What Made Vietnam Different? That is the question we answer in this, the second part in a three part series on what lessons sniping in Vietnam taught us about unconventional warfare. If you have not read part 1 with the introductions and historical background to this topic, go ahead and do it now. Now lets get into what made Vietnam different.
When US involvement in the Vietnam War started in the early 1960’s, sniping as a part of the formal military structure and US warfare tactics was still in its infancy and modern sniping theory was based on experiences from World War 1. Snipers up to this point had only participated in large force on force combat operations when the US military had time to recognize the need, develop the weapons and equipment, and then deploy their makeshift snipers. The military theory on snipers predominantly consisted of extending the range of the infantryman and to counter enemy snipers. There was not much thought about the use of snipers beyond these tactics, and the smaller conflicts that the US participated in did not last long enough for the need for snipers to be recognized in those less conventional battlefields. Then after each major conflict, snipers would once again fade out of the minds of formal US military doctrine, therefore preventing any long-term training and development from happening.
On March 8, 1965, the 3rd Battalion of the 9th Regiment of the USMC stepped ashore in Vietnam, becoming the first regular US troops to arrive in South Vietnam, ushering in the buildup of troops which reached its pinnacle in 1968 with over half-a-million troops in country. When the marines arrived there were once again no trained or equipped snipers with the USMC or the US Army and it seemed that no matter how many bombs or artillery shells were fired at this new enemy in what was essentially a jungle war, they had no effect on them or their combat effectiveness. It did not take long for the commanders of both the Army and USMC units to begin requesting snipers and sniper rifles to counter the elusive insurgents and regular enemy forces. By the end of 1965 the USMC had established a small-scale regional sniper training program to address the problem.
It was the company commanders and other lower-level leaders who spent time “in the bush” that were demanding snipers, they were the ones with the first hand experience fighting an enemy that mostly avoided combat and would only fight if the odds where drastically in their favor, else they resorted to quick skirmishes intended only to inflict casualties, and then they would fade away into the jungle. This was a drastically different form of combat than what the regular force commanders were trained for or had experienced from their previous combat in prior wars. The guerrilla warfare tactics employed by the enemy was necessary to fight against the superior firepower and technology of the US military and was something the fighting forces had no experience with and had difficulty adjusting to. Additionally, the terrain in Vietnam, with its jungles and rice paddies, made it very difficult for the heavy-laden US infantryman to effectively maneuver. All these factors led to the initial struggles of the conventional US forces and the cry for specialized snipers to engage the enemy that remained outside the range of the traditional US rifles.
In many ways, the disbanding of the snipers between the major wars may have helped with the development of the sniper programs during the Vietnam War. The conventional US military forces have traditionally had a hard time adapting to new styles of warfare, preferring to rely heavily on prior experiences for the solution to the current problems and any new tactical situations they encounter. If a permanent sniper program had existed and were in place after the World Wars with doctrines and techniques derived from those conflicts, there is a high likelihood that these sniper tactics would have also been ineffective in the unconventional guerrilla war that the US found itself in inside of Vietnam.
Because there were no established sniper programs in 1965, the programs were quickly put together based primarily on the conditions and experiences that the US forces were facing at the time, a drastically different war than what was found in western Europe in 1945. This “clean sheet” approach to the program allowed the early founders of these schools to not be hamstrung with prior doctrines and philosophies. Innovative commanders such as Major Robert Russell with the USMC and his primary instructor Captain Jim Land began researching and interviewing field commanders and even went into the field as snipers to develop and create a unique and revolutionary training regime for the USMC that adapted the sniper’s abilities to the unique combat and terrain environments found in Vietnam. Late in 1965 these newly trained snipers were starting to reach their units and their impact was quickly felt and the reports started coming back to the schools where the training was further adapted to what the snipers were experiencing on deployments.
