In late 1970, Allied intelligence discovered vast stockpiles of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) arms and supplies around Tchepone, Laos at the upper end of their infiltration routes into South Vietnam best known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Further investigation revealed this was the main supply hub for Communist forces headed south into the Republic of Vietnam. With President Richard M. Nixon cultivating his Vietnamization policy, this discovery seemed to provide United States (U.S.) and South Vietnamese leaders with an opportunity to verify the viability of the Southern government and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). With U.S. leaders also fearing this was a new NVA buildup for another Tet-style offensive in South Vietnam, they initially considered sending seven American divisions into Laos to destroy the supply center. However, with the U.S. withdrawal having cut their numbers in half and fearing international repercussions for invading a neutral nation, they proposed to eliminate the depot with ARVN ground troops supported by U.S. aircraft.
When the ARVN assault on this enemy logistics center ended on March 25, 1971, both President Nixon and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu called the operation a great victory. By all definitions of the word victory, the incursion was neither a tactical nor strategic victory. It might have been, at least, a partial success had planners employed Allied airpower in a more consistent and relentless manner. This paper examines the 1971 invasion of Laos and asserts a case for the more robust use of airpower.
Plans called for the Laotian invasion, code named Lam Son 719, to commence with U.S. forces establishing a logistics base on the Laotian border near the old abandoned Khe Sanh and Vandegrift Marine bases. In turn, the Air Force was to deliver 20,000 tons of supplies and more than 12,000 ARVN soldiers. This was to be followed on February 8,1971, with the deployment of an additional 5,000 ARVN soldiers supported by B-52s, tactical aircraft, and fixed-wing and helicopter gunships. (1)
The Background of Operation Lam Son 719
Military leaders and operational planners agreed the incursion should be of a limited nature, spearheaded by the ARVN, and focused on actions in the southeastern part of "neutral" Laos. The Americans' role was restricted to providing diversionary, logistical, aviation, and artillery support. This was due to Nixon's desire to prove the efficacy of the ARVN forces and because U.S. ground forces were prohibited by a Congressional directive from entering Laos. As mentioned above, the main objective was the destruction of the enemy's logistics hub and the prevention of a potential impending offensive by the North's People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Tlie invasion officially lasted from February 8 to March 25, 1971.
South Vietnamese and American leaders hoped that by commencing this campaign, aimed at the Communist's highly developed and extensive logistical network, they could achieve a swift victory in Laos and reinforce the self-esteem and self-reliance of the ARVN which had grown markedly since their 1970 successes in Cambodia. They also believed it might prove that government forces could defend their nation even as U.S. combat forces continued to drawdown. Lam Son 719 would be a test of the ARVN's ability to undertake a major combat operation, alone, and justify President Nixon's policies.
There were those who had doubts. Famed reporter Joe Galloway, who spent four tours in Vietnam on the front lines beginning in November 1965, at the Battle of la Drang Valley, believed the ARVN were not ready to "solo." He was at Lam Son 719 and doubted the ARVN had enough men or skill for such a task. He alleged those who advocated the operation were totally delusional. Considering Galloway's knowledge derived from the fact that he had spent the entire war with the troops in the field and knew many of the senior U.S. and Vietnamese officers like Lt. Col. (later Lt. Gen.) Hal Moore provided him with great credibility. (2)
Ultimately, Allied plans would fail in large measure due to poor and hurried planning, a failure by Allied political and military leaders to face military realities, and inept implementation in the face of a skilled and determined enemy. Thus, the campaign proved to be a bloody disaster for the ARVN, destroying many of their most skilled units and nullifying the confidence that they had developed during the preceding three years.
How did it come to this?
In 1957, South Vietnamese Communist guerrilla units supported by the North Vietnamese were established and over the last years of the decade the National Liberation Front (NLF) also came into being as the political arm of this anti-government movement in the South. The North also created the 559th Transportation Group to furnish these revolutionaries with material support from Hanoi. This was the origin of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (3)
Between April and December 1964, responding to U.S. support of South Vietnam, more than 10,000 NVA, including the first tactical units, travelled south to support southern guerrillas better known as the Viet Cong (VC). Northern engineers, led by Colonel Dong Si Nguyen, also began to upgrade the infiltration network through Laos. In spite of the inhospitable terrain in the Laotian panhandle, Communist road builders, during good or bad weather, carved roads through the mountain passes from North Vietnam into Laos, across the limestone cliffs and through the mountains as high as 5,000 feet. They pushed through the jungles, bamboo forests, and forded raging rivers. As Stanley Kamow writes, "The Communist had added a new dimension to the struggle." But it was only the beginning. The men and supplies that came south in 1964, were, "a trickle compared to the numbers three years later, when they were pouring into South Vietnam at the rate of twenty thousand or more per month." (4)
Partial destruction of the enemy's infiltration network ... led Allied leaders to decide the time was right to duplicate the campaign in Laos
Southern Laos into fifteen semi-autonomous military districts, or "Binh Trams," each with a commander responsible for all functions. Transportation battalions moved supplies through each district, engineer battalions built and repaired roads and moved supplies if needed, liaison battalions managed the infiltration of personnel along trails separate from those used for supplies, while support groups provided food, shelter, medical services, and other staff roles. (5)
With the Trail having become the main logistical conduit for enemy resupply of their forces in the south, it became a major target for intermittent U.S. air attacks that began in 1966. Originally only small-scale covert operations, by 1968, as Operation Rolling Thunder air attacks against targets in North Vietnam came to an end, these aerial campaigns evolved into significant operations designated Commando Hunt I-VII. They were aimed at staging areas, supply centers, and ground troops inside Laos to halt the flow of enemy men and supplies into South Vietnam. (6)
According to David Fulghum and his co-authors of the book South Vietnam of Trial, U.S. interdiction efforts began in early 1966, due to the masses of men and materiel pouring down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They claimed that the Communists conveyed more than 630,000 men, 100,000 tons of foodstuffs, 400,000 weapons, and 50,000 tons of ammunition down a labyrinth of increasingly improved roads through Laos into South Vietnam. Some roads were paved, but most were rock-strewn or bamboo covered dirt/mud roads and jungle paths. They also took advantage of the numerous streams and rivers to create alternative transportation systems that traversed southeastern Laos and connected with additional logistical connivance systems in nearby Cambodia known as the Sihanouk Trail. Named for the supposed neutral leader of Cambodia Prince Norodom Sihanouk, this infiltration network was basically ignored by the Cambodian leader. In 1970 when he was overthrown and replaced by the pro-American Lon Nol, his government acted to forbid the Communists the use of the port of Sihanoukville as a staging area and transport hub. Leaders in Hanoi immediately recognized this as a major strategic blow to their campaign to unify Vietnam, since seventy percent of all their military supplies moved through the haven. To make matters worse for the North Vietnamese during the spring and summer of 1970, U.S. and ARVN forces had crossed into Cambodia and successfully assaulted the NVA and VC base areas in what became known as the Cambodian Campaign. (7)
Later, this partial destruction of the enemy's infiltration network in Cambodia led Allied leaders to decide the time was right to duplicate the campaign in Laos. American officials reasoned that if such an operation were to be executed it would best be done quickly, while U.S. military assets were still present in South Vietnam. Leadership deduced that a successful assault would cause NVA supply shortages for the next twelve to eighteen months. The timing seemed perfect since this would debilitate the NVA and VC substantially even as the last U.S. troops were leaving South Vietnam. This they believed would provide the South Vietnamese with a much needed breather from any potential Tet-style offensive for one or even two years. Of course, it all depended on the ARVN living up to U.S. expectations. (8)
American concerns over another Communist Tet offensive stemmed from the fact that previously, their large attacks had come at the end of the Laotian dry season, between October and March. Intelligence data indicated that the PAVN logistical forces were moving supplies through their transportation network as the dry season reached its peak. One U.S. intelligence report estimated that ninety percent of the enemy's men and supplies had already traversed the Ho Chi Minh Trail...