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South Viet Nam Air Force - 1964-1974 - Buildup

In 1964, VNAF had 280 aircraft and 11,276 people. Its force consisted of four fighter squadrons, four helicopter squadrons, four liaison squadrons and one support wing. This force was evenly distributed between the four Corps areas, based on the proposition that one fighter squadron was sufficient for close air support of a Corps.

President Johnson set in motion an effort to strengthen South Vietnam's armed forces. In the spring of 1968, the Phase I Plan called for the addition of just four UH-1H helicopter squadrons to the twenty-squadron South Vietnamese Air Force. Besides expanding by a total of 124 helicopters, the air arm would undergo a degree of modernization: T-41 trainers replacing some of the older U-17s, four H-34 squadrons converting to UH-1Hs, a C-47 transport squadron reequipping with the AC-47 gunship, and three A-1 squadrons receiving jet-powered A-37s in place of their propeller-driven Skyraiders. These changes increased by some 41 percent the authorized number of aircraft, but after the various increases and substitutions, all but two of the additional aircraft were helicopters.

At the beginning of 1969 the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) had five air wings with 19 subordinate flying squadrons. One of the wings was located in each of the Corps Tactical Zones (CTZ) with the exception of III CTZ which had two wings. On 25 Mar 1969, the Chief of the Air Force Advisory Group (AFGP) advised MACV that an excessive number of VNAF combat aircraft, particularly the UH-1 were being used for VIP support of GVN officials. He recommended that VNAF VIP support be limited to the proposed 40 Special Air Mission (SAM) squadron and that the SAM squadron UE be reviewed for sufficiency. He also requested early approval of the UE and activation of the squadron.

It was determined that all aircraft and equipment for the VNAF SAM squadron had been requested in January and February. Evaluation of the UE for the squadrons indicated no change was required, and on 22 Apr, CofS, MACV informed AFGP that it supported the SAM squadron UE as approved and requested that VNAF be advised to activate the VNAF SAM squadron at the earliest practicable date. On 30 Jun, the 314th VNAF SAM Sqdn was activated at Tan Son Nhut Airbase and had in its inventory four UH-1H helicopters, two U-17s, and five VC-47s. Its mission was to provide incountry and out-of-country air transportation for designated VIPs.

The major 1969 VNAF goals were:

  1. Convert four helicopter squadrons (CH-34s) to UH-1Hs.
  2. Convert three fighter squadrons (A-1) to A-37 aircraft.
  3. Convert one transport squadron (C-47) to a combat squadron (AC-47).
  4. Activate a Special Air Mission squadron (SAM) at Tan Son Nhut.
  5. Program and train pilots and maintenance personnel (both in-country and offshore for the expansion and activation of VNAF units in FY 71-74
To deal largely on its own with a type of threat similar to the conditions that had existed before 1965, South Vietnam would require a better balance among the armed forces. General Abrams therefore proposed enlarging the nation's air arm to forty squadrons-the existing twenty, the four to be added under phase I, and sixteen others - all of which would be in service by July 1974. The latest additions formed the aerial component of a phase II plan aimed at filling those gaps in the overall force structure that would appear as U.S. units withdrew, leaving South Vietnam to cope with an insurrection supported from abroad. Besides an additional five helicopter squadrons-for a total augmentation of nine-phase II called for three new squadrons of A-37s, four of transports (all but one flying C-123s), an AC-119G gunship unit, and three liaison squadrons equipped with planes suitable for use by forward air controllers. The new plan would double the current number of South Vietnamese squadrons, more than double the total number of aircraft, and increase the authorized manning from the present 17,000, beyond the 21,000 authorized for phase I, to a new figure of 32,600.

Although amenable to the idea of Vietnamization, President Thieu had ideas of his own about the kind of weapons his armed forces required. In acceding to an American reduction in strength, he offered a plan of his own for modernizing the military services, asking for what the Joint Chiefs of Staff termed "appreciable quantities of sophisticated and costly equipment," including F-4 fighters and C-130 transports. To American eyes, Thieu appeared to be trying to move too fast. Compared to their American counterparts, members of South Vietnam's armed forces seemed to lack the technical skills necessary to make effective use of the weaponry the nation's chief executive desired. A review of the Thieu proposal by General Abrams resulted in a recommendation that the United States turn down almost every request. The South Vietnamese air arm would have to do without F-4s and C-130s, additional VC-47 transports for high-ranking officials, coastal surveillance aircraft, and a search and rescue organization like that operated by the U.S. Air Force.

By 1970 VNAF had grown to 481 aircraft and 22 squadrons. The expansion was predicated on the VNAF eventually taking over the entire in country air support. Even with. this size force VNAF was showing signs of stress in manning 22 squadron.;. The main problems were in maintenance and supply. Historically the air depot at Bien Hoa had had problems. The USAF, over the years, had teams in the depot which put it back on a sound basis, only to have it slip back into trouble after the U.S. teams had been gone a few months. In the developing of a young Air Force, this area has chronically been the most difficult to solve and VNAF was no exception.

Operationally, VNAF was able, by early 1970, to take over most of the flying in IV Corps and a larger share in the other three Corps areas. The problems of weather and night operations were chronic deficiencies. On balance, however, VNAF did a fair job in supporting ARVN operations. The lack of experienced pilots to fill out the air ground operations system was evident. VNAF did not have the people to provide trained FACs at battalion level. Consequently, the effectiveness of close air support was restrained when looking at the country as a whole. In some areas, the VNAF did exceptionally well where there were trained ALOs at Division level directing close air support.

With the decision to turn the war over to the Vietnamese as rapidly as possible, the VNAF was expanded at an unprecedented rate. This rate of expansion was more than VNAF could absorb. By the time of the cease fire, January 27, 1973, VNAF had 2,075 aircraft of twenty five different types. It had reached a strength of 65 squadrons and 61,147 people. It was obvious that VNAF couldn't operate this size Air Force with so many different types of aircraft. The rationale for such a large force was based on the supposition that, given time, VNAF would eventually develop the ability to handle such a large force, and because of the provisions of the cease fire agreement that no additional equipment could be introduced after the cease fire, only replacements on a one for one basis.



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