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Cambodia Air Force - History

The Royal Cambodian Air Force was established, with French support, on 01 April 1954, shortly after Kampuchea gained independence on 9 November 1953. Royal Khmer Aviation received aid from various sources and thus its composition was somewhat varied. Prior to the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk in 1970 the Khmer Air Force (KAF) was aptly described as the Phnom Penh Royal Flying Club. It possessed a few Mig fighters and a varied assortment of other aircraft of all types and origins. Maintenance support of this aerial museum was a best haphazard.

The mission of the air force was primarily the air defense of the country, but it was also responsible for providing air transport and tactical support to the army. The air force also had the additional responsibility of participating in civic action and providing a pool of pilots for civil aviation.

The pilots were drawn from the extensive branches of the royal family, the lesser nobility, and the∑ wealthier families. Command of the air force was a political plum and was rewarded based upon personal loyalty. Inefficiency was tolerated, both because the air force lacked a real mission, and because an efficient air force could pose a threat to the palace.

In late 1967 the Royal Cambodian Air Force, with around 2,000 men, was one of the smallest in Southeast Asia. It had about 100 aircraft, which included several jet fighters and light bombers. Designed primarily to support the ground forces, it was used mostly to provide aerial resupply, paradrops and the transport of personnel. The operational elements formed a composite squadron, although they were organizationally divided into separate operational and technical groups. Aircraft in operational units in 1967 included MIG-17 jet fighters, A-1 Skyraider light bombers (French) and T-28 Trojan ground attack aircraft. There were also a number of jet trainers, 12 C-47 transports and other miscellaneous transports, including several helicopters.

The air force had its main storage and issue point at Phnom Penh, which handled virtually all aircraft maintenance and had four well-equipped hangars where most of this work could be performed. Most of the maintenance, excluding major overhauls that were performed outside of the country, was supervised by French advisory personnel.

In 1970 Lon Nol announced that "democracy was no longer appropriate for Cambodia" and began shortly after the coup to rule by decree. His brother Lon Non "employed assassination, bribery and slander to eliminate almost all capable leaders from the government." Though Lon Nol held elections in 1972, the vote was rigged [after a Cambodian Air Force pilot stole a plane and bombed Lon Nolís residence in 1973, Lon Nol responded by suspending civil rights].

Following the Lon Nol coup of 18 March 1970, the Khmer Air Force, unlike its sister services, was not called upon to play a decisive role in the unfolding battle for contrl of Cambodia. Air power, when and where needed, was provided by the US Air Force. The KAF underwent some expansion, particularly in the development of a basic inventory of common type aircraft, its overall development as a self sufficient military organization was not fully addressed. From the US mission viewpoint, time and cost factors were prohibitive. US airpower was more than adequate. In addition, the new Khmer government, like the old, viewed airpower as a potential direct threat to the head of state and treated any proposed reorganization of KAF and its comrnand structure accordingly. KAF, to a greater degree than either of her sister services, thus consistently suffered from inept leadership.

By 1970 a fighter force of MiG-15s and MiG-17s was established in two squadrons and this was supplemented by a ground-attack force of 20 Douglas A-1D Skyraiders and the same number of North American T-28Ds. A total transport force of about 25 aircraft consisted of a dozen C-47s together with Flamants, An-2s, Beavers and Il-14s. The backbone of the helicopter fleet was ten Alouette-ls.

The goals and objectives of US economlc and military assistance programs in Cambodia were related to the mllltary effort in Indochina. In 1969 consideration was given by the US government to granting $3.5 million to get the Khmer Air Force about 190 TĖ28s. In 1970 the Unlted States agreed to provide emergency support. In formulating the 1970 Military Assistance Program, the US Secretaryof Defense issued guidellies for developing a crash program wlthin authorized dollar limits. For the Cambodian Air Force, only T-28 aircraft would be supported [and naval support would be limitedtosmall patrol craft].

The Communist's first rocket attack on Phnom Penh was spectacular, destroying on January 23, 1971, almost all of the T-28 fighter aircraft the US had supplied the fledgling Khmer air force. In December 1971, US Army Vietnam [USARV] received 51 Free World Military Force personnel for training as crewmembers for UH-1 gunships. A mobile training assistane team was provided from Fort Rucker. In March 1972, 60 Khmer Air Force enlisted personnel received two weeks of UH-1 maintenance and doorgunner training taught by Cambodian interpreters under supervision of French speaking US instructors. Other smaller groups received similar training in flight and maintenance skills.

In February 1972 KAF consisted of 72 aircraft, only 19 having firepower capabilities. It possessed one squadron of prop driven fighter-bomnbers, one squadron of jet power transport helicopters on loan from MACV resources, and assorted transport aircraft. Total personnel, including trainees, numbered only 3,853 men to support a headquarters, one operating base, and some forward operating detachments at civilian airports. Less than 100 active pilots were filling operational assignments.

Heavy maintenance was accomplished out of country, restricting the number of sorties available for combat missions. Qualified maintenance personnel were few and had been educated by the former French Military mission. They did not possess the required proficiency level in English necessary to learn the maintenance procedures for the US aircraft then coming into the KAF inventory. In addition, neither adequate maintenance facilities ncr a functioning supply system existed.

