With the formation of the mobile guerrilla force and Projects Sigma and Omega in the period August through October 1966, the ability of the Special Forces in South Vietnam to conduct unconventional operations was significantly increased. One of the chief characteristics of Special Forces units is their capacity to conduct brief or extended operations inside territory dominated or controlled by enemy forces. The conduct of these operations was one of the most significant contributions of the Special Forces to the war effort in Vietnam. Unconventional operations were planned and executed in furtherance of programs to fill three major needs of the government of South Vietnam and its supporting Free World Military Assistance Forces. The requirements were intelligence; denial, through harassment and interdiction, to the enemy of unrestricted use of various human and material resources essential to carrying out his strategic and tactical plans; and recovery of American, Free World forces, and Vietnamese soldiers missing in action.
Apart from ad hoc recovery attempts, the unconventional operations most frequently conducted in enemy-controlled areas were long-range reconnaissance patrols and mobile guerrilla actions. Fundamental to both types was the concept that, with proper training, organization, guidance, and support, soldiers who were indigenous to the area of operations would achieve the greatest success in locating enemy troops, bases, and auxiliary facilities. The concept of operations also held that, by virtue of the irregular status of the mission forces and their dependence on Special Forces advice, assistance, and special logistic and administrative support as organized in the CIDG program, unconventional operations were best conducted within the framework of that program.
Mobile guerrilla forces were created in the fall of 1966 in refinement and amplification of the mobile strike concept. These guerrilla units were organized, trained, and equipped to operate in remote areas previously considered to be Viet Cong or North Vietnam Army havens. Usually almost no reconnaissance or clearing operations had been carried out in such territory. Instituted
as economy of force units, the troops of the mobile guerrilla forces would infiltrate an area to interdict enemy routes, conduct surveillance, seek out enemy forces and installations, and collect intelligence along their axis of advance. Viet Cong base camps were found, watched, and raided if possible, or were harassed if the enemy was too well defended and organized. Lines of communication were cut by means of raids and ambushes, and were planted with mines and booby traps. Storage areas for supplies were found and eliminated, and air strikes were directed and the results assessed.
A mobile guerrilla force unit was inserted into its assigned tactical area of operations by the most unobtrusive means available. Once in the area of operations, the unit became a true guerrilla force in every respect except that of living solely off the land. Selected items of resupply were delivered by air. The guerrilla force operated from mobile bases, and the troops were capable of remaining and operating in a particular area for thirty to sixty days. The guerrilla force required complete freedom of action within a specified area of operations in order to achieve success. For this reason, once an area was designated for the conduct of an operation, the mobile guerrilla force "owned" that area—including control of air support.
The guerrilla forces had essentially the same desirable characteristics as the mobile strike forces with the following exceptions: the mobile guerrilla force troops were highly responsive to the needs of the Special Forces companies in each of the four corps tactical zones in that operational control rested with the Special Forces company commander for the mobile guerrilla force located in his corps tactical zone; each mobile guerrilla force unit was wholly commanded and controlled by a Special Forces A detachment (the mobile strike forces went under joint U.S.-Vietnamese Special Forces command in December 1966); and each mobile guerrilla force unit was trained to operate as an independent unit with no reinforcement or mutual support.
The basic organization of the mobile guerrilla forces was the same as that of the mobile strike forces, with a 34-man combat reconnaissance platoon added as an organic unit. (Chart 8) The mobile guerrilla force unit was organized without a weapons platoon, but an M60 machine gun squad was included in the company headquarters. The combat reconnaissance platoon could be employed in advance of the mobile guerrilla force to provide reconnaissance, establish an initial resupply point, and gather intelligence. The combat reconnaissance platoon secured the patrol
CHART 8-- MOBILE STRIKE FORCE ORGANIZATION (21.8 KB)
base and received the first resupply pending the arrival of the rest of the force. To avoid disclosing their position, mobile guerrilla force troops on many occasions were resupplied entirely through the use of modified, 500-pound napalm containers of prepackaged, code-identified bundles delivered by A1E-type aircraft in what seemed to be a normal air strike.
Besides the development of one mobile guerrilla force in each corps tactical zone under the operational control of the Special Forces company commander for each corps, the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) also expanded its unconventional operations capability with the creation of Projects Omega and Sigma. The launching of Projects Omega and Sigma increased the long-range reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering capability of the 5th Group beyond that already furnished by Project Delta. Each of the projects had a strength of about 600 men plus an advisory command element organized as a modified B detachment. Each project consisted of a reconnaissance element and a reaction force. (Charts 9 and 10)
Though the strength and organization of these Greek-letter projects were similar, there were some important differences between them. Project Delta operated under joint U.S.-Vietnamese Special Forces command, was directly responsive to the requirements of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and the Vietnamese Joint General Staff, and had the Vietnam Army 91st Ranger Battalion (Airborne) assigned as its immediate reaction force. Projects Omega and Sigma, however, were commanded by the Special Forces, were respectively responsive to the requirements of I Field Force, Vietnam, and II Field Force, Vietnam, and had CIDG mobile strike force companies assigned as immediate reaction forces.
The following excerpts are taken from the group commander's debriefing report for the period June 1966 to June 1967 and describe the performance of Projects Delta, Omega, and Sigma during his year in command of the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
Projects Omega (B-50) and Sigma (B-56) are under the OPCON of I FFORCEV and II FFORCEV respectively. Commanded directly by USASF personnel, these units are directly responsible to the requirements of the field force commanders. They are composed of 8 "Roadrunner" teams with four indigenous personnel each, and 8 reconnaissance teams with two USASF and four indigenous members each. The "Roadrunner" teams conduct long distance reconnaissance over enemy trail networks. The reconnaissance teams, on the other hand, conduct saturation patrols throughout specified reconnaissance zones, gathering
CHART 9-- ORGANIZATION OF PROJECT DELTA (21.1 KB)
CHART 10-- ORGANIZATION OF PROJECTS SIGMA AND OMEGA (15 KB)
detailed intelligence on enemy movements, routes, and installations, as well as conducting detailed terrain analysis. Backing up the reconnaissance elements of these projects are three MIKE Force reaction companies. These units are employed to exploit small unit contacts, to aid in the extraction of compromised teams, and to perform reconnaissance-in-force missions. Although operational for only nine months, these units have already gathered much valuable information on enemy locations, movements, and lines of communication. They have made numerous sightings of enemy units ranging from squad to battalion size forces. Exploiting these sightings, the teams called in TAC airstrikes on the enemy when feasible. It is noteworthy that since their activation, these units have spent an average of 60% of their time on operations. In addition to gathering much valuable intelligence information, they have accounted for 191 enemy KIA (USASF body count). Probably more important, however, is the psychological impact which these units have on the enemy. The enemy is beginning to realize that he no longer has exclusive dominion over his safe areas. As techniques and training progress, the detachment efforts will be appreciably increased.
Project Delta (B-52) was organized in 1964 under VNSF command with USASF advisors. Since it was used as the basis for the organization of Projects Sigma and Omega, its composition, capabilities, and limitations are essentially the same. The primary difference in organization is the existence of the 91st ARVN Airborne Ranger Battalion as the reaction and reinforcing unit. In view of the dual command relationship, all requests for this unit had to be submitted to JGS and MACV through the respective channels. During the past year this unit has been operating most frequently in I CTZ; however, it has the capability of deploying into any corps when so directed by JGS and MACV. While not as directly responsible to command requirements as Projects Omega and Sigma, this force has made significant contributions to the overall effort. Because of its increased firepower through the employment of the ARVN battalion as its reaction force, it has been able to account for a greater number of enemy kills (194) than the other two units combined. During the past year, it has been deployed in the field, on the average, 55% of the time.
Unit training for unconventional operations consisted of repetitive practical exercises in advanced infantry and special warfare tactics and skills applicable to the environment of mainland Southeast Asia. The training was simplified to the utmost for the benefit of the largely illiterate ethnic and religious minority groups who comprised the forces. The men taken into the unconventional operations forces usually had served previously in CIDG camp strike forces and had therefore been through one or more basic light infantry training cycles. Training for unconventional operations proceeded from this base of knowledge. As a first step, all the men had to qualify for airborne operations. After that the important subjects covered were silent movement; methods of tracking and observation; use of maps and compass; use and care of signaling
devices; methods and techniques of infiltration and exfiltration of reconnaissance zones and areas of operations; use and care of special weapons; care and treatment of minor wounds and illnesses; methods of execution of raids and hasty ambushes; defense of bivouac or mission support sites; and procedures for "sterilizing" landing zones and stopover points.
The initial training period covered five to six weeks and was based on a six-day work week and a nine-to-ten-hour work day. Training took place both in base camp and in the field on exercise.
