The conflict in Vietnam was one of the bloodiest fought during the Cold War. After decades of fighting and a death toll of well over a million, the war finally finished in 1975 with the capture of Saigon, signalling the end of American-backed South Vietnam.
The surrender would see the Vietnamese People’s Army – the VPA – gain access to a vast armoury of American supplied weapons and equipment. At the time the New York Times estimated that $2 billion dollars of equipment was captured. That’s about $9.6 billion in 2020 money.
Though some of this would be written off as battle damaged or destroyed by their South Vietnamese users the US Army’s Center for Military History estimated that the VPA obtained the following:
430 Huey and 36 CH 47 helicopters, 73 F-5 jet fighter/interceptors, 36 A-1 ground attack planes, 10 C-130s Hercules, 40 C-119s, 40 C-7s and 36 C-47 cargo planes.
Also captured were 300 M41 light tanks, 250 M48 medium tanks and 1,200 armoured personnel carriers, mainly M3 halftracks, Cadillac Gage Commandos and a considerable number of M113s.
In terms of small arms the VPA acquired 791,000 M16 rifles plus over 850,000 other assorted rifles and carbines, 50,000 M60 machine guns, 47,000 M79 grenade launchers, 12,000 mortars, 63,000 light antitank weapons and 1,330 assorted artillery pieces.[i]
Additionally vast stores of ammunition were also taken, with the haul from the Pleiku airbase alone thought to be at least 15,000 tons of ammunition and 100 tons of bombs. Vietnamese sources indicate that these figures are probably overestimates, but it can be said for certain that Vietnam was awash with American military hardware. So what did it do with it all?
Some ended up in the hands of revolutionary movements around the world, with the U.S. government alleging that M16s they had supplied to the South Vietnamese being used by communist insurgents in El Salvador. In 1986 3,000 M16s were seized by the Chilean army and traced back as weapons supplied to the South Vietnamese.
Some small arms also ended up on the black market, and it is notable that M16s of this era are the main armament of organisations such as the Karen National Liberation Army in Burma.
But such was the amount of equipment seized, as well as vast amounts of spare parts, that much of it was used by the VPA. Perhaps most surprisingly, a lot of it continues to be so, despite problems with logistics and maintenance.
Probably the item most valued by the Vietnamese was the capture of about twenty F-5E Tiger II fighter aircraft. Between seventy and ninety Tiger’s were obtained, most the earlier F-5A model, which had provided sterling service as ground attackers throughout the war.
But the F-5Es were the most modern aircraft supplied to the South Vietnamese and was just entering service with a number of American allies. As a result it was going to be one of the main types encountered by Soviet-orientated nations for the next few years. Naturally the Russians were very interested in examining this aircraft.
Several were supplied to the Soviet Union by the Vietnamese, where they were reportedly highly rated by Soviet experts. They reported that the F-5E was superior to the MiG-21 because of the manoeuvrability of the aircraft, good aerodynamic design and a better laid out cockpit than comparable Russian aircraft.
The F-5s would see use with the Vietnamese air force, being highly valued as ground attackers when the VPA invaded Cambodia in late-1978.
Lack of spare parts led to the type being withdrawn from service and it was assumed the remainder were either scrapped or relegated to museums. However, in 2017 there were some mutterings in the press that the VPAF may bring these fighters back into service with substantial upgrades.
Unlikely it may be, but the VPA has demonstrated openly that it continues to keep large stocks of American weapons in reserve warehouses. So though the F-5s may have been broken up years ago, it’s possible they are still stashed somewhere!
A similar story follows with the other American equipment that was more complicated to operate.
The C-130 Hercules aircraft and CH-47 Chinooks captured, for example, were used for a few years and were highly valued for their carrying ability. But complicated maintenance and lack of spares meant they were out of service either in the late 70s or early 1980s and sent to museums.
The ubiquitous UH-1 “Huey” enjoyed much greater service with the VPA. An icon of the Vietnam War, enough Hueys were captured that this helicopter was a workhorse for the Vietnamese military up until the 2010s when they were finally retired. Interestingly some retained their American armament, such as the M-134 minigun.
For the tanks, again these still seem to be available for use in reserve units. The M48A3 Patton tanks were the most powerful supplied to the South, backed up by hundreds of M41 light tanks.
Both these vehicles proved formidable against the Soviet supplied armour of the VPA and were used by units in both the final drive on Saigon and in the invasion of Cambodia.
Like the aircraft, parts shortages and inability to repair began to tell on the tanks, and they vanished from view. It was thought that they had been scrapped but photos have now emerged of both types being held in storage facilities for use by reserve units if necessary. In fact, they appear, on the surface at least, to be in remarkably good condition!
One vehicle that is still in front line use in large number by the VPA is the M113 armoured personnel carrier. Several hundred are thought to still be in service and the VPA has actually begun manufacturing parts to keep them running for the foreseeable future.
They also retain their old wartime ACAV configuration, with an open turret for a heavy machine gun and two shielded machine guns over the troops compartment. Though some apparently retain their American weapons, some at least have been reequipped with Russian pattern weapons to conform with Vietnam’s main military standards.
Also reportedly in frontline use are numbers of both the M101 105mm and M114 155mm howitzers. Though these guns originated in World War 2 they are simple and durable, seeing use around the world with multiple countries.
The M114 has been demonstrated alongside it’s Soviet brethren in its intended role, while the M101 is apparently so highly rated it has been subject to a number of experiments, with a mobile gun being built by mounting a -101 on a converted Russian truck to provide a highly responsive artillery system at minimal cost.
There has even been a prototype being tested of a M101 being mounted on an American M548 cargo carrier, another captured item.
In terms of small arms and infantry weapons, vast numbers are still in use by the Vietnamese, though normally by militia forces in the south. Though the main weapons used by the VPA are Russian in origin and therefore use different ammunition, so much is still available – even after all these years – that the Vietnamese are happy to continue using American firearms.
The M16 has been mentioned and remains the primary weapon of the militia. In fact the Vietnamese keep these guns in service by refurbishing them and even sometimes replacing the original plastic furniture with new components.
One variant the VPA do appreciate is the XM177 shortened carbine. This gun was used by the VPAs Special Forces, who like their American predecessors valued the weapons compact high firepower potential. In fact the Vietnamese are reputed to manufacture a version of this gun still.
The Vietnamese also made some experiments with converting surplus M16s into grenade launchers, though these likely remained test subjects as the VPA fell in love with the American M79 “bloop gun”.
These are a standard part of a VPA infantry platoons firepower even today, with the captured examples being rebuilt and new models being built, with distinctive plum plastic furniture instead of wood.
The militia also use large numbers of other American weapons, such as the M60 machine gun and even much older World War 2 guns such as the M1 carbine, the BAR light machine gun, Browning M1919 and a large number of old M1 Garand rifles. These are rated for their hard hitting round, though the kick they give the firer also causes comment.
This article is literally just a taster of the weapons that the Vietnamese captured and use and I owe a great vote of thanks to Lee Ann Quann on twitter who posts loads of great content there on the Vietnamese military. If this article has interested you I would certainly recommend looking at his content.
[i] Colvin, Rod; First Heroes: The POWs Left Behind in Vietnam, p.24; Addicus Books. 2013
Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published in the UK by Little, Brown in September 2018.