Airpower in the War for Cochinchina: “When the stakes are worth the pain”

by  Dr. William Waddell

As the United States seems poised to broaden its military engagement against the Islamic State, it is prudent to consider more extensively how Airpower has succeeded and failed in the past under similar circumstances.  One potential font of knowledge is the First Indochina War (1945-1954) in which a conventionally formidable, though resource-constrained Western army faced off against the hybrid foe animated by a powerful ideology with global reach and popular appeal.

Airpower in the Indochina War was a vexed and variable affair.   Unlike the American Army Air Corps (and ultimately Air Force) the French armée de l’air, while notionally an independent service since 1934, was inextricably tied to terrestrial concerns. During the wars of decolonization it functioned almost exclusively as an adjunct of army operations.  Even more problematic was the severe, nearly crippling, material shortcomings under which it operated for most of the Indochina War.  Equipment, such as was available, came second-hand from the British and Americans.  Pilots and maintenance personnel were in perennial arrears.  Furthermore, unlike the Americans and British at the outbreak of the war in 1945, French aviators were not practiced extensively in the more “strategic” uses of Airpower.  In the main, therefore, the armée de l’air was a tactical force in terms of equipment and mindset, but was often tasked during the course of the war to square increasingly problematic operational/strategic circles, especially in the principal theatre of Tonkin.

In the far south of Indochina, the part known as Cochinchina (i.e. that area which roughly corresponds to the IV Corps Tactical Zone during the American phase of the war), a unique operational rhythm developed.  In this area, centered on Saigon, the armée de l’air faced a poverty of resources an order of magnitude more severe than the relative luxury in the north.  Because of this French theatre commanders were more quickly disabused of the notion that they could effect decisive battlefield operations, relying on an exaggerated notion of aviation’s abilities to reify fantastical schemes of maneuver.   Instead, in the south, the French Expeditionary Force evolved a homeostatic use of airpower that lent suppleness and flexibility to an otherwise rigid defensive posture.  This attitude ultimately allowed the French position in the south to survive, and even thrive after a fashion, while the situation in Tonkin unraveled.

To make this point, it is first necessary to give an extremely brief survey of the disposition and composition of French air assets during the war.[i] At base and for most of the war aviation in Indochina was divided into three tactical groupements or G.A.T.A.C. (Groupements Aériens Tactiques). One was stationed in Tonkin; the second covered the center of the country in Annam; the third was stationed in the south and was centered mainly in Tan San Nhut outside of Saigon.  Functionality within the GATACs was divided into formations de combat (fighter and bomb groups), formations de transport, formations de reconnaissance and finally unités de liaison et observation (liaison and observation units).  One should not imagine, however, that these three groupings were in any way equivalent.  GATAC Nord, which served Tonkin, was substantially larger than the other two after new runways were cleared over the course of 1947.[ii]  By way of example and contrast, for most of the war fighter aviation in the south consisted of a single groupe de chasse. Actual airframes in operation paints an even grimmer picture:  in the summer of 1949, for example, GATAC Sud only had six Spitfires in working order at any one time.[iii]  GATAC Nord had a good deal more, usually at least two groupes de chasse.[iv]

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Courtesy frenchwings.net, “Lt Humbert devant le Spitfire IX “A” à Sano 1948. Collection Colonel Humbert..”

 

 

Given that the bulk of Vietminh formations resided in the north, it is hardly surprising that the French concentrated their limited aviation assets in Tonkin.  Whatever the mix, however, the guiding principle of airpower application in Indochina was “decentralized” operations tied intimately and inextricably to “surface” concerns.[v]  It would be wrong to think that at any point during the Indochina War the armée de l’air mounted anything resembling a truly independent operation.

What did develop in Indochina in respect to airpower were two different operational rhythms.  The first planners dubbed a régime de croisière (cruise arrangement) in which air assets were used at a sustainable pace with an eye to maintaining a steady tempo of operations.   The second was a régime de crise (crisis arrangement) in which all available assets were thrown at a given tactical/operational problem regardless of loss or maintenance requirements.  As air planners noted time and again, the use of the “crisis” regime necessarily resulted in a dramatic exhaustion of operational potential immediately after the surge.  Airframes pushed to the limit, crews exhausted and parts in short supply meant that air operations were reduced to a bare minimum following major efforts while the logistical services scrambled to put things right.

