Reassessing the Sino-Vietnamese conflict 1979 II

Vietnamese artillery bombarding Chinese troops, 23 February 1979

Vietnamese Military Dispositions since 1979

China’s Failure to Use Air Power

Despite China’s strategic success, the campaign revealed numerous deficiencies in the PLA’s doctrine and tactics. Many were associated with its outdated military philosophy and tradition. The PLA continued to exhibit its preference for mobile operations with deep attack penetrations and flanking maneuvers, seeking battles of annihilation with overwhelming forces and artillery firepower and fighting tenaciously.48 Such preferred operational characteristics ensured that the 1979 military campaign would remain a classic two-dimensional force-on-force mass-driven struggle with heavy losses on both sides.

One surprising aspect of the war was that neither the Chinese nor the Vietnamese air force actively participated in combat operations. Neither side flew any counterair, interdiction, or battlefield air support missions despite possessing robust air arms. Western analysts believe that the Chinese were aware that their air force would have been at a disadvantage in any engagement with Vietnamese air units. (Indeed, at least in theory, Vietnam’s air force and antiaircraft forces were highly experienced from almost a decade of war against the world’s finest air power.) However, this Western conclusion appears to have been drawn prematurely, resulting in an unbalanced assessment of the problems that both the Chinese and Vietnamese air forces were facing.

In 1979, the Chinese and Vietnamese air forces were almost identical, flying the same aircraft and operating under the influence of Soviet air doctrine, which stressed no independent air actions but rather a strongly centrally controlled effort heavily dependent on radar-cued and radio-directed ground-controlled operations from takeoff through landing. The PLAAF had a numerical advantage but no technological edge because Vietnamese MiG-21s were better than Chinese J-6s (a MiG-19 derivative) and J-7s (an early MiG-21 derivative). The Vietnamese MiG-21 pilots were allegedly combat-experienced with impressive claims against American pilots during the Vietnam War.52 However, this combat record had been exaggerated. Moreover, the combat environment was different in the 1979 war. The MiG-21s were short-ranged and point-defense interceptor aircraft unsuited for long-range missions; in any case, they had very limited air-to-ground weapons capabilities. Hanoi’s strategy was thus to husband its air resources to defend vital targets (largely in the Hanoi area) rather than send them to engage the Chinese air force at the border. According to the PLAAF records, the Vietnamese air force took no action until the fourth day of the Chinese invasion. Each time the MiG-21s scrambled from their base near Hanoi, ground controllers repeatedly urged pilots not to fly too close to the border to avoid direct confrontation with the Chinese.

On the other side of the border, the PLAAF deployed around 700 aircraft—including all its J-7 units, six bomber and attack aircraft regiments—to Guangxi and Yunnan. The forefront airfields on the border alone fielded more than 200 fighters. During the first day of the military campaign, the Chinese air force flew 567 defensive counterair sorties along the border as part of an effort to deter its Vietnamese counterparts; the PLAAF then flew an average of 300 sorties each day for the duration of the war. Although the PLAAF conducted no aggressive cross-border air operations, it flew 52 reconnaissance overflights, some of them deep into Vietnamese airspace, reportedly collecting valuable intelligence information for PLA ground operations.

The Chinese believed that their numerical superiority demonstrated the might of the PLAAF and accordingly deterred the Vietnamese air force from challenging the Chinese air force. One Chinese J-7 regiment commander later recalled that the Vietnamese air force could launch their MiG-21s only singly or in pairs, while his unit always flew formations of four, eight, twelve, or sixteen. Operating out of their bases near the border also gave Chinese pilots a fuel advantage: Vietnamese MiG-21s could only make one pass before returning to base at Hanoi. During the invasion of Cambodia, Vietnam’s U.S.-made Northrop F-5s and Cessna A-37s captured in 1975 had seen action against the Khmer Rouge forces. The PLA ascribed the Vietnamese air force’s inaction in the 1979 war to superior numbers of aircraft deployed by the PLAAF to the border. In any case, by 1979, many of the aging F-5s likely were no longer airworthy, and some had already been sent to other communist-bloc nations for study and technical analysis, and the A-37s (a light-attack derivative of the T-37 trainer) were incapable of surviving the intense antiaircraft and missile fire the PLA could have brought to bear.

