Sensors, interpreters, analysts: operating the ‘electronic barrier’ during the Vietnam War

David Young

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This article examines a widely cited case study in histories of remote, computer-mediated warfare: the US Air Force’s ‘electronic barrier’, a system designed to detect and destroy communist truck convoys entering South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. Existing scholarship on the programme has foregrounded the technological novelty of the system, in particular its use of sensors, unmanned aircraft, and the computer centre from which the programme was remotely managed. This article seeks to provide an alternative perspective on the barrier by asking how human operators remained as fixtures in the system. To do so, I focus on ‘embodiment’ and ‘tacit knowledge’ through an analysis of the practices of photograph interpretation and data analysis which persisted despite efforts to successively computerise the barrier. Drawing on internal reports and memoranda gathered following extensive archival research, I show how these practices were required in an effort to manage critical, systemic problems of ambiguity and inaccuracy that could not be resolved by the computer. The effect was a constant drive for expansion in data and bombs, and the construction of a blunt and extraordinarily aggressive instrument which was instrumental in facilitating the unprecedented scale of the bombing campaign waged by the US Air Force on eastern Laos.
Original languageEnglish
JournalDigital War
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jul 2021

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