The campaign against the Islamic State seems stalled, with no meaningful progress in sight. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, in an interview with Stars and Stripes on the eve of his retirement from the Army, was characteristically blunt, noting that the war is “kind of a stalemate.” He also stated that the United States “could defeat the Islamic State with its own ground forces,” but that such an approach “is not the long-term solution to the issues in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
As I have written at War on the Rocks and elsewhere, I agree with Odierno that U.S. ground forces can defeat the Islamic State. However, I disagree his contention that “the U.S. cannot solve this problem for the region.” I think that the Islamic State must be defeated as a necessary precondition before Iraqis and others in the region can be expected to provide for their own internal security in the future. Unfortunately, the resilience of the Islamic State thus far — as well as its continued reign of terror — has shown that those in the region cannot defeat it.
Many voices in both major parties are openly criticizing the way President Barack Obama has ordered his anti-Islamic State strategy to be executed. This strategy, which includes the deployment of a limited number of advisors far from the fighting, is criticized for its “creeping incrementalism” and defense experts are calling for the placement of advisers and air controllers in frontline Iraqi combat battalions. Unfortunately, this approach is not likely to be successful because it does not account for the key issues of adviser security, support, and effectiveness. A look back at the U.S. experience in the 1972 battles of Loc Ninh and An Loc in Vietnam shows the limitations of advisors in the absence of competent forces to support them.
Much like the war against the Islamic State, the war in Vietnam also began incrementally with the deployment of advisers ordered by President John F. Kennedy. During the height of U.S. combat operations in Vietnam, the advisory effort continued, much like how Military Transition Teams embedded with Iraqi forces when the United States had an active combat role in Iraq. In both cases, U.S. advisers knew that they could count on U.S. ground forces and air power to come to their aid. However, this support was gone in Vietnam by 1972. The implications of that change hold important lessons for us today as we consider embedding advisers with frontline units in Iraq.
By April 1972, the United States had removed the vast majority of its ground combat units from South Vietnam as it pursued the policy of “Vietnamization” and withdrawal. Total troop strength had dropped from a wartime authorization high in 1969 of 549,500 to 69,000, and in the field advisor strength had fallen from 14,332 in 1969 to 3,888 by the end of 1971. When the North Vietnamese invaded on March 30, 1972, seven U.S. ground combat battalions were in South Vietnam, but were confined to protecting key installations. U.S. advisers in the field would have to rely on their Vietnamese counterparts and American air power for their survival in the face of a massive assault from the North.
The Easter Offensive was a conventional invasion of South Vietnam by some eight North Vietnamese and Viet Cong divisions supported by tanks and artillery. U.S. advisors were in the thick of the fighting, calling in air strikes and shoring up Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) leadership. One of the first battles was at Loc Ninh, to the west of Saigon. Loc Ninh was important, because it showed that the North Vietnamese were intent on driving to Saigon.
The battle began on April 5, 1972 when 9,000 soldiers of the 5th Viet Cong Division, with tanks and artillery, attacked a 1,000-man regiment from the 5th ARVN Division. The ARVN had seven U.S. regimental and provincial advisers embedded with them. The U.S. advisers put up an incredible fight, directing air strikes — eventually on their own positions — and, in one case, essentially assuming command of ground operations. Despite these efforts, the ARVN positions were overrun within two days and fewer than 100 South Vietnamese soldiers escaped death or capture.
Attempts were made to evacuate the U.S. advisers by helicopter, but these were unsuccessful in the face of intense enemy ground fire. Unfortunately, there were no U.S. ground forces that could come to their rescue. Task Force 52, an ARVN unit with three U.S. Army advisers, did try to break through to Loc Ninh from An Loc, but it was surrounded and all three advisers were wounded in an intense 36-hour fight. Two attempts to rescue the wounded advisers with Task Force 52 failed in the face of North Vietnamese Army ground fire. The third succeeded and the wounded advisers were evacuated by helicopter. One adviser received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in the fight; the two others Silver Stars — the second and third highest U.S. Army awards for valor behind the Medal of Honor.
What of the seven U.S. advisers at Loc Ninh? Ultimately, they were abandoned by their South Vietnamese comrades. Two died in combat, one evaded capture and made it to ARVN lines, and four became prisoners of war, enduring brutal conditions until their release during Operation Homecoming on February 12, 1973. Three were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and four the Silver Star for their actions in the battle at Loc Ninh.
The 1972 invasion came close to overwhelming South Vietnamese defenses, but it was exactly the kind of fight that played to the remaining U.S. advantage — massive air power. So long as the South Vietnamese could hold in the face of the onslaught from the north, U.S. air power could decimate enemy formations.
Some of the most difficult fighting was at An Loc, an important city because it stood between the North Vietnamese and Saigon. U.S. advisers were key to this fight, calling in U.S. tactical air support (fighters, AC-130 Spectre gunships and attack helicopters) while massive B-52 bomber “arc light” raids carpet-bombed enemy formations. Indeed, Brig. Gen. John R. McGiffert, the deputy commander of Third Regional Assistance Command, recalled that the “their [U.S. advisers’] primary duty and their primary reason for existence was coordination of U.S. tacair [tactical air support] and without them, it [the defense of An Loc] would have just been damn near impossible.” These advisers were effective because they were actually in the thick of the action, not in protected positions nearby as has been suggested for advisors in the fight against the Islamic State.
Maj. Gen. James F. Hollingsworth, senior advisor to the ARVN III Corps, was deeply involved in the defense of An Loc and fully understood the importance of U.S. advisers. He directed the advisers in An Loc to remain with their ARVN units for the duration of the fight, rather than being evacuated. Hollingsworth later recalled: “Once the Communists decided to take An Loc, and I could get a handful of [ARVN] soldiers to hold and a lot of American advisers to keep them from running off, that’s all I needed.” He told the advisers in An Loc, “Hold them and I’ll kill them with air power; give me something to bomb and I’ll win.” Hollingsworth proved right in the case of An Loc.
What insights do two battles from a war long ago hold for the United States in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State?
First, advisers and forward air controllers can greatly increase the effectiveness of American air power, but they have to be directly engaged in combat to be effective when the chips are down. They are the capability, not merely enablers for the advised unit.
Second, absent competent U.S. ground combat forces as a reaction force, advisers and air controllers are at risk of capture if the advised unit cannot dependably stand and fight. Relying on Iraqi Security Forces to rescue captured advisors is wishful thinking. If they could competently execute the joint combined arms fire and maneuver needed for such a mission they would not need U.S. advisers in the first place.
Third, in a contested air environment — particularly one where the adversary likely has man-portable air defense systems — medical evacuation or helicopter extraction of advisors may not be an option.
What all this means in the fight against the Islamic State is that a U.S. “quick reaction force” must be capable of fighting its way to the threatened advisers and forward air controllers. And to accomplish this, there must be sufficient U.S. forces on the ground to come to the rescue of multiple adviser teams. An “advisers-only” strategy would therefore require more than just advisers.
So, when you examine the implications of it through the lens of history, the advisers-only strategy proposed today by many in Washington isn’t as simple and immaculate as it might appear at first glance. There are issues that must be examined, understood, and planned for if the United States does not wish to have U.S. advisers left to the cruelties of the Islamic State — a fate worse than even that of the four U.S. advisers captured after the Battle of Loc Ninh.
David Johnson is a senior historian at the RAND Corporation and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. From June 2012 until July 2014, he established and directed the inaugural Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group. He is a retired U.S. Army Colonel with a PhD in history from Duke University. He is the author of numerous books and articles on military strategy.
Photo credit: The U.S. Army