Still, Chinese leaders failed to permit their air force to provide support for ground operations when that support was badly needed. China justified its failure to conduct aggressive air operations on that grounds that doing so might have escalated the conflict to an unmanageable level. The PLAAF, however, maintained that flying a large number of patrol sorties over the border airspace helped to dispel ground troops’ fears about enemy air threats, thus inspiring them to fight. As a matter of fact, on several occasions, both the Guangzhou and Kunming Military Region forward commands urged direct air support when the ground assaults encountered intense opposition from the Vietnamese. The CMC leadership refused to grant such permission. Nevertheless, the question remained whether the Chinese air force could have provided effective support for ground operations. On the early evening of 8 March, for example, one squadron leader flying a J-6A failed to intercept a Vietnamese IL-14 transport over Cao Bang because of poor air-ground communication.

Despite the PLAAF’s questionable capability, the Chinese also maintained a fallacy generated by Mao’s “people’s war” doctrine, which did not envision the need for offensive air power. The PLA experience also suggested that air power had little impact on the victories claimed by China in the past (that is, the Korean War). It was, therefore, not surprising that Chinese political leaders and generals maintained that the war did not require active air participation. Furthermore, given their faith in their war experience, Chinese leaders were convinced that ground forces could overwhelm any opponents. Thus, the 1979 war featured primitive, bloody ground warfare even though China had one of the largest air forces in the world (and, as it subsequently claimed, maintained theater air superiority). The PLA and its generals came from an institutional tradition that was accustomed to fighting infantry warfare with artillery firepower and numerical superiority; thus the “spirit of the bayonet” continued to prevail. Consequently, the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War was particularly deadly and atrocious because both sides engaged largely in traditional ground warfare with many close-quarter battles.

Chinese Operational Characteristics

Chinese tactical and operational styles remained fixated on large-scale two-dimensional army warfare, ground maneuvers, and adeptness in ground combat operations. That was, in many respects, hardly surprising: Deng Xiaoping and his generals were ground-war veterans and faithful students of Mao Zedong’s combat principles, which emphasized the concentration of superior firepower and numbers to conduct a “battle of annihilation” with a willingness to absorb heavy losses.65 But again not surprisingly, such a combat preference determined that although the 1979 war was in many respects a low-intensity conflict, it nevertheless featured exceedingly high casualties. Western analysts criticized the PLA’s employment of human-wave tactics in classic “meat-grinder” operations as irrational and anachronistic. One study was particularly critical, asserting that this Chinese way of warfighting not only was costly but also often failed to accomplish its tactical objectives. The author of that study describes the Chinese human-wave assault as an attack “without attempting to mask or shield its movement.”

The Chinese have objected to the Western characterization of the PLA’s operational tactics as human-wave attacks. According to Zhang Wannian, commander of the 127th Division and later vice chair of the CMC, mustering superior force (jizhong bingli) and human-wave (renhai zhanshu) assaults are two essentially different operational concepts. Human-wave attacks were conducted by the massed groups of infantry soldiers without trying to use fire and maneuver tactics. In the 1979 war, he sent seven battalions to attack one Vietnamese battalion (belonging to the 123rd Regiment of 304B Division) at Chi Ma. His attacking troops were divided into groups and advanced in echelons, with each group supporting the other while engaging in consecutive assaults. Zhang admitted that massed formation occurred as the Chinese used human-wave attacks during the fighting, but he argued that the problem was caused mainly by inept leadership rather than by tactics per se.

Another well-known operational tenet used to obliterate the enemy’s effective strength in the 1979 war was the “one point, two flanks” tactic. Marshal Lin Biao summed up this principle as the PLA’s preferred operational art for surrounding and exterminating the enemy with simultaneous frontal and flank attacks. This operational preference was responsible for the PLA’s success in the Dong Dang and Lao Cai–Cam Duong battles. A unit was assigned to a defensive position as a blocking force to prevent the enemy force from conducting a retrograde operation. Western scholars concluded that Chinese operational success came only after their attacks “with a battalion where a company failed, and a regiment where a battalion failed.” The Chinese reported that each time Vietnamese reinforcements attempted to breach a Chinese blocking position, wave after wave of assaults were conducted, often leaving several hundred dead bodies. PLA studies no longer used the “one point, two flanks” tactic to characterize its military operations in Vietnam after the dramatic fall of Lin Biao in the early 1970s and the subsequent purge campaign directed against him.

