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Cambodia, 1954 - 1999; Part 1
By Albert Grandolini, Tom Cooper, & Troung
Jan 25, 2004, 05:20

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The situation in Cambodia complicated soon after the country became independent from the French rule, in 1954: this, foremost because of a poor work and inconsistence of the new government, which took little care to improve the living standards of the population. Quite on the contrary, chaos became widespread and different actions by the government were only increasing it.

The Cambodian air force, the Aviation Royale Khmere (AVRK), was founded in April 1954, and for the first 15 years was suffering from the fact that its commander, Maj. Gen. Ngo Hou – Sihanouk’s personal friend – couldn’t care less about his job. Hou was foremost busy pursuing his own interests and, whenever it happened by accident that he brought any kind of a decision in connection with the AVRK, this was usually a mistake. It was thus little surprising that by 1963 the air force was equipped with no less but 83 aircraft and helicopters of 15 different types. Of course, the technical personnel was completely unable to keep all of these operational, and the number of intact airframes was rapidly declining. As if this would not be enough, Hou then also refused to authorise the retirement of remaining North American T-6G Texans, even if four of these were lost in accidents within a relatively short period of time.

The situation was not to improve any soon. In June 1958, the South Vietnamese invaded the Cambodian Stung Treng Province, supported by F-8F Bearcat fighters. The feeble AVRK did not react. Under Washington pressure, the South Vietnamese withdrew their forces but the humiliation pushed Sihanouk to seek aid from the Communist countries. By early 1960s tension rose again when Saigon closed the Mekong to the Cambodian boats. Phnom Penh in reprisal welcomed any South Vietnamese political dissidents on his territory. In the turmoil of the early 1960s in South Vietnam, any plotters involved in numerous coup attempts fled to Cambodia to seek political assylum. By this way, AVRK could secure unexpected aircraft. On 26 February 1962 for example, two VNAF A-1Hs attacked the Diem’s Presidential palace at Saigon. One was shot down by anti-aircraft fire while the other escaped to make a crash-landing at Pochentong. Although heavily damaged it was subsequently repaired and became the first AVRK Skyraider to enter service. In 1963, it was the turn of Cessna U-17 defecting to Cambodia, followed by a C-47. The U-17 was returned to Saigon but the C-47 was retained by AVRK. In 1964, another A-1H defected and was qickly put into service. A civilian South Vietnamese Do-28A, suspected to be involved in some heroin smugling, was impounded at Phnom Penh and handed over to AVRK. Finally, in 1966 two VNAF UH-34Ds also defected to Cambodia, one during a commando inserting mission on the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail. Both of them were also turned over to AVRK.

During the early 1960s Cambodia served as a safe heaven for a number of South Vietnamese defectors. The A-1H in the foreground was a former mount of the 518th Sqn South Vietnamese Air Force, and were to Phnom Penh in 1964 by a pilot protesting against the presecution of Budhists by the regime in Saigon. The Skyraider was put into Cambodian service alongside French-delivered A-1Ds. Interestingly, the A-1 in the rear of this photo is another ex-South Vietnamese example, and the one that crashed while landing in Pnom Penh on 26 February 1962, after a coup-attempt against President Diem. (A. Grandolini collection)


For the Cambodians the presence of the South Vietnamese troops on their ground was most troublesome. Throughout the 1960s Sihanouk therefore continued to tolerate - if not encourage - the Communist presence in return, in so far that with the time this could not be stopped any more. He even allowed Communist freighters to dock at Sihanoukville harbour to deliver military equipment to Viet Cong, in turn retaining part of their shipments for Cambodian armed forces, as a compensation. North Vietnam had even created a “civilian truck transport company” to drive the supply to the logistical border stations - along the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail. The trucks of the Cambodian army were sometimes involved in these deliveries. The Cambodians also did nothing to prevent the North Vietnamese transports to over Cambodia and support their troops along the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail: the USAF intellignece reported that VPAF Il-14, Li-2 and AN-2 were using occasionnaly the Cambodian Mimot airstrip. In few occassions Sihanouk even ordered the AVRK C-47s to be used for dropping supplies - foremost rice, but no weapons - to the North Vietnamese forces. However, most of these drops, if not all of them were only rice and not weapons (Cambodia was also selling rice to Viet Cong in considerable quantities, but at very high prices).

