Low Intensity Conflict Intelligence: Lessons From Vietnam
AUTHOR Major Robert W. Livingston, USMC
SUBJECT AREA Leadership
TITLE: LOW INTENSITY CONFLICT INTELLIGENCE: LESSONS FROM VIETNAM
I. Purpose - To examine Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) intelligence
issues at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war using
the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as a model.
II. Thesis - Based on the intelligence lessons learned in Vietnam,
U.S. civilian/military leadership must refocus its future intelligence
efforts in order to operate successfully in the LIC environment.
III. Data - Vietnam was our first joint military experience in the
LIC environment and one of the largest intelligence efforts ever
conducted. Our failure in Vietnam continues to cast a shadow of doubt
over U.S. ability to deal with conflicts in the Third World - our most
likely form of conflict today. Vietnam provides numerous examples
of intelligence related issues at the strategic, operational, and tactical
levels. The strategic level deals with the national intelligence
structure and its ability to recognize the threat and influence the
policymaker. The national policymaker never did understand North
Vietnam. The operational/theater level was virtually ignored during
Vietnam. There was no unity of command in the intelligence
structure. The U.S. discovered how unprepared it was in establishing
an organizational structure in an area where it had no U.S. commands
or forces. At the tactical level, counter-insurgency operations failed
overall and the U.S. gave up an emphasis on tactical HUMINT to fight
an insurgency in the LIC environment with a reliance on technical
intelligence. These issues and more are discussed in this paper.
IV. Conclusion - LIC threats are hard to define. National
intelligence collection must be increased in the Third World. Proper
intelligence is essential to LIC operations in the strategic, operational,
and tactical levels of war. Intelligence structure must be strong and
cohesive from the strategic down to the tactical level. HUMINT has to
be stressed at all levels in the LIC environment. The operational level
is important. The command structure needs to be simplified to ensure
proper flow of intelligence up and down the chain of command.
Intelligence training and cooperation with the Third World can make a
significant difference. A universal strategy is needed for LIC
providing goals and objectives in order to determine intelligence
requirements. Counterintelligence training should be conducted by U.S.
military forces. An increase in the number of HUMINT type specialists
are necessary to cover U.S. interests around the world.
LOW INTENSITY CONFLICT INTELLIGENCE: LESSONS FROM VIETNAM
Thesis Statement: Based on intelligence lessons learned in Vietnam,
U.S. civilian/military leadership must refocus its future intelligence
efforts in order to operate successfully in the LIC environment.
I. Strategic LIC issues
A. LIC defined
B. Defining the problem/threat
(1) Strategic threat-Vietnam
C. National intelligence structure
(1) Intelligence performance/coordination for Vietnam
D. Intelligence requirements for LIC
(1) History and cultural aspects
(2) Intelligence resources
II. Operational LIC issues
A. Structure and command relationships-Vietnam
(1) Intelligence organization shortfalls
B. Unity of Command
C. Theater level Intelligence
(2) Collection resources
(3) Psychological operations
(4) Civil affairs
III. Tactical LIC issues
(1) Intelligence focus
(2) Intelligence resources
B. Intelligence training
(1) Joint intelligence organization
(2) Combined intelligence
C. Collection resources
(1) Tactical human source intelligence (HUMINT)
(2) Signals intelligence (SIGINT)
(3) Imagery intelligence (IMINT)
(4) Interrogator/translator (ITT)
D. Counterintelligence (CI)
(1) CI operations
(2) Operations security (OPSEC)
(3) Communications security (COMSEC)
It has been fifteen years since the U.S. withdrew from South
Vietnam after twenty-five years of varying degrees of involvement
in the low to mid intensity spectrum of conflict. Although many
political and military leaders would like to forget about Vietnam, it
was our first major joint military force experience in the Low
Intensity Conflict (LIC) environment and one of the largest
intelligence efforts ever conducted. As such, it must not be forgotten.
Our failure in Vietnam continues to cast a shadow of doubt over
U.S. ability to deal with conflicts in the Third World, and LIC remains
our most likely form of involvement in the Third World today. The U.S.
has found that without proper intelligence there is little chance of
winning in any LIC. This paper will focus on the identification and
analysis of the major LIC intelligence issues at the strategic,
operational, and tactical levels of conflict. Vietnam provides many
good examples of neglect at all levels which can be applied to future
LIC operations. Based on the intelligence lessons learned
in Vietnam, U.S. civilian and military leadership must refocus its
future intelligence efforts in order to operate successfully in the LIC
STRATEGIC LIC ISSUES
Vietnam turned out to be a protracted struggle against a complex
enemy. The Department of Defense definition of LIC depicts most
aspects of the Vietnam war when it describes LIC as:
A limited political-military struggle to achieve political, social,
economic, or psychological objectives. It is often protracted and
ranges from diplomatic, economic, and psychological pressures
through terrorism and insurgency. Low intensity conflict is
generally confined to a geographic area and is characterized by
constraints on the weaponry, tactics, and level of violence.
The primary U.S. strategic interest is deterrence of high intensity
conflict although it takes into account that LIC's pose a variety of
threats to achievement of U.S. objectives. According to the national
security strategy of the U.S., LIC is recognized as a
"political-military confrontation below the level of conventioinal war,
frequently involving protracted struggles of competing ideologies,
and ranging from subversion to direct use of military force." (17:34)
At the strategic level, the U.S. has to correctly define the problem
or type of conflict occuring in the Third World. This has been a major
problem among U.S. policymakers who tend to think that an American
political/military solution will work in any situation. Col James
Motley summed this thought up in Military Review (Jan 90), "The
failure to think in strategic terms is a chronic American problem. The
U.S. political system has had great difficulty defining objectives and,
when appropriate, using military power efficiently to achieve
Inherent to the intelligence community is the requirement to
correctly defining the strategic threat. In Vietnam, the U.S. was
fighting a conventional and unconventional war without giving much
thought to how our military action would change policy in Hanoi;
meanwhile North Vietnam fought a political and psychological war
that was effective against the U.S. population and political
system. (14:11) National goals and missions will be improperly
pursued if the threat is not correctly identified. Goals and missions
directed toward the target country may be either political, economic,
sociological, psychological, military or a combination. Proper
intelligence is important to the policymaker in deciding to use any U.S.
tools of national power. In most LIC's, the military option should
be the least attractive.
The national intelligence community must properly identify the
strategic threat in order to guide the policymaker toward the proper
focus of U.S. response. The U.S. misperception of the strategic threat
in Vietnam led to unsuccessful actions in the conduct of the war. Lt
Col Francis Casey summed up some of these U.S. misunderstandings
in his Marine Corps Gazette (Sept 89) article as:
...the lack of understanding of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine,
organization, and functions of the Communist insurgent
infrastructure. Also misunderstood was the vital leadership role
the infrastructure played in directing and orchestrating all aspects
of the conflict. This misconception, central to higher direction of
the war, resulted in political indecision and in the selection of an
American strategy of gradual response. (2:46)
The national intelligence effort must also be focused toward the
LIC environment. For years strategic intelligence has focused on
two major threats (Soviet/China) and this concern drove the
utilization of U.S. national intelligence assets. National intelligence
agencies such as Central Intelligence Agency, National Security
Agency, and Defense Intelligence Agency have a lot of resources and
analysts to support U.S. civilian-military policymakers. Intelligence
organizations are located at every echelon of national leadership.
They do not make national security decisions, but must provide the
best possible information and judgments about foreign developments
to those who are responsible for making such decisions. Failure to
discover the enemy center of gravity (source of strength) at the
strategic level will lead to problems at the operational and tactical
levels of conflict especially when the U.S. military is involved.
The President, members of the National Security Council, and
secretaries of the Federal Departments are called upon to make
important decisions regarding the interests of the U.S., as such
interests are affected by developments elsewhere in the world. The
decisions must be made, whether or not adequate information is at
hand. This is where national intelligence organizations fit into the
picture. Their job is to ensure that there is at hand not only the raw
facts needed, but the interpretative analyses and judgments as to
what is happening or can be expected to happen in the Third World,
and how they impact either political, economic or military
As U.S. world foreign interests and responsibilities grow, so must
the national intelligence structure to meet these demands specifically
in regard to supporting the full spectrum of low intensity conflict. The
current intelligence structure is being worn thin in terms of its
resources, because more and more government officials are
requesting information in great detail. Intelligence is expensive and
the future budget is not expected to grow. Meanwhile, the U.S.
intelligence community is expected to be able to answer questions or
provide information and analyses on just about anything that can
happen anywhere in the world.