The 1979 war offered ample evidence of the PLA’s continuing obsession with artillery and its adeptness in using artillery to provide covering fire to support infantry troops to either maneuver themselves out of difficult situations or press forward toward their objectives. During the 1979 invasion, more than 7,000 pieces of large-caliber artillery were deployed, and they fired a total of 880,000 shells. The Dong Dang and Lang Son battles alone witnessed 1,400 tons of artillery shells dumped on enemy positions. The PLA’s preference for extremely close-range artillery engagement—with gun crews encouraged to site their guns at the closest possible range from their targets—represented a unique PLA form of infantry and artillery cooperation. The PLA’s zealous passion for artillery fire, however, concealed another reality—that is, the PLA’s failure to recognize air power as a main striking force in modern conventional warfare.

Political Work on the Battlefield

In the PLA tradition, political work has been regarded as vital for combat effectiveness and victory. During the preparatory stage prior to invasion, in-depth ideological mobilization and political education increased the troops’ morale and enthusiasm for going to war. After the war commenced, political work was a key mechanism for maintaining high combat morale and ensuring troops’ battlefield performance, which, from a Chinese perspective, was determined by the bravery of soldiers and their obedience to orders and compliance with discipline.

At the core of the effort lay party committees and political organs. Since the early years of the Red Army, the CCP had established committees at all levels of the military apparatus. In particular, the party branch committee at the company level ensured that the party served as a role model during combat. Both rewards and punishments shaped and influenced the troops’ morale. As a result, political work strongly shaped the PLA’s operational tactics.

One recent study by a retired U.S. army officer harshly criticizes the PLA’s political focus in the war against Vietnam. The PLA’s political motivation, he argues, impressed on its troops “the imperative to advance straight at the enemy” but required no “development of professional skills” for combat. In his evaluation, the PLA, an army that had defeated American troops in Korea during the winter of 1950–51, was by 1979 no longer capable of brushing aside a much weaker opponent. A professional soldier might have difficulty agreeing completely with the PLA’s political work system and its importance. Thus, without giving any detailed analysis of how the PLA used political work in combat, the author simplistically equated it to human-wave tactics and concluded that it had led to a PLA defeat.

The PLA certainly was not properly trained and prepared for war, making political work all the more crucial. The political work system arguably motivated Chinese soldiers to fight courageously in the face of intense PAVN and militia resistance. From a Chinese perspective, bravery was the essential element in fighting the war. According to Deng Xiaoping, if properly politically motivated and therefore courageous, poorly equipped PLA troops led by largely inexperienced commanders might suffer severe losses at the beginning of the fight but would gain experience and combat skills. After the war, Deng was gratified to learn that the PLA’s current soldiers had fought as courageously and tenaciously as their predecessors, thereby confirming his faith in them and in the political system of warfare. Since that time, political work has remained an indispensable mechanism of China’s armed forces. Thus, the value and significance of political work to motivate the PLA’s combat forces and thereby ensure victory in the 1979 war cannot be overemphasized.

In 1980, the General Political Department compiled a collection of the PLA’s political work experiences in the war against Vietnam, emphasizing twelve different aspects, among them inculcating understanding of the high authorities’ resolve, strengthening patriotism and “revolutionary heroism,” emphasizing firing-line promotion as a consequence of good combat performance, and stressing the important role party cadres and Communist Youth League members could play on the battlefield. The remainder addressed issues involving different army branches, the front and the rear, and the civilian and military hierarchies, including psychological warfare, the militia forces, and the aid-the-front work. These experiences were compiled and written by political officers who regularly disseminated propaganda, meaning that exaggeration and lack of authenticity were unavoidable. Nevertheless, this 800-plus-page document suggested that the political work system was inseparable from the PLA military system and its combat missions. Without political work, the PLA believed, Chinese forces would have almost no chance of accomplishing any of their tasks. As a result, political officers and party organizations bore responsibility for making sure that soldiers understood their assigned tasks before battle and for helping military officers deal with problems that arose during battle. The troops assigned to deep-penetration maneuvers feared that they were vulnerable to enemy attacks. While explaining that penetration was essential for creating a favorable position from which to annihilate enemy forces, political officers drew up contingency measures for problems that might occur during the operation.

