Aviation Royale Khmere History
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Aviation Royale Khmere

Air Force History 1954-1970

Although the Khmer empire was a dominant regional power between the 11th and the 14th centuries, Cambodia had, by the late 19th century, succumbed to French colonialism. Formal independence from France was granted in 1954, in the wake of the French withdrawal from Indochina. Although the first tentative steps to form a Cambodian air arm had been taken in 1952, it wasn't until April 1954, that the Aviation Royale Khmere, or AVRK, was created by Royal decree. Its commander was Colonel Ngo Hou. Originally, it was envisaged that the AVRK would consist of 2000 men and 80 aircraft. By October 1954, French instructors had initiated the first flight training courses. At this time the AVRK had a total of eight aircraft on strength: four MS 500s, two Cessna 180s, one Cessna 170 and one VIP DC-3.

Although French influence remained strong during the whole of AVRKs existence, a US MAAG team arrived in Cambodia as early as 1956, to co-ordinate the supply of aircraft. An ambitious plan for a vastly expanded AVRK were put forward by the MAAG team. No less than 60 F8F Bearcats for three Fighter Groups, 40 Cessna L-19 Bird Dogs for two Observation Groups, one helicopter squadron, one Reconnaissance Flight and an instructional centre were planned for the future AVRK. Perhaps not surprisingly, these somewhat over-ambitious plans were never realized.

Delivery of light strike aircraft had commenced in 1955, when seven Fletcher FD-25 light COIN aircraft were received. These were soon supplemented by armed Morane Saulnier MS 733 Alcyons. In 1958, the strike capability was further enhanced with the delivery of 14 T-6 Texans. Although these aircraft were capable of carrying a certain amount of ordnance, their limited capability became all too clear during a brief conflict with South Vietnam. On June 18, 1958, ARVN forces occupied Stung Treng province. Fearful of reprisals, the Cambodian High Command chose not to field any of its strike aircraft. At this juncture, the South Vietnamese Air Force had about 40 Grumman F8F Bearcats, an aircraft with a much superior performance to the few AVRK T-6s, FD-25s and MS 733s. As a result, the AVRK played virtually no role in the conflict.

Up until 1962, the AVRK was further strengthened with the delivery of further aircraft from both France and the USA. As a result of the escalating conflict in South Vietnam, Cambodia declared itself neutral. Politically, the country was led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. During the early 'sixties, Cambodia denounced the "American Imperialist aggression", and turned towards the eastern bloc. The last US aircraft delivered to the AVRK were 16 T-28 Trojans, delivered in August 1962, and four T-37B Tweets, delivered in March 1963. Instead of receiving training in the USA, Cambodian pilots and maintenance staff were sent to the USSR and China for flight training. Training in France continued unabated, though. After receiving training in the Soviet Union, the first MiG-17Fs were delivered in November 1963. By August 1964, the US MAAG was withdrawn from Cambodia. Up to that point, the USA had supplied military equipment worth 80 million dollars to Cambodia.

The AVRK tried its best to defend Cambodian neutrality - even shooting down a VNAF Cessna O-1 on March 21, 1964. Numerous incursions were made by US, VNAF and RTAF aircraft. Between 1962 and 1966, several VNAF pilots defected to Cambodia - their aircraft and helicopters, including three A-1H Skyraiders and two Sikorsky H-34s were incorporated into the AVRK inventory. France continued to deliver aircraft to Cambodia, supplying 15 A-1D Skyraiders in 1964 and 1965. The USA protested to no avail against the delivery of the Skyraiders. These Skyraiders had originally been supplied to France during the late 'fifties for use in Algeria. It has been suggested that the USA wanted to purchase the A-1Ds for their own use. This remains unsubstantiated, though. It can be said that the A-1D variant was never used by the USA during the Vietnam conflict, as all A-1Ds remaining in US service either had been relegated to training duties or withdrawn from service.

During 1968, the AVRK operated a total of 143 of aircraft and helicopters of 23 different types, built and/or designed in France, the USA, the USSR, China and Yugoslavia. As a result, maintenance was a huge problem. Sihanouk's tightrope act of trying to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War was eventually thwarted by the presence of nearly 50,000 North Vietnamese troops in eastern Cambodia, as well as numerous incursions from South Vietnamese, US and Thai forces. Several US aircraft had been shot down by small arms fire, including a C-123 Provider in 1964, a P-3 Orion in 1968 and a U-1 Otter in 1969. In most such cases, the US crews lost their lives.

During early 1970, most of the strike aircraft of the AVRK were worn down by continuous operations. Of the Skyraiders, only between three and five could be maintained in an airworthy condition each day. Tentative steps were taken to replace the ageing A-1Ds with a squadron of MiG-21s. This never happened, though.

On March 18, 1970, Prince Sihanouk was deposed in a coup d'etat. The Right-wing general and close US ally Lon Nol seized power. Shortly after the coup d'etat, US forces invaded Cambodia in an attempt to strike against the NVA sanctuaries in Cambodia. Cambodia was now a staunch ally of the USA, and the delivery of aircraft began anew.

Jan Forsgren

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First Created: 9 December 2004 - Last Revised: 9 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Jan Forsgren.     e-mail: john@aeroflight.co.uk