Royal Lao Army
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|Royal Army of Laos
Armée royale du Laos
Royal Lao Army Service Banner (1952-1975)
|Active||1 July 1949-2 December 1975|
|Country||Kingdom of Laos|
|Allegiance||Royal Lao Government|
|Size||35,000 (at height)|
|Nickname||RLA (ARL in French)|
|Engagements||Laotian Civil War
The Royal Lao Army (French: Armée royale du Laos – ARL), also designated by its Americanized title ‘RLA’, was the ground forces branch of the Royal Lao Armed Forces (FAR), the official military of the Kingdom of Laos during the North Vietnamese invasion of Laos and the Laotian Civil War between 1960 and 1975.
- 1 History
- 2 Structure
- 3 List of Royal Lao Army commanders
- 4 Weapons and equipment
- 5 RLA uniforms and insignia
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 External links
The ARL traced back its origins to World War II, when the first entirely Laotian military unit, the 1st Laotian Rifle Battalion (French: 1ér Battaillon de Chasseurs Laotiens – BCL), was raised early in 1941 by the Vichy French colonial authorities. Intended to be used on internal security operations to bolster the local colonial constabulary force, the ‘Indigenous Guard’ (French: Garde Indigène), the 1st BCL did not see much action until after March 9, 1945, when the Japanese Imperial Army forcibly seized control of French Indochina from France, including Laos. The battalion then retreated into the mountains, where they linked with the Laotian irregular guerrilla fighters (French: Maquis) operating there. These guerrillas were supplied, trained, and led by teams of Free French agents who had been trained in special jungle warfare by the British SOE in India and were subsequently parachuted into Indochina in December 1944 with the aim of creating a local anti-Japanese resistance network. Under the command of their Free French cadres, the battalion’s Laotian soldiers engaged in guerrilla actions alongside the irregular ‘Maquisards’ against the Japanese occupation forces in Laos until Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945. In November of that same year, the various Laotian guerrilla groups were consolidated into four regular light infantry battalions and, together with the 1st BCL, integrated into the newly founded French Union Army.
Meanwhile, confronted in early May 1945 with the Allied Powers’ victory over Nazi Germany and sensing their own imminent defeat, the Japanese military authorities in Laos began stirring up local anti-French nationalistic sentiments. In October of that year, a group of supporters of Laotian independence led by Prince Phetsarath deposed King Sisavang Vong and announced the formation of a new government body, the Committee for Independent Laos (Lao Language: Khana Lao Issara) or Lao Issara for short. Taking advantage of the temporary absence of French authority in the country’s main cities, the Lao Issara promptly established an armed defense force to exercise its authority with the support of Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh Hanoi-based government in the Tonkin and the Nationalist Chinese. The Lao Issara ‘Army’ was essentially a lightly-armed militia force, provided with an mixed assortement of small-arms captured from the Japanese, looted from French colonial depots, or sold by the Chinese Nationalist Army troops who occupied northern Laos under the terms of the 1945 Potsdam Conference.
The National Laotian Army 1946-1955
In early March 1946, the French Union Army aligned some 4,000 Laotian troops organized into five light infantry battalions (French: Battaillons de Chasseurs Laotiens) – the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th BCLs – led by a cadre of French officers and senior NCOs, which participated actively in the French reoccupation of Laos. That month, the Laotian battalions provided infantry support to French Far East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO) armoured units fighting Lao Issara troops at the Battle of Thakhek in Khammouan province. By the end of April, they had assisted the French in the recapture of Vientiane, followed in May by Luang Prabang which forced the Lao Issara leadership to flee to exile in Thailand. Upon the successful conclusion of the campaign, the Laotian battalions continued with small counter-insurgency operations against remnant bands of Lao Issara insurgents over the next three years, assuming responsibility for internal security duties in the areas located along the Thai border.
However, faced with the potential threat posed by the growing Viet Minh insurgency in neighbouring Vietnam the French instituted on July 1, 1949 a separated National Laotian Army – NLA (French: Armée Nationale Laotiènne – ANL) of the French Union to defend Laos. Its formation actually began earlier in 1947 as a gathering of several indigenous irregular (guerrilla) auxiliary units raised early by the French to reinforce their regular CEFEO units.
To meet the threat represented by the Pathet Lao, the Royal Lao Army depended on a small French military training mission, headed by a general officer, an exceptional arrangement permitted under the Geneva conventions, as well as covert assistance from the United States in the form of the Programs Evaluation Office. Military organization and tactical training reflected French traditions. Most of the equipment was of United States origin, however, because early in the First Indochina War, the United States had been supplying the French with matériel ranging from guns to aircraft. Between 1962 and 1971, the United States provided Laos with direct military assistance, but not including the cost of equipping and training irregular and paramilitary forces by the Central Intelligence Agency. By the time the PEO changed into the Requirements Office in September 1962, the PEO believed "...the Laotian army continued to distinguish itself primarily by its lassitude and incompetence." PEO also noted that CIA-trained Hmong guerrillas were the only troops fighting to preserve northeastern Laos. When PEO brought in Operation White Star trainers, the instructors found that 19 of 20 Lao soldiers had fewer than three years of education.
Laotian National Army strength in May 1959 peaked at 29,000 officers and enlisted men organized into twelve independent battalions – ten infantry (French: Battaillons d’Infanterie) and two airborne (French: Battaillons de Parachutistes – BP). A Laotian regular infantry battalion was organized according to the French Army model into a battalion headquarters (HQ), three company HQs and three rifle companies. Long-standing major formations above battalion level, such as Regiments, Half-brigades (French: Demi-brigades), Brigades or even Divisions, were virtually unexistant at the time. Instead, from November 1960 infantry and Paratrooper battalions began to be brought together to form loosely-organized ‘mobile groups’ (French: Groupements mobiles – GMs), a tactical expedient inherited from the French who had employed it previously during the First Indochina War. Being essentially a regimental-sized combat task-force, a typical Laotian GM consisted of two or three battalions’ assembled for specific operations. Originally raised on a temporary basis, the Mobile Groups were re-structured in April 1961 as permanent units, and by July 1962 the ANL fielded nine such Groups, eight composed of regular units – GMs 12, 13, 14, 15 (Airborne), 16, 17, and 18 – and one of irregular guerrilla forces – GM B –, with two or more being allocated per each Military Region. The Mobile Groups’ structure was retained until August 1968, when all GMs in the Laotian ground forces were abolished and replaced by independent battalions.
The regular units were supplemented by eighteen Regional Battalions (French: Battaillons Regionales), eighteen Volunteer Battalions (French: Battaillons de Voluntaires), and 247 irregular ‘Commando’ Self-Defense village militia companies (French: Auto Defense de Choc – ADC). However, in November 1965 the Volunteer Battalions were disbanded and merged with the Regional Battalions, whilst the rural ADC militia companies were grouped with the irregular GM B to form the CIA-sponsored Special Guerrilla Groups (SGUs). Renamed the Royal Lao Army in September 1961, the new RLA remained essentially a light infantry force devoted primarily to static defense and internal security; most units were kept stationed near the main population centers (including Vientiane and the provincial capitals) guarding vital facilities such as depots, airfields, and lines of communication.
RLA technical branch services and support units, such as the Military Police (French: Prevôtée Militaire – PM), Medical (French: Serviçe de Santé), Quartermaster (French: Service de Intendance), Engineer (French: Génie), Signals (French: Transmissions) and Transport (French: Train) were also organized into independent battalions or companies.
Following the Battle of Nam Bac débâcle, the demoralized Royal Lao Army reverted to its earlier static defense role of the main population centres along the Mekong River, relinquishing all offensive operations to the Paratrooper battalions, ‘Commando’ units and the irregular ethnic SGUs. This move however, placed an additional heavy burden on these already overstretched elite formations that actually did most of the fighting. By December 1968, total Royal Lao Army strength stood at 45,000 troops on paper, but is estimated that the actual number was no less than 30,000-35,000, with its combat elements organized solely into fifty-eight independent light infantry battalions and a single artillery regiment consisting of four artillery battalions.
In 1971, with the Vietnamisation process in full swing in South Vietnam, a similar effort was attempted towards making the RLA a more effective, self-sufficient force. Following a US Army system of organization, the regular infantry battalions were consolidated into two light divisions, locally designated as ‘Strike Divisions’ (French: Divisions d’Intervention). Based at Luang Prabang, the 1st Strike Division (French: 1ér Division d’Intervention) commanded by Brigadier-General Bounchanh Savathphayphane, was tasked with operations in northern Laos whilst the 2nd Strike Division (French: 2éme Division d’Intervention), commanded by Brig. Gen. Thao Ty and based at Seno near Savannakhet, was oriented towards the south.
As stipulated by the January 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the old ethnic SGU guerrilla forces were scheduled for integration into the RLA. However, most guerrillas – in particular those from the Hmong hill tribes – felt unwelcome in the regular army, still dominated as it was by the Lowland Lao, who were highly prejudiced towards the country’s ethnic minorities. In addition, the decreasing in pay and other privileges sharply dulled the cutting edge of what had been an effective fighting force, and left them incapable of halting the takeover of the country by the Pathet Lao.
Final operations 1974-75
By late 1974 a thinning of RLA ranks forced the FAR High Command to replace the two strike divisions by a series of smaller, understrength brigades. These were maintained until May 1975, when the Pathet Lao entered Vientiane and dissolved the FAR.
List of Royal Lao Army commanders
- General Phoumi Nosavan (1958-1965)
- General Ouane Rattikone
- General Kouprasith Abhay (Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Lao Army, 1973-1975)
- Colonel Bounleuth Saycocie
Notable field commanders
- Major-General Phasouk Somly
- Brigadier-General Soutchay Vongsavanh
- Brigadier-General Thao Ty
- Major-General Vang Pao
- General Sengsouvanh Souvannarath
- General Amkha Soukhavong
- General Sing Rattanasamay
- Colonel Saveng Vongsavath
- Captain Kong Le
Weapons and equipment
The armoured corps inventory consisted of ten M24 Chaffee light tanks whilst the reconnaissance armoured squadron was provided with fifteen M8 Greyhound and M20 Armoured Utility Cars. Mechanized infantry battalions were issued with M3 Half-Track and fifteen M3 Scout Car armoured personnel carriers (APCs). Some fifteen Cadillac Gage V-100 Commando armoured cars and twenty M-113 tracked APCs were later provided by the Americans in 1970-71.
The artillery corps fielded since 1963 twenty-five US-supplied M101A1 105mm towed field howitzers and ten M114A1 155mm towed field howitzers received in 1969, whilst Air Defense units were equipped with British-made Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft guns.
RLA uniforms and insignia
The Royal Lao Army owed its origin and traditions to the Laotian colonial ANL troops on French service of the First Indochina War and even after the United States took the role as the main foreign sponsor for the Royal Laotian Armed Forces at the beginning of the 1960s, French military influence was still perceptible in their uniforms and insignia.
Service dress uniforms
Upon its formation at the early 1950s, ANL units were initially outfitted as were French CEFEO troops of the period – the basic Laotian Army working dress for all-ranks was the French Army’s tropical light khaki cotton shirt and pants (French: Tenue de toile kaki clair Mle 1945). Modelled after the World War II US Army tropical ‘Chino’ working dress, it consisted of a shirt with a six-buttoned front, two patch breast pockets closed by clip-cornered straight flaps and shoulder straps; the short-sleeved M1946 shirt (French: Chemisette kaki clair Mle 1946), which had two pleated breast pockets closed by pointed flaps, could be worn as an alternative in hot weather. Both shirt models’ were worn with the matching M1945 pants, which featured two pleats at the front hips; the M1946 khaki shorts (French: Culotte courte kaki clair Mle 1946) do not appear to have been much favoured by the Laotians. The ‘Chino’ working uniform was initially furnished by France and later by the US aid programs(together with locally produced copies), continued to be worn by RLA officers and enlisted men as a service dress or for walking-out with a khaki tie.
