Monday, January 31, 2011

From The Editor: Clark, Movements Branch, and the Southeast Asia Airlift System, 1965

The flight line at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, South Vietnam, 1965.

During Clark’s first month as chief of Movements Branch, MACV leaned heavily on airlift for the movement of troops and combat cargo throughout South Vietnam.  Clark was involved in programming a three-day airlift into Cheo Reo southeast of Pleiku that began with a tactical emergency on the evening of 30 June 1965, in which South Vietnamese paratroopers engaged Viet Cong forces.  In the initial four hours of the action, a C-123 landed every eight minutes and delivered 1,600 troops with their equipment and ammunition. Over the next two days, C-123s airlifted an additional 1,000 troops and 290 tons of supplies.  C-130s delivered 105-mm artillery and ammunition from Pleiku to Cheo Reo.  On 4-5 July, the C-123s extracted the troops to Pleiku and Kontum.  Immediately following the Cheo Reo action, J-3 alerted Movements Branch for a tactical emergency air movement into Dak To under similar conditions as those at Cheo Reo.  The June and July tactical emergencies at Dong Xoai, Cheo Reo, and Dak To, including resupply and extractions, required more than 600 C-123 sorties and involved the movement of more than 10,000 troops.

Clark in his office at Movements Branch during the airlift from Qui Nhon to Pleiku, July 1965.  (Photo courtesy Richard P. Clark collection)

In addition to tactical emergencies, the Viet Cong had in June closed Highway 19 between the coast and Pleiku which necessitated continuous air resupply into Pleiku and involved more than 200 C-123 sorties from Qui Nhon throughout the month.  In mid-July, South Vietnamese military road convoys eventually reached Pleiku from Qui Nhon following a clearing operation by fourteen South Vietnamese battalions in which C-123s and C-130s provided supporting airlift.  

Although Air Force and Army officers were capable of cooperating effectively in combat against the Viet Cong, within the joint command at MACV and within the Pacific Command, they were equally capable of fighing each other when it came to the subject of airlift doctrine. The central theme in the battle among the Air Force and Army, Pacific Command, and MACV over the command and control of airlift was peactime efficiency versus contingency effectiveness.

On 11 October 1962, MACV Directive 42 created both Movements Branch and the Southeast Asia Airlift System (SEAAS), and established the command’s airlift request procedures. The SEAAS consisted of four squadrons of C-123 Providers, totaling almost sixty aircraft of the U.S. Air Force 315th Air Commando Group.  According to Directive 42, users submitted airlift requirements to Movements Branch twenty-five days prior to the next month.  Officers in Movements Branch forecasted aircraft availability.  A Joint Airlift Allocations Board, chaired by the Movements Branch chief, met ten days later to build a tentative airlift schedule for the next month based on MACV and 315th Air Commando Group input.  The system permitted users to submit additional requests within forty-eight hours of shipment to provide necessary flexibility.  An officer representative from Movements Branch in the MACV Joint Operations Center fielded all emergency requests.  Movements Branch prioritized all airlift requests and ranged from priority one (emergency) through priority four (not urgent).  Cargo within the same priority moved in a first-in, first-out basis.

A C-123 Provider of the U.S. Air Force 315th Air Commando Group, Nha Trang, South Vietnam, June 1965.  (Photo courtesy Richard P. Clark, Jr. collection)

During Clark’s tenure as chief of Movements Branch, three developments undermined Directive 42 and provoked interservice conflict between the Army and Air Force.  First, Air Force officers within SEAAS argued for inclusion of the Army CV-2 aircraft within the intratheater airlift system, while Army officers disagreed with the Air Force over the use of the Caribou.  Second, Air Force officers felt threatened by the Army’s use of helicopters to deliver troops to the battlefield, and finally, the terrain at many of the airstrips in Vietnam seemed better suited to short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft such as the CV-2.

An Air Force C-123 and Army CV-2 share a aluminum-planked taxiway at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, South Vietnam, 1965.

In 1965, the Army deployed three aviation companies of CV-2 Caribou, eighty-eight aircraft in all, to support operations in Vietnam.  Army aircraft did not operate within the Southeast Asia Airlift System and the Caribou competed with the U.S. Air Force’s C-123 Provider aircraft for similar missions.  While Movements Branch used Army airlift to move excess cargo and personnel within the Air Force system, it did not ease tensions between the two services.

The SEAAS struggled to meet MACV’s ever-increasing airlift requirements just as Movements Branch fought to make the requirements, forecasting, and allocation process work. In reality, most MACV requests arrived at Movements Branch between twenty-four and forty-eight hours before its required delivery date.  User needs, not efficient planning, dominated the airlift system.  

The daily process for Clark at Movements Branch began when one of his staff officers brought him the previous day’s consolidated movement requests.  A staff officer from the U.S. Air Force 315th Air Commando Group submitted reports that detailed aircraft status and cargo backlogs at aerial ports.  After Clark ranked movement requests against aircraft available, Clark posted the day’s movement schedule at 1600 hours.  In the event that requests exceeded airlift, which often was the case, Clark had to make the final decision.  As can be seen in the diary, Generals Westmoreland, DePuy, and Crowley assigned Clark to travel throughout South Vietnam during June to prepare for the imminent arrival of elements of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, 101st Airborne Division, and 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).  He could not critically scrutinize requests or screen all unjustified or exaggerated priorities.  

Increasing demands on the SEAAS also created conflict between MACV and its superior command, Pacific Command (PACOM) over the command and control of theater airlift in Vietnam.  Clark and Movements Branch became embroiled in the conflict.  The western Pacific Command airlift system was only intended to augment the SEAAS, but MACV requested so many PACOM C-130s for temporary service in Vietnam that two separate and competing airlift systems evolved:  one controlled by the Western Pacific Transportation Office under PACOM, and the other controlled by MACV.  

The western PACOM airlift system, based at Tachikawa Air Force Base, Japan, served all U.S. forces in the western Pacific, but nevertheless provided C-130s from the U.S. Air Force 315th Air Division (not to be confused with the 315th Air Commando Group, which was a subordinate command under the 2nd Air Division) to requesting units through a PACOM, not MACV request and priorities process established by the Western Transportation Officer, Clark’s counterpart at PACOM.

A C-130 Hercules of the U.S. Air Force 315th Air Division, Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, June 1965.  (Photo courtesy Richard P. Clark, Jr. collection)

By the end of 1965, the airlift fleet in Vietnam consisted of four squadrons of C-123s that totaled almost sixty aircraft, augmented by thirty PACAF C-130s on temporary duty.  At the same time, the carefully established airlift request and priority system envisioned in MACV Directive 42 began to fragment.  Although Movements Branch, J-4, MACV still technically determined priorities, separate sub-commands within MACV---the Marine Corps at I Corps in Da Nang and the U.S. Special Forces at Nha Trang, for example----competed for limited airlift resources by developing their own processes.  The Air Force continued to argue that Army aviation should be part of the SEAAS; Army officers continued to assert they got quicker response to tactical emergencies when the Army controlled its own airlift.  As the reader will see throughout Clark’s diary entries beginning in July 1965, he began to recognize the futility of his assignment.  

-J.R. Clark, 31 January 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment