In ancient battles the principle of mass led to organizational cohesion and tactical strength. The Roman soldier marching in the phalanx knew that his flanks and rear were protected by the shoulder-to-shoulder formation. As long as a unit remained tightly knit, it was least vulnerable and its chances of victory over less tactically cohesive enemies were highest. Modern weapons have upset this balance. The principle of mass now leads to organizational confusion and tactical vulnerability. Each man in a fire fight is safest when he seeks individual cover and concealment. Men on the march are vulnerable precisely because they feel secure. In the scattering effect of the initial battle, control over units decreases in proportion to the size and intensity of the engagement.
The honored battle principle of mass should not be applicable axiomatically to Vietnam, or to any future conflict involving American forces. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, masses of men were needed to supply with their rifles the volume of firepower necessary to establish fire superiority, inflict substantial enemy casualties, and ensure victory of the battlefield. The place of manpower in the causality of these events is now severely questionable.
If the objective is simply to wear down the enemy main forces, then in examining the course of engagements, one should distinguish between what may be called “involved presence” and “proximate presence.” When, for instance, a battalion mounts a search-and-destroy operation, it is not the battalion commander’s intention that all 1,000 of his men engage the enemy simultaneously. Indeed, it is his fervent hope that this does not occur; for if it does, he is most probably in the midst of an enemy ambush and has lost control of his troops. A commander posts point and flank elements to avoid the simultaneous and sizable engagement of his troops. When contact is made, he wishes to let the situation develop slowly, so that he can identify enemy intentions and strengths and then commit his forces carefully and under control.
Of course, the confusion of real battle generally twists the concepts of control and measured response. But, both in theory and in practice, a unit of 100 men or more almost never intends to or actually does commit all its riflemen to the battle in one fell swoop. There is a distinct time lag in the development of engagements, either offensive or defensive, which allows an observer to characterize chronologically and spatially the participants in terms of either involved presence or proximate presence.
To the traditional military strategists, this distinction was of little importance for operational planning, since the forces necessary for victory had to be massed within striking distance. In the past, the means of mobility have been so slow that the only way to ensure the proximate presence of troops for reasons of firepower and replacements was to travel in large units. Although the commander may have intended only a minority of his troops to become involved initially, he had to have a large back-up force physically close at hand in order to command and commit them. The proximate presence deployment had to be measured in terms of meters; reinforcements many miles distant were of no use at all, for they could not converge on the battlefield rapidly enough to be of use.
This principle of proximate mass still holds true for the North Vietnamese. For the Americans, time has largely replaced space as the crucial factor determining the position of those forces needed as the proximate presence. The gradual development of a fire fight, from the time of initial contact to the time when the situation is that of involved presence, is generally sufficient to allow relief, first by fire support and second by reinforcements.
The means of mobility, communications, and firepower at the disposal of American forces represent major technological breakthroughs in the tools of warfare. Although these breakthroughs mainly have been adapted to the task of making traditional tactics and maneuvers more easily executed, they have also raised the possibility of some revisions in organizational structure and unit missions, as the evidence mounts that for certain tasks several small units are more effective than one large unit.
One set of such small units is the strike teams. Strike teams is a generic term used to describe a variety of friendly units in Vietnam whose common characteristics are smallness in size, missions in enemy areas, concealment in movement, surprise in attack, and suddenness in withdrawal. Strike teams include, among other elements, the two U. S. Marine Corps reconnaissance battalions in I Corps, the hundreds of U. S. Army Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP) in I, II and III Corps, the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) in III Corps, several Special Forces detachments working in the Central Highlands with the Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, the Vietnamese Provincial Reconnaissance Units and the U. S. Navy Sea-Air-Land Commando (SEAL) platoons in III and IV Corps.
