerged as one of the most important but frustrating parts of any operation. A former brigade commander explained, "The brigade that cannot find the enemy has no successful operations."149 Since that dictum applied to units of any size, allied units placed a special premium on intelligence. The methods employed included traditional means such as the use of informants, interrogation of prisoners and exploitation of captured documents. They also included more sophisticated methods such as "pattern activity analysis" which involved plotting patterns of enemy activity over extended periods of time.150 Exotic technological devices, such as "people sniffers," were employed, as well as ground radar, sidelooking airborne radar, active and passive night vision devices, a variety of sensors and imagery interpretation from photographic, infrared and electronic equipment. But the purpose of each method remained very simple-to locate an elusive enemy.

As for their effectiveness, Lieutenant General W. O. Kinnard noted, after considering the range of equipment and methods for collecting combat intelligence. "Our ability to find the enemy did not match our battlefield mobility and firepower."151 The intelligence effort, nevertheless, often succeeded in determining where an enemy force or base camp might be located. When this occurred, an operation was usually launched to exploit that information as rapidly as possible.152

To enhance chances of finding the enemy, a number of semi-guerrilla tactics were employed by ground units. The "checkerboard" tactic was a method of searching an area by covering alternate squares with small units ranging from platoon to squad size. The areas of operations were analogous to the squares of a checkerboard, and units within the squares sought to move continually (especially at night) in order to saturate an entire area and preclude any enemy movement.

The "bushmaster" tactic sought to interdict known enemy communications-liaison routes. Since it was normally used in areas where the enemy was strong, units were usually not broken down into elements smaller than platoon size. Small units occupied blocking, defensive or ambush positions in prescribed areas, but all the platoons of a company, for example, remained close enough so they could reinforce one another. Although the bushmaster tactic was primarily a nighttime operation, it could also be used during the day.153

Another tactic involved saturation patrolling. By inundating an area with patrols operating in a "cloverleaf" fashion, for example, detailed searches could be conducted and enemy activity sharply curtailed. Long range patrols were especially valuable for penetrations deep into enemy-controlled territory. "Stay-behind" forces were also used. When the main body of troops departed at the end of an operation, small forces sometimes concealed themselves and hid in the area where the operation had been conducted. When enemy forces returned, they were ambushed or destroyed with artillery fires.

Some of the most successful techniques for finding the enemy involved the helicopter. Air assaults struck suspected enemy locations, and a series of successive assaults often checked a number of areas for possible enemy presence. The "Jitterbug" was a variation of this, for it emphasized the insertion of small assault forces into a number of potential areas where the enemy might be located. The enemy's description of the "Jitterbug" as "Hawk Tactics" aptly described its purpose of "swooping" down on unsuspecting targets.154

The helicopter also provided an easy method for reconnoitering large areas. Decoy helicopters could be used to draw enemy fire, and "Eagle Flights" consisting of approximately one heliborne infantry platoon could develop the situation.155 The helicopter's mobility permitted commanders to extend their influence over areas vastly greater than they otherwise would have been.

Mechanized forces also provided an additional capability to find the enemy. Movement by mechanized units often forced the enemy to keep moving and thus made him vulnerable to ambush or discovery by aerial or ground observers. Their great firepower and capability for rapid reaction enabled mechanized units to control about twice as much terrain as an infantry battalion.156

The rapid and wide-ranging sweeps of tanks and armored personnel carriers permitted commanders to search large areas for the enemy. While such operations usually could not be conducted in mountainous terrain, tanks could be used in a "junglebusting" role and could sometimes move more rapidly in such terrain than foot soldiers. Commanders considered the resulting maintenance problems and damage to suspension systems as small costs for the benefits derived.157 Tanks were also used for "thunder runs." In these operations, small groups of tanks dashed down roads, often late at night, to surprise unsuspecting enemy troops or to preclude the enemy from mining important communications routes.


Another method of finding the enemy was to lure him from his hidden camps. By offering the "bait" of supposedly vulnerable forces, the allied forces could deceive the enemy and lure him into an area where he could be found. For example, fire support bases or special forces camps were sometimes placed in areas where they invited attack, or convoys were dispatched when they appeared vulnerable.158 Other techniques were used, but the main idea was to deceive the enemy into thinking he could inflict casualties without suffering inordinate losses.

After enemy contact was established, mobile US units reinforced the unit in contact and encircled the enemy's position. These were the first steps in what came to be called "pile on" tactics. If there was any maneuver, it usually occurred before contact was made or during the "pile on" of additional troops and equipment.159 Every unit not in contact was considered to be in reserve. Colonel George S. Patton noted that after a unit made contact the commander had to act "by literally throwing forces together from all directions in order to first encircle or fix, then compress, and finally, destroy the enemy."160 Using the great mobility of heliborne or mechanized forces, units occupied peripheral blocking or ambush positions in order to destroy fleeing enemy forces. According to the size of forces and area involved, such encircling methods were sometimes called "rat hole" or "bull's-eye" tactics.161

During and following the concentration of US forces, attacks were usually conducted by fire rather than by ground assault. Under normal circumstances, an infantry assault was avoided or it was delayed until after the enemy had been virtually destroyed by supporting fires. The high density of automatic weapons among the enemy caused high loss rates in assaulting and exposed allied troops. The function of ground forces (especially the infantry) thus became the "finding" and "fixing" of the enemy, but the "fighting" and "finishing" were most often accomplished by massive artillery and air firepower.

Such tactics minimized American casualties and made maximum use of the overwhelming US advantage in firepower. The standing operating procedure for most units became, "Save lives, not ammunition."162 The main idea remained to find the enemy, to fix him with small arms or immediate supporting forces, to encircle him with other units and to destroy him by an overwhelming mass of artillery and air support. These "pile on" tactics represented a new high in the US Army's emphasis on firepower and enemy attrition.163

*** The coordination and employment of supporting fires became one of the central features of US Army tactics. Artillery support was especially important, for ground units rarely operated outside its firing range. Because ground units were widely scattered, artillery units also had to be dispersed, and this resulted in single batteries occupying separate fire support bases. Commanders usually located these bases so they could be mutually supporting. Thus, most artillery support came from single batteries rather than battalions, and the capability to mass fires from more than one or two batteries often did not exist. Instead of firing a few rounds from many tubes-as in the Korean War-artillery units fired many rounds from a few tubes.164

The need to provide adequate fire support clearly affected the conduct of ground operations. The establishing of fire support bases often became the first step in major operations. While this sometimes revealed an upcoming operation to the enemy, the deceptive emplacement of fire support bases tended to keep the enemy guessing about allied intentions. An interesting variation was the artillery raid. This involved rapidly inserting artillery into a new fire support base, firing quantities of ammunition into suspected enemy locations and then evacuating the fire support base before the enemy had time to prepare an attack against it.

Most fire bases contained 105mm howitzers which were effective against personnel targets but which lacked the power to destroy bunkers and fortifications. Medium and heavy artillery functioned effectively against such targets, and 155mm howitzers often accompanied the 105mm tubes into newly established fire bases. The heavy artillery (8-inch and 175mm) was not moved very often and usually provided harassing and interdiction fires from base camps.165

The emphasis on operating from and defending these bases, however, led to what General Westmoreland described as a "fire base psychosis."166 American commanders were reluctant to operate beyond the support of their artillery and to risk fighting on near-equal terms with VC or NVA units. While this excessive caution detracted from the maneuver and offensive capabilities of US units, it minimized American casualties.

Armed helicopter and aerial rocket artillery also provided important support to ground units, Helicopters armed with machineguns, rockets and grenade launchers provided light fire support which was particularly effective against enemy troops in the open or without fortifications, Aerial rocket artillery units provided heavier fire support, often in areas beyond the range of a unit's direct support artillery. Such aerial rocket units normally operated in a general support role and provided immediately responsive fires. The highly mobile aerial rocket artillery units could answer calls for fire over extremely large areas, and along with armed helicopters provided especially important support in air assault operations. Their ability to furnish responsive and discriminating fires proved invaluable in many frenzied air assaults.167


No mention of fire support for ground troops would be complete without mentioning the US Air Force. In many ways, the Vietnam War represented the highest point in liaison and cooperation between ground and air units. The heavy bombs and napalm of the Air Force were especially suited for employment against enemy fortifications, and tactical air support often proved invaluable to ground operations.

The Air Force's AC47 gunship, which was dubbed "Puff the Magic Dragon" or "Spooky," provided a different type of ground support. When the DC3 transport aircraft was armed with three miniguns capable of firing 6,000 rounds a minute, it had the capability of remaining above an area for long periods of time and delivering devastatingly effective fire against exposed enemy troops. When B52 strategic bombers began striking targets of high tactical value, the entire spectrum of airpower was made available to assist the ground commands. It was not uncommon to have B52s drop their bombs on targets to "prepare" them for ground assault. The responsiveness, mobility and effect of Air Force support for ground operations was undoubtedly due to the nature of the war being fought in Southeast Asia. But it was also due to more than two decades of effort to improve the ability of the Army and Air Force to work together.

