Armed Forces Overviews
Vietnam

Vietnam People's Air Force
Không quân Nhân dân Việt Nam

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This introduction is not intended as a detailed history of this air arm, as it is far too rich and complex to compress into these few paragraphs. It is more intended as a historical context from which the Vietnam People's Air Force has evolved. The current Vietnam People's Air Force (Không quân Nhân dân Việt Nam) is the successor of the former North Vietnamese Air Force (VPAF) and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF), absorbed following the re-unification of North- and South Vietnam in 1975. Vietnam People's Air Force (VPAF) is one of three main branches in Vietnam People's Army, a part of the Ministry of Defence.

Early History

Today’s Vietnam has its roots in colonial French Indochina, which was part of the French colonial empire in Southeast Asia. After the Fall of France during World War II, the colony was administered by Vichy France and was under Japanese supervision until a brief period of full Japanese control between March and August of 1945. Beginning in May 1941, the Viet Minh, a communist army led by Ho Chi Minh, began a revolt against French rule known as the First Indochina War. On 2 September 1945, President Ho declared independence for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. But before September's end, a force of British and French soldiers, along with captured Japanese troops, restored French control. Bitter fighting ensued in the First Indochina War. In 1950, Ho again declared an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was recognized by the fellow Communist governments of China and the Soviet Union. Fighting lasted until May 1954, when the Viet Minh won the decisive victory against French forces at the gruelling Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

On 27 April 1954, the Geneva Conference produced the Geneva Agreements; supporting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Indochina, granting it independence from France, declaring the cessation of hostilities and foreign involvement in internal Indochina affairs and defining northern and southern zones into which opposing troops were to withdraw. Neither the US nor South Vietnam signed the Geneva Accords. The Viet Minh became the government of North Vietnam and hence the events of 1954 marked the beginnings of serious United States involvement in Vietnam and the ensuing Vietnam War.

1949-1964 (North Vietnam)

On 9 March 1949, General Vo Nguyen Giap decided to establish the Air Force Research Committee (Ban Nghiên cứu Không quân) belonging to the General Staff to study the methods of fighting the French. The first Vietnamese service aircraft flight was made by a Tiger Moth on 15 August 1949. A small-scale training was carried out in following years. Further development of aviation in North Vietnam began in 1956, when a number of trainees were sent to the USSR, China and Czechoslovakia for pilot training. They were organized into two groups, for pilots and mechanics, respectively. Further training followed in Vietnam where they utilized the Aero 45 at Gia Lam and the Czechoslovak Zlin Z-226 Trener 6 at Cat Bi. On 24 January 1959, the Defense Ministry issued a decree establishing the Department of the Air Force. The first unit of the VPAF was the 919 Transport Regiment (Trung đoàn Không quân Vận tải 919), organized on 1 May 1959 at Gia Lam with An-2, Li-2 and Il-14 aircraft and Mi-4 helicopters. The second unit was the 910 Training Regiment (Trung đoàn Không quân 910) with Yak-18 (CJ-6) trainers at Cat Bi, activated on 30 September 1959. On 22 October 1963 the Air Force and Air Defense Force were merged into the Air and Air Defence Force (Quân chủng Phòng không - Không quân). This introduction is not intended as a detailed history of this air arm, as it is far too rich and complex to compress into these few paragraphs. It is more intended as a historical context from which the Vietnam People's Air Force has evolved. The current Vietnam People's Air Force (Không quân Nhân dân Việt Nam) is the successor of the former North Vietnamese Air Force (VPAF) and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF), absorbed following the re-unification of North- and South Vietnam in 1975. Vietnam People's Air Force (VPAF) is one of three main branches in Vietnam People's Army, a part of the Ministry of Defence. Early History Today’s Vietnam has its roots in colonial French Indochina, which was part of the French colonial empire in Southeast Asia. After the Fall of France during World War II, the colony was administered by Vichy France and was under Japanese supervision until a brief period of full Japanese control between March and August of 1945. Beginning in May 1941, the Viet Minh, a communist army led by Ho Chi Minh, began a revolt against French rule known as the First Indochina War. On 2 September 1945, President Ho declared independence for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. But before September's end, a force of British and French soldiers, along with captured Japanese troops, restored French control. Bitter fighting ensued in the First Indochina War. In 1950, Ho again declared an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was recognized by the fellow Communist governments of China and the Soviet Union. Fighting lasted until May 1954, when the Viet Minh won the decisive victory against French forces at the gruelling Battle of Dien Bien Phu. On 27 April 1954, the Geneva Conference produced the Geneva Agreements; supporting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Indochina, granting it independence from France, declaring the cessation of hostilities and foreign involvement in internal Indochina affairs and defining northern and southern zones into which opposing troops were to withdraw. Neither the US nor South Vietnam signed the Geneva Accords. The Viet Minh became the government of North Vietnam and hence the events of 1954 marked the beginnings of serious United States involvement in Vietnam and the ensuing Vietnam War. 1949-1964 (North Vietnam) On 9 March 1949, General Vo Nguyen Giap decided to establish the Air Force Research Committee (Ban Nghiên cứu Không quân) belonging to the General Staff to study the methods of fighting the French. The first Vietnamese service aircraft flight was made by a Tiger Moth on 15 August 1949. A small-scale training was carried out in following years. Further development of aviation in North Vietnam began in 1956, when a number of trainees were sent to the USSR, China and Czechoslovakia for pilot training. They were organized into two groups, for pilots and mechanics, respectively. Further training followed in Vietnam where they utilized the Aero 45 at Gia Lam and the Czechoslovak Zlin Z-226 Trener 6 at Cat Bi. On 24 January 1959, the Defense Ministry issued a decree establishing the Department of the Air Force.

