The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


Airlift's Role At Dien Bien Phu And Khe Sanh
AUTHOR Major Ryan F. Ferrell, Jr., USAF
CSC 1991
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.
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
    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
    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
    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.
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.

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias