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Avoiding Dien Bien Phu

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Avoiding Dien Bien Phu

by Captain Patrick McKinney

Avoiding Dien Bien Phu (Full PDF Article)

On 19 December 1946, armed members of the Viet Minh, a communist Vietnamese resistance group, launched countrywide attacks on French garrisons in Indochina. After more than a year and a half of delicate negotiations, limited conflicts, and the French failure to legitimize their authority, Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh's leader, and General Vo Nguyen Giap, the leader of its armed forces, launched a war that would continue for another eight years until a final French defeat in 1954. More than 300,000 Viet Minh, more than 150,000 Vietnamese citizens, and more than 80,000 French soldiers were killed during the conflict. The French fought the First Indochina War as Allied forces had fought in World War II, focused on controlling terrain and killing the enemy. The Viet Minh fought a different war, focused on winning the Vietnamese people while bleeding the French forces until their withdrawal or until a final guerilla offensive.

In October 2001, American Soldiers and intelligence officers began an offensive in Afghanistan against the ruling Taliban regime and its terrorist allies, al Qaeda. Using indigenous allies, American forces were able to drive the Taliban and al Qaeda from power and into hiding in the mountainous border region with Pakistan. After this initial defeat, the Taliban regrouped and gradually begin a strategy similar to the Viet Minh, focused on the rural and mountainous villages of Afghanistan. Though American strategy was broader in scope, the military strategy remained largely enemy focused, hoping to kill or capture High Value Targets and destroy Taliban, terrorists, and insurgents when engaged. American forces constructed bases throughout the countryside to serve as staging areas for raids, interdictions, and to prevent infiltration. Some units on the ground did conduct population focused counterinsurgency, but as a whole, the military conducted an enemy focused approach.

Avoiding Dien Bien Phu (Full PDF Article)

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Thank you for the comment. Reading and following events in Afghanistan since, I think the "new" strategy is better than the previous, but is still undermanned and under-resourced. There are not enough "boots" to control terrain, train Afghan security forces, and kill insurgents. There is also not enough of a "civilian surge" to support economic or political development. The US Gov't is not structured to support full spectrum COIN. The default has been to let the Pentagon figure it out and we've seen the mixed results.

I agree that the US military cannot be the primary COIN force, but no other instrument of the US Gov't could or would take its place in the foreseeable future. After WWII, the French Army was tasked with regaining and holding the French colonies. Broader political and economic engagement, combined with military force, may have worked better in Indochina, but the French were inflexible in their endstate and demanded French Indochina. They wouldn't settle for a Vietnamese Indochina with French influence. The US needs to keep a realistic and flexible endstate when engaging in COIN.

For COIN to work, you need capable and competent host nation gov't and forces. Because there is an insurgency, clearly one or both of these are already broken. US (or other COIN force) must build the host nation's capability while working to defeat the insurgents. You have to give the host nation room to breath and grow. Again, as history shows, this tends to be a long process. Whether a volunteer professional military is the best force to accomplish this is up to the civilian political leaders, and they should not jump into COIN commitments without knowing the costs.

The US ignored or failed to look at history before Iraq and Afghanistan, and is paying the cost still. In the future, politicians need to have a plan to pay in case they break the vase while handling it. Should civilian leaders commit, though, they need to use the full force of the gov't, military included.

I agree that unless we decide to start from scratch and commit for the long term (post-WWII Germany and Japan), we cannot rebuild a country overnight. If there is no buy in from the people, it is futile. The US military alone cannot create a viable state from the outside. Advise, assist and support works better than dictate, control and mandate.
God bless early Saturday morning! ATW!
- Pat

Mike Few (not verified)

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 8:08am

Ugh. Anonymous at 7:00am was me.

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 8:00am


Well written article. I missed it the first time around, and I'm going to pass it along for others to consider.

Have any of your assumptions/thoughts changed in the last year?

My biggest disagreement with the article is that we cannot be the primary COIN force. Ultimately, we can only support, advise, and assist the host nation.


