ASP in Thailand 1965-1972 (Part 2)

  • Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

U.S. Air Force bases in Thailand were vulnerable to the same kinds of attacks as air bases in Vietnam. The Area Source Program (ASP-T) was fully operational before the first attack occurred in July 1968.  However, several challenges hampered the effectiveness of the program initially.

The ASP-T was to be conducted jointly by the Thai and U.S. governments. The first sticking point was funding. U.S. officials wanted the Thais to contribute, but their government believed it was an American problem because the presence of U.S. Air Force planes drew the attacks. In 1967, ASP-T received a meager $200 a month budget for their air base defense programs. The amount dedicated was later increased to $1,500 for the district-wide budget, including a $150 condolence payment to sources or their survivors for injury or death in the line of duty.

Other challenges included the Thai officials reluctance to share the identity of their sources with Americans, and jurisdictional authorities at the airfields.

By spring 1969, OSI unilaterally initiated ASP-T activities in Udorn and Nakhon Phanon. OSI hired a Thai interpreter/translator as a full-time net chief. The new practices included developing information within an area extending 10 miles for the base on all sides, based on the range of the 122 mm rockets commonly used by attackers. Moreover, the objectives of the unilateral nets were kept secret from the Thai government, and OSI agents preserved the fiction that their operations were efforts to stem criminal activities.

As early as 1964, three agents were assigned to a tactical operations force to ensure that OSI would be prepared to deploy adequately organized, trained and equipped personnel anywhere, on a moment’s notice, for any mission set required.

They participated in joint Army-Air Force exercises in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains late that same year. The concept of the Tactical Operations Team (TOT) was maintained until the war ended in 1973. The Tactical Operations Force (TOF), consisting of three TOTs, was the basis for OSI Operational Plan (OPLAN) 245-70 titled, “Contingency Operations.” The concept was expanded to include Air Force operations, as opposed to OSI operations only, when the office reached an agreement to provide eight-man teams to support deployments of U.S. Air Force strike forces. Eight additional agents provided a staff support element for the operational team members, who were also supplemented by five additional technical service agents.

It quickly became apparent these teams could be enhanced by having a regional organizational affiliation that matched special skills to a specific location, for example, agents with Spanish language and cultural skills or backgrounds increased the efficiency of a Latin American TOT. 

Furthermore, practical military exercises such as Clove Hitch and Exotic Dancer enhanced the capabilities of the new TOTs. The team’s participation resulted in useful lessons learned that contributed to the continued development of the concepts that defined and fulfilled OSI’s mission to support contingency operations. Exotic Dancer II included a number of “firsts” for OSI. The exercise was the first time that: OSI deployed the TOT as a team unit, a tech agent deployed with the team, agents used radio equipment in this context, and perhaps most importantly, the OSI mission was clearly spelled out in the counterintelligence annex to the operations orders for the exercise. 

The value of language capability was proven when a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crashed, killing both pilots, and OSI provided a linguist to conduct interviews. One agent assisted in locating a local farmer and witness to the mishap, who provided valuable information in Spanish that the agent later translated into English. 

At the time, few detachment commanders or agents had any formalized training in organizing and developing operational methods. Many lacked basic wartime skills such as map reading, order of battle reporting, prisoner of war interrogation techniques or knowledge of enemy tactics.  The dearth of cultural knowledge left agents without a basic understanding of customs, traditions, value systems and lifestyles of the people. Scant historical knowledge added to the often misunderstanding of local activities and values. 

In addition, U.S. intelligence organizations in South East Asia (SEA) were large, confusing and complex. A lack of clarification of roles, responsibilities and authorities resulted in overlap and time spent determining these important aspects of mission responsibility, coordination and sharing.

The role of combat preparedness was thought to be a factor in the death of Special Agent Lee Hitchcock, when he instinctively and bravely ran to the aid of his troops when under attack as he had been trained and as any good leader would be expected to do. Had he lain flat on the floor with his weapon, shielded himself with his mattress and moved into a defensive position the incident in which he was killed may have had a different outcome. This was perhaps the hardest lesson learned and the one taken to heart in the 1980s, as OSI placed increasing emphasis on developing a solid doctrine of airbase-ground defense and extensive and continuous deployment training honed in Air Force and joint military exercises designed to practice the best methods available.

OSI’s record of providing counterintelligence support in Thailand between 1968 and 1972 was mixed. OSI’s intelligence reports did contribute to the higher alert security posture of base security forces, which in turn minimized the damage, injuries and death that resulted from the attacks that did occur, but there is no way to assess those they thwarted.

In one example, a report published by OSI in July 1971, correctly predicted a one-to-three man sapper (combat engineer) attack on aircraft, munitions, or fuel storage facilities at U-Tapao, but was unable to indicate a possible date or time for the attack. Despite the difficulties of tying specific intelligence to attacks, both OSI and the organizations that received ASP intelligence reports agreed the program was a useful tool and a valuable piece of a comprehensive intelligence collections system.

One agent noted during a briefing to a commander “When asked, as we often are, how many base attacks (in Thailand) OSI prevented, our only answer can be ‘all but seven.’” [the number of successful attacks up to that point] 

A most important lesson taken away from OSI involvement in SEA was that more training in combat operations would be necessary in the years to come. The Tactical Operations Force disbanded in 1973. Although the TOT concept was sound, the scope of OSI’s commitment in the region overwhelmed the concept, as it was designed for an immediate response in unexpected combat situations, rather than routine operations in hostile areas.

Currently, OSI continually employs the best and brightest advisors and instructors to train agents to conduct efficient and effective contingency operations--to truly conduct any mission required at a moment’s notice, anywhere they are called.