The Intelligence Problems in Vietnam: Lessons Learned, Pt 1

I continue to read “Analysis of Tactical Intelligence Experience in Southeast Asia,” about all the problems, successes, and failures of Intelligence during Vietnam.

After the conflict, researchers found that nearly 75% of those on the tactical level reported not getting adequate intelligence. That’s an astounding amount of decision-makers not getting their questions answered about the enemy situation.

One reason for this is because the cycle to gather, analyze, and disseminate intelligence took so long.

Another problem is that much of the intelligence was geared towards the discovery the enemy’s strategic plans and intentions, as opposed to the discovery of real-time location of enemy units.

Here’s what this looks like: you’re an infantry company commander in Vietnam. You’re on patrol every day trying to find the enemy. Some days you find him. Some days you don’t. You want nothing more than to go out and stack VC, but by the time you find them, they’re already ambushing you. This is the only way you can find them.

Wouldn’t it be much easier if you received intelligence from signals intercepts from grid coordinate X, confirming the real-time location of the Viet Cong? Yes, yes, it would, but most often, that’s not the kind of intelligence being produced.

Key Takeaways:

We have to shorten our Intelligence Cycle — not shorten it by removing steps, but by speeding up the generation of collection requirements, gathering that information, processing and analyzing it, and producing and disseminating the Intelligence. My all-time favorite quote is from former GE CEO Jack Welch, who said, “If the rate of change on the outside is greater than the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” Intelligence has a shelf-life. What is current right now may be ancient history in 24 hours. The lesson here is that if we can’t generate current intelligence faster than our enemy can change it, we risk mission failure.

We must understand the intelligence needs at the tactical level. Sure, some may say that the intelligence during Vietnam was focused on the strategic level because that was more important than the tactical level. Maybe. But when it comes to effecting the tactical victories that add up to strategic victories, we have to provide intelligence support to the tactical level.

I’ll continue picking my way through the report and providing my thoughts on this blog. If you’d like to download the report, you can do so here:

Author: Sam Culper
Former Intelligence NCO and intel contractor. OEF & OIF veteran. Bama alum. Marshall Tucker nationalism. Austin, Republic of Texas. @culper_intel on most social media platforms.

5 thoughts on “The Intelligence Problems in Vietnam: Lessons Learned, Pt 1

  1. Good stuff, and the modern parallels don’t go away.
    (Who ya gonna believe? That politikrat that calls it a “peaceful protest” or your watery eyes from the smoke of the burning building?)

    Let us know when you get to the part about “there WERE people who were finding the intel, and the signs & presence of the enemy and their capabilities, but they were disbelieved back in Saigon by the deskbound.” Or maybe “hidebound” is better, because the stark evidence didn’t match assumptions they were wedded to – an incredibly dangerous thing. The decision model wherein intel must go ALL the way to the top first to be vetted & then be shared has decorated a lot of graveyards.

  2. I’m in my sixties and do not have an intelligence background. Therefore I find it very interesting. I fancy myself as a well-informed soldier-citizen trying to be well-prepared and enjoying the process.

    This blog entry admits to a short-coming on Intel that I have felt in my gut and have found sporadic support for. Good Intel is hard to find, needs alot of (experienced) staff/support(expensive) and by the time it gets to where it’s needed, it’s useful shelf life is often too short and difficult to plan with or use.

    I listened to a short part of a Joe Rogan interview with a former Iraq or Afganistan combat veteran who pointed out that raiding a house to capture suspected higher level insurgents often met with failure and apologies had to be offered to the terrified residents.

    I’ve read the book ‘Left of Bang’ which is the civilian(?) representation of the Marine Combat Hunter program developed under the directive of General Mattis. This book found its way into the Marine Commandant’s reading listen in just about 3 years after publication.

    It’s premise successfully addresses the above short-coming. The intel is heuristic and with training (courses available online) can be readily implemented by a Marine or a civilian anywhere. The premise is, in my words, that a man can be trained to identify patterns of imminent violence among activities and behavior of a person and groups of people without relying on facial features. These patterns have terminology assigned to them allowing for communicating quickly to fellow soldiers or civilians thereby anticipating violence and keeping ‘left of bang’.

  3. Read a book called Slow Burn a few years ago. Had read a lot of the personal accounts of soldiers fighting over in Southeast Asia and it was always the same. They described it as a klusterfuk.

    Reading how the CIA stumbled and bumbled its way through the Vietnam War it’s no wonder we didn’t have much success over there. Just like the ill-planned raid on the p o w camp. The Vietnamese had moved American prisoners further north and while very courageous, US forces raided an empty camp.

    Should things go south here in the states having fresh intelligence will definitely be important . Look forward to reading your future postings

  4. Having been in 1970, an infantryman in the jungle of Vietnam, in a line company, I can personally attest to this evaluation being correct. Without a doubt, we had air superiority in VN, and even as a young grunt, I wondered why our AF people didn’t tell us more about where the bad guys were. We would crash and thrash though the jungle making all that noise and then suddenly find ourselves in a crossfire from Cong or NVA, who probably heard us for days before. Our missions were pretty sketchy, to go out and find them, in a general area, usually on the Cambodian border, inside Cambodia, or some of both. On two occasions I got a real good idea of how bad our intel was. We ran into, or were followed by, ARVN forces. The first time was a firefight that went on long enough to kill several of them, the second time, we heard them coming in the daytime and avoided a fight. We also came upon bunker complexes twice that were abandoned. It was such a wild situation during the Cambodian Invasion, that one of our companies fired on another of our companies by mistake. At 19, I didn’t have much education or intel savvy, but I understood why the scuttlebutt had it that we were going to screw the pooch. Good experience, but lousy conduct of a war. I also found out that when someone is shot, they don’t always say uh, and fall down. Combat is very noisy.

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