A French-style, colonial-era white summer cotton dress uniform was initially worn by ANL officers for formal occasions, replaced in 1954 by an almost identical light khaki cotton version first adopted by senior officers serving in the ANL General Staff, and continued to be worn by their FAR successors until 1975. The new khaki dress consisted of an eight-buttoned tunic with a standing collar, provided with two breast pockets and two side pockets, all unpleated and closed by clip-cornered straight flaps, worn with matching khaki slacks. The tunic’s front fly and pocket flaps were secured by gilt metal buttons bearing the FAR wreathed “Vishnu” trident.
RLA Officers continued to wear the standard ANL summer service dress uniform in khaki cotton, which was patterned after the French Army M1946/56 khaki dress uniform (French: Vareuse d’officier Mle 1946/56 et Pantalon droit Mle 1946/56). The open-collar jacket had two pleated breast pockets closed by pointed flaps and two unpleated at the side closed by straight ones whilst the sleeves had turnbacks; the front fly and pocket flaps were secured by gilt buttons. It was worn with a Khaki shirt and black tie on service dress.
The Laotian Royal Guard (French: Garde Royale du Laos) were given a ceremonial dress uniform of French pattern, comprising a white eight-buttoned cotton tunic with a standing collar and red epaulets, and red cotton trousers.
Fatigue and field uniforms
The standard ANL field dress during the Indochina War was the French all-arms M1947 olive green (OG) jungle fatigues (French: Treillis de combat Mle 1947), whilst airborne battalions received in the late 1940s surplus World War II-vintage USMC Pattern 44 reversible camouflage utilities and British Denison Smocks. Such early camouflage fatigues were gradually phased out from the early 1950s in favour of French-designed Lizard (French: Ténue Leopard) camouflage M1947/53-54 TAP jump-smocks and M1947/52 TTA vests with matching trousers.
By the mid-1960s, RLA units in the field were using a wide variety of uniforms depending on availability from foreign aid sources, namely the US, Thailand, and South Vietnam. The old French M1947 OG jungle fatigues soon gave way to the US Army OG-107 jungle utilities, which was adopted as standard field dress by all the Laotian military regular and paramilitary irregular forces; M1967 Jungle Utility Uniforms also came into use by 1970. Local variants of the OG-107 fatigues often featured modifications to the original design – shirts with shoulder straps, two ‘cigarrete pockets’ closed by buttoned straight flaps on both upper sleeves, or a pen pocket added on the left sleeve above the elbow, an affection common to all Laotian, South Vietnamese and Cambodian military officers, and additional side ‘cargo’ pockets on the trousers.
Camouflage was very popular among the Laotian military. Airborne formations continued to wear Lizard camouflage fatigues up until 1975, and new camouflage patterns were adopted throughout the 1960s-1970s. First was the “Duck hunter” pattern, followed by “Tigerstripe” patterns from the United States, Thailand (Thai Tadpole) and South Vietnam (Tadpole Sparse) and finally, by “Highland” patterns (ERDL 1948 Leaf pattern or “Woodland pattern”), the latter being either supplied by the same sources or locally produced.
ANL officers received a service peaked cap copied after the French M1927 pattern (French: Casquette d’officier Mle 1927) with a lacquered black leather peak in both light khaki and white summer versions (the latter with gold embroidered flame decoration on the black cap band for general officers), to wear with the khaki service dress and the white high-collared full dress uniforms, respectively. The peaked caps were worn with the standard gilt metal ANL cap device, a wreathed Airavata crest bearing the Laotian Royal Arms – a three-headed white elephant standing on a pedestal and surmounted by a pointed parasol – set on a black teardrop-shaped background patch. Upon the creation of the Royal Lao Armed Forces (FAR) in September 1961, the Royal Lao Army (RLA) adopted a new service peaked cap with crown of ‘Germanic’ shape – very similar to that worn by Royal Thai Army or South Vietnamese ARVN officers – with the standard gilt metal FAR wreathed trident cap device, again set on a black background though some field officers still wore the old ANL badge on their caps up until the mid-1960s. The Laotian Royal Guards received a French-style red kepi with a straight black leather peak and gold chinstrap to wear with their ceremonial full dress uniform.
The most common headgear for the ANL personnel during the 1950s was the French M1946 tropical beret (French: Bérét de toile kaki clair Mle 1946), made of light khaki cotton cloth, but later the RLA standardized on a beret pattern whose design was based on the French M1953/59 model (French: Bérét Mle 1953/59); it was made of wool in a single piece, attached to a black leather rim with two black tightening straps at the back. In the FAR, berets were still being worn pulled to the left in typical French fashion, with the colour sequence for the ground forces as follows: General Service – scarlet red (the Kingdom of Laos’ national colour); Paratroopers, Para-Commandos and Special Forces – cherry-red (maroon); Armoured Cavalry – black; Military Police – dark blue. Berets made of camouflage cloth in the “Duck hunter”, “Tigerstripe” and “Highland” patterns were also used in the field, particularly by elite units within the RLA and by the irregular SGU formations. According to the 1959 regulations, General Service and corps’ berets were worn with the standard RLA beret badge placed above the right eye. Issued in gilt metal for officers and in silver metal for the rank-and-file, it consisted of a trident, symbolizing the Hindu God Vishnu, superimposed on a spinning Buddhist ‘Wheel of Law’ (Chakra) whose design recalled a circular saw. There were however exceptions to this rule, such as the Laotian airborne battalions who retained the silver winged dagger metal airborne beret badge modelled after the French pattern previously adopted in the early 1950s, simply replacing the dagger by a Laotian trident after 1961.
Laotian troops in the field could be encountered wearing a wide range of Khaki or OG jungle hats and patrol caps, ranging from French bush hats (French: Chapeau de brousse Mle 1949) and US M-1951 field caps, to baseball caps, US “Boonie hats”, and even South Vietnamese ARVN fatigue caps (similar in shape to the US Marines utility cap). Camouflage versions of these headpieces also found their way into the RLA from the United States, Thailand and South Vietnam, to which were soon added Laotian-made copies.
Steel helmets, in the form of the US M-1 and French M1951 OTAN models were standard issue in the ANL, with paratroopers receiving either the US M-1C jump helmet and its respective French-modified versions (French: Casque USM1 TAP type Métropole and Casque USM1 TAP type EO) or the airborne pattern of the French M1951 helmet (French: Casque type TAP, modéle 1951). Later, the RLA standardized on the modernized US M-1 model 1964 helmet, though the older American and French M1951 helmet patterns could still be encountred in the field among certain regular and irregular Laotian troops in 1971. ANL armoured crews initially received the French M1951 and M1958/65 dark olive green leather crash helmets (French: Sous-casque radio-char modéle 1951, Sous-casque radio-char modéle 1958 and Sous-casque radio-char modéle 1965); after 1971, Laotian V-100 and M-113 APC crewmen were issued the US Combat Vehicle Crew (CVC) fibreglass ‘bone dome’ helmet, though neither models offered any satisfactory protection against Shrapnel or small arms rounds.
White low laced leather shoes were prescribed to wear the earlier ANL white cotton full dress, whilst brown ones were worn with the khaki service/work uniform for all-ranks and, after 1954 the latter were required for RLA officers wearing the new FAR officers’ khaki dress uniform on formal occasions. ANL personnel on the field initially wore a mixture of American and French regulation footwear, including brown leather US M-1943 Combat Service Boots, French M1917 brown leather hobnailed boots (French: Brodequins modéle 1917), French M1953 “Rangers” (French: Rangers modéle 1953) and French canvas-and-rubber ‘Pataugas’ tropical boots; paratroopers received the calf-length French M1950 or M1950/53 TAP (French: Bottes de saut modéle 1950 et 1950/53) black leather jump-boot models. Black leather combat boots were also provided by the Americans who issued both the early US Army M-1962 ‘McNamara’ model and the M-1967 model with ‘ripple’ pattern rubbler sole; the highly prized US Army ’Jungle boot’ was not issued to the RLA but saw limited use after 1971 amongst members of elite units (e.g. Paratroopers, Special Forces) or by irregular guerrilla troops fighting in the jungle environment of southern Laos. Local copies of the South Vietnamese Bata boots were also worn in the south.
