BEGINNING OF AIR OPERATIONS IN LAOS
(U) As increased Communist activity in Laos also threatened South Vietnam, the administration in 1964 took new measures to bolster the tenuous leftist-neutralist-rightist coalition government of Premier Souvanna Phouma. Laotian neutrality, first guaranteed by the 1954 Geneva Agreement and later by the 14 nation declaration of 23 July 1962, was in constant jeopardy because of repeated Communist led Pathet Lao, violations and North Vietnam's use of Laos for infiltrating men and arms to the Viet Cong.
Initial Lao and U.S.Air Activity
(S) Although the Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) received limited aid under the U.S. military assistance program (MAP), the 1954 and 1962 accords restricted training in that country. To improve the tiny RLAF, in December 1963 PACAF proposed deployment of a USAF special air warfare unit to Thailand. Its presence would permit training of Lao and perhaps Thai pilots in counterinsurgency tactics and techniques. In January and February 1964, after coordinating with U.S. Ambassadors in Vientiane and Bangkok and the two governments concerned, OSD [Office of Secretary of Defense] and the State Department concurred. On 5 March the JCS directed the Air Force to send a SAW [Special Air Warefare] unit to Udorn, Thailand, for six months. General LeMay promptly instructed Headquarters, TAC to dispatch Detachment 6, 1st Air Commando Wing with four T-28's and 41 personnel. Nicknamed Water Pump, the detachment arrived at Udorn on 1 April.
(S) In addition to providing counterinsurgency training, the detachment was to provide logistic support, sponsor Lao-Thai cooperation, and augment, if necessary, the RLAF if the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces should resume an offensive. Despite objections of the Chief, Joint U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group, Thailand (JUSMAAG/T), CINCPAC assigned operational control to the Commander, 2d Air Division because of the similarity of the detachment's mission with that of the 1st Air Commando Squadron in South Vietnam.
(TS) In April a right-wing coup attempt upset the shaky coalition government. It triggered a resurgence of Pathet Lao attacks on neutralist and right-wing forces in the Plaines des Jarres. When Premier Phouma asked for help, the United States responded by stepping up its aid to the RLAF. It also released ordnance,, enabling the RLAF to begin air attacks on Communist positions on 18 May 4.
(TS) On the same day the JCS directed CINCPAC to use USAF and Navy aircraft for medium and low-level "Yankee Team" missions over the embattled area. On the 19th RF-101's stationed at Tan Son Nhut made the first flight. On the 2lst Seventh Fleet RF-8A's and RA-3B's were used to inaugurate the Navy's participation in the program. The 2d Air Division was assigned coordinating responsibility for the, Lao- U.S. air operations. Only search and rescue flights were permitted from Thai bases. Air attacks above 20 degrees North latitude were prohibited.
(U) Publicly acknowledging the U.S. operations, the State Department said they were requested by the Laos government because of the inability of the International Control Commission to obtain information on recent attacks on neutralist and right-wing forces. The administration also considered dispatching combat troops to Thailand, as in 1962, in a "show of force."
(TS) Since only the RLAF performed air strikes, more T-28's were urgently needed. At the request of the U.S. Ambassador to Laos, T-28's of Detachment 6, after remarking, were loaned temporarily loaned to the Laotians giving them,a total of seven. On 20 May 10 more T/RT-28's from South Vietnam (where the 1st Air Commando Squadron and the VNAF were replacing them with A-1's) were loaned to the RLAF. Together with subsequent augmentations, about 33 were available by late June. Because of the pilot shortage, Thai Air Force personnel, with their governments approval, were trained and joined the Laotians in flying operational missions. Some pilots of Air America, a small U.S., contract airline, also received combat training.
(TS) Meanwhile, the U.S. Ambassador to Laos had asked for MAP financed C-47's for the RLAF. Admiral Felt and General LeMav immediately, endorsed the request. Subsequently concurring, the JCS on 30 June directed the Air Force to provide the necessary training. Three C-47's and 21 personnel were sent to join Detachment 6 in Thailand, arriving there on 24 July. The unit began immediately to give air and ground crew training to the Laotians.
(TS) U.S. Yankee Team missions, begun originally on a temporary basis, were extended by the JCS on 25 May for an indefinite time period. These flights had a fourfold mission: to provide intelligence for friendly Laotian forces including assessment of RLAF bombings, determine the extent of Communist infiltration and aid to the Viet Cong, encourage allies, and demonstrate U.S. resolve to check communism in Southeast Asia.
(TS) Early in June two Navy aircraft were downed in Laos by antiaircraft fire. As a consequence, on the 6th the JCS authorized Yankee Team pilots to engage, with restrictions, in retaliatory fire. For this purpose, USAF deployed eight F-100's from Clark AB., the Philippines, to Da Nang Airfield. On the 9th., supported by SAC KC-135 tankers, several of these aircraft made the first USAF jet strikes of the war against antiaircraft sites and selected military targets. After the Gulf of Tonkin incident., newly arrived USAF F-105's, at Korat AB, Thailand., were employed in conjunction with search and rescue missions only. The changing circumstances led to frequent revisions in the rules of engagement. In July seven new or revised rules were issued with respect to reconnaissance, altitude, and retaliatory strikes.
