Alert the Fifth Force: Counterinsurgency, Unconventional Warfare, and Psychological Operations of the United States Air Force in Special Air Warfare

  • Published

Alert the Fifth Force: Counterinsurgency, Unconventional Warfare, and Psychological Operations of the United States Air Force in Special Air Warfare by Monro MacCloskey. Richards Rosen Press, 1969, 190 pp. 

If the Air Force’s first and only leader of its short-lived psychological warfare command saw the world as it stood today, what do you think he would say? Although this tome sometimes feels confused as to its overall purpose, it provides insightful, experienced, and highly relevant observations for modern-day unconventional warfare, information operations, and strategic competition practitioners. 

A product of its time, Alert the Fifth Force zigs and zags from a political analysis of the communist modus operandi to the role of nuclear deterrence in a grand strategy to the storied history of US Air Force (USAF) special air warfare in World War II and the Vietnam War. Despite the seemingly scattered strategy, each chapter succinctly captures an element deemed crucial by author Brigadier General Monro MacCloskey, USAF, retired, to understanding how American airpower could be brought to bear as a solution to the ever-growing communist threat—at that time, presumed to be threatening rapid expansion around the world.

MacCloskey writes with several backgrounds that gave significant credibility to the book. At the time of writing, the author was serving as the executive director of the Air Force Historical Foundation. Before that, however, he performed numerous combat missions in World War II as an Army Air Corps aviator supporting unconventional warfare, psychological operations, and other special activities, culminating in him taking command of the Air Force’s first and only attempt to establish a command dedicated to psychological warfare—the innocuously named Air Resupply and Communications Service (ARCS).

The ARCS would go on as a foundational piece of today’s Air Force Special Operations Command. It should be no surprise, then, that the thoughts of MacCloskey as communicated in this book could be summed up thusly: given the inability of nuclear supremacy or conventional arms to put an end to guerilla warfare, the capabilities provided by special operations such as counterinsurgency operations, unconventional warfare, and psychological operations will be the key to victory in Vietnam and the war against communism. 

The book opens by focusing on the foundational problems posed by communism and insurgency. MacCloskey draws an intense focus on the inner workings of communism operations, including their methods of expansion, growth, and sustainment before instigating revolution. After breaking down how the adversary operates, the author then surveys the then-required topic to touch upon—the role of nuclear deterrence. MacCloskey concludes that while the American nuclear force’s primary focus should only ever be that of unqualified nuclear deterrence, conventional assets such as Strategic Air Command’s B-52 fleet can still support unconventional warfare operations through the significant psychological impact their operations can have.

The second portion of the book delves into a survey of unconventional warfare historical case studies, the inner workings of the Viet Cong, and wrestles with what it means to achieve strategic superiority in guerilla warfare. Conventional events retold through the lens of unconventional warfare include the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the “Russian Revolution of March.” Further case studies examined are the communist uprisings in Greece following World War II; former Philippines President Ramon Magsaysay’s strategies and policies to combat the rise of communist forces within his country, the Philippines; and the British lessons learned in combating the communists in Malaya.

Finally, the book pivots to applying these lessons to a deeper history of the Viet Cong within Vietnam, including their origins under French colonial rule. It is around halfway through the book when MacCloskey first begins to introduce such topics as the Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Air Force special air operations, and indigenously trained counterguerrilla forces and their various roles in combating a guerilla uprising.

Finally, MacCloskey rounds out the book by exploring the history of special air operations from World War II, the postwar period, and Vietnam and applying their lessons learned to the future of the current conflict. This section includes a significant emphasis on understanding the insurgency problem as a whole-of-society problem as opposed to a strictly military one. For this reason, MacCloskey argues, that special air power brings significant but often overlooked capabilities to bear, such as the impact of civil-military operations, the ability to engage and win in psychological warfare, and, perhaps its most well-known military application, the ability to perform low-level strikes and maneuvering. 

Despite its strong conclusion, there is a significant limitation of this work in that it becomes immediately clear that this is the work of a practitioner and not that of a political scientist. In that regard, a reader may find this piece to be wanting for more foundation in political economy or sociology regarding the origins and operations of communism as a whole of societal issue. Further, the book has a conspicuous lack of citations and references, a curious omission for a professional historian. This weakness further cements that this book is more the thoughts of a practitioner on a matter relevant to his personal expertise and not a rigorous scientific study.

In conclusion, MacCloskey’s Alert the Fifth Force finds most of its value in being the personal thoughts of an extremely unique practitioner of the past. Modern-day information operations, psychological operations, and special operations forces (SOF) officers would do well to parse through this book and others like it for relevant lessons from the past to serve as inspiration for the future. Although this book will not be revolutionary nor will it substitute an academic history of the war, it provides useful insight from a military perspective. As the role of SOF in strategic competition is revisited, understanding their applications through the lens of a significant member of history has value in and of itself.

Captain Robert Stelmack, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."