Comparison of Chinese and Vietnamese Special Forces by Martin Andrew, PhD


Both the PLA and VPA have a long tradition forged in combat and indeed relations deteriorated so badly that there was a very bloody war between them in early 1979 which lasted red along until the late 1980s.

The special forces in Chinese are known collectively as 特战径路 tèzhàn jìnglù translates as ‘Those follow the path of special warfare.’ Military special forces are 特种 tèzhǒng with a special forces soldier being 特种兵 tèzhǒngbīng.

The Vietnamese special Forces are known as Bộ Đối Đặc Công and more commonly Đặc Công which translates as sapper. The Vietnam refers to the special forces as sappers dating back to the days of the Viet Minh when sappers through tunnelling and trenches led the attacks on French bases.i They come under Sapper Command.


Chinese Special Forces

A series of external and internal demands in China’s security environment have resulted in modifications to the country’s special forces units.  Changes to special forces units in the PLA have been driven by the possibility of Taiwanese independence, the military requirements of increasing power projection capabilities, and the country’s policy of “active defence” that requires a pre-emptive strike capacity.  Accordingly, PLA special forces expanded their role from reconnaissance operations to direct attack missions and combat search and rescue. and from 2001 to 2009 they heavily involved with internal security including counterterrorism and hostage rescue. Internal security became the sole province of the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) special units from 2009, leaving PLA special forces units to concentrate on their wartime roles. 

The People’s Liberation Army, and its predecessors, the Red Army have always had special forces elements embedded in its regimental structure. The Red Army in 1928 included a special task company in its regimental structure.ii During the Jiangxi Soviet period a Red Army division had a reconnaissance team of 40 men at divisional level, 18 to each regiment and six to each battalion.iii

Even when Mao Zedong and Lin Biao were pushing the benefits of People’s War doctrine in 1961, the PLA fostered and encouraged special units. The bulk of the operational training budget of the PLA went to the special forces, which at the divisional level were meant to account for 70 percent of the local training time, and at the regimental level 60 percent of the total training time. These companies later became the reconnaissance elements of the regiment, and being the best trained, received the newest equipment.iv

Vietnamese Special Forces

In the Second Indochina War sappers were split into field, water and urban sappers and were used as elite infantry akin to commandos in Western forces. Field sappers infiltrated bases through minefields and barbed wire to attack airfields, command centres, ammunition dumps, aircraft and other soft and high value targets. Water sappers infiltrated into ports and riverine bases to attach limpet mines or lay small sea mines to damage and sink vessels. Urban sappers, similar to pre-war Chinese special forces elements conduced espionage, agitprop, assassinations and other direct action missions including bombings. In the event of an attack by regular North Vietnamese Army units, urban sappers would be tasked to infiltrate prior to the attack from inside knocking out key command and control and logistics facilities, and taking over key infrastructure nodes as well as creating havoc in rear areas.v

Field sappers were an immense concern to US forces in Vietnam and was described by one retired intelligence specialist, ‘You never knew who or where they would strike’.vi In late 1970 at Can Tho Army Airfield a sapper placed a satchel charge in the base ammunition dump behind the intelligence bunker. He had however forgot to waterproof his satchel charge, before swimming a rice paddy to infiltrate the base, and next morning the base awoke to find a smouldering satchel in the midst of 1,200 tons of explosives.vii
The bunker had nine feet thick rebar reinforced walls and 3 1/2 thick roof but the compression wave would have crushed everyone inside due to proximity of the explosives. In another case, after one ground probe at Pleiku the post barber was found dead in the wire with a satchel charge on his back.viii

During the Second Indo-China War, the PAVN Sapper corps used the French 9 x 19mm MAT49 sub-machine gun and United States M1911A1 in .45ACP. These were supplemented with Soviet MSP Derringer type silenced handgun utilising the silent 7.62 x 38mm SP-3 cartridge and 7.62 x 17mm Chinese Type 67 silenced handgun.ix After the Second Indo-China War, the sappers were reorganized into conventional special forces emphasizing reconnaissance as well as their traditional strike missions. Urban sappers were no longer required and they then became field sappers under the Vietnamese People’s Army and the water sappers coming under Vietnamese People’s Navy. With the reorganization they were now equipped with the standard Vietnamese army small arms supplementing their specialized ones, including the 7.62 x 39mm AK series assault rifles, B41 (RPG-7 copy), M79 40mm grenade launcher, M72 60mm LAW and 7.62 x 54mmR SVD sniping rifle.x Indirect fire support during attacks was provided by 60mm mortars, captured United States M2 and M19 60mm mortar from mainly South Vietnamese stocks.

Military Assistance

The wartime experiences of urban, field and water sappers were provided to other revolutionary forces. The Vietnamese started exchanges with the Cuban Army’s special forces from 1974 onwards until at least 1994, including providing a 17 man advisory group from January to August 1979.xi Vietnamese sappers provided eleven training courses for Laotian personnel, starting in early 1969 with a total of 352 students.xii

There is strong evidence that Vietnam, most likely employing sappers, gave assistance to East Timor at least once in 1975 during the period between Portugal’s departure and the Indonesian invasion. An eyewitness to the events to the period said that a lot of American equipment arrived which assisted the Marxist FALANTIL, including US two and a half ton trucks more importantly a large number M16 assault rifles. No other regional nation could have provided them and the Portuguese Army did not that use them.

Vietnamese sappers also gave visiting Salvadoran leftist guerrilla leaders advice in 1979 and 1980, prior to outbreak of the bloody civil war, who thanked them, ‘For passing along to us the benefit of the priceless experience’.xiii

1979 Sino-Vietnamese War

When the People’s Liberation Army crossed into Vietnam on they quickly discovered they had seriously underestimated the capability of the Vietnamese Provincial and militia forces it went against. The Vietnamese Government relied on militia and territorial forces to blunt the PLA’s attacks and had provided weapons training for people in the border areas in the months before the attack. These citizen soldiers (dan quan) were backed up by regional forces (dia phunog quan) and enabled five regular or main forces, Vietnamese Army divisions to be kept in the rear to protect Hanoi and to defeat any breakthrough.

Vietnamese sappers likely led spoiling attacks against Chinese ammunition and logistics depots immediately after they invaded Vietnam.xiv Other than that not much is known but most likely they assisted in their training and fought with the militia and provincial forces.

Chinese Special Forces in the War

The organisation of the infantry units that crossed into Vietnam was little changed from the ones that were involved against Indian forces in 1961. Due to the effects of the Cultural Revolution, the PLA’s Special Forces, had atrophied and were contained in the battalion and regimental reconnaissance elements. The typical PLA nine-man reconnaissance squad contained a mixture of Type 56-2 7.62 x 39mm carbines and Type 64 and Type 79 7.62 x 25mm suppressed sub-machine guns.xv

There were two principal areas in the conflict, Lao Cai and Lang Son, which is southeast of Cao Bang. Due to the terrain, PLA armour and trucks were forced to travel along the few mountainous roads, and if they went off the road were channelled into columns. The area around Lang Son had narrow roads with steep sides, many commanding heights and was not heavily vegetated, containing very little jungle. By employing local knowledge the Vietnamese militia using mortars, land mines and ambushes with rocket propelled grenades, took a large toll on invading PLA units.

Due to the almost complete lack of maps, the Vietnamese using Qing Dynasty maps, the reconnaissance elements were used to provide to provide topographic as well as battlefield intelligence on Vietnamese dispositions and routes of approach and attack. PLA troops who attacked Gao Bao Ling on the 10th day of the war said that no air reconnaissance of the battlefield area had been made and the commanders were also using Qing Dynasty maps from the 19th Century, encountering more than one false mountain top.xvi

They suffered terribly at the hands of the Vietnamese Army. Having been on the receiving end of United States firepower, and having captured vast amounts of US supplied materiel in 1975 and equipped its militia infantry squads with formidable firepower, knowing that high-explosives are the largest killer on the battlefield. A Vietnamese militia nine-man squad had a six-man rifle group containing AKMs, AK-47s and Type 56 assault rifles, hand grenades and importantly M72 60mm LAWs; a two man B41 (RPG-7 copy) rocket-propelled grenade group and a M79 grenadier. This was anti-armour and fire-support squad, and there were hundreds of them. Selected Vietnamese militia marksmen were equipped with Russian 7.62 x 54mmR sniping rifles, although the weapon is more of a marksman’s weapon. These weapons were all used by the sappers.

The firepower disparity at the squad and platoon level was remedied quickly as it was the cheapest and easiest to adopt with captured M79 40mm adopted into the squad. Captured Russian SVD 7.62 x 54mmR SVDs were quickly issued and copied as the Type 79 and later the Type 85 7.62x54mmR sniping rifle, for a selected marksmen. The PLA also copied the later 40mm M203 underbarrel grenade launcher into the QLG91/Type 91 35mm rifle mounted grenade launcher.