(TS) By late June and July Lao-Thai-Yankee Team reconnaissance, interdiction, and airlift operations had been a major factor in stabilizing the military situation in Laos. The defense of Muang Soui, a vital area near the Plaines des Jarres, was bolstered and later an "Operation Triangle" further improved the position of non-Communist forces. Clearly the rapid USAF training of inexperienced Lao and Thai pilots had "paid off" and LeMay commended highly the work of Detachment 6. In addition to providing valuable information on Communist activity in Laos and infiltration into South Vietnam, Yankee Team and Water Pump missions had raised Laotian morale.
(TS) In July the JCS approved LeMay's proposal to delegate to CINCPAC more responsibility for air activity in Laos. It desired faster mission approval, relaxation of the rules of engagement, night strikes on Communist convoys on "Route 7," and more direct participation by U.S. and Thai pilots. But Secretary McNamara did not endorse these proposals. High administration policy required the approval of each mission and as available air resources seemed sufficient, there would be no deeper U.S. involvement for the time being in Laos.
(S) To improve command and control of U.S.-Lao-Thai air operations the post of deputy commander, 2d Air Division was established at Udorn, Thailand, on 7 August.
Plans Against Infiltration
(TS) The more stable military situation in Laos after mid-1964 contrasted with the political and military deterioration in South Vietnam. After the President approved additional planning for air and ground operations in Laos, U.S. diplomatic representatives in Bangkok, Vientiane, and Saigon met with PACOM and MAC/V officials to examine ways to reduce infiltration of men and arms through the Laos corridor. Reaching initial agreement on about 22 targets, PACOM and MAC/V developed an air-ground plan requiring Yankee Team and RLAF air strikes and U.S.- aided Vietnamese ground attacks a short distance into Laos. The JCS approved the plan on 30 September.
(TS) As political disarray in Saigon increased and infiltration appeared more menacing, the JCS in October repeatedly urged McNamara to adopt the 30 September plan that would require, in addition to RLAF operations, considerable Yankee Team participation in striking "hard" targets, suppressing flak, and providing high cover in case North Vietnamese MlGts tried to intervene.
(TS) The plea. for more U.S. air support also received the unanimous endorsement of the recently formed Southeast Asia Coordinating Committee (SEACOORD). The committee desired approval of RLAF strikes on Mia Gia pass., a vital transit point on the Laotian-North Vietnam border. Citing latest intelligence, the committee said that stronger action was needed outside of South Vietnam to produce the desirable psychological and military impact on the Communists. Without U.S. air there might be unacceptable RLAF losses and a doubt as to U.S. resolve in South Vietnam and Laos.
(S) But, as noted earlier, the continued political turmoil in Saigon precluded any modification of State-OSD directives and allowed planning only for the proposed air-ground operations in the Laos corridor. General Westmoreland, in late October., foresaw no likelihood of beginning cross-border activity until after 1 January 1965.
(TS) On 18 and 21 November two USAF Yankee Team aircraft,. an F-100 and an RF-101, were lost to ground fire. Whereupon LeMay proposed and the JCS approved a recommendation to conduct retaliatory flak suppression strikes along two infiltration routes. Again, the administration took no action pending another searching reappraisal of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. One proposed course of action was to employ U.S. ground forces in the Laos panhandle. The Joint Chiefs had not officially considered such a deployment, and they advised McNamara that it appeared prudent to implement previous JCS recommendations before undertaking ground operations.
(TS) On 2 December, after Ambassador Taylor had conferred with NSC and other top U.S. officials, the administration approved very limited and highly controlled measures for exerting more pressure on North Vietnam. They included U.S. strikes on infiltration routes and facilities in the Laotian corridor, armed reconnaissance missions every three days with flights of four aircraft each, but no overflights of North Vietnam. Nicknamed Barrel Roll, the missions had a primarily psychological purpose to "signal'' Hanoi of the danger of deeper U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia,. The JCS quickly sent implementing instructions to Admiral Sharp.
(TS) After the Laotian government approved the initial targets and routes, Barrel Roll missions began on 14 December. USAF F-100's from Da Nang and F-105's from Thailand flew the first mission. Navy F-4Es and A-lH's began on the 17th. Like Yankee Team, Barrel Roll missions were tightly controlled by Washington.
(TS) Thus 1964 witnessed the initial employment of limited U.S, Lao, and Thai airpower in Laos. Events in Laos figured increasingly in U.S. planning to thwart a Communist takeover in that country and in defending South Vietnam. By the end of the year Yankee Team aircraft of the Air Force and Navy had flown 1,257 photo, escort, and weather sorties. One hundred and fifteen aircraft received ground hits on 56 missions and each service lost two aircraft. By 2 January 1965 six Barrel Roll missions had been flown with no aircraft lost.