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By John Prados
Late in the war, American troops were supposed to be withdrawn in tandem with improvements in the South Vietnamese armed forces. It has become an article of faith among some that Vietnamization produced a supple, effective Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) that could have won the war but for the termination of American aid. Claims about the effectiveness of the ARVN produced a mountain of press releases at the time and included official testimony before Congress, progress reports, statements at press conferences, and a plethora of materials flowing from American sources in Saigon.

Like just about everything else regarding the Vietnam War, those claims require examination. Most recent articles on this subject go little further than repeating the numbers in the press releases. That is misleading because statistics only scratch the surface of the story. There is much more to be said.

Resplendent with figures, the official releases had much progress to report. An example from early in this period is The ARVN, a 1969 special issue of the Vietnam Bulletin, the slick magazine published by the South Vietnamese Embassy.

Reporting on the events of 1968, the magazine claimed that during Tet the ARVN had inflicted more casualties on the enemy than the Americans had. It followed up: “The ARVN went over to the offensive at mid-year and has not lost the initiative since then.”

This is correct from the standpoint of battalion-size operations. The point was plain in the Pentagon’s own statistics: In May 1968, ARVN operations had increased by a third, to over 600, and never again fell below that level. South Vietnamese large-scale operations in 1969 peaked at 1,070 in July and averaged 950 a month.

Even so, the South Vietnamese did not meet the claims of Saigon’s embassy about a daily level of forty to sixty of these efforts, which works out to an annualized rate of 14,600 to 21,900 battalion-size operations. The ARVN actually conducted 11,400 such ops in 1969, its peak year, and that rate afterwards declined to 9,000.

The ARVN offensive coincided with a general mobilization ordered by President Nguyen Van Thieu. This expanded eligibility for Saigon’s draft to include males from ages from 18 to 38, a very wide range; 17-year-olds and men from 39 to 43 were called up for the militia. Under the law, all males between the ages of 16 and 50 were subject to call for some kind of service.

Saigon intended to increase its armed forces by 268,000 men before the end of the year, and, in fact, had obtained 220,000 fresh recruits before the summer of 1968 ended. Of those, 161,000 volunteered, many of them attracted by the ability to choose their branch of service, which was afforded to volunteers. In mid-1968 there were 358,000 ARVN regulars or Marines in ten infantry divisions, an Airborne division, and one of Marines. By the end of the year, that figure had risen to 370,000. But some 139,670 South Vietnamese soldiers had deserted during 1968, while ARVN casualties numbered 27,915 dead, 70,696 wounded, and 2,460 missing. That amounted to almost 241,000 men and virtually wiped out the force increase anticipated with general mobilization.

About 100,000 young men reached draft age each year. Dodging the draft became endemic, creating a whole social strata of “cowboys”—young men who buzzed around Saigon and other cities on their motorbikes, many subsisting off the black market. Population flight from the villages and the propensity of refugees to continue on to the cities exacerbated the problem.

Volunteerism dissipated in the years after 1968, making new men that much harder to find. Remaining South Vietnamese men had to be virtually vacuumed up to fill the ranks. A U.S. State Department report in May 1971 admitted that over half the males in Saigon-controlled territory aged 15 to 49 were in uniform. The proportion was higher than in the United States at the height of World War II. As early as 1969, American authorities were rightly projecting that Saigon would be hard-pressed to reach its planned force level of 1.1 million. Gen. Cao Van Vien and Nguyen
Duy Trinh in their postwar books conceded that even had it possessed a million more people, South Vietnam would have had a difficult time keeping up the forces.
In 1969, the army was ordered to hand 23,000 men over to the National Police, whose function was critical to pacification. Only a thousand were reassigned.

Conflicting requirements sharpened as the South Vietnamese forces grew and the demands of various elements increased, but the pool of available recruits stayed the same. The ARVN, the Regional Forces (RF), and the Popular Forces (PF) competed for the same recruits, and competition between them worsened over time. American analysts at MACV and elsewhere credited the RF/PF with a higher contribution to enemy losses than the ARVN, but the latter took priority in Saigon’s scheme of things.

The requirements also had an impact on critical specialized functions such as intelligence. Draft calls threatened to denude American intelligence of all its South Vietnamese civilian translators, for example, forcing leaders to engage in subterfuge to preserve capabilities. Demands for bodies in combat units similarly pressured the ARVN’s own intelligence people.

