Book 13


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Interdiction in Southern Laos: 1960-1968
The United States Air Force In Southeast Asia
by Jacob Van Staaveren

Format: Softcover , 1993
360 pages

Center for Air Force History
Government Printing Office
Washington D.C

Interrrrrrdiction in Laos cover

Throughout the War in Southeast Asia, Communist forces from North Vietnam infiltrated the isolated, neutral state of Laos. Men and supplies crossed the mountain passes and travelled along an intricate web of roads and jungle paths known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Viet Cong insurgents in South Vietnam. American involvement in Laos began with photo-reconnaissance missions and, as the war in Vietnam intensified, expanded to a series of air-ground operations from bases in Vietnam and Thailand against fixed targets and infiltration routes in southern Laos.

U.S. Air Force leaders and aircrews flying interdiction missions over Laotian territory faced a unique set of challenges. Their efforts were plagued by political controversies, daunting weather, rugged terrain, a tenacious foe, and above all a bewildering array of rules of engagement limiting the effectiveness of air operations. Interdiction in Southern Laos, examines this complex operational environment. Many of these issues-particularly those relevant to conducting a politically sensitive, limited war from foreign bases, with a commitment to minimizing civilian casualties-are still relevant today and for the foreseeable future as the modern Air Force meets its responsibilities in an ever-changing global environment.

Richard P. Hallion
Air Force Historian

Of the diverse American military actions instituted from 1960 to 1973 to prevent the spread of communism in the Indochina peninsula, none were more complex than those in Laos. There, two highly restricted air and air-ground wars were fought. One was waged in the north to assure the independence, territorial integrity, and neutrality of the Laotian government, guaranteed by the 1954 and 1962 Geneva agreements.
The other was waged in the south to arrest the infiltration of manpower and supplies from communist North Vietnam to the Viet Cong insurgents in non-communist South Vietnam. This volume addresses the first phase of the latter war, 1960 to January 1968. It focuses on the activities of the United States Air Force in carrying out a variety of mandated anti-infiltration measures.

Among the complexities of warfare in Laos discussed, one deserves mention from the outset. This is the role of a series of American ambassadors to Laos who were fated to serve as the principal American military as well as political representatives in that country. Their unique position stemmed from the two Geneva agreements that forbade the Laotian government from entering into any formal foreign military alliance. The practical effect of these agreements, which the Lao government largely honored during both wars within its borders, was to preclude the establishment of American and allied military headquarters
and bases in Laos. In consequence, virtually all Air Force and other American and allied operations in Laos were normally launched from bases in neighboring Thailand and South Vietnam. The U.S. military commanders in the two countries obtained Lao government approval for these operations through the American ambassador in Vientiane.

The first phase of American military operations in Laos (1960-1963) was chiefly confined to determining the magnitude of North Vietnamese manpower and supply infiltration into South Vietnam. This was done by periodic Air Force photo-reconnaissance missions, small air-supported ground probes into the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail by U.S.-trained Laotian tribesmen living in South Vietnam, and limited border patrolling by U.S.-trained South Vietnamese personnel. Because of the monsoon weather, the largely jungle terrain, and North Vietnamese concealment efforts, the extent of infiltration was hard to ascertain. Nonetheless, intelligence analysts concluded that annually the North Vietnamese were sending to the Viet Cong in South Vietnam 4,500 to 12,000 personnel plus an unknown amount of weapons and supplies.

Meanwhile, from May 1963 onward, political and military instability in South Vietnam grew. On November 1, 1963, it culminated in the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem by a military junta, exacerbating the infiltration problem in southern Laos. Encouraged by the turbulence in its southern neighbor, the North Vietnamese stepped up their manpower and supply flow to the Viet Cong. The United States embarked on a series of expanding but still small-scale actions. Among them was the dispatch of a special Air Force unit to Thailand to furnish more training to the fledgling Royal Laotian Air Force and to the Royal Thai Air Force as well. The United States also began regular Air Force and Navy tactical reconnaissance over Laos with accompanying armed escorts. It accelerated the recruitment and training of Laotian roadwatch and other information-gathering personnel within Laos and South Vietnam for probes into the trail. And it encouraged the Royal Laotian Air Force to interdict selected infiltration routes more frequently.

Air Force and Navy aircrews flying reconnaissance were not free agents. Administration authorities in Washington and the American embassy in Vientiane imposed an intricate web of air restrictions. These limited the number of sorties that could be flown, the territory that could be covered, and the targets that could be struck by the armed escorts. The curbs sprang from a cardinal element of American foreign policy to keep Laos from becoming a primary theater of military operations. The aim was to avoid draining resources from the concurrent but higher priority air and ground operations against the communists in South Vietnam, and (beginning in 1965) from the ROLLING THUNDER bombing operations in North Vietnam.

