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An Analysis Of The French Defeat At Dien Bien Phu AUTHOR Major Harry D. Bloomer, USA CSC 1991 SUBJECT AREA - General AN ANALYSIS OF THE FRENCH DEFEAT AT DIEN BIEN PHU Outline Thesis Statement: At Dien Bien Phu the French violated nearly all of the principles of war at every level of war--strategic, operational, and tactical. These violations contributed significantly to the French defeat. I. Introduction A. Background of Dien Bien Phu's significance to the west B. FM 100-5 (Operations) as analysis framework II. Principle of objective A. Definition B. French objectives C. Viet Minh objectives III. Principle of offensive A. Definition B. French offensive actions C. Viet Minh offensive actions IV. Principles of mass and economy of force A. Definition B. French employment of mass and economy of force C. Viet Minh employment of mass and economy of force V. Principle of maneuver A. Definition B. French maneuver C. Viet Minh maneuver VI. Principle of unity of command A. Definition B. French command structure C. Viet Minh command structure VII. Principles of security and surprise A. Definition B. French employment of security and surprise C. Viet Minh employment of security and surprise VIII. Principle of simplicity A. Definition B. French use of simplicity C. Viet Minh use of simplicity IX. Conclusion AN ANALYSIS OF THE FRENCH DEFEAT AT DIEN BIEN PHU On 7 May 1954 the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu fell, culminating an operation which lasted 209 days. The last 54 days the garrison was actually under constant attack. For the French, Dien Bien Phu was the straw that broke the camel's back. Two months later, on 20 July 1954, a formal cease-fire between the French and Viet Minh was negotiated at Geneva. This agreement ended an eight year war which produced over 75,000 killed for France's Expeditionary Force. (1:367) This cease-fire was never advanced beyond a military truce, and the lack of a political settlement left the door open for the next Indochina war. In fact, the Viet Minh left Geneva convinced that they had been double-crossed. They believed the Chinese forced them to accept a partition of Vietnam rather than a unified Vietnam under their control. (5:204) The victory on the battlefield was lost at Geneva as far as the Viet Minh were concerned; however, they did not give up on their goal of unifying Vietnam. The Viet Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in a set-piece battle which, in essence, amounted to beating the French at their own game. The shock of this defeat reverberated throughout the western world. As Colonel William F. Long stated twelve years after the defeat, "Dien Bien Phu or DBP has become an acronym or shorthand symbol for defeat of the West by the East, for the triumph of primitive.... Dien Bien Phu resulted in severe political consequences."(6:35) The French defeat was indeed an utter disaster for both France and America who, by 1954, was underwriting 80% of French expenditures in Indochina. (5:170) Given the unfavorable developments resulting from this defeat, the causes of the French loss warrant further examination. The keystone Army Warfighting Manual FM 100-5 states, "Success in battle may not alone assure the achievement of national security goals, but defeat will guarantee failure." (8:1) This manual also emphasizes the importance of nine principles of war which are fundamental to current Army doctrine. Dien Bien Phu can be analyzed through the use of the principles of war. These principles are not sacrosanct; however, they should not be violated without thought. At Dien Bien Phu the French violated nearly all of the principles of war at every level of war-- strategic, operational, and tactical. These violations contributed significantly to the French defeat. The first and perhaps central principle of war is the objective. FM 100-5 describes the objective, "Direct every military operation towards a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective."(8:Appendix A) The objective is translated into the commander's intent which governs the conduct of an operation. The French objective at Dien Bien Phu was neither clearly defined nor attainable. Strategically, the guidance issued to French Indonesian forces commander General Henri Navarre was, "above everything else, to insure the safety of our Expeditionary Corps." General Navarre's instructions prior to the airborne landing at Dien Bien Phu (Operation Castor) were to adjust his operations to his means. French authorities in France did not learn of the launching of Operation Castor until six hours after it started. In short, operations at Dien Bien Phu were executed with very little strategic involvement. (1:309) Strategic guidance was issued to General Navarre, but Operation Castor certainly was not designed to fulfill that guidance. The French government by this point in the long war was interested in stabilizing the situation in Vietnam so that peace talks could begin. A military victory was no longer the objective as the French sought an honorable way out of the war through negotiation. (7:31) General Navarre was aware of this; nevertheless, he undertook Operation Castor despite the