In order to keep up with all of these demands, the national
intelligence structure must constantly maintain awareness of the
issues facing the policymakers. Additionally, priorities must be
attached to all these issues. The better these issues are anticipated,
the more likely intelligence will move toward being timely,
responsive, and accurate.
During Vietnam, the structure did not really work as advertised.
The U.S. lacked a cohesive, coordinated intelligence effort throughout
the war. There never was a free exchange of information between
U.S. intelligence assets, and U.S. policymakers never demanded it.
Most Washington level wartime studies and estimates were produced
by one or two agencies working together, but very few were
produced by the entire intelligence community. In Vietnam, the CIA
and DIA often did not coordinate with or include intelligence received
from Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) (the agency
closest to the action) in their products for the policymaker. This
caused duplication of effort and competition vice cooperation.
From the Vietnam experience, the U.S. discovered how unprepared
it was in establishing an organizational structure in an area where it
had no U.S. commands or forces. It took several years before the
structure actually supported U.S. presence and interest in Vietnam.
One of the unique intelligence requirements that makes LIC
different from mid and high intensity conflict is the predominance of
the political dimension over the military component and the
requirement for a sharp appreciation of history, cultural, and
population characteristics that comprise the Third World LIC
environment. (8:19) The Marine Corps learned this lesson long ago
when it published the Small Wars Manual which stresses the
The great importance of psychology in small wars must be
appreciated...that implies a serious study of the people, their
racial, political, religious and mental development... the
individual characteristic as well as the national psychology are
subject for intensive study...a knowledge of the characteristics
of the people and command of their language are great assets.
In Vietnam, the national intelligence structure was evidently not
sufficiently cognizant of Vietnam's history, traditions, and national
character; our national policymakers never did understand North
Vietnam. There was also a lack of familiarity with the enemy's
doctrine, organization, strategy, and tactics. Ho Chi Minh said, "The
Americans are much stronger than the French, though they know us
less well." (14:12) The strategy used by Ho Chi Minh and North
Vietnam Army (NVA) Commander, Vo Nguyen Giap was no more than
Mao Tse-Tung's three stage concept of protracted war applied by the
Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) from 1937 to 1949. Information
concerning the strengths and longevity of the Vietnamese resistance
to foreign rule was available in history books as well as the writings
of Mao, Ho, and Giap. (14:12)
At the strategic level, decisions have to be made in identifying the
intelligence resources necessary to conduct operations in the LIC
environment. The U.S. intelligence collection effort has a tendency to
rely on its fancy, state of the art, multi-discipline collection assets
which prove adequate for collection against conventional military
forces. This is especially true for Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and
Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) systems. However, the weak link has
become the Human Source Intelligence (HUMINT). During the Carter
administration, hundreds of operatives were fired who previously
worked overseas collecting information on foreign governments. The
U.S. misses a lot of critical information and "feel" for what is
happening when it does not have agents in certain countries. The U.S.
now depends on overt attache and State Department diplomatic
reporting, plus the debriefing of refugees and defectors. HUMINT can
be one of the best sources to forwarn and determine intentions and
must be strengthened if the U.S. expects to be successful in future
If properly directed and executed, the strategic intelligence effort
helps the policymaker understand what U.S. international interests
are, how they can be affected by events abroad, and what tools of
policy may or may not be appropriate to deal with those
challenges. (1:15, 70-73) Lt Col John Oseth summed up the strategic
focus of LIC in his 1984 Naval War College Review article by stating:
The strategic effort must look beyond the needs of Washington
and take cognizance of the special interest of the operators, and
there must be institutions and mechanisms which facilitate
communication of resources, requirements and information
between strategic, operational and tactical levels of command
and of intelligence. (15:23)
OPERATIONAL LIC ISSUES
The operational level of war is the important key link between the
strategic level and the tactical level where LIC operations are
actually conducted. The operational level structure was significantly
neglected and undefined during the years the U.S. was involved in
Vietnam. This hindered the U.S. effort to find the enemy and
determine his operational intent during one of the most
comprehensive and sophisticated wartime intelligence operations in
U.S. history. Today, the operational level has enjoyed a renewed
focus as evidenced in the recent successful LIC operation in Panama.
The focus at the operational level is the theater CINC who is
responsible for military operations in a specific region of the world.
The CINC looks to the strategic level for operational guidance from the
National Command Authority (NCA) and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
(CJCS). The CINC must consider the strategic military objectives and
determine if they are reasonable. Concerning intelligence, the CINC
has a broad intelligence focus and must look at the allocation of
intelligence resources at both strategic and tactical levels. The
strategic policy objective must be consistent with the military
objective that the CINC is trying to achieve at the operational level.
Once the CINC has all the guidance needed from the strategic level he
develops a campaign plan to achieve those national military
objectives. In the LIC environment, intelligence is a key part of that
campaign. Enemy strategic and operational centers of gravity must
be identified, located, and analyzed while protecting friendly sources
of strength. LIC operations are normally conducted in conjunction
with the U.S. Ambassador of the target country whose primary
concern would be carrying out national objectives of a political and
It is important to look at the structure and command relationships
at the LIC operational level which affect the intelligence effort.
Upon determination that some form of aid will be provided to a target
country, the focus of support turns to the U.S. task force leader. The
leader would normally be the U.S. Ambassador who heads the
"country team". The country team and the CINC are supposed to
cooperate, coordinate, and share intelligence information. The CINC
has a foreign service officer to coordinate with the country team.
The country team has a military defense attache and sometimes a
military advisory group. Tactical military operations by U.S. forces
remain under strict control of the CINC.
The country team has several intelligence shortfalls. Organic
intelligence support to the State Department is the Bureau of
Intelligence and Research (INR) which primarily produces strategic
foreign relations type intelligence that is of limited use in a LIC. The
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) primarily supports the National
Security Council (NSC). As an independent agency, the country team
can only request, but not demand intelligence support. Military
support is a problem since country team military detachments do not
rate access to theater military intelligence while detached from the
CINC. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is tasked to provide
foreign and military related intelligence to the Secretary of Defense,
JCS, and Department of Defense components. The DIA has no mission
to support the State Department with the intelligence it produces.
At the operational level of war, the theater CINC is the focus of the
military effort. The CINC is primarily geared toward mid to high
intensity warfare, but must also be prepared to conduct
unconventional warfare in the LIC environment. However, peacetime
overt unconventional warfare operations are not the CINC's
responsibility so contingency plans are not prepared. The lack of
plans provide no basis to task theater intelligence resources. This
creates a problem in the unity of command and the ability of the CINC
to control all the resources to accomplish the assigned task in a LIC.
LIC requires careful orchestration of both civilian and military
players. The Ambassador and State Department need to be in overall
command unless the U.S. is in a declared or general war. In 1962,
President Kennedy signed National Security Action Memorandum's
which addressed these issues.
In Vietnam, unity of command only occurred in the President's inner
circle. Ambassador's Maxwell Taylor and Ellsworth Bunker never
exercised their authority. General Westmoreland was the Commander
of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) who controlled
only U.S. forces inside Vietnam and answered to U.S. CINCPAC in Hawaii
(the theater commander), not the Secretary of Defense or JCS.
(26:75-76) Westmoreland was not a supreme allied commander and
had to deal with the Vietnamese command as an equal. He did not
control all special operations in his theater which included the CIA.
With no single point of authority, he could only attempt to direct the
efforts of the various U.S./Vietnamese intelligence agencies, over
which he had no control, but which formed important elements of his
strategy. (18:156) In the 1960's there was a general lack of
coordination of the U.S. intelligence activities. Each agency had a
different picture of the enemy, a result of differing agency charters,
collection efforts, and interests. Everyone appeared to have their
own pet project with little concern for, and often no coordination
with, others operating in the same area. The U.S. country team
remained in the dark about events during this period since the efforts
of civilian and military organizations could not be successfully
linked. This resulted in an organizational structure that was deficient
in its ability to collect, produce, and utilize intelligence. This resulted
in an intelligence effort that was of little use in directing military,
political, and economic actions by the country team. (18:156)
Due to the protracted nature of the Vietnam War, the theater
commander should have been located in Vietnam and exercising unity
of command in matters of military intelligence. Former MACV J-2,
MGEN Joseph McChristian noted unity of command as a major lesson
learned in Vietnam stating "Unity of command was violated in
Vietnam because of the nature of insurgency. In this conflict, all U.S.
intelligence organizations were not centralized under the MACV
commander." (11: 157) A logical choice would have been General
Westmoreland who would have had the ability to look at the conflict
in a broader scope of operations. He could have concentrated on the
regional perspective and developed a campaign utilizing all
intelligence resources that focused on enemy intentions, capabilities,
and opportunities over an extended period of time. At the operational
level, the theater commander must not only key on attaining the
strategic aim, but also provide the proper resources for the tactical
level commander to attain their objectives as part of that aim.
Therefore, it is important that the theater commander have access to
all intelligence assets the nation has to offer including the host
JCS Pub 2 states that "The commander of a joint force is
responsible for defining intelligence support needs, identifying
intelligence resources, and establishing intelligence support
procedures." (5:3-51/52) In the LIC environment, serious
consideration will be placed on the mission, nature, and composition
of the forces being utilized. JCS Pub 2 further states that they must
"ensure that the intelligence support structure enchances the
secure, timely flow of tailored, all source intelligence to higher or
lower echelons and across component lines as required." (5:3-52)
Intelligence capabilities at the operational level are essentially those
that permit continuous and effective support to the operations of the
The theater intelligence structure must monitor and ensure
intelligence processing and dissemination. Intelligence processing in
the LIC environment involves a tremenduous amount of detailed and
varied data over a long period of time. In Vietnam, intelligence
processing was conducted without much of the ADP support that is
now available in all intelligence agencies and echelons of command
today. The CINC has to monitor intelligence processing at all levels.
Dissemination of intelligence is the most important function as the
collection and analytical effort is useless unless the intelligence
reaches the user in time. The theater commander must make certain
that intelligence derived from strategic and theater level intelligence
assets reach the proper commanders at the tactical level.
In most LIC's, human sources are the primary providers of the
intelligence through interviewing and interrogation of prisoners,
defectors, informers, and civilians. This requires extensive interaction
with the host government. It also requires availability of qualified
specialists who understand the cultural aspects of the country and the
time required to train them. According to Col Motley, "Human
intelligence plays a major role in LIC operations and must be planned
well in advance of the deployment of U.S. forces." (13:52) In
Vietnam, intelligence resources were not ready for the introduction of
troops in 1965. It took at least two years to recruit, train, and
dispatch the intelligence specialists needed. U.S. forces had few
personnel that could speak Vietnamese and had to rely on locals for
interpreters. The South Vietnamese intelligence structure was
weak, fragmented, and heavily infiltrated with enemy informants
which hindered U.S. collection and dissemination efforts. The U.S.
must understand that the intelligence organization required to
support counterinsurgency operations is much larger than a
conventional intelligence effort. This requires a sufficient body of
trained intelligence personnel in all specialties of the intelligence
field. With this in mind, the U.S. must be able to cooperate with
friendly Third World governments in conducting intelligence training
and developing their intelligence infrastructure in order to identify
capabilities, vulnerabilities, and intentions of insurgency and
In LIC operations the CINC must also rely on intelligence to assist
in the development of the psychological operations (PSYOP's), civil
affairs, and deception portion of the campaign plan. FMFM 8-2
states that "Intelligence is vital to a sound PSYOP program since
population attitude and behavior ranges from passiveness to hostility
and must be reshaped into genuine acceptance of the host country's
effort." (21:60) All available intelligence should be evaluated in
terms of PSYOP application. FMFM 8-2 further states that the "PSYOP
objective is to convince the entire population that providing
intelligence information to the government forces was to their
benefit."(21:60) PSYOP plans should exploit the will of the insurgent
while aggressively continuing intelligence and exploitation operations.
In Vietnam, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces never implemented
operations that consistently and increasingly threatened insurgent
psychological and organizational survival. The CINC should look
toward designing a campaign that will achieve decisive results
through a series of operations that can apply extreme pressure on
the will of the enemy.
In a counterinsurgency, civil affairs takes on a greater role due
to the necessity to separate the people from the dissidents or guerilla
forces. An effective civil affairs campaign requires intelligence
concerning the civilian population in order to identify hostile,
uncommitted and friendly elements, motivation and loyalties of
population segments, and the size of the civil population engaged in
guerilla support activities. Guerilla forces employ intelligence and
counterintelligence and are often difficult to locate, identify, and fix.
Even in the LIC environment the theater commander must think
about effective use of deception. The North Vietnamese used
deception very effectively from the strategic through the tactical
levels since they understood the nature and psychological aspects of
the conflict they were engaged. They understood deception as a force
multiplier that can achieve victory through surprise. Tactical
and strategic deception operations have to be integrated by the
operational commander and he must identify the enemies deception
operations so friendly forces can conduct their own deception plans.
This is normally done through successful PSYOP's and
With a properly focused and attainable strategic objective, the
operational level intelligence effort with a unified chain of command
will be the key foundation for providing information concerning the
threat to both the policymaker and the tactical level organization
conducting LIC operations in a target country. The primary players at
the operational level -the country team and the theater CINC must
focus on the mission, the enemy, and provide the appropriate
resources to be successful in the LIC environment.
TACTICAL LIC ISSUES
LIC intelligence at the tactical level is significantly different than
intelligence operations against highly structured and identifiable
armed forces during conventional warfare. Although the North
Vietnamese Army (NVA) (conventional forces) finally prevailed over
South Vietnam in 1975, a primary focus of the U.S. involvement was
the insurgency problem with the Viet Cong (VC) organization in the
South. Insurgency will be the main example used in this discussion at
the tactical level. A large part of the current frustration with
counter-insurgency, including the inability to develop adequate
doctrine, comes from our failure to grasp some of the essential
lessons learned in Vietnam.
At the tactical level, introduction of U.S. military forces or advisors
should not necessarily be the first choice. The political system of the
country is normally the primary target and the battlefield on which
the conflict must be fought using political, economic, and
psychological elements. The role of the military, para-military, and
police forces are normally limited to supporting the government's
efforts while hindering those of the insurgents. (18:148) A common
problem is trying to implement a military solution when a political
solution is best suited.
The introduction of civllian and military intelligence personnel can
play a key role in an impending insurgency situation. Intelligence has
been identified as a priority by most civilian and military personnel
familiar with insurgency operations. A key to gaining the intelligence
picture is to focus on "internal intelligence" defined by Lt Col Casey
(MCG Sept 89) as:
...pinpointing the roots of insurgency and to gain a full and intimate
knowledge of an insurgent infrastructure and its doctrine,
leadership, organization, strategy, and intentions. Such
intelligence must be assessed in relation to the economic, political,
and military situation current within the targeted country/society.
Most Third World countries have a weakly organized intelligence
structure, and a weak or non existent military intelligence capability.
This problem became quite evident to senior U.S. officers serving in
Vietnam. For example, General Palmer reported that:
Many American and South Vietnamese officials did not understand
the nature of insurgency and need for close civilian coordination
between Vietnamese special police and military intelligence at
every level from district on up to Saigon if a complete picture of
the enemy was to be obtained. (16:79)
Properly trained U.S. military intelligence personnel can make a
difference by providing tactical intelligence training to Third World
countries with potential insurgency problems. Military
intelligence can help develop host nation appreciation of tactical
intelligence and their capability to collect, analyze, produce, and
disseminate intelligence information. (19:23) According to BGEN
Stewert in (Jan 88) Military Review, "Military intelligence support
provides a solid demonstration of U.S. commitment and supports
overall U.S. policy and strategy in LIC - to help friendly nations
develop democratically without commiting U.S. combat forces."(19:19)
If properly trained, the host country could defeat the insurgency by
itself with the U.S. providing only material and assistance training.
In Vietnam, U.S. and ARVN intelligence had several joint
intelligence organizations. In 1965, the U.S. and South Vietnam pooled
their resources forming the Combined Intelligence Center, Vietnam
(CIC-V) to produce tactical intelligence as quickly as possible in order
to satisfy the tactical commanders requests. Initially, ARVN
intelligence provided the bulk of the personnel and information. The
U.S. forces had few trained linguists, intelligence specialists, and
technicians to adequately train the Vietnamese. U.S. intelligence
personnel displayed a weakness in overall proficiency. They were not
familiar enough with the area, culture, and nature of the internal
intelligence problem to be effective during their one year tour. With
this lack of experience, intelligence personnel could not adequately
train the Vietnamese to effectively conduct intelligence operations in
the LIC environment.
MACV J-2 and JGS J-2 did conduct some coordinated intelligence
operations, but never had an effective combined intelligence program.
MGEN McChristian cited combined intelligence as a primary
intelligence lesson of the Vietnam War stating that:
Contingency plans should include draft agreements; standing
operating procedures; organizational, functional, and manning
concepts; and logistical support plans to establish a combined
intelligence system, preferably including all military and civilian
The overall results for U.S. military intelligence personnel working at
the Division level in Vietnam were an inability to do the type of
collection, fusion, and analysis required to provide the detailed and
specific objectives needed for sustained counter-insurgency
Tactical Human Source Intelligence (HUMINT) plays one of the
largest roles in LIC since the local population is the most abundant
source of information. It is possible for insurgencies to be defeated
by a nation willing to invest in an appropriate low level HUMINT
capability which can penetrate the insurgent's security and take away
his initiative. (6:23) Until late in the war, few people realized the
effectiveness of an intelligence oriented strategy primarily geared
toward HUMINT. Advisory organizations in Vietnam, such as Civil
Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (COORDS) had
potential, but could never take away the initiative from the VC
According to BGEN Stewert, "Interrogation, troop reports, and
documents provide parts of a clear tactical intelligence picture.
Tactical informant operations generally match host nation capabilities
more readily than technological intelligence means." (19:22) In
Vietnam, fusion of technical and HUMINT sources seldom occurred in
support of tactical operations. Taking prisoners was not appropriately
emphasized and when prisoners were captured they were quickly
evacuated beyond brigade and division levels without being
interrogated adequately. Although good informant networks existed,
the information was not effectively analyzed, fused, and used at the
tactical level. (6:33) HUMINT can provide the critical warning on any
enemy that operates in small numbers, normally avoids direct
confrontation, and selects targets based on careful understanding of
vulnerabilities. After 1965, the trend in Vietnam became a decrease in
the use of HUMINT and an increase in the use of technical intelligence
The North Vietnamese, in conjunction with the VC, focused on
HUMINT. They depended on "peoples intelligence" as the key to their
success or defeat in LIC operations. (10:12) Thousands of Vietnamese
supplied bits of information on U.S./ARVN operations. The enemy
often knew of U.S./ARVN operations by the time they were executed.
They conducted a massive counterintelligence effort into every
echelon of South Vietnamese political and military structure with
heavy emphasis on security. Unlike the South Vietnamese, North
Vietnam collected everywhere, including Cambodia and Laos. Their top
leadership demanded accurate, highly synthesized political and
The South Vietnamese had numerous intelligence organizations in
different command channels. There was a lot of redundancy, rivalry,
and dilution of effort within the intelligence structure. There was
little emphasis on counterintelligence and they limited themselves to
collection only in South Vietnamese territory. Intelligence was often
misused and even contrived to suit the commanders preconceived
impression. The South Vietnamese operated with strict separation of
political and military intelligence and depended on technical
intelligence collection methods. Technical intelligence sources can be
useful in LIC operations when fused with HUMINT sources.
Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) is considered the most timely of the
intelligence disciplines. In LIC, SIGINT's greatest contribution is
Direction Finding against insurgent radio transmissions. (23:3) This
can provide information on concentration of transmissions in a given
area as an indication of impending insurgent operations. In Vietnam,
radio silence was used by the North Vietnamese as well as Imitative
Communications Deception (ICD) as effective countermeasures.
Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) can be a good source of data on
enemy camps and evaluating an area of operations. Although it is not
timely for an insurgent operation, it can be effective for terrain
familiarization and corroborating information from other sources. The
North Vietnamese attempted to counter IMINT with camouflage,
deception, night movement, and air defense.
Interrogator-Translator Teams (ITT) are a principle LIC intelligence
asset at the tactical level. Lack of sufficient trained ITT personnel in
all branches of the service remains a problem which will initially
plague U.S. efforts upon introduction into many Third World countries.
Shortages have always existed in Asian and Arabic languages. Upon
introduction of U.S. forces into Vietam, few U.S. personnel were
fluent in Vietnamese thus forcing a reliance on local interpreters to
interrogate prisoners and detainees, and to translate documents.
The major keys to successful counterintelligence (CI)
operations are secrecy and surprise. Surprise by insurgent forces will
greatly depend on the effectiveness of their intelligence organization.