Umar Al-Mokhtār

Fri, 08/14/2009 - 11:33am

Capt KcKinney does a fine job with his overall description of the French efforts in Indochina, culminating in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, and their loss of colonial presence in Southeast Asia. However, there are a few points he made I disagree with and some germane parts of the story he left out.

First some disagreements:

"The French focused on politics at the highest level, while the Viet Minh focused on the villages." Not so, Ho was a very astute politician and concentrated on both local politics and on "strategic" politics in Geneva, Paris, and even Hanoi.

"The Viet Minh began as a guerilla force to resist the Japanese during World War II... " The genesis of the VM was the Việt Nam Ðộc Lập Ðồng Minh Hội, formed in Nanjing, China, between mid 1935 and early 1936. Its primary goal was to liberate Viet Nam from the French. The Viet Minh initially preferred to be seen as a nationalist organization more than a communist one, until they had acquired enough political and military power. They primarily benefited from their anti-Japanese activities by receiving support from US OSS operatives.

"This declaration was met with immediate occupation by the British in the south, and the Nationalist Chinese in the north." The landing of British and Chinese troops in Indochina was not in response to Hos declaration. It was part of the Allies post war plan to disarm the Japanese troops who had occupied Indochina since 1940.

"After their initial successes in 1946 and early 1947, the French believed they had the right force and strategy to crush the Viet Minh uprising." Actually the French considered or refined several "strategies" between 1946 and 1952.

Bernard Fall and others who "... disparagingly described these forts as a new Maginot Line... " were talking about the De Lattre Line that was built between 1951 and 1952 to defend the Red River delta region, not the string of outposts on RC 4 along the Chinese border, which were lost in fierce fighting during 1950. Giap attempted to pierce the line in the spring offensive of 1951 but took heavy casualties. French success was due in part to their use of interior lines and Giaps insufficient logistics capability at the time.

As to DPB, the genesis of the battle was a year earlier, November 1952, when the French had executed a similar operation at Na San, 150 air miles west-northwest of Hanoi. They established it as a 'base aéro-terrestre to support Operation Lorraine. Giap attacked the camp during two nights but the French were able to successfully defend the post, inflicting heavy casualties upon the assaulting Viet Minh battalions. Later the French withdrew the garrison, mostly by airlifting them out.

One of Giaps lessons learned was that he needed heavier artillery (he employed mortars and 75mm recoilless rifles at Na San) and that unless he could seize high ground around the post (Na San was on a plateau) he should avoid attacking entrenched camps.

On the other hand, the French believed they had found 'la formule for enticing Giap to attack these type posts, whereupon superior French firepower (both air and artillery) could be brought to bear to annihilate the Viet Minh units. The "hérisson," or hedgehog, concept envisioned using the airborne capability of the French to quickly establish bases in VM rear areas thus compelling them to attack. The garrison could also be quickly evacuated and employed elsewhere. It was a strategy of both interdiction and attrition.

Operation Castor was Na San writ large. Launched in November 1953 in the mountainous northwestern region of Tonkin, the intent was to interdict the Viet Minh LOCs being utilized for their offensive in northeastern Laos.

Originally the French set up DBP to act as a 'base aéro-terrestre, in theory a logistics center to serve as an anchor for mobile strike operations against the Viet Minh LOCs and the sanctuary in the Viet Bac. It was also anticipated that it would also serve as a supply point for GCMA units operating in the mountains (GCMAs were French Special Forces units operating with indigenous forces in a similar manner as US Special Forces later operated with the Montagnards and other hill tribes).

Once in place however the French had mission creep set in and began to re-evaluate the purpose of DBP. Instead of a base aéro-terrestre as envisioned by General Cogny, French commander of Tonkin, General Navarre, overall French commander in Indochina, decided to increase the garrison so that Giaps reaction to this incursion by a major French force would induce him to attack the base, whereupon, as at Na San, the French would crush the VM forces. Navarre believed that the aerial lifeline between Hanoi and DBP would be sufficient to sustain the necessary forces.

