19 October-13 November 1970: The Tchepone Operation

By 1970, it was determined that the Royal Laos Armed Forces (FAR) based in Savannakhet Province (in the North Vietnamese location of Military Zone 3), Laos, could effectively interdict the supply lines used by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. FAR was responsible for the defence of the Kingdom of Laos since its independence from France in 1953. In 1970, the US provided Laos with direct military assistance, but not including the cost of equipping and training irregular and paramilitary forces by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Until 1969, a tacit pact of nonaggression had existed between FAR and PAVN forces under the assumption that PAVN forces guarding the Trail were strong enough to launch large-scale attacks into Savannakhet Province and the Mekong Delta. In March 1969, the FAR offensive during Operation Duck broke the pact and led to numerous future operations against PAVN defences along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, most with promising results. Seeing these successes, the CIA-trained unit in Savannakhet deemed it feasible to launch the Tchepone Operation on 19 October 1970.

The Operation was an interdiction campaign by CIA-sponsored FAR irregulars aimed at disrupting PAVN supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, with particular attention on the communist garrison in the Phine District and the vital transhipment point of Tchepone.

The attempt of capturing the Phine District garrison was fruitless. The column tasked with taking Tchepone stalled on Route 9 only 13 kilometres from the logistics centre on 31 October. Between 1 and 10 November, the PAVN fiercely counter-attacked while reinforced with nine antiaircraft guns and six mortars. Tactical airstrikes and close air support delivered by Royal Laos Air Force and US Air Force inflicted heavy casualties on the PAVN.

During 16 days of combat, with one FAR battalion written off as ineffective and two others having fled battle, FAR managed to hold Pakse Strip 22 (PS-22). In mid-December, FAR reinforced PS-22 with a battalion that arrived just as the PAVN launched a three-battalion attack. Despite being subjected to a vicious crossfire, communist forces managed to overrun one outpost before withdrawing under heavy tactical air and artillery bombardment. Their casualties were estimated at 200 killed. FAR casualties were 25 dead and 126 wounded or missing in action.

For lessons learned, the CIA’s Savannakhet unit fired the insubordinate battalion commander. It also decided to try forming a regimental structure to manage multi-battalion operations.

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