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South Vietnam - New Equipment

Weapons issued to the ARVN were good value
on the second hand market because
"they had never been fired and
only ever dropped once".

The efforts of General Westmoreland and his successors to equip the Vietnamese infantry with modern small arms, communications, and transportation equipment deserving special attention. But then the United States offered to re-equip the ARVN with a newer family of U.S. weapons. With the help of its foreign allies, the Saigon government embarked on an extensive program to upgrade the weapons and equipment of its fighting forces, as well as a program of fringe benefits for servicemen to improve morale. Improved leadership had done much by 1969 to boost ARVN morale and proficiency, but one of the greatest spurs to aggressiveness was the re-outfitting of the armed forces with modern weapons.

Morale had been badly shaken when the North Vietnamese in 1965 and 1966 began equipping their infiltrating troops with weapons the South Vietnamese could not match -- modern Soviet-design automatic weapons, including the RPD light machine gun, the AK-47 assault rifle, and the armor-busting B-40 and B-41 rocket launchers. In 1964 the enemy had introduced the AK47, a modern, highly effective automatic rifle; later he began using a light but excellent series of rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers against both armored and supply vehicles. In contrast, the South Vietnam forces were still armed with a variety of World War II weapons and, in view of the enemy's rising advantage in firepower, the MACV commander had asked that all South Vietnam Army ground combat units be equipped with the new U.S. lightweight M16 automatic rifle, as well as with other contemporary firearms.

In the fall of 1965 he made an initial urgent request for 170,000 M16 rifles (later reduced to 100,000). But although the request was approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Military Assistance Command was informed that U.S. forces in South Vietnam would receive first priority. After 1965 the increasing U.S. buildup slowly pushed Vietnamese armed forces matériel needs into the background. In December 1966 the Secretary of Defense directed that the issue of M16's to South Vietnam Army and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces be deferred and that the allocations previously planned for these forces be redirected to U.S. units. Finally, in March 1967, the allocation of M16 rifles for South Vietnamese and South Korean maneuver elements was reinstated, and the first shipments of rifles for the South Vietnam Army arrived the following month. But until 1968 there were only enough to equip the airborne and Marine battalions of the General Reserve.

Delivery of fast-firing M-16 rifles to ARVN units, for instance, was such a stimulus to the Vietnamese soldiers' aggressiveness that it was immediately reflected in enemy casualty rates. Viet Cong facing ARVN units armed with M-16s left more of their dead on the battlefield than neighboring communist forces opposing ARVN units that had not yet received their M-16 issue. Said one Green Beret on a front near the Cambodian border: "Give a Vietnamese soldier an M-16 and you make a tiger out of him!"

In 1968 this situation began to change drastically. One new development was the end of the American buildup in South Vietnam and with it a leveling off of U.S. matériel demands. Two other developments were the decisions, first, in 1968 to support the more elaborate South Vietnamese armed forces structure outlined in the series of Improvement and Modernization programs and, second, in 1969 to Vietnamize the war by having the Vietnamese armed forces assume all American combat responsibilities. The result was a comprehensive logistical effort to supply the South Vietnamese military forces with superior small arms as quickly as possible.

By mid-1968 all of the South Vietnamese Army infantry battalions had received the new weapons, along with other contemporary small arms -- the new U.S. M60 machine gun, the M79 grenade launcher, and the LAW (or light antitank weapon). In the years that followed, South Vietnamese Army combat support units, the territorial forces, and the Civilian Irregular Defense Group received identical equipment. Together, these small arms gave a significant morale and psychological boost to the South Vietnamese soldier by allowing him to meet the enemy with equal or greater firepower. The standardization of small arms also simplified the equally important matters of logistics and maintenance.

Before 1968 the South Vietnamese Army also had severe shortages in crew-served weapons, tactical communications, equipment, and light transport vehicles, items that were critical to an Army composed mostly of foot soldiers. To overcome these deficiencies, Military Assistance Command instituted temporary loan procedures whereby the Vietnamese armed forces highest priority requirements were met by temporary transfers from U.S. depots and excess stocks. By mid-1968, equipment valued at approximately $10 million was on loan to the Vietnamese Army and included 691 1/4-ton trucks, 388 2 1/2-ton trucks, 151 1/4-ton trailers, 208 106-mm. recoilless rifles, 100 M60 machine gun mounts, 4,932 .50-caliber machine gun mounts, 18 .50-caliber machine guns, and 177 survey sets. Once the Improvement and Modernization programs began to take effect in 1969, however, this practice stopped and the Vietnamese armed forces shortages in these areas were rapidly made up.

An ARVN division was a potent force, but even in the case of the First Division one of the factors making it an elite unit is its ability to call in helicopter and artillery support from the neighboring 101st U.S. Airborne Division. Because the average ARVN division, particularly since the war became a big unit war in mid-1965, had been able to rely on its ally's artillery, air strike and transport capabilities, by 1969 it had not yet developed its own such capabilities to a point that would make it self-sufficient on a modern battlefield. And the average American division had about twice the number of howitzers and mortars available to an ARVN division.

One way to help make up this deficiency is a plan announced on 23 March 1969 by U.S. Defense Secretary Laird, and that was to hand over the equipment of disbanding U.S units to ARVN units remaining in the field. The first such turnover took place that March weekend near Can Tho, in the Delta. The Sixth Battalion of the 77th Artillery, attached to the Ninth U.S. Infantry Division, disbanded, sent a number of its men on normal rotation back to the U.S. and assigned the remainder to other U.S. outfits in Vietnam. Although the battalion was inactivated, overall U.S. troop strength was not lowered. After spending two months in training ARVN artillerymen to use its 105mm howitzers, the Sixth, in its last formal act as a battalion in service, turned over its 18 105mm howitzers, trucks, radios, ammunition and repair equipment to the South Vietnamese. Brigadier General Nguyen Huu Hanh, commander of Special Zone 44, accepted the weapons and equipment on behalf of the newly activated 213th Artillery Battalion of the 21st ARVN Infantry Division.

In the following months another U.S. artillery battalion as well as transportation, engineer and maintenance units --some 2,500 men -- l disbanded and transfered their equipment to ARVN forces. This program, said Secretary Laird, will help in ''modernizing the forces of the South Vietnamese on a realistic basis."

Initially issued to regular ARVN divisions, the prized M-16 rifle, LAW anti-tank rockets, the useful M-79 grenade launcher and the M-60 light machine gun were given the Ruff Puffs, with completion of the rearming program expected by the end 1969. Some 350 Mobile Advisory Teams of U.S. officers and noncom specialists have been assigned to help upgrade the Ruff Puffs through training in battle tactics, weapons use, and improved security.

In artillery, the number of battalions was doubled and newer pieces, such as the light M-102 howitzer of 105mm size, are being introduced. In the Airborne Division, for example, a third artillery battalion is being formed, giving each brigade of the division its own mobile artillery support. Before 1968 the division had only a single artillery battalion.

At the start of 1968 the ARVN possessed only 600 APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers) but-by the end of 1969 it will have 1,500. The 10 armored cavalry squadrons also have some older M-41 tanks. The communications capability of ARVN units was improved. The newer PRC-25 model pack radio replaced the PRC-10, with an increase in range from 15 to 40 kilometers. And improved command radio and teletype nets were installed.

Improved mobility was a major impetus to increased ARVN offensive operations. Now able to call on transport planes and helicopters for troop airlift, and now assured of good communications and artillery support, field commanders ordered combat sweeps, enveloping maneuvers and direct assaults that would have been unthinkable in 1965 and 1966. By 1969 even militia companies and platoons can be tactically deployed by helicopter, and are being so deployed, in ever increasing numbers. The Viet Cong's ability to pick the site of battle had been shattered.

After 1969 most armed forces matériel needs were satisfied from existing U.S. stocks in South Vietnam. As U.S. units redeployed, most of their equipment and supplies were turned in, reconditioned, if necessary, by U.S. logistical units, and reissued to the Vietnamese armed forces units as appropriate. Requirements that could not be satisfied in this manner were met from the Pacific Command supply and maintenance facilities or shipped from CONUS sources. This practice was expanded by the Vietnamization Logistics Program, which began in July 1971. Major objectives of the new program were the acceleration of equipment deliveries and the expansion of Vietnamese armed forces secondary item stockage.

Project ENHANCE in May 1972 began to augment the armed forces capabilities as one response to the North Vietnamese Army offensive in April. The purpose of the project was to accelerate the delivery of the residual balance of fiscal year 1972 and 1973 Phase III assets, replace all abnormal armed forces combat losses projected through the end of fiscal year 1972, and provide the armed forces with selected augmentation capabilities. Initially, Project ENHANCE required that large quantities of matériel be delivered to the Vietnamese armed forces as soon as possible. To avoid overburdening the armed forces with materiel that it was ill-prepared to absorb, utilize, or maintain, execution of the program was relaxed to the extent that the MACV commander was authorized to call forward quantities of matériel that would on arrival immediately support or "enhance" the Vietnamese armed forces capabilities.

This shift to a "pull" versus "push" concept in no way de-emphasized the high priority assigned to the project. But the flexibility provided by relaxation of the required delivery dates enabled Military Assistance Command to run the program more efficiently. These efforts were continued until the implementation of the cease-fire accords early in 1973. As the variety of equipment and supplies given to the Vietnamese armed forces grew, it became a more "balanced" and thus a more specialized institution. Once the slumber of infantry units became stabilized, the various combat controlling headquarters were then slowly filled out with engineer; signal, ordinance, and logistical support units. The rising number of artillery battalions (from twenty-nine in June 1968 to fifty-eight by 1972) and armored cavalry squadrons (from eleven to seventeen) has already been noted. New elements in the Vietnamese Army inventory were Rome Plows for land-clearing, 175-mm. artillery pieces on the demilitarized zone (South Vietnam's border with North Vietnam), and, in the fall of 1971, the first battalion of M48 medium battle tanks.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:36:36 ZULU