lack of a clear mandate for this sort of operation. Dien Bien Phu from the start lacked strategic intent which left the focus at the operational level. If there was little strategic reason to occupy a valley floor deep in enemy territory, then there had to be a good operational reason. An operational objective cited by General Navarre was the defense of Laos from Viet Minh attack. Dien Bien Phu is located about 8 miles from the Laotian border, and Laos was then a member of the French Union. (5:190) The Viet Minh had attacked Laos in the past. The problem with this objective is that the Viet Minh could easily attack Laos without passing through Dien Bien Phu! Additionally, General Navarre was under no specific instructions to cover Laos. Another objective purported for Operation Castor was the intended establishment of a resupply point for tribal guerrilla units. These guerrillas would operate in cooperation with the French against Viet Minh rear areas. (2:32) There are two problems with this objective. First of all, these guerrilla units were not yet operational. Secondly, the presence of Viet Minh combat units at Dien Bien Phi obviously would preclude the establishment of a French resupply point. This objective amounted to military wishful thinking. The French, like the Americans who followed later, had some difficulty engaging the enemy in set-piece battles. Dien Bien Phu could be used to tempt the Viet Minh into such a battle, and the French could then crush them. General Navarre was looking for an opportunity to inflict heavy casualties and a stunning defeat on the Viet Minh. (3:37) Smaller scale but similar operations had been executed in the months leading up to Operation Castor, and the French General viewed them as successful. However, these earlier successes were misread by General Navarre. The Viet Minh did attack and suffered heavy losses, but the French were often pinned down and forced to withdraw hastily or to fight their way out of untenable spots. These operations were never conducted at the limits of friendly lines of communication, and invariably the French ended up withdrawing. Moreover the Viet Minh commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, learned vital lessons from these smaller battles while the French learned nothing. So, at Dien Bien Phu, when the French presented Giap with yet another lucrative target of unprecedented proportion, Giap quickly rushed to meet the French with a few surprises up his sleeve. The French got their set-piece batt1e. General Navarre visualized Dien Bien Phu as many things, but no where is there any indication that he viewed it as a jungle fortress designed to withstand a regular siege. Dien Bien Phi quickly became just that.(2:32) At the tactical level the objective just as quickly became survival as the garrison fought for its very existence. In summary, French operational objectives for Operation Castor included covering Laos, establishing a supply point for friendly guerrilla operations, and defeating the Viet Minh in a set-piece battle. There was no clear strategic objective for Operation Castor. The only possible attainable objective was the set-piece battle, and the French did not properly prepare for this eventuality. The Viet Minh objectives, in contrast to the French, were clear, consistent, and certainly attainable. Giap's objective was to destroy the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. (7:54) Furthermore, the Central Committee, to whom Giap reported, fully supported Giap's plans. At the strategic level the Viet Minh were anxious to gain a spectacular military victory which would make the French negotiate on Ho Chi Minh's terms. (5:188) At the operational level Giap realized that the French depended completely on aerial resupply and aerial fire support. Giap had identified the French's critical vulnerability. Therefore, his first priority was the early destruction or neutralization of French air power. (7:104) The Viet Minh were also looking for a set-piece battle, and they were determined not to let the French slip away this time. The second principle of war is the offensive which FM 100-5 defines as siezing, retaining, and exploiting the initiative. (9:Appendix A) Operation Castor started on 20 November 1953 with five French battalions parachuting into Dien Bien Phu. At this point the French had seized the initiative. However, any hopes of remaining on the offensive ended quickly. By early December French troops found it tough going beyond the valley floor. Offensively, actions were soon limited to air support, patrols, and local counterattacks. In reality General Navarre conceded the offensive to the Viet Minh in his estimate of the situation issued on 3 December 1953. In that estimate he correctly forecasted the impending enemy attack. (2:44) General Navarre then appointed a cavalryman, Colonel de Castries, to command the forces at Dien Bien Phu. So, while anticipating a defensive struggle in the valley, General Navarre appointed an expert in offensive mobile operations to command the defense! Colonel de Castries took the offense seriously as evidenced by his biting words to his artillery commander on 5 January 1954, "Shut up! I don't want to hear the name of Na San spoken here. Na San was an entrenched camp. We are an offensive base."