Operation Junction City: Through the Lens of Operational Art and Design
By MSG Jeremy C. Sims
The Vietnam War posed significant challenges to the U.S. Military, requiring a multifaceted approach in order to achieve strategic objectives. Operation Junction City, one of the largest military operations of the Vietnam War, exemplified the importance of strategic planning and coordination at the joint level (Paschall, 2016). The effectiveness of joint planning and the elements of operational art and design, utilized during the planning process proved invaluable in the operation’s success. This success hinged on the ends, ways, and means used by the joint force, identified, and assessed through the execution of friendly and enemy centers of gravity (COG), lines of operation (LOO), and lines of effort (LOE). The purpose of this paper is to offer a comprehensive analysis of joint planning and the application of the elements of operational art and design during Operation Junction City; as well as provide insight into the application of joint planning within a complex operational environment and its efficacy in achieving strategic objectives.
The United States and South Vietnamese armed forces conducted Operation Junction City, a major military operation during the Vietnam War, lasting from February 22 to May 14, 1967, the operation took place in the Tay Ninh province of South Vietnam, near the Cambodian border (Paschall, 2016). The operation involved a combination of ground and air operations, and the U.S. Army conducted its largest airborne operation since the Korean War (Paschall, 2016).
Operation Junction City was a joint military operation intended to dismantle the armed forces of the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA), as well as disrupt their supply lines and communication networks. Specifically, the operation sought to sever the enemy's use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; a critical transportation corridor that extended through Cambodia and Laos, and which provided the Viet Cong and NVA with essential weaponry and manpower within South Vietnam (Paschall, 2016).
More than 20,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese troops, including four U.S. infantry divisions and two airborne brigades, participated in the operation (Hand, 2022). The operation began with a mass-tactical (mass-tac) airdrop of paratroopers, in conjunction with an air assault conducted via airmobile, which cut off enemy escape routes while simultaneously attacking the enemy positions deep inside their territory, concluding with a series of ground operations targeting strongholds and supply routes (Hand, 2022).
Joint Planning Process
Through the Joint Planning Process (JPP), the joint staff, combatant commanders, and other stakeholders collaborate to develop a plan that achieves a desired objective. This process is continuous and involves the assessment of the situation and environment, the development of course(s) of action (COA), and the execution of those COAs based on the enemy's most likely and most dangerous COA. Prior to the execution of the operation, the JPP begins with the assessment of the situation, involving an analysis of the enemy's strengths and weaknesses, the operational environment, and other factors that could impact the operation (Joint Chiefs of Staff, [JCS], 2020).
Based on the assessment conducted during JPP, the objectives for Operation Junction City were identified, which included the destruction of enemy forces, the capture of key positions, and the disruption of enemy logistics and supply lines (Hand, 2022). The joint staff is responsible for developing multiple courses of action, which they evaluate and refine based on their acceptability, feasibility, effectiveness, and potential risk (JCS, 2011).
During Operation Junction City, the selected COA involved the deployment of airborne and air assault troops, the coordination of air and artillery support, and the use of other assets such as helicopters and armored vehicles. The use of lines of operation (LOO) and Lines of effort (LOE) clearly defined the synchronization of forces and effects throughout the operation.
Lines of Operation and Line of Effort
Lines of Operation (LOOs) and Lines of Effort (LOEs) provide key concepts during planning that organize and prioritize efforts towards a desired end-state (JCS, 2020). LOOs provide a connection of the action with a specified time and location towards an objective (JCS, 2020). LOEs combine multiple tasks and missions required in order to achieve an operational or strategic objective (JCS, 2020). In the context of Operation Junction City, the LOOs and LOEs are as follows:
Lines of Operation
Clear and secure the western border of South Vietnam: Focused on denying the NVA access to key infiltration routes into South Vietnam. It involved the deployment of U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to border areas and the establishment of bases to disrupt NVA movements (Rogers, 1974).
Conduct search and destroy operations in NVA Base Areas: Focused on locating and destroying NVA base camps and supply routes. It involved the deployment of ground forces to conduct sweeps of suspected areas and the use of air and artillery support, in order to disrupt enemy movements (Rogers, 1974).
Interdict enemy logistics and supply lines: Focused on disrupting the flow of supplies and equipment to NVA forces. The U.S. and South Vietnamese forces deployed to key transportation routes and used air power and artillery to interdict and disrupt enemy supply lines (Rogers, 1974).
