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Vietnam - Fire Support Bases

A major innovation of the Vietnam War was the fire support base. Because there were no well-defined battle lines, fire support of maneuver units could not always be accomplished from secure, behind the line positions or from major base areas. Often, positions had to be secured in enemy-dominated territory.

By late 1966 the usual procedure was to establish fire support bases containing headquarters elements, medical facilities, and other support activities, as well as supporting light, medium, and sometimes heavy artillery. Setting up such bases became the routine opening phase of search operations. For example, the beginning of Operation JUNCTION CITY, 22 February-14 May 1967, included a drive by the 1st Infantry Division to open a road northward through War Zone C for the purpose of establishing fire support bases from which the maneuver battalions would operate and receive their artillery support.

These early bases were often attacked by North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces, as they made ideal targets for enemy offensive actions. Eventually, because of the enemy's inclination to attack such installations, fire support bases were established for the express purpose of decoying the enemy. In these instances, sophisticated target detection means including radar, sensor devices, and infrared night sighting devices were used to give warning of the enemy's approach. This combination proved to be eminently successful, and large numbers of attacking enemy forces were destroyed in several such battles at little cost in friendly casualties. The decoy concept was further expanded to include the deployment of fire support bases to facilitate screening of suspected major enemy avenues of approach.

The action of 5-8 June 1969 at Fire Support Base CROOK in Tay Ninh province was a classic example of "offensive fire support base" techniques. Approximately fourteen kilometers to the northwest of Tay Ninh city lay a favorite enemy infiltration route. Close to the Cambodian border, the area was a major artery for enemy troops and supplies moving back and forth between War Zone C in the east and Cambodia in the west. In April 1969, Fire Support Base CROOK was established to prevent enemy movement along this route and to provide support for offensive operations in the vicinity. The plan assumed that the enemy would not be able to resist an attempt to knock out the isolated post.

A total disaster for the enemy, Fire Support Base CROOK was an example of the ability to defeat the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong during one of their classic offensive operations. The battle demonstrated the rapid building of a fire base, the use of modern detection equipment, and the integration of the full spectrum of modern fire support techniques to achieve a decisive victory.

Later in the Vietnam conflict, another generation of fire support bases was developed. Fire Support Surveillance Base FLOYD was conceived by the 173d Airborne Brigade as a total interdiction base covering an entire valley floor. The base properly integrated sensors, radar, and other target acquisition means with the system of direct and indirect fire support. Fire base facilities were organized to enable rapid reaction to confirmed targets and to provide adequate base defense. (Diagram 2) The nerve center of the base was the tactical operations center, in which radar and optical scopes and monitoring devices were located. Installing the target acquisition means nearby insured rapid comparison of readouts and confirmation of targets. The mortar fire direction centers were also located in the tactical operations center in order to disseminate target information more efficiently to the indirect fire weapons.

Target acquisition devices used successfully at Fire Support Bases were the ground surveillance radars and the night observation devices. The radar sets organic to division maneuver battalions were used primarily to provide short- and medium-range identification and location of enemy targets during periods of limited visibility. The AN/PPS-5 radar had a maximum range of 5 kilometers and the AN/PPS-4 radar had a 1.5-kilometer range for personnel detection. Both were used to protect the night defensive positions. Along with radar there were the night observation devices, either the older infrared lights or the newer starlight scopes. These scopes intensified the available light rather than emitting a light source of their own. The new sensors were of limited value in themselves, but when properly integrated into an overall surveillance and target acquisition plan, they were most effective.

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