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Laos, 1948-1989; Part 3
By Troung, Albert Grandolini & Tom Cooper - with additional photographs supplied by Dr. Istvan Toperczer
Nov 13, 2003, 02:31

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The king Sisavang Vong of Laos used this RLAF Aero Commander 520 for his displacements. A gift from US President Eisenhower, it was seen here at Luang Prabang, the royal capital of the country and was attached to the RLAF VIP Flight that had also on inventory a C-47 and a De Haviland Dove. Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection.

The Chinese Road

While the ARVN had unsucessfully tried to severe the Ho Chi Minh Trail, another lesser known communist logistic corridor saw simultaneously a tremendous expansion. Since 1962, China was deploying engineer troops inside Laos to build a new logistical channel to support their local communist allies. The purpose was to link the Chinese Yunnan Province to those of north-western Laos. By 1967, under the protection of Pathet Lao troops, the road was even extended east towards North Vietnam, leading directly to Dien Bien Phu. Through what was now called the “Chinese Road”, in fact a network of motorable trails, via which Beijing was able to channel military supplies to Pathet Lao and the Communist Thais. Namely, by the end of 1960s the communist insurection had spread even into northern and eastern part of Thailand, with some 10 000 armed guerrillas. The RTAF was fully mobilized to support the Royal Thai Army (RTA) COIN operations. Several squadrons of T-6s and T-28s were deployed, occasionally supplemented by some F-86Fs or F-5As. The USAF Air Commando units based in Thailand also participated on this campaign. By 1969, 32 OV-10C Broncos were bought by the RTAF to face the increasing guerrilla threat.

Both Bangkok and Vientiane monitored with apprehension the continuing Chinese advance towards the Mekong River Valley that marked the Thai border. The military cooperation between Thailand and Laos then developed that led to a first joint clearing operation along the common northern border in 1967. In January 1971 the Chinese now approached the town of Pakbang, close to the Mekong River. Both the Thailand and Laos decided to react swiftly and when a Chinese truck convoy was sighted, a flight of B-Team T-28s attacked it, claiming 15 vehicles destroyed. A program of guerrilla-harassing attacks was then drawn, using Laotian tribal units and even some former Kuomingtan troops that were stationed in Burma. The air support would be provided by the RTAF, considered superior to the RLAF. The scheme had to be dropped in the aftermath of the failure of Operation Lam Son 719; Washington did not want to jeopardize its secret apertures toward Beijing. At that date, China had some 25 000 troops inside Laos while the Chinese logistical corridor was protected by 400 anti-aircraft guns (6 100mm, 150 85mm and 57mm, the rest being 37mm) and 30 radars. On 5 May 1971, an USAF RF-4C that overflew the area was hit by AA fire. The escorting F-4s bombed the AA batteries in retaliation. Another USAF strike took place against Chinese AA positions on 13 May.

While the Americans tried to court the Chinese for an acceptable agreement in the war in South East Asia, Bangkok did not share the same point of view. The Thais decided to create a buffer zone beyond their border to stop the Chinese advance. They then decided to deploy the Task Force Rathikoun, composed of several UNITY battalions, on the other side of the Mekong River. In the meantime a new sets of rules of engagement were sent to allied airmen operating over the Chinese Road. It was now forbiden to fly within 11 kilometres (7 miles) from each side of it! But if the Americans were willing to observe restraint, that seemed not to be the case of the Chinese. In early December 1971, a civilian Air Laos DC-3 that overflew the zone was shot down. On 27 December, it was the turn on an Air America C-123K. During the rescue attempt, several other Air America aircraft were damaged including a Volpar that took an 85mm hit but miraculously managed to land back to its base.

The Thais then decided to launch a vast sweeping action along both sides of the border. Operation Phalat involved an RTA Task Force with an infantry regiment and an airborne battalion on the Thai side of the border and the Task Force Rathikoun on the Laotian side. The drive was supported by the RTAF as well as some USAF F-4s and was considered sucessful, having destroyed several Pathet Lao and Thai Communist bases. The Thai Army Aviation helicopters were also deployed for the first time with Air America UH-34s.

But the sucess was short-lived, as the Thai positions were now harassed by the communist forces, in turn counterattacked by RTAF T-28s and AC-47s while the USAF A-1s were also involved. In April 1972, the Thais launched Operation Sourisak Moutry VIII but encountered a heavy resistance. A UNITY unit was encircled, forcing insertion of Thai special forces by helicopters inside of Laos to save the day. The besieged troops were then lifted out by the CH-53s of the USAF 21st SOS supported by the UH-1Ms of the White Horses. Finally, Washington and Beijing reached an agreement on the area after the historic trip of President Nixon to China. The Chinese agreed to stop their advance towards Thailand and to scale down their support to the Thai Communists while the American stopped any offensive actions against the Chinese Road. All the CIA-led Laotian intelligence teams forays inside China were also suspended.

The RLAF received its firsts AC-47Ds in December 1969. The unit was latter brought up to a full strength squadron with ten machines. These AC-47Ds were seen at Wattay in 1971. (Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolini)

Laos on the Rope

While the Communists had to deal with Operation Lam Son 719 in southern Laos, General Vang Pao once more time tried to recapture the Plain of Jars in the north. But the North Vietnamese retreated in good order, giving ground only reluctantly.Thai UNITY battalions were flown in to form a network of interlocked artillery bases in the midle of the Plain. In the Boloven Plateau, the Laotian also launched a new offensive with heavy air support. The CH-53s of the 21st SOS then sperheaded an air assault that led to the retaking of the towns of Saravane and Paksong. Back at Long Tieng, the North Vietnamese sappers attacked this important logistical hub and did inflict some damages. But the most damaging blow came from an USAF F-4 that dropped by mistake a string of CBUs on the base the day of Saint Valentine. That set on fire many friendly positions, killing 30 and injuring 170.

The North Vietnamese pressure forced Thailand to dispatch “volunteer” UNITY battalions into Laos at the end of 1970 to stabilize the situation. These Thai troops were supported by an UH-1M gunship helicopter squadron, known as the “White Horses” according to their radio-code and the unit’s insignia painted on the nose of the machines. These helicopters officially belonged to the RLAF but in reality they were run independently by the Thais and the CIA. Three CIA-trained Hmong pilots flew with the unit that was disbanded in 1973. The machines were intended to be handed over to the Thais but at that date the regime in Bangkok was opposed by many mass-demonstrations claiming a democratization of the society. Fearing that the government could use the gunships against the protesting students, the CIA decided to scrap them altogether! (Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolini)

However the sucess proved short-lived as Hanoi forces counter-attacked in December 1971. The Plain of Jars was then assaulted by two North Vietnamese divisions and two independant regiments supported by T-34-85 and PT-76 tanks, K-63 APCs and more M-46 130mm guns. For the first time, the communist drive was supported by intrusions over the Plain of SRVAF MiG-21MF fighters flying top cover for their ground troops. These MiG forays disrupted the US air support for a while. The RLAF T-28Ds were even temporarilly withdrawn from the area. After a lightning advance, the whole Plain of Jars was again in communist control after three days of heavy combats. Meanwhile Long Tieng, the main Hmong base, was now under enemy artillery fire. Despite the shelling, the RLAF T-28 detachment continued to operate from the local runway, hitting enemy positions minutes away only after taking off. The RLAF AC-47s joined the battle as well but the air attacks could not silence the well comouflaged and dispersed 130mm guns. Communist tanks even reached the “Skyline Ridge” that overlooked the Long Tieng Valley before the Hmongs were able to stop and repulse them.

In the Bolovens the North Vietnamese 968th Division also counter-attacked in January 1972, sometimes supported by MiG-21MFs. In fact, since several weeks the SRVAF tried to shot down some of USAF AC-130s or a B-52s that pounded the Ho Chi Minh Trail but each attempt had been driven away by escorting F-4s.

The USAF B-52 bombers were used extensively over Laos, saturate-bombing vast areas to destroy the communist hidden logistical positions. On the mountainous passes, the B-52s flew around the clock sorties to hit “target boxes” to create landslides to destroy the enemy roads. This B-52 was being loaded with an unusual load of BLU-3B cluster bombs, sometimes used to hit North Vietnamese concentration troops or bivouac zones. (Photo credit: USAF via Albert Grandolini)

Laos also served as a testing ground for a wide range of new air-delivered munitions by the Americans. The fuel air explosive devices were then first tested against the Ho Chi Minh Trails before their deployment in Vietnam. Here a huge 2 500lb BLU-72 “Propane Bomb” is being loaded under the wing of an USAF A-1E for a strike against a suspected truck park. (Photo credit: USAF via Albert Grandolini)

Nevertheless, on 20 November 1971, a lone MiG-21MF flown by Vu Dinh Rang suceeded to damage a B-52. The Laotian base of Ban Luang was also bombed on 9 October 1972 by two Il-28s from the SRVAF 929th Bomber Squadron.

On 9 October 1972 the Laotian outpost of Bam Luang near the South Vietnamese border was bombed by two Il-28s from the VPAF 929th Bomber Squadron in the sole documented offensive operation of the North Vietnamese Beagles. The strike was carried out in support of a ground offensive to push back the Laotian from the Boloven Plateau and was escorted by a flight of MiG-21s. Each bomber carried eight cluster bombs that were dropped accurately on the target. The returning Il-28s were pursued by a pair of VNAF F-5As that turned away when they were confronted by the MiG-21s. The crew of one of the bomber is seen here after the mission. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

The Sudden End

Despite much additional support by the USA the situation in Laos changed dramatically towards the end of 1972, particularly after December, when the US Congress stopped additional involvement of the US military in the country. The Americans recognized that the time came when they could no longer sustain the corrupt and drug-smuggling government in Vientiane. A last ditch effort was then made to reinforce the Laotians to control as much of teritory as possible before the implementation of a cease-fire in Indochina. Additional military equipment were poured into the country, notably new equipment to strenghten the RLAF.

By early 1973, the Lao air arm had some 180 aircraft on inventory and 2.150 men on strenght. Ten former Air America C-123Ks and 24 former VNAF UH-34s had been handed over in the last minute, as well as ten T-41D trainers. The other aircraft in service included 8 AC-47s, 18 C-47s, 15 O-1s and 75 T-28s. The number of UH-34s now reached 43, a sizeable helicopter force destined to partially replace the Air America fleet. Brigadier General Sourith Don Sasorith was replaced by a new commander, Brigadier General Bouathong Phothivongsa, the former commander of the COC. The new C-in-C attempted in vain to plead his cause to the US Air Attache Colonel Al Degroote to obtain AU-23 “mini-gunships” and UH-1H helicopters, in order to replace the UH-34s and A-1s and suplement the T-28s. He also restructured the RLAF tactical force by placing the T-28 units under a new centralized command. The T-28s were also regrouped within Tactical Fighter Wings (TFW); 1st TFW at Luang Prabang, 2nd TFW at Wattay, 3rd TFW at Savannakhet and 4th TFW at Pakse.

Sad remnants of a T-41B, apparently still showing what was left of the original COIN Grey camouflage - now badly worn out - as seen at Vientianne, in 2003. (Photo by Istvan Toperczer)

In their original guise, RLAF T-41Bs looked like this. The RLAF also operated its own FACs in addition to those of the Ravens even if they worked exclusively with the Laotian T-28s. In addition to the Cessna O-1s the RLAF also operated some Cessna U-17s. The Skywagons were also used as trainer with the Cessna T-41Ds at the Savannakhet Air Academy. (Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolini)

With the cease-fire date approaching, Vang Pao tried once more time to take a foot on Plain of Jars. He devised a new offensive in early December 1972, with a massive heliborne assault involving RLAF and Air America UH-34s, USAF CH-53s and eight recently acquired Air America CH-47Cs. But the offensive stalled after a month of fighting, mainly due to a poor coordination between the three task forces involved. In southern Laos, the North Vietnamese were soon on advance as well, placing Saravane under siege despite an intense air support: over 4.000 US combat sorties were flown while the RLAF mounted an additional 4.482 in January 1973.

US Pull-Out

On 22 January 1973 an armistice between the Lao government and Pathet Lao was signed. On the same day, the communist forces retook Paksong from the Thais. At the cease-fire date, the Royal Lao Gouvernment was in control of only the Mekong River Valley along the Thailand border. Both the Plain of Jars, excepting Long Tieng, and the Boloven Plateau were in North Vietnamese control.

Between 1965 and January 1973, when the United States suspended their military operations in Laos, the USAF alone had flown some 541 738 sorties over this country, while the B-52s had added some 33 206 other sorties. Laos had received an awesome amount of air-delivered ordinances totaling for the USAF, US Navy and USMC to some 2.087.204 tons, including 878.948 tons of bombs dropped by B-52s. The American air losses, amounting to no less but 497 aircraft. The USAF paid the heaviest price losing 413, including 111 F-4s, 59 F-105s, 28 F-100s, two F-104s, two F-111s, 22 RF-4s, three RF-101s, three A-7Ds, 12 B-57s and one F-102. Many propeller driven aircraft lost as well, including 90 A-1s, eight B-26Ks, five T-28s, six AC-130s, three AC-47s, one C-130, three C-123s, four C-47s, 19 OV-10s, 19 O-2s, eleven O-1s and one U-10. The US Navy had lost some 60 aircraft, including eight F-4s, 18 A-4s, 12 A-7s, one F-8 and two 2RF-8s, one RA-5C, nine A-6s, six A-1s and three Neptunes. The USMC involvement – and consquently the loses – in the air war over Laos were more modest, and amounted 24 aircraft, including 13 F-4s, two A-4s, three TA-4Fs, one F-8, four A-6s and one OV-10.

After the cease-fire a new coalition gouvernment was installed with the Pathet Lao but both parties maintained separate armed forces within their zones. In the aftermath the communists were swift to bring vast areas of the country under their control. In fact, out of a fear of a communist victory, the government started holding the RLA back from any kind of significant operations. The RLAF ceased its opertions until a breach in the cease-fire in April saw a renewal of strike operations. Washington also resumed its B-52 bombardments on 17 April but the fate of the government in Vientianne was already sealed.

In the middle in the already developing chaos Gen. Thao Ma decided to return from his exile to Thailand. This caused only more unrest. The “loyal” RLA generals panicked when on 20 August 1973 Ma and his followers crossed the Mekong River in 60 trucks and quickly brought the Wattay AB under control. Subsequently, he and six other pilots took places in the cockpits of T-28s and flew a violent air raid against the headquarters of the government. The RLA, however, deployed troops and brought Wattay back under own control. Gen. Ma’s T-28 was shot down while attempting to land: Ma survived but was executed by RLA troops after surrendering to them, at an age of 42.

By early 1970s the RLAF expansion began to bore fruit with an excellent tactical close air support system. The creation of the Combined Operation Centre greatly improves the coordination and the reaction time of the T-28 operations. This RLAF T-28D was bombing his target at tree top level. (Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolini)

This was practically the swan-song of the RLAF, which was subsequently considerably down-sized. The USA were not to replace any losses or supply any new aircraft any more, while the Lao generals observed the Air Force with suspicion and a main source of problems. The number of T-28s shrank from 75 to 40 while no more bombs or other amunitions were received. The remaining aircraft, pilots and technical personnel were subsequently not able to mount more than 2.000 combat sorties per month. The number of AC-47 was also reduced, from eight to six, and saw their miniguns removed and stored. The training of new crews was shifted from Thailand to Savannakhet while the last Thai pilots leaved the country. In 1974, the situation became worse under the pressure of the Pathet Lao members of the government. Since the fuel had now to be rationed, however, during the following months the capabilities of the RLAF sank rapidly: it took not much longer until the pilots were flying barely two sorties per month. Without air support neither the Hmnog nor the RLA could function properly, however, and a number of garrisons were soon left isolated and vulnerable to communist attacks. The COC that was the cornestone of the RLAF operation was at first handed over to the command of an army officer, then finally disbanded altogether. The CIA contracted airlines were also forced to suspend their operation by mid-1974. Their contracted personnels who performed many technical tasks for the RLAF were also withdrawn. By early 1975 only the transport units could maintain a minimum of activitiy.

Pathet Lao in Power

By the spring of 1975 the Pathet Lao already controlled a majority of the rural areas of Laos; on 14 April a strategically important crossing north of the capital was also captured and the road into Vientianne was now practically left open, especially as the RLG forbade any kind of counterattacks. The Lao Secretary of Defense, however, ordered an attack by nine T-28s that hit heavily a column of Pathet Lao, scoring a remarkable success. Eventually, however, this was the final combat mission flown by RLAF aircraft: upon hearing of the air raid the Prime Minister dismissed the Secretary of Defense and from then on the Pathet Lao had an easy game with what was left of the RLA.

With the RLAF removed from the skies, the Lao officers were silently observing the developments in Cambodia, where on 17 April 1975 the government collapsed under communist invasion. Only a few weeks later a similar thing happened in South Vietnam as well. The RLAF crews recognized what was going on and the potential danger for them. The Communists started numerous mass-demonstrations in the cities held by the RLG, asking for the removal of the “reactionary ministers”. In May 1975, the RLAF started evacuating aircraft and a number of civilians to Thailand. Expecting such eventuality, the communist agents tried to convince the RLAF personnel not to defect. They particularly targeted the members of the C-123 squadron. Excepting the personnel of that unit that switched side most of the others moved to Thailand. Some 16 T-28Ds that landed in Thailand were later transfered by the Americans to the Philippine Air Force.

Contrary to dictatorships in South Vietnam and Cambodia, however, the Royal government in Vientianne disappeared silently as the Pathet Lao gradually assumed control over the rest of the country. On 14 May 1975 Vang Pao and his entourage were evacuated from Long Tieng by a CIA-organized mission, comprising a C-130, two C-46s, a Turbo Porter and a Bell 205. On the same day the RLAF ceased to exist as an organized force. The King was forced to abdicate in December 1975 and with this act the first phase of Laos’ independence came to an end.

The exact colours of this exRLAF T-28D, photographed in the late 1970s, are still unclear. Some sources indicate the aircraft was painted in Light Blue (in the vicinity of FS25488) overall, but most suggest that this colour was applied only on undersurfaces, while the upper sides should have been left in COIN Grey. Most likely the confusion is caused by the fact that after spending at least ten years under tropical conditions the COIN Grey badly detoriated to a degree the border between the Light Blue and the COIN Grey colours were applied became unclear. Note the haphazard application of serials. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

The Hunt for the Hmong

After securing their supremacy in the Lao government, the Pathet Lao closed a friendship treaty with Vietnam in 1977 and immediately started organizing a new Lao Army, which was to include a new air force – the Laos People’s Liberation Army Air Force (LPLAAF). As related, the Pathet Lao had received a few transport aircraft in 1962, but they were quickly handed over to SRVAF. The North Vietnamese resumed the training of Pathet Lao aircrews in 1973 and a year later they formed an embryonic Pathet Lao Air Transport Regiment with a half dozen An-2s and An-24s. The unit operated mostly from Wattay AB, since Vientiane had been declared as a “Neutral City”, supporting the local communist garrison and flying VIP missions for the Pathet Lao ministers. One of the An-24 crashed near Hanoi on 8 March 1974. It carried the Algerian Foreign Secretary and 15 journalists covering his tour in South East Asia.