The US army found itself in a similar situation as the USMC when their first unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, arrived later in 1965 and quickly discovered they too were ill prepared for the guerrilla warfare they found themselves in, even though they were technically a “jungle warfare” qualified unit. Quickly the requests started pouring in for equipment and snipers that had the ability to deliver accurate long-range fire. The army did, at least, have 8 pages within its patrolling field manual that spoke of snipers, unfortunately, the doctrine was based on their use in World War 2 and did not dictate policy of sniper organization within the Army. In early 1966 General G. L. Mueller wrote to the commandant of the Marines after he had read an article discussing the deployment and success of the USMC snipers, of which the commandant responded describing their sniper program. This led to the similar development of an entirely new sniper school and philosophy within the Army concerning sniper organization and employment. Though, as is the Army way, they spent over a year just researching and preparing the report about the equipment and organization of snipers before things finally started to go into effect in 1967 and into 1968. This left their units to fend for themselves during this research period and to fill the need however they could. Once the US Army trained snipers started reaching their units, they too had an immediate impact on the Counter-Insurgency (COIN) efforts.
The ability of these trained snipers to engage targets at long ranges was considerable, but it was the training in fieldcraft and tactics that set them apart from their traditional infantry counterparts. These skills allowed them to engage unsuspecting enemies unobserved from concealed positions and then to remain hidden in the jungles, essentially countering the same guerrilla tactics with their own guerrilla tactics but with extreme levels of marksmanship and fieldcraft. The psychological effects on the enemy were dramatic as they could no longer move freely within the jungle without fear, a freedom they had enjoyed for years against the regular line units who could not engage them at long range and were easy to detect and avoid. US snipers would setup positions overlooking Vietcong trails, meeting areas, and villages to provide protection from Vietcong “tax collectors” that would come across the border from Cambodia. These tactics, and many others, became a major disruption to the operations of the Vietcong and NVA.
The effectiveness of the US snipers continued to improve as more experience was garnered and as better equipment was adopted. In 1968 the USMC officially adopted snipers as a part of the USMC organization with the creation of the Scout-Sniper platoon within each infantry division for the express purpose of supporting the infantry and reconnaissance battalions by providing specially trained and equipped units to provide sniper and scouting operations. The US Army, conversely, never officially adopted snipers as a separate organization within the brigade or battalion and only allocated equipment for a single sniper per company with no official organization. The 9th Infantry Division was the leading proponent of snipers on the Army side and did the most to effectively use them in their Corps Tactical Zone.
While the effectiveness of the various US sniper units, with thousands of confirmed kills and unmeasurable disruptions to the enemy, is a testament to the equipment, skills, and capability of these men, these are not what revolutionized the utilization of snipers during the war. Rather, it was the means of employment and understanding of their capability by unit commanders that allowed the snipers to excel.
In 1965 and 1966 when the snipers were first returning from those first sniper schools and being assigned to the various units, the commanders did not fully understand the capabilities of these men and began using them as nothing more than traditional squad members that could shoot further, the same way they were utilized in the previous wars. This necessitated the snipers spending time educating their commanders of what they could, and could not, do. The more open minded the commander, the more successful the sniper teams were in supporting the unit. Eventually the USMC had to send out a briefing outlining various ways of utilizing their snipers. The USMC leadership was more open to the fluid and unstructured employment of snipers than the US Army was, short of the 9th ID, and as such the Army did not achieve the same level of success with their snipers as the USMC did. When the USMC organized their snipers into their own platoons that could then operate independently in support of the infantry battalions, it allowed them to further enhance their disruptive tactics and abilities, eventually earning them the ire of the entire North Vietnamese.
Leadership learning the proper use and employment of snipers during the Vietnam War has been the largest contributor in history to the development and success of the US sniper within the armed forces. The sniper has been an effective US combatant in every major war since the civil war, but it was not until the Vietnam War that the sniper found its place as a true force multiplier, and more importantly, as a key contributor to fighting both with, and against, guerrilla fighters. Until this war, the sniper was merely an enhanced infantryman, but with the forced adaptation during Vietnam, it forged an elite irregular and unconventional warfare tool that is at the disposal of military leadership today.
In the concluding part 3 of this series, we will cover the lessons learned from sniper employment in Vietnam and try to answer the question “Now What?”
Mel E. – Editor in Chief, Sniper Central
with assistance from Stirling E. – Global Affairs Analyst, Sniper Central