Clearly, such a situation had to lead to a series of quarrels with the USA. In reaction, the South Vietnamese and Thailand, as well as the USA started supporting the Khmer Serei (KS) - or "Free Khmer" - guerillas, a nationalist and republican movement opressed by Sihanouk. The CIA is known to have used the KS to infiltrate the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail for reconnaisance and sabotage operations. The US troops also became involved in the war in Cambodia: in a series of operations known under the code-name "Daniel Boone" the US and South Vietnamese special units were infiltrated into the country, usually by the means of VNAF 219th Sqn UH-34s or USAF 20th SOS UH-1F/P. During 1967 alone, for example, no less but 14 USAF and VNAF helicopters were lost in Cambodia: five more Hueys were shot down in the first months of 1970.

Mid through one such series of quarrels between the USA and Cambodia, in August 1961, Sihanouk announced that AVRK would soon be equipped with the first three MiG-17s, a single MiG-15UTI, and several Yak-18s, supplied from the USSR. At the same time, he also cancelled cooperation with the US military assistance delegation (MAAG), and ordered these to leave the country by the 1 January 1964.

Cambodian MiG-17Fs of the first batch were painted in light grey overall, and wore large AVRK markings on the rear fuselage. Serials 7940/940, 7941/941, and 8022/022 - as well as the MiG-15UTI 3402/403 were seen in this livery at Pochentong, in the mid-1960s. During their service in Cambodia, these aircraft were armed with Russian-built FAB-100 and FAB-250 bombs. After running out of stocks of these weapons the Cambodians modified their MiGs to carry US-made Mk.82s. The modification was such that the bom was hanging nose-up and pilots had to be very carefully during the take-off run, in order not to touch the runway with bomb's fin! The USAF technicians helped harmonize the gunsights of the MiGS to the particular ballistics of the Mk.82, so that with the time this combination became very successful. Later one, the Russian-made 37mm and 23mm guns were also removed from three or four Cambodian MiGs, and replaced by US .50 Cal machine guns!


The Soviets delivered all the ordered MiGs but these were not to improve the situation at all: quite on the contrary, even if 20 additional MiGs, eight Yak-18s, two Il-14s, eight An-2s, and two Mi-4s were supplied not only by the USSR but also by China the number of operational airframes was not to increase..

This MiG-17F belonged to the second batch supplied from the USSR in the late 1960s, and was seen while still wearing the marking of the Aviation Royale Khmere (more often nick-named "Royal Flying Club" at the time, because of its inactivity) - used between 1954 and 1970. The aircraft is known to have been flown to Phu Cat, in South Vietnam, together with another example (probably 1084), to be test-flown by a team from the USAF Foreign Technologies Division. Both the 1721 and 1084 survived long enough to be destroyed by Vietnamese sappers at the flight line at Pochentong, in January 1971. (all artworks by Tom Cooper)


At the time the USA were not ready to supply any fighter jets to Cambodia, even if immensely interested to bring Sihanouk to act aggressively against the Vietnamese, who increased their activities along the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail. Consequently, the area along the Vietnamese border became the focus of the US activities in Cambodia for the next ten years. Once Prince Sihanouk cooled down a bit, in August 1962, 16 T-28Ds were delivered by the USA. Nevertheless, regardless how much the members of the MAAG tried to keep them flyable and used against the Ho Chi Minh Pad, within only a few weeks no less but 15 were inoperational and had to be stored. The stories explained until today indicate that Sihanouk was actually not the least interested in keeping the AVRK in operational condition: right until today the legend about the "Phnom Penh Royal Flying Club” - as the AVRK was frequently called by the Americans and the Vietnamese at the time - remains intact. The supposed reason for such behaviour of Sihanouk was that the examples from neighbouring countries were teaching him that he could not trust his own officers very much: in Indonesia the air force played a prominent role during the coup of 1965; in Laos it was also the air force the members of which lead the failed coup attempt in 1966; and in the same year the aircraft of the South Vietnamese Air Force several times attacked the Presidential palace. Those knowing more about the Cambodian Air Force at the time, however, strongly opose the AVRK to be named that way. Even if it is true that the AVRK was suffring from lack of spares parts for some US built aircraft, it could still maintain a fairly sufficient training level, while technical support was given by France for American equipment.

