Military


North Vietnamese Army NVA

The fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 signaled the end of French rule in Indochina, the establishment of the North Vietnamese Army as a recognized professional fighting force in Asia.

Col Harry Summers, USA, argued in his classic book On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context (Carlisle Barracks, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, 1981) that the arrival of North Vietnamese troops in the south in 1964 changed the complexion of the Vietnam War to a conventional struggle. Others argue otherwise. Only 7,500 North Vietnamese army (NVA) troops were in South Vietnam by July 1965 ("Memorandum, McNamara to the President," 3 November 1965, National Security Files, Country File: Vietnam, Folder 2EE, Box 75, Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, Texas). The main enemy in the south from 1964 to the 1968 Tet offensive was the Vietcong, totaling roughly 245,000 men in a 300,000-man enemy force five months before Tet (the remaining 55,000 troops were NVA) ("Meeting with Foreign Policy Advisors on Vietnam," 18 August 1967, Meeting Notes File, Box 1, Johnson Presidential Library).

North Vietnamese manpower reserves were adequate to meet current demands, and Hanoi could support a military mobilization effort higher than 1968 levels. North Vietnam's force level of 480,000 represented only about 3 percent of the population. More than half its male population of 2.8 million between the ages of 17 and 35 was believed to be fit for military service. But Hanoi apparently satisfied its military force level requirements at the present time simply by drafting all or almost all of the estimated 120,000 physically fit men who reached the draft age every year.

The border battles of 1967 led to a reassessment of strategy in Hanoi. Undeviating in their long-term aim of unification, the leaders of North Vietnam recognized that their strategy of military confrontation had failed to stop the American military buildup in the South or to reduce U.S. military pressure on the North. The enemy's regular and main force units had failed to inflict a salient military defeat on American forces. Although the North Vietnamese Army maintained the tactical initiative, Westmoreland had kept its units at bay and in some areas, like Binh Dinh Province, diminished their influence on the contest for control of the rural population. Many Communist military leaders perceived the war to be a stalemate and thought that continuing on their present course would bring diminishing returns, especially if their local forces were drastically weakened.

The Tet offensive marked a unique stage in the evolution of North Vietnam's People's War. Hanoi's solution to the stalemate in the South was the product of several factors. North Vietnam's large unit war was unequal to the task of defeating American combat units. South Vietnam was becoming politically and militarily stronger, while the Viet Cong's grip over the rural population eroded. Hanoi's leaders suspected that the United States, frustrated by the slow pace of progress, might intensify its military operations against the North. (Indeed, Westmoreland had broached plans for an invasion of the North when he appealed for additional forces in 1967.) The Tet offensive was a brilliant stroke of strategy by Hanoi, designed to change the arena of war from the battlefield to the negotiating table, and from a strategy of military confrontation to one of talking and fighting.

Communist plans called for violent, widespread, simultaneous military actions in rural and urban areas throughout the South - a general offensive. But as always, military action was subordinate to a larger political goal. By focusing attacks on South Vietnamese units and facilities, Hanoi sought to undermine the morale and will of Saigon's forces. Through a collapse of military resistance, the North Vietnamese hoped to subvert public confidence in the government's ability to provide security, triggering a crescendo of popular protest to halt the fighting and force a political accommodation. In short, they aimed at a general uprising, or "People's War," which in turn would lead to the disintegration of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and Saigon government.

On January 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese launched an attack on the city of Hue. This city was a significant objective of the North Vietnamese because at its heart was the citadel - the center of Vietnamese culture and site of the old Imperial capital - the ancient symbol of authority. Capturing Hue would send a message indicating the North's political goals. The attack coincided with the Chinese lunar New Year referred to as Tet. The desired end state of the North Vietnamese was a collapse of the ARVN, an urban revolt that would force negotiations aimed at the United States' withdrawal and Communist unification of Vietnam. The Tet Offensive in early 1968 changed the course of the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese Army, well-trained and well-equipped, was defeated on the battlefield in every encounter, but the shock to Americans at home solidified anti-war sentiment. There was no "light at the end of the tunnel".

During 1966, the North Vietnamese Army suffered approximately 93,000 killed. An estimated 35 percent of this figure comprises men who died of wounds or were permanently disabled as a result of combat actions. In 1967, the casualty figure climbed to over 145,000. During 1966 and 1967, the enemy had a total of 238,000 personnel losses. At the end of 1967, his duty strength was estimated between 210,000 and 235,000. Comparison of losses to present-for duty strength at the beginning of 1968 indicated a personnel problem of staggering proportions. It seemed obvious that continuation of the old war-of-attrition strategy could not possibly lead to success.

In March 1972 the North Vietnamese launched a major "armor-tipped blitzkrieg"-- the Easter Offensive -- across the 17th parallel. Hundreds of medium tanks and armored personnel carriers poured across the DMZ, supported by heavy artillery, rockets, and modern mobile antiaircraft weapons, including some surface-to-air missiles -- all supplied by the Soviet Union. Gen Vo Nguyen Giap attacked South Vietnam with two hundred thousand regular North Vietnamese troops. At that time, there were no major US ground-combat forces in South Vietnam; the last major unit withdrew in January 1972. American advisors and logistical support were still in South Vietnam, but major US ground-combat forces were gone. Giap thought the situation ripe for a strategic offensive.

To summarize the Easter Offensive campaign: In April the communists advanced; in May, as a result of Linebacker, an equilibrium was reached; by June the ARVN counterattacked; and, in July, Paris peace negotiations resumed. Unfortunately - for Giap and half his attack force - American airpower was still in the theater. Land- and carrier-based airpower slaughtered Giap's formations. Buttressed by this support, the South Vietnamese army fought hard. The decisive use of sea and air power in combination with operations by ARVN ground forces successfully halted the NVA's Easter Offensive. In the end, Giap lost half his force-one hundred thousand men. After 10 weeks, the offensive petered out.

The final campaign was conceived by the North Vietnamese in October 1973. Their plan was based upon two critical assessments: that the strength of the South Vietnamese forces was declining, and that the United States lacked the will to intervene. They were correct on both counts. In the spring of 1975, Giap launched another "final" offensive with a total of one hundred thousand troops (half the 1972 number). The North Vietnamese offensive began in the aftermath of a vote in the US Congress to cut off supplemental funding to the Government of South Vietnam. This was combined with a massive refurbishment of the North Vietnamese Army, with the assistance of China and the Soviet Union, that allowed the offensive to kick off at a time when the South Vietnamese were attempting to reorganize their positions in order to adapt to the reality that they were going to get markedly less funding in terms of vital supplies such as ammunition and parts for their American-made weapon systems, as well as medical supplies.

The plan was to seize the centrai highlands and establish bases close to the major South Vietnamese cities in 1975 and, from these bases, crush the Saigon regime in 1976. However, the completeness of their initial victories caused them to decide in iate March 1975 to move directly on to Saigon.

On 4 March 1975, the Communist People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) launched the final campaign of its 30-year war. This time the South Vietnamese army collapsed. Giap captured Saigon in six weeks. The war ended as Americans watched Saigon's evacuation on television. Giap's two offensives, occurring three years apart, produced radically different results. Why the huge difference between 1972 and 1975? Was the North Vietnamese army substantially better in 1975 (despite being half its 1972 size)? Was the South Vietnamese army substantially worse in 1975?

The role of American airpower constitutes the more likely difference. During the 1972 offensive, allied land- and carrier-based pilots flew 50,000 fixed-wing strike sorties against Giap's forces. Their attacks were clearly decisive. However, US air strikes played no role in the 1975 offensive. By 1975 America had withdrawn from the war.



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