An intensive effort must be made to expose, destroy, and neutralize
his intelligence organization. Effective CI will increase security of
friendly forces and increase the probability of surprising the insurgent
forces. (21:61) In Vietnam, poor operations security (OPSEC) and
communications security (COMSEC) by U.S. and ARVN forces caused
frequent compromises of operations. There was not a disciplined
effort to deny the enemy information on our operational plans.
Military personnel often talked in the clear without secure codes.
Some units failed to change radio call signs for a year. The ARVN paid
dearly for their lack of attention to CI. The ARVN were thoroughly
penetrated by thousands of enemy force intelligence agents.
U.S./ARVN forces ended up reacting to events rather than seeking out
indications of future enemy operations which further protracted the
war in Vietnam.
The LIC tactical level is where the ability of success or failure all
comes together. However, it all starts at the strategic level. The
entire chain of command must understand what must be done, the
expected time period involved, and the specific objective to be
accomplished. For LIC tactical operations, it is important to recognize
the problem in the early stages of development. The proper resources
must be allocated and the U.S. must have the will and support of the
people behind the involvement. Intelligence that is properly
integrated within the host nation provides the best chance for a
country to deal with their particular problem without introduction of
U.S. combat forces.
Since the departure of American forces from Vietnam, the U.S.
government has continued to prepare for a conventional war, but
continues to fight in the LIC environment - without declaration of war
and massive conventional armies. The purpose of this paper was to
highlight some of the major intelligence issues that evolved in
Vietnam which continue to surface today. Volumes have been written
on Vietnam which provide a good source of examples when applying
LIC intelligence at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. The
following paragraphs summarize and suggest attention to intelligence
related concepts that U.S. civilian and military leaders should consider
focusing on in future LIC operations.
LIC involves all levels of civilian and military leadership with a
greater emphasis toward the non military (political/economic)
dimensions of warfare. The national intelligence structure has to
correctly define the problem and understand the threat in order to
provide the national policymaker with information that supports
decisions to use the tools of national power (political, economic,
sociological, psychological, and military). LIC threats are hard to
forecast and the U.S. needs more assets analysing Third World
interests and providing awareness to the policymakers. Analysts have
to become experts in the history, cultural aspects, and military
doctrine of U.S. Third World interests. This involves an emphasis on
HUMINT, the major source of intentions at the national level, rather
than primary dependence on technical collection means. The national
intelligence structure must also take special interest in supporting the
operators by providing the resources, requirements, and information
to all levels. To support this, U.S. policymakers need to have a
universal strategy for LIC which provides goals and objectives in
order to determine intelligence requirements.
The command structure at the operational level has to be
simplified. Unity of command has to be geared toward providing the
proper flow of intelligence to satisfy the CINC, U.S. Ambassador,
country team, and tactical commander. Intelligence needs to be
coordinated between the national level and the theater CINC
conducting a LIC. The theater CINC must push for resources, train his
personnel, and anticipate areas in his region that may have a problem.
The U.S. must have the capacity at the national, operational, and
tactical levels to collect, fuse, and analyze all-source intelligence in a
LIC. This may involve expanding inter-agency cooperation at the
national and operational levels between military and civilian
specialists to coordinate LIC intelligence goals. Intelligence
capabilities of governments threatened by insurgency remain
inadequate. The U.S. can support Third World countries by providing
intelligence training and cooperating with friendly security forces.
Intelligence force structures and support agreements can be worked
out in advance. We have learned that the lack of an in-country
intelligence infra-structure hinders U.S. collection and dissemination
efforts. The CINC must examine and select, in conjunction with the
Ambassador and country team, strategies that are designed to win.
Psychological operations, civil affairs, and deception can be integral
parts of a campaign plan that intelligence can support.
If the U.S. forces expect to be involved in future LIC operations,
counterintelligence (CI) doctrine must play a key role in how forces
are organized. Conventional forces are not suited toward CI
operations. HUMINT, ITT, and CI specialists have to be revitalized in
the military services. This would involve increasing the numbers of
HUMINT type specialists in the intelligence field over a long period of
time, thus developing area experts around the world.
LIC is a long term investment. If the U.S. civilian and military
leadership decide to become involved and commited to a future LIC
situation, they must be prepared to supply the proper intelligence
resources to go the distance so the U.S. will not relive the examples
set in Vietnam.
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