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Part I: Déjà Vu

September 18, 2017

The Vietnam War, a 10-episode, 18-hour documentary which premiered last night allegedly seeks to correct the record that generations of American have grown up with—a mistaken war that the United States lost. Its press claims that it is also reportedly the deepest exploration of the origins and the fighting of the war. This sets a high bar given the Vietnam War has been one of the most widely reported conflicts in history as it was the first war that was piped nightly into the homes on main street USA. It was here that the war was eventually lost. I’ll be watching with interest to see if this point comes home.

In 1961 when I stood on the Plain at West Point to be sworn in as a new cadet the idea that in five years time some of us standing there would be dying in Vietnam was unimaginable. Our class began to be aware of the growing conflict in Vietnam in 1962-63. By the time we graduated in 1965 we had studied the division of French Indochina and many other insurgencies and what had worked for other militaries.

We had attended Ranger School and some of us were parachute qualified. Did this help us in Vietnam? We will comment on that at the end of the miniseries. When the war was over my West Point Class had lost over 30 combat fatalities and we are still counting the losses from Agent Orange and other causes. Will future episodes respect the loss of these great Americans?

The first episode of the new PBS Vietnam War series felt like reliving history through a focus that serves the interests of left wing historians. If the Déjà Vu episode is indicative of the lens of the entire series, it will further antagonize many veterans who are convinced that such historical revisionism disguises the war that was won by their blood sweat and tears and lost due to the efforts of leftist journalists and their anti-war student leftists.

It is this dichotomy of views that the PBS miniseries fails, at this point, to address. To be exact the insertions of body bags into the historical mistakes of the French compounds this image.


Part III: The River Styx

This is third in a series of commentary about “The Vietnam War” PBS series airing now. See also my blogs about Part I: DejaVu and Part II: Riding the Tiger.

September 20, 2017

Part III focused on the introduction of US ground troops into the South Vietnam.  In doing so it started to lay the groundwork for the eventual disillusionment of the American body politic.

We are introduced to a young high school graduate and his family.  We know that in a future part of the series he will be killed and the audience will have had its heart strings played.

What was truly interesting in this almost 2 hour segment was the leadership styles introduced and the emerging critique of President Johnson, General Westmoreland, the Vietnamese leadership and the humble Ho Chi Minh.  We learn that there Le Duan, who was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam was the driving force behind the aggressiveness of the North Vietnamese.  He is credited with advocating the introduction of the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam.  This is a little known fact.

The South Vietnamese leadership was unstable at best, according to the series.  It mentions numerous coups by different military leaders and mentions in particular General Nguyễn Khánh…  I mention him because I can remember him being introduced to the Corps of Cadets during lunch in 1964.  The US military went out of its way to gain the support of the different Vietnamese leaders.

President Johnson is shown to be much more calculating than is normally the case.  He had what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that was a blank check for the introduction of ground forces 10 days before the events in the Gulf occurred.  He also ordered the introduction of 3 battalions of Marines secretly.  There is a brief mention of the 1964 Presidential election where Johnson hammered Goldwater on escalation to include nuclear weapons while Johnson portrayed himself as a reluctant warrior.  The opposite of what was to become reality.

LTC Hal Moore and his battalion of the 7th Cavalry and the battle of the Ira Drang Valley are a focus of the study.  My friend Joe Galloway talks extensively about Moore’s leadership—first into the battle and last out.  Unfortunately, one critical event is not mentioned.  During the height of the battle of Ira Drang Valley Moore leans against a tree and disconnects from the battle swirling around him and tries to anticipate what he can do to influence the battle 10 to 20 minutes into the future.  This is a skill that every leader should seek to achieve.  Anticipate what will be needed rather than reacting to the minute.

We can hope that this focus on leadership continues into future parts of the series.

Part III Continued

Why groiund troops?  The series gave two reasons for the introduction of ground troops into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and the two are actually related.

President Johnson, even though he had won the election 1n November of 1964 was reportedly worried about being humiliated.

The second reason is the pyric victory that the Vietnamese Army won at Banh Gia.

The Viet Cong had launched a major offensive on December 4, 1964 and captured the village of Binh Gia, 40 miles southeast of Saigon. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) eventually recaptured the village. It took an eight-hour battle and the reinforcement of the initial assaulting force by three battalions which were brought in on helicopters. Losses included an estimated 200 ARVN soldiers and five American. advisors killed.

Reportedly battles such this, in which ARVN suffered such heavy losses at the hands of the Viet Cong, convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson that the South Vietnamese could not defeat the communist without the commitment of U.S. ground troops to the war. The documentary refers to this as a turning point in the conflict.

The actual turning point occurred several months earlier when Le Duan caused the infiltration of NVA units into the south to increase.  It is this infiltration that made the pyric victory possible.

As we continue through the series there will be several other turning points.

Part III continued

This documentary has habit of inserting what appear to be throw away lines except they are value loaded.  In this case the idea was planted like gospel that the anti-war movement was legitimate.  This concept must be considered as the series develops.


Part II: Riding the Tiger

September 19, 2017

I watched with fascination as the second installment of the PBS Vietnam War “documentary” unfolded last night. The revisionist version of history continued. The “Riding the Tiger” episode dealt with the period 1961-63. With this installment the slippery slope to the eventual withdrawal in 1975 has begun as has the “waste” of lives and treasure.

The attempt to clothe the events of 1961 in new clothes was fascinating. Several theses are advanced: President Kennedy was a “victim” of history. Buddhist monks were continually immolating themselves. The South Vietnamese military were both cowards and incompetent. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were great warriors and nationalists. I could go on.

Some historians have argued for the last few years that President Kennedy would never have gone through the build-up that President Johnson did. The one comparison I found truly amazing was the President who was dynamic and went against his generals’ advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis followed the generals from a position of not wanting to appear “weak”.

This juxtaposition of the President as strong in one instance and weak in another shows the difficulty that historians are having to enhance the Kennedy image in spite of historical reality.

Kennedy went to Texas because he had to enhance the possibility of being re-elected in 1964. His play for the black vote was more of the same. In short, he was a political opportunist. Once the commander in Vietnam announced in 1963 that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel he may well have been appealing to the opportunist President. We will never know.

What we “learn” in this episode is that the United States backed totalitarian leaders and as a result we were doomed to fail. This documentary has not yet addressed the feelings of the many warriors who fought in Vietnam who believe their efforts and sacrifices were for naught.

Without acknowledging those deep wounds, the film’s attempts to heal the divisions created by the Vietnam War seem doomed to fail.

North Korea: Next Steps?

As the debate swirls about North Korea’s latest shows of force:

  • Launching a missile over Japan
  • Exploding what may be a thermo nuclear weapon of some size bigger than that used against Hiroshima

There is need to consider the next steps for the west and North Korea.  Several weeks ago North Korea seemed to be backing down as its rhetoric and actions slowed after the US show of force. And then last week the US and South Korea conducted the military training exercise that the North had been trying to stop.  The training included an attack by B-2 bombers and other aircraft against simulated North Korean targets.  This was obviously part of the signaling that the US has been doing trying to deter the North Koreans.  It obviously didn’t work!

One doubts that UN ambassador Niki Haley’s comments that:”We have kicked the can down the road long enough, there is no more road left.” Or Secretary of Defense Mattis”s comments that the US can annihilate North Korea will have any effect. Another UN declaration condemning North Korea will also not have any effect.

A UN declaration that any country that trades with North Korea will have all of its trade from the other member nations suspended might be tried.  The US stopping $600 billion a year of trade with China would be significant, but is not likely. It would harm the US as much as it might harm China.  Conversely, it might create the leverage that President Trump has been seeking in negotiating with China about trade in general. Interesting—the short term pain might be worth the long term gain—increased pressure for China to rein in North Korea and a new trade arrangement between the US and China.

On the military front the US is dropping its limits on the weight limit of South Korean missiles—they will be able to carry more powerful warheads.  The Japanese are talking g about pre-emptive strikes against North Korea.  We haven’t heard a Chinese response to this discussion, yet. (One must remember that the Chinese have said that they would defend North Korea against a US attack, but would not get involved if the North Koreans started a conflict.)  Are the Japanese (or the US and South Koreans) trying to provoke the North Koreans to truly step over the line in the sand—whatever it is?  What do the North Koreans have to do to provoke the disarming and decapitating attack we talked about in an earlier article?