The AVRK T-28D seen here was photographed in 1968 while in maintenance at Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company (HAEC). Despite US embargo, Cambodian T-28Ds remained operational thanks to French and HAEC help. The T-28D was even instrumental in the only uncontested Cambodian air-to-air victory, scored on 21 March 1964. That day a patrol of two T-28Ds shot down a VNAF O-1 over the border to South Vietnam. (A. Grandolini collection)


But, in fact the AVRK was very active during the 1960s, and it did not took long until it became infovled in several serious incidents with the South Vietnamese. The first of these occured on 21 March 1964 when two Cambodian T-28Ds surprised a VNAF O-1 inside the Khmer airspace. The Cambodian flight leader, captain (Prince) Sisowat Monirak took a position behind the South Vietnamese and shot it down two miles inside South Vietnamese territory, killing the Vietnamese pilot and the US observer. Despite Cambodian propaganda presenting Prince Monirak as a hero, Sihanouk ordered the AVRK in the future not to pursue intruding aircraft over the border.

Tension remained high and VNAF send several flights of Skyraiders deep inside Cambodia to seek revenge. Two Skyraiders even reached the Phnom Penh suburbs before turning away. Each time, the AVRK avoided escalation, but anti-aircraft artilley batteries were deployed on the border. A flight of AVRK A-1Ds was even fired on by Khmer guners mistaken them for Vietnamese A-1s.

Row of AVRK A-1D Skyraiders, 15 of which were supplied from France despite strong US protests. Cambodian Skyraiders were involved in combat against the Khmer Rouge in 1968 and against the North Vietnamese, from 1969. Few surviving A-1Ds remained operational during Lon Nol's regime but most were grounded expecting a neral overhaul in France - that never took place. (A. Grandolini collection)


After this incident it was decided to paint a red band, outlined by blue, like the coulors of the national flag, on the fuselages of the AVRK A-1Ds.

For better border protection, small detachements of four T-28Ds or T-6Gs each were regularly deployed on several advanced airstrips, at Kompong Chnang, Ream, Kompong Cham and Cabasiek. From this last-mentioned base, the T-28Ds regularly encountered USAF and VNAF A-1s operating out from Pleiku. So, Cabasiek was regularly overflown by USAF RB-57Es which tried to monitor the AVRK activities. In the same area - after a ground incident involving the ARVN troops confronting those of the Bu Krak outpost, this latter position was heavilly bombed by USAF F-100s, which killed 24 Cambodian troops. Another US strikes took place against suspected Viet Cong positions in the Mondol Kiri Kompong Cham and Ratana Kiri Provinces. Some air encounters occured on these occasions, often involving the AVRK MiG-17Fs and the USAF RF-101s and F-100s. The A-1Ds also encountered VNAF A-1s and time and again USAF F-102As were noticed over the Svay Rieng Province. But, as usualy, each side broke off and departed without opening fire.

The AVRK Skyraiders often flew as escort for reconnaisance sorties flown by the MD-315 configured with aerial cameras. The plane was usually sent to take pictures of bombed areas hit by US air or artillery as proof of border violation to emit diplomatical protests.

The Cambodian anti-aircraft artillery units several times engaged intruding aircraft: on one occassion they damaged a South Vietnamese or USAF F-5 fighter, causing it to jettison its external loads. One of the drop tanks was found and brought to Pochentong to be shown to AVRK pilots. In 1968 the Khmer AA gunners claimed have damaged a C-123 that crashed inside South Vietnam; the USA denied any such loss.

On 1 April 1968, another serious incident occured between Khmer Navy and South Vietnamese vessels in the Gulf of Siam. While gunfire was exchanged between gunboats, a US Navy P-3B from VP-26 was sent to investigate and was shot down by the Cambodians. The US sources reported that one Orion was missing this day from a patrol on the area after being hit in the starboard wing. The plane crashed near the Phu Quoc Island near the Cambodian maritime border with the twelve crew-members killed.

