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Military Intelligence Failures


Submitted By silentsyco
Words 1458
Pages 6
Successful Failure
Micheal Stout
4 February, 2015

By and large, the inability to collect, report, process, disseminate, and act upon intelligence gathered by our military forces has been the cause of numerous failures in military operations. Operation Ivory Coast, a daring raid on the prisoner of war (POW) camp Son Tay during the Vietnamese war, was one such operation. Considered by many as a stunning tactical success, this mission was a failure from an intelligence standpoint, and the ultimate goal of the operation, to rescue the POW’s held at Son Tay, was unsuccessful.
Operation Ivory Coast
Background and Planning In the spring of 1970, intelligence gathered from the United States Air Force through analysis of aerial imagery confirmed the presence of fifty five American POW’s, a handful of which were in a condition requiring urgent rescue, located at a compound near Son Tay, 23 miles west of Hanoi. Planning was finalized in August of 1970 to conduct a raid to rescue the POW’s. It would be a joint effort between Air Force search and rescue teams and Army Special Forces. Col Arthur “Bull” Simons was given command of the ground forces. With just over a hundred service members for the ground force, a mock site was built at Eglin Air Force Base, and the joint force conducted roughly 170 training missions in preparation for the operation. Air Force pilots flew over one thousand hours at different locations in the southeastearn United States, practicing the dissimilar aircraft formations they would use during infiltration of the prison camp. The final planning phase of the operation set a date window of October 21st through the 25th, but that was later pushed back to the same days in November. With a concentration of air defense batteries in and around Hanoi, these dates were chosen as the best possible time to execute a night infiltration op to help cover their approach (Manor, n.d.).
The Execution On November 20, 1970, at 11:25 PM, 28 aircraft took off from five separate bases, located in Thailand and South Vietnam (Demerly, 2014). Fifty six Special Forces soldiers from the original pool of 103 were split into three different platoons and loaded onto helicopters. One 14-man platoon, codenamed Blueboy, loaded into a HH-3E Jolly Green transport helicopter, was to purposefully crash land inside the prison camp. Meanwhile, other elements of the Special Forces would safely land outside the compound and blow an exit hole in the wall (Hickman, n.d.). Despite one of the support helicopters landing at the wrong location about 400 meters from their objective, the raid went almost exactly as planned. Only one injury was sustained by the joint rescue force, and two aircraft lost. Of the two downed aircraft, one was the planned crash into the Son Tay prison camp, and the other to rocket fire while providing air defense during the operation. Intelligence gathered during and after the raid estimate that anywhere from 100 to 200 hostile forces were killed, including 42 guards at the prison camp, and the rest at the secondary site that one support team accidently landed at. Despite these overwhelming numbers, no POW’s were found in the camp, and the code phrase “Negative Items”, signaling the absence of prisoners, was given shortly before the assault teams began extraction back to their bases in Thailand. It would later be confirmed that the prison camp had actually contained 61 American POW’s, who were all moved to a different prison camp around the middle of July due to flooding (Waresh, n.d.).

Intelligence Failures
There were numerous failures in intelligence operations that, if processed and acted upon correctly, would have led to the proper cancellation of the planned raid or a shift in target to the prison camp that the POW’s had been moved to, which was within 15 miles of Son Tay. One of the biggest blunders of Operation Ivory Coast came from intelligence that would have played a critical role in the decision making process which was compartmentalized, and none of the members of the planning committee had access. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had begun a secret program earlier in 1970, seeding the clouds over Vietnam with silver iodide and lead iodide in an effort to prolong the monsoon season, and causing increased amounts of flooding. The planners of the Son Tay raid had no knowledge or access to the information pertaining to the CIA operation, and never had the ability to factor that information into their plans to rescue the POW’s (Demerly, 2014).
Collection and Analysis Another big gaffe during the planning of the raid on Son Tay came from poor intelligence collection, and even worse analysis of collected intelligence. Seven Buffalo Hunter drones were used in an attempt to collect imagery of the prison camp during the summer of 1970. None of the drones were successful in collecting any useful imagery of the prison camp. In late July, a SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance mission noted the prison camp was less active than usual. Another Blackbird mission in October showed very little signs of life from the camp. Both of these reports went largely ignored by the personnel planning the operation. On November 13, aerial photographs taken of the Son Tay prison camp showed an increase in activity. Analysis of this data was unable to determine if the increased activity was due to POW’s or not (Manor, n.d.).
One of the last opportunities to correct what would ultimately become a dangerous and risky mission with zero chance of success came on the day of the raid itself. Last minute intelligence confirmed that the POW’s were no longer present at the camp at Son Tay. The intelligence even pointed to the camp that the POW’s had been relocated to, a short 15 miles away. The final meeting to determine if the operation should go forward was held only five hours before the planned start of the raid. Members of the planning committee could not decide on the reliability of the new intelligence, and BG Donald Blackburn was strongly for continuing the operation, so there was no counter-argument in favor of the new intelligence. Because no one felt compelled to disagree with Blackburn, the operation was still given a go. The planning committee, which included Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, fell prey to the intelligence pitfall known as “groupthink”, where members of a group conform to a dominant idea out of the desire for harmony, or to minimize conflict (Demerly, 2014).
Steps of Improvement With the ever progressing technologies at our disposal today, there are several factors, especially in the realm of Computer Network Operations (CNO), which could have provided the concrete intelligence that would have helped to alter or cancel the planned raid at Son Tay in today’s world. If signals intelligence (SIGINT) had been used to monitor radio traffic to and from the facility, as well as other military facilities in the area, it’s possible that the United States would have known in July about the prisoner transfer and could have adjusted accordingly. With the ability to gather intelligence through computer networks, it’s possible that through CNO, evidence could have been collected that would have either confirmed the location of the prisoners, or at least confirmed the lack of prisoner presence at the camp in Son Tay. Furthermore, through CNO, it’s possible that mission planners could have degraded the Vietnamese defense infrastructure, allowing a larger window and safer skies for the raiding party.

Several key points of intelligence provided the planners of Operation Ivory Coast the opportunity to adjust their mission parameters or cancel the raid altogether. Multiple failures in collection and analysis of this intelligence, as well as the planning committee succumbing to the pitfall of groupthink, caused this operation to go forward as planned. The men who conducted this raid were very lucky to survive such a risky endeavor that ultimately returned no prisoners of war, and cost the military heavily in time and resources.

Demerly, T. (2014, December 6). Successful Failure: The Son Tay Raid. Retrieved February 4, 2015, from
Finlan, A. (2008). Command and Control. In Special Forces, Strategy and the War on Terror (pp. 47 - 93). New York: Routledge.
Hickman, K. (n.d.). Son Tay Raid During the Vietnam War. Retrieved February 4, 2015, from
Manor, L. (n.d.). THE SON TAY RAID NOVEMBER 21, 1970. Retrieved February 4, 2015, from
Waresh, J. (n.d.). A-1 participation in the Son Tay raid, 21 November 1970. Retrieved February 4, 2015, from

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