The original premise in the equipping of the Khmer Air Force was to provide it with the simplest, easiest to fly and maintain aircraft that could accomplish its missions of close air support for ground and naval forces and limited air transport. Accordingly, the T-28 was furnished as the basic fighter-bomber, the C-47 and AC-47 as the basic cargo aircraft and fixed wing gunship, and the 0-1 as the FAC aircraft. Transport helicopters were included in the inventory with helicopter gunships arriving in March 1973. Because of their availability, other aircraft were added from time to time. A squadron of AU-24's were added when they were declared excess to U.S. needs during the phasedovn of the US Vietnam involvement.

In mid-1973, while pulling American combat forces out of Vietnam, US authorities launched their final strategy in Southeast Asia ó hold the line in Laos and Cambodia until Army of the Republic of Vietnam forces, using massive amounts of US-provided military hardware, could defeat the North Vietnamese Army in the South. This strategy depended on the Khmer Republic not losing to communist forces, an outcome requiring timely US assistance.

In July 1973 the Congress terminated US air combat operations over Cambodia as of 15 August 1973. KAF expansion and development as an effective force prior 15 August 1973 was hampered. Reasons were the reliance on US close air support thus making a truly efficient KAF unnecessar; a shortage of skilled pilots and trained support personnel; lack of adequat airfields; a lack of effective leadership which was exacerbated by frequent changes in key personnel and KAF failure to organize itself. Training programs were established in the Khmer Republic, Thailand, and the US to train pilots and other personnel. An airfield construction program was launched to upgrade the airfields at Pochentong, Battambang, and Ream. The C-123 aircraft was introduced to increase the airlift capability and to add the ability to conduct airdrops as well.

It was evident however that KAF was still a very poor substitute for US combat air support. Steps were taken at several levels to improve KAF's capabilities. The assumption of command of KAF by BG Ea Chhong in November 1973 saw the varying efforts at improvement of KAF begin to bear fruit and created a fertile ground for further improvement. The sortie rates of T-28 aircraft, in particular, increased markedly. There was much greater cooperation and coordination between air/ground and naval forces. This can be attributed to the improvement in leadership brought by the new commander.

The Khmer Republicís army fought hard, but lacked weapons and supplies. They also lacked air support and it became clear to anyone with experience in Southeast Asia that holding off the Khmer Rouge would take more than artillery-backed infantry employing conventional fire-and-maneuver tactics. The Khmer Republicís army needed aggressive air support: air interdiction to degrade enemy logistics, close air support to help defeat Khmer Rouge in contact, and air mobility to give Khmer Republic surface forces an edge in logistics and battlefield maneuver.

The Pentagonís Defense Security Assistance Agency proposed rebuilding the KAF. An Air Force assessment team entered Cambodia in October 1973 to determine the KAFís ability to absorb greatly accelerated deliveries of US defense articles and services. Their findings and recommendations, titled the Tactical Air Improvement Plan (TAIP): Cambodia, were favorably reviewed by President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. They decided to initiate a security assistance surge operation early in 1974.

As of February 1974
T-28B/D 63
O-IA/D 35
C-47 13
AC-47 11
C-123 8
UH-lH 34
UH-lH(G) 10
Personnel 9,684
pilots 298
The KAF received one squadron of AT-28 attack aircraft, one squadron of C-123 transports, one squadron of AC-47 gunships, one squadron of O-1D forward air control aircraft, and one squadron of AU-24 Helio Stallion light armed utility short takeoff and land aircraft. The surge included all support items and services including training, fuel, munitions, aircraft spare parts, and the complete refurbishment of a squadron of UH-1H helicopters.

KAF combat aircrews successfully employed their newly acquired aircraft with great effect throughout the range of assigned airpower tasks and missions. But air support for FANK units remained limited. Although the Cambodian Air Force nearly doubled its strike sortie rate between July and September 1974, total air support - with the cessation of US operations - had been cut by about 80 percent. Moreover, mechanisms for coordinating air and ground operations had only recently been established, and were not yet fully operational. Target validation remained cumbersome, and the effective use of forward air controllers in the air as well as forward air guides on the ground remained limited.

As late as 1975 there was still a pro-government army, a fairly efficient navy, and a fledgling air force fighting on the side of Long Nol. In addition to the military, a group of hard working, well-educated Cambodians who understood the danger of a Khmer Rouge take-over, remained in Phnom Penh. A civilian administration remained in place - perhaps not always efficient - but it was there. By April 1975 the air force's steady losses were being reflected in amuch reduced level of tactical sorties and in declining morale. In the face of a highly motivated and determined foe, Cambodia fell to communist forces in the spring of 1975. While overall US strategy in the region did not succeed, the TAIP helped stave off defeat and preserved the Khmer Republic for a number of months ó months it would not have had without a security assistance surge operation.

The Air Force then almost ceased to exist with many aircraft having fled to Thailand. After Khmer Rouge forces captured the US ship 'Mayaguez', US retaliatory action by the US Navy as many as 17 T-28s were destroyed, thereby neutralising the Khmer air power in August 1975. China supported the Khmer forces and supplied some 16 Shenyang F-6 day fighters in 1977, but only six were uncrated at Kompong Chnang, 50 miles north-east of the capital. Their use was believed to have been extremely limited. Fierce border clashes with neighbouring Vietnam culminated in the invasion of Kampuchea in January 1979. Guerrilla resistance continurf against the Vietnamese, but the Khmer Air Force ceased to exist by February 1979. Types known to have been in the former Cambodian Air Force included AC-47 Gunships, C-123 and C-47 transports, Cessna O-ls, Bell UH-lHs and T-28D attack/trainers.

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Page last modified: 02-06-2012 17:25:23 ZULU