While most of the Rightist or Neutralist factions had abandoned the fight against the Communists, the Hmong continued their struggle, even though cut off from US support. The forced relocations of the Hmong tribes into lowlands and creatiion of state-run farms sparked a new revolt. Widespread attacks took place in Plains of Jars and some 60.000 Hmongs took refuge at the Phou Bia Massif, south of the Plain. Led by the messianic Tsong Zua Heu, the Hmongs were now regrouped within the “Chao Fa” - or “God’s disciples” - movement and extended their attacks along Route 13. Laotian outposts were even attacked at less than 60 kilometers north of Vientiane.

The newly-created Laotian People’s Liberation Army Air Force (LPLAAF) was then still in full reorganization and training. Vietnamese advisers helped to maintain the fleet of US-built aircraft and helicopters, but the lack of spare parts and ammunitions limited the operational capabilities. Air strikes were flown against the Phou Bia Massif with the T-28s guided by O-1 FACs, while the C-47s and C-123Ks brought in reinforcements. The fleet of the former national carrier, Royal Air Lao, was also mobilized to support military operations with a dozen DC-3s, DC-4s, a Vickers Viscount and a C-46. The LPLAAF then operated 29 T-28s with a detachment of eight at Muang Phonsavan and another at Long Tieng. The lack of trained personnel led the Government to release from the “reeducation camps” some former imprisoned RLAF crews. They were immediately thrown into battle but many of them took the occasion to defect to Thailand. No less than nine aircraft were flown by defecting pilots between 1975 and 1977, including two T-28s, one C-47, one An-2, four UH-34s, and a single T-41. Apart the An-2 Colt that was returned to Laos, all the other machines was detained by Bangkok. At least two LPLAAF helicopters were brought down by the Hmongs during this period as well.

A Laos People’s Liberation Army Air Force T-28 as seen in the late 1970s, with an alternate and rare form of national insignia. At the time most of the aircraft wore only the country's flag and this kind of insignia was seemingly applied only to very few surviving Trojans. Upper surfaces of this aircraft were left in traditional "COIN Grey", but underfuselage and lower surfaces of the wings were probably painted in light blue. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

With the help of Vietnam and Soviet Union, from 1977 the LPLAAF was expanded by addition of new equipment. An Interceptor Regiment was set up with ten MiG-21PFMs with two MiG-21Us, as well as six An-24s and four Mil Mi-8s. Unsubstantiated reports also indicated that five MiG-17Fs and a MiG-15UTI had been delivered but these seems to have belonged to a SRVAF detachment based in the country for some time. In addition the Soviets funded construction of radar stations and an ELINT gathering base to monitor Thailand and China. The Muang Phonsavan airstrip on the Plain of Jars was expanded into a large modern airbase while the other airfields were refurbished.

Rows of derelict MiG-21s as seen in March 2004 at Vientianne AB, together with an An-24. Of interest are several MiG-21PFMs on which brown and green camouflage can be made out. (Photo by Istvan Toperczer)

As soon as they were ready for new fighting the Laotian Communists – reinforced by 40.000 Vietnamese troops deployed in the country – started a massive campaign with the target of destroying the Hmongs. In the early 1977 several Hmong hilltop positions were put under siege by Vietnamese troops backed by M-46 130mm field guns. From May 1977 the SRVAF deployed a detachment of F-5A/Es to Wattay that flew numerous air raids on the settlements of the tribe, during which napalm and cluster bombs were used to subdue the guerrilla.

The Vietnamese offensive against the Hmong stronghold on the Phu Bia Massif, south of the Plain of Jars in 1978 was covered by special forces deployed by helicopters on summits to set up artillery bases. These Dac Cong Special Forces were just dropped out by a VPAF Mi-4 of the 919th Transport Regiment. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

The Vietnamese MiG-21s were also used alongside the LPLAAF T-28s and MiG-21s, after a SRVAF detachment was deployed at Pakse in the south, from where ist aircraft flew even strikes against targets in Cambodia. The Vietnamese advance was covered by Special Forces troops inserted by helicopters to occupy the high grounds. The SRVAF helicopters also brought-in artillery pieces on hilltops. After an intense artillery and air strikes preparation, the Vietnamese troops finally stormed the Phu Bia Massif, defended by 3000 Hmong guerrillas, on 3 December 1978.

In May 1977 Vietnam send additional troops into Laos to help the Pathet Lao to fight the Hmongs. The Vietnamese operations were supported by a detachment of VPAF F-5A/Es from the 935th Fighter Regiment of Bien Hoa AB. The unit was later withdrawn for operations against Kampuchea and replaced by detachments of MiG-21s. Here an F-5A was prepared to leave Bien Hoa for a long range ferry flight with five external fuel tanks. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

It was during this period that conflicting reports appeared in the West about the use of chemical weapons against the Hmongs. The refugees that arrived in Thailand reported that their villages were targeted by aircraft that dropped chemical bombs that vaporized a “yellow rain” – killing people and animals. Samples later analyzed in USA indicated that they surely came from a biological weapon, using Trichothecenes toxins, developed by the Soviets. The US Government then presented a request to UN condemning the Soviet Union and Vietnam, alleging that they had gathered enough proofs to confirm their suspicion. The US sources even indicated that they had the testimonies of a former Laotian Health Minister and of two defecting LPLAAF pilots who confirmed the chemical bombings. Some other attacks were later reported using helicopters or An-2s spraying the chemical. Each subsequent year showed an increase in the number of alleged chemical attacks against Hmong villages, reaching a peak in 1978-1979. Through December 1981, 260 separate chemical incidents purportedly caused at least 6 500 fatalities.

One of Lao An-2s survived long enough to later be put as "gate guardian" at the entrance to Vientianne IAP, as seen here in March 2004. (Istvan Toperczer)

Nevertheless, after three difficult years of combat, the Vietnamese had broken the back of the Hmongs. They were forced to disband their mauled battalions in 1980 and were now resorted to low level guerrilla attacks. By 1982 up to 50.000 Hmongs – mainly helpless civilians – were killed, many while attempting to flee to Thailand. The SRVAF never deployed permanent units in Laos but only occasional detachments to support specific ground sweeping operations. Fighter-bombers were brought in only occasionally, usually to support the yearly dry season offensive. Like in Cambodia, the Vietnamese relied mainly on helicopter-gunships for air support. Western intelligence sources reported the first time deployment of SRVAF Mi-24 Hind A in Laos in 1985. In April of the same year the Hmongs claimed the shot down of an LPLAAF Mi-8, killing two Vietnamese Major Generals as well as three Soviet advisers.

The war between China and Vietnam in 1979 also changed the nature of the conflict in Laos. Beijing now militarily supported the Hmongs alongside Thailand. The different resistance organizations were then regrouped within a loose “Lao People’s National Liberation United Front” (LPNLUF) in September 1980, but essentially the Hmong’s Chao Fa prevailed. The guerrillas mostly operated from the Champassak Region, with other groups operating in southern Laos in close contact with the Khmer Rouges. The LPNULF had officially created two “liberated zones”, each of them under the military control of both the respectively Lanna and Sip Songpana “Divisions”. Beijing set up training camps inside China in the Yunnang Province for allegedly 3.000 guerrillas. Since May 1979, some 4.000 Hmong guerrillas had already operating along the Chinese border, occupying the areas of Phong Saly and Vieng Say. Thailand created Army Operation Center 309 to coordinate the operations against Laos. The Thai Special Forces delivered weapons to the Hmongs while the Thai Rangers made occasional forays inside Laos to destroy the Thai Communist camps. The Thai Navy SEALS were already engaged along the Mekong River against the Laotian as soon as December 1978.

The reorganized LPLAAF was meanwhile increasingly involved in COIN-operations. A second fighter squadron was set up with the delivery of 15 or 20 MiG-21bis' and two MiG-21UMs in 1980. The transport element was strenghtened with the delivery of two more An-24s and ten An-2s in 1977, two Yak-40s in 1978 and six An-26s in 1979. The helicopter fleet saw the withdrawal from service of the last UH-34s in early 1980s in profit of Russian built machines. A dozen Mil Mi-8s were delivered in 1979 as well as two Mil Mi-6s in 1985. The Air Force then fielded some 75 aircraft and 3 500 personnel.

The Laos People’s Liberation Army Air Force had set up a first interceptor squadron in 1977, with a total of some 15 MiG-21PFMs and MiG-21US'. That unit was later brought up to a size of a full regiment, in 1984, when additional 15 MiG-21bis (including the example serialled "14") were delivered from the USSR. The Laotian Fishbeds were in use until the early 1990s, when all operations were suspended with the caesation of Soviet and Vietnamese support. The aircraft were then put into storage. Some attempts were undertaken to upgrade them with Israeli and Indian help, but their poor state prevented any such developmetns. Early MiG-21PFMs delivered to Laos were camouflaged in Green and Brown-Earth sheme (see bellow) on upper surfaces, and light blue underneath. Subsequently delivered MiG-21bis SAU were left in their "air superiority grey" camouflage. (All artworks by Tom Cooper; Photo: Dr. Istvan Toperczer)

In 1987 violent fire-fights developed along the border with Thailand between a combined task force of the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao, and Thai border troops in the areas of Botene and on the Thai-Laos-Kampuchea zone. In November, the Laotian crossed the Mekong River into the Thai province of Phitsanulok and entrenched into the area of Soi Dao, in order to disrupt a Hmong logistical corridor. The RTAF deployed its F-5 fighter-bombers, led by OV-10Cs that acted as FAC. Despite intense air strikes the Laotians were able to hold their grounds against repeated Royal Thai Army offensives which faltered with heavy casualties. Contemporary Lao reports claimed over 500 Thai soldiers killed.

