The two basic elements of combat power are maneuver and firepower. Maneuver
is the movement of combat forces to gain positional advantage,
psychological shock, physical momentum, and massed effects. Firepower is
the destructive force essential to defeating an enemy's ability and will
Throughout history, maneuver and firepower have alternated in
dominating the battlefield. In World War I the new firepower technologies
completely dominated the tactical situation, resulting in the gridlock of
trench warfare. As a revolutionary war, Vietnam might have seemed like an
ideal environment for maneuver to dominate. The American military,
however, had a longstanding tradition of heavy reliance on firepower, and
Vietnam was no exception.
Until the twentieth century, artillery was almost the sole source of
battlefield firepower. During the Vietnam War firepower support also came
from (Army) helicopters and (Air Force, Navy, and Marine) tactical
aircraft. Each system had its advantages, which compensated for the
disadvantages of the others. Artillery is accurate, responsive, and
flexible; helicopters offer precision and direct observation; and close
air support is highly destructive. The challenge for ground commanders was
to integrate these forms of firepower with the scheme of maneuver to
produce the desired tactical effect.
Most field artillery units had a mission of either direct support (DS) or
general support (GS). A division normally had one DS artillery battalion
for each maneuver brigade, plus a GS battalion to provide fires for the
whole division. Non-divisional artillery units were organized into
artillery groups, which had a mission of providing general support to an
entire corps (called "field forces" in Vietnam). For some
specific operations, non-divisional artillery could be given the mission
of reinforcing (R) the fires of a divisional unit. In the absence of large
divisional operations in Vietnam, most non-divisional artillery units were
used to provide support for a specific geographical area.
When supporting a brigade, the DS artillery battalion normally had three
firing batteries of six guns each. In conventional operations this would
mean there was one artillery battery to support each maneuver company -
although the firing batteries remained under the control of the
artillery battalion to provide massed fires across the brigade sector. In
Vietnam, however, operations tended to be fragmented and dispersed, and
the guns had to disperse in order to support them. This was a violation of
the time-proven principle that artillery is effective only when fired in
mass; but during the Vietnam War the enemy rarely presented massed targets
for Allied artillery.
Starting at the company level, every echelon in the maneuver chain of
command had a fire support coordinator (FISCOORD). The company FISCOORD
was the company commander, but he was assisted in this task by a forward
observer (FO) from the DS artillery battalion. FOs generally were the most
junior lieutenants in the artillery. Nonetheless, good FOs were highly
prized by their infantry units, and a company commander usually kept his
FO within arm's reach. The enemy also appreciated the extra combat power
the FO represented and made special efforts to identify and kill him
quickly if possible.
At the maneuver battalion, the FISCOORD was the artillery liaison officer
(LNO), a more senior captain also supplied by the DS artillery battalion.
Quite often, the artillery LNO worked from a command and control (C2)
helicopter, along with the supported maneuver battalion commander and his
operations officer (S-3). The LNO was responsible for coordinating all
fires for the battalion, not just artillery-delivered fires. Thus the LNO
had to ensure that artillery, helicopters, and tactical air were
synchronized on the target, yet separated from each other in time and
space to preclude midair collisions.
Making the task more complicated, radios in Army and
Air Force strike aircraft were incompatible. Operating a bank of radios in
the C2 helicopter, the LNO had to pass messages and commands back and
forth between FOs on the ground, Army helicopters in the air, and Air
Force forward air controllers (FACs) on the ground or in the air - who then
talked to the Air Force aircraft.
The commander of the DS artillery battalion was the designated FISCOORD
for the brigade, and the division artillery (DIVARTY) commander was the
FISCOORD for the division. In practice, assistant FISCOORDs at the brigade
and division fire support coordination centers (FSCCs) performed the
When a company FO called for fire on the radio, his
request went directly to either the battery or battalion (depending on the
situation) fire direction center (FDC). The LNO at the maneuver battalion
monitored the call and had the authority to cancel or modify the request.
If the LNO failed to intervene, his silence implied consent and the
mission continued. The fire direction officer (FDO) made the final
determination and issued the fire order. The FDC crew then computed the
data and sent the fire commands to the gun crews.