(7:106) General Navarre started exploring withdraw plans in January 1954, but a breakout was evaluated as suicidal. (7:112) No significant attempt to break out of Dien Bien Phu was ever made. General Navarre even speculated that the loss of Dien Bien Phu was strategically acceptable as it was not the main effort in the theater. However, he did not take into account the effect of the loss on the morale of the French Army, and he failed to consider the resulting erosion of political support at home for the war. (2:49) By 13 March 1954 the attack on Dien Bein Phu had begun, and the offensive was forever lost to the Viet Minh Giap, on the other hand, was able to dictate the time and place of engagements virtually throughout the operation. This time Giap did not rush in with human wave attacks as the French had hoped. He took time to mass his forces, bring in fire support, secure his own lines of communication, and lay formal siege to the French garrison. The first major assault by the Viet Minh came a full three months into the operation. The French had given Giap the offensive, and he gladly accepted it and used it to his advantage. The next two principles of war are reciprocal. Mass and economy of force will be discussed together. Mass is defined as concentrating combat power at the decisive place and time, and economy of force is defined as allocating minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts. (9:Appendix A) Strategically, the forces squaring off at Dien Bien Phu approached mass from two completely different perspectives. The French simply were not willing to pay the price to field a large force in Indochina. As early as 1950, the French Parliament passed a law restricting the use of draftees to French homeland territories which precluded their use in Indochina. This law alone severely limited the number of troops which could be made available for Indochina duty. Forced to rely on their regular forces, the French gutted their army of regulars and sent them to Indochina where they were augmented with locally recruited troops. (2:ix) The average size of the French Expeditionary Corps in Indochina hovered around 150,000 troops which was insufficient to achieve strategic mass. In contrast, the Viet Minh practiced what amounted to a levee en mass. All men and women were expected to do their part for the war against the French. All available resources were mobilized to support the Viet Minh armed forces. By 1954 the Viet Minh had organized, trained and eguipped six regular divisions in addition to their territorial irregulars. At the operational level the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu numbered about 13,000, or less than 10% of French forces in Indochina. (3:20) These troops were part of 13 battalions. The perimeter of the valley floor at Dien Bien Phu measured approximately 50 miles, and to properly secure that area would reguire about 50 battalions. (2:39) The French intended to use superior firepower and technology to defeat the numerically superior Viet Minh. (3:19) To compound the problem of insufficient forces General Navarre issued Instruction No. 964 on 12 December 1953 in which he detailed Operation Atlante. Operation Atlante was set for south central Vietnam, over 400 miles from Dien Bien Phu. This operation involved twice as many French forces as were being used at Dien Bien Phu. Operation Atlante was executed concurrently with Dien Bien Phu resulting in limited theater reserves for Dien Bien Phu. In fact, General Navarre saw Operation Atlante as his main effort and Dien Bien Phu as an economy of force operation. General Navarre did not believe that Dien Bien Phu would be a decisive operation despite solid intelligence confirming that the Viet Minh were massing there. (2:45) The Viet Minh massed four divisions, totalling more than 50,000 men, at Dien Bien Phu. At the same time Giap tied up French forces and prevented them from responding in strength at Dien Bien Phu by staging diversionary actions around the country. (5:196) Giap was able to successfully concentrate his forces at the decisive time and place while he skillfully employed supporting operations aimed at deceiving the French. French intelligence saw through this plan; however, General Navarre took no action. On the battlefield the French once again were suspect in their concentration of forces. The French spread their forces at Dien Bien Phu in a series of strong points. Over one-third of French forces in the valley were positioned at Isabelle, the southernmost stong point in the valley. This position was seven kilometers from the nearest friendly strong point and could not provide mutual support to the rest of the garrison. (5:195) Because of this wide dispersal of French forces, the Viet Minh were able to concentrate forces to achieve absolute superiority at any one French strong point. (3:65) In addition, the French also lacked a dedicated reserve at Dien Bien Phu. (1:314) This poor situation was further exacerbated by the fact that no full dress rehearsal for a counterattack was ever conducted. At every level of war the French seem to have violated the principle of mass while