Tactics and Strategy

Viet Cong officer briefs soldiers

Vietcong officer briefs his soldiers.


     To confront the overwhelming firepower and resources possessed by the United States military, the Vietcong developed complex tactics that allowed them to endure a prolonged war against an enemy with superior material assets. Their military doctrine had its origins in the communist revolution in China and the French Indochina war.[1] Given that some of the upper cadre and members of the Vietcong had been members of the Viet Minh, it should come as no surprise that many of their tactics were similar. For the Viet Minh and Vietcong, guerrilla warfare was conducted in three stages: passive resistance, active resistance, and preparation for the counter-offensive. The Vietcong used propaganda, economic subversion, civic actions, and combat in combination. Due to their lack of heavy artillery, armor, and air support their tactics were primarily infantry based.[2] A captured document suggests that Vietcong forces distributed tactical and strategic guidelines or manuals to their units to assist in their independent operation. The documents cover numerous problems and sought to address any obstacle they may face, with heavy emphasis on countering air power, how to spot potential helicopter drop zones, and the proper way to engage enemy forces. The Vietcong had the exceptional ability to maneuver swiftly and silently, they were even capable of moving battalion-sized forces without detection.[3] They excelled in gathering intelligence and infiltrating enemy units. For example, in December 1966 the Vietcong planned an ambush against ARVN forces. Before they attacked, the Vietcong waited for the attached special forces unit to depart. The Special forces unit even drove within six feet of the concealed Vietcong guerrillas. Once the special forces had left, they attacked. The ARVN forces could not locate their radio, and most shocking, their ammo consisted entirely of blanks. Unable to defend themselves or call for help, the ARVN forces were quickly overrun. This incident suggests that the Vietcong knew the base’s schedule, and that they even had the ability to sabotage their ammo and equipment.[4]

    The preferred method of attack for the Vietcong was the ambush. They generally targeted roads, rivers, and lines of communication. If their forces were to weak too directly attack a unit, the Vietcong would rely on mines and booby traps to inflict heavy casualties and demoralize their enemy. Mines and booby traps ranged from homemade explosive devices, repurposed artillery and mortar shells (some with an effective range as wide as one hundred fifty feet), land mines, or simple, but equally deadly, punji traps. Punji traps were generally covered holes with spikes, but the Vietcong sometimes attached bullets to the spike that were triggered when pressure was applied. George Tanham claims that ninety five percent of casualties sustained by American and Allied forces in operations in the Iron Triangle during October 1965 were from booby traps.[5] The Vietcong planned ambushes on normal routes of travel. They would plant mines or booby traps on one side of the road and troops concealed on the other. To draw forces into an ambush, they may harass a strategic hamlet with sporadic rifle fire. The unit sent to assist the hamlet may not even have been their primary target, instead the guerrillas would conduct the main ambush against forces sent to reinforce the first unit. The majority of their attacks are short in duration, followed by an intentional retreat to avoid American and ARVN’s heavy firepower.[6]

    While direct frontal assaults were something the Vietcong generally tried to avoid, the guerrillas may still attempt a “conventional” assault on an outpost or fortified position. A military trained in Western warfare would use heavy artillery and air power to soften the target. The Vietcong lacked such assets and instead relied on intelligence on psychology to demoralize and “soften” up their target. Guerrillas would fire randomly at the outpost to keep the enemy in a constant state of fear. In addition, they may fire random mortar rounds or attempt to infiltrate the outpost with sappers and plant explosives on vital enemy assets. Before the assault, every stage was carefully planned and rehearsed, and they often created models within the jungle to aide in strategizing.[7] Once the Vietcong had gathered enough intelligence, they would conduct the attack, generally, at night (to lessen the effectiveness of air power). There were, normally, four groups involved in the assault: First: heavy support weapons, second: assault engineers and dynamite units, third: shock troops, fourth: reserve forces. The assault would initiate with mortar, machine gun, rocket, and recoilless rifle fire. The initial fire would often come from different directions to confuse their enemy. Then, after the assault engineers detonated their explosives, the shock troops would charge and focus fire on a narrow front. These kinds of assaults were extremely dangerous, but the Vietcong believed they could be successful if they penetrated deep into the enemy position and with close coordination of the four groups. The Vietcong never intended to hold the enemy position, but rather inflict as many casualties as possible and then perform an orderly retreat. Almost every withdrawal was planned and part of their tactical doctrine.[8]

[1]  George K. Tanham Communist Revolutionary Warfare From the Vietminh to the Viet Cong. 9-15 (Frederick A. Praeger, 1967)

[2] Ibid. 10-12, 83-84

[3] Ibid. 84-86, 164, 180-182

[4] Ibid. 183-185

[5] George K. Tanham Communist Revolutionary Warfare From the Vietminh to the Viet Cong. 189-191 (Frederick A. Praeger, 1967)

[6] Ibid. 154-159

[7] Ibid. 160-175

[8] [8] George K. Tanham Communist Revolutionary Warfare From the Vietminh to the Viet Cong. 83-95 (Frederick A. Praeger, 1967)



Tactics and Strategy