By Pete Jones
It was more by accident than design that armour was used in Vietnam. Apart from the ARVN the other combatants used armour reluctantly. In fact, the first armour deployed to the Nam was by mistake. Marines were sent to Da Nang airbase to help secure it after mortar attacks by the VC. Apparently MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) had not reviewed the organisation of the Marine battalion and when it arrived with its armour there was some concern. The Marines couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
The next deployment of armour by US forces was in late 1965 by the 1st Infantry Division. previous units had swapped their armour for APC's, usually M113 ACAV's. After a while the US Army Chief of Staff said that the Divisional Cavalry Squadron should keep its medium tanks so that a feasibility study could be made of the armours role in the war. The land was not totally hostile for armoured warfare, it was found that 46°/o of the country could be traversed all year round by armour. The French had used armour in the 1960s and most of the little information that came forward was from their battle reports. The French Army had been supplied with World War II tanks (mainly M24 Chaffee's), half tracks and scout cars mostly of American origin. In 1954 the French had 452 tanks; 1,985 scout cars, half tracks and amphibious vehicles.
General Westmoreland the commander of MACV said "except for a few coastal areas, most notably the I Corps area, Vietnam is no place for either tank or mechanised infantry units" it took six months for the lst Infantry Division to get their tanks at Phu Loi to be released for general use. It was not until the 95th Infantry Division arrived that the US really started to use both tanks and APC's in combined arms roles.
After the Tet offensive in 1968 Westmoreland changed his mind on the use of armour after he had seen what good use it had been put to. He actually requested that all future reinforcements from 1969 onwards should be armoured rather than infantry. The Australians too still judged the infantry to be "The Queen of the Battlefield" and when they deployed their first Centurions to Vietnam even the press questioned whether this was a good move. Their Army was not so prejudice fortunately, they realised the good fire support tanks gave to infantry.
Of the Free World Forces only the ARVN could be considered to willingly use armour but they were dependent on US advisors and the US supply of equipment, it was not until after Tet in '68 that the ARVN received their first M48A3's. The ARVN were so paranoid of coups that all tank units were kept a days march from Saigon. Even the South Vietnamese air force (RVNAF) pressed some old M24's into service so as not to be out done by the Army.
The Communists realised that the Allies were increasing the use of armour so had to rethink their strategy. It has since been calculated that it took seven RPG hits on a M113 to obtain one penetration. Hits themselves were only reached once in every eight to ten rounds fired! For each penetration only 0.8 casualties on average occurred. so the myth of the RPG is not founded. Because of the Allies increasing commitment to armour the Communists turned to the Soviet Union for help and it led to 3,000 Vietnamese soldiers being sent to Russian armour training schools.
At first the Communist use of armour was poor but slowly their confidence grew so by 1975 when they over threw the South they used armour to good effect totally overwhelming their enemy.
The armour was used tactically by the Americans. they used it to create or force the enemy to fight by invading the communist safe areas with armour. The infantry could then reinforce or circle the enemy when located. The only real success for armour though was the use of the M113 ACAV. It was the ARVN who pioneered the use of mounted tactics with APC's so as to protect their infantry from casualties up until then infantry were always dismounted from the APC's before assaulting the enemy.
Vietnam Tracks by Simon Dunstan
Armoured Combat in Vietnam by General Donn A. Starrey
Internet article by Brian Ross for Soc.History.War.Vietnam
Courtesy of Pete Jones the SOTCW Vietnam War Study Group