Operation SAFESIDE: Defending Resources, Preserving Mission

  • Published
  • By Alan D. Landers
  • 93d Air Ground Operations Wing Historian
"It is easier and more effective to destroy the enemy's aerial power by destroying his nests and eggs on the ground than to hunt his flying birds in the air."   -Giulio Douhet, "The Command of the Air", 1921.

Integrated base defense traces its roots back to the insurgent conflict in Vietnam. A little more than a decade following the Korean conflict, American forces were once again generating combat sorties to assist in deterrence of communist influence. This time from airbases nestled in the jungles of South Vietnam.  Well-orchestrated highly successful guerrilla attacks at three of the major airbases in Vietnam compelled the Air Force to transform the standard practice of airbase ground defense into an agile, aggressive defense force capable of detecting and stopping attacks on the base from outside the wire.

At Bien Hoa Airbase on Nov. 1, 1964, mortars bombarded the base under the cover of darkness.  The attack killed four, wounded 72, destroyed five B-57 bombers and damaged 15 others. The Viet Cong had only expended no more than 83 mortar shells. Three months later, Viet Cong guerillas penetrated Pleiku Air Base and attacked American servicemen, killing eight and wounding 109 in only 15 minutes. Another attack on Da Nang Air Base, on July 1, 1965, resulted in the destruction of two C-130 and two F-102 aircraft.  The destructive, lightning fast guerilla attacks were near impossible to stop from within the confines of the remote airbases.  These and many other attacks demonstrated the threats to American personnel and resources, which resulted in increased American involvement in the conflict.

Designated Operation SAFESIDE, the new initiative required new tactics, techniques and procedures to create the "active defense" concept.  The SAFESIDE active defense proved successful in preventing attacks on three of the major airbases in South Vietnam allowing U. S. Air Force aircraft such as the F-100 Super Sabre, F-105 Thunderchief and F-4 Phantom to successfully conduct assigned missions. The inherent nature of guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Vietnam posed a challenge to all ground units as well as airbases that supported South Vietnam.  The SAFESIDE legacy returned with the activation of 820th Security Forces Group, as contingency operations around the globe needed a robust, agile combat security force to defend personnel and resources during conflict.

In September 1965, a piecemeal build-up of air assets began at several locations in Vietnam including Tan Son Nhut, Bien Hoa, Da Nang and Nha Trang.  The original force of 148 security policemen became 4,700 within a year.  Even so, the deployed airmen lacked the specific preparation and training to secure the bases, personnel and resources.  The attack on Tan Son Nhut Airbase on April 13, 1966 emphasized once again the lack of tactics and training in aggressive base defense.  The indirect fire of 240 mortar rounds, coupled with rifle fire injuring 135 and killing seven American servicemen.  In addition, the attack resulted in destruction of four aircraft, damage to 56 and destruction of a 420,000 gallon fuel tank in only 15 minutes.  The jungle terrain allowed Viet Cong to approach, attack the base and allow attackers to flee with their weapons.  The Air Force required a better plan to protect personnel and assets on the Southeast Asian airbases adjacent to heavy jungle growth.

The USAF Inspector General presented findings to the chief of staff of the Air Force regarding the physical security of airbases in the Republic of Vietnam in early 1965.  The IG report recommended testing a unit of highly trained combat security police unit to experiment with the concept of "Active Defense."  The program required a robust knowledge of infantry tactics uncommon to normal air base security police operations.  Following approval by the CSAF, recruiting for the new test unit, named Operation SAFESIDE began.  In April 1966, bases under all major commands received brochures explaining the concept, and requesting volunteers for the program from bases throughout all major commands.  The directorate of security police selected 226 airmen, primarily security police, but selecting other specialties such as supply, administration, communications, medical and marksmanship.  Of the program volunteers, 62 were selected for the CADRE program to train other SAFESIDE Airmen.  The US Army Ranger School, Fort Benning, Ga., was chosen as the primary location to train the CADRE.  In addition, the Airmen trained at the O'Neil Hand to Hand Combat Course, Weapons Maintenance Course, Lowry AFB, Colo., Scout Dog Course, Lackland AFB, Texas, as well as Forward Air Controller course at Cannon AFB, NM.  Of the 62 volunteers, only 19 completed the school. 

The 1041st Security Police Squadron (Test), established in July 1966, commenced training at Schofield Barracks. The 7th Air Force commander chose Phu Kat Airbase as the initial deployment base. Due to tactical defense reasons, members erected barracks and base camp three miles from the main base.  The main force arrived and immediately began to determine the Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) that defined Phu Kat Air Base, and established a three ring zone defense.  The first zone, the most outer ring, included barriers, sensors and measures to deter and detect enemy activity.  Approximately 100-200 meters inside that box, the second ring of defense included mobile reaction teams to neutralize approaching enemy.  The inner most ring included static defense fortifications and entry control to priority and other vital assets. Phan Rang Air Base later saw deployments of SAFESIDE Airmen in April 1968. The base, still far from built-up,  existed several years prior to Phu Kat containing  14 single story dorms, which housed as many as 52 Airmen each, a dining hall, outdoor latrine and two outdoor classrooms.  As Airmen deployed to other locations, remaining Airmen fanned out to relieve crowded conditions.

In spring 1967, the 7AF commander requested the 1041 SPS remain in country to defend new fighter units arriving at the base including F-100D of the 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron and others.  In addition, SAFESIDE provided lessons learned to the bases regular security police force. Finally, in July 1967, the 1041 SPS departed Vietnam for Fairchild AFB, Wash., and to prepare the final report on the SAFESIDE study.  By July 1968, the Air force re-designated the unit to 4470th Combat Security Police Squadron (CSPS) and transferred to unit to Tactical Air Command.  By March 1968, the Air Force established the 82d Combat Security Police Wing (CSPW), as well as 821st CSPS, who received accelerated training to deploy to Vietnam due to the Tet Offensive in February 1968.  By May, a third SAFESIDE replacement unit began training, intended to replace the 821st CSPS at Phan Rang Air Base, after the maximum tour of 179 days expired.  In October 1968, the Air Force activated 823d CSPS for future deployments. Lessons learned in the field developed tactics and training for subsequent deployments. Later, the Air Force chose Fort Campbell, Ky., to bed down the 82d CSPW and on-going training with the USAF Combat Security Police Training School. The Air Force intended to cut budgets in late 1969.  Budget personnel visited the unit at Fort Campbell and determined the program necessary, however doubting the justification of cost in tight fiscal times.

SAFESIDE emerged once again to fill a need to field a security forces unit with a greater capacity to secure austere facilities using organic capabilities. The Khobar Towers bombing on June 25, 1996, once again illustrated the requirement to protect personnel and resources.  On March 17, 1997, the 820th Security Forces Group, activated at Lackland AFB, Texas, was assigned to the Air Force Security Forces Center.  In 2001, the group planned its relocation to Moody AFB as well as reassignment to Ninth Air Force.  Following assignments to 347th Rescue Wing (2006), 23d Wing (2006), Air Combat Command assigned the group to the 93d Air Ground Operations Wing upon its activation January 25, 2008. The group was re-designated as the 820th Base Defense Group in 2010 to better identify with its robust base defense capability, and its role as the only base defense group in the Air Force. Today, the 820th BDG provides  the expeditionary Air Force's only worldwide deployable,  "first-in," multi-disciplined, self-sustaining force protection capability with members  qualifications including: US Army airborne, pathfinder, ranger, air assault and others, bringing a rugged, flexible force protection capability to the battlefield, both inside and outside the wire.