Armor Employment by VC/NVA Forces II

North Vietnamese Army tanks

The NVA formed its first armoured unit in October 1959 with T-34-85 medium tanks delivered by the Soviet Union. The T-34-85 first appeared in service in 1944 and was the Red Army’s answer to the German Panther medium tank and the Tiger E heavy tank. Weighing 70,547lb (32mt) the five-man vehicle was powered by a diesel engine that provided a top speed of 34mph (55km/h) and an approximate operational range of 186 miles (300km) on level roads. The T-34-85 was armed with an 85mm main gun and two 7.62mm machine-guns, one being the coaxial. Maximum armour thickness on the front of the vehicle was 90mm. The T-34-85 was built post-war in the Soviet Union and license-built in Poland and the then-Czechoslovakia.

From the Soviet Union, in the late 1960s, the NVA began receiving the T-54A and T-54B medium tanks, and the PT-76 light amphibious tank. The four-man T-54 series medium tank was the post-war replacement for the T-34-85 medium tank. It weighed 79,366lb (36mt) and was powered by a diesel engine that provided it a top speed of 30mph (48km/h) and an approximate operational range on level roads of 310 miles (500km.) The T-54 and the majority of the NVA tanks and armoured fighting vehicles were not deployed to South Vietnam until the bulk of American military ground forces had departed the country by 1972. The last American armour units were withdrawn from South Vietnam in 1972, with the remaining American combat soldiers departing in March 1973.

The T-54 series medium tank was armed with a 100mm main gun in a hemispherical turret, and three machine-guns. These included two 7.62mm machine-guns and a 12.7mm machine-gun on the turret roof. The maximum armour thickness on the front of the tank was 205mm. The T-54 was superseded in 1958 in Soviet Army service by an improved version of the vehicle, designated the T-55 medium tank. It was an NVA T-54 that crashed through the gate of the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace in Saigon on 30 April 1975 that brought the long-running Vietnam War to its bloody conclusion.

The NVA also received the T-59 medium tank, which was a Chinese copy of the Soviet T-54A medium tank. The Australian Army compared a captured NVA T-59 medium tank in the early 1970s to a Soviet-built T-54A medium tank and the only difference between the two vehicles that they could discern was that the Soviet tank had a welded, dovetailed joint where the bottom of the glacis plate joined the nose plate, while the Chinese copy had a plain butt weld.

The three-man PT-76 amphibious tank was a post-war design that first appeared in Soviet Army service in 1952. It weighed 30,864lb (14mt) and was powered by a diesel engine that provided it with a top speed of 27mph (44km/h). In water the vehicle could obtain a top speed of 6mph (10.2km/h).The approximate operational range of the PT-76 amphibious tank on land was 155 miles (250km) and 43 miles (70km) in water.

The PT-76 amphibious tank was armed with a 76mm main gun and a single coaxial 7.62mm machine-gun. Reflecting the need to be as light as possible to be amphibious and its reconnaissance role, the maximum armour thickness on the front of the tank was only 14mm.

The first use of NVA tanks against the American military forces in South Vietnam occurred on the night of 6–7 February 1968. An attacking force composed of NVA regulars and eleven (various sources say nine to thirteen) supporting PT-76 amphibious tanks overran the US Army Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei. This was accomplished despite American air and artillery support. In the ensuing battle, almost all the Green Berets in the camp became casualties, with ten of them killed and three captured. The indigenous Civilian Irregular Group (CIDG), whom the Green Berets had organized to fight the NVA, lost 219 killed and seventy-seven wounded. The NVA claimed to have lost ninety killed and 220 wounded during the capture of the camp. The Green Berets inside Lang Vei accounted for three of the NVA tanks with a 106mm recoilless rifle before the camp fell. Other NVA tanks were destroyed with American shoulder-fired M74 LAW and white phosphorus (WP) grenades.