The first unit of the VPAF was the 919 Transport Regiment (Trung đoàn Không quân Vận tải 919), organized on 1 May 1959 at Gia Lam with An-2, Li-2 and Il-14 aircraft and Mi-4 helicopters. The second unit was the 910 Training Regiment (Trung đoàn Không quân 910) with Yak-18 (CJ-6) trainers at Cat Bi, activated on 30 September 1959. On 22 October 1963 the Air Force and Air Defense Force were merged into the Air and Air Defence Force (Quân chủng Phòng không - Không quân).

1964-1974 (North Vietnam)

The first North Vietnamese combat plane was a T-28 Trojan trainer, whose pilot defected from the Royal Lao Air Force in September 1963 and was utilized from early 1964 by the North Vietnamese as a night fighter. The T-28 was the first North Vietnamese aircraft to claim a shoot down of a US aircraft, a C-123, on 16 February 1964. The North Vietnamese Air Force (VPAF) received its first jet fighter aircraft, the MiG-17 (Chinese J-5) in February 1964, but they were initially stationed at air bases in Communist China, while their pilots were being trained.

On 3 February 1964 the first fighter unit was formed; 921 Fighter Regiment (Trung đoàn Không quân Tiêm kích 921) at Mengzi in South China. On 6 August, following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the unit was rushed from China to Noi Bai in North Vietnam with its MiG-17s (J-5) and MiG-15UTIs (JJ-5). On 4 August 1965, the second fighter outfit being 923 Fighter Regiment was formed at Noi Bai, also flying the MiG-17. In May 1965, 929 Bomber Squadron was formed at Noi Bai with ex-Chinese Il-28/R/U twin engine bombers. The bombers returned to China several times for training, and only one Il-28 combat sortie was flown against Laotian forces in 1972.

The North Vietnamese Air Force's first jet air-to-air engagement with US aircraft was on 3 April 1965. The VPAF claimed two US Navy F-8 Crusaders, which was not confirmed by US sources, although they acknowledged having encountered MiGs. Consequently, 3 April became "North Vietnamese Air Force Day". On 4 April the VPAF scored the first confirmed victories to be acknowledged by both sides. The US fighter community was shocked when relatively slow, post-Korean era MiG-17 fighters shot down advanced F-105 Thunderchief fighters-bombers attacking the Thanh Hoa Bridge. The two downed F-105s were carrying their normal heavy bomb load, and were not able to react to their attackers.

In late 1965, the VPAF were supplied with supersonic MiG-21F-13s by the USSR, joining 921 Fighter Regiment at Noi Bai. However, these were soon supplemented by a regiment of MiG-21PF/MiG-21Us in 1966, supported by Soviet instructors. Russian sources recently revealed that 921 Fighter Regiment lost 26 MiG-21PFs and four pilots in combat and accidents between October 1965 and September 1967. In that same period, they claimed 112 US aircraft shot down. The Vietnamese not only received weapons from its allies. From early 1967 until early 1969, Group Z (Doan Z) flew some twenty VPAF MiG-17s and ten MiG-21s from Kep. This unit was manned by North Korean pilots and airmen. Fourteen North Koreans were killed, but they also claimed 26 US aircraft shot down. The MiG-21s were used for high speed GCI controlled hit and run intercepts against American air strike groups. The MiG-21 tactics became so effective, that by late 1966 an operation was mounted to deal with the MiG-21 threat. On 2 January 1967, Operation Bolo lured eight 921 Regiment MiG-21PFs into the air, thinking they were intercepting an F-105 strike group, but instead found a sky full of missile armed 8 TFW F-4Cs led by Colonel Robin Olds. The result was a confirmed loss of five MiG-21PFs (but seven claimed by the Americans), without US losses. On the bright side, all MiG-pilots ejected safely; the MiG-21 had an excellent ejection seat.

The VPAF was a defensive air arm, with the primary mission of defending North Vietnam, and until the last stages of the war, did not conduct air operations into South Vietnam; nor did the VPAF conduct general offensive actions against enemy naval forces off the coast. However, it did conduct limited attacks on the opposing naval vessels. On 19 April 1972 the USS Higbee became the first US warship to be bombed during the Vietnam War, when two VPAF MiG-17s from 923 Fighter Regiment attacked, one of which, piloted by Le Xuan Di, dropped a 250 kilogram bomb onto the Higbee's rear 5-inch gun mount, destroying it. The second MiG-17 flown by Nguyen Van Bay went on to bomb the light cruiser USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5), causing only minor damage. Although there were no official aircraft losses reported by either side during the aerial attack, witnesses claimed that one of the attacking MiGs was destroyed with a direct hit by a surface to air missile fired from the USS Sterett (DLG-31). However, this was probably a Styx surface-to-surface missile. The VPAF did not engage all US sorties. Most US aircraft were destroyed by SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAM) or anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), and in some cases, even small arms. Typically, VPAF MiGs would not engage unless it was to their advantage. Some of the aerial tactics used were similar to Operation Bolo, which lured the VPAF to the fight.

By February 1969, 925 Fighter Regiment was formed flying the Shenyang J-6 (the Chinese-built MiG-19S) from Yen Bai. On 1 December 1971, the fourth and final fighter unit of the Vietnam War, 927 Fighter Regiment was formed flying the MiG-21PFM (type F-94) from Noi Bai from early 1972. At the same time, 921 Fighter Regiment was upgrading to the MiG-21MF (type F-96). There were several times during the war that the US bombing restrictions of North Vietnamese Airfields were lifted. Many VPAF aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and those that were not, were withdrawn to a sanctuary in China. In December 1972, the North Vietnamese air defences nearly exhausted their supply of surface-to-air missiles trying to down the high-flying B-52 raids over the North. The North Vietnamese Air Defense Network was degraded by electronic countermeasures (ECM) and other suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) measures. Though the North Vietnamese forces claim over 81 US aircraft as shot down during Operation Linebacker II, (including 34 B-52s with two attributed to the VPAF), most sources acknowledge only 28 aircraft, including sixteen B-52s lost by the Americans. During the 1975 Spring Offensive, VNAF airbases were lost one-by-one; Pleiku, Phu Cat, Phu Bai, then Danang on 29 March. The Bombing of Tan Son Nhat Air Base occurred on 28 April 1975, just two days before the fall of Saigon. The operation was carried out by the VPAF's Quyet Thang Squadron, using captured VNAF A-37s flown by hero pilot Nguyen Thanh Trung who had bombed the Presidential Palace in Saigon, less than one month earlier.

During the Vietnam War, VPAF MiGs claimed to have shot down some 261 US aircraft, and a classified list claims even 319 kills. Sixteen MiG aces are honoured by Vietnam. The US claimed to have shot down or destroyed 204 MiGs and at least six An-2s, of which 196 were confirmed with some form of evidence (100 MiG-17s, 10 MiG-19s and 86 MiG-21s). However, VPAF admits that only 154 MiGs were lost through all causes, including 131 in air combat. The number of losses to MiGs confirmed by the US is 121 aircraft shot down and 7 damaged. Between 1964 and 1975, the number of VPAF MiGs on hand varied from 4 (1969) to 55 (1972) with an average of around forty. This indicates that the size of a MiG regiment was small; no more than ten to fifteen aircraft.

1955-1975 (South Vietnam)

During the war in Vietnam, the role of the Vietnam Air Force (Không lực Việt Nam Cộng hòa) or VNAF was primarily support of (South) Vietnamese Army operations in South Vietnam. It therefore was never engaged in air-to-air combat with the VPAF or in air-to-ground operations over the North. As a result, it never received the same attention as the US-forces or the VPAF. Nevertheless, due to massive MAP deliveries the VNAF eventually grew into the world's sixth largest air force at the height of its power in 1974, with some 1480 aircraft and helicopters assigned to over sixty squadrons including fifteen A-37 and F-5 units, divided over sixteen wings at nine airbases. Because the post-1975 VPAF made only limited use of former VNAF material, and continued its existing unit structure, we will limit the VNAF history to some highlights. The VNAF was inaugurated on 31 January 1955 and its main fighter force consisted of 69 F8F Bearcats transferred by the French. These were later augmented by the T-6, C-47, T-28 and many other types, and between 1961 and 1975 it received well over 2000 aircraft and helicopters from the US, in particular the A-1, A-37, F-5, O-1, H-34 and UH-1 models.

The morning of 30 April 1975 saw VNAF A-37 aircraft flying an unknown number of sorties against PAVN columns moving into Saigon, and these were the last combat sorties flown by the VNAF. After the announcement of the surrender of South Vietnam by President Minh, VNAF pilots flew some 132 aircraft and helicopters to U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand, often carrying three or even four people. Many VNAF helicopters escaped to US carriers off the coast but most were dumped overboard. In the end, some 1100 VNAF had to be left behind in Vietnam, including 87 F-5s, 95 A-37s, 26 A-1s, 38 C-47s, 45 A/C-119s, 14 C-130s, 33 C-7As (stored), 434 UH-1s, 114 O-1s, 32 CH-47s plus 72 other models. Only some 20% was operational due to cannibalization and a lack of fuel, so only a limited number were absorbed into the VPAF. Over its twenty years of existence, VNAF combat- and operational losses totalled over 900 aircraft and helicopters.

1975-present (reunified Vietnam)

The VPAF did not play a major role during the Ho Chi Minh Campaign; the spring offensive against South Vietnam in 1975. The only sorties flown were conducted by five captured VNAF A-37s. SA-2s were transported into South Vietnam to counter possible US military air strikes. However, the US could not bring back their air power during the 1975 offensive, which had proven decisive in 1972, and the VNAF did not have the capability to strike targets in the north nor to defend against the onslaught in the south. After the end of the Vietnam War in May 1975, many more VPAF Regiments were formed. Partly equipped with former VNAF aircraft, and from 1979 with the new MiG-21bis and MiG-21UM:

  • 935 Fighter Regiment formed on 30 May 1975 with ex-VNAF F-5A/B/E/RF-5A and MiG-21MF at Bien Hoa.
  • 937 Fighter Bomber Regiment formed on 30 May 1975 with ex-VNAF A-37, L-19, U-17, UH-1 and CH-47, stationed at Binh Thuy (A-37) and Can Tho.
  • 918 Transport Regiment formed on 5 July 1975 with ex-VNAF C-130, C-47, DC-4, C-7A and C-119 at Tan Son Nhat.
  • 917 Mixed Transport Regiment formed on 20 July 1975 with ex-VNAF U-17, L-19, UH-1 and CH-47 at Tan Son Nhat.
  • 920 Training Regiment formed on 12 November 1975 with ex-VNAF T-41, U-17, C-47 and UH-1 at Nha Trang.
  • 916 Helicopter Regiment formed on 19 December 1975 with Mi-6 and Mi-8 at Hoa Lac.
  • 930 Helicopter Training Regiment formed on 3 July 1978 with ex-VNAF UH-1 at Cam Ranh Bay.
  • 929 Fighter Regiment formed on 25 February 1979 with MiG-21bis/UM at Danang.
  • 940 Fighter Training Regiment formed on 21 May 1979 with MiG-17F at Phan Rang.
  • 931 Fighter Regiment formed 13 July 1979 with MiG-21bis/UM at Yen Bai.
  • 933 Fighter Regiment formed 13 July 1979 with MiG-17F and Ka-25 at Kien An.
  • 945 Fighter Training Regiment formed on 28 February 1980 with MiG-21UM at Bien Hoa.
  • 954 Patrol Regiment formed on 15 September 1984 with Ka-25 and Be-12 at Cat Bi.