If there was any criticism of aerial. operations in support of combat operations, it revolved around their inability to halt infiltration of enemy units into South Vietnam. In that sense, aerial interdiction of the battlefield was about as successful (or unsuccessful) as that of the Korean War. When the newly developed "smart" bombs were employed against targets in North Vietnam, however, a single airplane often accomplished a mission that previously had taken many more aircraft, This success indicates that future interdictory rules against difficult targets might be immensely more successful than those of the past.

Naval gunfire added the final dimension of possible sources of support for ground operations. During an operation, a ground unit may have been supported by mortars, artillery, armed helicopters, aerial rocket artillery, tactical aircraft, AC47 gunships, strategic bombers or naval gunfire. Coordinating these sources of fire support proved to be extremely taxing and would not have been possible without the numerous innovations of the previous 20 years.


Gaining clearance to fire emerged as one of the most persistent problems of fire support coordination. Since the war was being fought in and around population centers, commanders would not fire without permission of local authorities. Assigning tactical areas of responsibility (TAOR) partially eliminated this problem, for a separate brigade or division habitually controlled a specific area of influence for long periods. In contrast to TAORs, areas of operation were assigned for specific operations or short periods. But within their TAOR, units became more accustomed to clearance procedures, as well as becoming more familiar with the terrain and enemy.168 Although fire support coordination problems were reduced somewhat, they still remained a major concern of all commanders. The employment of massive firepower remained one of the most important features of US Army tactical operations.

Mechanized forces added significantly to the fighting capability of ground units. Although there were some initial reservations about the ability to employ mechanized infantry or armored forces in South Vietnam, such forces more than proved their worth after being committed. The principal features of mechanized forces which enabled them to contribute significantly were their mobility, firepower and protection. Mobile units could usually traverse much larger areas than foot soldiers, and, when contact was made with the enemy, mechanized units possessed an overwhelming amount of firepower. Their armor protection enabled them to assault heavily armed enemy units.

Since the enemy did not possess sophisticated antitank weapons, the M113 armored personnel carrier was often employed as if it were a tank. Similarly, the armored cavalry squadron and regiment were assigned missions previously assigned to tank and infantry battalions. These were in addition to their traditional missions of reconnaissance, security and economy of force. When mechanized units reinforced infantry maneuver units, they added a significant degree of offensive assault capability and mobility.169 The ability to support mechanized formations with supplies transported by helicopters added substantially to their operational capability. ***

In summary, firepower became the dominant characteristic of American operations. Maneuver was used primarily for locating and fixing the enemy. By de-emphasizing the infantry assault and concentrating massive firepower against the enemy. American commanders minimized their losses while maximizing the strength of their forces. Such tactics, however, relied on their ability to counter the enemy's mobility, and this was not always successful. Lieutenant General Bernard W. Rogers explained, "It was a sheer physical impossibility to keep him from slipping away whenever he wished if he were in terrain with which he was familiar generally the case."170

The operational mobility of American forces was far greater than that of the enemy since US commanders could shift battalions, brigades and divisions over long distance with relative ease. Similarly, heliborne troops moved effortlessly throughout the battlefield as long as they remained in their helicopters. Yet the ground mobility of US units usually did not equal that of the lightly equipped enemy units. Heavy equipment and reliance on firepower hampered US tactical mobility. A former brigade commander stated, "We are too noisy, clumsy, awkward, and slow to catch the wary, elusive guerrilla."171 The analogy of "elephants chasing jackrabbits" suggests the dilemma faced by US tacticians. While American commanders maximized their advantages with firepower, helicopters and mechanized forces, the enemy continued to emphasize surprise, mobility and intense, sharp clashes.

Analyses of Army doctrine during the Vietnam War, nevertheless, concluded that the tactical doctrine was "generally sound" even though "expansion and emphasis" were required to take advantage of the Vietnam experience.172 Numerous combat after-action reports emphasized techniques rather than major tactical changes, and each unit modified basic doctrinal methods to fit the mission, enemy and terrain in its tactical area of responsibility. If there was a consistent call for change, it concerned the need for an additional rifle company in the infantry battalion. The primary thrust of most suggestions for doctrinal change was to "expand" current doctrine to incorporate the "lessons learned" in Vietnam.

A number of criticisms have been made against US tactics in South Vietnam. Colonel Dave R. Palmer has criticized the reliance on "fire tactics to the all but absolute exclusion of shock tactics." He suggests that "shock tactics" should have been used more widely.173 While his suggestion is appealing, it overlooks the fact that the infantry assault has become progressively difficult and costly throughout the 20th century. It also underestimates the lethality of the enemy's infantry weapons and the strength of his defensive positions which often resembled World War I positions with their labyrinth of trenches and tunnels. Despite these qualifications, Colonel Palmer is probably correct in his implicit suggestion that maneuver by units in contact with the enemy should have been used more aggressively. The use of maneuver, however, does not require a frontal assault.

Lieutenant Colonel David H. Hackworth became one of the most persuasive critics of American tactics. He argued: "Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the war in Vietnam is that a lightly equipped, poorly supplied guerrilla force cannot easily be defeated by the world's most powerful and sophisticated army, using conventional tactics alone.... To defeat the guerrilla, we must become guerrillas."174

In another publication, Colonel Hackworth stated: "As I see it, in Vietnam our country has tried to kill a fly with a sledgehammer-a sledgehammer made of gimmicks and gadgets. We have tried to wear down the enemy by a massive outpouring of bombs, bullets and materiel from the nation's great assembly lines."175 Thus, Colonel Hackworth argued that the allied forces should have employed guerrilla tactics and should not have placed such an emphasis on technology and firepower.

In response to Colonel Hackworth's charges, Lieutenant Colonel Zeb B. Bradford Jr. argued that the US Army is "inherently unsuited for producing substantial numbers of soldiers" with the qualities necessary to function effectively as guerrilla fighters. While American soldiers could function effectively as guerrilla fighters in the United States, their capabilities would be limited in different environments.176

Other responses can be made to Colonel Hackworth's charges. Although the Army was clearly infatuated with technological devices, for example, US commanders would have sacrificed their greatest asset if they had avoided the use of massive firepower. Also, the employment of guerrilla tactics would almost invariably have resulted in increased casualties, and, in an increasingly unpopular war, such losses would obviously have been unacceptable.

At the same time, there is no evidence to suggest that guerrilla tactics would have been any more successful than the semi-conventional tactics employed against the enemy. As the war progressed, VC losses exceeded their capability to recruit. By the end of American involvement in the war, the North Vietnamese comprised the bulk of the enemy forces, and the battles they fought often bore little resemblance to guerrilla engagements. American units, nevertheless, inflicted terrible casualties on the enemy, and, as numerous military leaders, have noted, US units were not defeated on the battlefield.

Given the eventual outcome of the war, however, one cannot help but experience lingering doubts about the validity of American tactics. One should not assume US techniques were correct simply because North Vietnam had not yet triumphed when the American ground role ended. US forces fought in South Vietnam from March 1965 until August 1972, a period of seven years and five months. During that time, the enemy suffered many losses, and the allies won many victories. Those victories, however, did not prevent South Vietnam's defeat, and the unbridled use of firepower often detracted from the pacification program.

The root of the failure probably resides more in the realm of strategy than tactics. One observer noted, "Our forces won every battle, but this country lost the war.... The cause was a senseless strategy that foiled us for 14 straight years." He added, "Body counts on the battlefield never meant as much as the battle for men's minds." He concluded that "indiscriminate" firepower strengthened the insurgency and that a better strategy would have focused on counterinsurgency and pacification rather than conventional combat.177 Given the strategic and political situation, however, viable alternatives to the actual tactical methods used in South Vietnam are no more apparent today than they were from 1965 to 1972. Just as winning the battles did not ensure the winning of the war, improved tactical methods probably would not have changed the final outcome of the war.

The Vietnam War greatly affected the US Army. General Hamilton H. Howze observed, "Our troops fought very well indeed through the first three or four years, exhibiting commendable individual skill and devotion to duty." In the latter phase of the war, the Army's performance changed. "Some units," according to General Howze, "turned against their officers, in some instances trying to kill them; drug abuse and racial difficulties became widespread and units rapidly lost combat efficiency."178 While such problems are partially attributable to the nature of the fighting in Southeast Asia, they also reveal fundamental problems with leadership, morale and training.

The US Army's tactical thinking was also greatly influenced by the long war in Southeast Asia. For almost a decade, the Army's attention remained riveted on the infantry-intensive war in Vietnam, and the Army became accustomed to small-unit operations and to enjoying a massive superiority over the enemy on the battlefield. The emphasis on firepower and enemy attrition also reached new heights in this war. Ironically, the great effort to redirect thinking into counterinsurgency in the early 1960s was now repeated as the Army focused on conventional operations.



127See General Harold K. Johnson, 'The Army Chief of Staff on Military Strategy in Vietnam,' Army Digest, April 1968, pp 6-9.

128Address by General W. C. Westmoreland, Chief of Staff, US Army, Brazilian National War College, Rio de Janerio, Brazil, 24 September 1968, 'Vietnam - A Recapitulation,' in Addresses by General W. C. Westmoreland, Washington, D.C., Volume 1, p 41.

129General William C. Westmoreland, 'Report on Operations in South Vietnam, January 1964June 1968,' Report on the War in Vietnam, Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1969, Section II, p 100.

130Ibid.,p 117.

131Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell, 'Evolution in Tactics - The Vietnam Experience,' Army, February 1970, p 18.

132See Lieutenant General John H. Hay Jr., Tactical and Material Innovations, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1974, pp 10-23; and Lieutenant General Bernard William Rogers, Cedar Falls - Junction City: A Turning Point, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1974, passim

133Robert W. Komer, 'Clear, Hold, and Rebuild,' Army, May 1970, pp 16-24; and Robert W. Komer, 'Pacification: A Look Back ... And Ahead,' Army,, June 1970, pp 20-29.

134Westmoreland, 'Report on Operations in South Vietnam, January 1964-June 1968,' Report on the War in Vietnam, op. cit., p 91.

135What a Platoon Leader Should Know About the Enemy's Jungle Tactics, Headquarters, US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, 12 October 1967, p 37, USACGSC 18745.691.

136Lieutenant Colonel William E. Klein, 'Mechanized Infantry in Vietnam,' Infantry, March-April 1961, p 21.

137Lieutenant General Julian J. Ewell and Major General Ira A. Hunt Jr., Sharpening the Combat Edge: The Use of Analysis to Reinforce Military Judgment, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1974, p 83.

138Tolson, op. cit., passim.

139The three types of operations are described in Evaluation of U.S. Army Combat Operations in Vietnam (Short Title: ARCOV): Basic Report, US Army, Vietnam, 25 April 1966, Volume 1, pp II-4 through P-7, USACGSC 19090.4; and Westmoreland, 'Report on Operations in South Vietnam, January 1964-June 1968,' Report on the War in Vietnam, op. cit., p 91.


141The US Marines referred to this type of operation as a 'County Fair.'

142Lessons Learned No. 75, Cordon and Search Operations, Headquarters, US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, 20 January 1970, USACGSC 18745.838.

143Colonel David H. Hackworth, 'Our Great Vietnam Goof!,' Popular Mechanics, June 1972, p 73.

144ARGOV: Basic Report, op. cit., Volume 1, p 1-12.

145See Herbert L. Smith, Landmine and Countermine Warfare: Vietnam, 1964-1969, Engineer Agency for Resources Inventories, for Office, Chief of Engineers, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., June 1972, USACGSC 19217.3.

146General Van Tien Dung, Our Great Spring Victory: An Account of the Liberation of South Vietnam, Monthly Review Press, N.Y., 1977, pp 31-70.

147Order of Battle Study No. 66-45, VC Withdrawal Tactics, Headquarters, US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, 9 May 1966, USACGSC 18745.188.

148For general works on the Vietcong, see Douglas Pike, Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, The M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1966; Colonel Jack Samson, 'Viet Cong Tactics: 'Ten Against One,'' Military Review, January 1967, pp 89-93; Lieutenant Colonel David H. Hackworth, 'The Battlefield, the Enemy, and You,' Army Digest, April 1968, pp 51-56; and 'Viet Cong: The Hidden Enemy,' Army Digest, October 1968, pp 45-48.

149Colonel Sidney B. Berry Jr., 'Observations of a Brigade Commander: Part I,' Military Review, January 1968, p 6.

150Rogers, op. cit., p 17.

151Lieutenant General Harry W. O. Kinnard, 'Narrowing the Combat Intelligence Gap,' Army, August. 1969, p 23.