The command and control structure of this type of force was the simplest that could be devised consistent with its organization, missions, capabilities, and support requirements. The mobile strike forces, for instance, were very effective when employed in the roles for which they were trained, that is, reconnaissance and rapid reaction. Unfortunately, when mobile strike forces were attached to U.S. or Vietnam Army units, they were sometimes used as conventional infantry over extended periods of time. This put considerable strain on the strike forces and occasionally resulted in criticism from U.S. commanders of conventional units. Though efforts were made to educate U.S. commanders about the capabilities and limitations of the mobile strike forces, misuse of them remained a continuing problem. Command and control arrangements between special operations forces and higher headquarters varied with the missions and task organization of the forces. For the most sensitive and dangerous missions, command and control were normally exercised directly and jointly from the highest U.S. and Vietnamese headquarters to forces in the field. As missions were progressively less sensitive in nature, command and control was passed to subordinate headquarters.
With regard to air support for special operations, Army aviation attached to the 5th Special Forces Group provided some direct helicopter assault and lift support, and the U.S. Air Force provided airlift for large troop and supply movements. The U.S. and Vietnamese Air Forces rendered other direct aerial support and also provided airborne and other tactical radio-relay links as required. In I Corps U.S. Marine Corps aviation provided direct support in similar ways.
Unconventional operations were an extremely important function of the Special Forces in South Vietnam. With but few exceptions, each operation was carefully planned in advance, and forces were staged from main to forward bases before commitment. The time required to plan an operation and to stage the forces in the area varied with the type and urgency of the mission.
Planning began with a detailed assessment of the designated operational area. All available data on the physical and human geography of the area and on the probable and possible location of enemy forces and facilities within it were collected and analyzed. Relevant data were displayed on maps, and primary and alternative routes of movement for the unconventional operations force were selected and marked. Sources of data for area assessments were maps, intelligence reports, aerial photography, prisoner interrogation reports, and after action reports of friendly forces that had previously operated in the area. If possible, the area assessment planning staff checked the accuracy of its assessment through visual reconnaissance flights over the proposed operational area. Such flights were especially important for the final selection of primary and alternative helicopter landing zones for infiltration and extraction.
When the area assessment was completed, operational orders were issued, and the unconventional operations force was staged if necessary to a forward operating base. Staging involved the transport of men and materiel and was usually accomplished by airlift. If only a few men and a small amount of materiel were to be moved, Army or Marine Corps helicopters and light fixed-wing aircraft were sufficient to accomplish the lift. For larger operations, U.S. Air Force C-7A and C-130 aircraft were employed.
On arrival at the forward operating base, the force was inspected for readiness and the tactical command element presented a "briefback" to the senior officers responsible for operational command, control, and support immediately before commitment. The briefback amounted to a detailed presentation of the operational plan and was designed to insure that every tactical commander, and for small teams every member, knew precisely what his responsibilities were as well as how, when, and why he had to discharge them under the widely differing sets of circumstances that could be encountered during the operation.
For reconnaissance missions, the precise methods and procedures for accomplishing each task associated with the mission were presented in exceptional detail. All were the products of the hard experience of Vietnam. Covered in the briefback were such items as the order and manner of exit from the helicopter that was to introduce the team into the reconnaissance zone, the schedule of movement within the area, procedures for breaking contact with the enemy, and the schedule for and manner of leaving the area.
Much of the success of unconventional operations depended on
surprise. In addition to stringent security to safeguard plans, numerous measures were employed to deceive the enemy. Deception was most important at the outset of the operation. In the manner common to Vietnam, the force infiltrated by land, air, or water as befitted the locale, the season, and the size of the force. If, for example, the area of operation was not normally and routinely overflown by friendly aircraft or lacked suitable helicopter landing zones or parachute drop zones, the force might infiltrate overland or perhaps by small watercraft. The helicopter was, however, the usual means of infiltration.
Experience in Vietnam showed that infiltration by helicopter was best accomplished at last light when the pilots could still see well enough to insert the force and have a few minutes to slip away from the landing zone as both force and helicopters were enveloped by protective darkness. Since the enemy was familiar with this method of infiltration, it was necessary to deceive him in regard to the exact point of landing. The helicopters therefore often set down briefly at three or more points in the vicinity of the primary landing zone to create uncertainty in the enemy's mind as to the exact point of insertion. A variation of this technique was also employed when small reconnaissance parties were inserted. A trio of helicopters would fly low in trail formation with sufficient separation to afford the lead helicopter time to touch down momentarily, discharge its reconnaissance team while the other aircraft passed over the landing zone, and rejoin the flight as the last machine in trail.
