35. Message From the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Abrams) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Moorer) and the Commander in Chief, Pacific (McCain)1

69866. Deliver upon receipt. Subject: COMUSMACV personal appraisal of the enemy/friendly situation (C).

(TS) In view of the growing intelligence picture, I am today submitting my personal appraisal of the overall situation as it now stands and the requirements necessary to effectively meet this situation. There are five distinctly identifiable and interrelated threats which must be considered and countered. The five threats are the enemy forces in the northwestern portion of MR1 and near the DMZ which for ease of reference will be called the DMZ area; the enemy forces in the Pleiku/Kontum area which will be referred to hereafter as the B–3 Front, the enemy forces in the Chup/Mimot/Snoul area of Cambodia opposite MR3 which will be referred to as COSVN, the enemy forces in the PDJ/Long Tieng area which will be referred to as the Long Tieng area, and the enemy logistics offensive moving down the Laotian panhandle which will be referred to as the logistics offensive. I will first summarize the intelligence pertaining to each of the five threats, discuss their interrelationship, present my concept for the employment of US [Page 119] air power against the threat, and finally present the authorities needed to counter the threat.
(S) DMZ and Northern MR1. The enemy continues to make a deliberate effort to improve his capability in the DMZ area and northern MR1. All indications suggest that the 324B NVA Division is en route to traditional areas of operation in MR1. Major elements of the 304th NVA Division are already located in Laos west of Khe Sanh and destined for commitment to western Quang Tri Province. The enemy continues to improve his air defense capability in the DMZ area. Dong Hoi airfield is now operational, and Khe Phat air strip should be operational by 15 April. SAM battalions have recently deployed to the Tchepone/Muong Phine area while sites in the vicinity of Bat Lake and the DMZ have been occupied. Two SAM support facilities have been constructed approximately 7½ NM north of the central DMZ to support these sites. On 6 March pilot reports indicate two missiles were fired from within the DMZ against allied aircraft over northern MR1. At least 8 × 130mm guns and 5 × 122mm guns have been confirmed north of the DMZ indicating their anticipated use against northern MR1 in the near future. Since 25 January 2757 rounds of 130mm ammunition have been shipped to the DMZ area. There is an increasing flow of enemy truck traffic into western Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces. During February total input to MR1 more than doubled the detections for January. The enemy continues to expend considerable effort to upgrade his route structure throughout western MR1. AAA defenses are also being upgraded significantly, and MiG activity in the southern part of North Vietnam and the Laos panhandle has recently increased markedly.
(S) B–3 Front. Force structure augmentation, concentration of main-force units, and increased rear service and support activities point to enemy intentions to mount large-scale operations. The 320th NVA Division, the 141st Regiment, 2nd NVA Division, and the 83rd NVA Engineer Regiment recently arrived in the B–3 Front area. Movement of 122 millimeter field guns and howitzers and 160 millimeter mortars to the front has also been observed. T54/55 tanks have been sighted south of Chavane in the Laotian panhandle. Troop infiltration destined for the B–3 Front now approximates 32,000 or 19,500 more than the total B–3 Front infiltration for 1968, the highest previously recorded year. Infiltration, including main-force units, has doubled the number of regiments in the area. Rear service activities within the front have increased, old roads and trails have been upgraded and new roads and bunkers are under construction. Enemy main-force units can launch attacks within the B–3 Front with little warning.
(S) COSVN. Since mid-February, major relocations of VC/NVA units have markedly increased the enemy threat to the Tay Ninh area of MR–3. The movement of a second regiment of the 9th VC Division, the 95C NVA Regiment, from west of the Mekong River to an area east [Page 120] of Mimot raised to eight the number of infantry regiments operating in this area. The Division’s 272D VC Regiment continues to be located in the Chup plantation. In addition, the 165th and the 209th NVA Regiments, 7th NVA Division moved from the Chup–Dambe area to positions west of Mimot. It is also possible that the 7th Division’s 141st NVA Regiment has relocated from the Chup–Dambe area toward the east. The relocation of the 6th VC Regiment, 5th VC Division from the Snuol area further augmented the force concentration in the vicinity of Mimot. The 5th Division’s 174th NVA Regiment remains north of Mimot. Additionally the 271st NVA Independent Regiment is now located in northern Base Area 354. There are now at least six enemy regiments located within 20 kilometers of the RVN/Cambodia border.
