Airlift's Role At Dien Bien Phu And Khe Sanh AUTHOR Major Ryan F. Ferrell, Jr., USAF CSC 1991 SUBJECT AREA - Aviation EXECUTIVE SUMMARY TITLE: AIRLIFT'S ROLE AT DIEN BIEN PHU AND KHE SANH I. Purpose: To provide a historical analysis of airlift resupply operations in support of U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh and French forces at Dien Bien Phu. II. Thesis: The ability of U.S. airlift to keep the besieged U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh resupplied played a major role in preventing Khe Sanh from being a repeat of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. III. Data: Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu appeared to very similar situations in that both were remote outposts besieged by a numerically superior Communist force. Both faced an enemy forces commanded by General Giap, and both outposts depended totally on airlift for resupplies. However, there were some major differences and one of them was that unlike the French, the U.S. military had the airlift capability to keep its outpost adequately supplied throughout the siege. The French had planned for operations at Dien Bien Phu to be short and decisive. Their operation called for establishing a remote base, dependent on airlift for resupplies, from which they would draw the Communist into a major battle. Unlike the French, the U.S. did not initially intend for Khe Sanh to be the scene of a major battle. On the first day of the siege of Dien Bien Phu, the French lost control of their runway and had to have all of their supplies airdropped. The French Air Force was not prepared for such an undertaking. The French garrison needed approximately 150 tons of supplies daily; but the French Air Force, lacking the assets, crews, and ability required for such an operation, only delivered an average of 100 tons per day. Of the 100 tons delivered, as much as forty percent would fall into the hands of the enemy force. At Khe Sanh, U.S. Air Force transport aircraft and U.S. Marine helicopters, were able to sustain a 21 day stockpile of supplies throughout the siege. An average of 117 to 123 tons were delivered daily. U.S. airlift force faced many of the same problems as the French aircrews, but the U.S. had the air assets and technology to overcome their problems. IV. Conclusions: A study of Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu show that airlift was a deciding factor in the success of Khe Sanh and the defeat of Dien Bien Phu. The French leadership chose to ignore the warnings of the French air commanders, and as a result lacked the assets to carry out the mission. The U.S. military never experienced a lacK of transports and was able to use technology and superior airpower to overcome many of the problems which degraded the French resupply operation. AIRLIFT'S ROLE AT DIEN BIEN PHUAND KH.E SANH OUTLINE THESIS: The ability of U.S. airlift to resupply the besieged U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh played a major role in preventing a repeat of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. INTRODUCTION: In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson became obsessed with the concern that the U.S. Marine base camp at Khe Sanh was going to be overrun by the Communists just as the French were at Dien Bien Phu some 14 years early. While there were many similarities between the besieged Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu, there were also some differences that enabled the U.S. to be successful at Khe Sanh while the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. One of major differences was that U.S. forces possessed the airlift capability to keep Khe Sanh resupplied throughout the siege. I. Background A. Strategic reasons for Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh B. Geography of Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh C. Ground forces in Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh II. Logistical Support Requirements A. Logistical requirements of the U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh and of French forces at Dien Bien Phu B. Air assets available to resupply Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu III. Resupply Operations A. Number of sorties flown and tonnage of supplies delivered to Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh B. Effects of weather and enemy gunfire on resupply operations at Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu IV. Conclusion A. Outcome of the sieges at Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh B. Lessons learned from the sieges. Airlift's Role at Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh In January of 1968, many Americans feared that the U.S. Marine base camp in Khe Sanh, South Vietnam was about to experience a repeat of the Communist victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu. Just as the French were surrounded by a numerically superior Communist force, the 6,000 U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese Rangers at Khe Sanh found themselves surrounded by 40,000 North Vietnamese regulars. There were more similarities between Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh which made the situation at Khe Sanh all the more haunting. Both Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu were remote outposts that could be shelled by direct observation, would have to be resupplied by airlift, were manned by elite troops, and were attacked by Communist troops commanded by General Vo Nguyen Giab. No American seemed more concerned with the similarities between Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu than President Lyndon Johnson. His concerns over Khe Sanh became almost an obsession. He had a sand-table model of Khe Sanh and the surrounding area constructed in the basement situation room of the White House and would study the model at all hours of the day and night. His fear was so great that he had the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) give him a written guarantee that Khe Sanh would not fall. President Johnson told General Earl Wheeler, then Chairman of the JCS, "I don't want any damn Dinbinphoo."