Desertion continued to be a problem, although it was a poorly understood phenomenon. Peak rates coincided with the seasons for planting and harvesting rice, indicating that soldiers went home to help with farming. This suggested that a more liberal leave policy might have lowered the desertion rate substantially.
Instead, the Joint General Staff adopted an anti-desertion program in 1969. That year there were over 123,000 deserters. There was also a trend of soldiers deserting units located far from home and enlisting in ones nearer their families.

About 150,500 soldiers deserted in 1970, but some 24,000 returned in one way or another. Such service was lost when deserters were apprehended and imprisoned. The ARVN experienced its lowest desertion rate during 1966. The rates during the Vietnamization years fluctuated, but were all far higher than 1966, especially in 1971, the year of Lam Son 719.

Various measures were adapted for training the recruits who did join. The army had relied on a single basic training camp at Quang Trung, northwest of Saigon. After general mobilization, more camps were added for each corps area, along with a similar group of training camps for Regional Forces and for Popular Forces. After basic, there was advanced training for the combat arms or specialties. Ones that required use of American technical manuals or extensive interaction with the Americans necessitated language skills, so extensive English language courses began in Saigon.

The ARVN’s combat branches, divisions, and corps had their own tactical training areas to put battalions and other units through refresher courses from time to time. The best ARVN units, like the 1st Division, constantly rotated their maneuver units through this training. During the Korean War, the United States had used a buddy system to help train South Koreans. Nothing like that was attempted in Vietnam.

Something the Americans did was buddy up units to share know-how. In the spring of 1969, for example, MACV sent the 199th Light Infantry Brigade into the area of operations of the ARVN 18th Infantry Division, led by Brigadier Gen. Lam Quang Tho. The 18th, long considered among the worst South Vietnamese units, in 1975 was among the few that fought hard.

The ARVN force structure of January 1969 was very close to what existed three years later. Not until 1971 did South Vietnam add a division-size unit, and it was done by taking the nucleus from another ARVN formation. The Americans of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, whose main task was to help the Saigon forces’ expansion, noted at a 1969 staff conference that the ARVN had reached its unit formation goals, except for several planned engineer battalions. Between 1968 and 1969, the regulars added seven infantry battalions, enabling the ARVN to insert two additional regiments into its best formation, the 1st Infantry Division. These became the basis for creation of the 3rd Division two years later.

The Airborne and Marines were elites, in part because they could fight anywhere in South Vietnam. With the exception of some ARVN Ranger units, the other forces were all territorial. Families lived with, or close to, the soldiers and their bases. The infantry divisions were not formations that could move to where the enemy threatened unless it was their own regions.

Saigon lacked freely deployable forces. In 1971, when President Thieu rejected pulling the ARVN’s 2nd Infantry Division out of its sector to reinforce the Laotian invasion, he was recognizing this fact. The next year, during the Easter Offensive, the ARVN managed to send the 21st Division from the Mekong Delta to help the defenders of An Loc in a different military region, and the difficulty of that maneuver confirmed the basic problem. After the war, Gen. Vien theorized that creating large-scale units (regiments) from the Regional Forces would have freed ARVN divisions from territorial defense responsibilities, but that would not have made them mobile without solving these social issues.

By far the biggest increase in ARVN infantry forces during the period of Vietnamization came when the number of Ranger battalions more than doubled, starting in 1970, to 25 units. But this was not really a South Vietnamese force increase. Rather, the RVNAF took over the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, which the Americans had created, and transformed them into Rangers.

The units were composed of Montagnards, treated shabbily by the Saigon government for decades. In fact, Montagnard political groups opposed to the South Vietnamese government fled to Cambodia and took up arms at exactly the point the
ARVN started up these Ranger battalions. The Montagnards played a key role in defending the Central Highlands during the Easter Offensive. They were fighting for their homes. Anywhere else they would have been useless, a perfect illustration of the territoriality problem with Saigon’s armed forces.

The biggest increases in the ARVN were in the specialized branches. The years of Vietnamization witnessed a large expansion of ARVN artillery and armored forces. The artillery improvements were the most extensive. Except for the Airborne and Marines, the South Vietnamese standard had been two artillery battalions per division. The elite troops, because they tended to be dispersed in operating areas, had just one artillery battalion each. By mid-1969 both elite divisions had been brought to the two-battalion standard, while half the ARVN infantry divisions fielded three. By 1972 all the infantry formations had three light, plus a medium, battalion, while the elite divisions met the three-battalion organization. At that point the South Vietnamese Army had 1,202 guns.

Independent artillery units, used by the military regions and high command, also were greatly increased by 150 percent in 105mm and 100 percent in 155mm battalions in mid-1969. That added up to a lot of new units: ten 105mm and six 155mm formations were added to the army in just one year.

That same year there were many revisions made in the overall plans for RVNAF modernization. For artillery, this amounted to adding another pair of 105mm battalions, plus one equipped with 155mm howitzers. Two battalions of 175mm guns were approved but not actually formed until 1971. The heavy gun force later was doubled.

The United States delivered 790 new 105mm howitzers to South Vietnam during 1969, meeting all requirements of the revised plans, but faltered badly on 155mm weapons, managing to supply just 294 of the 701 field pieces required. But having a large number of guns did not necessarily equate to having an effective artillery force. For example, at the time of the Cambodian invasion, only half the battery positions of the ARVN III Corps had been surveyed, while 12 percent of its guns never had been calibrated.

Even after the creation of all the new units, the need to support pacification and the local forces drained away capabilities. A dedicated effort in the Central Highlands in 1969 to train CIDG personnel to man gun sections at Special Forces camps and have them coordinate with larger artillery units showed the way. Eventually there came a decision to form 176 artillery platoons of two guns each to be placed within the districts and dedicated to local defense. The first hundred were created during 1970, though only half had been deployed by the end of the year.

Training the ARVN artillerymen and servicing the guns brought huge headaches. Expansion diluted the pool of skilled technicians and officers. The South Vietnamese artillery school, at Duc My near Nha Trang, had planned to train 1,715 new personnel in 1970, but actually enrolled 2,327. The press of service demands also diluted the training. American training programs imported from Fort Sill were pared back to essential elements. Much technical education would have to be done by American mobile teams roaming the ARVN bases, and by temporarily assigning Vietnamese artillerymen to American units to garner specialized knowledge.

The South Vietnamese Armor Command and school were located at Thu Duc, north of Saigon. The corps began with armored cavalry units formed in the 1950s, equipped with a mix of light tanks and armored personnel carriers. A squadron was attached to each ARVN corps and one stayed in the Saigon region. In 1962, the ARVN had added pure tank squadrons for the first time, and by 1966 had six armored cavalry squadrons. Elements of these units later were incorporated into the ARVN’s infantry divisions and five additional squadrons activated in 1968-69.

Vietnamization added an additional five squadrons. In 1969 reorganization created two actual armored brigades, grouping tanks squadrons with some of the armored cavalry. One brigade was assigned to the critical I Corps area, the other to the Mekong Delta. In Laos in 1971 ARVN armor encountered Soviet-supplied T-54 tanks in North Vietnamese hands for the first time. Those vehicles outclassed the American M-41s, which, at the time, were the best the ARVN had.

After Lam Son 719, the ARVN added its 20th Tank Regiment, equipped with the M-48. That unit had just taken the field when the Easter Offensive began. Its intervention near Quang Tri in April blocked the North Vietnamese from crossing a key river, a crucial development in preventing them from capturing Hue.

In general the Easter Offensive pointed up important weaknesses in the ARVN force structure. That, plus the cease fire, led to a fresh round of force-building. The artillery added two 175mm gun battalions; the armored corps, two M-48 tank regiments. The Marines added another brigade of three battalions. The Vietnamese Air Force and Navy were greatly strengthened, and the Air Force transitioned to an almost all-jet force with a considerably augmented complement of helicopters and gunships. The South Vietnamese reached their force of about 1.1 million at this time.

All these troops required leaders. The problems in that arena were intractable. In 1969 half of all ARVN battalions were commanded by men up to two grades below the stipulated rank. This was after a sustained Saigon effort to promote qualified personnel, under which 2,653 officers reached field grade in the ten months ending in October 1969. South Vietnam’s administrative system, under which military officers controlled almost all the provinces, villages, and districts, was a big culprit. At this time almost 40 percent of ARVN officers were not even assigned to the military.