(S) Long Tieng Area. It appears that the enemy forces, which earlier had reacted to Vang Pao’s operation southeast of the Plaine des Jarres, are once again being positioned for attacks in the Long Tieng area. On 4 and 5 March, the headquarters, 141st and 165th Regiments, 312th NVA Division, were located within six kilometers of Sam Thong, and on 5 March the 148th Regiment of the 316th NVA Division was located approximately 16 kilometers northeast of Long Tieng, thus approximating their positions prior to the friendly operation. Enemy reconnaissance and tactical activity around Sam Thong have increased over the past several days. Elements of the 335th Regiment continue to operate in the Skyline Ridge area. Additionally, the construction of a road from the Plaine toward Long Tieng and the movement of supplies and emplacement of AAA weapons along the road have continued unabated. Finally, while the 174th Regiment, 316th NVA Division, has not been detected returning to the Long Tieng area, the decrease in the friendly ground threat to the enemy lines of communication makes redeployment of this unit to join in an attack on Long Tieng a distinct possibility.
(S) Logistics Offensive. During the past week the general directorate of rear service element in the Lao panhandle initiated a general logistics offensive. It is designed to move more supplies and materiel to enemy units in RVN, southern Laos and Cambodia. This offensive began on 1 March and reportedly will continue, at least in some areas, until July. This plan emphasizes greater efforts by engineer units to repair roads and fords; an increase in the number of round trips performed by vehicles drivers; prepositioning of rations along roads for drivers; and increased alertness by AAA units in Base Area 604. The current offensive appears to be a phase of heightened activity on the part of Binh Trams of at least three transportation groups and very likely is underway throughout the entire enemy logistics system.
(TS) Interrelationship of the Five Threats. Early in the enemy buildup, we had expected that the enemy offensive against the B–3 Front [Page 121] would precede action against the DMZ area. This has not materialized and it now appears that the enemy is capable of concurrent offensive action in all five threat areas. The most salient interrelationship among concurrent offensives in the five threat areas would be the sudden demand for air power needed to support each. In fact, the competing demands for air power already exist as we attempt to counter the enemy preparations in each threat area. Two other interrelationships are pertinent, offensive action by COSVN forces could create a threat to MR3 that would complicate the JGS decision to move airborne and marine reserve forces to MR1 or MR2. This emphasizes the need for preemptive actions against COSVN forces. We are applying air power against these forces, and as mentioned in my assessment of 6 March, III Corps plans to initiate an offensive against them on 9 March.2 Finally, since virtually everything the enemy does has an associated goal of influencing public opinion, the execution of concurrent attacks in four separate geographical areas would portray an impression of omnipotence that could be beneficial to his purposes.
(TS) My basic concept for countering the enemy buildup is to continue concentration of US Tacair primarily against the enemy logistic offensive and the B–52’s primarily against targets in the DMZ, B–3 Front, COSVN and Long Tieng areas and their related support bases. VNAF will continue to operate primarily against in-country Tacair targets supplemented by US Tacair when lucrative targets are developed either as a result of B–52 strikes or preemptive ground [operations. After the enemy offensive begins, however, the South Vietnamese will have] to be encouraged to shift their air resources to the high threat areas. This concept of air power employment does not exclude the employment of B–52’s against lucrative targets that may develop in conjunction with the logistics offensive but the threat situations in the DMZ, B–3 Front, COSVN and Long Tieng receive the main weight of the B–52 effort. When the enemy offensive begins, the distribution of air power will have to be judged in the light of all elements of the situation. The situation in the DMZ area requires special discussion and is covered in the following paragraph.