On 31 May 1977, the Vietnam People's Air Force (Không quân Nhân dân Việt Nam) was separated from the Air Defense Force (Quân chủng Phòng không). When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, former VNAF A-37s flew most of the ground support missions. These aircraft were more suited to the role than the MiGs. Former VNAF F-5Es, C-123s, C-130s, and UH-1s were used by the VPAF for many years after the end of the war. In the years between 1953 and 1991, approximately 700 warplanes, 120 helicopters and 158 missile complexes have been supplied to North Vietnam by the USSR and China.

From 1979, a broad modernization program replaced most of the Vietnam War-era equipment. From July to August 1979, the first 24 of over 180 MiG-21bis and MiG-21UMs were assigned to the 371st Division. The MiG-21bis became the main fighter in the VPAF fleet, equipping eight regiments. The 937 Fighter Bomber Regiment based at Phan Rang replaced their A-37Bs with forty Su-22M-3s and six Su-22Us from late 1979. These were again replaced by 32 Su-22M-4s and four Su-22UM-3s from 1988. 23 Su-22M-4s and two Su-22UM-3s were refurbished and upgraded by the Russians between 1996 and 1998. The 923 Fighter Bomber Regiment based at Tho Xuan received the Su-22M-3/Su-22Us from 937 Regiment from 1989.

In March 1979, the submarine hunting Ka-25 helicopter was first transferred to 916 Regiment, followed by the Mi-24A in January 1980. In late October 1980, the first of dozens of An-26s were assigned to 918 Regiment at Tan Son Nhat. The first of four Beriev Be-12 patrol aircraft arrived with 933 Regiment and were stationed at Kien An in 1981. Early in 1981, the first of two dozen L-39s arrived for 910 Training Regiment, replacing the L-29 and moving to Nha Trang.

The next major round of modernization started in 1995 with the delivery of five Su-27SKs and one Su-27UBK to 935 Fighter Regiment at Phan Rang. Two additional Su-27SKs and four Su-27UBKs were delivered from December 1997, but two Su-27UBKs were lost on delivery when their An-124 crashed at Irkutsk on 6 December 1997. They were replaced by two Su-27PUs in the summer of 1998. Four Su-30MK2Vs were delivered in November 2004, with some 24 delivered by late 2012. In 2011, all Su-27s were transferred to 940 Fighter Training Regiment at Phu Cat. This left only Su-30MK2Vs on 935 Fighter Regiment’s roster, and the unit seems to have moved to Bien Hoa by 2009. From June 2011, 923 Fighter Bomber Regiment at Tho Xuan is replacing its obsolete Su-22s with Su-30MK2Vs, with a dozen delivered so far. Vietnam also received ten new Yak-52 trainers from the Aerostar factory in Bacau, Rumania, between late 2009 and 2011. They are used by 920 Training Regiment at Nha Trang. 910 Training Regiment moved from Nha Trang to Dong Tac (Tuy Hoa) in late 2003. It still operates the L-39C and received fourteen additional aircraft from the Ukraine and Czech Republic between 2002 and 2008. In the near future, further Su-30 deliveries are expected to replace the remaining Su-22s and a portion of the MiG-21bis fleet. Latest rumour is that, after years of storage with the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant in Baranovichi (Belarus), 18 former IAF Su-30Ks rejected due to engine problems suffered in 2003 will be upgraded to Su-30KN standards and acquired by the VPAF. Eight Yak-130UBS trainers are expected to replace the L-39 in the 2015-2025 timeframe, although no order has been signed yet.