In the early 1988 the Lao troops had fired shells filled with chemical agents on Thai positions in the Sayaboury sector, so the RTAF was sent into combat once again, razing enemy positions with a large quantity of napalm bombs: ever since no chemical weapons were used along the Thai border again. The RTAF continued flying attacks into early February 1988, but apparently to little effect. On 4 February an RTAF F-5E was shot down by a SA-7 but the pilot managed to eject over the constested area. He was rescued by the RTAF Special Forces troops flown into the crash site by the S-58T helicopters of the 201st Squadron / 2nd Wing of Lopburi. On 13 February it was the turn of of Thai OV-10C from Wing 41 to be shot down by another Strela SAM. The Laotian troops finally withdrawn in orderly fashion from Thailand at the end of the same month. An RTAF Skyeye UAV send to monitor the communist withdrawal was also shot down. During the crisis, the LPLAAF did not deploy any aircraft or helicopters in the combat zone. However, the RTAF reported that the MiG-21s based at Wattay had flown a series of quick intrusions into Thai airspace in an area just opposite of Vientiane in order to distract the Thai air operations.

Negotiations between Vietnam, China, Soviet Union, Laos and Thailand at the end of 1980s opened the way for a political agreement for the conflict in Indochina. Nevertheless, Vietnam increased its military operations before the cease-fire date to bolster the Pathet Lao Gouvernement. By 1987, the Vietnamese established Front 317 in north-east Laos with 15.000 troops to launch a new campaign against the Hmongs. At that date Hanoi maintained some 45.000 troops in Laos in addition to the 60 000 Lao troops. They were opposed by some 5.000 to 7.000 guerrillas. Additional airstrikes were flown against the Hmong positions until the end of 1989 when Hanoi withdrew its troops from the country. China and Thailand on their side suspended military aid to the opposition groups.

The LPLAAF helicopter fleet was also standardized its equipment on Soviet types. Two Mil Mi-6s were then taken on charge for heavy transport task in 1985. This Mi-6 was seen operating in the Plain of Jars the same year. (Photo credit: Albert Grandolini Collection)

The never ending conflict

The political agreement brought in some hope of peace for Laos. The Communist regime in Vientianne was alway dependent on help from Hanoi to survive. This became even more important after the break-up of the Soviet Union, in 1991, and the termination of all the aid from Moscow. The situation in Laos meanwhile quietened as new economical contacts took place with the former enemies. The abandoned Hmongs nevertheless continued a low level guerrilla activity that often turned into banditry and drug traficking in the 1990s.

Each Hmong military action was countered by massive reprisals from the Laotians. As early as January 1990, a series of guerrilla attacks in the Xieng Khouang Province led to the bombing by the LPLAAF MiG-21s of the rebelling villages. Groups of up to twenty SRVAF MiG-21s operating from Vietnam were also flying strike sorties. At the end of January it was reported that SRVAF Su-22s were also engaged for the first time. That were the last significant operation of the Vietnamese Air Force in Laos until today.

Meanwhile, the withdrawal of Soviet and Vietnamese aid had a profound effect on the operational capability of the LPLAAF. All fighter operations ceased after 1994 and the surviving 29 MiG-21s were put into storage. The cash-strapped Air Force was limited to small-scale operations of transport aircraft and helicopters. Fortunately part of its personnel was transferred to the national airline Lao Aviation, which is run like a paramilitary organization.

Contrary to Vietnam that saw a spectacular economic recovery, Laos experienced many difficulties to adapt to the market economy and the poverty-stricken country had to face many development and social problems. Few budgets could be spare for the armed forces. In the end of the 1990s some effort were made to refurbish the MiG-21s; the Indian company Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, HAL, suspended a modernization contract for a lack of funds and due to the fact that many airframes had reached the end of their operational lives. The MiGs were then put into open storage, 16 of them were noted in September 2003 at Muang Phonsavan, rotting in the tropical climate. Other transport aircraft were nevertheless acquired from China: five Y-12s and five Y-7s. Most of the aircraft were operated by Lao Aviation, with only two Y-7s being used by the military. Nevertheless, Lao Aviation had ordered five more MA60s – the updated version of the Y-7 – at the end of 2003, so the remaining Y-7s would probably be reverted back to the LPLAAF control. A single An-74 was also acquired from Ukraine in 1999. The helicopter fleet was significantly increased with through acquisition of 12 Mil Mi-17s and one Mi-26T in 1998, as well as six Ka-32Ts in 2000. The Hip helicopters were all configured in gunship and could be armed with rockets and 23mm gun-pods.

In 1999 Laos purchased a single An-74 transport from the Ukraine. Little is known about the purpose or activities of this aircraft in the meantime. (Photo by Istvan Toperczer)

Laos purchased a single Mi-26 heavy helicopter in 1998. It is serialled 34069 and is seen here as in condition in early 2004. (Photo by Istvan Toperczer)

Contacts with France led to the delivery of a single AS 350 Ecureuil while the negotiations to buy three Eurocopter SA 360 Dauphins seemed to be stalled. The LPLAAF helicopters actively cooperated with the US military from the Joint Task Force – Full Accounting (JTF-FA) teams during their search for US personnel missing since the Vietnam War.

As Laos is the world’s third largest opium producer, US drug enforcement agencies are cooperating with Lao authorities in reducing the production. Government forces, including the LPLAAF, are known to have been used to monitor and intercept drug smugglers.

Like a thorn on the side of the Laotian Government the Hmong resistance, after nearly a decade of decay, resurrected at the end of 1990s. Bands of dozen guerrillas roamed the Plain of Jars and the Xieng Khouang Province. A series of bomb attacks at Vientiane and other cities also revealed that a part of the own Pathet Lao had break away from the ruling communist regime! The political instability worried Vietnam that was also suspicious of the increasing Chinese presence in Laos. High level military contacts took place between the two countries while Hanoi promised military aid to Vientiane. On 25 May 1998 a Vietnamese military delegation that toured the country boarded an LPLAAF Yak-40 for a flight from Vientiane to Xieng Khouang. The aircraft crashed in bad weather near the Phou Bia Massif, killing the 26 passengers on board, including the Vietnamese Army Chief of Staff. The Hmongs claimed that they had shot down the plane. In October 1999 Vietnam introduced two battalions of special forces to support the Lao Government by fighting the Chao Fa.

By 2000 the military operations against the Hmongs increased with a band of guerrilla pinned down and wiped out in the Saysomboune Special Zone. In October another sweep took place in the same area with the support of the LPLAAF Mi-8/17 helicopters. A Lao Aviation Mi-8 involved crashed during a resupply sortie. During the dry season of 2001, the Pathet Lao engaged some 10 000 troops against the Chao Fa in the provinces of Xieng Khouang, Samnuea, Phong Saly and Loaunamtha. The ground troops were supported by the Hip gunships. The sweepings extended to the spring of 2002 and it was reported that Vietnam had granted a military aid of $35 millions for this campaign.

In February 2003 the Hmongs extended their attack on Route 6 north of Vientiane, killing several foreigners. The government forces reacted by launching a new offensive while the Chao Fa accused Vietnam of sending additional troops into Laos. Hanoi had moved two divisions into the border area of north-east of Laos to seal it. Vientiane reported that 739 rebels had been killed and 1029 others taken prisoners in Bolikamsay Province, and 216 others were killed in the Sysomboune Special Zone. In September some 700 guerrillas choose to surrender.

By early 2004 the few foreign journalists who succeeded to reach the Hmong controlled areas reported a very precarious situation. The guerrillas and their families were constantly on the run and harassed by Hip helicopters. In these parts of Laos the Vietnam War had actually never ended.

Air Lao pilots with "their" Y-12 light transporter, as seen at Sam Neua, in March 2004. Holding a book in his hands is a former Loa MiG-21-pilot. (Istvan Toperczer)

Camouflage, Markings, and Serials of Lao and Other Combat Aircraft used during the war in Laos, 1947 until Today

A flight of T-28Ds from the 202nd Composite Wing of Wattay en route for another close air support mission. The unit’s insignia, a tiger head, is painted on the tails of the aircraft. The other known T-28 insignia was the White Eagle of the 303rd Composite Wing of Savannakhet, and the Black Horse of the 404th Composite Wing of Pakse. Many variation of these insignias existed in addition to a scorpion insignia wore by some T-28 pilots. (Photo: Ken Conboy via Albert Grandolini)

- C-47: Although they belonged at that time formally still to the French Air Force, in June 1955 three French C-47 showed for the first time the Lao national marking, consisting of three white elephants, balancing on a Pedestal, on a red circle. These became later the national emblem of the RLAF. The machines did not carry a camouflage finish, but were aluminium above with a black cheat line down the fuselage. Black Serial was carried on the vertical stabilizer: (4)315666.

- T-6G: Light Grey or “bare metal” overall. Black panels ahead of the cockpit and on the engine cowling. Black Panther under the cockpit and the code-number on the nose: 2 (unit unknown).

- T-28C: Light Grey overall. Black panels in front of the cockpit. Black Serial on the vertical stabilizer: (?)0-38249; (?)0-40457; 3758 (Unk.)

- T-28D: Like above. No national emblems: (?)0-38305 (Unk.).

- AC-47: American camouflage finish from Southeast Asia in Chocolate Brown/Tan above and black undersides. White code-number on the vertical stabilizer: 117, 263. Some machines were supplied originally left in white upper and aluminium undersides, and carried black serials on the vertical stabilizer.

All USAF combat aircraft from the first half of the 1960s were left still in nature metal everywhere and carried the large title “U. S. AIR FORCE” in black in front on the trunk.

- RF-101C: Bare metal everywhere. Nose and the panels before the cockpit in black. A band around the nose and the entire vertical stabilizer in blue with white points. Serial in black on the vertical stabilizer: 60081 (45th TRS).

- F-102A: Aluminium overall, title “U. S. AIR FORCE” on the fuselage sides, serial and code on the vertical stabilizer and rear fuselage: 61165/FC-165 (509th FIS).

- RB-57E: Matt black overall. No obvious characteristics or Serials (556th RS).

- T-28D: Light Grey overall. Title “U. S. AIR FORCE” on the fuselage sides. Serial in black on the vertical stabilizer: O-13583 (Unk.).

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