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Combined Action Platoons: A Blueprint for Counterinsurgency

by Jared Zimmerman
Printed with Permission

Summary

Combined Action Platoons (CAPs), a Marine Corps civic action program in Vietnam aimed at pacification and counterinsurgency (COIN), experienced significant success, but has not been widely considered as a COIN option for the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are some risks associated with using CAPs as a COIN strategy, while there are also several ways that CAPs can be improved.

Background

CAPs in Vietnam: The United States Army and Marine Corps approached the war in Vietnam with a different set of experiences. The Army was accustomed to large-unit operations on the division or corps level conducted against conventional enemy forces. The Marines, while no stranger to large-unit action, were also accustomed as an organization to unconventional guerrilla wars fought against irregular forces[1]. Prior to both world wars and the war in Korea, the Marine Corps had been the United State’s primary ground troops in the Banana Wars, a series of conflicts fought in Panama, Honduras, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and elsewhere between 1898 and 1934[2]. The experience gained in these conflicts and others prompted the Corps to publish a book, The Strategy and Tactics of Small Wars, in 1921. The book, renamed The Small Wars Manual (SWM) in 1940, continues to be read within the Corps to this day[3]. In short, at the outset of Vietnam, large-unit conventional wars were the exception to the Marines, while small-unit guerrilla wars were the exception to the Army[4].

Given this difference in backgrounds, it is no surprise that as early as 1965, Marine units in Vietnam: 1) realized that winning the war would require supplanting the Viet Cong (VC) as the main provider of security and aid to the average Vietnamese, and 2) began pursuing strategies by which to do this[5]. Through a series of iterations, Marines in the Da Nang region developed what became known as Combined Action Platoons. Each CAP consisted of roughly thirteen Marine volunteers, a Navy Corpsman and fifteen-to-thirty indigenous Popular Forces (PF) militia members—local Vietnamese “who were either too young or too old to be drafted into the Army of the Republic of VietNam (ARVN) or the Regional Forces (Dia Phuong Quan)[6]”—who were tasked with living in and protecting a single village.

The CAP initiative had a number of advantages compared to the strategy the Army was implementing in their zones of responsibility at the same time. While the Army and ARVN conducted massive and expensive search-and-destroy sweeps that possibly created more enemies than they killed, the Marines found that CAPs were less expensive and allowed them to secure larger areas with fewer Marines. PF forces on their own were generally undisciplined and ill-equipped, but when paired with Marine volunteers, “each element of the team strengthened the other[7].” While, “the Marines contributed firepower, training, and access to American medical evacuation, artillery and air support[8],” the PF members contributed knowledge of the terrain, language and where the VC were hiding[9]. The Marines helped build schools and roads, dug wells, taught English and brought in Navy doctors and dentists to provide medical care to the villagers. The Marines would also start learning basic Vietnamese. In response, the villagers often began to trust the Marines when they saw that they were providing relatively permanent security and aid. They would start to turn on the VC who had previously provided security while extorting food and supplies[10]. The VC living in the hills outside the villages would no longer receive the food they needed from the villages and were forced to attack for supplies. When they did attack, they would be cut down by Marine firepower. This led to the CAP program having a high kill ratio, in some cases killing more VC than units of larger size elsewhere[11].

Despite this success, CAPs did have some drawbacks. For one, building trust through CAPs was slow. While CAPs were winning so-called “hearts and minds,” the Army and ARVN’s large search-and-destroy missions were losing them at a faster rate. Vietnamese government and ARVN leaders were also often corrupt and brutal and lost support for the American cause faster than CAPs could build this support. CAPs also spread Marines across a wide area where they essentially “de-escalated” the war. They conducted small patrols around their villages gathering intelligence and capturing VC. CAP tactics were guerrilla vs guerrilla and sniper vs counter-sniper. This made CAPs illprepared to fend off a feared massive conventional attack by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces in the event that they attacked across the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Further, Americans served in Vietnam in twelve-month tours, so CAP Marines often rotated home just as they were becoming proficient in Vietnamese and adapting to village life[12]. Finally, CAP duty was dangerous. For example, Bing West—a CAP Marine veteran, RAND analyst, author and former Assistant Secretary of Defense—has written of how his seventeen-man CAP suffered thirteen casualties: four wounded and nine killed[13]. My own grandfather, Maj. Elmer Holthus USMC (Ret.), was wounded by what we would now call an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) while visiting a CAP in a remote village.