This should have been expected by the Chinese, having worked with the Vietnamese Army since 1950.xvii Their feeling of cultural superiority blinded their perception of how tough the Vietnamese forces actually were. Lieutenant Colonel Harold ‘Hal’ Moore in his after-action report on the 1965 Battle for Ia Drang wrote, xviii

(4) The LAW was effective against the anthills behind which the PAVN were hiding. Training on the use of LAWs must be emphasised.

(5) If PAVN are encountered close-in during a friendly attack, the best solution may be to back up under artillery and ARA, let the artillery and ARA work the area over and then start again, loading off with plenty of M-79s and grass and LAWs into the ant hills.

(7) Careful placement of M-79 men should be emphasized in order to give him the best possible fields of fire. They must always be on the lookout for enemy in trees. It was found that M-79s were extremely effective against enemy in trees as well as troops in the open. M-79s must be fired into trees and the high grass even when no enemy are seen.

Of the Vietnamese regulars he wrote, xix

(1) He appeared well trained. He was aggressive. He was equipped with a preponderance of automatic weapons and plenty of ammunition. He carried 3 – 5 Chinese potato masher hand grenades. He carried a softball-sized wad of cooked rice, most of them carried a bed roll of a piece of waterproof plastic and a hammock. His weapons were well maintained.

(2) he was an expert in camouflage and used every bit of cover and concealment to perfection. With only small arms, mortars, and anti-tank weapons he obviously sought to close with us in strength quickly-before we could discover him – possibly to render our fire support less effective and certainly to overwhelm us and to fight us on their terms. Without much overhead fire support, he probably has to fall back on expert camouflage techniques, attacks in mass, infiltrators and stay-behind killer parties.

(3) He was a deadly shot. In caring for my men who had been killed or wounded, I was struck by the great number who had been shot in the head and upper part of the body—particularly in the head. He definitely went for the leaders—the men who were shouting, pointing talking on radios. He also aimed for the men carrying the radios…….

(5) When met by heavy ground fire or by mortar, artillery, TAC air or ARA he becomes less organized,. However, he did not quit……

(7) He fought to the death. When wounded, he continued fighting with his small arms and grenades. He appeared fanatical; when wounded and had to be approached with extreme care. Many friendlies were shot by wounded PAVN.

When the Chinese attacked the Vietnamese militia in 1979 they faced the same issues with some new problems at the squad and platoon level.

The PLA infantry squad consisted of a forward scout group of three men with Type 56C (lightened AK-47 copies) carbines and hand grenades, a four man rifle group with Type 56 (AK-47) rifles and hand grenades, and a two man Type 56 (RPD) light machine gun with an assistant squad leader/marksmen among one the groups.xx

Rebuilding After the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War – Theatre level LRRPs

Deng’s Xiaoping’s reforms to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and changes to the China’s external and internal threats saw these reconnaissance elements in the 1980s and early 1990s, become the nucleus for the reorganization of the PLA’s Special Forces, organised into military region theater-specific long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) assets. In the mid-1990s they were the first to units to be issued unmanned air vehicles, battlefield video and thermal imaging systems and formulating doctrine for counter-terrorism and combat search and rescue.xxi

Personnel from these special elements and other selected personnel within the PLA’s infantry and aviation units saw the creation of the PLA’s airmobile regiment in the 1990s.

The unit was initially equipped with approximately 30 Chinese built Z-9G helicopters. Its missions were initially to develop tactics and doctrine for heliborne operations including night time combat search and rescue, as well as conducting counter terrorist and insurgency missions.

9-11 Deployment on the Afghan Border

After the September Eleven attacks on the United States the PLA’s First Army Airborne Regiment was sent to Xinjiang ostensibly to combat Uighur separatists, but provided an excellent operational training environment. The airborne regiment supplemented armoured and light cavalry forces including the 6th Independent Mechanised Infantry Division, which was the first mechanized infantry division to be deployed at that height.xxii

Like all helicopters, at high altitudes their power with the lifting capability of the Z-9G comparable with the UH-1B and level of experience of the Airborne Regiment was comparable to the US Army’s 1st battalion 7th Cavalry at IA DRANG Valley. The airborne regiment also had People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Mi-17 transport helicopters available to provide greater troop lift and fire support.