(5:540-541) Khe Sanh was not to become anotner Dien Bien Phu for several reasons, one of which was the ability of the U.S. to keep the base camp resupplied by air through out the entire siege. U.S. military planners never intended for Khe Sanh to be totally dependent on airlift for its survival , but for the 77 days it was under siege, airlift was Khe Sanh's lifeline. The French, on the other hand, planned from the very beginning for Dien Bien Phu to be totally dependent on air transports for supplies. The French planned on being able to land their transports on the runway at Dien Bien Phu. No one on the French planning staff imagined all of the supplies to the defenders at Dien Bien Phu would have to be airdropped because the runway was unuseable. The logistical requirements of tne French at Dien Bien Phu were almost equal to those of the U.S. force at Khe Sanh. However, the French Air Force possessed fewer airlift assets to carry out their resupply operations; and they lacked tne ability to overcome the problems caused by bad weather and enemy gunfire. (5:538-543) Just as the role of airlift at Khe Sanh was significantly different at the onset from that of Dien Bien Phu, so were the initial reasons for establishing the two bases. Built in 1962, Khe Sanh was originally a Special Forces camp used to recruit and train local mountain tribesmen. It was located near highway 9, approximately 18 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and 8 miles east of the Laotian border in Quang Tri Province. Because of its location along tne DMZ and the Laotian border, Khe Sanh developed into a strategic operations center for reconnaissance flights over the Ho Chi Minh Trail and for clandestine operations in Laos. Khe Sanh's operations were further expanded as it became a base for cutting off the infiltration of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) into South Vietnam. Late in 1967, U.S. intelligence concluded that the North Vietnamese were going to lay siege to Khe Sanh and try to repeat their victory of 14 years earlier at Dien Bien Phu. This situation made Khe Sanh both a symbol of America's determination to win the war and an opportunity for the U.S. military to use all of its awesome firepower on a concentrated enemy. Whereas Khe Sanh evolved into a rare opportunity for the U.S. military to fight the North Vietnamese in a large massed force, the Frencn had selected Dien Bien Phu for the very purpose of luring the enemy, the Viet Minh (VM) into a large battle. French military plans called for establishing an airhead in the VM's rear area, and French leadership selected Dien Bien Phu as the site to conduct such an operation. Dien Bien Phu was a small village in a remote valley located 140 miles from Hanoi and 80 miles south of China. The valley, 10 miles long and 4 miles wide, is surrounded by hills which rise between 1,400 and 1,800 feet. In the valley was the remains of an airfield built by the Japanese. This airfield became the center of the French's basecamp. From the basecamp, operations were conducted to protect Laos and to tempt the VM into attacking a strongly held position. The French had experienced previous successes with this tactic of luring the VM into concentrating its forces and then destroying the VM in a set-piece battle of attrition. The operation at Dien Bien Phu was named Operation Castor and began on 20 November 1953 when three battalions of French paratroopers were dropped on the old Japanese airfield. The airfield was quickly secured, and the transports immediately began flying in the forces that were to be involved with Operation Castor. By March 1954, the French force was at 10,133 men. Unknown to the French, General Giap had moved a fignting force of 70,000 and a support force of 60,000 into the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu. On 13 March 1954, the VM began their attack on the French garrison. By that afternoon, Viet Minh artillery had succeeded in destroying two C-47 aircraft on the ground, and airfield personnel began broadcasting over the airwaves a "QGO" message. This message is the international code for "Interdiction to Land at Airport." This represented the first time Dien Bien Phu was completely cut off from the outside world. It also demonstrated that the very premise upon which Operation Castor was based upon - the availability of uninterrupted airlift for resupply - was flawed. Unlike the French at Dien Bien Phu who had depended on airlift from the very beginning of their operation, the Marines at Khe Sanh were mainly supplied by trucks traveling Route 9 from bases at Dong Ha and Quantri. This source of supplies came to an end on 21 January 1968, when the North Vietnamese succeeded in closing Route 9 and completed