SEALORDS and ACTOV
Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. was unquestionably one of the most controversial men to ever head the Navy. His advocates called him the "man of the hour" and the "savior of the Navy," while his detractors saw him as the instigator of permissiveness and the destroyer of discipline. But before he was an unconventional Chief of Naval Operations, he was the commander of the so-called "Brown-Water Navy" in Vietnam, and in some ways his service there presaged a number of 21st-century challenges.
Vice Admiral Zumwalt arrived in Saigon in September 1968, and in circumstances similar to what Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal more recently found in their respective theaters, he discovered that the Navy's role in Vietnam had stagnated. Earlier coastal surveillance, river patrol, and mobile riverine force operations had successfully driven the enemy off the major rivers and minimized his littoral operations, but now supplies were coming in from the Cambodian sanctuary and traveling uninhibited along a network of tributary waterways deep in the strategically vital Mekong Delta. To counter this, Zumwalt called together his senior commanders and staff members to work out the details of a new strategic concept he called SEALORDS, for "South-East Asia Lake, Ocean, River, and Delta Strategy."
SEALORDS consolidated the various elements of the Navy's in-country forces and redeployed them to interdict the flow of enemy supplies, allowing the naval forces to take the fight to the enemy once again. With increasing effect, hundreds of intense battles were fought at close range between brown-water Sailors in their small boats and heavily armed enemy units attempting to infiltrate and to protect their previously established sanctuaries. Night ambushes at likely crossing points on the rivers also took a heavy toll on the enemy, often opening fire at ranges of less than ten feet. This redeployment not only put new pressure on the enemy, it had the added effect of injecting new life into the brown-water forces whose relegation to mere holding operations had seriously demoralized them. Ironically, as casualties went up, so did morale.
It was also Zumwalt's fate to preside over the extrication of U.S. forces from Vietnam. By the time he had arrived in Southeast Asia, the United States had been actively fighting there for nearly four years, and it was clear that the patience of the American people was worn thin. Zumwalt had long advocated turning the war over to the South Vietnamese, a process called "Vietnamization" in the argot of the day. Zumwalt's plan for the Navy, which he called ACTOV (for "accelerated turnover to Vietnam") was well thought-out and earned him the respect of General Creighton Abrams, then commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam. By 1973, the Vietnamese Navy (VNN) had the material resources to carry on the fight alone, with 42,000 personnel and a force of more than 1,400 ships and craft to meet the enemy on the rivers and canals of South Vietnam and in the South China Sea. Subsequent events precluded the VNN from being able to prove itself, but there is reason to believe that it would have acquitted itself well, given the opportunity.
Despite all the heat and light that his later career generated, Zumwalt's tenure in Vietnam offers some serious food for thought for today's planners as the Navy re-embraces brown-water operations, as commanders look more and more to innovation in tackling complex problems, and as U.S. military forces struggle with turning wars over to native Iraqis and Afghans.
Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets.