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The Royal Lao Army

With the end of the war, Laos was no longer under the French Union but entirely sovereign. The country was divided into five military regions. The chain of command of the Royal Lao Army was placed under the Ministry of Defense in Vientiane.

To meet the threat represented by the Pathet Lao, the Royal Lao Army depended on a small French military training mission, headed by a general officer, an exceptional arrangement permitted under the Geneva agreement. Military organization and tactical training reflected French traditions. Most of the equipment was of United States origin, however, because early in the First Indochina War, the United States had been supplying the French with war matériel ranging from guns to aircraft. A small United States legation in Vientiane kept Washington informed about the status of the Royal Lao Army. There was real concern that Laotians were not maintaining their equipment properly and that much of it was becoming useless under the tropical sun and rain. The question also arose of who was to pay the salaries of the Royal Lao Army as France was no longer responsible for Laos's finances.

It seemed evident to the legation that only United States personnel in Laos could ensure that the Royal Lao Army was capable of meeting the threat posed by the Pathet Lao backed by North Vietnam. To get around the prohibition against foreign military personnel imposed by the 1954 Geneva agreement--which the United States had pledged to honor--the Department of Defense in December 1955 established a disguised military mission in Laos called the Programs Evaluation Office (PEO). The PEO worked under the cover of the civilian aid mission and was staffed by military personnel and headed by a general officer who wore civilian clothes. Over the 1955-61 period, the PEO gradually supplanted the French military mission in providing equipment and training to the Royal Lao Army. With increasing numbers of Laotian officers receiving training in Thailand and at staff schools in the United States, there was a perception that the French military mission in Laos was a relic of colonialism. By 1959 the PEO had more than 100 members on its staff, and the United States was paying the entire cost of the Royal Lao Army's salaries.

The prohibition against joining any military alliance prevented Laos from joining the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO-- see Glossary), formed by Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States in September 1954. However, a protocol to the treaty designated Laos as a country to which its mutual security provisions would apply in the event it became the victim of aggression. When fighting broke out along Laos's border with North Vietnam in July-September 1959 following the collapse of efforts to integrate two battalions of Pathet Lao into the Royal Lao Army, the Royal Lao Government (RLG) wanted to appeal to SEATO for help. The RLG was dissuaded from doing so by the United States, which felt that such an appeal risked involving United States troops in combat in Laos. The nature of the fighting--by guerrillas belonging to ethnic tribes that lived on both sides of the border--made the question of aggression ambiguous. Similarly, in January 1961, when the RLG proposed appealing to SEATO to counter North Vietnam's intervention on behalf of the Pathet Lao and Kong Le, it was discouraged from doing so by the United States.

Kong Le's coup d'état on August 9, 1960, threatened to split the army between Kong Le's Lao Neutralist Revolutionary Organization--known as the Neutralists, whose troops' unofficial name was the Neutralists Armed Forces--and the rest of the army under General Phoumi Nosavan, the former minister of defense (see The Attempt to Restore Neutrality , ch. 1). PEO headquarters in Vientiane became inactive because United States diplomats were instructed to find a way to isolate the rebellious paratrooper. Finally, aid was cut off. Meanwhile, the PEO branch office in Savannakhét--Phoumi's headquarters--continued to supply and pay Phoumi's troops. After Phoumi captured Vientiane, the Neutralists were compelled--for their survival--to enter into an alliance with the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese backers, on whom they thereafter depended for supplies.

In April 1961, the PEO was upgraded to a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), and its members were allowed to wear uniforms. The MAAG was withdrawn in 1962 under the terms of the Geneva Agreement, which was supposed to neutralize Laos (see International Pressure and the Advent of the Second Coalition , ch. 1). Because the North Vietnamese did not respect the withdrawal requirement, however, the United States stepped up military aid to the RLG, but avoided sending ground troops into Laos, which would have violated the agreement.

As part of this effort, United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel operating from a base at Udon Thani, Thailand, took over the support of 30,000- to 36,000-person irregulars, including Hmong guerrillas who bore the brunt of the fighting in northern Laos. A CIA-chartered airline, Air America, dropped rice and ammunition from its C-46s and C-47s to isolated Hmong outposts, which were sometimes behind enemy lines. A variety of short takeoff and landing aircraft used dirt airstrips carved out of the jungle by the Hmong. The irregulars, who became known as the Secret Army, were instrumental in helping to rescue a large number of United States airmen who were shot down over Laos. By this time, the Hmong leader Vang Pao had risen to the rank of general in the Royal Lao Army and commanded the Second Military Region.

In October 1964, in response to an offensive by the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese to expel the Neutralists from the Plain of Jars, the United States began providing air support against Pathet Lao positions and North Vietnamese supply lines. However, it was not until March 1966 at Phoukout, northwest of the Plain of Jars, that the Pathet Lao started to win major battles against the Royal Lao Army. In July 1966, the Pathet Lao won another major battle in the Nambak Valley in northern Louangphrabang Province by overrunning a Royal Lao Army base and inflicting heavy casualties. These victories gave the Pathet Lao new momentum in the war for control of Laos.

Meanwhile, in southern Laos, where the North Vietnamese had been working steadily every dry season to expand the Ho Chi Minh Trail network leading into the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), the intensity of the air war also grew. The air war in Laos operated under a complicated command and control system that involved the United States embassy in Vientiane, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam in Saigon, Royal Thai air bases in Thailand, the commander in chief Pacific in Honolulu, and sometimes even the White House. The United States ambassador in Vientiane had the final say on target selection, using criteria that included taking into account the distance of targets from civilian habitations and the types of ordnance to be expended. The ambassador also was to keep the RLG informed so as to avoid, or at least minimize, the latter's embarrassment vis-à-vis the British and Soviet embassies in Vientiane and the heads of the Indian, Canadian, and Polish delegations to the International Control Commission who were jointly responsible for enforcing the 1962 Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos signed in Geneva.

During the June 1969 rainy season, the Pathet Lao and two North Vietnamese battalions, using Soviet tanks, pushed the Royal Lao Army and the Neutralists out of their base at Muang Souy northwest of the Plain of Jars. Fighting continued during the monsoon season. In September 1969, Vang Pao's Hmong, supported by United States bombing, launched a series of surprise attacks against key points on the Plain of Jars. A new North Vietnamese army division joined the battle shortly thereafter and by February 1970 had regained all of the devastated plain.

In 1970, despite eight years of ground offensives by the Royal Lao Army and massive United States air support, the Pathet Lao had grown into an army of 48,000 troops and was prepared to challenge Royal Lao Army forces on their own territory by mounting large offensives in the south engaging an even greater number of North Vietnamese forces. The introduction of Soviet-made long-range 130- mm artillery pieces onto the battlefield in that year allowed the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese to neutralize to some extent the Royal Lao Army's advantage of air superiority.

In 1970 the combat elements of the Royal Lao Army were organized into fifty-eight infantry battalions and one artillery regiment of four battalions. The largest tactical unit was the battalion, which was composed of a headquarters, a headquarters company, and three rifle companies. Royal Lao Army units were devoted primarily to static defense and were stationed near population centers, lines of communication, depots, and airfields. These units were complemented by military police and armored, engineer, and communications units. Between 1962 and 1971, the United States provided Laos with an estimated US$500 million in military assistance, not including the cost of equipping and training irregular and paramilitary forces. During the 1971-75 period, it added about seventy-five T-28 light-strike or training aircraft, about twenty C-47s in both transport and gunship configurations, fewer than ten H-34 helicopters, and some small U-1 and U-17 aircraft.

In February 1971, a major offensive by the South Vietnamese army, with United States logistical and air support, sent two divisions into Laos in the vicinity of Xépôn with the objective of cutting North Vietnamese supply lines. However, once inside Laos, South Vietnamese commanders were separated from their resupply bases by long logistics lines resulting in an early termination of the offensive. By December 1971, the Pathet Lao had taken Paksong on the Bolovens Plateau and had invested the main Hmong base at Longtiang. Communist advances continued into 1972 and encircled Thakhek on the Mekong, and Vientiane.

The cease-fire of February 22, 1973, ended United States bombing and temporarily halted ground offensives. The Pathet Lao, however, following their usual practice, used the cessation of military operations to resupply their forces over the long and exposed roads from North Vietnam. In further fighting in the spring of 1975, the Pathet Lao finally broke the resistance of Vang Pao's Hmong blocking the road junction linking Vientiane, Louangphrabang, and the Plain of Jars. Under the watch of two battalions of Pathet Lao troops, which had been flown into Vientiane and Louangphrabang on Soviet and Chinese planes for neutralizing those towns under the cease-fire agreement, the communists organized demonstrations to support their political and military demands, leading to the final, bloodless seizure of power in the towns that the RLG had held up to then.

Data as of July 1994

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