Most FDCs in Vietnam, especially in the later years, were equipped with
FADAC, the U.S. Army's first digital fire direction computer.
"Freddy" FADAC, however, was a notoriously cranky piece of
equipment and was often inoperable for one reason or another. It also was
slow, requiring two-thirds of the projectile time of flight for an initial
solution. A well-trained FDC using manual charts and graphical
computational tools could beat FADAC every time. Where Freddy excelled was
in handling multiple fire missions simultaneously.
Artillery was (and still is) the fastest of the fire support means. Under
ideal conditions, a well-trained battery had the technical capability of
placing rounds on the target within two to three minutes of the FO's
initial request. Combat conditions are never ideal, however, and in
Vietnam, the actual average was something more like six minutes for light
artillery and thirteen minutes for heavy guns, which often had to shift
their trails to fire. Even longer delays were caused by the political
nature of the war itself. In populated areas, the local Vietnamese sector
headquarters had to approve the mission before it could be fired. Later in
the war, Air Warning Control Centers (AWCCs) were established to broadcast
warnings to all friendly aircraft in the area. This added another element
of delay. Despite these delays, artillery was still much more responsive
than tactical air, which took anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour from the
initial call to target attack.
A revolutionary war like Vietnam warped the traditional relationships
between firepower and maneuver in subtle ways. On the strategic level,
the front line of the war may have been the DMZ and the Cambodian border;
but on the operational and tactical levels there were no front lines.
Instead of being linear, the war was circular. The enemy was capable of
being anywhere "out there." This, combined with the dense jungle
in which actions were fought, reduced the effectiveness of envelopments,
turning movements, and the other classical forms of tactical maneuver.
Company commanders quickly learned that adding more friendly infantry to a
fight quite often led to more friendly casualties.
Concern over friendly casualties was another factor inhibiting maneuver in Vietnam. More than any other war in American history, the preservation
of soldiers' lives was the overriding tactical imperative. This was driven
by the very shaky political support for the war at home, combined with the
close scrutiny and almost immediate (and sometimes inaccurate) media
coverage. The war had no clearly defined objectives, and no clearly
articulated national interests were at stake. Faced with these tactical,
social, and political imperatives, the only alternate course of action was
to use firepower in massive quantities and to give it primacy over maneuver. The prevailing philosophy became "bullets, not
bodies." The United States, of course, with its abundant materiel
resources, could do this easily. But in so doing, it provided the worst
sort of role model for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), which
did not have the resources but knew no other way of operating once it had
to fight on its own. Thus, infantry units in Vietnam maneuvered to achieve
two objectives: first to find the enemy, and then to take up the best
position from which to call in and direct overwhelming fire assets to
finish the job. The automatic response to bring in heavy firepower meant
that infantry units had to stay at least 200 to 300 meters away from the
enemy to avoid becoming casualties of their own supporting fires. The Viet
Cong (VC) and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) quickly recognized this
weakness and developed "hugging tactics," which brought them in
so close that Allied firepower became unusable.
Some U.S. commanders decried the over dependence on firepower and the
corresponding loss of infantry maneuver skills. They advocated the
adoption of the same guerrilla tactics used by the VC and PAVN. But even
these minority voices recognized that U.S. firepower was the final trump
card. As Lt. Col. David Hackworth said of his experiences with the 9th
Infantry Division's 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry: "Only
guerrilla tactics augmented by U.S. firepower can defeat the enemy at low
Of all the forms of Allied operations, the VC and PAVN most feared the
cordon. This operation normally began with multiple helicopter assault
landings to isolate and encircle an enemy unit in its base camp. Once on
the ground, Allied troops formed a perimeter with a radius of 500 to 1,000
meters. When the cordon was sealed, everything inside was systematically
pounded with air and artillery firepower. This was both slow and
methodical to avoid casualties from friendly fire. It became even more
careful as infantry moved in toward the center, shrinking the circle and
the target area. The slowly moving infantry always carefully marked their
positions well to avoid taking friendly fire. If set up properly and
sprung quickly, cordon operations were very effective.