The area of Preak Vihear was known not only for its Angkorera Temple but also as a zone of permanent tension between Cambodia and Thailand. Briefly occupied by Thai troops in 1953, it was the scene of renewed combat in 1964. In a show of force, the AVRK 1st Transport Group was committed to the dropping of two paratroop battalions in less than two days. An improvised landing strip was qickly cleared at Choam Khsant to accomodate the C-47s and AN-2 which were used to resuply the Khmer Troops in the area. The Thai reacted by making numerous intrusions into the Khmer airspace, ranging from O-1 to F-86 fighters. To counter these penetrations the AVRK deployed a detachement of MiG-17Fs to Battambang: these proved a sufficient deterrent, but the Cambodian MiG-pilots subsequently often reported the presence of F-86Fs flying parallel with them along the other side of the border. Later, the MiG-17 detachement was replaced by T-28Ds and A-1Ds. During the most tense moments up to three patrols of T-28s or A-1s took off from Battambang each day.

During the 1960s there were several tense periods between Cambodia and Thailand, during which both sides deployed jet fighters to patrol their borders. This RTAF F-86F of the 13th Sqn/1st Air Group is seen returning from such a patrol. (A. Grandolini collection)


On 28 Auguts 1965, Cambodian AAA engaged a group of eight Thai aircraft, curriously identified as being “Skyraiders”, over the town of Pailin. In a News Conference, Sihanouk even stated that two of them had been shot down. The next focal point arose in the area of Trad, a small town on the coast of the Kong Peninsula, another contested area. As Thai artillery repeatly shelled the Cambodian positions, AVRK was preparing to conduct reprisal strikes. The plan, devised by Lt Colonel So Satto, commander of the Tactical Group, called for the A-1Ds to bomb the Thai positions while the MiG-17Fs were flying to cover. Fortunally, a cease-fire was concluded before either side engagded its aircraft. The RTAF nevertheless continued occasional intrusions, sometimes using the reconnaissance RT-33s.

According to official Cambodian documents the country suffered the following airspace violations from both South Vietnam and Thailand borders:
- 164 in 1962,
- 272 in 1963,
- 412 in 1964,
- 621 in 1965,
- 1018 in 1966,
- 1635 in 1967,
- 781 in 1968 and
- 247 in 1969.

This last figure does not include íncursions caused by the US Oeration “Menu” carried out by the B-52 bombers.

Pair of AVRK Fouga CM.170 Magisters in flight: the aircraft were used not only for training but also for as light strikers. All were left in bare metall overall, but wore large national markings and prominent black serials. Cambodian Magisters became very active in the first weeks of Lon Nol's government, when four of them were combined with four Cessna AT-37Bs of the Air Academy into a "Light Attack Squadron". This unit was very active at the time, frequently cooperating also with three or four A-1Ds that were still operational. Interestingly, while the AT-37Bs were usually armed only with two rocket pods, the Magisters carried not only the rocket pods but also CBUs and French bombs caliber 50kg. (A. Grandolini)


AVRK order of battle in 1968

- Air Academy
4 CM-170s
4 Cessna T-37Bs
8 Yak-18s/BT-6s
15 MS-733s

Tactical Group
- 1st Intervention Group
20 MiG-17Fs
2 MiG-15UTIs
14 A-1Ds (ten operational, four airframes stored as spare parts stock) and one A-1H
16 T-28Ds
10 T-6Gs

- 1st Transport Group
2 Il-14s
12 DC-3s/C-47s

- 1st Observation Group
8 Cessna O-1As

Liaison Group
6 MD-315Rs
1 Do-28A
8 AN-2s
3 L-20s
1 MH-1521
3 UTVA 56s
2 Cessna 180s
2 Mi-4s
2 UH-34s
1 UH-19
2 Alouette IIIs
5 Alouette IIs

An AVRK Alouette II helicopter (SHAA via A. Grandolini)


Certainly, Sihanouk’s dislike for the Vietnamese, which were using the Cambodian soil for their purposes in the war in South Vietnam, was finally to bring him closer to Washington. In late 1968 he for the first time permitted the USA to use their air power inside the Cambodian airspace. Already on 18 March 1969, 48 B-52s bombed the Vietnamese supply base in An Loc, thus starting the operation Fishhook, which was to last for at least a year.