Losses in battle only compounded the problem. So did the relief of officers for corruption. And there was no available pool of reserves. Upon general mobilization, slightly more than a thousand officers were recalled to duty and that exhausted the supply. The military academy at Dalat had 280 spaces in its entering class in 1966. That simply could not do. A new Military Academy was built that introduced a four-year program virtually identical to West Point’s, alongside a two-year course run for South Vietnamese with college educations. The reserve school at Thu Duc also operated flat out, and repeated efforts were made to encourage battlefield promotions.

By means of extraordinary measures, the ARVN met its officer goals in 1971. Yet in May 1971 a third of all army battalions still were commanded by captains, and almost two thirds of infantry unit commanders had led their battalions for less than a year. During 1972 the ARVN actually reduced its infantry force by fifteen battalions in order to economize on officers and regroup the other units as stronger battalions.
At every command level, corruption affected RVNAF performance, from ghost soldiers who did not exist except on unit rosters but drew pay that disappeared into someone’s pocket, to the gasoline pilfered from pipelines, to the antics of provincial and district officials and their effects on pacification. Some men handed over part or all their pay to commanders so they could be somewhere else, and showed up only for inspections.

The high command had special problems. There were officers in the ARVN who had never served outside the Joint General Staff. In July 1970, President Thieu issued a decree, reorganizing the Joint General Staff, but he preserved the cumbersome system under which the JGS functioned simultaneously as the ARVN’s own command authority.

The problems with the network persisted. The JGS chief of staff simply had too much on his plate as he managed the armed forces while commanding the ARVN war in the field. This became especially evident in periods of intense combat such as the Cambodian and Laotian invasions or the Easter Offensive. In his treatise on South Vietnamese military leadership, JGS Chief of Staff Cao Van Vien noted that in the latter crisis, the commander of a key front in I Corps issued orders and failed to tell Saigon about them. Yet this was not an isolated episode. The very last review by the American defense attaché in Saigon, for the period January-April 1975, reported that events “amplified the lack of control by the JGS. There was a complete lack of knowledge at the working staff level of the JGS as to what the situation was at any given time.” The high command problem was never resolved.
Some division commanders had never undergone advanced training. Many officers of a certain age received some training at French or American schools, but it was not until 1969 that the ARVN itself had a Command and Staff College or a Political Warfare School, and a National Defense College in Saigon, the most advanced course of all. Five classes of officers took the Defense College’s year-long course between 1968 and 1973. Of these 111 colonels and generals, fewer than a dozen showed up in ARVN senior commands including divisions, corps staffs, combat arms branches, and the like. The problem of officer utilization, like that of leadership itself, persisted.

For all the statistics, the proof of Vietnamization was in the fighting. American advisers, including Gen. Creighton Abrams himself, always put the best face on this. But the truth is that South Vietnamese performance remained uneven throughout. Every year brought fresh evidence.

Abrams told Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird in early 1970 that the ARVN’s big battles of the previous year had been in the Central Highlands. He cited four, all fights for Special Forces camps: Ben Het, Dak To, Bu Prang, and Duc Lap. Joint Chiefs of Staff historians writing after American forces had left the war agreed that Ben Het, not Hamburger Hill or any of the American battles, had been the key engagement of 1969. The ARVN largely failed in the Highlands campaign. Ben Het stood under siege for weeks without the South Vietnamese sector commander at Dak To, breaking up the concentration, and allowed the enemy to reach past Ben Het to strike at Dak To itself.

The NVA troops failed to capture either place, despite using tanks against Ben Het. But the defenders there were mostly CIDG strikers, Special Forces, Nungs, and American artillerymen, with a lesser contingent of South Vietnamese. It took the ARVN four months to disengage the camp. Secret American reports on ARVN performance show the desertion rate for the main unit in this sector, the 42nd Infantry, ran 20 percent higher than for the ARVN as a whole. Ben Het was won by air power, not ground troops. The Americans had furnished all the Arc Lights and nine-tenths of the tactical air support.

Bu Prang came under siege during the last months of 1969, and the battle spilled over to Duc Lap. The campaign featured the loss of several nearby firebases. MACV said it deliberately withheld help other than air power in order to test Vietnamization. But the airplanes saved the day here, too. When a rescue force of the 23rd ARVN Division finally arrived at Duc Lap, its regimental commander denounced the leader of the defending ARVN regiment as a coward and expelled him and his troops from the camp.

The Cambodian invasion in 1970 was widely portrayed as the event that proved Vietnamization worked. Without question, the ARVN did well in the operation. The South Vietnamese captured many weapons, inflicted losses, and sustained them.

But several points need making.

First, Nguyen Van Thieu insisted on timing his offensive according to the importunes of his astrologer, which raises questions in and of itself. The ARVN in this operation benefitted from unprecedented amounts of American artillery and air support. Meanwhile, American forces took the lead in every big assault except the one into the Parrot’s Beak. In places where the two allies worked together, notably the Fishhook, the bulk of results were tabulated by American troops.

In the second phase exploitation of that operation, the losses the ARVN claimed to have inflicted came to less than 1/11th—and weapons captured, 1/10th—of the American level. The most striking ARVN results came from attacks carried out in IV Corps, where Hanoi and the veterans had relatively much less strength.

In addition, there were the forgotten battles of 1970, also in the Central Highlands. Here the Special Forces camps of Dak Seang and Dak Pek were besieged or assaulted. In the first campaign the ARVN displayed the same weaknesses in taking risks to relieve a besieged force as they had the previous year. At Dak Pek the enemy overran more than half the camp, and the American-led Mike Force troops restored the situation before any South Vietnamese showed up. These battles again manifested weaknesses in ARVN leadership.

The Laotian invasion, Lam Son 719, was the test of 1971. The South Vietnamese corps commander proved ineffective in leading a large conventional operation. His troops were unable to coordinate air and artillery support without their American advisers, who were prohibited from participating because of restrictions in American law. South Vietnamese battalions were destroyed and others rendered combat ineffective.

These were not just any units, but the best ARVN troops: the 1st Division, the Airborne, the Marines. An ARVN armored brigade, upon which depended the entire scheme of the operation, attained its intermediate objective and then sat down. President Thieu refused to uproot his 2nd Division from its territory and send it to reinforce his vulnerable troops at the front.

Washington’s press releases, and President Richard Nixon after the war, emphasized the numbers of weapons captured and enemy killed, minimizing ARVN losses, in particular claiming that only four ARVN battalions had been shown to be “combat ineffective.” The reality is that those four battalions had performed very well but had been nearly destroyed. At least half a dozen other rifle units, plus the armored brigade, had to be rebuilt after the Laotian fiasco. Worst of all, Saigon did not fire its corps commander after this patent failure.

The latter had specific consequences in the greatest test of Vietnamization, the Easter Offensive of 1972. The incumbent I Corps commander, not informing Saigon of bad news, made it impossible for the ARVN to respond. He also went outside the chain of command to issue orders to tactical units while not appraising subordinates who had operational control of those formations. These errors played a key role in the North Vietnamese capture of Quang Tri, which required four months of tough fighting to overturn.

South Vietnamese command weaknesses are here evident. In II Corps in the Central Highlands, the ARVN regulars performed unevenly, while the Montagnard Rangers fought well. The best news of 1972 was that the poorly rated ARVN 5th Division and elements of the 18th fought like lions at the siege of An Loc. Still, the enduring debate about 1972 is over whether the South Vietnamese fought their way out of this crisis or were saved by American air power.

The Easter Offensive ended with the Paris cease fire and the final departure of American troops from South Vietnam. The war was now left to the South Vietnamese. Not long after the cease fire, a senior CIA officer visited Saigon and called together the agency people who knew the most about South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese: top analysts fluent in the language, key operators, some of those who had gone out of their way to immerse themselves in the culture. There were about fifteen experts in the room. They were asked their views on whether Saigon could survive on its own. Some thought the South Vietnamese could hold on if they continued to have American air power. Absent such heavy support, no one believed Saigon could make it.

And that’s the way it turned out. All those press releases on Vietnamization had expressed wishes and hopes, not realities past the raw numbers they reported, cloaking the real weaknesses of the South Vietnamese military. Saigon had built a huge military machine under the Vietnamization program, but that never amounted to a war-winning success because the fissures and cracks in that edifice left it without a solid foundation.

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