May 11, 1966

French Had Different Viet Nam Situation

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, is now in the field with troops of the 1st Cavalry Division in Viet Nam.  His dispatches on the war in Southeast Asia will continue daily in The Enquirer.)

Enquirer Military Writer

SAIGON - One of the arguments used to bolster pessimistic forecasts for American military action in South Viet Nam has always been the experience of the French in battle in that area - but the argument isn’t quite as pat as it would seem.

There are two major fights which always come up; the ambush of Mobile Group 100 in its retreat from An Khe to Pleiku (along terrain now familiar to thousands of Americans in the 1st Cavalry Division) and Dien Bien Phu, both of which came in 1954.

At Dien Bien Phu the French made a deliberate and carefully planned attempt to draw Viet Minh units into battle in conventional style instead of the shoot and scatter guerrilla tactics which had been so frustrating in the past.

The plan was to supply the strong point by air.  The French didn’t have enough aircraft to do it and it was one of the longest supply routes from a coastal area to be found in all Viet Nam.

The French were facing forces from one end of Viet Nam to the other, not in the southern portion.  The Vietnamese people were actively in revolt against them, a different situation from the Communist opposition of 1966.

Numerous studies have been made of the battle at Dien Bien Phu and they all note that high ground was left accessible to the Viet Minh; that tremendous artillery fire was available to the Viet Minh because of Chinese-supplied weapons which were fairly accessible to that far northern site; that the same kind of heavy armament of antiaircraft batteries from China helped strangle the aerial supply route, and finally, that the French had tied themselves down to a fortified strong point which left initiative and aggressive action in the hands of their enemies.

Different Situation Now

This type of situation has been avoided quite carefully in American operations.  Bases - except for An Khe and Pleiku, where a fleet of helicopters give mobility, and fighter-bomber and transport support is close by - aren’t put in areas where the supply lines are as completely vulnerable.  U.S. air and helicopter support dwarfs the French complement of aircraft and the tiny handful of helicopters available to the French in Viet Nam.

Group Mobile 100 was almost a fleet operation.  The group had armor, trucks, artillery and it set out from “port to port” along the skimpy Vietnamese road system.  It was designed as an answer to the need for a fast-moving and hard-hitting force to counter the ground mobility of the Viet Minh walking soldiers.

It was as mobile as any unit can be when it depends on roads.  In a war of the European kind, where well-developed countries have spent immense sums on good roads, and where a network of secondary roads is also available, where jungles and heavily forested areas or rice paddies and monsoon season mud don’t interfere, such mobility has proved shattering.

In Viet Nam such mobility kept Group Mobile 100 tied to highways 14 and 19 and charted its course as effectively for the Viet Minh tacticians as if the columns had been tied down in a fortress.  The roads simply became the sites for Dien Bien Phu on wheels.

Some Tank Areas

There is good maneuver country for armor in various portions of Viet Nam, around Pleiku or in coastal area, for example.  Armor has punched its way through set ambushes, such as at Plei Me where the tanks and armored personnel carriers of the Vietnamese hacked up a North Vietnamese Communist ambush with the aid of air and artillery.  The armor is essentially hunting troops, however, and it doesn’t have its most effective role of smashing through to an enemy’s rear and rolling him back.

The usual fight in Viet Nam is between units moving without any fixed lines or positions, much as the old horse cavalry and the Plains Indians fought in the day of the Sioux and Cheyenne.  Tanks provide movable artillery and movable pillboxes n this kind of fighting, where they can maneuver, and their value is high, but they aren’t the terrors they are where their mobility and shock can be directed against the rear area of a sophisticated enemy.

In the U.S. development of air mobility, the first helicopter assault with American ships took place in January 1962 in Viet Nam.  In the four years since then, air assault has become the symbol of this war.  It has also become the vast difference between French and American operations, by a strictly military criterion.

Helicopters mean mobility.  They are vulnerable in fixed position warfare.  The entrenched camp and vulnerable outpost mistakes of the French are repeated in such places as the isolated Special Forces camps, but not on a major scale.  The U.S. has put its faith in air mobility and firepower and has continuously bested a stubborn and well-armed light infantry opponent.

Politics, Not Mistakes

The French did not miss the lessons they learned in Indo-China, for that matter, when they fought a successful counter-guerrilla fight in Algeria.  Resistance from the insurgents was finished.  Political considerations caused the final outcome in Algeria, not French military mistakes.  The operations of the French paratrooper battalions in that war used support of more than 600 helicopters and French air mobility tactics were highly developed.

There was a ruthlessness about the Algerian operation which is another trademark of this kind of war and possibly its greatest hazard.  There have been few eras in history when press, television and radio have had the importance in warfare which they now have, and the French successes in Algeria were often lost in French debacles on the front pages of the world.  This had much to do with the political events which took place.

So far as concerns the military actions which were used, and disregarding other aspects of the campaigns, the ones who use the French experiences to judge the outcome of the present conflict in Southeast Asia would do better to study the tactics of Algeria rather than the tactics in Mang Yan Pass or at Dien Bien Phu.  Air mobility had arrived in Algeria even as it arrived in Viet Nam in 1962.


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