Project CHECO Report, Operation Igloo White (Initial Phase): Vietnam, 1968

Sensor Module-Antipersonnel Area (Gatlin, 1968: 13)

By 1968, U.S. defence strategists suggesting military engagement with Vietnam would still be an expedient, uncomplicated affair were sounding increasingly out of touch with the reality of the war. What had become increasingly obvious to many was that a booming economy, conscription, and access to advanced technologies did not simply guarantee an imminent victory: Bomber jets struggled to sufficiently disrupt the distributed tactics of the Vietcong; the spy planes couldn't peer through the dense jungle canopy into the insurgents' movements below; the latest M16 rifle was technically flawed to the point of "bordering on criminal negligence" (Gibson, 2000: 196); Agent Orange and Napalm campaigns poisoned drinking water and destroyed land used for farming by the very same Vietnamese villagers which U.S. Forces were supposed to protect. On paper, however, the trends in bombing sorties, demarcated areas of control, and "bodycount" stats amounted to a scientific measurement of upward progress in a war that otherwise evaded simple narrativisation. For Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara and his teams of systems analysts, technology and quantified warfare were the answers to difficult questions pertaining to the specifics of strategy. As with other command and control projects of the time, the collection of information was only one part of the process. This information had to be quickly analysed and acted on for it to be useful, something that the latest IBM System/360 computers helped out with in U.S. bases across Vietnam.

It was in this context, out of an intense belief in technological ingenuity, or perhaps outright desperation, that an "exceedingly costly and complex" (Gatlin, 1968: vi) system was put to work to solve a particularly persistent question of the war: how to apprehend the North Vietnamese arms convoys that meandered into the South, relatively untroubled, through the jungles of Laos and western Vietnam? The answer to this question, initially codenamed PRACTICE NINE on its launch in 1966, seems incredibly ambitious and prototypical—albeit still relatively unknown—half a century later. A document published in July 1968 and titled Project CHECO Report: Igloo White (Initial Phase) gives some insight into the early functionality and difficulties of the programme. Authored by Col Jesse Gatlin, the stated purpose of the report is reflected in the CHECO acronym: Contemporary Historical Evaluation of Combat Operations, an attempt to form an analysis of a specific operation in the wider political and strategic context of its time.

The CHECO report reveals that the origins of Igloo White lay in a joint task force known as the Defence Communications Planning Group (DCPG), formed by McNamara in 1966. They were charged with studying the possibilities of forming an interdiction line below the demilitarised zone, extending from the western coast of Vietnam to the jungles in the east. However, the document doesn't mention the crucial involvement of a highly secretive think tank comprised of systems analysts, engineers, and scientists known as the JASON division. In her book The Pentagon's Brain (2015), Annie Jacobsen describes the JASON division as "one of the most secret and esoteric, most powerful and consequential scientific advisory groups in the history of the U.S. Department of Defense". The JASONs were involved in numerous experimental projects during the Vietnam era, including a 1967 report titled Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia (Dyson et al, 1967), which, as it happens, strongly argued against the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. The report does not reach its conclusion by way of a moral or ethical treatise, but through systematically "proving" that the use of nuclear weapons would be pointless: The damage they would cause would not sufficiently inhibit movements of Vietcong units to justify the potential political cost of their employment. Such a manner of thinking gives an indication of the technopolitical considerations on which strategy was formed in Vietnam—an intensely "rational" engagement with war actualised in terms of numbers, theorems, and probabilities.

Occupation through Speed

Air Supported Infiltration Interdiction Concept (Gatlin, 1968: 7)

Aircraft resources involved in the Infiltration Interdiction Concept (Gatlin, 1968: 11)

McNamara and his advisors knew well that these convoys were vital to continued Vietcong strength in the South: they fuelled the insurgency in the hamlets in and around important GVN/U.S. strongholds, and allowed for the stockpiling of resources for potential larger-scale breakout attacks. The issue presented to the strategists was that the Vietcong's favoured path for bringing supplies and weapons into southern territories was along the Ho Chi Minh trail, a network of paths and roadways that cut through the dense jungles of Vietnam and Laos. Engaging with these routes was further complicated by the Laotian regions being an area "officially" off-limits to U.S. ground troops. While other operations attempted to forcibly destroy the jungle canopy through chemical weapons such as the aforementioned Agent Orange and Napalm, the JASONs proposed another radical solution: an "electronic barrier". The plan involved airdropping thousands of sensors—seismic, audio, heat, among others—that would detect movement along the trails. The Infiltration Surveillance Centre (ISC), situated thousands of miles away in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, would be a key component of the JASON proposal, acting as the command and control hub for the whole operation. Igloo White was not set to replace other means of intercepting the supply convoys, but to act as another "set of eyes" (Gatlin, 1968: 6)—albeit a set of eyes with an annual maintenance cost of $800 million and with an initial setup expense of one billion dollars (Gibson, 2000: 396).

The CHECO report expresses that, despite the programme's Top Secret classification, information was leaked on numerous occasions, creating a series of codename changes. In the first two years of its existence, PRACTICE NINE and its sub-programmes had at various stages been afforded names such as ILLINOIS CITY, DYE MARKER, MUSCLE SHOALS (the period which the CHECO report largely refers to), DUMP TRUCK, MUD RIVER, and finally, only a month before the publication of the CHECO report, IGLOO WHITE. Leaks had possible effects beyond the dry bureaucracy of military operation codenames: with anxious insurgencies of their own, the Laotian and Thai governments wanted to keep U.S. activities originating in their territories out of the public eye. With a perhaps tighter grip on the programme's classification status, the Igloo White name would stick with the programme until its eventual decommissioning in April 1973.

Basic Vehicle Module Geometry (Gatlin, 1968: 10)

The operation worked as follows: After identifying key routes used by North Vietnamese/Vietcong units, U.S. Air Force planes and helicopters could fly above the jungle, dropping specially made sensors in lines referred to as strings, illustrated as black dots in the above diagram labelled Basic Vehicle Module Geometry. There were numerous different types of sensor: Audio sensors (referred to as ACOUBOYS), for instance, were designed to become tangled in the trees, blending in to the surrounding foliage while quietly listening out for the sound of trucks or voices. Seismic sensors, with their branch-like appendages, were designed to become embedded in the ground and detect the rumble of convoys as they passed. Sensors had no geolocation system built-in. For each drop, the location had to be photographed, logged, and later inputted into the IBM computer system with specific map coordinates back at the ISC (Gatlin, 1968: 15).

If the sensors detected activity, they would broadcast their ID number to a radio-relay EC-121 aircraft in continuous circulation overhead (see Orbital Patterns diagram below). This plane would bounce the signal to the ISC thousands of miles to the east, whereby the relevant activated sensor would glow on a computer technician's screen. As a convoy moved along the route, a string of sensors would illuminate, indicating to the technician its approximate size, speed, and direction. An "Intercept Zone" would be established, and a bomber plane would fly to the associated coordinates, where bombs would be dropped "automatically" when over the strike location. The sensational novelty of the system is captured in a quote from one ISC technician: "We wired the Ho Chi Minh Trail like a drugstore pinball machine, and we plug it in every night" (Edwards, 1996: 4).

"Orbital Patterns" (Gatlin, 1968: 14)

The sophistication of the system was to allow interdiction to operate on the basis of real-time, or as close to it as could be managed:

"MUSCLE SHOALS was expected to produce information on enemy vehicular and personnel movement reliably enough and quickly enough to be used for directing immediate strikes by attack aircraft against these targets as they were identified and located. It was conceived as a real-time intelligence source which would result in rapid target acquisition and attack by airstrike forces." (Gatlin, 1968: 4)

This sense of immediacy was an attempt to deal with the Vietcong, who in adopting the tactics of the so-called war of the flea, seemed to disappear as quickly as they were detected by U.S. soldiers. Without a capacity to physically occupy the vast swathes of territory necessary to interdict movement from North to South, the Igloo White system attempted to create the illusion of constant presence, an occupation of an otherwise inoccupiable zone, by reducing through technological means the time between detection and action. The complexity and expense of maintaining this illusion of occupation indicates its perceived importance to McNamara and his defence analysts: Planes in constant orbit overhead; round-the-clock observation by Task Force Alpha technicians at the ISC; sensor batteries constantly draining and routes being reseeded; the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center directing traffic and bombing routes; jets taking off to intercept targets; other aircraft to assess strikes; operational data logged on the IBM 360 computers at the ISC as feedback for future intercepts.

As Virilio says of the German occupation of Nantes, occupation is intended to turn fear into an environment, to render it as a zone of insecurity and thus control its inhabitants (2012: 14). Igloo White's technologies do away with the necessity for occupation to be physically embodied in the sights of road checkpoints and uniformed soldiers on the streets, and in doing so it intends to say: we are not there now, but we can be there imminently. This complex assemblage of machines is an effort to facilitate a rapid-response, to work at a greater speed than the insurgents—a perpetually imminent occupation.

Aesthetics of Surveillance

A Task Force Alpha command and control centre at the Infiltration Surveillance Centre. Image from a 1972 CHECO report, courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

In recent writing on drone warfare, there has been important attention given to how the screen-based experience of conflict might impact on the psychology of the pilot. One might initially anticipate that war-by-remote control, geographically separated from the site of conflict and mediated by screen interfaces and computer keyboards, might create a dissociation that renders its violent actions meaningless to the pilot. This, however, has been demonstrated to be a fallacy by whistleblowers (Abé, 2012). The predatory nature of unmanned aircraft, stalking their targets for weeks or indeed months on end, foster a sense of proximity between the pilot and her/his target that is otherwise rare in war. However, for the Task Force Alpha technicians at the ISC, targets would be represented on screens as abstract "illuminated lines of light" referred to as "the worm" (Gibson: 397). That this light represented the activation of the electronic sensor rather than any image of a human meant that the whole system had a symbolically ambiguous relationship with its corresponding territory of action. Such jargon anticipates the institutional discourse of drone warfare today, where the violent realities of combat are effaced through snappy phrases and codes such as kinetic strikes, bugsplat, and collateral damage (Halliday, 2011). Gibson writes:

"Note that the target appeared only as 'an illuminated line of light' to ground controllers. Likewise to pilots using electronic warfare devices, targets appeared as marks on electronic screens. At the point when Technowar reaches its technological apex, it turns completely into a representation. Indeed, the very name for a 'target' was 'target signature'. And when the 'target' was destroyed, the lights on the screen went out. The representation disappeared." (Gibson: 397)

Gibson argues that there was no simple way of knowing if the "worm" represented a truck, a group of civilians, or even "a herd of elephants or deer" (398). Indeed, the CHECO report states that sensors were activated by "exploding ordnance, gunfire, animals, thunderstorm activity, or simply the hyperactivity of the sensor itself" (Gatlin, 1968: 18). To add to this, Vietcong soldiers discovered the sensors and used them to manipulate U.S. bombing runs, creating phantom convoys by placing tape recordings of truck sounds beside audio sensors far away from the real supply routes (Gibson, 2000: 399).

Should the stated number of "successful" strikes have been accurate, target assessors should have been able to spot the approximately 25,000 burnt-out trucks, and many more damaged, claimed by Igloo White's commanders. Air Force Generals justified the absence of such a spectacle by claiming that the destroyed trucks were dragged into the jungle by the Vietcong under the cover of darkness (ibid.: 398). For those in the EC-121 aircrafts bouncing data across to the ISC, the CHECO report notes an "esprit de corps" among the crew of Aircraft No 8, "remarkable in view of the comparatively monotonous flight and monitor duties they performed. Several Monitors expressed the desire for more feedback information on what eventually happened to the sensor data they relayed" (Gatlin, 1968: 17). Certainly in the early stages of the project, feedback with any certainty was rarely possible. One of the only things the ISC technicians could really be sure of was that their own sensors were destroyed in the bombing. After each strike, another sensor "string implantation request had to be individually validated before operations could begin" (ibid.: 12). Reportedly ranging from $600 to $3000 a piece, the companies developing the sensors were certainly profiting from this arrangement (Feltham, 2012: 91).

What is remarkable about the programme is the requirement for manual calculation in the first year of Igloo White's operation. During this early period of the programme, the data the EC-121 Monitors relayed would have firstly ended up on the system readouts at the ISC, automatically printing out at a rate of "one sheet every five minutes" (Gatlin, 1968: 12). The CHECO report states that, in the absence of the aforementioned screens and "glowing worms" that arrived in Nakhon Phanom as the programme advanced, Target Assessment Officers had to manually analyse these printouts and look for patterns in the rows and columns of numbers, with trends being recorded on a perspex plotting board for analysis and identification of potential strike zones. With a working tempo set by the rhythm of the print-outs, Officers had to react quickly to suspected trends in the data, despite how "during periods of heavy sensor activity, the Target Assessment Officer had great difficulty in distinguishing targets by identifying characteristic movement patterns, as they developed within the maze of apparently random activations" (ibid.: 19). This was a frustrating task. Without feedback from the successes or failures of their identified targets, Target Assessment Officers began to hold off on calling targets (ibid: 28). In a later "upgrade" of the programme, IBM was awarded a lucrative contract to provide a set of System/360 machines and corresponding support workers to replace the labour of these Officers, with trends and strike zones being generated automatically by the new computer's software.

Target Assessment mapping routes at the Infiltration Surveillance Centre. Image from a 1972 CHECO report, courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

This early phase of Igloo White covered by the CHECO report exposes a litany of errors and issues endemic to the system, from human errors to technical mishaps. Reading over the "Summary of Problems" at the report's conclusion might make one wonder if there was any part of the system that worked without hindrance or disruption, or indeed why the programme was not recommended to be cancelled immediately. Reported issues vary from the technical to the bureaucratic: sensor batteries ran out quicker than expected; the computer system's architecture meant that there was a finite number of sensor ID numbers, forcing the number of actual sensors that could be in the system at any one time to be capped at 837; sensor emplacement was inaccurate; reseeding trails was an arduous process requiring approval from administrators in both Laos and Vietnam; target assessment post-strike was unreliable; sensor "noise" occasionally overloaded the ISC and EC-121 computer systems; and, fundamentally, up until 31st March 1968, "not a single one of [the sensors] had functioned satisfactorily in the field under combat conditions" (ibid: 26-29).

As demonstrated in the CHECO report, Igloo White was been the subject of numerous criticisms which are echoed today in the Bush and Obama administrations' drone warfare strategies. In their attempts to control vast regions of difficult terrain in West Asia/North Africa, and without public support for "boots on the ground", imminent occupation by drone has been a political "compromise" that has spun off an array of horrific problems of its own. The notion that technology can effectively counter a "distributed, imminent threat" does not find much justification in both academic analyses and "contemporary historical" evaluations of Vietnam-era Defence programmes. However, we might look to a slightly different although no less topical subject should we wish to find the direct descendant of Igloo White: the militarisation of U.S.-Mexico border-policing. As Ian Shaw (2014) notes, Igloo White-style sensor systems are already used to detect the movements of migrants crossing the border, as reconnaissance drones fly overhead. As Trump's great wall attracts derision among Democrats and, crucially, some border-region Republicans too, might we find that a hard concrete barrier is replaced with a "smart" electronic one instead? While taking the point that technology has since advanced, Igloo White challenges such "smart border-solutions" by demonstrating more fundamental issues of policing space by cultivating zones of imminent occupation.


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