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Was America Duped at Khe Sanh

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) we can anticipate a plethora of articles about the battle that decided the Vietnam War.  The first of these was in the New York Times on January 1st (“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.


Map of the Khe Sanh area.  Hue is just off the map to the southeast (lower right corner of the map)

  • 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. Mush 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!

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?