In June 1969 the USA launched a "secret" bombing campaign against the Communist logistical bases in Cambodia, attacking these exclusively with B-52 bombers. (USAF via A. Grandolini)


The B-52 operations, however, were – just like similar operations over Laos – suffering from the lack of intelligence and reconnaissance: even after 3.630 bomber sorties were flown no serious results were achieved. Instead of the North Vietnamese it was foremost the Cambodian civilians that suffered from them. Concerned about these developments, on 18 March 1970 Prime Minister Gen. Lon Nol staged an Army coup while Sihanouk was back in Moscow to agree deliveries of additional arms. The new government in Phnom Penh changed completely the Cambodian politics within the shortest possible time, but in turn also caused a clash with the powerful alliance between the North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian “Flying Club” was thus soon to find itself embroiled in the middle of a fierce and bloody war.

After the coup against Sihanouk, the Cambodian Air Force was renamed into Aviation Nationale Khmère (AVNK) but retained for some times the old national markings. One of the two AVNK MiG-15UTI that survived by the time is seen here in olive drab camouflage scheme and still carrying the old national markings. (USAF via A. Grandolini)


After the coup by Gen. Lon Nol, the AVRK was re-named AVNK but the old national markings were retained for some time. In order to boost the morale of MiG-pilots, in the meantime it was decided to paint the red lightning flash on the fuselage. Some say this was inspired by the markings applied on French Mystére IVA, flown by several Cambodian pilots during their training in France. The bolt was to remain in its place, but from late 1970 a new national markings replaced the old ones, and these remained in use until the collapse of Nol's regime, in 1975. Note that the old marking was relatively crudely overpainted by Pale Grey (as used by the USAF), and a new marking applied instead. The available pictorial evidence suggest that the markings on the upper sides of the wings were only removed - not replaced. 8022 was one of several Cambodian MiG-17Fs that survived long enough to be modified for carriage of the US-made Mk.82 bombs: these were mounted directly under the wing - instead of the pylon for carriage of drop tanks!


AVRK between 1954 and March 1970

During the period 1954-1970, the Cambodian military aviation was known as the Aviation Royale Khmère (AVRK) - in French - and was officially created on April 1954. Most of its structure and training were French inspired as Paris had dispatched an advisory group that amounted to some 122 men in early 1960s, and down to around 20 in March 1970. Under the regime of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had made his National Monarchic Socialist Party the only legal in Cambodia, the country tried to pursue a neutral stance between the US and Communist blocks. Never wholly committed to suporting one side or the other in the South East Asian conflict, Sihanouk seek military and diplomatic help from both France, Soviet Union and China. The USA tried in vain to push Sihanouk to side with them in the Vietnamese conflict but in vain. In 1964, he even expelled the US MAAG advisory mission from Cambodia with the result a suspension of US technical support for US delivered aircraft. Nevertheless, thanks to the French effort, spares parts could continue to be obtained while some US built aircraft, such as the T-28Ds were sent for overhaull to Hong Kong with the Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company. By the end of 1960s, a fairly reasonable part of the US built fleet was operational.



The French aid to AVRK amounted to:
- 7 MS-500s in 1954
- 1 Cessna 170 in 1954
- 3 MS-500s in 1955
- 2 DC-3s in 1955
- 1 Cessna 170 in 1955
- 9 MS-733s in 1956
- 2 Cessna 180s in 1956
- 8 MS-733s in 1957
- 2 C-47s in 1957
- 2 SE-3130 Alouette IIs in 1960
- 4 Potez Fouga CM-170s in 1961
- 2 SE-3130 Alouette IIs in 1962
- 1 SE-3130 Alouette II IN 1964
- 2 SE-316B Alouette IIIs in 1964
- 6 Dassault MD-315s in 1964
- 4 Douglas AD-4NAs (A-1Ds) in 1964
- 10 Douglas AD-4NAs (A-1Ds) in 1965
- 1 Max Holste MH-1521 Broussard in 1965
- 1 Douglas AD-4NA (A-1D) in 1966
- 1 SE-3130 Alouette II IN 1967
- 2 SE-3130 AlouetteS II IN 1968
- 16 Gardan GY-80s Horizon in 1969

The United States aid:
- 7 FD-25 Defenders in 1955
- 8 Cessna L-19As in 1956
- 3 L-20 Beavers in 1957
- 5 C-47s in 1958
- 14 T-6Gs in 1958
- 16 T-28Ds in 1962
- 4 Cessna T-37Bs in 1963
- 2 H-19s in 1963