their encirclement of Khe Sanh. This was the beginning of the siege of Khe Sanh. It was also the beginning of airlift resupply operations when six C-123 aircraft were diverted into Khe Sanh to deliver 26 tons of ammunition. During the siege, the five battalions at Khe Sanh required approximately 185 short tons of supplies per day. This requirement represented all classes of supplies which presented problems for the airlift planners. Also, the requirements changed each month to reflect the progress of the siege. An example of this was fortification material (class IV supplies). In the beginning of the siege, 25 percent of the supplies delivered was fortification material. By the end of the siege this percent had decreased to 13 percent. A 21-day supply level of food, ammunition and medicine was maintained at a reserve at Khe Sanh in case airlift operations were interrupted The defenders at Dien Bien Phu never had the luxury of a 21-day supply. French planners had estimated the operation would take a couple of weeks to conduct. Their plans called for an approach and reconnaissance phase lasting six to ten days. This phase in reality lasted almost 100 days. The attack phase of the operation was planned to last "several" days: instead, it lasted 56 days and nights. The initial plan called for daily deliveries of 100 tons of supplies by air tranports to the airfield at Dien Bien Phu. Once siege of Dien Bien Phu began, the additional reinforcements and the intense fighting increased the daily amount of supplies required by the defenders to approximately 150 tons.(3:317) Aircrews were only able to air drop an average of 100 tons per day to the French garrison.(5:42) In the initial planning of Dien Bien Phu, General Jean Dechaux of the French Air Force had warned the planners of Operation Castor that supplying Dien Bien Phu would put a serious strain on their air transports. Colonel Jean Louis Nicot, the commander of the air transports tasked to resupply Dien Bien Phu, went so far as to put it in writing that his transport aircraft would be unable to maintain a permanent flow of supplies to the base. An agreement was reached between Colonel de Castries, the commander of the forces at Dien Bien Phu, and General Jean Dechaux on resupplying the base. The general agreed to deliver 100 tons of supplies per day if the army would guarantee that the air strip at the base would be maintained in perfect condition and protected from direct enemy artillery. Also, the army had to guarantee full control of the area surrounding Dien Bien Phu that the transports would have to fly over in order to make air drops, take-offs, and landings. (8:95) This agreement was to be shortlived. After the first day of the major battle, 14 March 1954, the Frencn army lost control of a position that dominated take-offs from the air strip and allowed direct fire on the air strip. As a result, it became too dangerous for transports to land, and air drops became the only method of resuppling the base. No one in the French military dreamed that the base would have to be resupplied totally by air drop for 56 days. This necessity would overwhelm the already strained French Air Force. (3:90) U.S. military forces were better prepared in terms of planes and aircrews than were their French counterparts. At the beginning of the siege, there were 6 C-7A squadrons with 81 aircraft, 4 C-123 squadrons with 58 aircraft and 3 C-130 squadrons with 72 transports. The number of C-130's available increased to 96 aircraft by March. If the situation dictated, 21 UC-123 aircraft could have been reconverted from their herbicide spraying mission back to a transport mission. In addition to these fixed-wing aircraft were Marine helicopters of the Marine Air Group (MAG)-36 and the MAG-16. These two MAG's flew CH-53, CH-46, UH-1E and UH-34 helicopters. No records were kept on the total amount of supplies carried by helicopters to Khe Sanh during the siege, but records do show that in the month of February, 465 tons of supplies were transported to Khe Sanh by helicopter. During the siege the Marine helicopters were quite active and played an important role. They provided the only means of supplying the hill outposts which protected the main base from the most dangerous enemy avenues of approach. These hill outposts were vital in the defense of Khe Sanh. The helicopters also offered the only reliable means of casualty evacuation and troop replacement. The ample number of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft available to resupply the defenders at Khe Sanh ensured timely and adequate support. Unlike the U.S. Air Force, the French Air Force never had enough aircraft or aircrews to support their mission. On the first day of the operation they only had 70 C-47 transports to make the initial drop of paratroops into Dien Bien Phu. This number was further reduced when only 65 crews could be put together to fly the missions.(3:2) This shortage of aircraft forced the French to turn to civilian companies to provide extra aircrews and airplanes needed to support the besieged garrison. The civilian aircrews had a wealth of experience in these kinds of operations. Civil Air Transport, a Tiawan-based company with American aircrews, was particularly important because it had the only crews capable of flying the C-119 aircraft.