the Viet Minh did just the opposite. If Dien Bien Phu is viewed as an economy of force action for the French, then what became of the main effort? Operation Atlante, after some initial success, quickly bogged down into a series of Viet Minh ambushes on French convoys. The French eventually terminated Operation Atlante with no tangible gains while Dien Bien Phu was lost. The principle of maneuver is defined as placing the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power. (9:Appendix A) Dien Bien Phu is not a good example of this principle of war. Strategically, the French government maintained loose control of operations in Indochina leaving much to the discretion of the on-scene commander. As already discussed the government had taken steps which limited their flexibility. Once it became clear that Dien Bien Phu was going to be lost without some sort of action, the French did not possess the strategic mobility necessary to influence the outcome. France then turned to America, a country who did possess the flexibility to change the course of events at Dien Bien Phu. America declined to help after some interesting political activities, and the fate of Dien Bien Phu was sealed. The Viet Minh displayed strategic flexibility in their response to the French assault on Dien Bien Phu. Plans to deal with the assault were quickly developed by Giap and approved by Ho's Central Committee. At the operational level the Viet Minh, much to the surprise of French commanders, achieved mobility unprecedented in their past operations. The Viet Minh were able to concentrate their forces in a position which put the French at great disadvantage. First, the Viet Minh surrounded Dien Bien Phu within a month of the original French assault. From then on the Viet Minh were able to dictate the pace of the operation. Viet Minh tactical maneuvers were slow and methodical. Once they initiated the attack on Dien Bien Phu, 54 days passed before the French surrendered. France's operational mobility depended on air assets. The French employed their air to attack Viet Minh lines of communication leading to Dien Bien Phu. Air was to prevent any significant enemy buildup in the area thereby securing the French forces at Dien Bien Phu. French air was completely unsuccessful in preventing an enemy buildup of supplies, heavy artillery, and combat forces. General Navarre could have introduced additional forces into Dien Bien Phu via airborne assault; however, he did not. As a result, France gained no advantage from her superior operational mobility assets. Tactically the French were reduced to counterattacks and airstrikes to achieve mobility. On the ground in the last days of the operation both sides fought from trench positions, but the French were almost totally reduced to staying underground in order to survive. France had hoped to use air and artillery in combination with mobile ground units to crush any Viet Minh attack in the valley. Once the Viet Minh neutralized the French air mobility advantage, the principle of maneuver was forfeited to the Viet Minh, just as they had done with the offensive. Unity of command is the sixth principle of war. It is defined as ensuring unity of effort for every objective under one responsible commander. (9:Appendix A) Major General Rene Cogny, the commander of French forces in North Vietnam, asserted that Dien Bien Phu had become the key battle for all of northern Indochina and thus should have been under a single overall commander. (2:38) From this assertion we can see that the French obviously had problems in this area as with other areas already discussed. In fact the command picture from the battlefield to Paris was very shakey. From the strategic angle, as already mentioned, the government tended to let the generals run the war without providing much assistance in resources or guidance. The government was aware of Navarre's plan to initiate action at Dien Bien Phu. France no longer wanted a military solution to the Indochina problem, and Navarre was not expected to risk his forces unnecessarily. The government dispatched Admiral Cabanies from the Committee of National Defense to personally inform Navarre of the government's opposition to the Dien Bien Phu operation. Admiral Cabanies arrived on 20 November 1953 to inform Navarre of the committee's opinion. As the generals talked the first 5,000 French soldiers were parachuting into Dien Bien Phu. (7:42) General Navarre pressed forward with no clear mandate to do so from his superiors. The situation did not improve for the French at the operational level. There were many officers who expressed opposition to Operation Castor before it even started. The commander of all air transport for the Expeditionary Corps, Colonel Nicot, stated orally and in writing that he could not maintain a permanent flow of supplies to Dien Bien Phu. (7:27) Other officers expressed misgivings to General Navarre, and he listened to all the arguments against the operation including hard intelligence depicting a significant enemy threat. However, General Navarre listened to no one but himself; Operation Castor proceeded as planned. (7:l79) His unwillingness to listen is remarkable considering this was a command he had held less than six months and a command he had not actively sought (his previous assignment was with NATO). This command was his first tour in Indochina! During the course of the Dien Bien Phu operation, General Navarre and General Cogny became embroiled in a vicious personality conflict. Navarre came to believe that Cogny was out to cause his downfall. Navarre's wife in France even got into the act spreading dirt on Cogny. The whole thing exploded on 2 April 1954 when Cogny lashed out at Navarre, "If you weren't a four-star general, I'd slap you across the face."(7:2l5) The impact of this feud upon Dien Bien Phu operations is impossible to tell; however, it certainly did not help the situation. With the government backing off and the generals snapping and brooding, the command picture at the tactical level was bound to be better. Brigadier General Jean Gilles jumped into Dien Bien Phu on day two of the operation, and he became the commander on the ground. General Gilles was an experienced soldier in this type of operation. He was quick to state to General Cogny during Cogny's first visit to the valley, "I'd be pretty happy when you have found a successor for me here. At Na San I spent six months of my life like a rat. Make use of me somewhere where I am going to be in fresh air." (2:19) Cogny and Navarre then agreed to replace Gilles even though Gilles was best suited for the warfare which was to follow. Colonel de Castries was selected to command the garrison at Dien Bien Phu. Even de Castries warned Navarre, "If it's a second Na San that you want, pick somebody else. I don't feel cut out for that." (7:278) Navarre convinced de Castries to accept command under the conception of mobile attacks on the Viet Minh ranging out of Dien Bien Phu. Colonel de Castries proved to be totally unsuited for events as they unfolded at Dien Bien Phu. On 14 March 1954, the second day of the Viet Minh attack, de Castries went into a shell. He could not make decisions and basically ceased to function as the garrison commander. There were rumors of de Castries' impending relief, but he was instead promoted to Brigadier General.!(7.196) Once de Castries lapsed into a state of despair, Lieutenant Colonel Pierre Langlais became the de facto commander of the garrison at Dien Bien Phu. Langlais was an Indochina veteran and a member of the paratroop mafia. He immediately set out reorganizing and simplifying the chain of command at Dien Bien Phu. He installed many of his paratroop cronies to command vital subsectors of the valley. Later, in defending this action, Langlais stated, "Any of the brass hats in Hanoi or Saigon could have flown up and parachuted in if they were unhappy with his pre-emption of de Castries, or if they had a better idea themselves."(3:67) While the French struggled with Navarre in Saigon and Cogny in Hanoi and a lieutenant colonel on the ground at Dien Bien Phu, Giap moved his headquarters to Dien Bien Phu so that he could personally oversee the operation. Ho joined him there. The Viet Minh did not experience problems with unity of command at Dien Bien Phu. The principles of security and surprise compliment each other just as do mass and economy of force. Security is defined as never permitting the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage, and surprise is defined as striking the enemy at a time or place, or in a manner, for which he is unprepared. (9:Appendix A) The French were lacking in both of these areas at Dien Bien Phu. Only three days after the start of Operation Castor French newpapers ran headlines of the parachute assault, quoting General Cogny as saying, "This is not a raid as at Long Son, but the beginning of an offensive."(7:55) The Viet Minh never publicized their operations (especially while they were ongoing). Some of the biggest blunders made by the French at Dien Bien Phu can be traced to surprise. Strategically, there was little involvement with this principle with the possible exception of the French government being caught off guard by their own general's actions. Operationally, the French were repeatedly surprised. The capital error at Dien Bien Phu was the underestimation of the enemy's capabilities.(1:318) General Navarre refused to believe many things about his enemy. Navarre rejected the notion that the Viet Minh could dominate his men with artillery deployed on the hills above Dien Bien Phu. He failed to anticipate that Giap's howitzers would close the air strip at Dien Bien Phu making resupply difficult and evacuation of the wounded and withdrawal of troops impossible. Navarre's map reconnaissance did not reveal a valley floor with thick underbrush and deep mud during the spring monsoons which would negate armored sweeps. (5:194) There were other surprises in store for the French. Not only were they surprised to be outnumbered and outgunned by the enemy artillery, but they were also shocked by their inability to destroy enemy artillery. (3:50) General Navarre appears to have signed up for a number of the prevailing myths about the Viet Minh which were doctrine to some French soldiers. Common knowledge things such as, the Viet Minh never attacked when they found themselves equally matched or faced with serious difficulty, and