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Vietnamese People's Army (Ground Forces)

Of all the military branches withing the PAVN, the army is the dominant service. Its status as the dominant branch is reflective of the historical and political role it played throughout Vietnam's successful efforts to gain independence from France, unite the country under communism and protect its national sovereignty against China.

The Vietnamese army consists of military regions, Army corps, combined arms and armed units such as artillery, sapper, signal, chemical, armor, and special forces attached to the Ministry of National Defense. The military regions are organized according to strategic direction and incorporate regular troops directly under the military regions as well as units of provincial and district local forces within the military regions.

In 1950 the PAVN had only three Infantry Divisions– the 304th, 308th, and 320th. In May 1951 Chinese advisors equipped the 316th, 320th, and 325th Infantry Divisions– these were the six "Steel and Iron" divisions. By the end of 1952, the PAVN had three more Infantry Divisions.

In 1987, a PAVN infantry division was normally composed of 3 infantry regiments (2,500 men each), 1 artillery regiment, 1 tank battalion, and the usual support elements. A regiment in turn was divided into battalions (600 men each) and the battalion into companies (200 men each).

As of mid-1986, the thirty-eight PAVN regular infantry divisions were assigned thus: nineteen in Cambodia, sixteen in Vietnam (ten in northern Vietnam, six in central and southern Vietnam), and three in Laos. Most of the thirteen economic construction divisions were in the China border region. A construction division was made up of older soldiers, including many who had fought in the South during the Second Indochina War. Each construction division was fully armed, had a specific tactical purpose, and continued to carry out its military training in addition to economic tasks, usually road building. These units carried the burden of the brief 1979 war with China and generally acquitted themselves well.

In 1987 PAVN's major combat services--artillery, armor, air defense, and special operations--were organized along standard lines, similar to armies elsewhere. Each consisted of a force whose commanding officer reported to the Military General Staff Directorate. A mystique surrounded the PAVN Special Operations Force, successor to the legendary Sapper Combat Arm of the First and Second Indochina Wars that specialized in sabotage and clandestine military operations. In 1987, the Special Operations Force consisted of two elements, the Sapper Command and the Airborne Command (the 305th Airborne Brigade). Reportedly there was a third element, an amphibious commando unit, about which little was known.

As of 2006, the PAVN army consisted of 61 Infantry Divisions, of which only three are Mechanized Infantry Divisions. These divisions vary in size from about 5,000 to 12,500 troops depending on the specific location and combat readiness, with an average size of about 9,000 troops. All-in-all, these divisions add up to about 420,000 regular troops supported by 10 Independent Armored Brigades and 10 Independent Artillery Brigades. An Artillery Brigade is defined by the PAVN as a unit that uses 12.7mm heavy machine guns and medium mortars. Additional support is provided in the form of 15 Independent Infantry Divisions, 8 Engineer Divisions, and 15 Economic Labour Divisions. The Vietnamese special forces are composed of 5 regiments trained in sapper operations which include airborne and amphibious operations. In addition to these troops are paramilitary and militia reserve forces.

Although some of the infantry battalions are equiped with BTR-series armored personnel carriers (APCs) and some Class-A divisions have trucks for transportation, the majority of them, about 75%, are still on foot. The Class-A divisions also have artillery and air defenses as well as an armored battalion. The mechanized formations have armour, recce, air defense, artillery and BMP-1 IFV.

Efforts to modernize the infantry divisions tend to focus on mobility, attempting to increasing the amount of motorized transportation, however, these moves are hindered by financial struggles.

Following the Soviet system of combat readiness, the PAVN ground forces have three levels depending on the type of division. The mechanized division, the six "Steel and Iron" divisions, as wells Hanoi's strategic reserve, the elite 308th division, are all maintained at level A, with the best available equipment, regular training, and the highest manning levels. About 50-60% of the divisions are maintained at level B, denoting reduced manpower and limited mobility, but able to be brought up to full strength with the addition of reserves, however, the quality would vary from division to division. THe rest of the divisions are maintained at level C, which tend to be small divisions of around 5,000 troops that performs "economic development" functions such as agricultural and infrastructural work. These level C divisions could offer very little aside from static defense in a conflict.

The army headquarters is in Hanoi which oversees the eight regional commands, each of which is responsible for various divisions depending on threat levels. Overall, there are fourteen army bases, mostly concentrated in the southern region of Vietnam, which are as follows: Bien Hoa, Binh Thuy, Cam Ranh Bay, Can Tho, Da Nang, Dien Bien Phu, Haiphong, Hue, Khe Sanh, Kontum, Lang Son, Pleiku, and Quang Tri.

Although the army has a relative lack of equipment and resources, the soldiers remain highly trained as a result of their senior commanders' experience as junior officers in the Vietnam War, the '79 border dispute with China, and the Cambodian war which lasted for a decade ending in the late '80s. This highly experienced leadership is expected to wane over the coming years as a result of a lack of direct threats. In addition, a shortage of funds will be detremental to the army's overall strength as they become increasingly dependent on military technology.

The basic tactical doctrine of the Vietnamese army is based on a Soviet structure, reflecting a shift from the pre-1970's guerilla style operations to a position of territorial defense. This shift was necessary to accomodate the changes in war, as was successfully demonstrated in the border dispute with China in 1979.

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