Lines of Effort
Establish and maintain security in key areas: Focused on securing critical areas such as airfields, bases, and supply depots. This LOE involved the deployment of U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to these key areas in order to establish defensive perimeters and prevent enemy offensive attacks (Rogers, 1974).
Conduct intelligence and reconnaissance operations: Focused on gathering intelligence on the movements and activities of NVA. It involved the use of ground patrols, aerial reconnaissance, and signals intelligence to collect information on enemy movements and activities (Rogers, 1974).
Conduct civil-military operations: Focused on engaging with local communities and improving their quality of life. It involved the deploying of Civil Affairs teams to operate alongside locals and their officials, in order to distribute aid and supplies throughout the communities within the operational area (Rogers, 1974).
The operational plan integrated the LOOs and LOEs in a manner that ensured the attainment of the operation's key objectives. The US military achieved victory by denying the NVA access to vital infiltration routes, disrupting their supply lines, and destroying their base areas and supply depots. This weakened the enemy's strategic position and paved the way for a successful operation (Rogers, 1974).
Engaging with local communities was also pivotal in eroding support for the enemy and contributing to the operation's success. By winning over the hearts and minds of the population, the US military was able to establish a cooperative relationship with local communities. This relationship improved the quality of life for the locals and helped erode support for the enemy (Rogers, 1974).
Furthermore, the success of Operation Junction City was dependent on effective ground troop maneuvers, which involved penetrating enemy defenses, establishing control over key areas and terrain, and using air assets to support and disrupt enemy movements and defense positions. The operation also relied on logistical support to ensure that troops had the necessary resources to conduct their missions effectively (Rogers, 1974).
Overall, Operation Junction City serves as an exemplary demonstration of how effective operational art and operational design can be employed to achieve strategic objectives. The integration of LOOs and LOEs, effective ground troop maneuver, air asset support, logistical support, and community engagement were all key elements that contributed to the operation's success (Rogers, 1974).
Prior to the execution of Operation Junction City, the joint staff, and the Joint Force Commander (JFC) had to establish a framework through the application of ends, ways, and means; referred to as strategic art (JCS, 2020). Ends refer to the desired outcomes or objectives of the operation, ways refer to the methods or strategies used to achieve those objectives, and means refer to the resources, assets, and capabilities used to execute the strategies (JCS, 2020).
The primary objective of Operation Junction City was to destroy the North Vietnamese Army's headquarters and supply depots in the Tay Ninh Province. Operation Junction City aimed to disrupt the NVA’s ability to launch attacks and disrupt their sustainment and logistical capability within the area. In addition, a byproduct of this would lead to a boost in morale of the U.S. troops and the South Vietnamese allies (Rogers, 1974).
The U.S. and South Vietnamese forces used a combination of ground and air assaults in order to achieve their initial objectives. The operation involved the use of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) assets in order to identify and target enemy positions (Rogers, 1974). The massing of effects proved essential to achieving this objective, as the operation involved a significant synchronization of military assets, which included troops, artillery, and aircraft. Maneuver elements penetrated enemy defense positions, establishing control over key areas and terrain (Rogers, 1974). The use of air assets assisted the maneuver elements in order to disrupt enemy movements and defenses. Additionally, the effective establishment of ground/air lines of communication enabled the sustainment and logistical support for the maneuver element (Rogers, 1974).
The US and South Vietnamese forces utilized a range of resources, assets, and capabilities in order to execute the COAs and achieve the objectives of the operation. The operation consisted of a force over 30,000 troops, comprising American, South Vietnamese, and Korean forces (Rogers, 1974). Additionally, through the employment of aircraft, artillery, and logistical support, provided the means to accomplish the objective.
Centers of Gravity
A center of gravity (COG) is a critical factor or capability that provides a force with its strength or ability to achieve its objectives, through moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will (JCoS, 2020). In any operation, it is imperative to attack or exploit an enemy’s COG in order to degrade their capability and their will to fight (JCS, 2022) In Operation Junction City, both the enemy and friendly forces had COGs that played a critical part in either the success or failure of the operation.
Enemy Center of Gravity
For the NVA, the COG was their ability to control and influence the local population, particularly in the areas around the Cambodian border where they had established sanctuaries. The enemy's ability to recruit, train, and equip fighters, as well as maintain supply lines and communication networks, depended on their ability to operate freely in these areas without interference from allied forces (Rogers, 1974).