However, several factors doomed the French strategy at DBP. In the first place the distance between Hanoi and Na San was 140 air miles, while the distance between Hanoi and DBP was 180 miles, which meant longer transit times for aircraft (and the weather at DBP limited airops more so than at Na San). Na Sans airfield was situated on a plateau with no dominant high points nearby whereas DBPs was in a valley, with several dominating high points. The French could not commit the manpower, nor had the logistics capability, to fully occupy the ridges surrounding the DBP valley. In 1952 Giaps artillery consisted mostly of mortars, recoilless rifles and old Japanese 75mm howitzers. By 1954 the Viet Minh had received from China 105mm howitzers (also the primary artillery piece used by the French) and Soviet 12.7mm and 37mm anti-aircraft guns. The French also believed they could successfully interdict Giaps supply lines from the Viet Bac to DBP. In this they failed.

The French were aware of the increases in Viet Minh fire power but were confident that their counter battery efforts and air support would quickly neutralize any Viet Minh artillery, which they believed would be easily spotted in their reverse slope positions. This was not to be. At DBP Giap had defied convention by placing his artillery in positions on the forward slopes of the hills overlooking the valley. Plus, he had his tubes placed in positions dug into the slopes from the rear, so only the barrel protruded from the aperture. While this restricted the guns ability to change position or adjust aiming point, by not disturbing the foliage the artillery was nearly perfectly hidden from French observation.

The actual "siege" commenced on 13 March 1954 with a massive bombardment of the French positions (the French artillery chief, Col. Piroth, who had assured his leadership that his guns would quickly silence the enemys through counter-battery fire, committed suicide shortly thereafter). In the ensuing weeks the Viet Minh tightened the noose by systematically capturing French hilltop positions. 26 March proved the last day French aircraft could use the airfield, from then on re-supply would be by parachute drops. Viet Minh anti-aircraft fire forced the French transports to drop from higher altitudes (around 600 to 900 feet was most accurate, the new altitude was set at 8,000), thus decreasing the accuracy of the drops. As the perimeter shrank more and more supplies dropped into Viet Minh hands. French attempts at aerial interdiction of the Viet Minh supply lines were no more effective than similar US efforts to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail a decade later. On 7 May, after 54 days of grueling combat, the garrison was over run.

The defeat broke the French government's will to continue the Indo-China War and peace accords were signed dividing Vietnam into a communist dominated north and a democratic south.

Will the Taliban evolve from disparate guerrilla bands into a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle? Probably not anytime soon. Will a large ISAF force find itself under siege by a conventional force? Perhaps, but this is 2009 not 1953, and Khe Sahn in 1968 proved that the US can establish a successful air-bridge to support a large garrison.

So what then is the applicable lesson of DBP? Perhaps it is this: Avoid committing large forces to an operation that has little strategic value, in a region that is logistically difficult to support, and has a population that, while perhaps not openly hostile to your presence, is indifferent to it at best.


Thank you for pointing that out. During my research, I saw estimates from 75,000 and higher, especially because of the various local Vietnamese forces, so I went with the 80,000+ estimate. I may have overstated.

As for the makeup, yes most were not European French, but were Soldiers from the "empire". My reading was that draftees could not fight outside "French soil", so they were restricted to Algeria and France. Thus, the forces in Indochina were "volunteers". This was one of the reasons the French had such difficulty raising troop levels in Indochina. French, Vietnamese, and later Legion paratroopers jumped into Dien Bien Phu, making the battlefield a very diverse place.

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. It is appreciated.
- Pat McKinney aka patmc

<i>more than 80,000 French soldiers were killed </i>

I remember the figure as 76,000 (Wiki has the suspiciously precise figure of 75,581), but note the vital point: many or a majority were not French at all, but Vietnamese, African, or Foreign Legionnaires. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford