171. Telegram From the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State 1

1393. Deptel 742.2 It is difficult assess from here exactly what signal Hanoi has received from Barrel Roll operations in Laos. My personal judgment would be that it has probably to date been somewhat scattered, largely because program itself has been scattered.

Our primary concern at current moment is to reshape this program into more systematic operation, which will then perhaps produce better defined and more clearly understood signal to Hanoi. In my view, this reshaping does not involve increase in scale and only partly involves increase in frequency.

Structure of program we seek will be built around two general features: (a) establishment and re-seeding of choke points which will enhance interdiction of routes primarily used for DRV infiltration and supplies, and (b) constant, random armed reconnaissance of those routes, especially at night, by a group of pilots who have learned the terrain and can fly these programs with assurance.

If we have four choke points established, and re-seed these every week, we will, of course, have four operations per week pre-empted for these purposes. If we wish keep saturation armed recce on four principal routes, we will also have three or four operations per week on that account. In general, therefore, there would seem some value in considering the prospect of a systematic (but not spectacular) program on a seven day per week basis.

Perhaps the most important recommendation I could make is to have this program run by one special contingent of planes and pilots who become experts in the field. I feel this is most critical if we are to avoid the political hoorah which eventuates when a mission somehow goes astray (e.g. Barrel Roll 39). I also feel it important in terms of safety for the pilots themselves who are required to fly with minimum navigation over some pretty horrendous terrain.

It is for this reason that I recently floated idea (Embtel 1365)3 of a Thai-based unit to carry out strike, seeding and recce missions involved [Page 348] in Barrel Roll. I discussed these thoughts with General Hunter Harris at Udorn Monday4 and found him very much in agreement. Only exception he took to my views was his prejudice in favor of jet aircraft to do the strike and rescap [?] jobs. (I don’t want to get involved in middle of service and equipment scrap on which I have no qualifications whatsoever, but I feel I should report that junior operational air officers involved in these programs show a distinct preference for the A–1–H, which has longer time on target, more capability to absorb flak, less likelihood of smacking into a mountain at high speed, and more ability to stay with and protect choppers on SAR missions.)

In sum, I believe a program systematically geared to interdiction of DRV routes into Laos, flown with limited number specialized planes and pilots based in Thailand, and continuously applied over a considerable stretch of time will get a clearly audible signal to Hanoi. I do not rule out occasional spectacular strikes, but, except for Ban Ken Bridge, believe they have to date created more diversion than destruction.

As far as Souvanna is concerned, I believe program laid out above fits precisely with his line of thinking and, indeed, needs no further discussion with him. The only thing that gives him trouble is the occasional big show in which we lose aircraft and provoke loud Communist propaganda reaction.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Repeated to Bangkok and Saigon. Passed to the White House and Department of Defense.
  2. In telegram 742 to Vientiane, March 2, William Bundy asked for Sullivan’s “personal judgement” as to Souvanna’s reaction to an increased Barrel Roll program as a “useful added signal to DRV.” If Sullivan thought additional operations desirable, he should specify the types and objectives. (Ibid.)
  3. Document 168.
  4. March 2.