Strike teams have been growing in terms of total numbers and acquired skills since the spring of 1965. They represent a classic case of strategy slowly evolving from tried tactics. When Marine reconnaissance platoons, for instance, first were sent out into the hills of I Corps, their mission was to find and report the location of enemy units; the infantry battalions would then do the fighting. This tactic did not work well. Recon found enemy soldiers but not units; the enemy preferred to travel dispersed during the daytime, the period when recon could observe their passage. The common sightings of two, three, five, and seven enemy infantry did not warrant the commitment of a battalion. For the sake of the morale of his recon units, Lieutenant General Lewis W. Walt, then Commander of the III Marine Amphibious Force. allowed the recon teams to begin shooting at the enemy from ambush, using air and artillery whenever possible so as not to expose their own positions. Thus were born the strike teams in I Corps.
At the same time and under similar bureaucratic conditions, the Navy SEALs were starting to stalk the guerrillas along the waterways of III and IV Corps. Again it was a case of not knowing quite what to expect. As one SEAL put it, “When we first started going out small at night, guys from regular units told us the Viet Cong would just eat us up. I can remember sitting in muck up to my neck being eaten alive instead by mosquitoes, but afraid to move because I had been told the Viet Cong were everywhere.”
Exactly what these small teams, be they Army, Navy, or Marines, were to do, or how they were to do it, could not be mapped out ahead of time by senior staffs. There was no body of experience directly applicable. With hoc trine lagging, strike teams blazed their own tactical way. While their main assignments have been to find and to wear down 'he enemy, their specific missions, deployments and growth rates have depended more upon operational factors than predetermined objectives.
The first and most obvious factor was the enemy. The initial forays of the strike teams often caught the enemy at great disadvantage. In the summer of 1966, for instance, my assignment as a tactical analyst for the Marine Corps took me to the DMZ, where the first large operation against the North Vietnamese 324B Division was being mounted. Rather than join one of the five infantry battalions engaging the enemy, I joined a Force Reconnaissance team. The five of us were given a simple mission: get into the bush, find the enemy, and destroy him if you can. At dawn on a windy morning a helicopter dropped us five miles east of Khe Sanh, and We quickly moved into the jungle. For two days we moved through the thick undergrowth, staying well hidden, occasionally hearing the enemy chopping wood or shouting back and forth, once at midevening seeing lanterns bobbing down a valley floor. By the 'bird morning we knew where their battalion bivouac area was, and called in artillery fire. To escape, the North Vietnamese had to cross a wide stream; first a few crossed, then dozens, hen scores. That was where the artillery “aught and annihilated them. Chased by a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) platoon, we left the scene at top speed and before we “could be overtaken or hemmed in, jet fighters Were scrambled and they erased the pursuit force. Following the debrief, General Walt and his G-3, Colonel John C. Chaisson, Jr., decided that such missions merited a special Action in the reporting system and chose for the strike teams the operational code name of “Stingray.” The operation itself remained classified until 1968.
The strike teams wedded individual training and initiative with advanced technology; five men with one radio had the firepower of a regiment at their disposal. The same idea was occurring to others, including Brigadier General Willard Pearson, U. S. Army, who often so deployed major elements from his brigade of the 101st Airborne Division.
But the NVA enemy was learning, too. One simple counter was dispersal, since hitting a moving point target is difficult, given the indirect fire weapons, problems of Circular Error Probability (CEP), map co-ordinate estimates, and short response times.
To cover some large movements, the NVA took to sending out its own counterstrike teams, which roamed like destroyers around a convoy. These flankers could sweep aside small units; it cost the enemy, however, his previous advantage of invisible movement, for its pattern indicated his shifts. And in some other areas, the enemy was so thick and entrenched that he could give a team a race for its life, and he could mass firepower against the helicopters called for extractions. Strike teams were loath to enter locales where infrared detection readouts indicated large enemy forces, because they learned from experience that the enemy had come to expect strike teams and planned accordingly. In the Ashau Valley and along the DMZ, for instance, the enemy by 1967 had adapted to strike teams and sent his small outguard patrols roving the sides of the hills looking for Marines. The Marines did not fear the initial contact, however, since the opposing force was generally of their own size, and they usually could settle the meeting engagements satisfactorily with the M-16s. It was the subsequent piling-on tactic that they hated. For once the fire fight began, other enemy units moved in. If the team was lucky, it broke contact and escaped from the area. If not, it had to defend until reinforced or extracted by helicopter.
Other strike teams faced other enemies. Lieutenant General William A. Peers, commanding I Army Field Force in II Corps, found an added bonus in using his LRRPs. Not only were they seekers and harassers of encroaching NVA units, they were pinging away at two Viet Cong local force battalions which had proved too elusive for entrapment by large U. S. units. In the Mekong Delta, SEAL platoons sometimes were even more selective, targeting upon individual members of the Viet Cong political apparatus. In short, strike teams cut across the spectrum of enemy forces.
The second factor which affected the operations of strike teams was terrain, defined demographically. Between 60 and 70 per cent of Vietnam is unpopulated wilderness. In the sharp hills of I Corps, Marine recon teams frequently used hidden observation posts from which to call air and artillery fire upon unsuspecting enemy groups. Even when the enemy presence was thick and encounters were at short range, the small-arms effectiveness of strike teams matched their effectiveness in using supporting arms, as the dozens of patrols and hasty ambushes in the scrub growth of the DMZ north of Dong Ha attested.
The kill ratio was the most ballyhooed statistic quoted in regard to reconnaissance. This ratio was partially a function of terrain but mostly a function of tactics, especially of the principles of concealment and surprise. In the denser jungles of II Corps and the flatter forests of III Corps, the Army LRRPs and Australian SAS relied more on trail ambushes using small arms and claymore mines. There were many sections where long-range visibility was not possible. Then it became an Indian war. There, too, the strike teams kept the balance of casualty exchange far in their favor, since surprise was on their side in the majority of encounters. In all three Corps, Stingray operations were generally conducted in areas with little or no villager population and the teams relied upon the bush to hide them from the enemy.
The Delta was a different case altogether, however, since there the population density was high and the amount of vegetation concealment low. So the SEALs substituted the night for the jungle and the boat for the helicopter. By using the waterways they had substantial selection of entry points and could conduct comparatively discreet insertions. By using the darkness they could proceed to their ambush sites undetected, even when they moved near or within a hamlet.
There are essential differences between the strike patrols and the ordinary small-unit patrols conducted by U. S. forces in the populated areas. In fact, the roles of the opposing forces are exactly reversed. In the populated areas, friendly forces must patrol constantly to prevent enemy infiltration and they must carry on the administrative routines of supply communication, and travel. Thus, their daily exposure factor is high and the chance of meeting the enemy low. The strike teams, however, are the guerrillas in the enemy area. Whether the enemy is carrying on a daily routine or simply resting, he feels safe and secure in his own area. He then becomes the hunted by the silent teams.
Mobility constituted the third operational factor for the strike teams. Mobility took two levels—first, there had to be an element of ‘'on-consistency in the insertion and area coverage frequency of strike teams to avoid Patterns detectable by the enemy.
Since the ability of the enemy to mass clandestinely or swiftly could not often be Predicted with sufficient geographical specificity, the strike teams added a second level of mobility. This counter was footpower, a willingness to get up and get away after taking a hit or when the enemy seemed Verted and strong.
Whereas a large unit often endeavors to inflict as many casualties as possible regardless of the cost to itself, a strike team endeavors to inflict as many casualties as it can on the enemy at no cost to itself. Like the Viet Cong, the strike teams will try to refuse contact when they don’t like the situation. The size and condition of the teams make pursuit of them fruitless and dangerous. Seven men can squirm through brush that will stop a company; in other situations, they back off into the night. For the enemy to plunge unplanned into pursuit has invited hasty ambushes, tear gas, and claymore mines with delay fuses.
The fourth operation factor was reaction forces. Passive defense by evacuation did not always work. When a strike team had to go to ground it needed help, and it was crucial that whatever was required to save a team was forthcoming. By their actions, senior commanders in all services have keenly manifested this attitude. The most spectacular example of this awareness occurred one night in June of 1966, when an 18-man Marine reconnaissance team on a hilltop was surrounded by an NVA regiment and attacked repeatedly. During that long night, reaction forces included a U. S. Army Special Forces team and their Vietnamese gunners pounding the hillside with artillery; continuous sorties by U. S. Air Force and Marine fixed-wing aircraft expending over 2,500 items of ordnance; a Navy destroyer standing offshore to deliver fire support from her 5-inch guns; and a Marine battalion called into the attack at first light. When the siege was broken at noon, the strike team had taken six fatalities, and earned one Medal of Honor, two Navy Crosses, 15 Silver Stars and 18 Purple Hearts. The leader of the strike team told the first Marine from the reaction force to reach his position, “Buddy, I never expected to see the sun rise. When it did, I knew you’d be coming.”
A strike team is not independent; its members must feel that they belong to a powerful system that cares. A team member must have a high degree of confidence in himself, in the other team members, and in the system that backs him and puts him out there in the first place.
Reaction forces tie directly in with the fifth factor which affects the operations of the strike teams: the training and the attitude of the team members. Until recently, the question had remained unanswered whether large bodies of troops could ever be trained and supported to fight a war using the strike team concept, combining superior individual jungle skill with sophisticated equipment. The techniques, the mission, and the training threatened to remain relegated to the very few, stamped “nontransferable.” Thus, awe, pride, and resentment inhibited emulation. The belief was widespread that strike team training and tactics could not be successfully applied to regular infantry battalions.
While commanding the U. S. Army Fourth Infantry Division in II Corps in 1967, however, General Peers proved differently. He adopted the small teams on a division-wide scale, and his division included a substantial percentage of two-year draftees. It was important that they believe they could do the job, and that they were not really all alone. The division went on to establish an extraordinary record.
And by 1967, the Marines who came to reconnaissance were not handpicked; they were simply assigned as they would have been to any other infantry unit.
Not all men adapted, but over 90 per cent of them did. There was no difference between the young recruit placed into an infantry battalion and the one sent to a reconnaissance battalion. They were sorted out according to the numbers needed. Reconnaissance Marines had no difficulty with the recruits. They kept them, when they could, for the first few weeks in garrison at Dong Ha or Da Nang, to train them, particularly in reading maps and calling in fire. Even then they didn’t have the time to do this in all cases. So, many young privates learned the way soldiers do in every war—by keeping their mouths shut and following the lead of the experienced team members.
To all new men the same line was preached: “You’ll stay alive in recon, even if the work is hairier than in the infantry units.” It was a good selling point. General Peers emphasized this point to each of his LRRP graduating classes. While many men were scared in the bush, they knew they were safer there.
This factor of lower friendly casualties is a most important reason for evaluating the strike team performance and potential. The strike team work is more nerve-wracking but less deadly than the infantry work. The reconnaissance troops know this; and it makes a significant morale difference, especially since a reconnaissance Marine knows his survival largely depends on himself. He often has a distinct say in what his team does or does not do.
These operational factors set the parameters within which the strike teams could work, and delimited the objectives which the teams could accomplish. It became obvious that the strike teams had severe limitations. In fact, the concept was inapplicable to the fundamental missions of conventional warfare: strike teams could not hold terrain and they could not destroy the enemy forces. They traded terrain for survival, being most vulnerable when the enemy knew where they were, being safest when the enemy assumed the land belonged to him. While they occasionally disrupted an enemy unit to a major degree, as in the DMZ incident related above, most usually they could just sting and run.
These distinct limitations of the strike teams are implicit to their Fabian style. Cast in the mode of guerrillas in the enemy areas, however, the strike teams have displayed three relative advantages over larger units. First, as one might suspect, their rate of contact is significantly higher. Engagements and attrition of the enemy, when measured on a per-man basis, have shown that the strike teams of all three services are more productive by these criteria than the larger conventional units.
Second, contrary to popular belief, decentralization can decrease vulnerability. For three years, regular U. S. infantry battalions have suffered significantly higher casualties in proportion to those suffered by the strike teams of any of the three services. In fact, strike teams are often reluctant to move in groups of over a dozen men, believing that larger size means noise, exposure, discovery, fire, casualties, and frustrated evacuations. When a battalion (or larger) operation is mounted, most often the telltale signs are there for the enemy to read: pre-invasion and artillery strikes on the objective large convoys of men and supplies, unusual air activity, etc. Rarely can a large unit be moved secretly. Once on the ground near the objective, concealment is still the role of the enemy and exposure that of the Allied forces. Poetically, this deprives the battalion of the 'foment of surprise and leaves the opening found up to the enemy.
A large unit (100 men or more) on the move can forsake concealment for cover which, hopefully, is provided in deterrent form by the suppressive capability of its firepower. The strike teams make it their business to disappear as fast as possible once they are in Viet Cong areas. They must cling to concealment, be it the jungle or the night; survival motivates them.
The size of the strike team represents nothing more than the economic principle of optimum productivity. Given as their mission the attrition of the enemy, and allowed to use in strict moderation) the tools of technology, additional patrol members beyond the five to ten needed for watch-standing, defense, and first-burst ambushes have below average productivity.
Third, the terrain coverage of strike teams, keeping with their reconnaissance aspect, is considerable. Deployed shrewdly and debriefed properly, the information collected by the strike teams can be collated and, together with other intelligence inputs, can be used to establish patterns of enemy activity and movement.
Over the past three years, the actual performance of the strike teams has indicated the operation factors and their limitations. This history also points out two complementary missions to which the strike teams could be set so as to maximize their relative advantage, if a substantial number of strike teams were to be organized and incorporated into a strategic framework for Vietnam. These Missions are harassment and surveillance.
The means to harassment is attrition. Although some important enemy cadres may occasionally be eliminated, attrition by strike foams does not imply the gradual destruction of the enemy. (Destruction is the rate of attrition minus the rate of regeneration.) Attrition would be undertaken not for the sake of kill ratios or other statistics, but for its psychological effects upon the enemy. The intent would be to lower the morale of the enemy by keeping irregular pressure upon the enemy in his own backyard. During the past year, especially, prisoner interrogations have been revealing that many enemy units are aware they have been stalked by small teams with sudden ambushes and massive fire support and that this awareness has unsettled them.
Harassment would also have the purpose of restricting the enemy’s movement. There would be areas where enemy passage would no longer be cost-free. The precedent is the Viet Cong’s brilliant use of mines in certain GVN areas. When American units start losing men week after week, without any pattern, without any warning, without any solid contact, morale goes down and down. There is a distinct qualitative difference in how casualties are sustained which affects how a unit fights and feels. It becomes difficult to persuade the troops that there was a reason sufficient to justify the steady patrolling of certain areas. Once mine-shy, units would avoid the bad places, or enter them only with great reluctance. Harassment of the enemy could affect similar channelization.
The morale of a unit is affected worse by constant small attrition than a few major engagements. Those who survive major engagements once or perhaps twice a year have the intervening several months to reorganize, recruit, retrain, and rest. This is not so when the pressure is constant and the casualties consistent, for then each man wonders each day if it is his turn. Confidence in the leaders wanes and critical questions about the wisdom of their tactics and strategy arise.
Enemy countertactics to the strike teams should be considered a gain if they raise his exposure factor or if they tie up resources otherwise of offensive uses to him.
