Chapter I: 
For the U.S. Army, the war in Vietnam presented a new type of battle fought with new weapons and new tactics against a very different enemy. In many respects, the area war without front lines together with the guerrilla tactics were out of our nation's beginnings, while the sophisticated hardware presaged the future automated battlefield management systems.
This monograph discusses some of the more important tactical and materiel innovations in Vietnam from the viewpoint of the infantry division commander. A few well-documented battles illustrate new concepts and hardware, most of which were developed over an extended period of time in a variety of operations. (Map 1) However, the basic tactical doctrine has not changed; it has merely been expanded by new capabilities or altered to the Vietnam situation.
The tactics and methods of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers did not fit the patterns established by enemy forces in World War II and the Korean War. This fact was especially evident during the stages of the insurgency when the enemy's main force units tried to avoid heavy contact in favor of terrorism and ambush. Another difference was that all of South Vietnam was a war arena with shifting scenes of combat in comparison to the rigidity imposed by the narrow front lines characteristic of past conflicts.
U.S. tactics, however, adjusted to the situation. In a land that favored the easily hidden, lightly loaded foot soldier, the helicopter balanced the odds. Airmobility was a dramatic new dimension, which allowed the precise application of a variety of combat power. Finally, pacification became a new consideration for the combat commander, one which did not concern him in the past.
Many of the tactical and materiel innovations developed in Vietnam were in response to the enemy's methods of operation in Southeast Asia. The key military strategy of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) was to retain the initiative through offensive action. They intended to avoid allied strongpoints and to attack the weak spots of their choice. While they made many deliberate attacks against allied positions, they tended to favor three basic tactical operations: the raid, the ambush, and the attack by fire. The purpose of these attacks was to inflict casualties and to destroy equipment and installations, although at times the enemy's objectives were


purely political or psychological. After U.S. forces were introduced in South Vietnam in 1965, the enemy realized that to occupy, hold, or deny strategic positions was beyond his capability. The only ground that he held with any degree of permanence was in the sanctuaries across the border in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam.
The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong normally defended by evading. Only occasionally would they defend a position as a feint or deception, trying to draw allied forces into a trap or to divert them from a larger unit nearby. Enemy tacticians recognized that the allied forces were superior in firepower and mobility. To overcome this superiority, the enemy attempted to mass, attack, and withdraw before allied forces could react. Each of the enemy's operations was planned in minute detail and often rehearsed.
The enemy's combat forces were lightly equipped so that they could move more freely and quickly. They could not depend upon the type of supply lines used by most conventional forces. Instead, they brought supplies in before the battle and positioned them ahead of time. Extra weapons and ammunition were cached near the objective. Medical supplies, ammunition, and food were stored along the withdrawal routes. Thus, an increase in the movement of supplies and in the discovery of caches was a fairly reliable indication of an impending enemy offensive operation.
The survival of the enemy forces on the battlefield depended on their ability to disengage from or avoid contact with allied forces. They considered the withdrawal phase of the operation as important as any other combat action. When necessary, they would counterattack in an attempt to disengage. If routes leading away from the battlefield were blocked, the enemy troops would try to attack a weak spot in the allied position and escape through the breach. Delaying forces would ambush and harass pursuers. If an orderly withdrawal was not possible, small unit commanders would disperse their troops in the hope of rendezvousing later at a predesignated point.
Very early in the Vietnam War, U.S. forces realized that finding the elusive enemy would tax intelligence resources to the limit. Traditional methods of collecting, analyzing, and disseminating information were too slow to provide the timely intelligence needed. U.S. forces expanded techniques developed in earlier conflicts, such as pattern analysis and long-range patrols, but these were not enough. Equipment such as acoustic, magnetic, and seismic sensors, platforms for airborne reconnaissance, and surveillance and observation devices was rapidly developed. Close co-ordination between intelligence activities and the operational forces took on new meaning as efforts were made to react to information while it was still useful. In past wars, U.S. forces pieced together the enemy picture and coupled it with considerations of terrain, weather, and objectives; in Vietnam,

