The Best Defense

5 things you didn’t know about Khe Sanh

By Gregg Jones

Best Defense guest columnist

The battle of Khe Sanh was the iconic confrontation of the Vietnam War, an epic test of wills in which 6,000 U.S. Marines held off as many as  20,000 communist North Vietnamese Army troops over seventy-seven days of siege in early 1968. The showdown recalled the celebrated 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu, in which Vietnamese communist forces surrounded and eventually overran an isolated French stronghold. But unlike the French at Dien Bien Phu, the Americans maintained their fragile air link to Khe Sanh, and the combat base and its main outposts withstood communist bombardments and attacks until a relief force broke the siege in April. Barely three months later, U.S. Marines blew up their fortifications at Khe Sanh and slipped away.

1. The siege of Khe Sanh didn't change the course of the war, but it yielded notable military developments. Among these was the widespread use of new electronic sensors, which were dropped into the jungle approaches to Khe Sanh and proved critical in the stronghold's defense. The Khe Sanh campaign also saw the first use of tanks against American forces by the North Vietnamese. But the most spectacular feat of arms at Khe Sanh was Operation Niagara, the massive campaign of artillery and air strikes aimed at destroying North Vietnamese siege forces before they could overrun Khe Sanh. U.S. B-52 bombers and strike aircraft pounded North Vietnamese troops with more than 100,000 tons of bombs during the siege, and friendly artillery batteries adding 158,000 shells to the effort-the biggest coordinated display of American air and artillery power during the Vietnam War.

2. President Lyndon Johnson and General William Westmoreland considered the use of tactical nuclear weapons and chemical weapons to prevent an American defeat at Khe Sanh. In a series of remarkable cables and phone calls, Westmoreland informed Johnson that he didn't believe nuclear or chemical weapons would be needed, but he held out the possibility that these ultimate options might be required to halt a North Vietnamese surge across the DMZ toward Khe Sanh.

3. War hawks have pilloried LBJ for not doing everything in his power to win the war in Vietnam, but the beleaguered president rejected the counsel of some top military advisors to make a stand at Khe Sanh. Among the most vociferous advocates of a retreat was retired Joint Chiefs chairman Maxwell Taylor, and he lobbied Johnson vigorously in letters and conversations. Johnson carefully considered Taylor's advice, but ultimately backed Westmoreland's quest to inflict a decisive defeat on the North Vietnamese at Khe Sanh.

4. U.S. forces were better fed and supplied than their communist adversaries in most Vietnam confrontations, but not Khe Sanh in the early weeks. On the hill outposts at Khe Sanh, shortages of food and water became critical. The hungry, bearded American defenders of Hill 881 South and 861 took on the appearance of ragged castaways on a desert island. A bold operation known as the Super Gaggle ended the resupply crisis by blanketing North Vietnamese positions with massive firepower, tear gas and smoke screens while helicopters swooped down to drop supplies onto the hill outposts.

5. Khe Sanh was a military victory for the Americans who successfully defended the stronghold during the seventy-seven days of siege. But that perception was shattered in July 1968 with the abandonment of the base, and Khe Sanh became etched in the minds of many Americans as a symbol of the pointless sacrifice and muddled tactics that permeated a doomed U.S. war effort in Vietnam. History's verdict of Khe Sanh as a U.S. defeat is more an indictment of General Westmoreland and his false claims that Khe Sanh was indispensable to the U.S. war effort, rather than a true accounting of the epic siege that seized the national spotlight from January-April 1968.

Gregg Jones is the author of  Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines' Finest Hour in Vietnam, recently published by Da Capo Press. He has worked as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is also the author of Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dream and Red Revolution: Inside the Philippine Guerrilla Movement.

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The Best Defense

The strategic value of remote solutions

By Erick Waage

Best Defense guest columnist

As our Army looks to participate in conflicts on the edge of war, it can leverage remote cyber and robotic solutions to execute tactical actions that have a broad range of strategic effects. The strategic value of remote applications is comprehensive, but it is mainly derived from reductions to the human risks associated with having boots on the ground.

Strategic Options and the Preservation of Political Will

By reducing the risk to human force, the cost-benefit threshold for conducting operations is altered such that it may provide more options for the use of hard power to strategic decision-makers. When a military task that once risked the lives of 250 soldiers now risks the lives of zero soldiers, the "Men-to-Mission" scale is more easily tipped towards mission. Moreover, when a strategic decision-maker can announce that a high profile operation was a debacle, but that no human life was lost, he or she politically is less likely to have to fully account for a failure. In contrast, when a high profile operation is a sweeping success with no loss of human life, the political dividends can be extremely high. At the national level, a society may be more willing to stay entangled in a conflict longer when robots and computer networks are the casualties versus their human loved ones. remote solutions, therefore, can increase strategic-leaders' and societies' internal soft power and enable them to more easily employ hard power. 

Preservation of Human Life, Fiscal Savings, and Force Supplement

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have undoubtedly been emotionally and fiscally pricey in terms human lives lost and catastrophic injuries, and they will remain costly through the next generation as veterans and their families continue to require care to heal and manage the lingering physical and emotional wounds generated from these two wars. We will always have an ethical responsibility to pursue the preservation of life for our military personnel in conflict, but it must be noted that there are immense budgetary benefits to preserving their safety also. While the emotional and fiscal costs to losing an individual human or rehabilitating a broken one can last a decades, the destruction or damaging of an individual robot, router, or switch in conflict will likely lead to little or no emotional loss and only short-term fiscal costs.

As we consider the immense spending on programs focused on protecting our human Soldiers in combat, such as the MRAP, we need to explore what savings might be gained from taking humans out of the "fatal funnel" of conflict and replacing them, when and where applicable, with cyber and robotic capabilities that can achieve the same martial effect.  What are the initial and enduring costs in hardware and armor to protect a robot's motherboard? What are the initial and enduring costs in software for protecting a computer network used to conduct offensive cyber? How do those costs compare to the costs associated with protecting humans in conflict? I don't know, but I'm definitely interested.

As future commanders assess their troops-to-tasks when planning operations, remote solutions can be used to supplement their human forces and expand their operational bandwidth. Using remote solutions to prepare an operating environment not only takes human soldiers out of the "fatal funnel" of conflict, but also reduces the human forces required to achieve a task and thus increases a unit's operational capacity or expands the geographic area it can cover. Commanders can tailor their robot/cyber-to-human force mix to meet their military objectives.         

Wrapping it Up

Luddites might not like handing off some military tasks that were once done by humans to cyber and robotic agents, but they'll probably like seeing their young people shattered in future conflicts and their military budgets hampered by ballooning personnel and protective equipment costs even less. Though not a silver bullet to winning and enduring future wars, remote solutions can offer new strategic avenues for our people and leaders when dealing with conflict.

Erick Waage is a Special Operations JO who wonders if weaponized roombas will one day clean up future battlefields. This article reflects his own opinions, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the U.S. government, nor even those of the bartender at the Doghouse Bar.

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