This recognized but unpredictable sort of harassment also affects the attitudes of the villagers and the morale of the GVN officials. Although the contact rate and attrition figures may be low, if the strike teams generate operations consistently, the word spreads through the rural communities: the GVN or the Americans are moving in small units against the Viet Cong. The SEALS, for instance, have been known to sneak into a hamlet in the dead of night, burst into a house and shake their man awake. This arrest technique has had a psychological impact throughout the Delta far exceeding its actual accomplishments. The word has gone out from province to province: There are Americans with green and black faces who come from the water in the middle of the night to seize the VC. It is very unsettling to a VC to think he cannot come home at night to visit his wife. The reputation of the SEALs has far exceeded their physical capabilities. (There just are not that many of them, and the Delta holds over five million people.) The odds are very low that they would actually break down many doors in any given year. Yet the fact that they have done it successfully has set the Viet Cong on edge in many provinces.
The utility of strike teams is thus partially measurable by the extent to which gossip and repetition foster their reputation for invisible ubiquity. The intent would be to deter from active support to the enemy those fence-sitters who now co-operate because the penalty for refusal is higher than for compliance. If rice movement at night, for instance, were to run the known risk of ambush, many non-dedicated activists in Viet Cong areas would try to desist.
The second major mission of strike teams is surveillance. There are screens of strike teams around several of the major cities, deployed with the object of picking up any signs of enemy massing within attack distance of the urban centers. In large measure, strike teams can remove the burden of searching from the large units conducting search-and-destroy operations. When lucrative enemy targets are found, battalion exploitation forces could be thrown in on spoiling operations. This use of strike teams could relieve many battalions that are tied up in missions not related to the populated areas and yet are not actively engaged. To this end strike teams are an economy of force measure which permits a higher proportion of American forces to be reallocated in keeping with more important tasks, such as developing a rural area security system which the GVN can gradually take over.
At first it was by trial and error that the strike teams learned. Later, however, institutionalized memories within units emerged as the men, naturally close, swapped sea stories, extracted lessons, wrote them down, and passed them along verbally and by ample to newcomers. Desire for knowledge also led to interservice training. The Australian SAS members have accompanied SEALs to learn their techniques, and Marine recon people have accompanied the SAS, and the Army LRRPs have accompanied the Marine recon.
These innovations, improvements and accrued knowledge have proceeded so far in the absence of strategic doctrine—and in cases like the SEALs, perhaps because of it. When tactics prove themselves, however, it is time to extract the concepts and construct the doctrine to test for future applicability arid influence on force structures.
To a future ground warfare conflict between modernized nations, the strike team5 could by their small size bring the initial advantage of frontline target dispersal and by their radios the impact of massed firepower on troops in conventional formations. When Viet Cong slam rockets into the American division headquarters, that is in keeping with strike team concept.
And relating to future conflicts of a lower scale on the spectrum of warfare, institutionalization of strike teams would bring to the policymaker added selectivity in military instruments. The British actions in Sarawak and northern Malaysia over the past four years exemplify the use of unobtrusive small units. Strike teams apply force in a restrained manner. Discrimination in the selection of point targets is not an effect attributable to any comparatively enlightened morality on the part of the strike teams; it comes as a function of specificity. Infrared might read out village, whereas five men staking out a trail select a man. And, of course, the structuring of forces to include flexibility in the use of strike teams relates to the development military option, not to a prior argument or its future use.
The present use of strike teams, however, is another matter. Many commanders still believe the role of small units in enemy areas is pure reconnaissance.
The history and military tradition of Western nations have emphasized the dominant role of large units and mighty battles in determining the outcome of wars. Despite whatever lip service might have been paid to the tactical tenets of guerrilla warfare, the temptation remained to do most what one knew best, had studied longest, and was best equipped for, mentally and materially: large-unit war. Many battalion commanders put on arbitrary time frame on the war: the number if months they had command. The central issue often became combat for the sake of combat, recognition and reward. In a way, the Army of Vietnam (ARVN) and Viet Cong commanders were more rational on refusing combat unless trapped or clearly holding an advantage. Now it is very true that the battalions have to perform a variety of missions and cannot always afford to be as discriminating as reconnaissance, but that does not lessen the validity of comparisons where the missions are the same, or the validity to question the concepts which underlie the missions.
