Project Igloo White

"We've got the Ho Chi Minh Trail wired like a pinball machine, and every night we plug it in, man."

USAF Airman, Project Igloo White.

I've done a lot of reading about the American Vietnam War, what the Vietnamese call the "American War." I find it fascinating because it's like the dark, poison cousin of the Apollo moon shot: a ambitious, lofty goal of somewhat ambiguous moral value and practical attainability. Apollo worked out great, Vietnam didn't. Both are living monuments to the distinctly American belief the technology can solve any problem.

Of all the many crazy things about the Vietnam War, the craziest, in my opinion is Project Igloo White. It's also where I get my e2 handle from, since I knew it wouldn't be taken. It's also the kind of massive technological system that seems to take on a life of its own, which I find fascinating. The Igloo White program in particular contains valuable lessons for our own latter-day Drug War.

Igloo White was a top secret program run from 1966 to 1975 by the Joint Services Task Force in Southeast Asia. Strategically, it was an effort to interdict the flow of war supplies and materiel from China and North Vietnam into South Vietnam. Stemming the flow of materiel and troops into South Vietnam was a cornerstone of the US strategy in winning the war. The problem was that we were expressly forbidden from deploying ground forces into Laos and Cambodia. Guess where North Vietnam ran the trail?

The solution of the Joint Service Task Force was to airdrop acoustic, seismic, and electronic sensors up and down the length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Most of the traffic was at night, so when the sun was setting, the US would launch sorties of recon aircraft to orbit the trail area and receive the wireless signals from the sensors.

The sensors were really pretty sophisticated, and designed to "police the spectrum" using a number of different approaches:

  • Seismic sensors could detect the marching of feet along a trail, or the rumble of trucks along a road.
  • Acoustic sensors were literally microphones, listening for engine noise or actual human conversation.
  • Chemical sensors were attenuated to the ketones of human urine. If enemy troops took a piss nearby, they would ding the sensor!
  • Airborne electrical sensors "listened" for the electrical bleed from truck ignitions
  • Airborne infrared sensors looked for heat movement under the jungle canopy.

The most amazing thing about the program was the command center at Nakhon Phanom airbase in Thailand. Containing the only 3 supercomputers in Southeast Asia, the air-conditioned command center processed all this data with a huge array of reel-to-reel tape machines, punchcard readers, and CRTs. Orderly posted the aggregate findings to a 20 by 9 foot "big board" of activity along the trail. Then the operators would vector out B-52's or fast movers to "interdict" the target (read:bomb the everloving shit out of it). The techs would practice interpreting the sensor data with captured Soviet ZIL trucks. It presaged the "virtual battlefield," what is now called the "battlespace" of the Gulf War by some 25 years.

How did the low tech NVA stand up to this massive technological onslaught? At first they didn't. The American jets seem to come from nowhere, striking everywhere with mystic precision. As time went on, NVA counterintelligence discovered the sensors, and what they were set to detect. They then began a dedicated campaign of spoofing to jam the network. Farmers would herd cattle near seismic sensors, up and down a wired piece of trail. Single hikers would piss near chemosenors to fake massive troop movements. The jets couldn't be everywhere at once. The program continued to interdict supplies and personnel, but huge quantities continued to get through.

Hundreds of millions of dollars, flummoxed by a farmer with a few oxen. And this is the moral for our Drug War. If a massive taskforce, authorized to bomb at will, with special operations groups and strategic bombers at their beck and call couldn't stop the NVA, how is the drug war interdiction effort supposed to work? The DEA can't call in an Arclight strike (B-52 mission)on Tijuana. And even if they could, it still wouldn't work, because thousands of motivated individuals want to move that product, and we can't nuke Colombia. One bribed US Customs official turns our "electronic wall" between us and Mexico a joke.

But... the command centers, the jets, the sensors... it all sounds so cool, so efficient, controlled, rational and effective. It creates the illusion of control, of great work and effort afoot. That's why we're stuck with it.

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