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PAVN (People's Army of Vietnam) is the formal name given to all elements of the Vietnamese armed forces; hence the designation PAVN (or People's) Navy and PAVN (or People's) Air Force. This usage is traceable to the 1954 Geneva Agreements under which the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was permitted to keep such armed forces as it already possessed. To adhere to the letter of the agreements, DRV leaders immediately created a navy and air force, but listed these new services as part of PAVN. Separate naval and air forces with distinct military identities evolved over the years, however, and traditional interservice rivalries quickly began to assert themselves (see fig. 18).

From their earliest days, the Vietnamese communists organized their armed forces into three basic categories described informally as "types of troops." Within the first category, the PAVN Regular Force ("main force troops"), are the army, the navy, and the air force. In 1987 the army consisted of about 1.2 million officers and enlisted personnel; the navy, about 15,000; and the air force, about 20,000. The second grouping, the Regional Force (or "territorial troops"), is organized geographically and consists chiefly of infantry units with limited mobility. In 1987 it totaled about 500,000. The third category, the PAVN Militia Self-Defense Force (or "local troops"), is a semi-mobilized element organized by community (village, urban precinct) or economic enterprise (commune, factory, worksite). In 1987 it numbered about 1.2 million.

Military writers in Hanoi have tended to refer to the Regional and Militia Self-Defense forces collectively as the Strategic Rear Force. The Regional Force is deployed at the provincial level and has units headquartered in each provincial capital, at the very least. The Militia Self-Defense Force fulfills combat, combat support, and police functions from the district to the village level. The Regional and Militia Self- Defense forces are two of about a dozen separate military organizations that constitute the Paramilitary Force, which is an integral part of PAVN.

Taken together, these groups--excluding PAVN--have a total of about 1.6 million personnel under arms. The Paramilitary Force has four functions: to defend its local area in time of war and to delay, not to halt, the enemy; to support PAVN regular units in combat; to maintain local security in peace and in wartime; and to engage in economic activity, chiefly food production and road-building. In the deployment of troops during wartime for the purpose of repelling a full-scale invasion, PAVN strategists make a doctrinal distinction between the Regular Force, which would use conventional tactics, and the Paramilitary Force, which would employ guerrilla tactics in "local people's warfare."

Backing up the Regular and Paramilitary Forces is a reserve of about 500,000 personnel designated the Tactical Rear Force. This semi-mobilized body is composed mainly of veterans and overage males, who in time of emergency would replace personnel in the Militia Self-Defense Force. The latter would move up to the Regional Force, whose units might in turn be upgraded into the Regular Force.

Augmenting the Regular and Paramilitary Forces are two other military bodies whose status or functions appear anomalous. In the North, a "super" paramilitary force called the People's Guerrilla Forces was created in 1979. It was described as a special combat organization with units deployed in villages along the China border and seacoast. However, in late 1987, little more was known about it. In the South, a somewhat better-known organization, designated the Armed Youth Assault Force (AYAF) or Youth Assault Force (YAF), is reported to perform paramilitary functions. The AYAF is organized along military lines (from platoon to brigade) and usually is commanded by retired PAVN officers. However, it appears to be more a party organization than a military body reporting through defense channels. Units at various echelons are under the supervision of local district party committees, and the chain of command apparently leads to Hanoi. AYAF strength in 1986 was estimated at 1.5 million.

In 1986 the PAVN chain of command was headed by the party-government military policy-making apparatus: the National Assembly, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Defense Council on the government side; and the Political Bureau of the VCP Central Committee and the Central Military Party Committee on the party side. Because of overlapping Political Bureau and Central Military Party Committee membership, the Central Military Party Committee could be regarded as the ultimate power for all military matters. It was reorganized in 1982 and consisted of a secretary, a first deputy secretary, two deputy secretaries, and six members. Under guidance from the Political Bureau or the Central Committee, the Central Military Party Committee translated the will of the party--expressed in broad political terms--into specific instructions for the military.

The Ministry of Defense Party Committee, at the very top of the Ministry of Defense, had an entirely military membership. It was the highest operational party arm that dealt directly with PAVN, and consisted of a secretary, the PAVN commander in chief, the chiefs of the five military general-directorates (Military General Staff Directorate, General Political Directorate, General Rear Services Directorate, General Technical Directorate, and General Economic Construction Directorate), and the senior political commissars of the major subordinate commands, that is, the air force, the navy, and the four theaters of operation (the China border, the coast from the China border to below Da Nang, Northern Vietnam and Northern Laos, and Cambodia). Its secretariat was composed of a secretary general, two deputies, and ten members. The committee administered other party committees from the military-theater level to the basic party- unit level. At the division level and above, party committees were sizable permanent institutions whose function was to interpret Political Bureau and Central Committee directives for their respective organizations.

The major services, such as the air force and navy, had at headquarters level a Command Party Committee with a secretariat headed by the top political officer for the service and including the heads of all departments. At the company level was the party chapter, or chi bo (see Glossary), run by an executive committee of two or three full-time officials and made up of a collection of party cells ( to dang, see Glossary), each run by a cell leader. The leaders of party chapters communicated the party line, indoctrinated both party and nonparty members within PAVN, directed "emulation movement" drives and other motivational programs, recruited and purged the membership, and generally ensured the party's participation in all military matters.

The Ministry of Defense, organizationally, consisted of the Office of the Minister of Defense and offices of seven vice ministers of defense. These vice ministries were fairly small and for the most part coordinated the activities of the Ministry of Defense with other ministries and state organs whose activities concerned the armed forces (see fig. 17).

The highest level of authority for military operations in PAVN was the PAVN High Command, an institution encompassing the Office of the Commander in Chief, the five military directorates, and the offices of seven deputy chiefs of staff. The most important element of the High Command, under the chief of staff, was the Military General Staff Directorate, which can be likened to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States Department of Defense. At the next lower echelon were four other Military General Directorates that functioned roughly as staff sections of the high command. Also under the chief of staff were seven deputy chiefs of staff, whose purpose was liaison rather than command, and a number of specialized military commands. The PAVN Military Intelligence Department reported directly to the commander in chief (see fig. 18). It had personnel at lower levels of PAVN, and its chief responsibility appeared to be military intelligence activities within Vietnam and in Cambodia, where it reportedly had a large staff. It is not known whether this department operated outside Indochina.

The PAVN command structure was divided geographically into four military theaters and nine military regions or zones, including a Capital Military Region around Hanoi and Quang Ninh Province Special Region (see fig. 19). It was also divided tactically into military units ranging in descending order from corps to divisions, brigades, regiments, battalions, companies, platoons and squads. The military-theater designation was introduced in the midst of a postwar buildup when PAVN increased its regular force from 400,000 to about 1.2 million members and its divisions from 25 to 51 (38 infantry divisions and 13 support or economic construction divisions). The number of PAVN corps was also increased from six to eight. Creation of the military theater and the military corps was designed to facilitate what was called the combined arms strategy, meaning larger and more complex military operations that might include use of indigenous military forces from Cambodia and Laos.

A corps ranged in size from 30,000 to 50,000 troops and normally consisted of 4 infantry divisions plus service and support elements. A PAVN infantry division normally was composed of 3 infantry regiments (2,500 men each), 1 artillery regiment, 1 tank battalion, and the usual support elements. A regiment in turn was divided into battalions (600 men each) and the battalion into companies (200 men each).

As of mid-1986, the thirty-eight PAVN regular infantry divisions were assigned thus: nineteen in Cambodia, sixteen in Vietnam (ten in northern Vietnam, six in central and southern Vietnam), and three in Laos. Most of the thirteen economic construction divisions were in the China border region. A construction division was made up of older soldiers, including many who had fought in the South during the Second Indochina War. Each construction division was fully armed, had a specific tactical purpose, and continued to carry out its military training in addition to economic tasks, usually road building (see The Military's Place in Society , this ch.). These units carried the burden of the brief 1979 war with China and generally acquitted themselves well.

In 1987 PAVN's major combat services--artillery, armor, air defense, and special operations--were organized along standard lines, similar to armies elsewhere. Each consisted of a force whose commanding officer reported to the Military General Staff Directorate. A mystique surrounded the PAVN Special Operations Force, successor to the legendary Sapper Combat Arm of the First and Second Indochina Wars that specialized in sabotage and clandestine military operations. In 1987, the Special Operations Force consisted of two elements, the Sapper Command and the Airborne Command (the 305th Airborne Brigade). Reportedly there was a third element, an amphibious commando unit, about which little was known.

The Army in 1986 was estimated to maintain 1,600 Soviet-made T-34 -54 -55 -62, Type-59 tanks and 450 PT-76 and type 60 63 light tanks. It was also equipped with an estimated 2,700 reconnaissance vehicles; approximately 600 artillery guns and howitzers; an unknown number of rocket launchers, mortars, and antitank weapons; and 3,000 air defense weapons.

