South Viet Nam Air Force - 1975 - Operations
The Cooper-Church Amendment had a profound effect on the morale and outlook of South Vietnamese leaders at all levels. No longer was there a lever to deter the North Vietnamese from building up forces for an all out fight for a military victory. Only the threat of resuming the bombing restrained North Vietnam. With the amendment, this threat was neutralized. Finally, whereas U.S. airpower had been decisive in halting the 1968 and 1972 offensives, that firepower would no longer be available. Confronted with these factors and the curtailment of money and equipment, Vietnamese leadership stood at the crossroads on the brink of the 1975 offensive.
As the final days of Vietnam unfolded, the question was raised, "What happened to the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF)?" In 1975, the Republic of Vietnam Air Force, by then the world's seventh or eighth largest air force, was totally ineffective, despite having complete air supremacy over the battlefield. Air power failed for a number of reasons. First, the PAVN engaged in constant and dispersed maneuver. Because the ARVN's disintegration was near total, it was not necessary for the North Vietnamese to mass their forces except on those occasions when the South Vietnamese stood and fought, as some units did at Xuan Loc, just north of Saigon. Second, the RVNAF, despite its formidable size, in addition to being gutted by lack of parts and maintenance, was also a lightweight, consisting primarily of A-37s and F-5As, trainers converted into fighter-bombers, Korean War vintage A-1 propeller-driven fighter-bombers, and helicopters. Third, the PAVN brought plenty of air defense capability with them, to include shoulder-fired SA-7 missiles, 23mm and radar-directed 57mm anti-aircraft guns, and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles. These quickly neutralized what remained of the RVNAF. Fourth, the VNAF throughout its short history was never given the stature and equality of command relationship essential to success in battle where air and ground forces must work as partners. In 1975, the division of VNAF into separate packages and assigning them to the command of Corps/MR commanders negated the demonstrated potential of airpower to support an army under stress.
Certainly, American air power might well have been withering in its effect, if using it to do more than coverthe final evacuation had been an option. At the very least, ifAmerican air power had been available to pound the attacking PAVN divisions, it would have forced them tofight differently. While the PAVN victory would have taken longer, with the ARVN collapse no amount of bombing, except possibly an annihilative strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam, could have saved the Saigon government.
As the enemy moved more air defense forces into South Vietnam, VNAF had a lesser and lesser capability to strike enemy ground forces and the supplies supporting those forces. By March 1975, the North Vietnamese had SA 2 coverage of MR I as far south as Quang Tri. Khe Sanh, a major supply and staging area, was protected by SA 2s. All of the border area around Kontum, Pleiku and the Parrot's Beak in MR III was protected by radar directed AAA and SA 7s. VNAF lost 28 aircraft to SAMs from 28 January 1973 to December 31, 1974. There were no replacements for these aircraft.
As a result of these defenses, a policy was in effect limiting VNAF flights above Hue and west of Highway One. This area was the most heavily defended by the North Vietnamese. Whether the VNAF was restricted from this area because of losses or because of implicit recognition that the northern part of these two provinces had been permanently lost to the North Vietnamese and attacking such areas with aircraft would be in effect attacking North Vietnam with a potential for retaliatory action is not known. The effect of this policy, however, was to neutralize the effectiveness of VNAF against hard targets such as troops, tanks, artillery, vehicles and supplies.
VNAF was not provided with ECM equipment and, therefore, could not function in these defended areas. The enemy had in essence a secure sanctuary to stage, prepare and launch forces in all of the four military regions. Even if VNAF had ECM it is questionable whether it could have sustained operations in these high threat areas with such low performing aircraft. Again, the aircraft possessed by VNAF were predicated on the assumption that a relatively permissive air environment would prevail and that these low performing aircraft would be able to function in such a situation. It was assumed that USAF would be reintroduced if the North Vietnamese escalated the fighting where defenses were comparable to those over North Vietnam. In effect the VNAF did not have air superiority and as a result was not able to bring the enemy concentrations under sustained attack prior to the offensive.
As noted in the 1968 and 1972 offensives, airlift played a major part in moving troops to fill in where major attacks developed. The timely movement of troops and the support of those troops provided flexibility to ground force commanders that could not be obtained in any other manner at that time. In both offensives, LOCs were cut and supply by air was the only way many of the isolated forces could be supported. Without this support these forces would have been overrun because of lack of reinforcements, ammunition and food. On the eve of the 1975 offensive only a fraction of the former airlift force remained. VNAF had 32 C 130As, but only nine were in commission on any given day. With this size of force, RVNAF in no way possessed the ability to shuffle units to counter the buildup throughout all of the critical areas in MR I, 11 and III. Because of this limitation on tactical flexibility, much more intelligence was needed and more thorough planning was fundamental. Both of these offsetting factors were not prevalent on the eve of the offensive.
According to reports as late as December, the Tactical Air Control System was functioning in a satisfactory manner although complete use of the system was not being made. The in commission rate was reported as 90% and this was based on a team visit in January 1975. It is assumed, therefore, that the TAGS was fully capable of handling the sorties VNAF could generate in the offensive.
It is estimated the VNAF had approximately 390 fighters A-37s and F-5s. With an in commission rate of 70% there should have been a force of 273 aircraft available for operations. Based upon USAF experience with A 37S in Vietnam, VNAF should have been able to generate a. sortie rate of at least two per operationally ready aircraft. Reports indicate that there was some difficulty in meeting such a rate. It is noted, however, that in December the programmed rate was less than one half a sortie per aircraft operationally ready. The program was 4,246 sorties which at that point didn't reflect the severity of the North Vietnamese threat.
After a dogged defense at Xuan Loc east of Saigon, the South Vietnamese forces defending the approaches to Saigon finally gave way on 21 April 1975. For all practical purposes the battle was over with the loss of Xuan Loc, which fell on 22 April 1975. With the outcome of the conflict clear, President Thieu resigned the same day. Saigon surrendered on the 30th.
By the end of the struggle for Xuan Loc, VNAF had 1,492 aircraft, of which 976 were operationally ready, 135 redlined, and 381 lost or abandoned. The fighter force consisted of 169 A 37s and 109 F Ss. Ninety two A 37S and 93 F Ss were operational. In spite of the evacuations, shellings and aircraft out of commission for one reason or another, the VNAF still had an operational ready fighter force of approximately 180 aircraft as compared to 392 aircraft at the time of the cease fire in January 1973. Between the 22nd and the surrender, one hundred and thirty two aircraft were flown to U Tapao. Twenty six F 5s, of which 22 were E's, and 27 A 37s made it to U Tapao.
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