Project Eldest Son: America’s Program to Sabotage Enemy Ammo During the Vietnam War

An example of an AK-47 round. These are the types of rounds the Green Berets were sabotaging during Project Eldest Son.

An example of an AK-47 round. These are the types of rounds the Green Berets were sabotaging during Project Eldest Son.

Dirty tricks come part and parcel with the business of warfare. Anything that can give an army even a slight edge against an enemy is worth a try when it might help bring about a victory. These sorts of unconventional tactics go back to the ancient world. Archimedes developed a weapons system that could easily sink enemy ships and stymied the powerful Roman army for years. The US army developed a system that utilized bats to destroy Japanese cities, although that particular scheme never went beyond the testing phases. America’s enemies also got in on the act, hatching a plot to kill Prime Minister Winston Churchill using a bomb disguised as a chocolate bar.

Most of the dirty tricks used in warfare are far more subtle than the ones outlined above. A favorite is sabotaging enemy supplies. Doing so would not only inhibit the ability for an enemy to make war, it would also spread fear and confusion among enemy ranks. Perhaps one of the most audacious of these plans was executed by the United States during the Vietnam War. The operation was dubbed Project Eldest Son, and it involved US special forces sabotaging Vietnamese ammunition.

 

Project Eldest Son

Project Eldest Son was approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1967. The plan was as simple as it was devious: seize enemy supplies and sabotage some of the rounds by replacing powder in the rounds with high explosives. These would be strong enough to blow the bolt back through the skull of the soldier using the rifle. The CIA worked for a month to pry apart several thousand 7.62mm rounds, sabotage them with high explosives, and then erase any signs of tampering. Several 12.7mm machine gun rounds and about 2000 82mm mortar rounds were sabotaged as well.

Although the funny ammo would likely kill many Vietnamese soldiers, that was not the main aim of Project Eldest Son. The true goal was to destroy the Vietnamese’s confidence in their Chinese-made supplies. The hope was to drive a wedge between China and Vietnam, thus removing one means of supply for Vietnamese forces.

Green Berets sowed the booby trapped ammunition among enemy ammunition caches whenever they could. In addition, they would load one round of booby-trapped ammo in rifles dropped by dead soldiers. This was so the weapon would be destroyed and remove any trace of the sabotage. Soon, soldiers began to be blown up by their own weaponry.

As the casualties began, phase two of Project Eldest Son began. Forged Chinese and Vietnamese documents detailing the problem began to be spread, along with US intelligence briefs specifically designed for enemy eyes. Armed Forces Radio and TV PSAs about the dangers of using enemy weapons were broadcast, clearly meant for the enemy to see (and to protect US forces from accidentally being blown up by captured weapons.)

Project Eldest Son only lasted two years, ending when information was leaked to the press in 1969. It continued under the names Project Italian Green and Project Pole Bean, but these operations lacked the subtlety of the initial operation. Even if the methods were more crude, the results were the same: sowing fear and doubt among America’s enemies.

 

Continuing today?

While the Vietnam War has been over for decades, operations similar to Eldest Son allegedly continue to this day. There is some evidence that similar sabotage operations have been used in Afghanistan against Taliban and other radical forces, although the modern focus is more on mortar or RPG rounds than small arms ammunition. After all, there is no way to tell if a round is sabotaged, so these sorts of fake rounds could end up in the hands of innocents, say, a farmer who uses a rifle to protect his land. So, while sabotaged mortars make a bigger boom, they’re oddly enough more targeted than the small armed rounds.

But the modern equivalent of Eldest Son is shrouded in secrecy, and it isn’t really clear how extensive the program is. It is far more hush hush, likely learning from the exposure of Eldest Son in 1969.

 

Sources

Bourjaily, Phil. “Project Eldest Son: Cover Ammo Sabotage in Vietnam.” FieldandStream.com. October 17, 2011. Field and Stream. October 12, 2014. http://www.fieldandstream.com/blogs/gun-nuts/2011/10/project-eldest-son-covert-ammo-sabotage-vietnam

 

Chivers, C.J. “Dirty Tricks of Government Forces: Where Deception and Deadliness Meet Inside a Gun.” NYTimes.com. November 7, 2012. The New York Times. October 12, 2014. http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/07/dirty-tricks-of-government-forces-where-deception-and-deadliness-meet-inside-a-gun/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0