they had no artillery and if they did, then they did not know how to use it, were widely accepted as fact in the French Army. (7:104) Navarre, as the commander of all French forces, should have been the last one to take the enemy so lightly. In spite of his good intelligence, General Navarre was taken completely by surprise when the Viet Minh fielded four divisions with heavy supporting artillery around the valley soon after the French landed. The Viet Minh were not surprised beyond the initial assault except perhaps by the French remaining in the valley. This was a pleasant surprise for the Viet Minh because they were hoping that the French would do just that. Tactically, the French could not gain much from security or surprise as the Viet Minh could readily observe French moves along the valley floor. The rugged terrain surrounding Dien Bien Phu offered sanctuary to the Viet Minh from observation and fires by the French. The last principle of war is simplicity which is defined as preparing clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding. (9:Appendix A) In no case is it desirable to introduce confusion and misunderstanding into military plans and orders. By this point it should be clear that the French could not possibly have developed a clear, concise order for operations at Dien Bien Phu at any level of command. Instead, complex and long directives were issued emphasizing the offensive nature of the operation. In the face of intelligence reports on 3 December 1953 showing four enemy divisions closing on Dien Bien Phu, General Navarre issued instructions in which he stated that the French would accept battle and that Dien Bien Phu must be held at all costs. (7:66) This stunned his staff and his government. Up until this point General Navarre had indicated no preference for a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu. Navarre appears to have been anything but clear and concise on his intention from the outset of Operation Castor. On the ground the name of the game for the French became survival. Breakout plans were developed, but there was no significant attempt to implement them. There was some speculation about launching a relief column from nearby Laos, but that did not save the defenders either. French hopes for a massive American air strike to lift the siege were dashed when America declined unilateral action to save the French. Lieutenant Colonel Langlais designed tactics to maintain the integrity of the defensive perimeter and no more. To his credit the French held out for 54 days in the face of overwhelming Viet Minh superiority. In contrast, the Viet Minh issued clear, short orders aimed at wiping out the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. General Giap had the advantage of issuing orders and carrying them out himself as he was on the scene. Confusion or misunderstanding could be cleared up immediately. There are many reasons for the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Beginning with the lack of a clearly defined objective for the operation, the French heaped mistake upon miscalculation to create a disaster. The French conceded so much to the enemy in terms of the initiative, the high ground, and concentration of forces; yet, they still expected to smash the enemy! A fighter does not handicap himself by tying one arm behind his back or allowing his foe free swings. The French were too ready to sacrifice sound principles in order to entice the Viet Minh into a general engagement. The French chain of command was infested with various problems; however, nothing was done to correct this throughout the operation. Finally, the French were caught by complete surprise in several areas, and they could not adjust and recover from any of these surprises. Even with all the obstacles faced by the French at Dien Bien Phu, might the French have prevailed? Only those who believe that a massive American air strike would have turned the tide against the Viet Minh support a French victory scenario. The French may have avoided defeat by recognizing the folly of undertaking Operation Castor and calling the whole thing off before they launched it. Once they did commit forces to this operation, the French effort was highlighted by operational and strategic blundering which staunch bravery by the fighting men could not overcome. BIBLIOGRAPHY l. Fall, Bernard B. Street Without Joy. 3rd ed. Harrisburg: The Telegraph Press, 1963. 2. Fall, Bernard B. Hell in a Very Small Place. 1st ed.- New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1967. 3. Goulding, Vincent J., Jr., Major, USMC. Dien Bien Phu. Quantico: Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 1985. 4. J'Etais Medelin A Dien-Bien-Phu. Doctor At Dien Bien Phu. Tr. James Oliver. New York: The John Day Company, 1955. 5. Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: The Viking Press, 1983. 6. Long, William F. Jr., Colonel, USA. "The Specter of Dien Bien Phu." Military Review, (l0 October 1966), 35-39. 7. Roy, Jules. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu. New York: Carrol & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1963. 8. U.S. Army. Department of the Army, Washington, DC. FM 100-5 Operations. Fort Monroe, 1986.