”No Time for Reflection at Ia Drang”?
The Operational Concept Behind the Ia Drang Battle

According to Carl H. Builder and al., Colonel Moore did not have an adequate command concept when he lead his 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion into LZ X-Ray:

Lieutenant Colonel Harold Moore at Ia Drang did not have clearly expressed command concepts. (page xvii)

The command concept was fundamentally flawed and incomplete at Ia Drang (page 20)

And they attributed Colonel Moore’s shortcoming to higher commands:

But this concept was embedded in flawed higher-level concepts (page 100)

General Kinnard's operational objective was to inflict losses on a fleeing enemy about whom hard information was scarce. Colonel Brown's own command concept reflected this objective, as well as the implicit assumption that Moore, properly supported, could handle whatever he encountered. Brown's intent, not very well expressed in his FRAGO (FRAGmentary Order), was roughly: Find the enemy wherever he is and engage and destroy him. You have the force, training, and support to do the job. (page 98)

These quotations are taken from the book entitled Command Concepts: A Theory Derived From the Practice of Command and Control by Carl H. Builder, Steven C. Bankes, Richard Nordin , RAND 1999. The authors used the Ia Drang battle as their fourth – out of six – case studies in Chapter Seven: No Time For Reflections: Moore at Ia Drang to illustrate their command concepts theory.

An examination on the footnotes reveals the authors acquired their knowledge about the battle on two sources:

(1) Cash , John A., John Albright, and Allan Sandstrum, Seven Firefights in Vietnam, New York: Bantam, 1985 (originally published by the Office of the Chief of Military History , Washington D.C., 1970)

(2) Moore, Harold G., and Joseph Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, New York: Random House 1992.

It is quite amazing that for such an in depth study, the authors failed to consult primary sources such as:

(1) General Harry W.O. Kinnard, Pleiku Campaign, After Action Report, Headquarters, 1st Air Cavalry Division, 4 March 1966.

(2) Coleman, J.D., Pleiku, The Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, New York: St. Martin Press, 1988.

It is worthwhile to note that Coleman was the writer of Pleiku Campaign, when he was a Captain and a G3 general staff member of 1st Air Cavalry Division.

However, even if the authors had studied these two first hand sources, they would not have discovered the operational concept behind the Ia Drang Valley battle, for the simple reason that the control of the battle did not lie in the hand of General Kinnard, Commander of 1st Air Cavalry Division.

The authors erred when they stated:

As October drew to a close, it became clear to the division commander, Major General Harry W.O. Kinnard, that the NVA forces being pursued by the 1st Brigade were in danger of slipping across the Cambodian border, which was only 25 miles from Plei Me. He directed his attention toward the Chu Pong Massif, a rugged and remote piece of high ground straddling the Vietnam-Cambodian border – specifically, to the area between the foothills of the massif north to the Ia Drang River – and ordered his Third Brigade commander, Colonel Tim Brown, to search westward toward the Cambodian border (page 91)

In fact, when General Kinnard was asked, in 1998, by Cochran (Cochran, Alexander S., "First Strike at River Drang", Military History, Oct 1984, pp 44-52, Per. Interview with H.W.O Kinnard, 1st Cavalry Division Commanding General) who’s idea was it to go into Chu Pong, his response was:

The choice to go into the Chu Pong, a longtime enemy sanctuary (near the Cambodian border) into which ARVN had never gone, was not mine. It was either that of General Knowles or the brigade commander. We hadn't looked at the area. It wasn't intelligence that led us there. If anything, it was the lack of intelligence, and this seemed a logical place.

General Kinnard gave two hints that he was controlled by General Larsen, I Field Force Vietnam Commander during the Pleiku campaign. The first one, when General Larsen ordered him to switch the operational direction from west to east on November 8 (Pleiku Campaign, page 67)

By this time Field Force Vietnam had asked the division to consider moving its operations east of Pleime if it appeared "that was no further contact imminent in the west.

The second one, when General Larsen ordered him to retain troops at LZ X-Ray longer than he intended to (Cochran):

At the time of the Xray fight, Swede Larsen was under pressure from the news media on why we left the battlefield. They didn't understand how our unit fought. With an air assault unit, we don't give much of a damn about terrain. You can go anywhere. The focus is on the enemy. You go where he is. At Xray, the enemy broke off, we didn't quit. We were no longer interested in Xray. That piece of ground meant nothing to me. I wanted to go on to where the enemy was. But Swede ordered me to stay in that spot, and I stayed there an extra 24 hours.

