TME Looks Back: Vietnam – “Engineers’ Role in Counterinsurgency”

This week in TME Looks Back: Vietnam, we return to the November-December 1963 issue of The Military Engineer for “Engineers’ Role in Counterinsurgency” by Col. L.L. Hasemen of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Col. Hasemen examines the importance of the military base and associated infrastructure to a successful insurgent movement and the key role that Army engineers play in supporting, providing, maintaining and securing the installation.

The article appears below in mobile-friendly format.

In the summer of 2016, SAME will publish a special issue of The Military Engineer commemorating the service and contributions of military engineers in the Vietnam War. As part of the run-up to the publication, over the next several months we will be featuring on Bricks & Clicks a special series entitled TME Looks Back: Vietnam featuring past articles, photos, advertisements, covers, and other material that first appeared in the magazine during the 1960s and early 1970s. [The TME editorial staff welcomes input as we develop the Vietnam Commemorative Issue. Contact TME Editor Stephen Karl at for more information or click here to contribute editorial content. Contact Stephanie Satterfield, SAME Marketing Sales Manager at for sponsorship/advertising inquiries.]




Engineers’ Role in Counterinsurgency

By Col. L.L. Hasemen, USA




Guerrilla warfare is as old as war itself, and in many countries and ages it has been an honored and heroic effort. For example, harassment of Napoleon by the Spanish (which originated the word guerrilla literally “little war”) and the Greek and Russian partisan warfare against the Germans in World War II have been praised as effective popular uprisings against hated invaders.


A great commander of bygone years stated that to conquer an enemy, one must know the enemy; hence, to develop an effective counter to insurgency, and to explore the function of Army engineers in this effort, the unique conditions which permit and support insurgency must be understood. Clausewitz listed five general precepts for the successful pursuit of a “laudable” guerrilla war:

  • It must be carried on in the interior of the country.
  • It cannot hinge on a single battle.
  • The theater of combat must extend over a considerable area.
  • The national character must support the effort.
  • The terrain must be irregular, difficult, inaccessible.

These precepts, with only slight modification, have been restated lately by a leader of subversive insurgency.

Insurgents must have a secure base of operations; the support of the local populace; a popular political-propaganda program; and a source of food, supplies, weapons, and intelligence.

If subversive insurgency is to be overcome, the conditions which permit it to thrive must be eliminated. Not all of the conditions are military in nature; some are political and economic and must be countered by political and economic measures. But many of the conditions for successful insurgency are susceptible of counteraction by military means-usually an integrated, inter-service effort. Although each of the three services has a unique and vital part, the ground combat forces have the main responsibility because the insurgency operations are conducted principally on the ground and must be contained and overcome by comparable forces.

A successful insurgent movement must have a base from which to launch operations, fabricate weapons, raise food, tend the wounded, and train recruits. The base must be relatively immune from assault by governmental forces. This requires either easily defended approaches, such as difficult terrain, or a safe haven across a national boundary in a country supporting the insurgents. In the latter case, there is little that counterinsurgency forces can do directly without the risk of extending the war or involving other countries.

The Army can take certain actions to eliminate the factors which foster subversive insurgency. Secure bases can be destroyed. The support of the local populace, often maintained by force and terror, can be withdrawn. Sources of food, supplies, and intelligence can be stopped, and the political-economic appeal of the insurgent movement can be replaced by realistic alternate programs. In each instance, the Army engineer has important functions.


In the case of the intranational base, there are several possibilities for action by governmental forces besides direct aerial bombing which has proven to be of limited value at best. Routes of egress or escape can be booby trapped or barricaded; defiles can be blocked by demolitions; access routes for counterinsurgents can be constructed-all tasks for the engineers. This will combat an essential tactic of the guerrilla, which is to r un away. Penetration in force into a guerrilla base and providing the construction and maintenance to support it are major military operations, but the resulting ability of the government to concentrate forces in the guerrilla heartland will lead either to a clash of arms, which guerrilla forces try to avoid, or the dispersion of the insurgent forces with consequent deterioration of the guerrilla strength.

In the Republic of Vietnam, Army engineers are engaged on major road and bridge construction to provide improved ground mobility for government forces. There is a secondary national benefit, for the road system will provide a significant improvement to the local economy, allowing farm produce to move readily to market and in many cases opening new laud for settlement.

The huge engineering effort involved in the construction, reconstruction, and maintenance of the routes of communication becomes increasingly rigorous and dangerous as work progresses deeper into the rugged terrain of the insurgency stronghold. The construction forces are more and more subjected to guerrilla harassment by snipers, ambush, and sabotage. Combat engineer units, with their training in combat and construction, are uniquely qualified for such work.



The insurgent forces must have relatively unrestricted contact with the local population for their support in obtaining food, shelter, recruits, intelligence, and a secure base. Any acts by the government to disrupt this contact and to isolate the local population securely from the insurgents will reduce or eliminate this critical support. The British demonstrated this in Malaya. The same technique is now being applied in Vietnam, where local support has been extorted by real or threatened terrorism in many instances. The construction of a security compound or fortified strategic hamlet for the local inhabitants is roughly comparable to the methods used in Malaya. The construction and demolition skills of the engineers can be applied in these operations. Wells and a simple water supply system, sewage disposal, area drainage, family and community structures, and field fortifications to protect the hamlet must be provided. In most cases, land must be cleared for farms and gardens, and roads constructed to permit troop movements if the hamlet is attacked. All are typical engineer projects involving everything from simple field carpentry to heavy equipment operation.

The execution of civic projects using military units is another action that can be undertaken by the government to reduce or eliminate the causes of popular insurgent support. These projects are directed toward the correction of political or economic problems and are highly effective particularly in combating incipient insurgency. ,well known examples are farm to market roads, drainage systems, water supply, irrigation systems, and schools and hospitals. All are typical engineer tasks and, in addition to benefiting the local population and creating a favorable impression of the troops and the government, they provide excellent on-the-job training for the engineer units.

A successful civic action program is somewhat difficult to execute. It should be conducted through existing civilian channels such as the town mayor or village headman, and the local community should provide a reasonable amount of labor or materials, if only for the pride of accomplishment. Among the criteria which typify a good civic project are:

The project should be conceived by the local people, not imposed from the outside; it should be susceptible of quick completion as a whole or ill useful stages; benefits should be tangible and suitable for appropriate publicity in which credit may be given to the proper national and local agencies responsible; and the results should demonstrate to the local people the wisdom of supporting the government and its military forces.



In active counterinsurgency operations the engineer support required is tremendous. Construction in the support area outside the combat zone includes such items as troop cantonments, hospitals, electric power supply, port facilities, water supply, maintenance and repair shops, vehicle parks, warehousing, POL tanks and pipelines, airfields and heliports, and roads and railroads. Intelligence support is especially vital. The engineers must provide topographic maps, annotated aerial photographs and photomosaics, terrain analyses, and spot intelligence data for such purposes as airdrop and air landing zones, assault beaches, navigable waterways, adequate roads, railroads, and bridges, stream crossing sites, and water sources.

In close support of counterinsurgency operations, the engineer task is generally expedient in nature. Since ambushes small unit attacks, rapid movement, night assaults, and speedy withdrawal and dispersal are characteristic of insurgent warfare, the countering forces must be able to deal with. such tactics. The United States Army in the Republic of Vietnam provides helicopters for movement of mobile strike forces for evacuation of casualties, and for resupply by airdrop or helicopter. This requires the construction of base and field helipads. Other direct support includes location and elimination of mines, expedient bridging, demolition work, trail construction and maintenance training in camouflage, and similar tasks. The engineer support must be rapid and flexible and usually will rely heavily on local materials and field expedients. The small-unit hit-and-run guerrilla tactic demands a quick response. Consequently, the engineers must use only simple, mobile tools and weapons and simple plans and designs.

Destruction by the insurgents creates a major continuing problem for engineer troops. Bridges, culverts railroads and pipelines are favorite targets. Reconstruction and maintenance of these facilities and the local protection of the work area requires a wide range of engineer technical and combat skills. Engineer units are prime targets for insurgents because of their importance in counterinsurgency and their stocks of highly prized demolition materials.



A counterinsurgency effort must maintain the offensive and initiative, and as it takes over territory from the insurgents it must establish control of this territory and protect the people. Ideally, the liberated people will themselves provide the necessary control and protection by reconstituting local police and home guards. Actually, this will seldom be the case, particularly during the early months after liberation. Government forces, including engineers, will be needed to assist. In addition to the strategic hamlet construction there must be other security construction of look-out towers, fortified outposts, booby traps and barriers on approach routes, and cantonments for local militia.


A final task, implicit in much of what has gone before, is the United States Army engineer training support of allied forces. The major training and advisory work is performed by a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), or a Military Mission, but the engineers have several parallel or supplementary training programs. These programs constitute foreign engineer personnel in American facilities or the facilities of a friendly third nation, mobile training teams for concentrated instruction on specific items of equipment or engineer tasks, and on-the-job training by American engineer troop units deployed overseas. The size and complexity of the engineer activities depend on such variables as the size of the host armed forces and their state of training, as well as the level of the insurgency threat. Numbers may vary from a single engineer officer to several hundred officers and enlisted men. In all cases, the criteria for selection of personnel and the techniques and procedures which they employ are essentially the same regardless of the size of the MAAG or alternate training plan. It is not facetious to say that the Boy Scout standards are excellent selection criteria. In addition to technical knowledge, each engineer should have the skills of a diplomat, linguist, pantomimist, debater, confidant, and comic. These attributes should lead to mutual trust and respect between the engineers and their hosts. In such an atmosphere training, assistance, and advice will proceed smoothly.


There are three basic tasks in a successful counterinsurgency operation, which are interrelated and are performed simultaneously. These tasks are the military defeat of the insurgent forces, the isolation of the insurgents from the local population, and the restoration of government prestige, authority, and control. In each of these tasks the Army engineer troops or engineer advisors are essential.


[Article reprinted from TME / November-December 1963]