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Vietnamese People's Air Force History

The Geneva Agreements of July 1954 formally ended the first Indochina war, but led to a Vietnam divided into a communist north and a noncommunist south, with the United States committed to ensuring that the latter had the political and military strength to defend itself. The United States encountered intractable difficulties in establishing a viable new nation in a South Vietnam wracked by chronic social, political, and military instability and poor leadership, all aggravated by an incipient Viet Cong insurgency within its borders.

Despite prohibitions in the Geneva Agreemen, North Vietnam began forming an air force in 1955, when it was revealed that Vietnamese pilots, technicians, and paratroopers were training in China. During the same year an 'Air Studies Bureau' was created within PAV. By 1956 it was believed that a few Vietnamese were serving in the Chinese Air Force. In 1957 PAVN began a comprehensive modernization plan. The High Command controlled PAVN's new naval and air force directorates. With additional pilot training provided by the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, PAVN had 250 men serving in air support functions by 1958. By 1962 the Army had some 300,000 men and the Militia Units at least 100,000. There was no separate airforce or navy, but the army figures included a group of about 750 aviation specialists and a naval section composed of approximately 2,000 officers and men.

Many in Washington feared possible intervention by communist China or the Soviet Union, the main military suppliers of the north, if the war was extended to North Vietnam proper. It was a fear not shared by Air Force and Navy leaders, who believed that the conflict could be won only by vigorously striking the north and who were confident that the risk of intervention by the two large communist powers was minimal. An attack on a US Navy patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, resulted in the first air strike on the north, and the enactment by the US Congress of a “Tonkin Gulf Resolution” empowering the US President to take whatever action he deemed necessary to prevent further communist aggression in Southeast Asia.

After removing Nikita Khrushchev from power on October 14, 1964, Kosygin and the new chief of the Communist Party, Leonid I. Brezhnev, appeared ready to reverse the policy of relative inaction in Southeast Asia. On 17 November 1964, the Soviet Politburo decided to send increased support to North Vietnam. This aid included aircraft, radar, artillery, air defense systems, small arms, ammunition, food and medical supplies. They also sent Soviet military personnel to North Vietnam-the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Vietnam (DRVN).

The American air war against North Vietnam followed an eleven-year American effort to induce communist North Vietnam to sign a peace treaty without openly attacking its territory. Thus, Rolling Thunder was a new military program in what had been a relatively low-key attempt by the United States to “win” the war within South Vietnam against insurgent communist Viet Cong forces, aided and abetted by the north. The Flaming Dart strikes were carried out against North Vietnam in February 1965 as the precursors to a regular, albeit limited, Rolling Thunder air program launched the following month.

MiG pilots faired poorly in December 1972 -- by the end of OPERATION LINEBACKER II, USAF B-52s and tactical aircraft hit targets at will, forcing the North Vietnamese to sign a peace treaty. Although the actual B-52 loss total is still disputed by both SAC and the DRV, SAC’s losses were “significant”. SAC later used total sortie numbers to make its losses appear lower, saying that its claim of 15 bombers lost (as noted, there were several figures SAC provided over the course of time for its losses) should be taken in context with the total of 700+ sorties, meaning there was a “2%” loss rate. If the total number of bombers available were 150-200, the loss rate becomes more “significant”, showing that upwards of 10-15% of the available force was lost.

The USAF launched more B-52s strikes than the North Vietnamese or Soviets detected. The USAF reported 800 to 1000 North Vietnamese missile launches, while the North Vietnamese and Soviets claim to have expended 266 missiles. The North Vietnamese reported downing more B-52s and other aircraft than they actually did, but how many the USAF lost is still a question since the USAF figures are also suspect. If a USAF plane is badly damaged, but manages to land, it is not always carried as a loss, even if it is too shot up ever to fly again. Nonetheless, the goals of the raids were achieved – a quick response and return to the negotiation tables before a hostile American Congress could convene in January, followed by agreements, release of the POW “hostages” by the DRVN, and a general cease fire.

At the end of the Southeast Asia War in 1973, the VPAF had lost nearly 150 MiGs in combat to USAF fighter crews, while the USAF lost about 70 aircraft (of all types) to MiGs. Opposing sides at war will seldom agree on the numbers.

Captain Nguyen Tanh Trung, an F-5 pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force, was allegedly a Communist sympathizer. On 08 April 1975 he flew his plane to Communist territory, and later led a flight of captured A-37s in bombing Tan Son Nhut Airbase. On 28 April 1975, two days before the South's capitulation, two former South Vietnamese A-37s captured at Plciku were used to bomb Tan Son Nhut Airbase. After the capitulation of Saigon Trung became Deputy Commander of the 935 Wing, composed entirely of captured aircraft with equipment of US origin.

Following the Second Indochina War, the PAVN inherited the massive South Vietnamese Air Force. By the end of 1975 ex­South Vietnamese C-130A transports were flying regular shuttles between Saigon, Hanoi, and Vientiane. One year after the war the PAVN Air Force was already being used against Vietnam's next opponent: Cambodia. A particularly devastating bombing attack was conducted on Siem Reap on 25 February 1976, when a MiG-21 staging out of Pakse bombed the Cambodian town in reta liation for Khmer Rouge border attacks. By 1977 Vietnamese retaliatory strikes into Cambodia had become commonplace. Heavy use was made of ex-US equipment, including A-37s, OV-1 Os, A-ls, and UH- 1 gunships. During the same year PAVN MiG-21 s were used in airstrikes against Laotian anti-Communist guerrillas in the Phou Bia massif.

Throughout the first half of 1978 Vietnamese A-37s and F-5s made repeated strikes into Cambodia. To bolster the airpower available for Cambodian operations, the PAVN began rcdeploying MiGs from the north to southern bases at Chu Lai, Bien Hoa,and Can Tho. In addition Hanoi received an additional 20 MiG-21 fighters in late Novcmber after it signed a Treaty of friendship and Co-operation with the Soviet Union.

During November 1978 PAVN ground operations in Cambodia quickly escalated, and Vietnamese air operations were similarly increased. This included helicopter gunship strikes and the use of C-130As for pallet-bombing near Stung Treng. In December MiG-2ls, A-37s, and F-5s were on hand to soften up key targets, including Kompong Som and Kompong Cham. In January 1979 PAVN air strikes in Cambodia reached a peak, with all major cities, including Phnom Penh, being bombed. In battles such as that for Kompong Som air power proved to be the key to PAVN success.

PAVN airlift operations took on major significance in February 1979 when transports, including C-l30As, were used to rush several divisions of troops from Cambodia to Hanoi during the brief war with China. Apart from the use of transports, however, no airstrikes were conducted during the China war. In March Vietnamese and Soviet transports were used to haul PAVN troops from north-eastern to western Cambodia to participate in a major clearing operation.

By the time Beijing undertook its "self-defense counterattack" into the territory of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) on 17 February 1979, there were serious doubts about the combat readiness and effectiveness of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Because of the presence of MiG-21s in the air force of the SRV (in addition to the Northrop F-5Es in service with the smaller air forces of the Southeast Asian region), much interest was generated about the roles and missions of the air combat units of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and how effective they might be against modern aircraft in any engagements in that area.

Most of the Chinese Communist aircraft that penetrated SRV airspace were MiG-17s (F-5s) and MiG-19s (F-6s). During the conflict there were approximately 5500 aircraft sorties with 660 penetrations of the northern Vietnam border to provide at least the semblance of air cover at major combat sites. Chinese Communist ground control apparently ordered the air units of the PLAAF not to engage any enemy aircraft (generally the technologically sophisticated MiG-21s of the air force of the SRV) or attack ground positions which were defended by tough SAM defense systems supporting the Vietnamese army.

The activities of the PLAAF in the Chinese Communist "punitive" war against the SRV were largely cosmetic. They provided the Chinese Communist military authorities the opportunity to photograph the Chinese-built MiG-21 in flight and release photographs of the air-to-air Atoll missile apparently featured on some aircraft in the war zone. Against the modern aircraft of the SRV, the air units of the PLAAF were thought to be largely ineffective.

Over the next decade PAVN air operations were focused primarily in Cambodia. In February 1982 PAVN even began experimenting in the use of An-26 transports outfitted for intelligence-gathering; during that month one such aircraft crash-landed on the Thai-Cambodian border. An analysis of its sophisticated electronics revealed chat it was being used to monitor Cambodian guerrillas and Thai troop movements.

The PAVN learnined the lessons the United States had learned two decades before, finding that its jet fighter-bombers were ill-suited for counter-insurgency operations; more promising was its helicopter gunship fleet. In early 198l Hanoi sent nine of its new Mi-8 gunships to Tan Son hut Airbase for possible use in Cambodia. In April of that year, however, PAVN opted to use its Mi-8 helicopters in the gunship role, attacking resistance forces near the Tonle Sap Lake. During the same operation PAVN also used An-26s for pallet-bombing.

By 1985 it is suspected that PAVN's entire fleet of former South Vietnamesc aircraft was grounded because of spare parts shortages and maintenance problems. The C-130As, many of which had been grounded even before 1975 because of chronic structural failures in the wings, had left the inventory long before. A handful of F-5 fighters made a final public appearance during April 1985 celebrations commemorating the fall of South Vietnam, then were quietly retired. Unlike Iran, which was still flying American aircraft decades after the fall of the Shah, Vietnam quickly lost the use of its American inheritance.



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Page last modified: 16-09-2014 19:44:07 ZULU