As a matter of facts, the control of the Ia Drang Valley battle remained in the hands of ARVN II Corps . The operational concept of the battle was devised by Colonel Nguyen Van Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff and shared with General Richard Knowles, the Assistant Commander to General Kinnard, who was assigned Commander of 1st Air Cavalry Division Forward Command Post. For some unknown reason, General Knowles chose not to report to his boss, General Kinnard, what this operational concept consisted of or where did it originated from, just like he did not reveal to General Kinnard that the idea of going into Chu Pong did not come from him or the 3rd Brigade Commander either, but from Colonel Hieu.

When General Larsen agreed to II Corps’ request to have the 1st Air Cavalry Division joined forces with II Corps in the pursuit of the withdrawal enemy after the attack of Pleime camp, Colonel Hieu spelled out a specific “modus operandi” (Why Pleime, chapter VIII):

- Joint intelligence and support activities.
- Commonly-shared concept of operations and results.
- Separate TAOR.
- Separate command.
- Separate deployment of forces.
- Separate conduct of activities.
- Separate reserve.

The operational concept of the Ia Drang Valley battle is depicted in length in Pleime Counteroffensive into Chupong Iadrang Complex; in a nutshell, the operational concept consisted of three phases:

Phase I: Herding the scattered enemy units back to their assembling areas in the Chupon-Iadrang complex, with 1st Air Cavalry Brigade in operation All the Way;

Phase II: Blocking position by 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion on the south east edge of Chu Pong massif in operation Silver Bayonet I conducted by 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade; then carpet bombings with B52’s up west of blocking position set up at LZ X-Ray; then blocking position by 2/7th Air Cavalry Battalion on north east edge of Chu Pong massif at LZ Albany; then carpet bombings with B52 right on LZ X-Ray;

Phase III: Blocking positions by ARVN Airborne Brigade on the north west edge of Chu Pong massif in operation Than Phong 7; then, continuation of carpet bombings with B52 all over the southern areas of the operational areas conducted by the Airborne Brigade.

In view of the performance of this operational concept, let us point out erroneous notions formulated by the authors of Command Concepts.

Error (1) Carl H. Builder and al. stated that

General Kinnard's operational objective was to inflict losses on a fleeing enemy about whom hard information was scarce. (page 98)

Correction (1) In his after action report Pleiku Campaign, General Kinnard provided a real time daily intelligence reports that indicated precisely the movements of the two 32nd and 33rd Regiment in retreat, and the 66th Regiments newly arrived on the scene; the coordinates of the positions of the three regimental and divisional B3 Front headquarters by the days; even the B3 Front’s intention and date of a second attack on Pleime camp and the 5 days it had the troops spent in preparations and rehearsals.

When 1/7 Air Cavalry Battalion land assault into LZ X-Ray, friendly intelligence pinpointed exactly the positions of the three regiments and the B3 Front Headquarters (Pleiku, page 76):

The disposition of the 66th on 11 November had its three battalions, the 7th, 8th and 9th, strung along the north bank of the Ia Drang (center of mass Vic 9104).

The 33d Regiment still maintained its positions vicinity Anta Village (YA940010).

The 32d Regiment was still north of the Ia Drang (YA820070).

Error (2) Carl H. Builder and al. stated that

Thus, the stage was set for the unintended collision of two large opposing forces – the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division and the division – sized North Vietnamese B-3 Front. (page 92)

Correction (2) On the contrary, the attack into Chu Prong on November 14, 1965 was a pre-emptive strike in view of the enemy second attack on Pleime Camp set for November 16, and it was prepared with a diversionary move conducted starting November 10 (Pleiku, page 71):

The movement and shift in emphasis from west to east was to further stimulate a forthcoming decision from the NVA division headquarters.

The collision was unintended for the U.S. 1st Air Cavalry Division and the North Vietnamese B-3 Front alright, but is was expected by the ARVN II Corps Command and anticipated in its operational concept.

Error (3) Carl H. Builder and al. stated that

During the night of the 14th, the 66th NVA Regiment moved its 8th Battalion south to the battle area and charged it with applying pressure against the eastern sector of X-RAY. Meanwhile, General Man ordered the H-15 Main Force Viet Cong Battalion and the 32d NVA Regiment, some 12 km away, into the fight. (page 97)

Correction (3) In his after action report Pleiku Campaign, General Kinnard wondered why the 32nd Regiment did not come to the rescue of the 8th Battalion/66th Regiment in the LZ X-Ray fight on November 15 (Pleiku, intelligence on 11/15, page 88):

Neither has there been an explanation for the failure to commit the 32d Regiment which apparently held its positions 12-14 kilometers to the northwest on the north bank of the Ia Drang.

General Man knew but General Kinnard did not know that this unit was pinned down by B52’s carpet bombings!

Error (4) Carl H. Builder and al. stated that

the real fight would commence once 1/7 Cavalry had moved westward toward the Chu Pong Massif

Correction (4) God forbids! It was fortunate that Moore did not take the initiative of moving his battalion westward toward the Chu Pong Massif where his troops would enter the pre-scheduled striking zone of B52’s carpet bombings, and remained at LZ X-Ray as a blocking position intended by the II Corps’s operational concept.

That was the reason the 2/7th Air Cavalry Battalion, that relieved the 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion at LZ X-Ray on Nov 16, was ordered to continue to act as a blocking position at the northeast edge of Chu Pong massif by moving northward toward LZ Albany.

Error (5) Carl H. Builder and al. stated that

About The Enemy and His Plan:

1. The enemy currently has no more than 2,500 troops in the Chu Pong area. He does not suspect our intentions.

2. The enemy is expected to retire to the west, to sanctuaries in Cambodia, with the intent of reconstituting his strength for a renewed offensive in Pleiku and Binh Dinh Province.

3. You should expect the North Vietnamese to attempt to break contact and conduct a delay in-sector with two under strength regiments while continuing to withdraw most of his forces into Cambodia. (page 99)

Correction (5) Firstly, the enemy definitely had more than 2,500 troops in the Chu Pong area, because B3 Front Command had assembled three Regiments: 32nd, 33rd, and 66th. Only the 33rd was severely damaged during the siege of Pleime camp with more than one half casualties; the two others, in particular the 66th newly arrived on the battlefield, were fairly intact.

Secondly, the enemy only retired to the sanctuary of Chu Pong, where he was staging for a second attack on Pleime camp.

Thirdly, the North Vietnamese would not attempt to break contact but rather would seize this opportunity to annihilate the American troops before returning to Pleime for a second attack.

Error (6) Carl H. Builder and al. stated that

Lieutenant Colonel Harold Moore at Ia Drang did not have clearly expressed command concepts. (page xvii)

Correction (6) II Corps Command did not need to express its operational concept clearly to LTC Moore. Colonel Hieu did not need to spell out to LTC Moore that his unit was placed at LZ X-Ray as a blocking position to allow B52’s carpet bombings up to the west of that position. What was important for Colonel Hieu to know was that the 1/7th Air Cavalry would be capable to sustain that position in case the enemy poured down eastward.

Error (7) Carl H. Builder and al. stated that

The command concept was fundamentally flawed and incomplete at Ia Drang (page 20)

Correction (7) This erroneous remark was a result of the ignorance of its authors about the existence of a operational concept for Ia Drang and about the chain of command and control in the entire Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang campaign. They just failed to look at the more reliable documents.

Error (8) Finally, Carl H. Builder and al. stated that

No Time for Reflection: Moore at Ia Drang

Correction (8) Moore, at the command level, did not need any time for reflection; he only needed to perform as he was trained to do with his battalion. The task of thinking was assumed not by Colonel Brown at the brigade command level or by General Knowles, at the forward division command level or even by General Kinnard at the division headquarters command level, but by Colonel Hieu at II Corps Headquarters control level.

Nguyen Van Tin
28 July 2011

Documents

- Primary

- Books, Articles

* Pleiku, the Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, J.D. Coleman, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1988.

* We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, Random House, New York, 1992.

* "First Strike at River Drang", Military History, Oct 1984, pp 44-52, Per. Interview with H.W.O Kinnard, 1st Cavalry Division Commanding General, Cochran, Alexander S.

* The Siege of Pleime, Project CHECO Report, 24 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.

* Silver Bayonet, Project CHECO Report, 26 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.

- Viet Cong

generalhieu