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Monthly Archives: February 2023

Conflict termination in Ukraine

In the past week or so the situation in Ukraine has escalated significantly:

  • At the Munich Security Conference of elite national security experts there was a discussion of the end game in Ukraine, I am told by a participant.  He went on to argue that there was no need for a public discussion of the conditions for ending the ongoing armed conflict. The discussion in Munich was significant, but of course it has not been made public.
  • The president visited Ukraine and Poland where he made wide sweeping accusations against Vladimir Putin and pledged almost endless United States support for Ukraine. Biden declared in Poland that: “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia, Appetites of the autocrat cannot be appeased. They must be opposed.”
    • Relatedly, Leopard tanks started arriving in Ukraine.
  • Russia made threatening mentions of resorting to the use of nuclear weapons and suspended adherence to the START Treaty.  The Russians then did an ICBM test, which failed.  (Talk about mixed messages.)[1]
  • The Chinese continued to move closer and closer to Russia in their growing alliance.

The above being said the conclusions in my December article about Ukraine still stand.

The problem to reaching a conflict termination is either a lack of clearly defined definitions of acceptable end states by the participants to the conflict or totally mutually exclusive definitions of such end states.   Actually, the situation could be both.  In short, the war in Ukraine isn’t likely to end anytime soon. Both sides believe they can win on the battlefield, and thus little room exists for peace negotiations. This position was reinforced by President Biden and the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff who said: ‘Russia has lost; they’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically.’

The conflicting national objectives are personified by actions in the theater of operations. Ukraine is reportedly preparing offensives to regain the roughly 18% of its territory still occupied by Moscow, including the Crimea peninsula and parts of the eastern Donbas region that Mr. Putin seized in 2014. Russia’s goals are defined by its recent declaration that four Ukrainian regions, none of which it fully controls, are its own sovereign territory.  Its current military objectives are to conquer those lands. However, Putin, in a speech last Tuesday, indicated that his aspirations remain much broader, referring to Russia’s “historical territories that are now called Ukraine.”  There are also noises coming out of Russia of a “belt sanitaire”, which would include a part of Poland.  There are further threats against Moldova.  In short, the Russian objectives are based upon trying to create a neutral zone between it and the rest of Europe.  The Russian psyche remains scared by the history of invasions from the west.

The promise of a post-war Ukraine joining NATO adds fire to this historical Russian fear.

The obvious totally irreconcilable differences do not create much optimism for a settlement any time in the future. However, during the next year the situation may change.

We are now a year into Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, Ukraine’s own military industries have been shattered by Russian missile strikes, and its reserves of Soviet-vintage weapons are virtually exhausted. It is maintaining some of its strength thru captured Russian arms and munitions. Ukraine will quickly reach the point, if it has not already, where it can keep fighting only as long as Western assistance continues or ideally grows. Though public support for Ukraine has proven remarkably resilient, there is no guarantee that the mood won’t shift in the future, especially if the predicted global economic downturn has any duration.  Thus, the west has leverage on Ukraine[2]. A return to the current administration’s previous gradualist approach might be the signal to Ukraine that a new tact is needed.  This would be evidenced by a continual delay in the delivery of the promised M-1A1 tanks and continued denial of the desired F-16 fighters.

To reach such a return to the gradualism of survival versus battlefield victories the pro-war retired generals will need to have concluded that the war is no longer winnable. Retired LTG Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, has been quoted as saying: “It has taken the Pentagon a long time to come to the realization that Ukraine can win, and will win, especially if we give them what they need. There has been all too much defeatist hand-wringing.” General Hodge’s perspective is shared by numerous active and retired general officers.  They represent a significant domestic lobby for increased materialistic support for Ukraine.  Conversely, there is a growing number of pundits and politicians who argue that the almost $200 billion dollars given to Ukraine could go a long way to alleviating many domestic problems.

China’s recent stand of sliding towards Russia while not wanting to anger its European markets is an interesting political dance.  Thus far China has not provided lethal aid to Russia but recent pronouncements by Secretary of State Blinken suggests that it is strongly considering such an action. Thus far it hasn’t. Aside from statements from China’s leader Xi Jinping that nuclear war must be avoided—the sort of truism few would argue with—China has offered no criticism of Russia’s actions.  China and Russia have scheduled a Spring summit.  One can fear what might result from that.  Interestingly, Zalenski has said that he would like to meet with Xi Jinping.

In its attempt to assuage the western Europeans, while not angering Putin, the Chinese recently released a paper, which appealed to the European desire to return to cheap Russian energy, The12-point document on Ukraine called for a cease-fire and peace talks. It included demands, such as not strengthening military blocs or using unilateral sanctions, that clearly catered to both Russia’s and China’s interests.

Another view is that China’s leadership is concerned that a prolonged conflict could leave its strategic partner severely crippled. The increased sanctions that the west is imposing on Russia could both adversely affect China’s sales to Russia but could also be applied to China itself.  China fully realizes that currently the US is dependent upon Chinese goods. But that even this administration might eventually see the folly in that position.

Given all of the swiftly changing geo-political currents and military realities around the conflict in Ukraine how does it end?

Militarily, excluding the use of nuclear weapons, there are really only three options:

  1. Ukraine wins by expelling the Russians from all Ukrainian territory either including or excluding Crimea
  2. A decisive Russian victory, resulting in Ukraine becoming an integral part of the Russian Federation
  3. An extension of the current standoff with both sides relatively exhausted and a subsequent ceasefire and other mutual accommodations.

In the first scenario, following a much faster supply/resupply of Ukrainian forces there would be a series of crucial battles this year in which Ukraine’s military forces impose a succession of decisive defeats on the Russians, forcing them to retreat back over the pre-2014 Ukrainian border into Russian territory. Such victories would be more decisive if Russian troop defections increased. Will Russia give up its possession of Crimea at any cost?  Probably not! However, it might be a practical proposition to envisage Ukraine evicting Russian troops from Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.

The second scenario involves a decisive military defeat of the Ukrainian Armed Forces by Russia. Such a defeat would most likely include the bombing of Kyiv. That would result in the complete crushing of the Ukrainian language, people, religion and culture. A victorious Russia might then be encouraged to chance its luck elsewhere and threaten the Baltic countries, Poland and other states on its periphery—such as Moldova and Kazakhstan—with forced incorporation into the Russian motherland. The aim of the Russian leadership since the end of the cold war has been to reestablish a cordon sanitaire of buffer, which effectively created defense in depth for Russia and put 1,000 kilometers between it and the nearest NATO borders. The challenge for Washington would be to demonstrate that any such Russian attack on Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland or any other NATO country would automatically provoke prompt US global strikes on Russia, including Moscow. That could well take us all to a larger World War III.  Failure to defend Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the rest of NATO would be the death of NATO.

The final scenario involves eventual negotiations between the two sides resulting in a durable truce and international safeguards against any repetition of military attacks across agreed international borders. Coupled with some from of cease fire and the creation of a demilitarized zone along the extent of the border to include most of Crimea would be the requirement for some sort of international agreement imposed to prevent Moscow from rebuilding its military forces and having another go at it.  Ukraine would have to renounce its goal of joining NATO, while NATO would most likely need to provide some territorial guarantees to the new boundaries.

The reality is that a negotiated outcome is unlikely in the immediate future. It is more likely that the intensive war will continue with no resolution in sight. The outcome of this prolonged war of attrition or protracted military stalemate would depend on which side has the most durable military industrial base (in the case of Russia) or guaranteed external military resupplies (in the case of Ukraine).  It is at this point that the roles of China and Iran must be considered.

A prolonged stalemate that would include increasing human and resource costs could eventually result in some form of negotiated agreement.  However, since Ukraine is unwilling to cease to exist the key is an eventual realization by Russia that the gains are not worth the costs.  Russia must come to realize that it will emerge from this stalemate as a reduced national power—a second class power like the individual NATO countries—with nuclear weapons.  In short, it must decide to pack its bags and wait for another day.

After all of the above is said and considered the conflict termination is dependent on Russia realizing (sooner rather than later being ideal) that there is no possible positive outcome from the conflict. This would substantiate the Clausewitizian dictum that, “once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced, and peace must follow.”  The political ramifications of this result in Russia and Europe are a subject for another analysis.

It is unfortunate that the only foreseeable termination of the conflict will entail such enormous loss of life and resources.  It will also usher in a changed world order.[3]

[1] The subject of Russian use of nuclear weapons is deferred to a subsequent article while noting that such use would change the whole nature of the conflict.  The threat must presently be seen only as an attempt by Russia to find more leverage.

[2] UK, French, and German officials are reportedly preparing a NATO-Ukraine pact that falls far short of the protections Ukraine would receive from NATO membership and appears to reflect a desire to press Ukraine to accept a negotiated settlement on unfavorable terms. The Wall Street Journal reported that the pact will provide advanced military equipment, arms, and ammunition to Ukraine, but not Article V protection or a commitment to station NATO forces in Ukraine—falling short of Ukraine’s aspirations for full NATO membership. The pact aims to provision Ukraine so that Ukrainian forces can conduct a counteroffensive that brings Russia to the negotiating table and deter any future Russian aggression. The officials reportedly expressed reservations about the West’s ability to sustain a prolonged war effort, the high casualty count that Ukraine would sustain in such a prolonged war, and Ukrainian forces’ ability to completely recapture long-occupied territories like Crimea.

[3] The exact composition of this new world order is a subject for future analysis.  However, if China remains above the fray, it will most likely emerge as the dominate global power.  It would not have expended resources in the battle while Russia, Europe and the US will have.

Articles about Khe Sanh

The past month or so we presented a entire series of articles on the events leading up to the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) and its subsequent conclusion.  This summary provided a road map for those who want to catch up on what happened 55 years ago starting just before January 21, 1968. 

I post these articles so that readers can appreciate the gallantry of the Bru Montagnards, the Vietnamese soldiers, the Marines of CAC O, the other members of Advisory Team 4, CPT War Britt the FAC and all of the others that were involved in the village fight specifically, but also those soldiers, airmen and Marines who were all involved in the Battle of Khe Sanh. My hope is that the glaring mistakes that were made in Khe Sanh will not be repeated and that tacticians and strategists of the future will take away some valuable lessons.

The articles included the following:

Was America Duped at Khe Sanh—debunks an article in the New York Times about North Vietnamese strategy leading up to Khe Sanh

General Westmoreland and the Vietnam War Strategy—continues the discussion of the false items in the previously mentioned New York Times article.  It presents the dueling strategies of the two sides.

Limited War and Rules of Engagement—presents a discussion of the problems with limited war concepts and how they related to Rules of Engagement.

Khe Sanh—the intelligence build up—explains the origins of the title Expendable Warriors.

Command and Control in the Khe Sanh Area of Operations (AO)—explains the quagmire that was the local command and control situation.  Lack of unity of command lead to a lack of unity of effort.

1968 Advisory Team 4 Newsletter—how the battle around the village was originally explained in a newsletter published by Advisory Team 4 headquarters in Quang Tri.

The village fight 2—further explains what happened during the defense of the District Headquarters

Air Support for Khe Sanh Village—explains the various forms of air support that were used to support the defenders of the District Headquarters and how they were coordinated for.

The Battle of Khe Sanh Village is Over—the Advisory Team the district forces withdraw after the Marines are withdrawn and further artillery support is denied.

False Quiet—sets the stage for the attack on Lang Vei and describes life on the combat base.

The noose is tightened—gives an overview of the fall of the Lang Vei Special Forces camp.

The Battle is won and the war was lost—describes the ending to the 77 day agony of Khe Sanh and the moment in history when the war was lost.

Each of these articles can be found on https://brucebgclarke.com/

General Westmoreland and the Vietnam War Strategy

Returning to John Mason Glen’s opinion piece in the New York Times (“Was America Duped at Khe Sanh?”) We must also set the record straight about General Westmoreland and the strategy in Vietnam War.  Again Mr. Glen displays his lack of historical perspective by attributing the strategy of attrition in the Vietnam War to General Westmoreland’s analysis of the battle of the Ira Drang Valley. (The basis of the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once, Young and Brave.)

Glen correctly paints General Westmoreland as the perfect image of a soldier—World War II leader, Airborne Infantry leader, former Superintendent of West Point—with a very stiff soldierly look.  Westy, as he was called by cadets at West Point and soldiers in the field in Vietnam, was all that Glen describes.  One must also remember at this point in history the Airborne Mafia, as it was called, ruled the Army.  There was admiration for the Airborne coming out of World War II.  President Kennedy was enamored with the Special Forces (Green Berets) all of whom were airborne qualified. Glen attributes Westmoreland’s strategy to this background and does not attribute the country’s experience and successes in other wars to the strategy in Vietnam. 

When Westy was superintendent at West Point I was a cadet there studying military tactics and history.  Much of our studies revealed that the US military strategy grew out of Grant’s defeat of Lee in the Civil War.  The battles of the Wilderness in late 1864 and 1865 were battles of attrition.  The North had the wherewithal in terms of men and equipment to fight a war of attrition against the South.  This strategy succeeded. The lesson learned was that attrition warfare was a way to win.

The world wars in Europe and Asia were also wars of attrition where superior resources were able to win the day, over time.  When one couples the US military experience of success through attrition warfare with Robert McNamara’s “bean counting” revolution in the Pentagon one can understand how body count became the measure of success for the war in Vietnam.  If more bad guys were killed in an engagement than good guys then the good guys “won”.  This became the approach in Vietnam.

Given this view that attrition / body count would cause the enemy to stop fighting one can clearly understand the desire for a set piece firepower intensive battle to crush the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).  Khe Sanh offered this opportunity.  The hope was that the NVA would go for the bait that was the Khe Sanh Combat Base and provide a large number of targets to be attacked by superior fire power and destroyed.  For this strategy to succeed the bait could not be compromised by the NVA learning of the plan.  The close-holding of the intelligence that the NVA was going to attack Khe Sanh lead to my advisory team in Khe Sanh village being “expendable”.  We were part of the bait and could not be allowed to leak to our Vietnamese counterparts what was coming for fear that they in turn would leak it to the NVA.  The solution was to just not tell us what was about to occur.

Some of the readers of Expendable Warriors have commented on how critical I deal with General Westmoreland.  One former Chief of Staff of the Army refused to endorse the book because of this perspective.  I must admit that the after taste of being “expendable” may have colored my perspective.  However, I have learned the bigger lesson—strategic leaders must make strategic decisions based upon the bigger picture.  In this regard the small advisory team and mixed force of Vietnamese, Bru Montagnards and Marines may have truly been expendable.  Though we will probably never admit it and obviously did not fight like we were.

The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of multiple countries did not lose the war in Vietnam the politicians and strategists did.  In April/May of 1968 the strategy had succeeded.  The NVA and Viet Cong had been defeated by all body count measures, but the political will to win was gone.  The concept of political will had not been considered by the strategists of the day.  It was not until Colonel Harry Summers published his book On Strategy; a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War that Clausewitz’s dictums on political will were brought again into consideration by American strategic thinkers.  Colonel Summers was part of the US Vietnam negotiating team and his discussion with a North Vietnamese counterpart is often quoted.  He told his counterpart: “we won every battle.” To which the North Vietnamese officer replied: “But you lost the war.”

If one reads my writings on conflict termination, he will see Colonel Summers’ views used as a basis for defining what it means to win. Body count is also dismissed as the failed measure of success that it is.  In discussing Ukraine body count and tank count are seeping back into the analysis of the situation.  One should not be overly impressed by the numbers.

The battle is won and the war is lost

As we wrap up this year’s relook at Khe Sanh those who wonder why I am devoting so much time to this effort every year will hopefully come to realize that there is much to be learned about winning conflicts and what it takes to win.  I have been asked to relook the Ukraine, which I will do, but I ask my readers to think about winning and what Khe Sanh has taught us.

On the 1st of April 1968 the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) launched Operation Pegasus. Many newly interested authors focus on the battle for the old French fort.  What they don’t realize is that just as the operation was beginning the war was being officially lost.

As the senior advisor in Khe Sanh before the beginning of the “agony of Khe Sanh” on 21 January 1968 I was two months later seconded to the 1st Cavalry Division to assist in the planning for Operation Pegasus.   (For a complete discussion of the siege of Khe Sanh see: www. Expendablewarriors.com or my recent postings here.) 

It was strange to fly over what had once been the area along route 9 and see rice paddies where there had never been paddies before.   In actuality what I was seeing was bomb craters that were filled with rain water.  (I flew into Khe Sanh with Major General John Tolson (commander of the 1st Cavalry Division) several times,

During the planning process units from the 1st Cav, the 101st Airborne Division and the 3rd Marines were conducting operations along the DMZ as a diversion to the relief operation.  The engineers were busy building a short runway and underground bunkers for the command and control of Operation Pegasus near Calu.  The new facility was to be named LZ Stud.

For Operation Pegasus the 1st Cav had an extensive set of capabilities

  • The 1st Cavalry Division with its 400+ helicopters
  • A Marine BDE with augmenting engineers and artillery
  • An Army of Vietnam (ARVN) airborne brigade
  • 26th Marine Regiment +–the whole force defending the Combat Base (5000 strong)
  • Massive air support

This was the equivalent of a small Corps.

The attack began the morning of the April 1st with the Marine Brigade attacking along route 9.  Its mission was to open Route 9 from LZ Stud to the combat base.  This required the repair of numerous road by passes that had been destroyed by the NVA and neglected for more than a year.  The air assault was delayed until 1 PM due to fog in the Khe Sanh area.  The initial air assault was into areas where the vegetation had been flattened by use a bomb called a Daisy Cutter (a 20,000 pound bomb that was dropped from a C130 aircraft and detonated when the long pipe that was its detonator struck the ground—thus creating standoff and blowing things down without creating a crater).  The Infantry and engineers followed to secure the area and move the blowdown so that howitzers, crews and ammunition could be lifted in.  As a result, a firebase was created.

With fire support for support of the infantry and to support the next hop forward closer to Khe Sanh the next unit could be inserted and the leap frog towards the combat base and the enemy could continue.

It was on this day 1 April 1968 when the war was lost.  Major Paul Schwartz, the division plans officer and a previous contact from my days in Sandhoffen, Germany) and I had to brief General Tolson on the proposed concept for the Division’s next mission—clearing the NVA out of the A Shau Valley (about 40-50 kilometers south of Khe Sanh).  There were 4 people present at the briefing—General Tolson, his Chief of Staff, Major Schwartz and myself.  We proposed attacking through Khe Sanh to the Vietnam-Laos border.  Going into Laos, cleaning up the Ho Chi Minh Trail and then turning south to enter the A Shau Valley from the west—not the traditional route which was from the east.  There were 90 days of supplies at Khe Sanh to draw upon and thus not have to back haul them.  The forces were available, and most importantly such an approach would have caught the NVA by surprise and had war winning effects.

After about 4 minutes of briefing General Tolson said: “Obviously you didn’t hear the President last night!  What you are proposing is politically impossible.”  Lyndon Johnson had just announced a partial bombing halt in an effort to enter negotiations with North Vietnam.

About 5-6 days after the initial assault began a link up had occurred at the combat base with reposibility for its defense being transferred to a brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, the Marines had attacked north-west out of the combat base.  Also the ARVN Airborne Brigade had been inserted into the battle to the west of the combat base and a brigade of the 1st Cav had secured the old Lang Vei Special Forces Camp.  The relief operation was ending.

3 years later the US was to support ARVN forces in Lam Son 719A which was an attack into Laos where the ARVN got clobbered.  The NVA had used the 3 years to recover.  A year or so later President Nixon was to start the B-52 bombing missions over Hanoi and Haiphong.  These would result in a peace agreement.

President Johnson’s bombing halt decision was when the US decided to not try and win the war on the battlefield—just as the NVA were on the throes of collapse.  The war was winnable after the eventual Khe Sanh and Tet victories, butduring almost 3 months the political climate in the US had so turned against the war there was no political will to try and win on the battlefield.

In coming articles, we will talk about the bigger lessons learned from Khe Sanh and other conflicts.  It is my hope that someday some ”wanna be strategists” will read these articles and learn something from them about fighting and winning battles and wars.

