Indochina Monographs


by Maj. Gen. Nguyen Duy Hinh

Published by U.S. Army Center Of Military History



by Maj. Gen. Nguyen Duy Hinh


Observations and Conclusions

LAM SON 719 was a combined RVNAF-US operation conducted under several constraints. U.S. ground combat troops were allowed to cross the border into Laos. There was no joint command for the control of operations. Both the ARVN I Corps commander, who directed the operational effort in Laos, and the Commanding General, U.S. XXIV Corps, his senior adviser, worked together on an equal footing in keeping with the principle of cooperation and coordination. In contrast to the usual practice, ARVN forces went into combat without their advisers; neither could they expect a helping hand from U.S. or other Allied infantry troops while on Laotian soil. On the other hand, U.S. combat support for the offensive effort was greatly increased in terms of firepower and helilift. This support was vital since the objectives of the operation lay outside the RVN national border in a terrain which was not only unfamiliar and difficult but also held for a long time by the enemy and organized into an important logistical base area.

To break the RVN attempt to strangle their lifeline, which was the only one remaining in the entire southern Indochina area, the North Vietnamese Communists reacted swiftly. Elements of five infantry divisions with their armor and artillery support and all logistic units operating in the area were eventually thrown into the battle. This combat force was estimated at over 40,000 men. In an effort to compensate for his inferiority in firepower, the enemy employed the tactic of massive infantry attacks. In response, our devastating firepower inflicted severe losses on the enemy; about one half of his committed combat strength was sacrificed. An enemy regiment went into Laos in

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early February 1971 with approximately 2,000 men. After 45 days of combat, it was reduced to a total strength of 600 to 900. These losses required replacements, and to keep his severely mauled main force units in the north up to combat strength, the enemy was forced to reduce the amount of replacements earmarked for his units further to the south in both Vietnam and Cambodia.

Although the supply caches that our forces found in Laos were not as large as those captured in Cambodia the previous year, the amount of enemy materiel and supplies destroyed was quite substantial according to statistics which included bomb damage assessment of only 10% of the B-52 targets. The true amount could have been much greater had all strike targets been carefully searched. Of particular importance, sections of the enemy's fuel pipeline system were destroyed in at least seven areas. The quantity of enemy ammunition and other supplies expended or destroyed during this campaign also reduced his supply level to a considerable extent. In fact, in the aftermath of LAM SON 719, there were many indications that enemy units, throughout all of South Vietnam and Cambodia, began to feel the pinch of supply and personnel shortages.

These losses and expenditures naturally had to be replaced or replenished, and to meet these heavy demands, the enemy required more resources, more manpower, and more time. Despite its short duration, LAM SON 719 effectively disrupted the enemy's north-south supply system. This effect was nearly total in the area of operation, somewhat less west of it. Our intelligence revealed that enemy personnel manning the supply base system sustained about 50% casualties along with sizable materiel losses. In addition, the destroyed and mined roads that ARVN forces left behind caused the enemy more difficulties long after the incursion had ended. ARVN troops had also received the opportunity to observe first hand the road net, terrain and disposition of enemy logistic facilities which contributed to our target development.

On the part of the RVN, the offensive it had launched into Laos obviously meant much more in another aspect. Simultaneously with this effort, the RVN also initiated a large sweeping operation through

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several other Communist bases located in Cambodia. This conduct of two simultaneous major offensive operations beyond the national border would have been impossible for the RVN just two years earlier. More significantly, while our troops were operating outside the border, the military situation at home was quiet, security improved, and the re-deployment of U.S. combat troops continued at a steady pace. All these accomplishments would have been impossible without considerable progress in the combat effectiveness of the RVNAF and in the Vietnamization and Pacification programs.

In lower Laos, ARVN forces had proved their fighting ability. At least three quarters of all infantry battalions fought with professional effectiveness despite the absence of U.S. advisers and the overwhelming numerical superiority of enemy forces which were also supported by substantial firepower. This fact alone imparted self confidence to those units which engaged such great odds.

The swiftness and forcefulness with which enemy forces reacted to our incursion gave credence to intelligence reports that the enemy had been preparing to launch an offensive of his own some time during the year. Had it not been for LAM SON 719, the enemy's planned offensive, which occurred in the spring of 1972, may have come up to a year earlier. As it was, the RVAAF were much further along in the process of Vietnamization by Easter 1972 than they were in early 1971 and better prepared to cope with the great and widespread offensive the NVA eventually launched. This delay forced upon the enemy was one of the most important outcomes of LAM SON 719.

On the other hand, subsequent intelligence reports also indicated that the enemy was concerned that after LAM SON 719, the RVN would strike into the A Shau Valley and try to destroy Base Area 611. This concern on the part of the enemy revealed two things. First, he would be preoccupied with consolidating the defense of this base area and, as a consequence, would have less time to devote to any offensive activity. Second, despite his boastful claims of victory, the enemy apparently respected the RVNAF capabilities.

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The above analysis serves to point out the main objectives that both the RVN and the U.S. had expected to achieve through LAM SON 719: more time for the Vietnamization process and the strengthening of the RVN to justify the continued redeployment of U.S. forces. From all indications, this objective was achieved. It permitted President Nixon to announce, only one day after the last raid into Laos had ended, that an additional 100,000 troops would be withdrawn between early May and the end of November 1971. This would reduce total U.S. combat strength in South Vietnam to 184,000. So, in the final analysis, although LAM SON 719 was not a total tactical success, it certainly helped the RVN and the U.S. to achieve some of their more important strategic objectives. In return, the RVN had to pay a high price and in the process exposed some of its weaknesses in the areas of defense and security.

In the first place, the general reserve forces, which consisted of the Airborne and the Marine Divisions, proved to be insufficient. for the defense posture of the RVN. During LAM SON 719, both divisions were unable to achieve total success despite a rather limited objective and the participation of the 1st Infantry Division and the 1st Armor Brigade. On the enemy side, the NVA reserve forces which were thrown into the battle effectively blunted our offensive thrust in spite of serious losses, a clear indication of the enemy's ever increasing military might. In addition, the Ho Chi Minh Trail had become a sophisticated, convenient and flexible infiltration system and its thousand odd miles of well concealed jungle roads had proved to be difficult to interdict and hold.

Next, was the continued RVNAF dependence on U.S. support demonstrated by LAM SON 719. In retrospect, one may wonder how the Laotian incursion would have proceeded without U.S. artillery, air and other combat support assets. The RVNAF had been trained and conditioned for several years in the use of U.S. firepower either through the U.S. advisory effort or through combined operations with U.S. combat units. The Vietnamization program which was designed to enable the RVNAF to assume the combat burden, apparently had not provided enough firepower and mobility for self support. It was understood that in the long run, the RVNAF would have to develop a combat doctrine of their own supported

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by their limited capabilities. However, this goal was not in reach within the foreseeable future. In the immediate present, LAM SON 719 made it all too clear that not only was North Vietnam's combat strength increasing, its capabilities surpassed the RVN's by a large margin in term of anti-aircraft weapons, armor and artillery. The question posed at that time appeared to be whether the RVN, without U.S. presence and support, could meet the challenge presented by the enemy's continued expansion and development.

LAM SON 719 did not come as a surprise for the enemy as intended. This was a profound disappointment for our side. We had tried to keep the planning and preparation process as leak proof as possible, even at the expense of carefully preparing our units for the challenge. But the enemy had correctly anticipated our possible action five months in advance (1). To counter it, he had activated a Corps level control headquarters, Front 70B, as early as in October, 1970 to exercise control over the 304th, 308th and 320th Divisions. The battleground had also been carefully prepared. To the dismay of ARVN units, they found that regardless of their direction of advance in the area of operation, they encountered well organized defense positions. Enemy artillery was also pre-registered to every hilltop susceptible of becoming a landing zone for our helicopters. In addition, enemy prisoners testified that a substantial part of supply caches had been removed to other areas. What we had hoped to be a surprise turned out to be something the enemy had planned for as a contingency ever since the Cambodian incursion was terminated. On the contrary, the surprise, in some areas, was ours.

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We did not expect to meet head on with T-54 tanks and 130-mm guns in the jungles of Laos. Neither did we suspect that Route No. 9 would be such a problem, heavily mined and riddled with fire ambushes. We had no idea that the enemy had developed to such an extent his defense of our area of operation.

The rapid and determined reaction of the enemy to our incursion also presented additional complications. Even though we enjoyed modern and effective air support, we were unable to neutralize his antiaircraft system. His artillery did not suffer much from our counter battery fire. As to his mortars, they were beyond our capability to destroy or drive sway. In a concerted effort, his antiaircraft weapons, artillery and mortars joined fires to neutralize our superiority in air mobility. Our infantry was eventually forced on the defense by the numerical superiority of enemy units whose firepower was also no less overwhelming. We did not anticipate that the enemy's armor would be a major threat, especially in the Laotian jungle. We were wrong. As a matter of fact, we were unable to counter it effectively regardless of the manner in which it was deployed. We had 300 armored vehicles but they could barely control twelve miles of road. It is obvious that our commanders and planners had underestimated the enemy's ability to react. We did so because we viewed the enemy through our own lens and judged him according to our experience. Most of our combat decisions were based on subjective reasoning with the end result that neither our strategy nor our tactics seemed responsive enough to the kind of warfare the enemy was waging. The great military strategist, Sun Tzu, had said centuries ago: "Know thy enemy, know thyself, a hundred battles fought, a hundred victories assured." This was perhaps just military common sense but how many of our current military commanders really grasped that simple truth and put it to work? Besides, it seemed that our side was still complacent with its outdated vision of a guerrilla type enemy which had existed only a decade ago.

The major tactical error of LAM SON 719 centered, then, on a rigid application of familiar operational patterns that had so far succeeded reasonably on the battlefields within South Vietnam. These ingrained

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habits did not go unnoticed by the enemy who always reviewed every detail following an engagement. But these tactics simply did not work in the rugged terrain of the Truong Son Range, a long held enemy base area. Despite the advantage of U.S. firepower and airmobility, I Corps did not always know how to employ it effectively although the heliborne thrust into Tchepone conducted by the 1st Infantry Division was a successful maneuver. By contrast, the enemy proved resourceful enough to take maximum advantage of the terrain and to develop his strengths accordingly while minimizing his weaknesses. Because of his resourcefulness, the effectiveness of our FSB system, our armor and our airmobility were greatly reduced. Even our firepower became less devastating than it should have been.

Finally, both the RVN and the U.S. really missed the chance for a big victory during LAM SON 719 on a battleground which was decisive for the outcome of the war. Because of the significance of the panhandle, the enemy had thrown into combat almost all of his reserve forces - 12 regiments confirmed and three others probable - and he seemed determined to go all out, win or lose. On our part, we hesitated, we procrastinated and we passed up a big chance of winning when the chips were all down. For one thing, we failed to foresee the big stake, plan for it carefully and commit sufficient forces to ensure success. When we went in, we knew that the objective was important. We believed our firepower was superior enough to destroy the massive concentration of enemy forces which resisted us. But we did not use it fully to our advantage to reach our objective as quickly as possible. As new enemy units arrived in the area, tilting the balance of forces in his favor, we only considered withdrawing to avoid undue losses. Was it an error in planning or a lack of planning? The 2d Infantry Division was available for commitment. It could have been re-deployed without risk because the U.S. 23d Division (Americal) was in its area to provide security. But we did not commit the 2d Division for the simple reason that we were not sure we could win. As to committing more forces to ensure victory, the RVNAF simply did not have them available.

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In lower Laos, our enemy had once more proved that his war machinery was effective. He also proved he was determined and capable enough to muster his force for the protection of his vital area. As individuals, the enemy troops who were captured or rallied to our side all proved to be weary of the war and utterly demoralized. But within their own ranks and during combat, under the stimulation of command and Party cadres, they were apt to become fearless. During the operation, their repeated waves of assault were so fierce that some were reported occasionally to have been drugged prior to engagement. Whatever the truth1 the fact must be admitted that enemy command and control was effective. North Vietnam also demonstrated it could see far ahead, plan for its goal realistically and implement its plans with resolution. In addition to having effective command and control, NVA units were well disciplined, well, trained and exceptionally well indoctrinated. Their obvious advantage was positive and determined leadership, both military and political.

The South Vietnamese soldier was definitely superior to his enemy as an individual. He was more experienced, better trained and wiser. In general, he had fought with determination and professionalism against a numerically superior enemy who endeavored to protect his vital life line. Despite the protractedness of the war and overwhelming hardships and privations he still fought on and accepted sacrifices. This was evident during LAM SON 719.

The immediate results of LAM SON 719 were impressive indeed. However, the far reaching impact of this operation only materialized a long time afterwards as the situation in both South Vietnam and Cambodia began to improve. But the repercussions of this imperfect exploit seemed to indicate that the long term struggle of South Vietnam needed to be forged by sharper tactical skills and guided by an appropriate and more effective strategic leadership. This was perhaps the greatest lesson that we could derive from LAM SON 719.

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(1) Deposition made by a Communist sergeant from the 24B Regiment, NVA 304th Division who defected to our side. Enemy units had received orders to counteract a possible ARVN offensive along Route No. 9 five months before it was launched.