  • Fire missiles near Guam?
  • Fire missiles at Japan?
  • Take some form of aggressive action towards South Korea?
  • Begin the mobilization and readiness enhancement that are necessary on the road to war?

It is interesting to note that there has been no mention of the last bullet above and yet it is the most important indicator that military conflict may be coming.  Given the limited transportation and other logistical shortcomings of the North Koreans should they begin mobilizing for war this would be a very critical indicator.  One wonders if they could stop the mobilization once it started.  (History reminds us that many authors of contended that once the mobilization started before World War I it could not be stopped. “How can I stop if he doesn’t?)

The diplomatic posturing will continue as will the threatening rhetoric, but will there be military signaling by missile launches or other activities that cross that mystical line in the sand.  That is what we must look for, anticipate and be fearful of.  In the meantime the North Koreans will continue to try and be relevant and considered a true international actor.

North Korea and media madness

The media has gone wild in reaction to North Korea’s announcement of a detailed plan to launch a salvo of ballistic missiles toward Guam, a US territory and major military hub in the Pacific.

The announcement warned that the North is finalizing a plan to fire four of its Hwasong-12 missiles over Japan and into waters around the tiny island.  The media hasn’t made the differentiation between the island itself and the waters near the island. The report said the Hwasong-12 rockets would fly over Shimane, Hiroshima and Koichi prefectures in Japan and travel “1,065 seconds before hitting the waters 30 to 40 kilometers away from Guam.” It would be up to Kim Jung-Un whether the move is actually carried out.

If North Korea were to actually carry out its threat and launch missiles into the international waters near Guam it would certainly constitute an escalation of the war of words that have enveloped the Korean Pennisula.  Such a missile test would clearly pose a potential threat to a US territory upon launch. This would put the United States in a much more complicated situation than it has been during previous missile launches.

When initially launched how long would it take to determine the impact point and thus if the launch were a test or an actual first shot in a potential conflagration.

It is extremely unlikely North Korea would risk potential annihilation with a pre-emptive attack on US territory. It’s also unclear how reliable North Korea’s missiles would be against such a distant target.

The current escalation of tensions could lead to pressure for the US and Japanese military to try to shoot down the North’s missiles in midflight if they are heading over Japan and towards Guam.

Guam has the airbase from which many of the aircraft that might attack North Korea would be launched.  Thus it represents a potential pre-emptive target.

This potential of a pre-emptive strike raises the stakes significantly.  Would the US launch on warning of an attack?  Would it prefer time to consider options by destroying the missiles before they impact?

The launching of a salvo of four missiles by the North Koreans might be an attempt to make it harder to intercept all of the incoming missiles. Conversely, North Korea is only believed to have 5 launchers for the Hwasong-12 missiles.  Why would they use and thus put at risk 4 of their 5 launchers in a test?

The situation is full of risk and miscalculation but it is not as grave as the media madness would suggest.

Disarming North Korea

In previous articles we talked about multi-domain or cross – domain operations.  We also talked about the crisis on the Korean peninsula.

As the North Koreans continue their missile launches and the US postures with B1 sorties, ICBM launches and THAAD intercepts speculation continues about what a strike against North Korea would consist of.

The first option would be some form of limited strike to destroy a missile before launch or against the North Korean nuclear facilities.  These limited strikes would be escalatory and the great unknown is what the North Korean response would be?  Would they play the limited escalation game where existing defenses might be adequate to counter the attack or would their response be massive?

One could always hope for the limited response but must be prepared for the massive one.

The second option would be a preemptive strike.  It is the more complex and in fact interesting from a pure strategic analysis perspective.