From Soviet Union:
- 1 MiG-15UTI in 1963
- 3 MiG-17Fs in 1963
- 1 Yak-18 in 1963
- 2 Il-14s in 1963
- 3 AN-2s in 1963
- 1 Mi-4 in 1963
- 4 MiG-17Fs in 1964
- 3 Yak-18s in 1964
- 1 Mi-4 in 1965
- 5 MiG-17Fs in 1967

From China:
- 1 MiG-15UTI in 1964
- 3 MiG-17Fs in 1964
- 1 AN-2 in 1965
- 3 MiG-17Fs in 1968
- 4 AN-2s in 1968
- 4 BT-6s in 1968

Other aircraft acquired were: two C-47s from Israel in 1957, two Yugoslav UTVA 56s in 1964, and two others in 1965.

It is certain that such a variety of aircraft caused considerable maintenance problems. Nevertheless, the AVRK Technical Support Group was able to overcome some deficiencies and by 1964 began local overhaul of the MS-733s, Cessna 170/180s, O-1As, and U-6As. Partial overhauls of more complex types such as the C-47 or the MD-315 were also done.

In a manner similar to so many other countries after a military coup around the world, the AVRK was first purged of officers loyal to Sihanouk, and then completely reorganized. This was undertaken at such speed that its new designated commander, Maj. So Satto, had to be swiftly advanced to the rank of Lt.Col. in order to suit his new post. Satto, however, was an energic officer, which was swift to make his force operational and send it to fight the North Vietnamese in eastern Cambodia: within only a week after the coup against Sihanouk, the AVRK completed more combat sorties than in 16 years before!

Most of the combat sorties at the time were flown by MiG-17s, which were foremost bombing the North Vietnamese bases in the Svay Rieng Province. Soon enough, however, these were joined by the A-1 Skyraiders of the South Vietnamese Air Force, some 20 of which were forward deployed to Phnom Penh, on 20 March 1970. Lon Nol was also swift to ascertain help and support from Thailand, Indonesia, and the USA: only five days later, despite objections from the local US ambassador, the USA delivered the first shipment of spare parts for T-28s. The point was, namely, that Nol improved the relations to Washington just at the time the Pentagon was busy readying an invasion of Cambodia, as it became obvious that only an energic action inside the country could weaken the North Vietnamese position there.

In 1970 and 1971 the South Vietnamese Air Force was heavily involved in Cambodia, flying more than one third of its combat sorties inside the neighbouring country. These A-1Hs of the 23rd Tactical Wing - based in Bien Hoa - are seen starting their engines before another sortie, and loaded with no less but ten Mk.82 bombs each! (USAF via A. Grandolini)


The US Invasion

Soon after Nol’s Coup, the new regime openly requested help from the USA. President Nixon consequently decided to launch a cross-border operation against North Vietnamese logistical bases. However, the invading forces, some 42.000 Americans and 48.000 South Vietnamese, could not advance more than 18-mile inside the Cambodian territory.

Leading the assault was a massive helicopter assault carried out by the US Army 1st Air Cavalry Division in the Fishook Area. On 24 April 1970, the campaign started by massive air strikes on the targeted landing zones, followed, five days later, by even more USAF, USN, and the USMC strikes against a concentration of North Vietnamese troops in the area known as Parrots Beark.

On 1st May, it was the turn of the ARVN 3rd Airborne Brigade to land on a new landing zone qickly amenaged for the landing of VNAF UH-1H helicopters. Then a combined US-South Vietnamese task force drove into Cambodia, while the second task force, consisting of the better part of the 1st Cavalry and the 11th Armoured Regiment were deployed with the help of helicopters. The operation “Fishook/Toan Thang 43” mainly targeted North Vietnamese bases inside Cambodia, and was initially pretty successful: by the mid-May even the main North Vietnamese base was captured, together with immense amounts of arms (including 22.000 fire-arms and crew-served weapons, and 430 vehicles), ammunition, and supplies. Over 11.000 Communist troops were claimed killed.

Nevertheless, the US public reacted on the news about the invasion of Cambodia with an outcry, and President Nixon was finally forced to order a pull-out of all US troops by 29 June.

