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Vietnam's Military Personnel

Vietnams active-duty military consists of a 412,000-member army, a 42,000-member navy, a 30,000-member air and air defense force, and a 40,000-member paramilitary border defense corps. Vietnam also had a 4-million to 5-million-member paramilitary reserve force, consisting of the Peoples Self-Defense Force and the rural Peoples Militia.

In 1983 Vietnam had between 1 to 1.2 million military personnel on active duty, excluding reserves and paramilitary which may account for an additional 1.5 million.47 This represents the fourth largest standing armed force in the world and shows an increase of about 35 percent over the 650,000 men under arms in North Vietnam in 1975, after the fall of Saigon. This rapid expansion of the armed forces occurred at a time of great deprivation in Vietnam, and demonstrated Politburo resoluteness in unhesitantly placing "guns before butter," no matter what the cost, to ensure national security.

The military was estimated in 1987 to total over 5 million: army, 1.2 million; navy, 15,000; air force, 20,000; Regional Force, 500,000; Militia-Self Defense Force, 1.2 million; Armed Youth Assault Force, 1,500,000; and Tactical Rear Force, 500,000. By another estimate, in 1987, when the VPA reached its peak strength of 1.26 million regulars, only the Soviet Union, China, the United States and India had larger regular standing armies. To this number must be added two and a half million reserves, a Border Defence Force of 60,000 and various paramilitary groups totaling another one and a half million.

In 1986, Vietnam embarked on a domestic program of renovation or doi moi. The changes ushered in by this process had a profound impact on the Vietnamese economy and, to a lesser extent, the political system. Less well known are policy changes adopted at the same time which led Vietnam to withdraw its military forces from Laos and Cambodia and, most significantly, to reduce the size of its standing army by demobilizing 600,000 personnel.

Maintaining morale in the VPA over the years frequently amounted to little more than turgid exhortations on the need for greater effort, harder work, and unswerving loyalty to the party. Terms of service for active duty and reserve personnel frequently has meant serving for the duration of the conflict without recourse except for death or disability, under conditions ranging from the austere to the abominable. By the 1980s, however, a number of measures have been undertaken by the VPA leadership as it goes about gradually transforming a guerrilla army to a modern armed force.

A new SRV Military Service Law, promulgated in 1982, was the first completely new draft law in the nation in 25 years. The new law reportedly was designed to eliminate past weaknesses in the conscription system and discourage incessant allegations of favoritism in extending draft deferments. It imposed a military obligation generally of 3 years active duty on all able-bodied males in Vietnam. This reduced the length of service from 4 years (as stated in the previous laws of 1958-60), or for the duration of an emergency (as in the war against the United States). Some men in specialized or technical skills were inducted for 4 years. Graduates of post-secondary institutions serve 2 years. The Minister of Defense, in circumstances of undefined necessity, may extend individuals on active duty for a maximum of 6 months beyond their expiration date of service. The draft age was set at 18 to 27 years of age; however, 17-year-olds otherwise qualified may volunteer for military training or active duty. Sole breadwinners and surviving sons are exempted from military service.

This was modified by the 1990 Law on Amendments and Supplement to the Law on Military Service. Military service age is 18-25 years of age for males for compulsory and voluntary military service; females may volunteer for active duty military service; conscription typically takes place twice annually and service obligation is 18 months (Army, Air Defense - previously two years), 2 years (Navy and Air Force); 18-45 years of age (male) or 18-40 years of age (female) for Militia Force or Self Defense Force service; males may enroll in military schools at age 17 (2013). In late 2001, Vietnam reinstated the requirement that women register for military service. However, barring an emergency mobilization, they are unlikely to be called up. Mandatory military service for women had been abandoned in 1975 at the end of the nations civil war.

In 1987 its population was about 62 million, with approximately 6.5 million males of military-service age and 650,000 reaching draft age each year. Normally, 60 percent of those screened for military duty were found to be physically and mentally fit for full service. Other restrictions, such as those based on class, race, religion, and place of origin (i.e., the South), reduced the manpower pool somewhat. In 1986 PAVN was conscripting at the rate of about 300,000 annually to support an Army 1.2 million. In 1987 at least 50 percent and possibly 60 percent of all adult males in Vietnam had served in the armed forces.

In 2014 Vietnams population was 93.4 million, and it was growing at a rate of about 1.0 percent per year. Manpower reaching militarily significant age annually was (2010 estimate) 850,000 males and 780,000 females.

The "red-expert" debate concerned Vietnam's military ethos, the basic qualities and virtues of the model soldier. The prototypical PAVN soldier in the 1970s and 1980s was twenty-three years old, had been born and raised in a village, was a member of the ban co class (poor for many generations), was unmarried, and had less than five years' formal education. His rural, agrarian background was the dominant influence in his thinking. He was one of five children and had lived his pre-army life in an extended family that included several generations of his immediate family as well as collateral relatives.

The typical soldier in the 1970s and 1980s tended to resent outsiders as well as city people. His limited schooling made it difficult for him to cope with certain aspects of army life, for example, technical duties. He was raised as a nominal Buddhist but had always been subject to many direct and indirect Confucianist and Taoist influences. He was uninformed about the outside world, even other parts of Vietnam. He firmly believed in the importance and collective strength of the ho or extended family, and seldom questioned its demands on him, an attitude that served him well in his military career.

At the age of nine, the model future soldier joined the Ho Chi Minh Young Pioneers and spent much time involved in its activities. At sixteen, if he impressed his elders as being worthy, or if his family had influence, he became one of four youths (on an average) in his village to join the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth League, participation in which led more or less automatically to admittance to the party as an adult. At twenty or twenty-one he was drafted, received two months' basic training, and was assigned to a unit. He did not particularly want to enter the army, nor did his parents wish it. However, he was obedient and accepted discipline easily. He had faith that PAVN and the state would treat him in a generally fair manner, which chiefly meant to him that they would assist him or his family if he was disabled or killed in battle.

Soldiers were nonmaterialistic, got along easily on the bare necessities of life, and regarded simplicity as a great virtue -- a fortunate coincidence as they received little material reward; pay per month averaged the price of a dozen bottles of beer. Despite extensive indoctrination by the party, the soldier was not politically conscious. Much of what he knew about politics consisted of slogans he had been obliged to memorize, the meanings of which he only dimly comprehended. Beyond his brief basic training he received little military training, but, if he was illiterate, he was taught to read. He was a survival-oriented, tough, disciplined combat fighter, who persevered with stubborn determination, often against hopeless odds. He could be stubbornly hostile, even rebellious on occasion, without regard to consequences. He knew little about strategy or tactics, but believed that warfare consisted largely of careful planning, meticulous preparation, and then sustained, intensive mass attack.

The party's contribution to this ethos of the model Vietnamese soldier was ideological. To his innate virtues of courage, tenacity, boldness, and cleverness, the party sought to add a commitment to revolutionary ideals. The party thus stimulated an ongoing debate, encompassing sociological, philosophical, psychological, and technological arguments over the fundamental relationship of ideology to technology in modern warfare, an understanding of which was the key to understanding the mind of the Vietnamese soldier.

Over the years, the party debate pitted the revolutionary model, that is, the peasant soldier -- perhaps ill-equipped but nevertheless infused with revolutionary zeal -- against the expert model, the superbly trained but ideologically neutral military technician. The revolutionary model always dominated the debate and found many allies , some transient and some permanent, both inside and outside PAVN.

Supporting the expert model, on the other hand, was a small, shifting collection of technologically minded military professionals and civilians. In late 1987, the "experts" in PAVN's general officer corps remained outnumbered, but they had gained the support of a powerful ally--the Soviet military advisers in Vietnam. In reality, the debate between preserving the revolutionary character of PAVN and building a thoroughly modern professional armed force was overtaken by the imperatives of military technology, and the issue became obsolete.

There were PAVN-party vested-interest conflicts, in which what was best for the party was not always interpreted as best for PAVN. Subjects of conflict included party and state security controls over PAVN personnel, party use of the military for economic and other nonmilitary tasks, party use of political criteria in selecting generals and senior staff officers who planned grand strategy or directed major military campaigns in the field, the role of the paramilitary, officer-enlisted relations and command authority of the militia within PAVN, and intermilitary and military-civilian relations.

Vietnam has a strong military potential partly due to its young and abundant human resources. The State of Vietnam takes interest in building the contingent of the military officers required for fulfilling the tasks in new conditions. The Law on the VPA Officers adopted in the Third Session of the 12th National Assembly defined the common criteria for VPA officers, that is, absolute loyalty to the Fatherland, the people and the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; dignity; industriousness, thrift, integrity, uprightness, public-spiritedness, selflessness; democratic heightening, strict obedience of military disciplines and orders; respect for and solidarity with the people and comrades in arms; qualifications of politics and military science required by the assigned duties.

The Law was also amended to extend the service age of officers in order to save the expenses for training manpower, utilizing and bringing into full play the expertise and experience of the officers, especially the professional ones and highly qualified scientists, meanwhile, preserving the specific feature of the military workforce. The Law also adjusts the policy toward officers, identifying the Peoples Army as a special labour sector assigned to duties of defending the country.

The amended Law on Military Service adopted in 2011 at the 7th Session of the 11th National Assembly reduced the service duration from 24 months to 18 months. This regulation results in the possible increase in the number of the youth to join the army. Those ex -servicemen constitute a powerful reserve force to supplement the regular force when needed.



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