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The march towards the opening of the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB)

Past articles have talked about limited war, General Westmoreland’s strategy and the intelligence leading up to the attack on the District Headquarters in Khe Sanh village and the siege of the KSCB.  In this article we will relate the events prior to the attack and the continual stress between secrecy and combat necessity.

On the morning of 20 January 1968 CPT Nhi and I with one other of my advisors SFC Henry King set off with about 50 Vietnamese soldiers on a routine reconnaissance patrol.  We were going about 8-10 KM southwest of the District headquarters to a hill top.  When we got there the goal was to set up a patrol base and then send out 4 10 man reconnaissance patrols to work in horse shoe pattern looking for signs of Viet Cong or other activity.  We had no knowledge of any activity in the area.

We had planned artillery targets along our route of march and to support the patrol base. These targets had been registered with the Operations Center at the KSCB.  The going getting to the patrol base was slow going because of all of the vines that had overgrown the selected route.  Also holes cut for Vietnamese soldiers to get through did not quite accommodate larger Americans –especially when you had a PRC 25 radio on your back with an antennae sticking up several feet.

Once we were established in the patrol base the Vietnamese had some cold food and then set out on their patrols.  The patrols had only been out for about 15 minutes when I got a call from the Special Forces at Lang Vei telling me to get out of the area.  At first I resisted.  They could not give me a reason to get out.  But after they said it enough times I got the message that there was some urgency to the request.

It took us some time to gather up all of the recon patrols and start our walk back.  We got back to the District Headquarters in midafternoon.  Not too long after we were back at the District Headquarters a B-52 strike went in very close to where we had been.  At the time I wondered what they were dropping the bombs on.  Later I learned that it was the 66th Regiment of the 304th Division of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

We were lucky that we didn’t run into them as our puny little force would not have stood much of a chance against such a formidable enemy. This episode highlights the tension between security and operational need.

The intelligence community has always been accused of being more interested in protecting their sources and methods (how they learned something) than the needs of the soldiers on the ground.  As we pointed out in a previous article (intelligence) the leadership at the KSCB knew that the NVA were coming and when.  They had not told the advisory team with the District Chief.  The intelligence gathered by the Advisory Team came from watching the preparations for combat at the KSCB.  Had that B-52 strike gone in with us still in the area the results could have been calamitous.  Thankfully someone finally told us to move.  But why hadn’t they told us not to go at all—knowing what the threat was?

The night of 2o January I got a good hot shower.  This was to be the last shower for months.  On the morning of 21 January the battle was joined.

Khe Sanh—the intelligence build up

Expendable Warriors was so named 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 were not told.  We guess for fear 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 began preparations for the upcoming battle by:

  • Reinforcing the KSCB first on the 13 December with and additional Marie 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 office 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.

Bloody nose attack?

Recently I have read in multiple publications the exact same article—verbatim.  I guess some must think that because it is printed in so many publications that it must be true.  Well, maybe.  The articles say that the US is considering what is called a bloody nose attack against North Korea.  What is a bloody nose attack you ask?

A bloody nose attack is said to be an effort to destroy the next missile that Kim Jun Un launches.  The idea is to intercept the missile early in the launch phase.  The goal is to show the North Koreans that the US is serious about its demands of limits on North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons.  Many argue that such an attack is fraught with dangers,

  • How will the North Koreans respond? Will they perceive this action for what it is a limited attack?  If they do not perceive this or do not wish to perceive it those that are against the attack fear that they will respond massively against South Korea.
  • What if the attempt fails? The prestige of the US will be greatly reduced, the pundits argue, and that of the North Koreans enhanced.
  • What if the attack succeeds? The North Koreans will have been embarrassed and because of the loss of face will either retaliate or be more willing to negotiate since it had been shown that their missiles could be intercepted.

I should also note that several congressmen have reported that F-35s with heat seeking missiles could destroy any missile in the launch phase.  Most of such reports do not link this to the time it takes the North to prepare a missile for launch or the ability of US intelligence to “see” the preparations and thus put the F-35s on station.   (I have been amazed that this information was leaked, but maybe it is part of my fourth option below.

The media is reporting that the National Security Advisor supports the attack while the Secretaries of State and Defense oppose it.  One almost never reads anything about the positions the LTG McMaster has supported.  Such deliberations are usually one thing that remain secret in a leaky administration.  This leads me to my fourth option.

The fourth option is a psychological warfare against the North designed to ratchet up the pressure.  One could argue that the saber rattling and now the threats of a bloody nose attack are designed to force the North Koreans to seek alternative ways to lower the pressure.  If one buys this strategy he could say: “Look it is succeeding.”  The North Koreans have in fact held talks with the South Koreans that have reduced the pressure some.  Possibly, in response to this, President Trump has stated his willingness to negotiate with the North Koreans.

Only time will tell how this will play out but the saber rattling psychological pressure may have worked.  If it worked the next question is why previous administrations did not try such an approach?  The answer probably has something to do with hutzpah and the willingness to go as far as necessary.  We will see.