Sunday, June 18, 1972

The Strength and Weakness of the ARVN

The Los Angeles Times

--"You gave us your weapons and you tried to teach us your military ways. But did you really expect that we would fight the war as you did?"

The South Vietnamese regimental commander, regarded as "pro-American," shook his head. "If you did, you haven't learned very much about me and my countrymen," he said.

The colonel's bittersweet remark should be kept in mind in any appraisal of the performance of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) during the North Vietnamese offensive these past several months. If "Vietnamization" of the war, in the first big test, was something less than a blazing success, the ARVN has succeeded, nevertheless, in halting the North Vietnamese (NVA) advance on all fronts.

Although air power --mostly American-- has been a big factor in stalling Hanoi's three pronged drive, the ARVN defense of An Loc, Kontum and Hue still must be credited to the troops on the ground.

There have been glaring shortcomings in the ARVN performance, however, particularly in the early weeks of the offensive. The North Vietnamese, no longer using guerrilla tactics but armed by the Russians with all the conventional arms except close air support, rolled back ARVN border defenders with ease.

For American advisers, a bitter disappointment has been the ARVN's lack of aggressive leadership, particularly the inability to improvise to counter enemy thrusts at the start of the North Vietnamese offensive. Another shortcoming has been the lack of coordination -- sometimes caused by personal differences -- between generals in the field and at headquarters.

Many South Vietnamese Army units with once illustrious battle records seem to have lost much of their fighting spirit. South Vietnam is war-weary, and there is no end in sight to the combat.

There appears a desire on the part of all ARVN commanders to avoid casualties. While there have been counterattacks, they have been small scale, and little ground has been retaken by force. However, there has been a spirited defense of embattled An Loc on Highway 13, only 60 miles from Saigon.

"On the southern front, An Loc definitely has been a turning point," and adviser said. "ARVN has produced a mini-Stalingrad," he declared, referring to the epic defense made by the Russians which marked a turning point on the German front in World War II.

But more than at any time in the past, ARVN generals display a markedly cautious attitude. And with future American material support somewhat clouded, there also is a reluctance by the Saigon command to squander its large Vietnamese Air Force, particularly its helicopters.

The NVA offensive also showed that ARVN has manpower problems, despite a payroll which lists one million men under arms.

With three enemy fronts to combat, and with formerly pacified areas now showing signs of a Hanoi-directed Viet Cong resurgence, President Thieu's regular army units are spread thin.

The National Reserve, consisting of elite special units of paratroopers, Marines and Rangers, have all been committed.

The distressed condition of ARVN is most evident in its combat units. Many are at half-strength or below. This is due to the continuing problem of widespread desertions, another reflection of war-weariness. To build back the army to its programmed strength requires conscription. Stern laws are on the books. But in actual practice there are still loopholes, and the evasive gimmicks work when money is put into the right hands.

The inadequacy of the Vietnam Air Force has been evident almost from the start of the Hanoi push. Troop commanders have little desire to direct battlefield action from America-provided "command and control" helicopters; they prefer to monitor ground operations from bunkers in the rear. And VNAF helicopters and transport planes seldom have been effectively employed, American air advisers contend.

They concede that U.S. Air Force eagerness to keep itself heavily involved in the Indochina war has often squeezed out VNAF, even when it had planes available and pilots eager to fly. But maintenance problems continue to keep at least half of Vietnamese aircraft on the ground at any one time, compared to an average of 80 per cent utilization of American aircraft.

The American expectations that VNAF could assume the entire tactical airlift and ground-war close-support features of air power by the end of this year now seems wildly optimistic.

ARVN small-unit performance in combat has varied greatly. There have been heroic actions despite heavy odds. The defense of An Loc was one of them. The helicopter input of paratroopers into the town, before the enemy surrounded it, helped to turn back the climactic North Vietnamese efforts to take An Loc. But basic credit for its defense belongs to the previously low-rated men of the ARVN 5th Division, whose new commander remained with his troops throughout the fight.

But even the bravest of men are not able to maintain a fighting desire when they are seldom rotated. Here again in the ARVN manpower shortages is causing a decline in morale. Seldom is a frontline outfit able to rest away from the battle.

Perhaps the more sensitive problem encountered in ARVN performance against the NVA offensive has arisen when a decision is made to abandon government positions threatened by Hanoi's armored-and-infantry thrusts.

It is then that the relationship between an ARVN officer and his American "counterpart" undergoes it severest strain. It is usual American procedure to order advisers to withdraw from a unit which is in danger of being overrun by a foe. The justification is that "in a chaotic situation the adviser no longer has an effective role -- he has no unit left to advise."

The reasoning is flimsy, and a source of embarrassment to most advisers. They don't want to abandon their ally. And when the American chopper arrives to extract the Americans, and sometimes high-ranking ARVN officers as well, it is a devastating psychological blow to troops left to fend for themselves.

"The Strength and Weakness of the ARVN", by JACK FOISIE, The Los Angeles Times, SAIGON, published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes on Sunday, June 18, 1972 and reprinted from European and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
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