(TS) The intelligence situation in the DMZ has been discussed in para 2 above. It is important to understand what the enemy has put together in southern Quang Binh, the DMZ and western Quang Tri. It is a system integrating MiG’s, SAM’s, heavy anti-aircraft artillery, long range artillery, tanks and other ground forces. The enemy has put [Page 122] into position a SAM umbrella that extends as much as 16 NM into northern MR1 and to an even greater depth into the Laotian panhandle. In the [Mu Gia] pass areas, he has perhaps the best integrated, most closely coordinated MiG/SAM operating environment that has yet been developed and actively exercised under combat conditions. He has driven our highly vulnerable gunships out of the [Mu Gia] pass areas and northern MR1. He has made operation of fighter aircraft extremely difficult in these areas. He has kept the B–52 out of these areas although CINCSAC has stated his willingness to fly into the SAM rings when the targets justify the risk. He has developed a sustaining logistics base beneath this air defense umbrella. He has positioned long range artillery just north of DMZ in range of friendly positions. Tank and infantry units have been positioned in the area. If he initiates his offensive at the outset of a protracted period of bad weather, we risk serious losses in northern MR1. Our response to this critical situation must deal with all of the major elements of the integrated system described above. We must have authority to hit the MiG’s GCI, SAM sites, long range artillery, tanks and logistics facilities. We must have clear weather to operate effectively against his system. I urgently request approval of authority to strike the enemy system above the DMZ (formal statement of authority needed is in following paragraph). A one-time strike authority is temporarily useful but is of only limited value due to the enemy recuperative capability. Furthermore, the weather conditions change so rapidly as to make one-time authority difficult to exploit. What is needed is standing authority to strike the SAM’s artillery, GCI, tanks, anti-aircraft artillery and logistics as described in para 10 below, as a minimum I need the standby authority to strike this system of targets as quickly as weather will permit after the enemy begins to fire his artillery against friendly forces. The existing authority to return fire is too restrictive to be fully effective and does not adequately accommodate the fact that what we are up against is an entire system of integrated power rather than a single-weapon problem.3
(TS) Specific authorities needed at this time are as follows:
Authority to conduct Tacair strikes and naval gunfire attacks against SAM sites, MiG’s, GCI sites, AAA, long range artillery, tanks and logistics facilities in North Vietnam located below 18 degrees north. This statement of authorities needed is different from the previous request because we now know more about the highly integrated system facing us and, based upon previous attempts to attack parts of the system, realize that it must be attacked as an entity. Naval gunfire can provide needed firepower against SAM sites and logistical targets located near the coast.
Authority to employ area denial munitions in the northern portion of the DMZ.4
(TS) One final point concerns the Long Tieng area. Thus far the enemy has not resumed his all out offensive against Long Tieng. The recent operation by Vang Pao was successful in drawing forces away from Long Tieng and was a commendable initiative.5 I am aware that plans are underway for an even more ambitious diversionary operation.6 While it is difficult to judge from here the full merits and problems of the new plan, I must caution against initiating any new operation at this time that is dependent upon US air power for success or prevention of disaster. We are hard pressed even at this time to provide the necessary air power against the five threats and a sixth situation would be unsupportable.
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 218, Records of the Chairman, Records of Thomas Moorer, Box 62, COMUSMACV General Service Messages, March 1972. Top Secret; Flash; Specat; Exclusive.
  2. Message 65797 from Abrams to Moorer and McCain, March 6, attached to Moorer Diary, March 6; National Archives, RG 218, Records of the Chairman.
  3. In the March 9 memorandum CM–1625–72, Moorer wrote to Laird: “I fully agree that authority is needed now to strike the integrated enemy threat north of the DMZ. Because of the vagaries of the weather pattern for this area, one-time strikes make it difficult achieving their full potential. The enemy’s recuperative capability under conditions of short duration operations also limits us to very near term, temporary results.” (Attached to Moorer Diary, March 9; ibid.)
  4. Bunker sent Abrams’s message to Kissinger on March 9, commenting that “General Abrams’ message is comprehensive and cogent and I recommend that you read it in its entirety. I fully support his request for these additional authorities, in view of the massive enemy buildup in all of the threat areas mentioned.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 992, Alexander M. Haig Chronological Files, Haig Chron, March 7–15, 1972) Laird forwarded the recommendation to the White House on March 10. See footnote 4, Document 44.
  5. Operation Strength I, carried out southeast of Long Tieng during February, aimed to divert North Vietnamese troops from the area.
  6. Refers to Strength II, which was about to begin. Similar to Strength I in objectives, its operational area would be northeast of Long Tieng.