CAPs in the War on Terror: Since Vietnam, CAPs have been used in the war in Afghanistan, though perhaps not a widely as might be expected giving the strategy’s apparent success in Vietnam. In 2010, soldiers started living with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) personnel in the Khost-Gardez pass area in Afghanistan’s Paktika province to conduct combined action operations[14][15], while Marines began living and working alongside Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers in Helmand Province to form a Combined Action Company (CAC) to do the same[16].

CAPs in the Future

Risks of CAPs: There are two main risks associated with using CAPs.

  1. American forces integrated into CAPs become used to low-intensity conflicts and are not prepared for a large-scale conventional war. This was a serious concern in Vietnam as the NVA did possess large conventional forces. It should have been of less concern in the war in Afghanistan as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban do not possess large conventional forces.
  2. Villages with CAPs risk becoming overly reliant on Americans for security. This is especially dangerous in the absence of a well-defined exit strategy. A clear exit strategy should outline goals for CAPs. Americans should make up a smaller portion of each CAP each year as violence is reduced, while allowing individual CAPs to request to delay this “drawdown” on a case-by-case basis.

Ways to Improve CAPs: There are four main ways to improve the use of CAPs.

  1. The length of deployments and how units rotate in and out of the area of operations should be designed around the needs of the CAPs and the needs of the soldiers and Marines in them. Two or three units should be responsible for supplying the American contribution to the CAPs in a given area. While one unit is in country supplying soldiers or Marines for these CAPs, the other one or two units should be learning the local language and training in simulated villages. When the unit in country rotates home, it is replaced by one of the units that has been training to takeover its role providing soldiers or Marines for the CAPs. The unit that has just returned home should continue learning the language and training in the simulated villages. Every effort should be made so that when this unit deploys again, it deploys to the same group of villages it was supporting previously. This way villagers can get used to seeing, if not the same faces, then the same unit patches while also establishing a certain continuity of protection and aid.
  2. There should be as little “mixing” of strategies as possible. Units in one area should not be supplying soldiers and Marines to CAPs while units in a neighboring area are conducting large-scale search-and-destroy operations. Search-and-destroy operations of the sort conducted in Vietnam can lose the support and trust of a populace faster than CAPs can build it.
  3. Indigenous forces and leaders need to be trustworthy and just for this same reason. Corrupt and brutal local officials or military leaders who have the support of the United States will lose “hearts and minds” faster than CAPs can win them.
  4. CAP programs should have greater integration with and support from USAID, the Peace Corps, the World Health Organization, the UN and other international aid and peacekeeping organizations from the very beginning. When American soldiers and Marines arrive in a village, interpreters, teachers, medical supplies and food and water should arrive with them.

Endnotes

[1] Williams, J. H. (n.d.). The Real War: Marine Pacification in Vietnam. The Retired Officer, 1983 (August), 16-21.
[2] Banana Wars. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_Wars
[3] Small Wars Manual. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_Wars_Manual
[4] Williams, J. H. (n.d.). The Real War: Marine Pacification in Vietnam. The Retired Officer, 1983 (August), 16-21.
[5] Williams, J. H. (n.d.). The Real War: Marine Pacification in Vietnam. The Retired Officer, 1983 (August), 16-21.
[6] Combined Action Program. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combined_Action_Program
[7] Combined Action Program. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combined_Action_Program
[8] Combined Action Program. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combined_Action_Program
[9] Williams, J. H. (n.d.). The Real War: Marine Pacification in Vietnam. The Retired Officer, 1983 (August), 16-21.
[10] Williams, J. H. (n.d.). The Real War: Marine Pacification in Vietnam. The Retired Officer, 1983 (August), 16-21.
[11] Combined Action Program. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combined_Action_Program
[12] Williams, J. H. (n.d.). The Real War: Marine Pacification in Vietnam. The Retired Officer, 1983 (August), 16-21.
[13] West, B. (2017, December 15). The Kindergarten Marines. The New York Times. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/15/opinion/thekindergarten-marines.html
[14] Today’s Focus at Stand-to! – Combined Action Operations. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2018, from http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/todays-focus-at-stand-tocombined-action-operations
[15] Combined Action in Afghanistan. (n.d.). Army Magazine, 2010(August), 69-72. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from
https://www.usma.edu/caldol/SiteAssets/ArmyMagazine/docs/2010/CC_ARMY_10-08 (Aug10) CAP-in-AFG.pdf
[16] Bodrog, M., & LeBron, D. (2015, November). 2d Platoon: Call Sign “Hades” and the Combined Action Company. Leatherneck, 98(11). Retrieved March 31, 2018, from
https://www.mca-marines.org/leatherneck/2015/11/2d-platoon-call-sign-hadesand-combined-action-company