mpaign Series Vietnam | Hack's Hardcore HintsIn Hack’s Hardcore Hints series, David Galster shares some of his scenario design toolkits for Campaign Series: Vietnam, a work-in-progress tactical platoon-scale wargame.

It’s a pleasure, Campaign Series Wargamers,

You may have heard of the “Phoenix Program,” and possibly that its basic mission was to “assassinate” Viet Cong leaders. But, according to Bill Colby, the Saigon CIA station chief,

” . . . neither Phoenix nor its action arms were assassination programs, as critics charged . . .” This is because it is better instead to use captured insurgents for additional intelligence. This article explains this and other aspects of counterinsurgency in more detail, and how they were applied in Vietnam.

Counterinsurgency Theory

Roger Trinquier commanded French counterinsurgency forces in the First Indochina War. (Groupements de Commandos Mixtes Aeroportes, GCMA) He was one of the early counterinsurgency theorists, and wrote Modern Warfare, in 1961. His writings influenced US military and CIA counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam

Trinquier’s theory identifies an insurgency as well organized militarily and politically, with the goal to destabilize established order, and overthrow the existing regime. Terror is the primary method of warfare.

The political organization is compartmentalized and hierarchal. It consists of cells, cell groups, and districts. As an example, a demi-cell has three members. Two demi-cells plus a leader make a cell of seven. Two cells plus a leader form a demi-group of fifteen people. This pattern continues until groups, sub districts, and districts are formed having 127 total membership. Compartmentalization means that members of one cell do not know members of a different one. (This is “by design” to hinder counterinsurgency intelligence gathering.)

The military organization is similar, but perhaps smaller. By combination of members, committees are formed  for liason, intelligence, propaganda, enforcement, financial, labor unions, and sabotage. (bomb network)

The means of control is through intimidation and threats. Cell members approach an innocent civilian, and request money. If he refuses, they threaten him physically. Usually, they can extort him to make monthly payments. In time, they recruit him to collect funds from other civilians, and so on, in a “ponzi scheme” manner.

Ultimately, the insurgency offers the civilian cell membership if he can “prove” his worth by killing someone for no particular reason. If he commits the murder, he is recruited into a cell. And, the cell now has “blackmail” evidence to use against him if he gets “out of line.”

The military organization spreads terror through public bombings or other sabotage missions. They may also engage in assassination. They are supported in turn by the political organization.

As the insurgency gains power, and the public loses confidence in the government, the insurgent military grows, and then overthrows the regime.

Trinquier offers a theory on how to combat and defeat the insurgency. The key is to gain and maintain public allegiance and confidence in the existing government.

A counterinsurgency organization is formed with close police force cooperation. The organization is hierarchical, with an intelligence component.  Early in the struggle, a census of the entire population must be conducted, and photo-ID cards issued. A database of all citizens is essential.

By means of interrogation of criminals, and surveys of innocent civilians, intelligence is gathered, documented, and shared. It is critical to establish an intelligence network, and identify members and leaders of the insurgency cells. Efforts must be made to determine and understand the insurgency organization.

Declare war openly and publicly against the insurgency. Identify them by name. Use broad police action, and if necessary, involve military forces. Set up detection, surveillance, and then make arrests. Offer arrested insurgents leniency in exchange for information.

Implement social programs to give the population material and moral assistance. Freeze or confiscate insurgent financial assets using the banking system. Use propaganda liberally.

Incarcerate and/or execute arrested insurgents that do not cooperate. Make sure the population knows of each arrest, and sentences carried out. Naturally, efforts to gain cooperation from the press are useful. In this way, an insurgent network can be dismantled.

Lt Col Roger Trinquier

Viet Cong

In the Vietnam War after the French departure, the Viet Cong (VC) were the military organization of the insurgency in South Vietnam. They operated under a front organization, National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. (NLF) In reality, the People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP) controlled everything, and were the political part of the insurgency. The Party had a cell structure, and formed committees at each of the country’s administrative levels (national, regional, provincial, district, and village.) The Party supplied recruits, money, intelligence, and supplies to guerrilla forces. (Viet Cong)

Cadres levied taxes, recruited rural population to join military units, and gathered information from farmers and others about enemy operations. Through propaganda, they promised a better way of life through land reform, wealth redistribution, and freedom from government repression, onerous taxation, and military conscription.