When manpower and supply infiltration through southern Laos failed to diminish in 1964, the United States secured the Lao government’s approval to expand the anti-infiltration effort. It launched in December of that year a limited Air Force and Navy interdiction campaign against fixed targets and infiltration routes throughout Laos.
The principal purpose of these strikes was to signal the Hanoi government
of greater military pressure to come, unless Hanoi ceased supporting the insurgencies in Laos and South Vietnam. When the signal was not heeded, the United States in April 1965 inaugurated a day-and-night Air Force and Navy interdiction campaign in southern Laos while continuing a separate program in the north.

By now it was evident that the two air wars in Laos, the concurrent American and allied operations in South Vietnam, and the recently begun bombing program in North Vietnam would not induce the Hanoi government to come to the conference table soon. Thus more military pressure began to be applied in all areas. In southern Laos during the last half of 1965 and throughout 1966 and 1967, initial air and air-ground programs expanded and new ones were introduced. This resulted in intensified attacks on enemy troops, trucks, logistic and antiaircraft sites, bridges, and many other targets. Strategic Air Command B-52 bombers, already engaged in South Vietnam, began striking
enemy redoubts near the South Vietnamese border. As the relatively small, separate air and air-ground programs evolved, each received a nickname: LEAPING LENA, BARREL ROLL, STEEL TIGER, TIGER HOUND, CRICKET, GATE GUARD, TALLY-HO,  SLAM, SHOCK, POPEYE and IGLOO

The challenge to air commanders and aircrews in conducting these programs was considerable, for among the Indochina states, Laos had the harshest physical environment. The monsoon weather virtually assured that any given day, pilots and other crewmembers would encounter rain, drizzle, overcast, or fog. On a clear day they were likely to encounter smoke and haze from native slash-and-burn farming and fires from bombings. The jungle terrain of the mountains and the valleys further obscured much of the route and trail system. These conditions, making so difficult the task of pilots and aircrews in flying combat missions in daytime, compounded the problem in finding and striking
targets at night. In addition, the airmen had to contend with a wily enemy who traveled under the cover of darkness and was adept at speedily repairing bombed routes, trails, and bridges; building bypasses; and extending his routes and trails. The airmen also had to comply with a bewildering array of ever-changing air restrictions imposed by higher authorities to minimize the danger of causing civilian casualties and over-escalating the air war.

As the infiltration effort continued in 1967, American officials believed that the major objectives in Laos were being achieved. Militarily, Laos remained a secondary theater of operations. The neutralist Vientiane government had not succumbed to the communist-led insurgency in the north. The anti-infiltration campaign appeared to exact an unremitting toll of enemy personnel and supplies moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But in the closing weeks of the year, there were ominous signs that the anti-infiltration programs had not prevented a steady buildup of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese strength in South Vietnam. This was confirmed by developments in January 1968. In mid-month, communist troops began an envelopment of the U.S. Marine Corps base at Khe Sanh in the northwestern part of the country. This was followed
at month’s end by the onset of a major Tet offensive against the country’s largest cities and American and South Vietnamese airfields and other military bases and installations.

In describing the anti-infiltration campaign until January 1968, this volume notes particularly the many restrictive air rules associated with each evolving air and air-ground program. It also shows how the United States Air Force performed its mission using specially equipped aircraft, applying and experimenting with new interdiction technology, and devising new air tactics and techniques.
A subsequent volume, The War Against Trucks, by Bernard C. Nalty,will complete the story of United States Air Force operations in the anti-infiltration campaign in southern Laos from February 1968 until the end of the war in 1973.

Jacob Van Staaveren

Jacob Van Staaveren wrote this volume while serving as an historian with the office of Air Force History. He holds a B.A. degree from Linfield College, Oregon, and an M.A. in history from the University of Chicago. From 1946 to 1950 Mr. Staaveren served with the Allied occupation forces in Japan, initially as an advisor on civil reforms and then as an historian preparing studies on Japanese economic reforms.
During the Korean War, Staaveren documented the air operations of the Fifth Air Force. In 1953 he transferred to United Nations Command and Far East Command, where he prepared reports on the implementation of the Korean armistice, military and economic assistance to South Korea, and assistance to noncommunist forces in Indochina after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. Returning to the U.S. in 1956, the author served briefly with Strategic Air Command and the National Security Agency and joined the USAF Historical Liaison Office (Predecessor of the Office of Air Force History) in 1960. Until his retirement in 1961, he wrote numerous studies on the USAF missile program and the war in Southeast Asia. he is the co-author of The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973: An Illustrated Account, published by the Office of Air Force History in 1977.

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