We said in an earlier post that any armed conflict against North Korea had to have several elements:

  •       Surprise
  •         Defenses in place to guard against missile, artillery and ground attacks—protect the hostages that are the people who live in Seoul
  •        Seek to decapitate North Korea—destroy its leadership or at least deny their communications and eventually lead to regime change and unification

There would appear to be four phases of such a military campaign:

  1.          Preparation
  2.          Deployment
  3.          Execution
  4.          Consolidation

The preparation phase will consist of the detailed planning necessary to surgically, accurately and in a synchronized cross domain approach allocate weapons systems, service component assets, etc. against multiple targets.

The critical and most difficult part of the preparation phase would be the diplomatic efforts to insure that the Chinese and Russians would not interfere with such an operation and would remain mum about its impending nature.  Such diplomatic efforts could have two potential outcomes:

1.       The desired neutrality of the Chinese and Russians, or

2.       Either the deterrence of the North Koreans – they wouldn’t want to provide even a minimal provocation or the desired provocation would occur.  Thus the timing of the diplomatic efforts would need to be added to the complex synchronization matrix

A separate diplomatic activity during preparation would be bringing coalition partners into the fold so as to integrate their assets and ensure that they are taking defensive actions while maintaining secrecy.  This is a tall order!

One of the critical aspects during the preparation phase is targeting and then weaponeering.  One must assume that after 60+ years since the end of the active fighting in the Korean War that a very detailed target data base has been developed and maintained.  Weaponeering is the process of assigning weapons based on target damage required to a target.  In the weaponeering process where cross domain activities will be critical.  Mixed service component weapons will be assigned different targets in a target set or they will be assigned to a specified target to insure the required level of damage.  The result will be Joint Integrated Prioritized Target List (JIPTL).

Deployment, having been planned for, during the preparation phase must position the forces to execute their planned missions

Execution must be violent and simultaneously bring all of the resources to bear.

Consolidation will be a time consuming process of unifying the Koreas.

To achieve the above objectives will be difficult.  Surprise will be difficult to achieve if the North Koreans can see defenses on alert or offensive forces deploying.  The North Koreans cannot be allowed to attack first given the 21 million captives that they hold in Seoul.  We are thus talking about a pre-emptive attack or one based upon minimal provocation.  Defenses cannot be established overnight.  It is taking months to establish the THAAD system in South Korea.  Activating counter-fire radar and other defensive sensors would be a sure tip off of preparations for counter fire.  Deploying naval and air assets into the theater will take time and cannot be done without the possibility/probability of detection.   However, maybe some of this could be obscured as being part of a pre-announced exercise.  (Could this be why the North Koreans keep trying to get combined exercises cancelled?)

Thus the key to the deployment phase is to do most of it very slowly (like a build up for an exercise) so that the threat perception is reduced.  The actual initial attacks in the execution phase must be huge and use precision efforts based upon the JIPTL—kinetic attacks. Cyber attacks to facilitate the air and missile attacks by spoofing or jamming radars.  The use of cross domain fires, such as ground force missiles attacking naval vessels as detected by overhead or sea based sensors. Stealth air craft to deliver disarming munitions on critical missile sites, air bases, communication nodes and artillery positions.  Cruise missiles would be used to support all of the other efforts.  The targeting must be accurate and wide reaching. Both cyber and kinetic weapons would be used to disrupt critical communications and at least temporarily decapitate the regime leadership.  Given the North Korean propensity for tunneling many of these munitions would have to be penetrating munitions or what are called “bunker busters”.

Imagine if you can the simultaneous attack by cyber efforts to deny the North Koreans selected command and control capabilities while precision guided munitions are destroying their navy and air force.  Other ground based artillery and missiles are assisting in that effort and are seeking to destroy as much of the North Korean artillery that can range Seoul as possible. Simultaneous with the destruction of the North Korean navy and air force and the attrition of the deployed artillery forces, the artillery near the DMZ and other combat support aircraft would be destroying any attacking forces. All of this would be occurring while the leadership is at least temporarily blind and without communications.

Given the amount of artillery the North Koreans have deployed north of the DMZ all of their artillery cannot be destroyed in this initial decapitating preemptive attack hence the follow on attack will have to be based upon counter fire capabilities.  Also with the beginning of the attacks airmobile forces will have to be on strip alert to deploy to counter any North Korean infantry who are coming out of how ever many tunnels they have built under the DMZ.