152For a detailed analysis of combat intelligence in South Vietnam, see Major R. L. Platt, Intelligence and Vietnam Operations, Unpublished Master of Military Arts and Science Thesis, USACGSC, Fort Leavenworth, Kan., 1967, USACGSC 19052.80; and Major General Joseph A. McChristian, The Role of Military Intelligence, 1965-67, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1974.

153Ewell and Hunt, op. cit., pp 117-19.

154Ibid., pp 109-10 and 144.

155Tolson, op. cit., pp 38-39.

156Rogers, op. cit., p 77.

157For critical comments on the employment of mechanized forces, see Colonel Hugh J. Bartley, 'Some Critical Notes,' Armor, November-December 1969, pp 36-37.

158 Westmoreland, 'Report on Operations in South Vietnam, January 1964-June 1968,' Report on the War in Vietnam, op. cit., p 121.

159For an analysis of the 'pile on' tactic and examples of combat actions in which it was employed, see Lessons Learned No. 55, The Battle of Annihilation, Headquarters, US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, 15 March 1966, USACGSC 18745.16-7.

160Colonel George S. Patton, 'Black Horse Operations,' Armor, July-August 1969, p 37.

161Lieutenant Colonel John R. Galvin, 'Three Innovations: Prime Tactical Lessons of the Vietnam War,' Army, March 1972, p 19.

162Brigadier General Willard Pearson, 'Find 'em, Fix 'em, Finish 'em,' Army Digest, December 1966, p 19. One of the earliest descriptions of the changing role of the infantryman occurs in John B. Spore, 'The U.S. Army in Vietnam: Professionally Competent, High Spirited, Confident,' Army, May 1966, pp 28-32 and 80-86. For an analysis of fire and maneuver in Vietnam, see Report on Dynamics of Fire and Maneuver (FIRMA III), US Army Combat Developments Command, Fort Belvoir, Va., 15 August 1969, pp 25-27.

163For further analysis of these tactics, see Lieutenant Colonel Zeb B. Bradford Jr., 'US Tactics in Vietnam,' Military Review, February 1972, pp 63-76. The most extreme example of the emphasis on firepower at the expense of maneuver occurs in Lieutenant Colonel William L. Hauser, 'Firepower Battlefield,' Military Review, October 1971, pp 21-27.

164Hay, op. cit., pp 53-54; and ARCOV: Firepower, op. cit., Volume 4, p C-7-5.

165Ibid., p C-7-4.

166Quoted in Dave Richard Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective, Presidio Press, San Rafael, Calif., 1978, p 48.

167Hay, op. cit., pp 32-33; and ARCOV: Firepower, op, cit., Volume 4, p C-7-2.

168ARCOV: Basic Report, op. cit., Volume 1, pp II-2 and II-4.

169For analyses of the employment of mechanized forces in Southeast Asia, see Evaluation of U.S. Army Mechanized and Armor Combat Operations in Vietnam (Short Title: MACOV), US Army, Vietnam, 28 March 1967, Volumes 1-7, USACGSC 19090.15; Brigadier General James M, Gibson, 'A Case for Mechanized Infantry,' Military Review, September 1970, pp 56-70; and Colonel Donn A, Starry, 'A Report on the 11th Armored Cavalry in Southeast Asia 1969-1970,' Armor, January- February 1971, pp 14-20.

170Rogers, op. cit., p 157.

171Pearson, op, cit., p 16.

172ARCOV: Basic Report, op. cit., Volume 1, p II-43.

173Palmer, op. cit., p 140.

174Lieutenant Colonel David H. Hackworth, 'Your Mission - Out Guerrilla the Guerrilla,' Army Digest, July 1968, p 61.

175Hackworth, 'Our Great Vietnam Goof!,' Popular Mechanics, op, cit., p 72.

176Bradford, op. cit., pp 73-76.

177John M. Collins, 'Vietnam Postmortem: A Senseless Strategy,' Parameters, March 1978, pp 8 and 10.

178General Hamilton H. Howze, 'Vietnam - An Epilogue,' Army, July 1975, pp. 15-16.Asia. For almost a decade, the Army's attention remained riveted on the infantry-intensive war in Vietnam, and the Army became accustomed to small-unit operations and to enjoying a massive superiority over the enemy on the battlefield. The emphasis on firepower and enemy attrition also reached new heights in this war. Ironically, the great effort to redirect thinking into counterinsurgency in the early 1960s was now repeated as the Army focused on conventional operations.







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