The noose tightens

Recently, when reading my VFW magazine I encountered an article entitled Tanks in the Wire”.  It was a brief, but still not accurate, synopsis of the battle of Lang Vei Special Forces camp on 7 and 8 February 1968—55 years ago. (I would commend David Stockwell’s two books on the battle. First came Tanks in the Wire and just recently The Route 9 Problem) I was underground in my bunker at the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) but listened to much of the battle on the radio and the next morning was part of the planning for the relief effort for the beleaguered forces at Lang Vei. 

To put the battle in perspective it actually started at the end of January when the 33rd Royal Laotian Battalion was overrun by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in Laos using tanks. The Surveillance and Observation Group (SOG) Special Forces at Forward Operating Base 3, which was an appendage to the KSCB and where we had the local Vietnamese government in exile, had a close connection to the Laotians. 

When the Laotians reported that they were overrun by tanks nobody believed them. The 33rd Battalion fled Laos and settled at Lang Vei in a camp near the Special Forces Camp.  They were reinforced by Special Forces elements from Hue Phu Bai lead by LTC Schungel.  So now there were two Special Forces camps at Lang Vei—the old camp with Laotians and Special Forces in it and the new camp with A 101 and its Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Forces (CIDG).  CPT Frank Willoughby, the commander of A 101 Special Forces detachment at Lang Vei requested anti-tank mines but his request was denied because the report of tanks being used was not believed by higher headquarters. The Special Forces did scrounge some Light Anti-Tank Weapons (LAWs).

The scene is now set with two camps near the Bru village of Lang Vei and track sound being heard on several evenings before the attacks.  On the evening of 8 February the new camp was hit with artillery and mortar fire followed by an infantry attack led by PT 76 light amphibious tanks.  The forces fought back and called artillery from the KSCB on the attacking NVA. Some of the LAWs failed to operate correctly and many of those that did were ineffective.  Eventually, the defenders of the new camp either secluded themselves in the deep underground command bunker or fled to the old camp.  The fight continued all night long.  CPT Willoughby requested reinforcement by the Marines from KSCB, but was turned down twice! 

Communications from the command bunker became difficult with the antennas knocked down but the single side band radio with its buried antennae continued to allow communications to the outside.  At the is point there was a PT 76 tank on top of the command bunker and the NVA were throwing tear gas down into the bunker.  CPT Willoughby and his crew continued to communicate.

Forces from the old camp, supported by artillery and air strikes made up to five attempts to reach the bunker with no success.   The 7 weak from wounds and dehydration survivors in the bunker made their plans to escape.  CPT Willoughby told the aircraft overhead to make 3 hot strafing runs over the camp and then make runs without firing.  During the “dry” runs the survivors would make a dash to the old camp. Actually, it was to be more of a limp. The survivors met little opposition and with the help of a brave Vietnamese Lieutenant who drove a jeep to pick them up made it to the old camp.

The final saga of the battle was the evacuation.  There are several versions the fight for helicopters, but COL Ladd, the 5th Special Forces Commander in Danang was forced to go to General Westmoreland who was in a meeting with LTG Cushman (the Corps Commander) and could not be disturbed.  COL Ladd turned to GEN Abrams who had established a MACV forward command in the northern part of the country.  GEN Abrams ordered the Marines to release the helicopters to rescue the survivors of the battle.  The relief operation was planned by the Special Forces at FOB 3 and lead by Major George Quomo.  After the reluctance of the Marine CH 46 helicopter pilots to land at the old camp the Americans and the wounded along with the Laotian Battalion leadership were evacuated by air to KSCB and then once medically treated were taken to Danang.  The individual soldiers and the Bru and Laotian  civilians were left to fend for themselves.  They walked the distance to the combat base where they were disarmed and turned away.  (This was to create a political incident between the Laotian government and MACV.)  I radioed Quang Tri thru my radio relay that the 1500 or so mixed group was on its way.  The advisory team in Quang Tri prepared to house and care for these stragglers.  The Laotians were evacuated through Saigon back to Laos.

Route 9 was now not impeded—the Lang Vei and District Headquarters impediments had now been removed.  The route to the KSCB was now open and the noose had been tightened.