Initially, ANL troops wore the same rank insignia as their French counterparts, whose sequence followed the French Army pattern defined by the 1956 regulations until 1959, when the Royal Lao Army adopted a new distinctively Laotian-designed system of military ranks, which became in September 1961 the standard rank chart for all branches of service of the newly created Royal Lao Armed Forces.
Under the new regulations, officers were entitled to wear on their service or dress uniforms stiffened red shoulder boards (French: pattes d’épaule) edged with gold braid and a gold wreathed trident at the inner end. Junior officers (French: Officiers subalternes) added an appropriate number of five-pointed gold stars to their boards whilst field grade officers (French: Officiers supérieures) had a single lotus leaf rosette, plus an appropriate number of five-pointed gold stars. Field Marshals and General officers (French: Marechaux et Officiers Géneraux) had a gold leaf design around the lower half of their shoulder boards plus two of more five-pointed silver stars. Senior and junior NCOs (French: Sous-officiers) – including Private 1st class – wore cloth chevrons on both upper sleeves; enlisted men (French: Hommes de troupe) wore no insignia.
In the field, officers’ shoulder boards were initially replaced by metal rank insignia pinned to simple rectangular red cloth tabs sewn over the right shirt or combat jacket pocket, but some senior officers kept the custom of wearing instead a single chest tab (French: patte de poitrine) buttoned to the shirt’s front fly following French Army practice. By the late 1960s, an American-style system was adopted in which metal pin-on or embroidered cloth rank insignia – either in yellow-on-green full-colour or black-on-green subdued form – were worn on the right collar, though photographic evidence shows that officers on the field also had the habit of displaying their rank insignia on berets, baseball caps, bush hats and (more rarely) on steel helmets.
- Sip – Private (no insignia)
- Sip – Private 1st class (one red chevron pointed up)
- Sip Trii – Corporal (one white chevron pointed up)
- Sip Thó – Sergeant (two white chevrons pointed up)
- Sip Êek – Staff Sergeant (three white chevrons pointed up)
- Cãã Trii – Sergeant 1st class (one gold chevron edged red pointed down)
- Cãã Thó – Master Sergeant (two gold chevrons edged red pointed down)
- Cãã Êek – Sergeant Major (three gold chevrons edged red pointed down)
- Cadet 1st class (one horizontal white bar)
- Cadet 2nd class (one horizontal white ‘ladder’ bar)
- Wáa Trii Loei Trii – Warrant Officer (one horizontal gold bar)
- Loei Trïï – 2nd Lieutenant (one five-pointed gold star)
- Loei Thö – 1st Lieutenant (two five-pointed gold stars)
- Loei Êek – Captain (three five-pointed gold stars)
- Phan Trïï – Major (one five-pointed star inserted on a gold disc)
- Phan Thö – Lieutenant-Colonel (two five-pointed stars, one inserted on a gold disc)
- Phan Êek – Colonel (three five-pointed stars, one inserted on a gold disc)
- Phoun Chatäävä – Brigadier-General (two five-pointed silver stars)
- Phoun Trïï – Major-General (three five-pointed silver stars)
- Phoun Thö – Lieutenant-General (four five-pointed silver stars)
- Phoun Êek – General (Five five-pointed silver stars)
- Choum Phoun – Field Marshal (six five-pointed silver stars)
RLA skill and trade badges also came in gilt metal and/or ennamelled pin-on and cloth embroidered yellow or black-on-green subdued variants. On dress and service uniforms, they were worn on both collars by all-ranks if shoulder boards were worn, but in the field officers wore them on the left shirt collar only if worn alongside collar rank insignia; enlisted ranks usually wore branch insignia on both collars instead.
Yellow and subdued nametapes were occasionally worn above the right shirt or jacket pocket on field dress; plastic nameplates were worn with the service and dress uniforms. Elite formations such as the Special Commando Company of the 2nd RLA Strike Division had their unit designation printed over their left pocket.
- Vietnam War
- North Vietnamese invasion of Laos
- Lao Veterans of America
- Laos Memorial
- Hmong people
- Lao Veterans of America Institute
- Laotian Civil War
- Vietnam War
- Air America
- Pathet Lao
- Royal Lao Police
- Khmer National Armed Forces
- Weapons of the Laotian Civil War
- Royal Lao Air Force
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