According to a report by the 488th Regiment, to curb the fear of troops in blocking operations, political officers repeatedly reminded them that they did not fight alone because their brother units were fighting to destroy the enemy’s defenses. This regiment later reported that political work played a decisive role in ensuring that the troops would accomplish their blocking mission after they repelled thirteen Vietnamese attacks and killed 779 enemy troops.

Political work also encouraged the rank and file to act in ways that would earn them heroic recognition. Military journalists were sent to combat units to identify soldiers who fought with particular valor and dedication and then to report on these heroic deeds. Later in 1979, the PLA Daily carried a series of reports on Chinese soldiers who had sacrificed their lives for their motherland in the war. Party committees and political organs set standards and requirements for granting merit awards to personnel and units. Individuals were cited for first-to third-class meritorious service. Individual companies received red silk banners inscribed “Shock Hero Company” or “Hero Blocking Company” if they had fought valorously in offensive or defensive operations.

According to Mao’s teachings, “The party member must be the first to bear hardship and the last to enjoy comforts.” Party members were expected to be in the thick of the fight, wherever there were dangers and difficulties. Unit leaders lived up to the party’s requirements during the operation. They were the first to charge forward and the last to withdraw. For example, the 122nd Division reported that cadres and party members had played an exemplary role, enabling the unit’s soldiers to fight vigorously. On 20 February, after all officers of his company had been killed or severely wounded, a squad leader who was also a party member took over the leadership of the company on two separate occasions, continuing to fight until reinforced.

From a PLA perspective, whether party members acted bravely depended on the effectiveness of the leadership of the party branch committees at the company level. 39th Division’s combat experiences confirmed this assertion. The company branch committees, which had performed well in combat, had often called party branch committee meetings to study operational orders and directives from higher authorities so that the entire company could act in concert. One notable achievement of the party branch was preparing a sequential list of all officer positions to ensure uninterrupted leadership on the battlefield. During combat, the party branch actively engaged in political and ideological work to enable the rank and file to maintain their will to fight. To overcome fear and decline in morale as a consequence of the loss of close comrades, the party branch emphasized getting back at the enemy, promoting slogans such as “Seeking revenge on the enemy for the fallen comrades, and making the enemy pay back with his own blood,” to boost the troops’ morale.

Nonetheless, political work was regarded as neither omnipotent nor a substitute for military professionalism, and the PLA’s review of political experiences in the 1979 war occasionally cited failures. For example, one battalion of the 484th Regiment (a total of 212 troops) was ambushed by a Vietnamese sapper team in a rice field at Ban Mau, north of Cao Bang. The leading officers panicked, made no effort to organize defenses or withdraw, and simply told troops to flee for their lives, leaving them on their own. Consequently, by the end of the fight, half of their men were either killed or wounded. In its post-combat summary, the 162nd Division bluntly ascribed this defeat to the unit leaders’ cowardice.

Other such incidents occurred, demonstrating that political work did not guarantee victory. The most notable involved the 150th Division, which entered Vietnam at the end of the invasion to cover the 41st Army’s return from the Cao Bang area. The 150th lacked preparation, training, and experience, and most of its veteran soldiers had transferred to reinforce other combat units. As a result, the division was mainly composed of new recruits, and company leaders did not know their soldiers. A three-person team headed by a deputy army commander was sent to help strengthen the 150th Division’s leadership but only created confusion, setting the stage for disaster. Their fatal mistake was deciding to follow mountain trails instead of the main highway back into China. The unit was ambushed, broken up, and defeated piecemeal. If its officers and soldiers had been veteran fighters, the unit would not have been defeated so easily.

In sum, in 1979, the PLA was far from being a professional army. New recruits accounted for 48 percent of the troops, and 25 percent of officers had been newly promoted, compromising the force’s capability for a large-scale military operation. Most Chinese soldiers came from poor rural families with little education. Raised in a culture that stressed obedience, loyalty, and sacrifice, these soldiers as a group feared neither hardship nor death. They hoped that a few years of military service could help them achieve a better living standard, either through promotion into the ranks of the officer cadre or by training them for nonfarming jobs after leaving military service. Few of them prepared themselves mentally or received adequate training for combat. Thus, political work played a critical role in generating unit cohesion and keeping soldiers focused on performing their mission. Even though the 1979 war was incredibly bloody and savage, in the end, the PLA pulled through to victory, though at a significant cost.

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