The problem in Tonkin was that crisis became the norm.   Believing that one more effort might be enough to bring the Vietminh to heel, the French High Command initiated an agonizing system of undamped operational oscillation.  It began in 1947 with Operation LEA, the all-out effort to surround and capture the Vietminh main body complete with leadership and continued with increasing amplitude all the way to the effort in extremis to maintain the beleaguered garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. At each juncture – e.g. Hoa Binh in 1951/52, Operation LORRAINE in 1952, Na San in 1952/53 and finally Dien Bien Phu in 1954 — French commanders could convince themselves that one more push would be enough to upend the Vietminh threat, restore security to the Red River delta and render meaningful the immense wastage in men and material.  In fact during the effort to support and supply Na San in 1952, a garrison smaller and far closer than Dien Bien Phu, the armée de l’air was already operating far beyond its theoretical flight hour maximums regardless of unit type.[vi]  When these efforts failed, airpower in Tonkin entered periods of prolonged eclipse during which the Vietminh threat would grow greater than before.  As air assets once more came online they would be thrown into new crisis to restore the deteriorating situation, resulting in the same problem yet again, only this time with greater magnitude and on a grander scale.

Truthfully air operations in Tonkin hardly ever settled into a “cruise arrangement;” they instead swung violently between emergency, superhuman effort and the supine licking of wounds.  In short, the extraordinary leveraging of airpower, often against the advice of airpower professionals, allowed the French command to momentarily live far beyond its real capacity.  Each iteration of this gambler’s fallacy made the next try all the more dangerous and inescapable.  In 1953 the staff had recommended that aviation not be employed except “quand l’enjeu en vaut la peine” (when the stakes [were] worth the pain).  In Tonkin, unfortunately, the application of airpower consistently raised the stakes to terrible effect.[vii]

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Courtesy frenchwings.net, “P63C Kingcobra. Collection C Requi.”

 

By necessity rather than strictly intent, a far different pattern emerged in Cochinchina.  In February 1948, having failed to achieve a knockout blow against the Vietminh in Tonkin in 1947, the French High Command uncharacteristically pushed substantial reinforcements south to effect a final reckoning with the southern arm of the communist insurrection.  A massive effort, especially for the south, the operation (codenamed VEGA) featured over 4,800 men as well as substantial artillery and riverine assets.[viii]  In terms of aviation, the southern command marshaled enough transport to simultaneously drop two battalions of paratroopers, numerous spotter aircraft and 13 fighter-bombers, a remarkable number for a southern operation.[ix]

In a highly choreographed maneuver, the French intended to surround and destroy the greater portion of the Vietminh infrastructure operating at the eastern edge of the Plain of Reeds.  Spotter aircraft would vector in artillery fire, fighters and waterborne infantry to fix and destroy bewildered and trapped Vietminh formations.  In the end, it proved too much.  The Vietminh could not help but notice the amassing of men and machines for the strike.  They slipped from the noose before it was ever drawn.  VEGA was a failure.[x]

VEGA could have been the beginning of the same invidious logic that took hold in Tonkin, i.e. mortgaging the operational future for the pursuit of momentary tactical gains.  Yet the commander at the time of VEGA, General Pierre Boyer de Latour, took the opposite tact.  He understood VEGA and its aftermath as an object lesson in his command’s very tangible limitations.  Rather than bide his time and resources for the next masterstroke against the Vietminh as his northern counterparts did time and again, Latour hardened the core of his position around the major urban/economic zones of Cochinchina.  He built an elaborate network of fortifications manned increasingly by locally-raised troops.  Possessed of little in the way of aviation assets at any one time, Latour used his flyers to give his otherwise rigid, defensive position a flexibility it would otherwise lack.  Perpetually short on truly mobile units, Latour and his successors used reconnaissance aviation and transport to speed relatively small amounts of troops to critical fault lines in the nick of time.  This proved especially valuable in the intense battle of late 1949/1950 when crack Vietminh battalions attempted to break into the French position.  Well-timed, small-scale paratroop drops sustained with firepower from above and kept abreast of enemy movements by spotter aircraft proved indispensable to French survival.