It is obvious in just considering the complexity of synchronizing these multi-domain combined activities that there needs to be a command and control capability that works across service component lines and nationality lines that is extremely precise while being agile and flexible.  We cannot be sure that such a capability currently exists.  As mentioned in the article about multi-domain operations the Air Force advocates the use of a Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) to perform this synchronization.  This is to suggest that the joint force commander would operate from a CAOC and use its tools plus many more.  In building an air tasking order a NATO CAOC has tools that allow the display of the control measures and the flight paths of all of the  different types of aircraft planned to support an effort over a 24 hour period—multiple types of missions include offensive, defensive, surveillance air-to air refueling, etc.—very complex synchronization.  The software in the alliance command and control system (ACCS) displays all of this in an accelerated manner so that the commander can review the plan and approve it.  This capability is a beginning but the other service component contributions to the multi-domain attack need to be included in the integrated synchronized plan.  They currently cannot be.  In short the ACCS planning tools might provide a start point but they are air only focused.  The Joint Force commander needs more for this multi-domain and multi-nation effort.

In conclusion the biggest problem with the concept of multi-domain / multi-nation operations is the lack of synchronizing tools with the precision required to plan and execute an offensive action of the magnitude suggested in this paper

Maybe the first step in multi-domain operations needs to be at the tactical level where there are fewer variables and systems to be considered?

Correcting the record

Letter to the editor

Reference Military History article “Hallowed Ground Khe Sanh Vietnam” (http://www.historynet.com/september-2017-table-contents.htm)

As a veteran of the battle of Khe Sanh I need to correct the record and the impression created by Mark D. Van Els in his article about the Battle of Khe Sanh.

The first thing is his understanding of the geography.  Khe Sanh was 30 plus kilometers south of the border with North Vietnam and the DMZ.  It sat astride route 9 that ran from Laos all the way to the coast.  It therefore blocked one of the critical avenues of approach into Quang Tri and Thieu Tinh (Hue) provinces. The map below highlights the strategic position.

area map


Given the location of the combat base it was used for surveillance and other operations into Laos and North Vietnam as the author points out.

As both a youngster growing up in Kansas and later as a cadet I studied intently the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the fate of the French.  It was popular to try and compare Khe Sanh and the ill-fated French garrison.  I must admit that many of us tried to draw lessons from Dien Bien Phu to try and predict the next activity of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The comparisons were of limited utility given the much different nature of the battlefield.

Mark Van Els failed to understand a critical point when it came to the timing of the battle.  General Westmoreland and the American chain of command down to and including Colonel David Lounds (the Marine commander of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB)) knew more than 3 months before the battle that the NVA were coming.  As pointed out General Westmoreland wanted a set piece fire power intensive battle and those of us at Khe Sanh were the bait.  The reinforcement of KSCB started right before the first shelling and then immediately after it.  This is all well documented in my book Expendable Warriors: the Battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War.

The article leads the reader to believe that Khe Sanh was wholly a Marine battle.  As an Army District Advisor working with CPT Tinh-a-Nhi the District Chief we brought Army advisors, Bru montagnard and Vietnamese soldiers to the battle.  The initial battle around Khe Sanh village resulted in rendering an NVA regiment combat ineffective.  These brave soldiers were joined in the fight by Army Special Forces at Lang Vei and Special Forces soldiers at the Combat base itself.  These Vietnamese, Bru and Army soldiers contributed significantly to the overall battle.

As to the comment about the attack on Khe Sanh being a feint to draw forces to Khe Sanh, there is the school of thought that says it was a feint.  However, I contend that General Giap was attacking the American center of gravity—public opinion.  The battles of Tet and Hue were over in several weeks with the NVA and Viet Cong having been defeated everywhere, but Khe Sanh continued as noted for 77 days.  The cover of Time Magazine highlighted the “Agony of Khe Sanh”.  The agony played in the media on Main Street for over 77 days.  General Giap had won.

I believe that we won the battle of Khe Sanh on the battlefield and lost the war on the streets of the United States.  This is the critical lesson from Khe Sanh—the link between the battlefields and public opinion.

Thank you for correcting the record.

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