Modern Tanks for the Ukraine[i]
In recent days there has been significant dialogue within NATO about providing Ukraine with modern tanks. The British have promised. a company’s worth of Challenger II tanks. Other NATO countries were willing to provide German made Leopard II tanks. But to do this they needed German approval.
Bringing an end to a internal NATO row, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz finally confirmed that Germany will send its own German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and allow other NATO allies to deliver some of theirs.
Scholz even teased further deliveries of air defense systems, heavy artillery and multiple rocket launchers and said Germany ‘intends to expand what we have delivered’, a major U-turn on the chancellor’s previous reluctance.
President Biden in turn promised that the US would provide 14 M-1 Abrams tanks. (There was no clarification of which version of the M-1 would be provided. To make it simple the initial M-1 had a 105 mm rifled gun, the M-1A1 that went to the Gulf War had a 120 mm smooth bore cannon, the M1A2 that the Saudis bought had an improved target acquisition system and other improvements. The latest version M1A2Sep5 has many modernized features.) (It should be noted that the Leopard II and the M-1 both have a common ancestry. The both evolved from the US German co-development of what was called the MBT—Main Battle Tank. But in the late 1970s the two went their separate ways,) The Leopard II also has a series of newer versions. Again, we don’t know which version that the Ukrainians are getting. One would hope that there is some consultation between the NATO Leopard II providers so that the versions provided are mostly the same for ease in training and maintenance.
The Ukrainians have offered that these modern tanks with night vision capability, improved armor, and superior fire power with greatly improved target acquisition capability will save lives, improve their ability to destroy Russian tanks and maneuver on the battlefield.
The above is true, but there is a big HOWEVER! The fact that the three tank models in question are not interoperable in terms of ammunition, spare parts or maintenance needs is an obvious huge nightmare. Even more nightmarish is the knowledge that it takes to operate and maintain each system. The train up time for operators will be measured in months, not days or weeks. Probably the training will occur at the joint training facility at Grafenwoehr, Germany where both Abrams and Leopard tanks are readily available. But the Germans will probably need translators to teach in German and get the information translated into Ukrainian. The same will most likely be true of the US trainers. (Such training doubles the time it takes to conduct the training. Then all of the operator and maintenance manuals for the two systems must be translated into Ukrainian. The M-1 has a large system for diagnosing maintenance faults, which could take an extensive training period. To get these modern tanks into the battle this coming Spring is going to require US, German and British maintenance crews to accompany them.
It would be a major omission if the fuel consumption rate of the M-1s was not mentioned. The Challenger and Leopards each have diesel burning engines. HOWEVER, the M-1 has a turbine engine (similar to ones found in aircraft.) It gets about 3 gallons to the mile! Fuel resupply will be both a large issue and a vulnerability of the M-1 battalion worth of tanks that the US has said that it would provide.[i]
It would be a huge escalation of the maintenance crews mentioned above wore the uniforms of their respective countries. There are several large defense contractors who have operated training efforts in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who could probably step up to such a task fairly quickly. They use retired military to perform the training and maintenance missions. Who is going to pay for this?
These practical execution issues are not trivial. But what about the Russian reaction to the perceived escalation? Russia warned that Germany’s decision to send dozens of modern tanks to Ukraine is ‘extremely dangerous’ and will ‘take the conflict to a new level’. It branded the move a ‘blatant provocation’ and warned the new NATO supplies will ‘burn like all the rest’, while one raging propagandist called for the German parliament to be destroyed in a nuclear strike.
The Russian reaction should have been anticipated by the west. Another Russian reaction is the vast mobilization of manpower that is currently going on. The Russians are reportedly giving two million men very rudimentary training. Some in military skills and others in skills to free men up from industry to provide additional members of the military.
So, both sides are making lots of escalatory and working very hard to show a willingness to see their way through an extended war. This suggests that it will be internal political reactions in either NATO or Russia that will force this conflict towards termination.
The announcement of modern tanks for Ukraine has certainly raised hopes and raised the propaganda level. Only time will tell, about their effectiveness on the battlefield. We will follow this issue closely in coming months
[i] Colonel (ret) Bruce B. G. Clarke commanded 2/11th Armored Cavalry squadron when it fielded the M-1 tank (53 tanks) in 1983-4. During that time, he also fired a Leopard II. He commanded the 2d BDE, 1st Infantry Division with two battalions of M-1s (88 tanks) and after retiring was the head of the training team in Saudi Arabia training the Saudis to operate and maintain the M1A2 tank (120 mm gun and improved target detection and other advanced features.).
[ii] The one thing I learned as a commander of units with M-1 tanks was that refueling and fuel locations became critical elements of any tactical plan. I am sure that that is still the case.
Following the fight around the District Headquarters and the artillery strikes and attacks against the Marine hill positions a false calm settled over Huong Hoa District. The calm was characterized with massive reinforcements and defense construction on the Vietnamese / American coalition while the North Vietnamese were consolidating their newly achieved freedom of movement.
The Marines added three infantry battalions to the two that were already manning the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). They also brought in the 37th ARVN Ranger battalion. (The Vietnamese leadership wanted to use this battalion to re-seize the district headquarters, but the American leadership, with an attrition strategy and a free fire area at the center of it demurred.)
At FOB 3 fortifications were being built reminiscent of World War I. There was a trench line that extended from the northern edge of the FOB to the southern end and then turned northwards to tie in with the Marine positions. The trench line was characterized with fighting positions facing outward with claymore mines and trip flares in the multiple rows of barbwire–to include concertina wire. Behind the trench line were living bunkers where the defenders slept, ate and other wise survived. After the first contact anywhere near the wire more sandbags were added to the back of the trench line to protect the defenders from the fire from the Marines behind them. (There were no routes through the Marine war so if the FOB 3 defenders had become over run they had no where to retreat to and would have had to retreat through the fire form the Marines to their rear,)
FOB 3 trench line showing several Bru fighters
FOB 3 on the southwestern edge of KSCB
Meanwhile to the west of the combat base in Laos the North Vietnamese were attacking the 33rd Royal Laotian Army battalion. The battalion was over run and fled east into South Vietnam and were received at the Lan Vei Special Forces camp. Actually the Special Forces reinforced their US contingent and reoccupied what had been the old camp. The Laotians reported that they were over run by tanks. No one in the chain of command really believed them. But back at KSCB CPT Clarke was charged with installing and properly recording the installation of an anti-tank minefield where the FOB 3 defenders could cover it with fire.
The noose is about to tighten.
As written in April 1968
The scene of the action—Khe Sanh village and the District Headquarters in the bottom center of the map
These place names were referred to extensively over the last few articles
The District Headquarters –note the red arrow for the location of the NVA main effort—at the seam between the District Headquarters and the Regional Force Company compound. Also note how tight everything is. From the Pagoda to the wire is less than 10 yards.
Much of what follows will be repetitive of what you have already read. However, it is published here so that you can see what was actually written in April of 1968.
1968 Advisory Team 4 Newsletter
There was a battle fought in Khe Sanh on 21 and 22 January 1968 that very few people know about. Everyone knows of the artillery barrages and the trenches, but one of the big battles took place when at 05:00 hours 21 January 1968 the 66th Regiment, 304th NVA Division launched an attack against the Huong Hoa District Headquarters in Khe Sanh Village (about 4km south of the Khe Sanh Combat Base). The District Headquarters was defended by an understrength Regional Force (RF) Company, elements of 2 (Popular Force) PF platoons and Combined Action Company O (CAC-O) Headquarters and one Combined Action Platoon (CAP) with 10 or more Marines.
The attack was from three directions with the main effort coming from the southwest against the RF Company. The weather was extremely poor with very heavy fog. The initial enemy assault was beaten off by the courageous efforts of the RF Company and by almost constant barrages of Variable Time (VT) fused artillery fire. Alter the initial assault was broken, the enemy simply backed off and using the positions he had already prepared, attempted to destroy the key bunkers by recoilless rifle and B-40 fire. Simultaneously they moved into Khe Sanh village and setup mortars with which they attempted to shell the compound. At this time the police station was still communicating with the District Headquarters and made it possible to put effective fire on the enemy moving into the village. For the next four hours there were constant attacks or probes against the compound which were beaten off by the valiant efforts of Bru (Montagnard) PFs and the Vietnamese RFs working with the Marines who SGT John Balanco moved to critical areas of the fight, as needed. These various types of soldiers fought as a coordinated team. The four advisors were constantly moving through the compound, reassuring, reorganizing and helping the compounds’ defenders.
At about 1130 the fog burned off. During the next five hours there were three attempts to resupply the beleaguered garrison, which was in dire straits for ammunition. The third attempt included a 46 man RF reaction force that was badly mauled. LTC Joe Seymoe, the Deputy Senior Province Advisor, lost his life in this effort. All during the afternoon CPT Ward Britt, an Air Force FAC, working out of Quang Tri put in numerous air strikes on the massed NVA who were trying to reorganize. On one of these airstrikes he put in two fighters on 100 NVA in the open and after it was over he could not see any movement, just bodies.
The night of 21 January the NVA were unable to make an attack and only sniped throughout the night.
The next morning the evacuation of District Headquarters was ordered after Colonel Lownds, CO, 26th Marine Regiment,ordered the evacuation of the Marines from the garrison. The marines and the wounded were evacuated by air. CPT Clarke and SFC King, two of the advisors, accompanied the District Forces who, using an unknown route, successfully escaped from the District Headquarters.
The morning of 22 January 1968 dawned bright and quiet. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces were gone. There was a sense of exhilaration in the District Headquarters—the attack had been stopped!
Patrols were launched to determine the damage and collect information on the enemy. There were numerous blood trails and bodies found. Over 150 weapons and 3 Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher 7s (the first seen in South Vietnam) were recovered. Many of the weapons still had cosmoline (a substance obtained from petroleum that is similar to petroleum jelly that is applied to machinery, especially vehicles or weapons, in order to prevent rust on them while in shipment or storage) as they must have just been issued.
As the Marines and District Forces were conducting their limited patrols LT Stamper (Combined Action Company Commander) was boarding and flying by helicopter to the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). He was not to be seen again. He radioed back to the Marines to pack their stuff as they were being evacuated.
Colonel Lownds (KSCB commander) sent a radio message to the Advisory team that he could no longer provide artillery support to the District forces. Both CPTs Nhi and Clarke reported this to their superiors in Quang Tri. Bob Brewer, the Province Senior Advisor, said that there was a long meeting. No one wanted to evacuate the District Headquarters as it would be the first governmental headquarters ever surrendered. In the end the order was given to evacuate.
All of the Marines, SFC Perry, with all of the wounded, LT Taronji, his assistant and SFC Kaspar were evacuated by helicopter. SFC King and CPT Clarke worked with CPT Nhi to organize the withdrawal from the village. The small force of about 140 men followed a little-known trail to reach KSCB. Throughout the trek CPT Clarke was coordinating with the Special Forces in FOB-3 for mortar coverage along the route and a reception when they got to KSCB. (The Marines had told the advisors that armed Vietnamese and montagnard soldiers could not enter their compound.)
The small force reached FOB-3 and were assigned defensive areas on the it’s perimeter to prepare fighting positions. Little did they know that this was going to be home for over 77 days.
CPT Clarke reported all of the weapons that had been captured and left behind in the rush to evacuate. The Special Forces quickly organized a raid to get back into the District Headquarters to recover the NVA weapons and destroy anything else of worth that was there. CPT Clarke was the second in command of this raid and led the Special Forces into the compound after they were landed in the wrong spot (in at least 10 year old French mine field).
The weapons were loaded and hauled off. The warehouse full of bulgur wheat and vegetable oil was rigged for destruction. After evacuating the weapons, the helicopters returned for the raiding force. As they were leaving, CPT Clarke remembers lying on the floor of the last UH-1 helicopter out and emptying his 30-round magazine at an NVA patrol that was approaching the village from the west.
Later the charges set in the food warehouse exploded as did the grenades that CPT Clarke had used to booby trap the food in the Advisor’s store room.
The battle of Khe Sanh village had ended. Just over 55 years ago, but sometimes it seems like yesterday.
Post Scripts: The Special Forces at Land Vei offered what was called a Mike Force to re-secure the village, but this request was never acted upon. When the 37th Army of Vietnam Ranger Battalion was sent to Khe Sanh the original intent was for it to be used to re-secure the village, but the Marines would not support such an attack.
General Westmoreland’s grand plan was to draw the NVA into a fixed, firepower intensive battle. The village of Khe Sanh, its inhabitants and defenders were expendable in this grand strategy. The political loss of a seat of government was of little consequence to the attrition strategists.
In the last several articles we have discussed the bravery of the defenders on the ground in Khe Sanh village. In this article we shall discuss the use of air support to provide a critical ingredient in the successful defense of the District Headquarters and the rendering combat ineffective of a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment.
The dense fog of January 21 finally burned off in late morning. A Marine Forward Air Controller (FAC) put in a flight of 2 F-4s to attack targets to the south of the District Headquarters. One of the F-4s was shot down. Following this the FAC advised that: “That’s all I can do!”
Fortunately, part of the preparations of the defense of the District Headquarters was to establish an alternate form of communication with the Province Advisory Team in Quang Tri. Radio contact with Quang Tri was always spotty at best, in spite of numerous efforts at antennae construction and acquisition of more powerful radios. The Special Forces had established a radio relay site on a high hill north (hill 950) of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. The Special Forces were able to talk to Quang Tri and thus relay messages. CPT Clarke kept Quang Tri informed as to the status of the defense and when the Marine FAC could not provide additional air support he requested it from Quang Tri.
CPT Ward Britt (one of the advisory team’s FACs) flew his light observation aircraft through the valleys under the low clouds and fog to reach Khe Sanh and to coordinate for air support. He requested air support from air craft attacking targets along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. The pilots flew below through the clouds to the village. Every time he coordinated for bombs on a target and he blew away the trees to the south he found more targets.
CPT Nhi was listening to one of the NVA tactical radio nets and heard a request for additional stretcher and bearers to carry off wounded soldiers. This was passed to CPT Britt who found the force of about 100 enemy and after another air strike he could not see any movement. This became the norm as CPT Nhi provided target locations to CPT Clarke who then vectored CPT Britt to the target.
In the middle of this CPT Britt landed at KSCB and refueled under fire. He remained on station until the approach of dusk. At that point he had to return to Quang Tri. For his bravery he was awarded the Silver Star.
CPT Clarke and CPT Nhi tried to guess where the enemy would go to regroup. Based upon their analysis a B-52 strike was requested. They provided a rectangle 3 kilometers long and 1 kilometer wide that was centered on the hilly area about 6-7 kilometers south of the District Headquarters. The Province Advisory team coordinated with the Air Force and the mission was flown. Several days later a NVA soldier deserted and was picked up by the Special Forces at Lang Vei. He told them that his unit had been hit by the B-52 strike.
Before the B-52 strike a gun ship (Spooky—a C-47 plane that carried flares and several mini-guns) patrolled the area and engaged every target that it saw. It was a quiet night except for some snipers.
The combination of artillery, air support and the bravery of the Bru, Vietnamese, Marine and army soldiers inside the headquarters combined to render a regiment combat ineffective
The Village Fight
Khe Sanh Village with the District Headquarters in the bottom center—west end of the village
On 20 January CPT Nhi, the District Chief, CPT Clarke and SFC King set out on a reconnaissance patrol of the area south west of the District Headquarters. We wet about five kilometers and set up a small patrol base with small teams patrolling in clover leaf patterns around the patrol base. Not much after we had gotten established, CPT Clarke received a radio call from the Special Forces at Lang Vei. He was told that the small force needed to get out of the area immediately. He argued that the whole mission had been coordinated with the Marines at the Khe Sanh Combat Base, but was told in no uncertain terms to move out. He understood the message when it was repeated by CPT Willoughby form the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp—a voice that he recognized. After recalling our patrols the small force returned to the District Headquarters without incident. An hour later a B-52 bombing mission could be heard coming from the general area where they had been.[i]
That evening CPT Clarke took a hot shower, not realizing that it was the last one that he was going to get for several months.