Earlier in the war, firebases were little more than
temporary artillery emplacements established to support infantry operating
in a given area. They were set up quickly, usually by air, and abandoned
just as quickly. But then the Communist forces drastically scaled back
operations after suffering a crushing tactical defeat in the 1968 Tet
Offensive. The Allies responded by using firebases as a means to lure the
enemy into firepower traps. Firebases thus became semi permanent
fortresses with dug-in gun pits, bunkers, and up to 25,000 sandbags for a
This basically was the same tactic the French had
tried, and they failed with it on a grand scale at Dien Bien Phu. For the
Americans, it was a success - on the tactical level at least - because they
had both the artillery and air assets to overwhelmingly reinforce any
firebase that came under attack. One result of this approach was that many
infantry units were reduced to little more than perimeter security guards
for the firebases. Another result was that American artillery positions
routinely came under direct ground attack more than at any other time
since the Civil War, when artillery was still a direct fire weapon.
Artillerymen devised many innovative ways to defend themselves, including
the flechette firing "Beehive" round and "Killer
Junior," a high-explosive round with a time fuse set to detonate 30
feet off the ground at ranges between 200 and 1,000 meters. Communist
forces never managed to overrun a single American firebase.
Operating from firebases required new ways of thinking for American
artillerymen. In conventional operations the guns of a battery usually
were positioned in a staggered line parallel to the infantry front line,
2,000 or 3,000 meters to the front. In Vietnam the "front" was
in all directions, and only 50 or 100 meters away. The solution was to
position the guns on a firebase in either a diamond (four-gun battery) or
a star (six-gun battery) formation. That way the guns could fire in any
direction and the pattern of rounds (called a "sheaf") impacting
on the ground would be the same. Setting up to fire in all directions also
required special preparations in the gun pits and modifications to the
firing charts in the FDC.
The fire base concept led to a sharp increase in one
particularly worthless form of artillery fire. Harassment and Interdiction
(H&I) fire consisted of random rounds fired at "suspected and
likely" enemy locations and routes. H&I was usually fired at
night and was unobserved. It became slightly more effective later in the
war with the introduction of sophisticated remote sensors, which served as
firing cues. In general, however, H&I fire was largely a waste of
ammunition, accounting for some 60 percent of all artillery fire during
the war. In fact, only about 15 percent of all artillery rounds fired were
in support of troops in contact.
From a purely "systems analysis" standpoint, artillery fire in
Vietnam was rather ineffective. According to the most optimistic
estimates, it took well over 1,000 rounds to kill a single enemy soldier.
But these results were no different than in other wars. Artillery is
effective only when used in conjunction with maneuver to produce a
synergistic effect. Artillery, in fact, is most effective when used to
neutralize (rather than destroy) an enemy force while friendly maneuver units gain overwhelming positional advantage for the final kill.
This, of course, did not happen during the Vietnam
War. Early in the war, U.S. policy makers opted for a war of attrition
based in part on an imperfect understanding and unrealistic expectations
of the ability of American firepower to send a persuasive message. The
Communist forces never did crack, despite the ever-increasing levels of
destruction. In the end it came down to a classic Clauswitzian test of
wills and national resolve.
Robert H. Scales, Jr., best summarized the principal firepower lesson of
the Vietnam War: "If a single lesson is to be learned from the
example of Vietnam it is that a finite limit exists to what modern
firepower can achieve in limited war, no matter how sophisticated the
ordnance or how intelligently it is applied. Overwhelming firepower cannot
compensate for bad strategy."
David T. Zabecki
Bailey, Jonathan B. A. Field Artillery and
UK: Military Press, 1987.
Ott, David E. Field Artillery, 19541973. Washington, DC: Office of the
Chief of Military History, Vietnam Studies, 1975.
Scales, Robert H., Jr. Firepower in Limited War. 2d ed. Novato, CA:
Presidio Press, 1995.
U.S. Department of the Army. FM 640 Field Artillery Cannon
Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1967.
See also: Artillery, Allied and People's Army of Vietnam; Dien Bien Phu,
Battle of; Rules of Engagement (ROE).