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Weapons of war: US military tries to adapt to unconventional warfare

A U.S. military helicopter sprays Agent Orange over Vietnam in this undated photo from the war. Intended to denude the jungle and farmland to deny both cover and food to the Vietcong, American forces sprayed millions of gallons of the defoliant across Vietnam.

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By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 9, 2014

The final iconic image of the Vietnam War was fitting: dozens of people lined up on a rooftop ladder in Saigon, desperately trying to get aboard a Bell Huey helicopter that would take them to safety as the North Vietnamese moved on the city.

Among the many notable changes in weaponry and tactics for the U.S. military during the war, one of the most enduring was the reliance on helicopters as both a transport tool and an offensive weapon in a fight where the biggest challenge was often finding the enemy.

“When it came to how to make contact with the enemy, the helicopter was sort of a panacea to U.S. commanders,” said John Prados, author of “Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War.” “It could drop in troops — a lot of those air assault tactics were based on the idea of trying to make contact with the enemy.”

But the American military didn’t go into the war planning to rely so heavily on the helicopter as a weapon. Its adaptation was part of a grudging realization that conventional warfare against an army using guerilla tactics was not working.

“The United States had a certain amount of hubris going into Vietnam that we had superior military technology and that this would virtually guarantee success,” said Alex Roland,  a military historian and professor emeritus at Duke University. “There was enthusiasm from the Pentagon for this type of war to demonstrate America’s military capability and, of course, this didn’t work out at all.”

An American military that was steeped in training for a conventional war head-to-head with the Soviet Union ran into a completely different kind of war when they got to the mountainous jungles of Vietnam. Basing their strategy on the successful guerilla tactics Mao Zedong used to prevail in neighboring China, Vietnamese communists melted back into the jungle as the U.S. established air bases and headquarters, instead concentrating on owning the countryside from which they could harass and frustrate their foes, often with local help.

“We had just never had an enemy that behaved the way the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese did,” Roland said.

Not everything was different — like in WWII, bombers played a big role in the war, with U.S. forces dropping millions of tons of munitions on Vietnam, though the inaccuracy of the bombing led to more research into precision, or “smart,” bombs that have become a mainstay of American airpower.

But, facing enemy forces who shied away from direct confrontation, U.S. forces had to look for ways to draw them out to fight. Helicopters proved a useful way to do that. Able to land in tight, mountainous terrain, a helicopter like the CH-47 (Chinook) and the Huey allowed the military to insert troops behind enemy lines. This tactic, which came to be known as “air assault,” has been a major tactic in Afghanistan, a similarly mountainous country where the U.S. is also fighting insurgents who often melt into the population and find shelter in remote hideouts.

The development of the helicopter gunship was pure happenstance, according to Roland. As helicopters increasingly came under fire, crew members started carrying rifles to defend themselves and eventually mounted heavy weaponry on the choppers. Eventually, many helicopters were mounted with gatling guns (commonly known as mini-guns), which were refined during the Vietnam War and able to fire thousands of rounds per minute.

Nowadays, attack helicopters are a staple in the U.S. military, with Apache gunships regularly plying the skies of Afghanistan, providing close air support to NATO and Afghan troops.

Military leaders became so enamored of helicopters as both workhorses and close air support in Vietnam that they were even written into the script of a theoretical war with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Another weapon system that endured past the Vietnam war was the M16 assault rifle, which had problems with jamming early on in the Vietnam war but became a mainstay. Lighter, less sensitive to heat and constructed with a shorter barrel than previous rifles, the M16 was designed to perform better in the kind of close-quarters combat and tropical heat troops experienced in Vietnam.

Most American troops today carry the M4 rifle, which is the next generation M16. Today, the M16 and its offshoots are not only still in use by U.S. forces, but have also been introduced to other militaries that the U.S. trains, notably the Afghan security forces.

“That weapons is still, in its descended form, the main infantry weapon of the United States military,” Prados said.

 


Exploring the M16AI

The M16 was originally developed for air base security, not as infantry weapon. The classic assault rifle was developed in the 1950s by Eugene Stoner while he was tinkering at night in his garage. Colt bought the rights and produced the rifle for the U.S. government as the M16. It entered widespread service in Vietnam in 1966, replacing the 7.62 mm M14 rifle. The M16A1 (shown here) was introduced in 1967. The main difference is the forward assist, installed to prevent the frequent jamming. Later models can be equipped with sound and flash suppressors, grenade launchers and other extras.

 


 

Vietnam was the first war where night vision was widely used, with troops using the technology to combat guerilla tactics that often relied on night-time movements. The technology has proven vital in subsequent wars and in Afghanistan today, U.S. soldiers don’t head out on patrol without their “NODs” (night optical devices), which looks like a single binocular lens attached to a helmet. The technology has become key to night raids, a common and controversial tactic throughout the war in Afghanistan, whereby troops would raid Afghan homes in the middle of the night to snatch suspected insurgents.

Chemical agents, too, were infamously used throughout the war. A lasting image of the conflict is of a little girl, badly burned by napalm, running naked and terrified down a rural road. Developed in a Harvard University lab in 1942, napalm is an incendiary gel that sticks to the skin and can cause severe burns. It was first used in WWII and has been by U.S. forces as recently as the Iraq War but is most often associated with Vietnam, where U.S. forces dropped nearly 400,000 tons of it over the course of the war.

Another chemical agent that was not intended to be used against people, but ended up as one of the deadliest legacies of the war, was Agent Orange. Intended to denude the jungle and farmland to deny both cover and food to the Vietcong, American forces sprayed millions of gallons of the defoliant across Vietnam. While it effectively stripped away vegetation, it had dire health effects on those exposed to it, causing cancer, birth defect, and an array of other maladies in generations of Americans and Vietnamese.

Even before the war was over, it became apparent that Agent Orange was extremely harmful to people, and it has devastated hundreds of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese families.

“The health and collateral effects of the chemicals started to become apparent even as the war continued and before the war ended we came to the realization that we couldn’t use these types of weapons and they were taken out of service and never used again,” Prados said.

The common thread of many of the weapons systems and tactical changes brought about by the Vietnam war was the need to adapt to unconventional warfare. The lessons learned from WWII and the planning for a massive conventional war with the Soviet Union fell flat in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

But Vietnam, the most divisive and unpopular modern war the country has fought, left such bitterness in the minds of many military leaders that they steered away from teaching counterinsurgency in the post-war years, leaving it ill-prepared for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which turned into protracted battles against guerilla fighters.

“Of course, the U.S. military was very soured by the Vietnam war, so it spent years trying to re-establish conventional warfare as the standard, ignoring counter-insurgency,” Prados said. “The problem with that — well, look at U.S. foreign policy — repeatedly the United States gets called into situations where the reality is an insurgency.”

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes​

A Huey Cobra flies in Vietnam.
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