On 24 April 1970 the US 1st Air Cavalry Division attacked the Communist bases in the Fishook area after an extensive artillery- and B-52-preparation. This UH-1H of the US Army is seen inserting troops on a newly created landing zone in the jungle. (US Army via A. Grandolini)


One of the results fo the short American invasion of Cambodia was that the US Congress brought several new laws, including one that massively limited the ability of the President to deploy US military in a war against foreign countries. The other result from this short adventure was the further development of what meanwhile became known as “Nixon’s Doctrine”: this was to see the replacement of US troops by the local forces, equipped with considerable amounts of US-built arms. The US military attaché in Phnom Penh was ordered to prepare a study of what was now the Aviation Nationale Khmère (AVNK), and how it could be improved.

In April 1970 the US and the South Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia with intention of destroying North Vietnamese logistical bases along the border. Here a USAF F-4D is seen pulling out of a valley after a bombing run against a suspected North Vietnamese logistical base. (USAF via A. Grandolini)


One of the results of this study was an exact insight into the order of battle for the Cambodian Air Force in 1970. It actually consisted of only one combat unit, the 1st Intervention Group, that operated 13 MiG-17s, four Fouga Magisters CM-170, and six operational T-28Ds (at the time, there were also still few Douglas A-1D Skyraiders in operational condition, regularly used to fly combat missions, but these were not mentioned in this report). On average all these aircraft could mount 14 combat sorties per day. The AVNK had also few other aircraft, including one out of four T-37B Tweets delivered in 1963. None of eleven A-1Ds Skyraiders supplied from France in 1964 was operational any more: for some time the USAF considered the possibility of buying them from Cambodia, and then completely overhauling them. But, after the airframes were inspected, such an idea was dropped. The condition of remaining transport aircraft was not much better. There were still 16 C-47s, one Il-14, and two DHC L-20s, but these were barely 50% operational. Worst of all was that the Cambodians had almost no weapons or ammunition for their combat aircraft: since the coup against Sihanouk the USSR and China have stopped all deliveries. This prompted US instructors and the local technicians to reinforce the underwing hardpoints on MiG-17s so that these became capable of carrying US-made Mk.82 bombs. In addition, by November 1970 all the MiGs have got their 23 and 37mm guns replaced by US-made Browning heavy machine-guns (HMGs). The Mk.82s proved a very hefty load for MiG-17s - even if the Cambodians sometimes loaded even the FAB-250s on their MiGs, which caused even more drag - but, according to one of the former Cambodian fighter-pilots, when carrying two bombs of this type the plane still had an effective combat range of between 220 and 250 kilometres.

Rare photograph of a ARVN Fouga CM.170 Magister, seen at Pochetong in the late 1960 - together with one of Cambodian MiG-17s. (Tom Cooper collection)


Additional help arrived from Thailand. From June 1970, Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) T-28Ds started operating over western Cambodia, and RTAF officers also started training Cambodian personnel. The RTAF was directly involved in Cambodia actually already since the mid-1960s, when its North American F-86 Sabres were several times used to fly strikes against Communist targets. By the early 1970s, the RTAF was directly involved in supporting the AVNK operations, flying strikes by its F-5As, T-28Ds, and AC-47s: in April 1970 the then CO of the AVNK, So Satto, personally travelled to Bangkok to request fast jet support from the RTAF, and subsequently the Thai F-86s flew a number of strikes, even if the RTAF AC-47s (that often did a refuelling stop in Pchentong) reportedly proved far more successful. Soon after the South Vietnamese Air Force also intensified its operations over the country, and finally a special control station was established at Pochentong, near Phnom Penh, named “Direct Air Support Centre” (DASC), which was used to better coordinate the cooperation between the ground forces and no less but four different air arms – the RTAF, AVNK, the SVAF, and the USAF - now flying combat sorties over Cambodia. The DASC communicated with other aircraft foremost via O-1D Bir Dog forward air controllers (“FAC”), that initially mainly corrected the artillery fire fo the Cambodian Army, but later increasingly started guiding combat aircraft. In turn this enabled the AVNK to use spend most of rest of the year with training its crews and maintenance of the aircraft, and plan new operations. The most important plan was that the AVNK would be distributed within three regions, each of which would have a single units with fighter-bombers, a squadron of reconnaissance and observation aircraft, and two squadrons with helicopters. This decision was strongly supported by the USA, which then started supplying additional T-28 Trojan aircraft: by the time these were well-known to the Cambodians, and also flown by the Thais and Laotian Air Force, so that the maintenance and availability were considerably improved. In fact, deliveries of “new” Trojans boasted the combat capability of the AVNK significantly, and between March and October 1970 the T-28s flew no less but 2.016 combat sorties, and the MiG-17s some 360 more.