The Mi-17 is the export version of the Russian Mi-8MTV-2 helicopter with more powerful turbine engines, navigation radar and an auxiliary power unit to ensure reliability starting at altitudes up to 4,000 metres.xxiii Capable of lifting a maximum of 24 ‘combat equipped’ soldiers at lower altitudes this quickly drops at higher altitudes. Mi-17 can only carry six combat laden soldiers at 3000m, dropping to only four or five at 4,000m. xxiv

Imparting Knowledge and Foreign Military Advisors: Vietnamese Sappers 1979 – 1991

After the Sino-Vietnamese war, the Vietnamese sappers, like the Green Berets in the United States Army, became advisors and taught foreign ‘revolutionary’ and government forces their skills and knowledge. In Vietnam, Sapper Command became the focus of visits and training for foreign forces. In addition to the previous groups mentioned, three courses were run for Soviet Union personnel the first one starting in November 1988; three classes for Cambodian forces starting in March 1982 and one for the Chilean Army of nine students from August 1990 to January 1991.xxv Besides Cuba in the period 1979 – 1991 three teams totaling 26 advisors were sent to Nicaragua, four teams groups totaling 26 advisors were sent to Laos and three teams totaling 33 advisors were sent to Cambodia.xxvi

1990 – 2010

Chinese Special Forces: Expansion New Roles and Missions

In early 2000 the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s 15th Airborne Corps took on a strategic response role within the PLA looking at how foreign forces operated, especially the Russian airborne.xxvii PLA doctrine for direct action operations appears initially to have focused on the Russian concept of Reconnaissance – Combat Operations (RBD) to defeat the three ‘evils’- ‘terrorism’, ‘separatism’ and ‘extremism’.xxviii This involves the extensive use of signals intelligence, special forces and helicopters supported by ready reaction forces and artillery to provide blocking forces and prosecute attacks.xxix Recent material shows that the PLA was influenced by the ability of US forces in Afghanistan to provide rapid and highly accurate on call firepower especially by CAIRS (CAS) and artillery. If the PLA started out using RBD, it has now gone over to a joint fire support model based on US experiences in

In 2003/2004 their roles were further expanded to include attacking the ‘accupoints of the enemy’, such as ballistic missile sites by direct action, or inserted by helicopter and parachute to provide targeting data for strategic bombers and theatre ballistic missiles of the Second Artillery.xxxi Counterterrorism and internal hostage rescue were also part of their mission profiles from 2001 to 2009 when internal security became the responsibility of the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) leaving PLA special forces units to concentrate on their wartime roles.xxxii  Their counter-terrorism role is still practiced, most likely for overseas or high value hostage rescues.xxxiii

Each of China’s seven military regions has a Special Forces battalion, dedicated to operating in different tasks due to the different geography of the region and mission profile. For example, the special operations battalion in Nanjing Military Region is involved in OPFOR psychological warfare and trains with air, land and naval assets and ‘stressful’ live fire exercises.xxxiv This unit is responsible for operations in the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea and beach reconnaissance and conducting raids would be part of their training. The unit for the Lanzhou Military Region which includes Tibet and Xinjiang is responsible for high altitude operations. These would be assisted by the various PAPF frontier border units.

The PLA invests a large amount of resources on studying the lower level operations and equipment of foreign forces. The mission of the Blue Team OPFOR staff in Beijing is to study advanced tactical theories of foreign military forces and by its own admission collects a large amount of information on them.xxxv This enables their special forces to understand how their possible targets operate

Two Decades

The period 1990 – 2010 was a lean period for Sapper Command. The first half of the 1990s saw great change in Vietnam affecting the Vietnamese People’s Army as a whole. The land border disputes with China were over, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of conflict with Cambodia saw the need for military advisers cease. The economy started to become export orientated, tourism was encouraged and in 1995 Vietnam joined ASEAN.xxxviii Money was now spent improving infrastructure and the Vietnamese Military received less funding. As disputes with China over the South China Sea increased, the defence budget was reorientated towards naval and air defence, the VPA had to wait.xxxix

During this period, Sapper Command was tasked to provide the country with a highly skilled counter-terrorist capability. The 9 x 19mm Heckler and Koch MP5 sub-machine guns were procured for the counter terrorist unit, with Colt Commando/Model 733 assault rifles in 5.56 x 45mm issued for close quarter combat.xl Whether the latter were made from weapons and spare parts left over from the Second Indo-China War is unknown.

