Lao People's Liberation Army Air Force History
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Laos

Air Force History


Chapter Headings:
INTRODUCTION
BEFORE 1975
REVOLUTION AND REORGANIZATION
OPERATIONS
FIGHTERS
TRAINING
HELICOPTERS
TRANSPORTS
THE FUTURE


INTRODUCTION

Land-locked Laos is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, with the smallest defence budget. The current military expenditures are not known, but during the Fiscal Year 1998, the defence budget consisted of $ 55 million. Two years earlier, 4,2 per cent of the GDP were spent on the Lao armed forces. There are 51 airports, of which nine have paved runways. The country, albeit slightly larger than Great Britain, had by 2001 an estimated population of 5,5 million. Laos shares common borders with Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. It is also one of the few countries in the world still ruled by a communist regime. Very little reliable and up-to-date information about the current status of the Lao People's Liberation Army Air Force, LPLAAF, is available. Even though the Vietnam War technically ended in 1975, the Lao armed forces has seen almost continuous action against various insurgent groups, most notably the Hmong hill tribe. Border disputes with Thailand has on one occasion, during 1987-1988, escalated into open war. Since the end of the brief, but bloody border war, Thai economic investments in Laos have increased dramatically. Thailand is, in fact, the biggest foreign investor. In 1997, Laos became a member of the economic union, ASEAN. Although Vietnamese influence remain strong, it would appear that most Lao would prefer to live under Thai economic dominance rather than Vietnamese political hegemony. It has been estimated that the Lao armed forces has a personnel strength of about 35,000, the majority of which serves in the army. The LPLAAF is not an independent branch of the armed forces. Instead, it is organized within the Lao People's Liberation Army. Ten years ago, the LPLAAF was estimated as having a personnel strength of about 3,500. There is a small naval component as well, consisting about 500 personnel and a couple of patrol boats.

There has been disputes with Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam regarding the border demarcation lines, but negotiations are nearing completion. The worst border demarcation disputes has been with Thailand, including several islets in the Mekong river. There are currently ongoing disputes with Thailand and Vietnam regarding squatters and illegal immigrants.

BEFORE 1975

In 1893, Laos became a French colony, and therefore a part of French Indochina. Although Japanese forces were based in French Indochina from 1941, the French retained formal control until March 9, 1945, when Japanese forces occupied the French colonies. During the Japanese occupation, the Lao King Sisavang Vong had been forced into declaring Lao independence from France. This was, however, shortlived. When the French returned after the end of World War II, they attempted to return Indochina to its pre-war colonial status. However, after political negotiations, Laos received independence within the French Union in 1949. The creation of a national army was begun in July 1949, when an agreement between France and and the Royal Lao Government gave Laos permission to form the Armee Nationale Laotienne, ANL. However, the ANL was completely controlled by the French, being trained, equipped and led by a French officers. Full independence for Laos was granted in 1953. French forces were by then heavily involved in Vietnam, struggling against the Viet Minh. The fall of the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 spelled the end of French colonial rule in Vietnam. The political situation in Laos was complicated by the fact that the Pathet Lao guerrilla movement was supported by the Viet Minh.

The foundations of the Royal Lao Air Force were laid in 1954. The Aviation Laotienne, AL, was officially formed on January 28, 1955, after some hasty preparations during the preceding five months. The first aircraft were ten Morane Saulnier MS 500 light observation aircraft, handed over by resident Armee de l'Air units. To handle the airlift requirements, the Armee de l'Air kept a detachment of five C-47s in Laos. Although French advisors continued to serve in the Aviation Laotienne until 1959, their role had been long since overtaken by US advisors. Between 1955 and 1958, the USA provided more than $ 120 million in military assistance to Laos, which was about four times the amount spent by France during the preceding eight years. In 1959, an effort to integrate the Pathet Lao forces into the Royal Lao Army failed. The political and military situation was further complicated in August 1960, when a renegade paratroop officer, Kong Le, staged a Coup d'etat in Vientiane. Although the Coup failed, Kong Le remained a force to be reckoned with. His base area at the strategically important Plain des Jarres, PDJ, was supplied by Soviet and North Vietnamese aircraft. The Russians and the North Vietnamese airlifted supplies to both Kong Le and the Pathet Lao.

In 1962, a peace agreement was reached between the Royal Lao Government, Kong Le and the Pathet Lao. The agreement, signed in Geneva, stated that all foreign military forces were to leave Laos. In compliance with the Geneva agreement, all 666 US advisors left Laos. However, the Viet Minh forces never adhered to the Geneva agreement. After the Geneva Accord had been signed, the Russian airlift operation ceased, and twelve aircraft were turned over to Laos. Of these aircraft, nine were russian built Douglas DC-3s, Lisunov Li-2 Cabs while the remaining three were Antonov An-2 Colts. Of the nine Li-2s, three were delivered to the Royal Lao Air Force, RLAF, as the previous Aviation Laotienne had been re-named in August 1960, three more went to Kong Le and the three last to the Pathet Lao. The An-2s were delivered to the RLAF, while ten Polikarpov Po-2 trainers/liaison aircraft were supplied to the Pathet Lao. Nothing is known of these Polikarpov Po-2s, nor of the six Ilyushin Il-12s said to have been delivered to the Pathet Lao in 1960. The Russian Li-2 transports were not put to much use, one being written off in a crash at the PDJ. The remaining Li-2s and An-2s seems to have ended their days at Wattay as scrap.

The fighting between the various factions soon escalated, and by mid-1964, US supplied T-28 Trojans were flying ground attack missions against Pathet Lao forces. Between 1964 and 1973, Laos became a pawn in the Vietnam War. Due to the Geneva agreement, US regular military forces were not allowed to operate in Laos. Instead, equipment was supplied to the Royal Lao armed forces under various aid programmes. Between 1964 and 1970, nearly 300 aircraft and helicopters were supplied to the RLAF. The majority of these aircraft were T-28 ground attack aircraft, H-34 helicopters, C-47 and C-123K transports and AC-47 gunships. FAC and training aircraft in the shape of Cessna O-1F Bird Dogs and Cessna T-41 Mescaleros were delivered as well. No jet aircraft such as Cessna A-37B Dragonflies or Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighters were ever supplied to the RLAF, although both of these types saw service in large numbers with the VNAF. During 1966, it was suggested to replace the T-28s with Douglas A-1E Skyraiders, but these plans were not proceeded with. The main roles of the RLAF were counter-insurgency and transport. Training of RLAF pilots and maintenance personnel was conducted under US auspicies both in Thailand, USA and at Savannakhet. In lieu of USAF airlift capacity, transport operations were carried out by civilian companies such as CASI, Air America and Bird Aviation. Hmong tribal forces were equipped and trained by the CIA. USAF pilots who flew FAC missions in Laos became known as The Ravens. Although US air operations over Laos continued during the entire war, scant information was released at the time of this "secret war". The air operations over Laos during the Vietnam War were, at first glance, confusing, with the USAF and other US authorities and agencies operating through a bewildering array of companies and aid programmes. The operations of the RLAF was supported by the USAF and CIA until 1973, when a peace agreement was reached in Paris. In accordance with the Paris peace agreement, the RLAF strengh was to be reduced. By March 1973, the available strength of 56 T-28s were to be reduced to 40 aircraft, with the surplus aircraft being supplied to the Philippines. As a result, the morale and experience of the RLAF fell accordingly. Due to fuel rationing, the RLAF was rarely able to maintain the proficiency of its pilots and crews. During the early months of 1975, the T-28 pilots flew only about two hours a month. What proved to be the last offensive operation of the RLAF occurred on April 14, 1975. The Pathet Lao had seized a major road junction north of Vientiane. Without consulting the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister ordered nine T-28s to attack the Pathet Lao troop concentration. When the Prime Minister received news of the air strike, he publicly reprimanded the Defence Minister. During May, RLAF transports flew key personnel and their families to safety in Thailand. On May 17, a demonstration was staged at Wattay by communist sympathizers within the RLAF. By December 2, 1975, the Pathet Lao proclaimed the Lao People's Democratic Republic. As opposed to end of the war in neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam, the Pathet Lao take-over was without bloodshed. Vientiane was taken by a company of female Lao People's Liberation Army, LPLA, soldiers, carrying flowers in their rifle barrels.

Continued on next page


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First Created: 7 February 2004 - Last Revised: 9 April 2004
Copyright © 2004 Jan Forsgren.     e-mail: john@aeroflight.co.uk