Special Operations Forces and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets: Lessons from Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War
Jan 1, 2001
Lessons from Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War
During both the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf conflict, U.S. political and military leaders confronted strategically important but elusive ground targets. Political and other considerations prevented the deployment of conventional ground units, and air power alone proved unable to eliminate the targets. In both cases, policymakers turned to special operations forces (SOF) to conduct reconnaissance operations to locate the hidden targets. During the Vietnam conflict, SOF teams crossed the border into Laos to search for truck parks, storage depots, and other critical targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail that were obscured by triple-canopy jungle and camouflage. During the Gulf War, British and American SOF patrolled vast areas of western Iraq searching for mobile Scud launchers that had escaped coalition strike aircraft.
In both cases, the SOF ground teams were less successful than U.S. officials had hoped. A new RAND study, Special Operations Forces and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets: Lessons from Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War, examines these conflicts to shed light on how SOF ground teams might be more effectively employed in the future.
During the mid-1960s, U.S. military and political leaders faced a critical challenge as they embarked on what was to become a protracted ground war in Southeast Asia. Since 1959, the military forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had used the Ho Chi Minh Trail to infiltrate vast quantities of men and materiel through Laos into the U.S.-backed Republic of Vietnam. This network of footpaths, trails, and roads ultimately came to serve not only as a supply line for North Vietnamese forces but also as a basing area from which attacks could be staged on South Vietnam.
U.S. forces confronted formidable obstacles in their efforts to stem the flow of traffic along the trail. For example, under the terms of the 1962 Geneva Accords, neither the United States nor North Vietnam was permitted to conduct ground operations within Laos. Hanoi ignored this provision outright, but the United States honored it by ruling out the use of ground troops in the area. Further limiting U.S. options was the Ho Chi Minh Trail itself, whose unremitting terrain, obscured by triple-canopy jungle, severely compromised the effectiveness of U.S. air attacks.
To boost the ability of U.S. aircraft to engage targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, OP 35—a special operations unit of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Studies and Observation Group (MACVSOG)—conducted hundreds of cross-border missions in Laos. The figure below shows the number of OP 35 missions per year from the first missions in 1966 to 1972, the year MACVSOG was closed down. OP 35 ground teams not only identified targets and called in air strikes but also undertook direct-action missions, battle damage assessment, and the emplanting of mines and sensors.
From its inception, however, OP 35 faced significant barriers. In addition to obscuring visibility from the air, the dense jungle hindered movement on the ground.
The sheer length of the trail (12,000 miles) was daunting. The time between the SOF's identification of a target and the delivery of ordnance was approximately 30 to 40 minutes, which gave the enemy time to detect the presence of OP 35 personnel. The People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) employed a number of effective camouflage, deception, and patrol techniques. Hanoi also devoted substantial intelligence resources to the penetration of MACVSOG, including the use of barmaids, drivers, and other local personnel as spies. As a result of these measures, OP 35 casualty rates rapidly mounted. In 1969, the peak year of OP 35 activity, the casualty rate per mission was a staggering 50 percent. Even at this cost, however, OP 35's cross-border operations never seriously impeded enemy traffic across the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Two decades after the end of the Vietnam War, the United States and its Arab and non-Arab coalition partners faced a determined foe in the Persian Gulf. In January 1991, Saddam Hussein succeeded in deploying Scud missiles aboard mobile launchers and initiated attacks on Israel. Although they inflicted little damage, the Scud attacks threatened to draw Israel into the ongoing Persian Gulf conflict. Any Israeli military action would have destroyed the fragile Arab coalition that had been forged against Iraq. To help persuade Israel not to take action, the coalition undertook a vigorous air campaign to destroy Iraq's Scud launchers.
However, Iraq's mobile transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) proved highly elusive to aerial reconnaissance. To thwart aerial detection, Iraqi military used high-fidelity decoys and took full advantage of gullies, culverts, and underpasses in the vast expanse of Iraq's 29,000-square-mile desert. In response, U.S. and British SOF were deployed to enhance the effectiveness of air strikes by searching for Scud launchers on the ground.
In the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, coalition leaders announced that their efforts had neutralized the Iraqi Scud threat. Within months, however, postwar reports on Gulf air operations began to cast doubt on these claims. According to a Pentagon study, few mobile TELs had been eliminated. On a tactical and operational level, the coalition's SOF effort in Iraq neither eliminated nor seriously hampered the Scud threat.
Special operations efforts in Southeast Asia and Iraq proved less than decisive. However, these campaigns were not failures. In Southeast Asia, SOF operating along the Ho Chi Minh Trail harassed the PAVN, gathered intelligence on the enemy and, most importantly, successfully compelled Hanoi to divert resources that would otherwise have been directed to military operations against South Vietnam. In the Persian Gulf, the 1991 Scud-hunting campaign, while destroying only a few of the mobile TELs, ultimately dissuaded Israel from entering the Gulf War —thereby meeting its key strategic objective of preserving the fragile Arab coalition against Iraq.
For the U.S. military, the campaigns against the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the mobile Scud launchers have a number of implications for future operations. They highlight the difficulty of using a small number of SOF personnel to locate mobile, well-camouflaged targets in vast areas of hostile terrain. Although new technology, such as mini- and micro-unmanned aerial vehicles, may make it easier for teams to conduct wide-area reconnaissance, it is unlikely that using SOF in this way will achieve U.S. objectives. In addition, popular and official concerns about casualties and prisoners of war are likely to limit the use of U.S. SOF to those situations in which only the most vital national interests are at stake.
However, there are a number of possible ways in which SOF could be used to improve the U.S. military's ability to find and destroy elusive enemy ground targets. Unattended ground sensors could play an increasingly important role in future operations. Although most will be delivered by air, some of these sensors will require hand emplacement in difficult enemy terrain, a mission well suited to SOF. In addition, SOF can be used to assess battle damage, thus helping to ensure that critical targets have been destroyed. Finally, SOF could be employed to disable, destroy, or recover nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, tasks that may be difficult or impossible to achieve with air power alone.