47. Telegram From the Commander in Chief, Pacific (Felt) to the Chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam (McGarr)1

040531Z. Use of offensive air power.

Undesirable reactions that grow out of the indiscriminate use of the air arm in counter guerrilla operations has been thoroughly belabored in all reports on the Greek anti-bandit war and the Indochina episode. At one time during earlier part of Indochina war there were two opposing views on exercising tight restraint on use of aircraft against ground targets. One view was usual one of not alienating friendly peoples by making them victims of unjustifiable air attacks. The other view (an extension of a common Foreign Legion attitude) was that anti-guerrilla forces should not hamper their operations by too much purposeful restraint, particularly considering there were certain advantages to be gained from bringing populace to realize that innocent and guilty alike would suffer when Vietminh were detected in their midst. Idea here of course being that all non-communist Indochinese would realize that very presence of Vietminh was a “plague on their houses” and therefore they should specifically direct anti guerrilla forces to the Vietminh unless they wanted to suffer along with communists. French officers in non-Foreign Legion outfits contended [Page 97]such policy was typical of the “boche” influence in the Foreign Legion. In the end, more temperate policies for using air power prevailed—although many tragic errors in target designation continued to be made until end of war.
In both Greece and Indochina it was found that normal problems of target location and identification were compounded by fact that friend and foe were intermingled. It was found that only positive system of enemy target location was by ground forces who enjoy facility of positive identification through factor of their being shot at. It was also found, however, that potential for making maximum employment of available air power was considerably curtailed by waiting for footsore troops to run down and fix, in substantial lumps, a will-o-the-wisp guerrilla enemy. Problem was finally handled in both wars by attempting to develop an effective air/ground communication capability for close air support; and as far as independent air attacks were concerned, being as careful as possible when shooting up things around friendly areas.
We have been impressed with the expressed concern of several GVN officers that innocent people might suffer from the use of defoliants, mines, etc. They seemed to be well oriented on the undesirable aspects of the indiscriminate use of weapons amongst the civilian populace. Recognizing RVNAF awareness in this direction, I feel we should be confident that all concerned in SVN are applying the element of good judgment in the use of air power. I believe we should also recognize that occasional mistakes will be made as they were many times in WW II and Korea, and they should not be justification for imposing unreasonable restrictions on the use of the VNAF. This may well be a subject for discussion at next SecDef mtg at my hdqtrs.
You and your chief of air section should take immediate steps to ensure that sound intelligence and reporting provides basis for launching strikes. Your sitreps should make it clear to me and WashDC readers that positive control is being exercised.
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, Secret. Repeated to the JCS; Ft. Ritchie, Maryland; Hickam Air Force Base for PACAF; CINCPACFLT; and CINCUSARPAC.