PLA Special Forces Today

With the People’s Liberation Army changing to a primarily mechanized force, light infantry have taken on new roles. Now they are regarded as elite, similar to the US Rangers, ready to deploy into trouble spots to protect China’s interests and citizens in operations other than war. This could include intervention to provide for safe evacuation and even hostage rescue.

The PLA’s counterterrorist battalion most likely resumed its light infantry/airmobile role, building on the experiences in its counterinsurgency and terrorist missions. Not much is known of the light infantry battalion and it most likely became the nucleus of an elite light infantry regiment akin to the United States Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment for overseas missions including direct action missions including hostage rescue.

Each infantry battalion, other than mechanised, has its own reconnaissance and surveillance platoon.xli Split into three sections is enables a battalion commander to provide reconnaissance for his own close in area of operations. Their roles include providing targets for the battalion mortar units and supporting artillery and aircraft, as well as the intelligence of the battalion’s surrounding area including likely areas of approach, enemy dispositions, early warning etc. The platoons include the Chinese equivalent of JTAC teams and are also equipped with targeting equipment for laser-guided bombing. Battalion snipers also aid in the reconnaissance and intelligence gathering missions. Importantly, reconnaissance platoons create a pool of personnel to go into higher reconnaissance billets, light infantry units and special forces units. Light Infantry units, similar to the Model Companies of the 1960s, are analogous to the US Rangers with the special forces being specialized reconnaissance and specialized high value missions such as hostage rescue overseas.

The light infantry and Special Forces would be employed to secure seize airfields and high value targets like North Korea’s nuclear facilities. With China’s increasing presence in Africa, the possibility increases of having to intervene to organize an evacuation or rescue its citizens who have been taken hostage. PLAN Marines have heavy firepower with their Type 05 series of light amphibious vehicles but are short on infantry. Marine forces are designed to hold and secure a beachhead but lack sufficient infantry to exploit the beachhead. Light infantry are the force of choice, being equipped for these types of operations. New equipment like HJ-12 manportable anti-tank guided missile which gives them a potent weapon against armoured vehicles.

To enable longer range infiltration and exfiltration, PLA light infantry and Special Forces will shortly receive new models of the Z-8JA equipped with glass cockpits, radar and FLIR for the infiltration role similar in capability to the USAF’s retired MH-53J Pave Low III.xlii

Chinese special; forces have been seen in urban warfare training using the Type 81A. Major differences from the Type 81A are a new folding stock copied from the Heckler and Koch G36, a SIG 550 style fore grip and a slim mount for the standard 3x optical sight used on Chinese rifles.xlii.5

Beach Reconnaissance and Pathfinders

Both airborne and amphibious units require specialist reconnaissance personnel. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has special reconnaissance/pathfinder personnel inserted into a drop zone to ensure its safety before parachute operation. Their role being primarily is strategic response for warlike operations. Given China’s growing presence in Africa, and its excellent amphibious forces, this may be sooner than later.

To support amphibious operations, the PLA and PLAN Marines have specialist personnel to provide covert beach reconnaissance, ensuring that the beach gradient is suitable for landing craft, that the sand will support the weight of armoured vehicles, and to identify and destroy anti-landing craft obstacles. PLAN marine SOF equipment includes copies of many Western pieces of equipment including US woodland style camouflage uniforms, Bergen style back packs and K-Bar fighting knives.xliii PLAN divers are equipped with the purpose designed GBP 161 underwater demolition charge to destroy underwater beach obstacles.

The PLAN special forces personnel are grouped under a commando group. There is mention of a the Jiāo 蛟 commando unit. Jiāolóng 蛟龙 being a legendary dragon with the ability to control rain and floods. Their known duties are raiding and providing the personnel protecting Chinese naval vessels on anti-piracy and boarding parties.

Both the pathfinders and PLAN commandos employ the same standard small arms as the PLA, the Type 95-1 5.8 x 42mm assault rifle series equipped with the QLG91/Type 91 35mm underbarrel grenade launcher, laser sights and high intensity torches. PLAN commando sniping rifles including the QBU-88 5.8 x 42mm, Type 85 7.62 x 54mmR and the M-99 12.7mm x 108mm.xliv The standard small arms are the Type 95 and 95-1 family of weapons but any combination of small arms could be carried depending on the mission, with snipers receiving the CS/LR4 7.62mm bolt-action sniping rifle, capable of one minute-of-angle accuracy replacing the Type 88 and Type 85 marksman’s rifles.xlv

On anti-piracy patrols, besides conducting boardings by helicopter on suspect merchant vessels, PLAN special forces also operate the QJZ-89 12.7 x 108mm heavy machine guns mounted on single armoured pintle-mounts on destroyers and frigates. The underway replenishment and other larger ships having the QJZ-89 heavy machine guns mounted on their anti-aircraft tripods sandbagged to the decks. The heavy machine guns provide PLAN vessels with close in protection against small fast speed boats and other such craft.

