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South Viet Nam Air Force - 1951-1961 - Early Years

The VNAF was formed in 1951 as a part of the French Air Force in Indo China. The French made little effort to develop the VNAF into a self sufficient Air Force. Vietnamese pilots were viewed as fillers in French squadrons and it wasn't until 1954 that the beginning of a Vietnamese Squadron can be identified.

As early as October 1952, the USAF had a training mission for Vietnam. This was when the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) first assisted the French Air Force through C-47 on-the-job training for all combat squadrons. The training effort for the VNAF began with this early assistance to the French Air Force, and thus began the evolution of our training program.

With the fall of Dien Bien Phu in May of 1954, VNAF consisted of 58 aircraft and approximately 1,345 people. In no sense of the word could one call it an Air Force. The French made no significant effort to expand and develop the VNAF to assume a significant role in operations below the 17th parallel. By 1957, the United States had taken over the Military Assistance Program. Up until this time, money appropriated for the development of the Vietnamese armed forces was funneled through the French, and the French carried out the training of the Vietnamese. There was considerable discontent with this procedure and by 1957 the U.S. assumed de facto responsibility for the training of Vietnamese forces and in essence set the stage for the transition of assistance to eventual covert and overt participation in the struggle to maintain the integrity of South Vietnam.

The expansion of the VNAF took on the semblance of a small Air Force in this time period. It is of note that the enemy activities in South Vietnam were considered more of an insurgency or a sophisticated form of guerrilla warfare, highly organized and directed throughout the country. On the other hand the French went down to defeat in North Vietnam riot as a result of a guerrilla war, but from a highly stylized army that used a mass of artillery to prepare the battlefield prior to the assault by infantry troops organized into formal formations and supported by modern arms.

Thus, in hindsight it seems an anomaly that the war in South Vietnam should be perceived as an insurgency while the war in North Vietnam had the characteristics of some elements of World War II and Korea where highly articulated forces were required to assault a bastion of defense such as the French had developed at Dien Bien Phu. This distinction in the perception of the war in South Vietnam had a major bearing on the shaping and control of VNAF. It would be many years later that these initial concepts would be discarded, only to find their way back during the last days of life of the VNAF. The VNAF was to be developed to deliver limited firepower in support of troops and to perform a relatively low level of photographic reconnaissance. Since the enemy operated with small forces, was highly mobile, and received substantial support from the local population.

The insurgency in the south had worsened by late 1960, with assassinations and terror campaigns conducted by theVietcong destabilizing the already weak and corrupt US-sponsored government. Although US military advisers hadprovided training and some aircraft (initial deliveries of Navy AD6 aircraft began in 1958), the main challenge to Saigon came not from regular armies but guerrillas.40 In response,President Kennedy's counterinsurgency plan for Vietnam, developed in late 1960, sought to increase US involvementwith more troops and Airmen to perform such missions as aerial reconnaissance and airlift, neither of which the South Vietnamese air force (VNAF) could conduct. In 1961 the VNAF's inventory consisted of Navy AD6s (redesignated A-1s) and F-8Fs, with a small contingent of L-19 spotteraircraft and helicopters - all of them in fair to poor condition.

Regional and Popular forces were the backbone for resisting and eliminating these Viet Cong guerrilla units. ARVN (Army of Vietnam) was designed and developed to take over the fight from RF and PF forces when significant numbers of guerrilla forces were concentrated against District and Province capitals.

The North Vietnamese had respectable antiaircraft capability asearly as 1953, but the United States and VNAF did not become concerned with losses inflicted by the north on their aircraft until 1963, at which time they withdrew the T-28 from service. This move left the VNAF with the A-1 as its primary fighter for performing a multitude of roles in a rapidly escalating conflict. Although the number of Vietnamese casualties rose in 1963, the South Vietnamese military initially refused to set up its own aeromedical evacuation unit. The VNAF response to requests for medical evacuation depended on aircraft availability, the security of the landing zone, and the mood and temperament of the VNAF pilots.

These early years in the life of VNAF are reflected in the activation of one squadron of F-8 fighters, two squadrons of C-47s and two squadrons of L-19s. As can be seen, the emphasis was not on the delivery of firepower, but on visual observation with L-19s and limited movement of small bodies of troops, primarily platoons, by C-47s. At this point there was no formalized structure for coordination of ARVN and VNAF activities nor was there a central system for directing the force. With such a small force, there was no need for a central system that was to make its appearance at a later date.



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