The fascination with the individual battalion engagement is understandable on the Part of the battalion commander and the press. For the commander, battle brings pride to his unit and to himself. For the press, a battalion action is large enough to guarantee footage back home and small enough to allow a summing-up editorial. At another level, however, engagements must be rated and alternatives weighed in keeping with known constraints and feasible goals.
The dilemma of deciding the worth and the opportunity cost of strike teams has a direct parallel in a naval operations research problem of World War II, wherein a study to destroy enemy shipping took as its criterion of performance the ratio of enemy ships sunk to U. S. man-years of effort. This criterion was discarded as misleading since sinking was only one of several means of preventing shipping and since man-years was only one of several means of measuring costs.
Similarly, the fascination with individual engagements in Vietnam has led to insistence upon a numerical parity or superiority that is not relevant for engagements against an unfixed enemy who will move. Attempts to minimize risk in each individual case can thereby lead to more casualties for lesser gain in the aggregate. Any given strike team runs the risk of being completely wiped out—-an eventuality no battalion need worry about. Yet the average infantryman’s chances of survival are twice as great in a strike team as in a battalion, while that same strike team member will inflict six times as many casualties upon the enemy.
A correct understanding of the problem and of the constraints should, although not necessarily does it, precede the means taken to ensure a solution. A transition from the historical naval example to a fantasy might help to explain the point. Suppose that in 1966 an American general had information that 15,000 troops from the NVA 324 B Division were massing in the DMZ to swoop down upon Quang Tri City and “liberate it. Suppose the general decided to let them come down into the flat lands, and proposed further that the 1st Air Cavalry Division be poised to cut the NVA division off from the mountains to the west while a Marine division made an amphibious landing from the east. Suppose the plan was approved enthusiastically by MACV and forwarded to Washington, the argument being that the proposed destruction of an elite enemy division would probably curtail any such future NVA invasion plans. Appalled, Washington rejects the plan and questions the sanity of the proposing general—on the grounds that Tarawa proved almost unsupportable even in the crusade atmosphere of World War II, and that in Vietnam several hundred and perhaps thousands of American deaths within a framework of one or two days cannot be sustained politically.
This fantasy should point out the finality of constraints and the wisdom of commanders who can properly identify the problem and structure the operations of their forces accordingly. It is not the author’s intent to freeze force structure capabilities by suggesting that the Stingray style is axiomatically applicable in Vietnam or anywhere else. It is to suggest that strike teams ought to be an option added to the more established deployments and tactics. Whether the troops are then so used depends upon the commander’s reading of the problem and of the constraints that form the parameters within which he must move toward a solution. To add flavor to the platitudinous air of the last statement, the author would say that from his observation troop use in Vietnam far too frequently followed the risk minimization of indeterminate single-battalion sweeps when the more recent combination of strike teams and multi-battalion cordons were markedly preferable within the context of the problem. Small-unit actions were looked on as an adjunct or an aid to a large-unit strategy, not an alternative. But the tactics of the engagements, the technological potential for man power substitution, and the political nature of the conflict indicated the wisdom of wider adoption of the strike team method.
Moreover, there may be an additional role for strike teams to play—if and when a mutual U. S./North Vietnamese Army troop withdrawal is agreed upon in Paris. Strike teams then may be called upon to monitor the exfiltration routes. While infrared, side-looking radar and other technological devices can perhaps bring in the bulk of the evidence about such movements, the human element of strike team surveillance is both an added check and to the press, also a more credible witness. This could be crucial in a situation wherein the strongest sanction toward the North Vietnamese for complying with a mutual withdrawal pact might be the expectancies of world opinion, as mirrored and stirred by the press.
