Strategizing for Victory in Vietnam . . . Or at Least a Stalemate
When violence erupted in South Vietnam in the mid-1950s, the government under Ngo Dinh Diem initially faced an internal threat from VC guerrilla forces. These VC forces typically engaged in hit and run attacks and terrorism until the VC could gain enough strength to amass and supply larger conventional forces that could challenge and defeat the U.S.-trained and -equipped ARVN (South Vietnamese army) forces. Facilitating this transition in VC strategies and tactics, North Vietnam increased its support of the VC by expanding the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1959.
Although the VC formed larger, more conventional units, the war changed dramatically in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin Incidents, when the United States started bombing North Vietnam and in the following year became more heavily involved in the ground war in South Vietnam. At the same time, North Vietnam also decided to commit more materiel and larger numbers of ground troops to the war in the south.
Although the VC received a significant boost from the introduction of larger amounts of military assistance from North Vietnam, as NVA units arrived in the South, problems also emerged. Perhaps the most significant was competition over command and control of military operations in the South among communist political cadres (NVA/VC political personnel) and military commanders. In addition, many NVA soldiers and members of North Vietnamese communist political cadres who went to South Vietnam looked down on and had little respect for their VC counterparts. This turmoil created a competition between the NVA and VC that lasted until the destruction of the VC during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
After the United States introduced ground units in 1965, the NVA/VC quickly realized that they’d never have enough firepower to truly challenge the United States on the battlefield, and as long as the United States remained committed to sending more soldiers to fight in Vietnam, the NVA/VC never could win an outright military contest. So, instead of trying to match the U.S. superiority in firepower, they chose to use their strongest ally — time — against U.S./ARVN forces. One of the earliest changes in the NVA/VC strategy was exerting greater control over the size and intensity of the battlefield.
The NVA/VC had substantial manpower reserves but couldn’t just sacrifice large numbers of men in combat. Rather than holding territory for any length of time, the NVA/VC used mobile bases and chose where and when they’d strike at U.S./ARVN forces. Holding a specific piece of terrain for too long would make NVA/VC units more vulnerable to U.S. firepower, which meant NVA/VC base camps rarely were in the same place for any length of time. The downside was that the comfort levels in NVA camps also declined, because no time or resources were invested on creature comforts. Whereas some U.S. base camps featured basketball courts and other luxuries, NVA/VC soldiers accepted additional hardships when doing so meant less exposure to U.S. bombing and artillery barrages. So, as a major part of their strategy, the NVA/VC opted for mobility. U.S. and ARVN ground forces, on the other hand, chose to establish more static base camps from which to launch their operations.
Although the helicopter still provided U.S./ARVN forces with an advantage in mobility, the NVA/VC base camp design, combined with their strategy, always enabled them to predict the directions from which U.S./ARVN attacks might come. Disadvantages of the mobile NVA/VC camps were much fewer than the advantages gained by being on the move and disrupting the ability of the U.S./ARVN to target and destroy them. The NVA/VC used other things to their advantage in addition to mobility:
- Geography: Use of mountains, hills, rivers, valleys, and other geographical features to mask movement and other activities.
- Camouflage: Used to conceal and deceive, it hides something so that it blends in as if the thing is not there.
- Concealment: Can incorporate camouflage but is also anything that obscures vision or detection. For example, a thatch wall is visible against a jungle backdrop. At the same time, it conceals the movement of anyone behind it although a person can shoot through it and perhaps kill someone hiding there.
- Cover: Can be camouflaged and provide concealment but more importantly it provides protection, such as a cement wall or a bunker.
These things added tremendously to the difficulties faced by U.S./ARVN forces on the ground, in the air, and on the water.
Fighting with jungles and tunnels as allies
Combating the U.S. advantages of mobility and firepower, the NVA/VC developed various techniques for preventing their forces from being detected and destroyed by U.S./ARVN units.
One basic military technique they used was camouflage and concealment. In Vietnam, this meant hiding and using the terrain and jungle to mask movement and activity, especially from U.S. aircraft flying overhead. Most of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which spanned from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam, meandered through mountainous and dense jungle. Double- and triple-canopy jungles were not uncommon in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The number of canopies refers to the layers of trees and foliage that covers an area. Plant life in a jungle competes for access to sunlight and grows in layers, or canopies, which means that the NVA/VC could cut down shorter, lower brush and trees, making way for their trucks and convoys, but keep taller trees intact, thus completely concealing their movements from detection by air. In some areas, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was literally cut through the jungle like a tunnel.
For even more cover and concealment, the NVA/VC used underground tunnels and bunker complexes where they stored, or cached, ammunition, weapons, food, fuel, uniforms, and equipment in smaller tunnels and bunkers, saving larger ones for more difficult tasks.
Tunnel complexes in North and South Vietnam were vast and well designed, providing protection and security when ground, naval, and air forces launched attacks against them. The NVA/VC often built tunnel systems near major rivers and waterways and used the river and canal banks for building and concealing entry and exit points. The NVA/VC also ambushed U.S./ARVN river forces and then used the waterways as avenues of escape to their tunnel complexes. The tunnel systems, often accompanied by bunkers, weren’t usually visible by water or air unless the NVA/VC purposefully exposed their positions through an ambush.
Given their extensive use of camouflage and concealment, most of the NVA/VC tunnel systems were located by ground units conducting foot patrols and search and reconnaissance operations through suspected areas of NVA/VC activity. Once uncovered, the only way of rooting out NVA/VC forces from a tunnel complex was sending U.S./ARVN personnel into the tunnel system. Engaging the NVA/VC in the tunnels was difficult for U.S. tunnel rats, because they often encountered booby-traps and other hazards designed to injure or kill them.
In many instances, instead of creating new tunnels and bunkers, the NVA/VC merely improved upon the ones used against the French and Japanese. In the war with U.S./ARVN forces, expanding and digging deeper helped the NVA/VC offset the effects of larger bombs, heavier artillery, and naval gunfire employed by U.S./ARVN forces. Because tunnels were invisible to aircraft, bombing missions over suspected tunnel complexes relied mostly on luck and massive numbers of bombs to destroy suspected tunnels and bunkers.
Maintaining pressure and avoiding defeat: The North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong
The NVA/VC used the U.S. strategy of attrition to their advantage. When larger numbers of U.S. forces appeared on an operation, the NVA/VC tried to choose when and where to fight and then disengaged from combat when overwhelming U.S. firepower pushed their losses too high. The United States nevertheless engaged in several operations that forced the NVA/VC to change their tactics. The success Mobile Riverine Forces and SEALORDS had with using small, fast, highly maneuverable riverboats forced the NVA/VC to reassess how they fought in the Mekong Delta. The NVA/VC countered these highly mobile U.S. forces with hit-and-run tactics. Firefights seldom lasted longer than an hour and were generally over before the full complement of U.S. naval gunfire, artillery, and air power entered the attack.