Rules of Engagement

(TS) A major Air Force objective was to obtain administration approval to relax the rules of engagement for the lst Air Commando Squadron. Adopted in late 1961., these rules authorized operations when the MP lacked the necessary training and equipment, combined USAF-VNAF crews were aboard, and the missions were confined to South Vietnam. In addition, the aircraft carried VNAF rather than USAF markings and there were strict target verification procedures. Previous USAF efforts to modify the rules were unsuccessful.

(TS) Because of the rising need for air support and the slow growth of the VNAF, the lst Air Commando sortie rate increased. It was felt that more effective air support would be possible if the rules were relaxed, but administration officials retained them for political reasons. Meanwhile, U.S. Army aviation appeared to be interpreting the rules more freely, their armed helicopters carried U.S. markings, and their pilots received more public recognition, a circumstance that greatly troubled the Air Force. 

(TS) In March and May 1964, after visits to Saigon and Honolulu, McNamara reaffirmed the rules for the 1st Air Commando Squadron. The official view was that, despite U.S. assistance, the war was primarily Vietnamese and that there was Presidential understanding that the lst Commando's activities were temporary until the VNAF "could do the job. 

(S) In April and May the role of tie 1st Air Commando became a public issue after the publication in tie press and Life magazine of the letters of Captain Shank, who died on 24 March in the crash of a T-28. As noted earlier., he complained about inadequate aircraft and equipment. But Shank's letters also indicated that the Commando Pilots often engaged more in combat than in training. Commando pilots and top U.S. officials, were called to testify before special Senate and House investigating subcommittees.

(S) General LeMay took the occasion to urge the JCS to persuade McNamara to change the rules of engagement, as the United States had more to lose than gain by denying a fact of USAF activity in the war. 

(TS) LeMay was unsuccessful. Indeed, on 20 May the JCS tightened the rules of engagement: 1st Air Commando pilots could fly only bonafide combat training missions against hostile targets with VNAF pilots in training and not with Vietnamese "observers" (the intent being to eventually eliminate the squadron and leave combat support to the VNAF); no armed helicopters should be used as a substitute for close air support strikes; and U.S. advisors should be exposed to combat only to the extent that U.S. advisory duties required this.

(S) General Smart, PACAF's commander, believed that the latest JCS guidance left unclear whether lst Air Commando pilots should "fight or not." Nor was the Air Force's disenchantment with the rules dispelled by MAC/V's continued freer interpretation of them for armed helicopters, despite the injunction against combat-type missions except to protect vehicles and passengers.

(S) Four months later military deterioration in South Vietnam again forced a change in the rules. With Westmoreland's and Sharp's support, the JCS recommended that the lst Air Commando be authorized to fly with either VNAF observers or student pilots, to fly with USAF pilots alone for immediate air support if requests were beyond the VNAF's capability or if no VNAF crew member was available, and to assign a dual training and combat support mission to the 1st Air Commando. On 25 September McNamara agreed to only one change: either a VNAF observer or a student pilot could be used, thus reverting to a practice in effect prior to 20 May. The JCS sent an implementing directive on 14 October.

(TS) Meanwhile, the possibility of Communist air activity after the Gulf of Tonkin incident resulted in a general relaxation of the rules of engagement for other USAF and Navy air activities. Decisions in August and September gave General Westmoreland or Admiral Sharp greater authority to engage enemy aircraft over South Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos and in international airspace, and to attack hostile vessels in international waters.