To counter this, the U.S. focused on targeting the NVA’s COG through a combination of joint attacks, consisting of ground and air operations. The main objective was to disrupt the enemy's ability to control the population and establish sanctuaries, thereby reducing their ability to launch attacks against allied forces.
Friendly Center of Gravity
Additionally, The U.S. identified that the support and cooperation of the local population proved to be a critical COG. To influence this COG, the U.S. launched a civil-military campaign aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the local population by providing essential services, such as medical aid, education, and infrastructure development (Rogers, 1974). Each victory the U.S. achieved over the NVA, increased the U.S.’s ability to shape and increase the COG.
Overall, the identification and targeting of the enemy and friendly COGs were critical to the success of Operation Junction City. By focusing on disrupting the enemy's ability to operate freely in the region and winning the support of the local population, friendly forces were able to achieve their objectives and secure the area around the Cambodian border.
Operational Art and Design
Operational Art provides the conceptual approach to planning and executing military operations. It involves the use of various elements, including objectives, offensive, mass, maneuver, logistics, and unity of command, to achieve strategic and operational objectives. Operational Design, on the other hand, is the process of developing and refining the operational approach to achieve strategic and operational objectives (JCoS, 2022). Operational art involves the use of cognitive tools, including critical thinking, creativity, analysis, and decision-making, to develop an effective operational approach (JCoS, 2022).
The effective application of Operational Art and Operational Design contributed to the success of Operation Junction City. For instance, the primary objective of the operation was to destroy the NVA's headquarters and supply depots in the Tay Ninh Province (Hand, 2022). The successful accomplishment of this objective was through the use of ground and air assaults that employed ISR, in order to identify and target enemy positions, as the operation involved a significant concentration of military assets, including troops, artillery, and aircraft (Rogers, 1974).
The success of Operation Junction City relied on the effective maneuver of ground troops to penetrate enemy defenses and establish control over key areas and terrain, with air assets providing support to disrupt enemy movements and defense positions. Furthermore, the operation's success was also dependent on the effective use of logistical support (Rogers, 1974). This involved the establishment and maintenance of logistical support bases to provide the necessary resources and sustain the operation. The effective use of Operational Art and Operational Design laid the foundation to the establishment of clear lines of operation and lines of effort.
The purpose of this paper was to offer a comprehensive analysis of joint planning and the application of the elements of operational art and design during Operation Junction City; as well as provide insight into the application of joint planning within a complex operational environment and its efficacy in achieving strategic objectives. Through the application of joint planning, the joint force staff develops a comprehensive plan that synchronizes operations and leverages the capabilities of the U.S. Military and host nation forces, in order to achieve the desired end state. The operational art and design utilized during the operation played a critical role in identifying and neutralizing the enemy's key capabilities and their COGs. In addition, this ensured the security and defense of friendly COGs, as well as established further support among the local population.
Hand, G. (2022, May 27). Operation junction city: Vietnam's only large-scale airborne operation. Sandboxx. https://www.sandboxx.us/blog/operation-junction-city-vietnams-only-large-scale-airborne-operation/
Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2011). Planner’s handbook for operational design. https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/pams_hands/opdesign_hbk.pdf
Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2020). Joint Planning (JP 5-0). https://jdeis.js.mil/jdeis/new_pubs/jp5_0.pdf
Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2022). Joint campaigns and operations (JP 3-0). https://jdeis.js.mil/jdeis/new_pubs/jp3_0.pdf
Paschall, R. (2016, February 10). Dark clouds over junction city. HistoryNet. https://www.historynet.com/dark-clouds-over-junction-city
Rogers, B. W. (1974). Cedar Falls-Junction City: A turning point. U.S. Government printing Office. https://www.history.army.mil/html/books/090/90-7/CMH_Pub_90-7.pd
About the author:
Master Sergeant Jeremy Sims is a Senior Air Defense Artillery Senior Sergeant with over 19 years of service, consisting of multiple deployments in support of Operation Joint Forge, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom. He is currently attending the Army Sergeants Major Academy at the US Army Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Center of Excellence. He holds a BS in Management from Colorado University and an Executive Certificate in Business Management and Strategic Leadership from the Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University.
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