Communist forces in South Vietnam were very sensitive to these operations and adopted simple but effective countermeasures against infiltration of their refuges. Chief among these was planting long bamboo poles upright in jungle clearings potentially useful as helicopter landing zones, densely covering such clearings with punji stakes, and assigning guards to clearings in the vicinity of their troop units and installations. Clearings studded with bamboo poles were easily recognized by staff planners during aerial reconnaissance of prospective operational areas. Punji stakes in high grass, as well as the presence of guards, were seldom detected beforehand, however, and were often encountered. Casualties resulting from punji stakes, detection by guards, or any overt sign that the enemy had been alerted to the infiltration were causes for immediate evacuation of the party.
Under some circumstances infiltration was best accomplished on foot. Roadrunner and reconnaissance teams were quite easily inserted into a reconnaissance zone from a base camp under cover
of darkness, or even during daylight hours if the camp was known to dispatch small patrols in random directions as a matter of routine. If such was not the case, the special reconnaissance team could always leave the base as a part of a larger patrol force and then quietly break away from the force at a preselected time and place.
A similar technique was also employed for a company-size or larger force. After establishing a routine of departing from and returning to the base at random intervals of time and different directions, the force would use an indirect approach to penetrate its operational area. This technique offered a high probability that the enemy would fail to detect the penetration and that enemy agents in the vicinity of the friendly base camp would be unable to report an unusual development in camp operations.
All movement by unconventional operations forces was carefully planned. The survival of small reconnaissance teams depended on each individual team member's knowing and rigidly following a precise route and schedule of movement. The plan might provide for the deliberate and temporary separation and subsequent rendezvous of team members, but it had to provide for rendezvous at precise times and locations if separation occurred under enemy pressure. Mobile strike force movement was planned in less exacting detail but nonetheless followed selected routes unless terrain, vegetation, an engagement with the enemy, or the unexpected appearance of a lucrative target of opportunity justified a change in plan. With more men and heavier firepower, a mobile strike force was better equipped to engage and defeat the enemy.
Stealth was the principal characteristic of movement by unconventional operations forces. Though the enemy might soon become aware of the presence of the men, it was essential that he remain ignorant of their exact location. Movement had to be as silent as possible. Hand and arm signals were used instead of voice commands; voice radio contacts were held to a minimum; weapons and equipment were padded or taped to prevent rattling or metallic sounds when they were brought into contact with rocks or underbrush; and march silence was strictly observed.
The enemy proved quite adept at detecting and tracking such forces even when these precautions were taken. His countermeasures consisted mainly of placing guards at such places as trail junctions and stream crossing points to signal information on the movement of the force by means of a simple code of rifle fire and by having a few trackers follow the force at a safe interval to chart and report on its movements. The enemy also monitored
voice radio frequencies normally used by friendly forces for tactical command and control. Feints, ambushes, booby traps, frequent changes in the apparent direction of movement of the force, and strict radio silence were used against the enemy countermeasures.
Suitable sites for bivouac, rest, resupply, and the temporary basing of the force in the field were carefully assessed and plotted before each mission. Sites were designated as primary or alternative, according to the whole plan of movement and the known or estimated adequacy of the cover, availability of water, and defensibility of the terrain. Such operations were aggressive by nature and therefore a force seldom expected to occupy a refuge site for more than half a day. An important exception to this general rule was a temporary base or mission support site for mobile strike operations. From this base a strike force could break down into patrols of squad and platoon size to comb a suspected enemy refuge area. Prolonged use of a mission support site, however, was avoided because it invited enemy attack.
Refuge sites used by the force were carefully policed when the force departed. Enemy trackers were always quick to search these evacuated sites for scraps of intelligence on the strength and intentions of the force, and they frequently dug into garbage pits for such clues. Unconventional operations forces found it useful to booby-trap garbage pits to discourage such probing. Self-destruction devices had, however, to be so employed as to prevent injury to other friendly forces and friendly noncombatants who might occupy the site at some later time.
The nature of the internal defense mission of the U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam required the development of new techniques for resupply in the field. Experience showed that unconventional operations forces, regardless of size, could not carry much more than a five-day supply of food, ammunition, and other necessities. Accordingly, each operational plan provided for resupply at intervals of three to five days at predetermined sites.
In an unconventional warfare role, the forces were expected to live off the land and to replenish at least some of their ammunition and materiel from captured enemy stores and caches of clandestinely acquired items. There was no need to follow such procedures in an internal defense role where resupply was relatively easy, yet the necessity to avoid betraying the location of the force to the enemy remained. Standard airdrops in daylight hours were easily observed by an alert enemy, and night drops in jungled terrain stood a slim chance of being efficiently recovered.
Every plan for unconventional operations had to provide for
both the routine and emergency removal of individual members or the entire force from the designated area of operations. Planning was necessarily contingent on the innumerable factors that could influence the immediate tactical situation. Under the best of circumstances, and after realization of its objectives, a force could simply walk out or be picked up by aircraft and lifted out of its operational area at a planned point in time and space. The unconventional operations of U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam were so successful through mid-1967 that most were terminated according to plan.
The probability that a force would have to be recovered from an operational area before the planned termination increased in inverse proportion to the size of the force committed. Roadrunner and long-range reconnaissance teams were the most vulnerable to destruction by enemy forces; therefore the command and control element of the force had to be prepared to extract teams from reconnaissance zones at a moment's notice. Ordinarily helicopters lifted out small patrols. If time and circumstances permitted, they would touch down momentarily and recover in standard fashion.
If the friendly force had to be recovered from a position unsuitable for touchdown, a block-and-tackle rig was employed for hasty lift. The typical rig, called a McGuire rig after the Special Forces sergeant who devised it, was a simple rope sling into which a man on the ground could quickly fasten himself in a seated position or, under urgent circumstances, simply affix to his wrist and be plucked from danger in a matter of seconds by the rapid ascent of the hovering aircraft.
Procedures for the evacuation of casualties and for the emergency evacuation of a force larger than a reconnaissance team were more complex. The decision to evacuate or extract posed a difficult problem that required careful weighing of such factors as the mission requirements; the constraints of weather, time, and the position of the force; and the degree of danger which faced the force and the evacuating aircraft. The decision had to be made without delay, and eventualities had to be provided for in the operational plan. It was essential that alternative procedures be explained and rehearsed under simulated conditions in the training that preceded a mission.
BLACKJACK 33, a typical unconventional operation, was carried out between 27 April and 24 May 1967 in III Corps. It was the first operation in which a mobile guerrilla force was employed in conjunction with the long-range reconnaissance capability of a project force—Project Sigma, Detachment B-56. The operation was highly effective; 320 of the enemy were killed. BLACKJACK 33 was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Clarence T. Hewgley and Captain James Gritz. (See Appendix F.)
A basic misconception of the nature of Special Forces operations in Vietnam was created by publicity attendant to the U.S. Army's arrest in July 1969 of Colonel Robert B. Rheault, then commanding the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), six officers of an intelligence detachment attached temporarily to the 5th Special Forces Group, and a Special Forces noncommissioned officer. The eight were charged in connection with the alleged murder of a South Vietnamese intelligence agent suspected of being a double agent.
In September Secretary of the Army Stanley R. Resor announced a dismissal of charges because the Central Intelligence Agency had determined that, for security reasons, its personnel could not be made available as witnesses, and without them Mr. Resor deemed that a fair trial was impossible. Since no trial was conducted, the accuracy of the charges and of contemporary newspaper accounts was never ascertained. The public impression
created by this case, in which only two of the principals were members of the Special Forces, was misleading and diverted attention from the invaluable contributions of the Special Forces in a wide range of other activities.
One final aspect of the unconventional operations of the 5th Special Forces Group deserves mention—the efforts made by the group to recover prisoners of war held by the enemy in South Vietnam. The operations were directed at liberating any and all prisoners of whatever nationality. Operations with the specific mission of recovering prisoners were mounted and conducted throughout 1966 and 1967. In the fall of 1966 an operation using mobile strike forces was mounted to recover prisoners being held in camps in the U Minh Forest in IV Corps. Although a sharp firelight ensued, no prisoners were liberated. Early in 1967 an operation was conducted in Tay Ninh Province, again by mobile strike forces, to pin down prisoner of war camp locations. Another operation in early 1967 was concentrated in the An Loa Valley in II Corps but no camps were located. In the spring of 1967 mobile guerrilla forces participated in a prisoner recovery operation— part of BLACKJACK 41—in the Seven Mountains region. Also in the spring of 1967, raids on prisoner of war camps in War Zone C of III Corps were staged out of the CIDG camp at Can Song Be. Project Sigma forces together with mobile strike forces participated in these operations. While several camps were overrun, they were found to be deserted. Operations to recover prisoners of war were a constant objective, even though they were unsuccessful. Despite the cost in men, intelligence effort, and operational assets, these operations were mounted whenever and wherever possible, but the Viet Cong used the tactic of constantly moving prisoners of war from one place to another in order to foil external liberation efforts and internal escape plots.
The significance of the unconventional operations conducted by the 5th Special Forces Group is that the two types of operations— counterinsurgency and unconventional—could be carried out successfully and simultaneously. These unconventional operations were a source of pride to the Special Forces soldier; in fact most of the troops were originally attracted to the Special Forces by the nature of these operations. A testimony to the flexible organization of the group was the ability of the logistic sections to mount and support such a variety of operations.