The Vietnamese Invasion

Meanwhile, South Vietnamese prepared another operation into Cambodia: launched on 14 December 1970, "Eagle Jump" was planned to re-occupy the airfield Kompong Cham. The troops of the ARVN 1st Airborne Brigade were at first helilifted into the disused runway and then established a secure perimeter. Later reinforcement were flown in by C-47s and C-119s every 20 minutes. Despite enemy mortar harassment some 40 aircraft landed the first day. The airbidge continued the next two days, the crews wearing flack jackets to get at least some defence against the heavy shelling, in which several aircraft were damaged. In one case a pilot of a C-119G was badly damaged and the pilot injured by a mortar grenade: the Vietnamese technicians replaced one of the engines on the spot and the aircraft was then flown out. "Eagle Jump" was the first such an ambitious operation planned and executed by the South Vietnamese without the US adviser supervision.

Until that date no air strikes were authorized on the western side of the Mekong River. Now, allied air power was urgently requested to support the Lon Nol’s Army hard-pressed everywhere. By early November 1970, Communist forces had already seized more than half of Cambodia territory. The most severe blow was when the Khmer managed to cut off the road between Phnom Penh and Kompong Som, Cambodia's main seaport. This meant that from that moment on any supplies that were to reach the Cambodian capitol had to be moved either per air or along the Mekong River, from Saigon. Consequently, the heavy-weight of future operations was alos moved to Mekong: until 1975, these shipping operations mobilized huge efforts from both Cambodian and South Vietnamese Navies but also the allied air forces. One of the first unit involved in the aerial protection of the convoys were the US Navy OV-10 Broncos from the VAL-4 squadron.

In order to coordinate allied air effort over Cambodia, USAF soon maintained in orbit over the country an C-130 ABCC command post. Nevetheless, the language problems interfered: some Cambodian officers understood English, but few Americans could speak the local languages. Since the nearest thing to a common tongue was French, the USAF used French-speaking volunteers to fly with the FACs and serve as interpreters. Furthermore, it was decided to detach Cambodian pilots to fly with the American FACs to guide them over Cambodia and to speak to the ground forces. The FAC program over Cambodia was a sensible one because the US administration tried to maitain a low political profile in this country. Known by their radio-code name of “Rustic”, this special and secret unit received their order directly from the President and the Pentagon and bypassed all levels of command between him and the 7th Air Force and MACV. Recruited among volunteers, and using O-2 and OV-10 aircraft drawn from the five Tactical Air Supprt Squadrons deployed in South Vietnam, the Rustic operated mostly from Bien Hoa and later Ubon in Thailand.

The VNAF also deployed a Tactical Air Control Center in June 1970 to Pochentong to supervise South Vietnamese air operations. Furthermore, until 1972, VNAF deployed an average of 40 helicopters in Cambodia, mostly at Pochentong and Neak Luong. They were put at disposal of the Cambodian Army until the KhAF was able to field a sizeable helicopter force. VNAF operations over Cambodia represented more than a third of the total sorties flown by the service in 1970 and 1971, but Cambodia also often served as a test-ground for the huge VNAF expansion program by experiencing new forms of operations - like enemy road traffic interdiction at night or complex combined airborne assaults. During the period 1970-1972, ARVN continued to launch a series of incursion inside Cambodia, each time heavilly supported by allied air power. The last South Vietnamese incursion occured in 1974 in the Parrot Beak Area.

Meanwhile, the Thai air support remained largely limited in geographical scope and size. The RTAF still attacked only targets on the western part of the country and had engaged only some T-28Ds and AC-47Ds and a few F-86F sorties before they were withdrawn from service. The RTAF also flew RF-5A reconnaissance sorties in profit of the Cambodians.

RTAF was actively involved in supporting Lon Nol's regime, flying a number of combat missions in western Cambodia. This RTAF T-28D - 0-37742 - was seen while underway on such a mission, loaded with four napalm tanks. (A. Grandolini collection)






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