however, the enemy was pursued as soon as his position was reasonably certain.
The area war, in contrast to the traditional division of territory between friendly and enemy forces, had a radical effect on every aspect of military operations. Widely distributed, semipermanent logistic complexes and base camps were connected by aerial supply routes and armed convoys. These installations, defended from attack by the troops who lived there, provided administrative, logistic, and combat support to sustain the maneuver battalions. Adequate area coverage by artillery batteries required many fortified fire support bases. These compact defensive circles supported infantry, mechanized, cavalry, and tank units and were in turn protected by them. 
The infantry battalions, companies, and platoons were usually on the offensive, digging in at night in carefully planned night defensive positions. The daily operation map, instead of showing a precise line of contact, was sprinkled with red and blue symbols throughout the area of operation. Instead of a barren no man's land between adversaries, the battle was often waged in a well-populated countryside. The enemy hid easily among a people so intimidated as to prove all too often an unreliable source of information. On the allied side, special rules of engagement regulated the use of combat power in order to avoid casualties among the civilian population.
The helicopter was extremely important. Introduced first in Korea, it added new dimensions to warfare. In Vietnam it extended the infantry unit's area of control at least threefold. A commander could react to opportunities quicker, delay his decision, or even change his plan en route. He could pile on, block escape routes, extract, or surprise. His entire unit could be shifted to a new area on short notice. At times he was completely free from considerations of terrain. In the airmobile division, the helicopter was totally integrated into all operations. Without the helicopter in Vietnam, limited numbers of allied forces would not have been able to outmaneuver the enemy nor to exercise their superiority of firepower.
The terrain and weather in different areas of Vietnam greatly influenced the character of the war and led the tactical commander to develop his own methods of fighting. In the Mekong Delta, extensive flat rice paddies and swamps, often impassable for vehicles, are laced with canals and streams. Riverine tactics, using special shallow-draft gunboats, floating artillery, and armored transports, assisted ground forces in battles against the firmly entrenched Viet Cong. (Map 2)
The piedmont area around Saigon consists of gently rolling hills and broad plains. It bordered well-stocked Cambodian sanctuaries and included the infamous jungle bases War Zones C and D. Well suited for tracked vehicle movement, the area was the scene of many main force battles.


The narrow coastal plains of the northern half of South Vietnam are characterized by sandy beaches, wide flat river valleys, marshes, and rice fields. Much of the population, commerce, and agriculture as well as many U.S. logistic bases and headquarters were concentrated in these areas. They were tempting targets for the enemy, therefore, and required special protection to avoid casualties among U.S. troops and their allies during combat operations.
The rugged mountains with dense forests are broken by a rolling plateau from Pleiku to Ban Me Thuot. Tracked vehicle movement and helicopter landings here were severely limited. Poor weather and the great distance from supply centers were important limiting factors. Enemy forces in the highlands were mainly regular units of the North Vietnamese Army.
The country is mostly hot, humid, and tropical. Heavy annual rainfall-120 inches on the northern coastline, 80 inches in Saigon, and 40 inches at Phan Rang-comes with the monsoons to the north of the mountains in the winter months and to the Mekong Delta and piedmont area in the summer. Observation, off-road movement, aerial flight, and communications deteriorated during the monsoon seasons. Maintenance, supply, and storage problems increased and the incidence of disease went up. Enemy activity was usually lower during the wet seasons.
U.S. fire support in the form of artillery, tactical air, heavy bombers, and helicopter gunships was superior to that of the enemy, whose fire support normally consisted of mortars, rockets, and recoilless rifles. The enemy often tried to "hug" allied ground forces at ranges too close for the use of heavy weapons. U.S. and allied tactics centered around detailed reconnaissance, airmobile maneuver, and overwhelming firepower. Defensively, the meticulously planned fire support bases and night defensive positions of the U.S. forces became impregnable strongpoints. Unlike previous wars, there were very few objectives of terrain for allied forces. The enemy unit, wherever it was located in South Vietnam, was the target.
Pacification as a primary mission demanded new considerations from a combat commander. All offensive and security operations were undertaken within the broader goal of restoring the control of the Republic of Vietnam government over the population. U.S. combat units joined with Vietnamese forces and local government organizations to weed out the Viet Cong infrastructure, reopen roads, re-establish markets, build schools, and give medical care to the needy. The credit for such operations was given to local government leaders whenever possible.
A Korean War veteran would recognize the steel helmet, the pistol, the mortars, the towed howitzers, and the jerry can. The rest of today's hardware is new. The old mess kit is gone; troops are fed on

trays or paper plates. The lightweight M16 rifle has replaced the old Ml, and the M79 grenade launcher, the light antitank weapon, and the claymore mine have increased the infantryman's firepower. The helicopter, improved communications, and the management of available fire support have greatly magnified the combat power of U.S. units. The armored personnel carrier, the Sheridan, and the Huey helicopter are newly developed vehicles. The latest sensors, automatic data processing systems, and advanced management techniques are steps into the future.

page created 15 December 2001

Next Chapter

Return to the Table of Contents