(3:241) The C-119 and C-47 were the two kinds of fixed-wing transports used in resupplying Dien Bien Phu. Helicopters were used for tne evacuation of sick and wounded. After the surrender of Dien Bien Phu, helicopters would be used to rescue French soldiers who had escaped from the Viet Minh.(1:301) During the siege of Khe Sanh, both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft were used to evacuate casualties and other personnel. C-123's and C-130's would evacuate over 300 wounded along with over 1200 other Marines during the siege. This represented only a small part of the overall airlift operation. Between 21 January and 8 April 1968, 8,120 tons of supplies were airdropped to the garrison in over 600 sorties flown by C-123 and C-130 aircraft. C-130's landed 273 times at Khe Sanh during the siege. C-123's landed 179 times, and C-7's landed eight times. Together these three different types of aircraft landed 4,310 tons of cargo and 2,676 passengers.(5:58) Marine helicopters stayed busy during this same period by flying 9,109 sorties in support of the besieged Marine garrison. As a result of these sorties 4,661 tons of supplies and 14,562 passengers were transported to Khe Sanh and its outposts.(9:89) The airdrop operation to support the defenders of Dien Bien Phu was just as impressive as Khe Sanh when one considers that the amount of cargo parachuted into Dien Bien Phu was a great deal more than any garrison under siege received in World War II. A total of 6,700 missions were flown by the transports during the siege. Estimates of the cargo airdropped range from 6,410 to 6,900 tons, and daily figures averaged from 117 tons to 123 tons with a one day high of 229 tons. However, of these daily figures, the actual amount of received useable supplies averaged 100 tons per day. A total of 4,291 reinforcements were airdropped into the base during the siege. They were usually dropped in small numbers because the size of the drop zone kept shrinking as the siege continued. The last airdrop of reinforcements, 91 paratroopers, was made the night prior to the surrender of the garrison.(3:451-459) No paratroopers were airdropped into Khe Sanh. All reinforcements were either airlanded by airplane or brought in by helicopters. The North Vietnamese artillery and small arms made unloading an aircraft at Khe Sanh a risky proposition. The transports used a speed offloading technique to minimize the time required on the ground. This technique involved sliding the cargo, which was on pallets, down a pair of metal runners which were fitted to the ramp of the airplane. By using this technique the airplane did not have to stop moving while on the ground. Unloading a transport with forklifts would take between 5 and 10 minutes. By using the speed offloading technique, the airplane could complete tne unloading of the cargo in as little time as 30 seconds. Airlanding cargo was much preferred over airdropping cargo as the method of delivering resupplies, but bad weather and enemy gun fire prevented the landing of enough transports to adequately supply the defenders at Khe Sanh. The U.S. military had to turn to airdrops as the primary method of resupplying the base.(5:44-46) Airdrops to Khe Sanh began on 25 January and accounted for two-thirds of the total tonnage of cargo received by the besieged Marines. The airdrop operations overall were very successful, but there were some problems. The location of the drop zone prevented nighttime airdrops and heavy equipment airdrops. Bad weather during the siege caused many airdrop missions to be delayed or cancelled. Some airdrops were delayed because there was not a sufficient amount of ground-handling equipment at Khe Sanh. This equipment was needed to clear the airdropped cargo off the drop zone. These problems plus the threat of enemy artillery sometimes limited the effective time for air drop operations to two and a half hours.(9:79) One method used to overcome some of these problems was an instrument airdrop technique with which the aircrew did not have to see the drop zone in order to airdrop their cargo. This method used the ground-control led approach unit at Khe Sanh to direct the aircraft to a specific point on the airfield. When over the field, the aircrew would use its own onboard equipment to fly to the release point. Without having to rely on ground references, aircrews could airdrop cargo in bad weather. Because the drop zone at Khe Sanh was too small for heavy equipment drops, low altitude parachute extraction system (LAPES) and the ground proximity extraction system (GPES) were used. These methods did not require as large a drop zone as heavy equipment, and allowed aircrews to deliver every type of cargo that would have otherwise been airlanded.(12:85) While fixed-wing aircraft were making airdrops, Marine helicopters were busy delivering supplies and reinforcements to Khe Sanh and its surrounding outposts. While helicopters faced the same problems as the other transports, the small size of the drop zone did not limit their operations. However, they were more vulnerable to the enemy ground fire, especially when flying to the outposts. To overcome this problem, the Marines developed a system for providing escort aircraft for the slow helicopters. This system was called "Super Gaggle." Transport helicopters were escorted by helicopter gunships and A-4 attack aircraft while on their missions. The "Super Gaggle" proved effective in allowing the helicopters to do their mission with minimum loss.