Air University Review, July-August 1983

Operation Ranch Hand:
Herbicides In Southeast Asia

 

It has been more than twelve years since the last Ranch Hand, herbicide mission in Southeast Asia. Although the controversy still continues perhaps enough time has passed for a retrospective evaluation of this operation. The widespread use of herbicides in Southeast Asia was a unique military operation, but examining the decisions that led to the initiation, expansion and eventual termination of Operation Ranch Hand may provide insights about the larger war of which it was a part. Its history may also be useful pattern for anticipating the course of events that the introduction of some other uncoventional tool of war in a future conflict may follow.

The term Operation Ranch Hand was the military code name for the spraying of herbicides from U.S. Air Force aircraft in Southeast Asia from 1962 through 1971. 1 The term itself had no particular signficance and was one of a number of similar code names such as Farm gate and Barn Door, which denoted specific activities early in the Vietnam War. The aircraft employed were Fairchild C-123s, and medium transports with twin piston engines that were later supplemented by two jet engines for added thrust. The Ranch Hand detachment began with six planes, dropped to two, and peaked at about 25 in 1969. It had several organizational homes over the years, but it was known during the height of its activities between 1966 and 1970 as the 12th Air Command Squadron and 12th Special Operations Squadron. In terms of personnel and aircraft, one can see that Ranch Hand was relatively minor part of Air Force operation in Southeast Asia. More