On the night of 3 March 1969, NVA PT-76 amphibious tanks attacked the US Army Special Forces Camp near Ben Het, South Vietnam – possibly to destroy a battery of M107 self-propelled 175mm artillery pieces. The NVA seemed unaware of the presence of a platoon of five US Army M48A3s. The resulting engagement was the only occasion during the Vietnam War in which American-crewed tanks directly engaged NVA tanks. It resulted in the NVA’s quick withdrawal from the battlefield with the loss of two PT-76 amphibious tanks and a single BTR-50PK armoured personnel carrier. Total casualties for the American tank platoon was two killed and two wounded, with minor damage to a single M48A3.

The last tank introduced to the Vietnam War occurred when the People’s Republic of China supplied the NVA in 1970 with a modified version of the Russian PT-76 amphibious tank, designated the Type-63. It had an 85mm main gun mounted in cast armour turret and sported a revised hull design to support the weight of the larger gun and turret, whereas the PT-76 had a welded armour turret. Unlike the original Russian PT-76 amphibious tank that had a three-man crew, the Chinese Type-63 had a four-man crew. The vehicle weighed 42,549lb (19.3mt) and was powered by a diesel engine that gave it a top speed of 40mph (64km/h) on roads and 7.4mph (12km/h) in the water. It had an approximate operational range of 230 miles (370km) on level roads and 75 miles (120km) in water. The maximum armour thickness on the Type-63 was 14mm.

North Vietnamese Army armoured personnel carriers

From the massive stockpiles of the Soviet Union and later the Republic of China, the NVA received a number of APCs in the mid-1960s to match what the American government was supplying the ARVN. These included both wheeled and tracked versions. Wheeled APCs were the Soviet-designed and built BTR-152, BTR-40 and the BTR-60PB. Tracked APCs included the Soviet-designed and built BTR-50PK and the Chinese-designed and built Type-63.

The BTR-152 and BTR-40 APCs were both simple open-topped vehicles. The BTR-152 first appeared in service with the Soviet Army in 1950 and the BTR-40 the following year. In contrast to the M113, neither vehicle was amphibious. The larger BTR-152 weighed 19,621lb (8.9mt) and rode on six wheels. It was powered by a gasoline engine, which gave it a top speed of 40mph (65km/h) and an approximate operational range of 403 miles (650km) on level roads. It had a crew of two and could carry up to seventeen or eighteen passengers. Maximum armour protection on the front of the vehicle was 12mm.

The smaller BTR-40 weighed 11,684lb (5.3mt) and rode on four wheels. It was powered by a gasoline engine that gave it a top speed of 50mph (80km/h) on land and an approximate operational range of 177 miles (285km) on level roads. The BTR-40 had a crew of two and could carry as many as eight passengers. Besides seeing use as an APC, it was also intended to operate as a reconnaissance vehicle. The NVA adapted the vehicle to mount twin 14.5mm heavy machine-guns in its rear passenger compartment and act as an antiaircraft vehicle. Maximum armour protection on the front of the BTR-40 was 8mm thick. Both the BTR-40 and BTR-152 were normally armed only with 7.62mm machine-guns.

Eventually the BTR-152 and BTR-40 in Soviet Army service were replaced beginning in the 1960s by an amphibious APC that rode on eight wheels, designated the BTR-60P. This was superseded by the improved BTR-60PB model in the Soviet Army, which was the version exported to the NVA. This version weighed 22,707lb (10.3mt) and was powered by a gasoline engine that gave it a top speed of 50mph (80km/h) on land and 6mph (10km/h) in the water. The BTR-60PB had an approximate operational range of 310 mikes (500km) on level roads. The vehicle had a three-man crew and could carry eight passengers. Maximum armour protection on the front of the vehicle was 14mm thick. It was armed with a 14.5mm heavy machine-gun in a one-man turret on the vehicle’s roof.

As a complement to the BTR-60PB, the Soviet Army took into service in the 1960s the full-tracked amphibious BTR-50PK that weighed 30,864lb (14mt). It was based on the chassis of the PT-76 amphibious tank and was powered by a diesel engine that gave it a top speed on land of 28mph (260km/h) and 9mph (15km/h) in water. An unknown number of BTR-50PK were sent to the NVA by the Soviets.

The BTR-50PK had an approximate operational range of 161 miles on land (500km). Maximum armour protection on the front of the vehicle was 15mm thick. The BTR-50PK had a crew of two and could carry twenty passengers. Standard armament on the vehicle was typically restricted to a 7.62mm machine-gun.