At 0500 on the morning of 21 January 1968 the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attacked the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) with rockets and artillery. The sound of the barrage woke up the District Advisory Team and the defenders of the District Headquarters (a mixture of Bru Montagnards, Vietnamese Regional Forces, Marines from Combined Action Company O (CAC-O) and the small 4-man advisory team.
At 0530 the ground attack against the District Headquarters began. NVA after action reports suggest that the attack was 30 minutes late in being launched. The attacking force from the 66th NVA Regiment had been slowed down by the B-52 strike of the previous day—all of the downed trees etc. that it caused.
The weather on the morning of 21 January 1968 was extremely foggy with visibility down to no more than 5-10 yards. Fortunately, some of the improvements made due to the observed activity at the KSCB included the emplacement of trip flares along the entire outer perimeter.
Another improvement that CPT Nhi had made was to place a 3-man element on the roof of the warehouse. These brave Montagnards were equipped with a case of grenades to drop on any one trying to conceal themselves behind the warehouse. Both of these improvements were to prove critical to the defense of the District Headquarters.
The District Headquarters to include the Regional Force Compound
to the south bordering the Landing Zone
Note the red arrow indicating the critical seam between the two parts of the District Headquarters defense
The attack included artillery and mortar rounds impacting throughout the area. One bunker was directly hit and collapsed on the occupants. SFC Perry dug the survivors out and treated them in a makeshift aid station. The enemy sought to penetrate the compound in the seam between the Regional Force Compound and the District Headquarters which was defended by Bru Montagnards and Marines under the command of SGT John Balanco.
The initial ground assault was announced by trip flares being set off. The Bru knew where to shoot when certain trip flares were set off. Thus, they could engage the enemy that they could not see. The same was true for Regional Force (RFs) in their old French fort made of pierced steel planking with about 12-18 inches of Khe Sanh red clay filling the space in between. It stood up well to the enemy attack. The Khe Sanh red clay was like concrete.
CPTs Nhi and Clarke were in the command bunker in the center of the compound. CPT Clarke was to request and adjust over 1100 rounds of artillery during the next 30 hours. The advisory team had 4 pre-planned concentrations that were shaped like an L and located basically at each corner of the compound. By moving those concentrations East and West and North and South one could cover the whole compound with steel. The only rounds fired were fuse variable time (VT) a round that detonates in the air and throw shrapnel down to hit everyone who was not in a bunker with over- head cover.
CPT Clarke never claimed it, but it was reported that he adjusted the artillery so that it landed on the defensive wire and above the bunkers that were defending that wire. This artillery fire is documented in the book Expendable Warriors. (He did in fact call artillery fire on the compound and has subsequently admitted it.)
The trail just outside the compound that ran behind the pagoda was like the bocage area of Normandy where the travel had created a wall and subsequent trench. It was in here that the NVA staged for their attack and where the artillery pre-planned fires were able to inflict significant casualties.
The Marines in the compound became the fire brigade. SGT Balanco, after conferring with CPT Clarke, moved Marines around to meet the largest threats. The presence of Marines bolstered the morale of the RFs in the back compound who who had borne the brunt of the attack. The ground attacks came in several waves, each of which was stopped. The key threat was at the area against the bunkers on each side of the seam between the two parts of the headquarters.
The NVA seemed to be on something. As an example, when CPT Clarke shot with a grenade round an NVA sapper, who was trying to take out the north western bunker in the RF compound the two parts of his body, though separated continued to move towards the bunker with his pole charge. (A charge on the end of a pole to place the charge into an aperture of the bunker and detonate it so as to create a gap in the defense.) SFC Perry also thought that the NVA were on something.
In the late morning the fog burned off and the defenders were able to get some air support. This will be the discussion in our next article.
[i]CPT Clarke later learned that the mission was aimed at a North Vietnamese Army Regiment in that area. They were lucky that they did not “find” them as the small District force would not have stood much of a chance against that sized force.
Khe Sanh remains an item of historical interest. Articles continue to be written about the battle. With the 55th anniversary of the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) we may anticipate a plethora of articles about the battle that decided the Vietnam War. Two years ago there was an important such article in the New York Times (“Was America Duped at Khe Sanh?”). The article by John Mason Glen is spectacular in its attention grabbing title but weak on strategic analysis. Having lived through the battle and written about it in Expendable Warriors: the battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War, I feel uniquely qualified to rebut Glen’s argument.
The main theme of the article is that the attack on Khe Sanh was a diversion to draw American forces away from the populated areas in anticipation of the Tet Offensive which started 9 days after the beginning of the siege of the KSCB. This argument is inaccurate for many different reasons:
- The attack on Khe Sanh had been anticipated for 3 months. Elements of 2 Army Divisions had been moved north in vicinity of Hue and Quang Tri. It was these forces that blunted part of the attacks on those two province headquarters during Tet 1968.
- Khe Sanh was reinforced by 4 battalions of Marines with most of the reinforcements arriving after the North Vietnamese Army launched its missile and artillery barrage on 21 January 1968. (More on the multiple implications of this attack in subsequent articles.) 4 battalions of Marines in the bigger scheme of things was not consequential to stopping the Tet attacks.
- The diversion of air assets to support the defense of Khe Sanh was not as significant as Glen would have one believe. Much of the air support used was B-52 carpet bombing not pin point close air support. Such bombing approaches were inappropriate for populated areas.
- Glen mentions the internal opinion divisions within the North Vietnamese leadership. One faction was focused on the Tet offensive and the other on Khe Sanh. He correctly points out that one faction focused on the general uprising goal while General Giap was seeking to break the American public support for the war by the attack on Khe Sanh. He wanted to repeat his success at Dien Bien Phu where the French public support for the Indochinese war was destroyed. To people like Glen it was one or the other. Why couldn’t they have been reinforcing? Glen does not examine this point.
- The agony of Khe Sanh played out for 77 days on the screens and in the newspapers of main street America. This is where the war was lost! Certainly, Tet contributed to the loss but it was Khe Sanh that was the deciding factor.
- It should be noted that in the Burns PBS documentary which has been critiqued on these pages the siege of the KSCB is barely mentioned—another of its fatal flaws as has been recounted on these pages.
- In fact, both Khe Sanh and Tet were significant failures militarily for the North Vietnamese. They lost both battles. The war was there to be won, but the political will to do so had been lost. Giap had been right. (There is a unique event highlighted in my book that makes this point explicitly.)
But the bottom line is that the battle of Khe Sanh was won and the war lost at the same time.
In my next response to the Glen’s article I will respond to his critique of General Westmoreland. Stay tuned!
We are approaching the 55th anniversary of the Siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). For the reader, to appreciate what has and is being presented, he needs to understand the very confused and dysfunctional command and control relationships that existed in the Khe Sanh Area of Operations (AOO). There were at least 5 different higher headquarters issuing orders and taking actions that affected what happened.
Quang Tri Province bordered North Vietnam and Laos. The western third of the province was Huong Hoa District with a population of about 10,000 (only 1500 Vietnamese in Khe Sanh village and the rest were members of the Montagnard Tribe called the Bru. Over the years they had concentrated along route nine (within 10 kilometers north and south of the route. The area bounded by Lang Vei in the west and big turn in route 9 east of the SOG French Fort in the east.)
The advisory team of 5 soldiers responded to the province advisory team (Advisory Team 4) in Quang Tri. The District Chief Captain Tinh-A-Nhi responded to the province Commander who was a full Colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
The Special Forces (Special Forces Detachment A-101) at Lang Vei along the border with Laos reported to a C Team headquartered in Hue Phu Bai, which in return reported to the 5th Special Forces Group in Danang.
In the village headquarters was the headquarters of a Combined Action Company (CAC-O) and one Combined Action Platoon (CAP O-1) of 10 Marines and about 25 Montagnards. There was a second such platoon about 200 yards west of the District Headquarters blocking rout 9 from the west. The CAC reported to Colonel David Lounds the KSCB Commander but also had a battalion headquarters in Danang.
Located as an appendage on the western edge of the KSCB there was a special forces Forward Operating Base (FOB-3). The men of FOB-3 with their Montagnard soldiers (mostly Nungs) conducted reconnaissance and raids in North Vietnam and Laos. They reported to a Battalion commander in Hue Phu Bai and Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group (MACVSOG or SOG) in Saigon.
Finally there was a two man intelligence team located in the village headquarters that reported to a headquarters in Danang. It’s head was LT Jamie Taronji. This two man team had a separate tent and did not mingle with any of the other occupants of the compound. They co-located into the District command post during the fight , but were invisible to us at the time.
Colonel David Lounds as the senior American officer in the Khe Sanh Area of Operations (AO) exercised very loose operational control over the units in the area. All the units would go to the Marines at the combat base for support, but when that support was not forthcoming they would go to their parent units. This was especially true for the Special Forces and Advisory team.
The relations between the Army units—special forces and advisory team—and the Marines were so bad that they had developed their own code terms and frequencies to coordinate with each other so the Marines could not listen in.
Additionally each of the units mentioned had very different missions and therefore different objectives. The lack of unity of command resulted in a loss of unity of effort, which is what the whole concept of unity of command is all about. Unity of effort is supposed to flow from unity of command. All of the units would be working towards a common goal. The Marines goal was to kill NVA. The Advisory Team and District Government’s goal was to provide political leadership for the people of the area and to provide them security from small enemy forces.
A-101’s mission was border surveillance and to block the major avenue of approach into the area—route 9. The SOG team at FOB-3 only staged in Khe Sanh for out of area operations in Laos and North Vietnam. Thus no unity of effort.
This spaghetti bowl of relationships was the situation that existed when the battle of Khe Sanh began on 21 January 1968.
In the next several days and maybe even weeks, I will share some of the facts and conclusions that I have reached in the 55 years since I was deeply involved in attack on Khe Sanh village and the Vietnamese District Headquarters on the western edge of the village. We will start by laying out the intelligence build up before the battle was joined.
When I wrote my book Expendable Warriors the title was so selected because General Westmoreland and Colonel Lounds at the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) knew that the North Vietnamese Army was going to attack Khe Sanh as much as 3 months before the attack began. However, the Advisory Team in Khe Sanh village in the District Headquarters was not told. We guess this was because the American leadership feared that the intelligence would be leaked to our Vietnamese counterparts and then get back to the North Vietnamese. What was the intelligence?
The intelligence that the NVA were going to attack Khe Sanh got its first visibility in November 1967 when Colonel Lounds (Commander of the KSCB) told some Marines that: “you will soon be in the American history books.”
Recently unclassified intelligence showed that in October 1967 an NVA Division began moving towards Khe Sanh. There was also information from signal intercepts that a new headquarters had been formed to control a multi-division attack on Khe Sanh.
General Westmoreland’s intelligence brief of 12 January confirmed that the attack would begin on 21 January. During the entire month of January Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) began preparations for the battle of Khe Sanh by:
- Reinforcing the KSCB first on the 13December with an additional Marine Infantry Battalion. The order sending the battalion to KSCB noted that reinforcements should not flow to KSCB too quickly so as to avoid the NVA knowing of General Westmoreland’s intentions.
- An air campaign to target the NVA using B-52s as they approached Khe Sanh was begun on 5 January –Operation Niagara
- Approval to use what was then a classified / controlled fragmentation artillery munition (COFRAM—also known as fire cracker) was sought
- An Air Support Radar Team was deployed to KSCB on 16 January to control radar guided air attacks.
- On 17 January an additional Marine infantry battalion arrived at Khe Sanh bringing the force up to 3 battalions.
- On 18 January sensors were diverted from the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and deployed around the KSCB to monitor the movement of the NVA into the area.
During the period beginning in December 1967 the Marines at KSCB began improving their defensive positions by digging deeper putting up more sand bag reinforced bunkers. Ammunition resupply by air began in earnest. This Marine effort was intelligence to those of us on the Advisory Team in the District Headquarters. We began to take similar actions by improving the defenses of our little compound.
Finally on 19 January an NVA officer was captured performing a reconnaissance of the wire surrounding the KSCB. This officer had the entire plan for the attack from the northern Division (NVA Division 325 C) that was to attack KSCB beginning on 21 January.
The information on the pending attack was known to the leadership at Khe Sanh and throughout the relevant portions of MACV, BUT not in the District Headquarters. The scene was set for the events of the next almost 80 days.