1/03/2015 7:39pm, #1
Would armor units have been a better mainstay in Vietnam than airmobile units?
It never ceases to amaze me how articulate and nicely written old US military studies were in the Vietnam era. As such they are a pleasure to read and I cannot help but go through them from time to time. You feel like nowadays the government cannot produce such a pleasurable-to-read report. It's like in the US we lost all the English majors or something.
The most recent thing I stumbled on was this 1978 review of mounted combat in Vietnam: http://www.history.army.mil/books/Vietnam/mounted/
This monograph is an account of the operations of armored units of the United States Army in the Republic of Vietnam. The term armored units as used here is generic and includes tank and mechanized infantry battalions and companies, armored cavalry squadrons and troops, and air cavalry squadrons and troops-all forces whose primary modus operandi was to fight mounted.
Of necessity the story begins not with the arrival of the first U.S. armored units in Vietnam in 1965 but with armor in Vietnam during the years immediately after World War II. The generally unsuccessful experience of French armored forces in Southeast Asia from the end of World War II to 1954 convinced American military men that armored units could not be employed in Vietnam. It was widely believed that Vietnam's monsoon climate together with its jungle and rice paddies constituted an environment too hostile for mechanized equipment; it was further agreed that armored forces could not cope with an elusive enemy that operated from jungle ambush. Thus at the outset of American participation in the conflict and for some time thereafter, Army planners saw little or no need for armored units in the U.S. force structure in Vietnam. At the same time, however, extensive American aid that flowed into Vietnam after the French left the country was directed in part to developing an armored force for the newly created Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
It was not until 1967, however, when a study titled Mechanized and Armor Combat Operations, Vietnam, conducted by General Arthur L. West, Jr., was sent to the Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Army, that the potential of armored forces was fully described to the Army's top leaders. Despite the study's findingsthat armored cavalry was probably the most cost-effective force on the Vietnam battlefield-there was little that could be done to alter significantly either the structure of forces already sent to Vietnam or those earmarked for deployment. By that time, constraints on the size of American forces in Vietnam had been imposed by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and decisions on force deployment extending well into 1968 had already been made. The armored force of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, meanwhile had been successful enough in fighting the elusive Viet Cong that U.S. armored units had been deployed in limited numbers, usually as part of their parent divisions.
Anyway, the idea that armor units could have been better in Vietnam than airmobile units is sort of an old historical football. Historians argue that airmobile units were lightly armored and often brought down by small arms fire. Although they could drop off small amount of infantry in all kinds of places, thus providing mobility, those infantry units themselves tended to lack firepower due to smaller size and due to only having M72 LAWs and 40mm grenades as heavy weapons; they had to rely on calling in air and artillery support which introduced its own problems and complications. For this and other reasons as the war evolved the US tactic became a lot less about trying to engage NVA directly with infantry but rather about "finding them and fixing them", in other words locating the NVA units in the jungle and then calling in airstrikes or artillery as the main way to inflict casualties. Which as you might imagine is easily said but not trivially done.
So the argument goes that had the US simply invested more in traditional armor units instead of newfangled airmobile tactics to fight the Vietnam War, perhaps things could have been better. Basically they were heavily armored, had lots of firepower, and supposedly were OK at pushing their way through jungle. Some claim they would have been more effective at attacking the NVA since they were an infantry-heavy military force and would have lacked the firepower to fight armor unit effectively. The study I linked to tries to claim that armor would have been able to operate throughout the majority of Vietnam except for the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta.
So, from my armchair history general perspective, the idea that armor could have been better seems kind of questionable. The NVA were nothing if not adaptable and well trained. Do historians really think they would have been unable to figure out how to ambush armor units that were trying to barge their way through a muddy forest?
If anything the biggest problem with US forces in Vietnam seems to have been a lack of mobility. Infantry units tried to push through the jungle with a main body and flanking units and kept getting stuck and hung up because the personnel had to hack through dense vegetation. There are historical examples of units getting lost, getting cut off and enveloped, and failure to coordinate. There seems to have been lots of tactical rigidity on the US side especially outside of special operations. Why did the US never adopt NVA-style infantry formations in the jungle, using dispersed formations instead of trying to force suppress and flank tactics with relatively tightly bunched platoons probably developed during the second world war for Europe? If anything the early US tactics, based on the idea that US units would be able to chase NVA units into other US units, played right into the NVA hands who planned to retreat with smaller dispersed units to draw US units into NVA mbushes.
So, again, armchair history here, but it just seems like trying to chase NVA with tanks in the forest probably wouldn't have been the most intuitive approach. At least with airmobile there was an element of unpredictability, in that infantry could be inserted almost anywhere.
But what do I know? I'd be interested to hear opinions of people on this forum.Best Vietnam War music video I've ever seen put together by a vet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDY8raKsdfg
1/03/2015 9:13pm, #2
I am not familiar with any overwhelming stories of success of using heavy armor in any jungle campaigns.Of the single rapier fight between valiant men, having both skill, he that is the best wrestler, or if neither of them can wrestle, the strongest man most commonly kills the other, or leaves him at his mercy.
–George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence
1/03/2015 10:22pm, #3
In Vietnam there were several uses for armored vehicles.
1) Patroling roads.
2) defending camps and urban areas.
3) Assaulting dug in fortifications, if the enemy was dumb enough to stick around long enough for these vehicles to arrive.
The french relied more heavily on armored vehicles because they had to transport more of their supplies by road. It's commonly believed the French never had more then 20 helicopters in indochina at any given time.
To give some examples, armored vehicles were very useful when the Americans had to retake Hue, when the NVA and Viet Cong used conventional infantry assualts during tet, and during the 1972 and 1975 NVA offensives.
When the NVA and Viet Cong relied on their mobility, and used the jungle for cover, American and RVN armored vehicles could generally not be employed.
1/04/2015 3:26pm, #4
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Sam Browning's response puts good context on when and where armor was of value during the American phase of the Indochina War. Every tool has a time and place for its use, but we often misuse our tools and then blame the tool.
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) used armor in its phased offensives from 1973 to 1975, when in 1975 it overran Saigon and the war ended. But, again, armor has a time and a place, and is part of a larger force construct that should be tailored to terrain, weather, and mission.
1/08/2015 5:46pm, #5
One big problem with the airmobile used in nam was the fact that they used hueys. Those fucking things can be heard from a continent away,not to mention that they were somewhat slow sitting targets. I couldn't really see armor doing much better though, the heavier armor would be slow as hell in a muddy jungle. The lighter m113's had decent mobility, but their armor sucked ass.
1/08/2015 7:54pm, #6
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From what I understand, tanks work best with roads and flattish open spaces, going up against other tanks or static defences. EG. Lots of tanks in Iraq, not so many in Afghanistan. They also need backed up by troops, especially in enclosed area's or grenades are going under tracks and down gun barrels. Probably had their uses in Vietnam, but only in a limited way.
1/08/2015 8:47pm, #7
Armor is great for conventional "Army vs Army" sort of warfare.Tooling around seeking contact? Not so much. Even MOUT isn't ideal for armor.
This forum has some interesting discussions on the topic:
In a nutshell, the premise of armored warfare rests on the ability of troops to penetrate conventional defensive lines through use of manoeuvre by armored units. It wasn't till the early 70's (after we left) that the North committed to more conventional military operations when armor could really come into play. Tank battles between the North and South then did occur.
Last edited by tgace; 1/08/2015 9:00pm at .