The amphibious Type-63 APC first entered service with the Red Chinese Army in 1964 and remains in service to this day. It was the first Chinese armoured fighting vehicle not copied from an existing Soviet design. Weighing 27,778lb (12.6mt), the vehicle is powered by a diesel engine that provides it a top speed of 37mph (60km/h) and 4mph (6.4km/h) in water. The Type-63 has an approximate operational range on level roads of 311 miles (500km). It has a two- or three-man crew and can carry thirteen passengers. Armament is normally a roof-mounted 12.7mm machine-gun. The maximum armour protection on the front of the vehicle is 14mm.

Australian Army testing of a captured NVA Type-63 APC in the early 1970s concluded that it was a mechanically simple and robustly built vehicle that was overall fairly reliable. Surprisingly, the Type-63 APC was a better riding vehicle than an M113A1 against which it was compared during testing. This was attributed to the Type-63 APC’s larger road wheels.

North Vietnamese Army AFVs

From the war reserve stocks of the Soviet Army, the NVA was reported by one reference source as having received the entire range of Second World War-era Red Army self-propelled guns, ranging from the small SU-76 all the way up to the massive ISU-152. Except for a single photograph of an SU-100 in NVA service, there is no pictorial evidence that these vehicles were employed during the Vietnam War by the NVA. The ARVN, US units and Allies never reported encountering any of these vehicles in combat.

Based on the chassis of the T-70 light tank the turret-less and open-topped SU-76 had a crew of four men and was armed with 76.2mm gun in a fixed casemate with limited traverse and elevation. It served with the Red Army from 1943 until the end of the Second World War. Maximum armour protection on the front of the vehicle was 35mm.

The four-man SU-100 was based on the chassis of the T-34 medium tank, with its 100mm main gun mounted in an armoured casemate on the front hull of the vehicle, with limited traverse and elevation. The vehicle weighed 69,665lb (32mt) and production for the Red Army began in September 1944. Powered by a diesel engine, the vehicle had a top speed of 30mph (48km/h) and an approximate operational range on level roads of 200 miles (320km). Armour protection on the front of the vehicle was 45mm. There was no secondary armament carried on the vehicle.

The NVA received from the Soviet Union two different full-tracked anti-aircraft vehicles; the older of the vehicles was designated the ZSU-57-2 and the newer one referred to as the ZSU-23-4. The six-man ZSU-57-2 first entered service with the Soviet Army in 1957 with the chassis based on components of the T-54 medium tank.

The heart of the ZSU-57-2 was its large, open-topped turret that contained two 57mm antiaircraft guns each capable of firing 120 rounds per minute.

However, typically storage on the vehicle was for only 316 rounds. There was no radar system on the ZSU-57-2, only optical sights that restricted its use to daylight fair weather conditions. The vehicle weighed 61,949lb (28.1mt) and was powered by a diesel engine that gave it a top speed of 30mph (48km/h) and an approximate operational range of 248 miles (400km). The maximum armour protection on the front of the ZSU-57-2 was 15mm.

The ZSU-57-2 was replaced in Soviet Army service starting in the early 1960s by the 30,864lb (14mt) ZSU-23-4. The four-man vehicle was based on the GM-575 tracked vehicle chassis and some components from the PT-76 amphibious tank. Only limited numbers of the ZSU-23-4 saw action with NVA units, and only during the last stages of the Vietnam War.

The killing power of the ZSU-23-4 is based upon an arrangement of four, water-cooled 23mm automatic cannons each capable of firing 800—1,000 rounds per minute. As the vehicle only carries 2,000 stowed rounds, the cannons are typically fired in short bursts of no more than 50 rounds. Unlike, the ZSU-57-2, the ZSU-23-4 is radar guided with a backup optical fire-control system and can be fired on the move. The vehicle weighs 30,864lb (14mt) and is powered by a diesel engine that provided it with a top speed of 27mph (44km/h) and an approximate operational range of 161 miles (260km). The maximum armour protection on the front of the ZSU-23-4 was 15mm.

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