The Limits of Fire Support: American Finances and Firepower Restraint during the Vietnam War
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Excessive unobserved firepower expenditures by Allied forces during the Vietnam War defied the traditional counterinsurgency principle that population protection should be valued more than destruction of the enemy. Many historians have pointed to this discontinuity in their arguments, but none have examined the available firepower records in detail. This study compiles and analyzes available, artillery-related U.S. and Allied archival records to test historical assertions about the balance between conventional and counterinsurgent military strategy as it changed over time. It finds that, between 1965 and 1970, the commanders of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), Generals William Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams, shared significant continuity of strategic and tactical thought. Both commanders tolerated U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and Allied unobserved firepower at levels inappropriate for counterinsurgency and both reduced Army harassment and interdiction fire (H&I) as a response to increasing budgetary pressure. Before 1968, the Army expended nearly 40 percent of artillery ammunition as H&I – a form of unobserved fire that sought merely to hinder enemy movement and to lower enemy morale, rather than to inflict any appreciable enemy casualties. To save money, Westmoreland reduced H&I, or “interdiction” after a semantic name change in February 1968, to just over 29 percent of ammunition expended in July 1968, the first full month of Abrams’ command. Abrams likewise pursued dollar savings with his “Five-by-Five Plan” of August 1968 that reduced Army artillery interdiction expenditures to nearly ten percent of ammunition by January 1969. Yet Abrams allowed Army interdiction to stabilize near this level until early 1970, when recurring financial pressure prompted him to virtually eliminate the practice. Meanwhile, Marines fired H&I at historically high rates into the final months of 1970 and Australian “Harassing Fire” surpassed Army and Marine Corps totals during the same period. South Vietnamese artillery also fired high rates of H&I, but Filipino and Thai artillery eschewed H&I in quiet areas of operation and Republic of Korea [ROK] forces abandoned H&I in late 1968 as a direct response to MACV’s budgetary pressure. Financial pressure, rather than strategic change, drove MACV’s unobserved firepower reductions during the Vietnam War.
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Hawkins, John Michael (2013). The Limits of Fire Support: American Finances and Firepower Restraint during the Vietnam War. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from