May 11, 1966
Had Different Viet Nam Situation
NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, is now in the
with troops of the 1st Cavalry Division in Viet Nam. His
the war in Southeast Asia will continue daily in The Enquirer.)
By CHARLES BLACK
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
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
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.