Though airpower in Cochinchina was neither independent of army concerns, nor decisive in its own right, the effective use of aviation assets was indispensable to the maintenance of the French position.  Airpower, even under severe limitations, proved vital to the homeostatic operational perspective that developed in the south.  Indeed French commanders in the south, in an interesting penchant for biological language, liked to talk about building the “ossature” (frame or bones) of their position.[xi]  This was the forts and strongpoints; the line infantry and the partisans.  They furthermore saw Saigon and the surrounding old cities of Cochinchina as the heart pumping the lifeblood of economic activity that came down the rivers and across the canals. [xii] In keeping with our metaphor, airpower became the lymphatic system, part and parcel of the vitality of the whole.

As Vietminh pathogens erupted into the system in 1949/1950 Airpower proved its worth.  Attacks against French positions, especially in the west near Tra Vinh went down to costly failure.  Vietminh main force regiments, assiduously trained and constructed over the previous several years, were disbanded after their rout and southern communists were obliged to swear off large-scale offensive action for the remainder of the war.[xiii]  As the war dragged on in the rest of the country, the southern Vietminh never again posed a serious military threat to the heartland of Cochinchina until years after the French withdrawal.

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Courtesy frenchwings.net, “P63 Kingcobra 44142 du Normandie Niemen. Collection J Houben.”

Though we must be tentative about any direct corollaries with modern conflicts, the experience of Airpower during the First Indochina War can perhaps serve as a warning against relying too extensively on the air arm to fix an otherwise disordered operational/strategic picture.  There is certainly more to the picture, but is also plain that at many points commanders foisted unrealistic expectations on their aviators in the vain hope of leapfrogging their own basic strategic confusion.  This practice usually deepened the confusion and saddled the strategic posture with ever-greater incongruities.  In Cochinchina this by and large did not occur.  Airpower served to strengthen a sustainable presence and created a tempo of operations that was self-reinforcing and denied the enemy the politically and economically vital center of the country.

[i] A review of “lessons-learned” prepared by the French Expeditionary Force in 1953 provides insight into the strategic/operational perspective of the French during the war and will serve as the basis of much of what is to follow. Service historique de la Défense (hereafer SHD), carton 10H984.  “Enseignements de la guerre d’Indochine.”  Prepared by F.T.E.O.  Dated 1953.

[ii] Philippe Gras, L’armée de l’air en Indochine (1945-1954): L’impossible Mission (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2001), 149-150.

[iii] SHD, carton 10H906.  “Situation des T.F.I.S., mois de septembre,” 3eème Bureau. Dated Sept 1949.

[iv] At the beginning of the war the primary French fighter was the Spitfire Mk IX.  Over the course of 1949/50 this was replaced by the P-63 King Cobra, and to a lesser extent the F8F Bearcat and F6F Hellcat.

[v] SHD, carton 10H984.  “Enseignements de la guerre d’Indochine.”  Prepared by F.T.E.O.  Dated 1953.

[vi] Gras, 422.

[vii] SHD, carton 10H984.  “Enseignements de la guerre d’Indochine.”  Prepared by F.T.E.O.  Dated 1953.

[viii] SHD, carton 10H4950.  “Compte-rendu d’Opération “VEGA”.  Dated 23 Feb 1948.  Prepared by Lt-Colonel de Sairigné, Commandant la 13e D.B.L.E, Secteur de HOC MON, Commandant l’opération “VEGA.”

[ix] Gras., 186.

[x] SHAT, carton 10H4950.  “Compte-rendu d’Opération “VEGA”.  Dated 23 Feb 1948.  Prepared by Lt-Colonel de Sairigné, Commandant la 13e D.B.L.E, Secteur de HOC MON, Commandant l’opération “VEGA.”

[xi] SHD, carton 10H906.  “Instruction personnelle & secrète pour les Colonels Commandants de Zone,” prepared by Général de Brigade Chanson, Commandant les Forces Terrestres du Sud Vietnam.  Dated 25 May 1951.

[xii] A.M. Savani, Visage et Images du Sud Viet-Nam (Saigon: Imprimerie française d’outre-mer, 1955), 14.

[xiii] SHD, carton 10H3746.  “évolution des forces V.M. du Nambo de Septembre 1945 à Janvier 1952,” dated 10 January 1952 and prepared by état-Major/2eme Bureau, Forces terrestres du Sud Viet-nam.

 

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