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Royal Lao Armed Forces (FAR)
Lao Armed Forces (FAL)
Lao National Army (ANL)

In 1949, the French government granted Laos greater autonomy within the French Union, which included the right to form a nominally independant army. This force became known as the Lao National Army (Armee Nationale Laotienne or ANL). With the end of the First Indochinese War, Laos was no longer under the French Union but an entirely sovereign nation. The country was divided into 5 military regions. The chain of command of the ANL was placed under the Ministry of Defense in Vientiane.

To meet the threat represented by communist insurgents, referred to as the Pathet Lao, the ANL depended on a small French military training mission, headed by a general officer, an exceptional arrangement permitted under the Geneva agreement. Military organization and tactical training as a result reflected French traditions. Most of the equipment was of United States origin, however, because early in the First Indochina War, the United States had been supplying the French with war matériel ranging from guns to aircraft. A small United States legation in Vientiane kept Washington informed about the status of the ANL. There was real concern that Laotians were not maintaining their equipment properly and that much of it was becoming useless under the tropical sun and rain. The question also arose of who was to pay the salaries of the ANL as France was no longer responsible for Laos's finances.

It seemed evident to the legation that only United States personnel in Laos could ensure that the ANL was capable of meeting the threat posed by the Pathet Lao, who were backed by North Vietnam. To get around the prohibition against foreign military personnel imposed by the 1954 Geneva agreement, which the United States had pledged to honor, the Department of Defense in December 1955 established a disguised military mission in Laos called the Programs Evaluation Office (PEO). The PEO worked under the cover of the civilian aid mission and was staffed by military personnel and headed by a general officer who wore civilian clothes.

Over the 1955-61 period, the PEO gradually supplanted the French military mission in providing equipment and training to the ANL, which became first the Lao Armed Forces (Forces Armee Laotienne or FAL) in 1959, and then transformed into the Royal Lao Armed Forces (Forces Armee Royales or FAR) in 1961. Within the Lao military, the term FAL continued to be used even after the official name change in 1961. Use of English and French terms and acronyms, as well as different French terms, often creates confusion between the FAR as a whole, and the Royal Lao Army (Armee Royales Laos or ARL; also known by the English acronym RLA). With increasing numbers of Laotian officers receiving training in Thailand and at staff schools in the United States, there was a perception that the French military mission in Laos was a relic of colonialism. By 1959 the PEO had more than 100 members on its staff, and the United States was paying the entire cost of the Royal Lao Army's salaries.

The prohibition against joining any military alliance prevented Laos from joining the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), formed by Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States in September 1954. However, a protocol to the treaty designated Laos as a country to which its mutual security provisions would apply in the event it became the victim of aggression. When fighting broke out along Laos's border with North Vietnam in July-September 1959 following the collapse of efforts to integrate two battalions of Pathet Lao into the FAR, the Royal Lao Government (RLG) wanted to appeal to SEATO for help.

The RLG was dissuaded from doing so by the United States, which felt that such an appeal risked involving United States troops in combat in Laos. The nature of the fighting--by guerrillas belonging to ethnic tribes that lived on both sides of the border--made the question of aggression ambiguous. Similarly, in January 1961, when the RLG proposed appealing to SEATO to counter North Vietnam's intervention on behalf of the Pathet Lao and Kong Le, it was discouraged from doing so by the United States.

Kong Le's coup d'état on August 9, 1960, threatened to split the army between Kong Le's Lao Neutralist Revolutionary Organization--known as the Neutralists, whose troops' unofficial name was the Neutralists Armed Forces--and the rest of the army under General Phoumi Nosavan, the former minister of defense. PEO headquarters in Vientiane became inactive because United States diplomats were instructed to find a way to isolate the rebellious paratrooper. Finally, aid was cut off. Meanwhile, the PEO branch office in Savannakhét, Phoumi's headquarters, continued to supply and pay Phoumi's troops. After Phoumi captured Vientiane, the Neutralists were compelled, for their survival, to enter into an alliance with the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese backers, on whom they thereafter depended for supplies.

As of mid-May 1969, exclusive of those transiting to South Vietnam or taking temporary respite in Laos near the South Vietnam border, there were over 48,000 confirmed North Vietnamese soldiers in Laos. Over half were combat troops. Lao communist forces totaled over 50,000. Confirmed enemy strength was just under 99,000, not including some 6000 Communist Chinese engineer troops building a road that extended from the Yunnan border over 50 miles into North Laos. Also not included were an estimated 500-800 Communist Chinese tactical troops operating around Muong Sing in Northwest Laos close to the Chinese border. Although government forces totalled just over 100,000, they were no match for the North Vietnamese who had long had the capability to seize almost any target in Laos that they wished.

In 1970 the ground combat elements of the FAR, but far the largest component, were organized into fifty-eight infantry battalions and one artillery regiment of four battalions. The largest tactical unit was the battalion, which was composed of a headquarters, a headquarters company, and three rifle companies. Royal Lao Army units were devoted primarily to static defense and were stationed near population centers, lines of communication, depots, and airfields. These units were complemented by military police and armored, engineer, and communications units.

Between 1962 and 1971, the United States provided Laos with an estimated US$500 million in military assistance, not including the cost of equipping and training irregular and paramilitary forces. During the 1971-75 period, it added about seventy-five T-28 light-strike or training aircraft, about twenty C-47s in both transport and gunship configurations, fewer than ten H-34 helicopters, and some small U-1 and U-17 aircraft.

The cease-fire of February 22, 1973, ended United States bombing and temporarily halted ground offensives. The Pathet Lao, however, following their usual practice, used the cessation of military operations to resupply their forces over the long and exposed roads from North Vietnam. In further fighting in the spring of 1975, the Pathet Lao finally broke the resistance of Vang Pao's Hmong blocking the road junction linking Vientiane, Louangphrabang, and the Plain of Jars. Under the watch of two battalions of Pathet Lao troops, which had been flown into Vientiane and Louangphrabang on Soviet and Chinese planes for neutralizing those towns under the cease-fire agreement, the communists organized demonstrations to support their political and military demands, leading to the final, bloodless seizure of power in the towns that the RLG had held up to then.

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Page last modified: 08-06-2012 14:42:45 ZULU