(9:84-85) While the aircrews making airdrops to Dien Bien Phu faced many of the same problems the American aircrews faced at Khe Sanh, the aircrews resupplying the French had a few problems unique to their situation. The enemy's antiaircraft fire was so heavy around Dien Bien Phu that aircrews were forced to make most of the resupply drops at night. The defenders on the ground also needed the darkness of night to allow them a chance to retrieve the airdropped cargo. The only navigational aids on the base were a radio homing beacon and a very high frequency direction finder (VDF) set. Neither system was of much help to the aircrews in regards to the identification of the drop zone. Lights on the drop zone were next to useless because the aircrews were not able to tell the difference between gunfire and the lights. Confusion sometimes existed between the American aircrews and the French inside Dien Bien Phu. None of the American aircrews spoke French, and few of the French liaison personnel spoke English. This lack of communication between the American aircrews and the French defenders added to the difficulty in making airdrops into Dien Bien Phu.(2:66) As the siege of Dien Bien Phu continued, the size of the drop zone became smaller and smaller. The shrinking drop zone resulted from successful VM attacks which caused the perimeter of the French's garrison to be brought in tighter and tighter. As the drop zone became smaller, the more difficult it became for the C-47's to accurately deliver their cargo. By the end of March, C-47's were flying as slowly as possible, and still crossed over the drop zone in just two seconds. This extremely short time over the prop zone meant the aircraft would have to go back over the drop zone twenty times in order to drop one full load. In effect, aircraft had to spend twenty minutes flying in heavy flak over the drop zone instead of only one minute. The extra time in the heavy flak caused the airplanes to make their drops from higher altitudes. From higher, altitudes the airdrops were less accurate and resulted in large amounts of cargo failing into Viet Minh hands.(2:67) By the end of the siege, as much as forty percent of the airdropped supplies were either destroyed on landing or fell into the hands of the enemy. (3:361) Lacking supplies and reinforcements, the French ended their 56 day siege by surrendering to the Viet Minh on 8 May, 1954.(8:287) Khe Sanh's siege was officially broken on 15 April, 1968, when the U.S. military in South Vietnam announced that Route 9 to Khe Sanh was reopened.(7:252) Airlift resupply operations played a major role in defeat of the Frencn at Dien Bien Phu and the victory of the U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh. From a comparison of the two airlift operations, several differences stand out as to why one was a success and the other a failure. The French leadership chose to ignore the warnings and advice of the air commanders concerning the French military's ability to resupply the forward base. The advice of the American air commanders was heeded by U.S. military leadership. The warnings of the French air commanders proved correct in that the French Air Force never had the assets to adequately resupply Dien Bien Phu, while the U.S. never experienced a shortage of transports to resupply Khe Sanh nor did the American defenders ever run short of supplies. Weather and the geographical location of both Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh casued problems for both operations, but the U.S. had the technology to overcome these problems. The French military significantly underestimated the amount and ability of enemy's firepower. This firepower caused the French to completely change their plans for resupplying Dien Bien Phu and prevented much of the airdropped suppies from ever reaching the French defenders. The U.S. used its technology and massive amount of air assets to overcome the North Vietnamese artillery. Hopefully by studying these two airlift operations, military leaders will learn how to successfully apply the use of airlift. BIBLIOGRAPHY 1. A Translation From the French: Lessons of the War in Indochina, Volume 2. Trans. V.J. Croizat. Santa Monica CA: RANDY Corporation, May 1967. 2. Backlund, Donald R. "Stalingrad and Dien Bien Phu: Two Cases of Failure in Strategic Resupply," Aerospace Historian, Summer-Fall, 1970. pp 60-68. 3. Fall, Bernard B. Hell In a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1967. 4. Fowler, Will. "Airborne Operations in French Indo-China," Airborne Operations. London: Salmander Books Ltd, 1978. pp 170-177. 5. Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam A History. New York: The Viking Press, 1983. 6. Nalty, Bernard C. Air Power and The Fight for Khe Sanh. Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History United States Air Force, 1973. 7. Pisor, Robert. The End of the Line. New York.: W.W. Norton & Co., 1968. 8. Roy, Jules. The Battle of DienBienPhu. New York: Harper & Row Publisners, Inc., 1963. 9. Shored Moyers S., II. The Battle for Khe Sanh, Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, Wasnington D.C. 1969. 10. Spearing, Pamela S. "Khe Sanh and the Logistics of Siege," Air Force Journal of Logistics, Summer 1989: 32-35. 11. "TAC: The Difference Between Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu?," Armed Forces Journal, September 1971, p 36. 12. Watts, Claudius E., III. "Aerial Resupply for Khe Sanh," Military Review, December 1972: 79-88.
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