In Vietnam the crucial question now is not whether to use strike teams, but rather how many to use and for what ends. Set to the objectives of harassment and surveillance, as outlined above, the strike teams have exhibited two strong relative advantages over larger, more conventional units: they can perform those tasks using fewer men and with a lower casualty rate. Any such sub-optimized set of strike team objectives could have meaning only if it were placed within an overall Vietnam strategy in keeping with friendly performances, enemy capabilities, and political realities. Since this strategy does not seem to exist, lacking therefore also are rational criteria by which the strike teams could be judged and accorded strategic status and force deployment in keeping with their tactical worth.
Since I do not accept the strategy of attrition as a valid and attainable war objective, it must be made very clear that I believe the merit of strike teams does not lie simply in their ability to accomplish attrition more economically. I see strike teams as just one part of an over-all strategy, part of a time-buying process while the South Vietnamese forces are being reshaped and a strong area security system is being established within the populated area.
In a war where there is a definite need to hold territory or to seize area objectives, a considerable number of troops are needed. But, where the objective is to punish and prevent access to an enemy, the number of troops deployed in the task could in large measure depend upon the tactics chosen. The Stingray concept, with its offensive power, its psychological impact, and defensive elusiveness, has called into question, for certain objectives, traditional tactics and the classic ratios of friendly to enemy forces.
Military planners now must devise a Vietnam strategy that will ensure both a U. S. troop reduction and a decrease in fatalities. Since the enemy has demonstrated that he can drive up the level of U. S. fatalities, it is fallacious to assume that casualties will be automatically reduced proportionate to troop withdrawals. Therefore, to continue unchanged the current programs—attrition of enemy, improvement of ARVN, and protection of the cities—by the same input mix of activities, i.e., battalion sweeps, and platoon patrols, while hoping for casualty reduction is to assume benevolence or exhaustion on the of the enemy.
Not all U. S. programs and activities, however, are equally susceptible to enemy pressure. More than most other activities, Stingray operations control the level of friendly casualties. Strike teams operate from large, secure ground and sea bases, they select the time, means and places of entry; and they, not the enemy, choose whether to engage. The Stingray mode has been used in all four Corps areas for over three years in the face of various enemy force levels. Friendly casualties have remained remarkably low despite determined and diverse enemy counter-tactics.
Control of casualties, of course, is a constraint in terms of cost-benefit analysis. It is rather like trying to work within a fixed budget for optimum effect, a contradiction of the traditional war strategy which fixed objectives rather than costs.
On the effect side of the balance sheet, Stingray operations should be conducted so as to affect both the enemy and the armed forces of the GVN. The effects related to the enemy are surveillance and psychological as well as physical harassment. The effect upon the GVN may well be even more critical. The dilemma facing top U. S. decision-makers is how to de-Americanize the war while yet strengthening the morale of the GVN to meet the strong challenge of its adversaries. The SEALs have proven that Stingray, as seen from the enemy’s point of view, can be dramatic as well as physically telling. The judicious employment of Stingray in 1970 towards ARVN could be similar in psychological scope but opposite in effect. The purpose would be to let ARVN troops see with their own eyes that U. S: troops were still willing to go anywhere at any time, even in small units. The basic rule of thumb would be: invisibility while on operations; visibility before and after operations. The intent would be to foster among both the enemy and the South Vietnamese Army a reputation for Stingray ubiquity and utility.
Thus far, missions and resources have been allocated to the strike teams in an ad hoc, tactical, decentralized fashion. Their growth has been impeded by tradition, organizational incentives, and above all a satisfied feeling that no radical changes in force structure or missions were needed in Vietnam. In a period of increasing constraints and uncertainty, however, careful planning and centralized control become imperative if chaos is to be avoided. Given planning and analysis, 1970 should see Stingray strike teams augmented in size and activity in order that they may play a major strategic role in keeping with their comparative advantages of low friendly casualties, ally morale-boasting, and enemy harassment and surveillance.