The PAVN Navy, begun in 1955 as the PAVN Riverine and Maritime Force, in 1959 became the Coastal Defense Force. Its "tradition day" is celebrated annually on August 5 to mark the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident in the Second Indochina War. The PAVN Navy began a buildup in the mid-1960s with the arrival of twenty-eight gunboats from China and thirty patrol torpedo boats from the Soviet Union. At the end of the Second Indochina War, it assumed the normal dual missions of a navy, that is, coastal defense and sea surveillance.

In 1986 the PAVN Navy continued to receive Soviet assistance and encouragement and was the largest naval force in Southeast Asia. Including some 1,300 former United States and South Vietnamese naval vessels, naval and civilian junks, and coasters, the PAVN Navy had a total of about 1,500 vessels. Its inventory contained two principal combat vessels, 192 patrol boats, 51 amphibious warfare ships, 104 landing ships, and 133 auxiliary craft.

The command structure of the PAVN Navy originated in Hanoi, where the commander in chief of naval forces was located. His office, the Naval Directorate, reported to the Military general Staff Directorate, i.e., the high command. The top operational Commander was the Commander, Vietnam Naval Forces, headquartered in Haiphong. The two posts were usually held by the same individual. Regulations issued in April 1982 established three flag-rank officers: rear admiral, equivalent to a major general; vice admiral, equivalent to a lieutenant general; and full admiral, equivalent to a colonel general.

Five naval regions made up the operational command. Headquartered at Haiphong, Vinh, Da Nang, Vung Tau, and Rach Gia, each region had two or more naval installations or facilities for which it was responsible. Within this structure were the navy fleets or navy groups, in turn divided into navy brigades. In 1987 the Ham Tu Fleet patrolled the northern Gulf of Tonkin as a strategic deterrent to China; its Chuong Duong Brigade was designed to oppose amphibious landings; its Kiet Brigade was assigned to defend the offshore islands and to perform troop transport duties. The Bach Dang Fleet served in the South. Its Ham Tu Naval Brigade (with 80 percent of its personnel South Vietnamese Navy veterans) operated almost entirely in Cambodian waters.

The PAVN Air Force fixed April 3, 1965, as its tradition day, the day when its pilots supposedly first engaged their United States counterparts in a dogfight over North Vietnam, and celebrates it annually. The Soviet Union increased the PAVN air inventory late in the Second Indochina War and again in 1979 after the Chinese attack. As of 1985 it was estimated that the PAVN Air Force consisted of about 1,600 planes and 20,000 personnel, making it the largest air force in Southeast Asia (somewhere between China's and India's in size). The operational element of the PAVN Air Force was the air regiment, of which there were seventeen in 1987 grouped into air divisions and headquartered at Noi Bai (Hanoi), Da Nang, Tho Xuan, and Tan Son Nhut (Ho Chi Minh City). The air regiments included 7 attack fighter-plane regiments (450 planes); 4 basic and advanced training regiments (225 trainers); 3 cargo-transport regiments (350 planes); and 3 helicopter regiments (600 helicopters). One light bomber force (60 planes) existed separately from the air regiments. The commander of the Air Force, headquartered at Bac Mai Air Base outside Hanoi, reported to the General Staff Directorate of PAVN. Strategic use of the Vietnamese Air Force, from its inception until 1979, was entirely defensive. During the Second Indochina War it existed to defend North Vietnam from United States air attack, but after the war, and especially in 1979, it existed to defend Vietnam from attack by China. Although defense remained its primary strategic function, the air force increasingly developed an offensive capability after 1979--chiefly through its attack-helicopter regiments--for use in Cambodia and presumably, should the need arise, against China. The PAVN Air Force made a first tentative venture into space flight in 1981, when Lt. Col. Phan Tuan (son of former defense minister Vo Nguyen Giap) took part in the Soviet Union's Soyuz 37 mission, a linkup with the orbiting Soviet space laboratory, Salyut 6.

In 1987, the PAVN Border Defense Command was the newest military organization. Until 1979, responsibility for border security was vested in the People's Armed Public Security Force (PAPSF), under the control of the Ministry of Interior, and paramilitary units acted collectively as a border patrol. Border defense became a full-time task only with the rise of the China threat. As a result, the Border Defense Command was transferred to the Ministry of Defense in 1979 and divested of such responsibilities as dealing with smugglers and illegal border crossings so that it could devote full attention to border defenses. The command was organized into battalions and included a mixture of PAVN and paramilitary units. Their duties included operating border checkpoints, patrolling the border, operating boats in the coastal waterway network, maintaining security on nearby islands, and operating roving border-area units (mostly composed of Montagnards) to guard against incursions by Chinese patrols.

Data as of December 1987


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