The Viet Cong used terrorism against the South Vietnamese Government forces, and sabotage. They threatened civilians to keep them in line and to recruit them.

Early Counterinsurgency Efforts

Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) was a program launched in 1963. It used offers of amnesty and resettlement to encourage defections from the VC and the NVA. According to one estimate, the program was responsible for generating 194000 “ralliers” during 1963–1971. Many of these defectors were low-level personnel, and few were from the NVA. Nevertheless, the program generated large amounts of useful information about insurgent motivation, morale, and organization.

The Census Grievance program sent South Vietnamese survey teams to villages. They interviewed one member of every family, to develop an understanding of popular anti-government sentiments, and to gather intelligence on the VCI. The program generated vast amounts of information, although in a largely pre-digital age, it was difficult and time consuming to assess and exploit the data.

Revolutionary Development (RD) cadres were a CIA initiative. The RD program grew out of emerging propaganda and recruiting efforts by the Diem government, such as the action civique and Xay Dung Nong Thon [Rural Development] programs. A deliberate mirror image of the VC, RD cadres were armed teams of young South Vietnamese sent into the countryside to live with villagers, spread pro-GVN and anticommunist propaganda, and recruit for village militias and associations. While ambitious, the RD program failed to gain traction in the countryside.

Counter-Terror Teams (CTT) were similar to the RD cadres. CTTs were organized, trained, and equipped by the CIA, and modeled on Vietnamese-communist methods. The CTTs were trained for small-unit operations deep within VC-dominated areas aimed at capturing (or, if necessary, killing) Viet Cong members.

Phoenix Program

By far the most effective, and most controversial program was the Phoenix Program began in June 1967. It was believed to be modeled after principles in Trinquier’s book, Modern Warfare. Although the CIA established the program, the Saigon government provided the bulk of the manpower. The Vietnamese name was Phung Hoang, named after a mythical Vietnamese bird, somewhat similar to the Phoenix. They set up coordinating committees at the national, regional, and provincial levels. These included representatives from the National Police, the Special Police Branch, the National Police Field Force, the Chieu Hoi amnesty program, the RD cadre, the Military Security Service, the military intelligence, and the Provincial Reconnaissance Units. (PRU)

Each province had a Province Intelligence and Operations Coordination Center. (PIOCC) Likewise each district had a District Intelligence and Operations Coordination Center. (DIOCC) Phoenix was backed by two US agencies: the CIA and MACV. CIA Phoenix advisers at the PIOCC level would mentor the DIOCC advisers.

Most pertinent to anti-VC operations is the fact that they organized an “Order of Battle Branch” that tracked both the Viet Cong (military)  and PRP (political) organizations to determine their composition and identify leaders. Using a variety of intelligence sources, the Political Order of Battle Section labored to produce dossiers on Viet Cong members for storage and recall by an automated system. By 1967, more than 6,000 dossiers on suspected Viet Cong and Party personnel were compiled.

Phoenix was designed to coordinate and disseminate intelligence primarily through the PIOCCs and the DIOCCs. Phoenix created no new operational units, and controlled no forces on the ground. Efforts to disrupt the Viet Cong were assisted by the South Vietnam’s National Police, National Police Field Force, U.S. and Vietnamese conventional armed forces. But, the most effective counterinsurgency forces were the Provincial Reconnaissance Units. PRU.

The CIA decided to reestablish its control over the CTTs, and as a first step, the agency rebranded the teams. The new name, the Provincial Reconnaissance Units, signaled important changes in direction. In highly politicized conflicts during which struggles for “hearts and minds” are under way, names matter, and the term Provincial Reconnaissance Unit had none of the lurid connotations of Counter-Terror Team, at least not initially. The new name was also meant to signal a reorientation of the units away from killing suspected members of the Viet Cong. Henceforth, the paramount mission of the PRUs was not to kill adversaries, but to apprehend and use them for intelligence purposes.

Operating in all of South Vietnam’s provinces, and never numbering more than 5000 men, the PRUs were in essence an intelligence-driven police force. They were better trained, equipped, and paid than the South Vietnamese National Police. They had a highly specialized mission, to be sure, but they were a police force nonetheless.

Although sometimes unavoidable, killing a suspect was not the primary intention of PRU operations. Rather, in the words of John Mullins, an American PRU adviser, “prisoner snatches were key. You can’t get information out of a dead man.”

A typical PRU was made up of five 18-man teams, which were in turn broken down into smaller units for operations at the district level. With American advisers accompanying their operations, PRUs had access to air support when they encountered heavy resistance. As of May 1970, 102 US military personnel and five civilians were advising PRUs.

In the late 1960s, unfavorable publicity about the PRUs began to appear. According to the CIA, anti-infrastructure operations – including those carried out by the PRUs, the National Police, and allied conventional military units – were responsible for capturing, killing, or persuading to defect (“neutralizing” in the somewhat sinister language of the time) more than 80000 insurgents between  1968 and 1972.

In the judgment of some key American participants, such as William Colby, the fight against what he termed the secret apparatus kept the pressure on the communist underground, which helped to sever its connection with the rural population, thereby cutting off communist access to manpower and other key resources. However, according to Colby, the Vietnamese communists “attributed their problems to Phoenix, when they really should have attributed them to the growth of self-defense forces and that sort of thing.” Although abuses did occur, neither Phoenix nor its action arms were assassination programs, as critics charged, but negative publicity helped shape public perceptions that the United States engaged in questionable practices.

CIA adviser with South Vietnamese forces

CIA adviser with South Vietnamese forces


A variety of border intelligence and interdiction efforts were conducted by the US in an attempt to monitor and interdict supplies moving from North Vietnam into South Vietnam.

After 1967, the HQ 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), provided administrative support to MACV-SOG Special Forces soldiers in Vietnam.

The human intelligence effort is best characterized by the special operations program known as OP 35. OP 35 was the Air Studies Group component of MACV’s blandly named Studies and Observation Group (SOG). SOG was in fact a cover for special operations, and to provide anonymity for the organization and its personnel, OPS-35 had an administrative affiliation with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne)

OP 35 was the component focused on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. OP 35 utilized small reconnaissance patrols, generally composed of a few U.S. Army Special Forces and several locally recruited tribesmen (for a total team size of about 12), to locate infiltrators and call in air strikes on the targets.

Additionally, OP 35 patrols emplaced sensors for IGLOO WHITE, performed bomb damage assessment, and even conducted limited direct-action missions to capture prisoners or destroy facilities. In addition to the cross-border OP 35, US Army Special Forces camps along the Vietnamese side of the border also provided the ability to gather intelligence aimed at interdicting infiltration. These camps grew out of area-security programs begun in the early 1960s that eventually became a program known as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). In addition to area security, U.S. Army Special Forces intelligence efforts known as Projects Delta, Sigma, and Omega helped locate insurgent bases inside South Vietnam.

In June 1969, the killing of a suspected double agent Thai Khac Chuyen, and the attempt to cover it up, led to the arrest in July of seven officers and one non-commissioned officer of the 5th Special Forces Group .(Airborne) This included the new commander, Colonel Robert B. Rheault in what became known as the “Green Beret Affair.” This was related to Project Gamma in Cambodia, similar to Projects Delta, Sigma, etc. American newspapers and television picked up the story, which became another lightning rod for anti-war feeling.

5th Special Forces Group Patch

5th Special Forces Group Patch

Vietnam Primer

Colonel David Hackworth and Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall wrote the “Vietnam Primer” after Hackworth returned from his first tour in Vietnam. The 23-page primer provides many useful hints for conventional forces combating guerillas. Here are a few of the points made by the primer.

The Post-Action Critique –  An important infantry battalion practice is to conduct critique sessions after engagements. This gives the commander a chance to understand what happened from each soldier’s point of view. These critiques, when properly conducted identify weaknesses that can be corrected in later firefights.

District Assault – A company sized attack on a fortified village or base camp can result in heavy losses without adequate preparations. The NVA or VC main forces were determined to defend, with booby traps, hidden tunnels, and unforeseen trenches and machine gun nests.

When coming in contact with this situation, fire teams should hold their position and even fake a withdrawal, while maintaining heavy weapons fire. First take cover, and “fix” the enemy. Most importantly, hit defenses with heavy artillery fire and airstrikes. Once reinforcements arrive, gradually advance with the intent to encircle, and block VC retreat paths. Escalate an assault after artillery and heavy weapons fire has weakened the defenses.

Warning and Movement – During small unit movement, all ground should be approached as though Viet Cong are present in force. Any company or smaller unit encounter with a built up or fortified area should wait for artillery and heavy weapons assistance before considering an assault. If enemy fire continues after making initial contact, interpret it as a warning that larger forces are present.

Doubling Security – The highest shock killing losses occur in the first stage of engagement. Resist the urgency to “get on with it.” March movement should be cautious, with alert scouts. Predetermined objectives, rendezvous points, and LZs should be approached with appropriate recon and caution, with lower priority on meeting time schedules. Getting into a rush creates ambush vulnerabilities.

Contending With Jungle – In thick jungle, combat is at close range, perhaps 20 meters. This is not an advantage for heavy weapons. The canopy may prevent effective use of smoke flares for marking. Mortars are useless under the canopy. Reinforcement advance is often erratic, ponderous, and exhausting. Medevac is highly impractical.

Communications – Many  radio operators get shot up as their conspicuous equipment invariably attracts sniper fire. Concealing PRC-25 radios in standard rucksacks is a wise precaution. But no less invariably, the shift to another frequency or the improvising of a relay saves the day.

Trail Security – Use of the “cloverleaf” pattern for making security sweeps is very important. The object is to scout a limited area around the unit during a security or rest halts or before the troops set up the night defense. Four patrols are sent out anywhere from 100 to 500 meters for this all-around sweep.

Ruses, Decoys, and Ambushes – The Viet Cong have many tricks. Most depend on creating these illusions: 1)  American forces caught the Viet Cong off guard and 2) Viet Cong are present, but weak and unaware. Whenever the enemy makes his presence obvious, ask the question: “Is this the beginning of some design of his own, intended to suck us in by making us believe that we are about to snare him?” This question should be asked before any operation proceeds.

Policing the Battlefield – Every dud grenade or unexploded artillery shell left behind is a gift to the Viet Cong. Discarded C- ration tin cans be transformed into booby traps. The enemy is good at such tricks, and they return to the field to look for free items, as soon as American troops leave. Thus it is extremely important to collect all debris, and carry it back to the base. Combat leaders in Vietnam must prod their men to police the premises before quitting the perimeter and moving on. Undue emphasis on making body count surveys can be dangerous. In Operation Nathan Hale, three men working through a banana grove were hit by sniper fire. They were counting bodies.


Well established theories exist, and have been applied in counterinsurgency. However, success also depends on “isolating the battlefield.” Unfortunately in Vietnam, this was not done, and the counterinsurgency efforts did not prevent infitration from the Ho Chi Minh trail. Laos remained an important sanctuary for Viet Cong. The Phoenix Program was moderately successful, but it became controversial, and communists and anti-war activists used it for propaganda.


“Modern Warfare,”  Roger Trinquier

RAND “The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency,” William Rosenau, Austin Long

“Vietnam Primer,” Colonel David Hackworth and Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall

Col Hackworth is credited with transforming the pitiful 4-39th Inf “Heartbreak” Battalion into the effective “Hardcore” Battalion in 1969. To do so, he used principles described in his “Vietnam Primer.”

mpaign Series Vietnam | Hack's Hardcore Hints