PLA Special Forces Training and Tactics

A special warfare squad consists of eight personnel comprising of two sections of three and a section of two personnel.xlvi During fire and movement personnel inside the individual sections are expected to keep a distance of between four to eight metres with the distance between front and rear members not to exceed six metres.

Personnel applying for both the light infantry and special forces undertake the same two-day entrance course which emphasises shooting, physical fitness and map reading.xlvii Run over two days, the first day is at the range with the second day involving strength and agility tests. On the second day the soldiers undergoing the test are split into eight-man groups, and besides track and field events, there is an 800 metre obstacle course including high ropes, and other group activities. The shooting course reveals the accuracy required to be in the PLA special forces.

Using the standard Type 95-1 5.8 x 42mm assault rifle the first course of fire involves 100 shots at 100 metres and 50 of those shots must be within a 7cm group. The second course of fire is at 200m and a 30cm group is allowed. The paper targets can only be hit in the thorax or head with emphasis on the heart and head. The third course of fire involves after having done a five metre leap and 15 metre mud crawl firing at pop-up targets between 80 and 120 metres between four and six metres apart. Double taps are allowed in this course of fire.

VPA and VPN Sappersxlviii

The field and water sappers are being re-equipped with new load bearing equipment, uniforms and Israeli small arms along undoubtedly with Israeli instructors. These weapons include the 5.56 x 45mm Negev squad automatic weapon, 5.56 x 45mm TAR 21 assault rifles, 40mm under barrel grenade launcher for the TAR21, 7.62 x 51mm Galil sniping rifle and 9 x 19mm Mini-Uzi Pro sub-machine gun with reflex sight. The latter two also have suppressors available. The 60mm mortar is being replaced by the 50mm lightweight mortar which is a copy of the Chinese QLT89A 50mm grenade launcher, itself a modernised version of the old Japanese Type 89 50mm Grenade discharger, commonly known as the 50mm ‘knee mortar’. xlix Claimed to have a minimal signature on firing, its role is to provide fire support from 400 to 800m.l

Vehicles available to Sapper Command include upgraded BTR-152 armoured light 6 x 4 patrol vehicles and BTR-60 and BTR-70 8 x 8 armoured personnel carrier. Aircraft include Mi-8, 17 and 171 utility helicopters and as Twin Otter float planes, the latter which allows them to support Vietnam’s islands in the South China

China claims that the Vietnamese have a ‘pocket sized submarine similar to the SEAL delivery system with the driver and command element enclosed inside the hull at submarine members have to wear diving clothing and carry compressed breathing mixed air , Not much more is known but the Chinese describe its role as it a ‘sapper package and delivery vehicle’.lii


Both forces have gone considerable restructuring over the years. The PLA special forces have gone from small reconnaissance to strike missions and now back to primarily reconnaissance with strike missions and counter terrorism as secondary roles. PLAN special forces now operate in the counter-piracy role and PLA light infantry are akin to the US Rangers providing support for special forces elements, high-value and risky direct-action operations, and an out of area intervention force capable of evacuation operations and hostage rescue.

Other than the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War and the border dispute up to 1988, the PLA’s special forces have little combat experience to go on, unlike Vietnam’s sappers who having a long and distinguished history of combat missions from Dien Bien Phu and in the Second Indochina war involving primarily covert attacks on land and sea. These experiences were then incorporated in their own training, and roles as foreign military advisers and training foreign forces in Vietnam. Today they are their country’s premier national counter terrorist force and support Vietnam’s islands in the South China Sea.

Author Biography

Dr. Martin Andrew hails from the land down-under, and attained B.A. degrees (plural) in International Relations and Strategic Studies from Deakin University; a Masters Degree in South East Asian Studies from Northern Territory University; and a PhD from Bond University where he wrote his dissertation titled Tuo Mao: The Operational History of the People’s Liberation Army. A long-time PLA-watcher, Dr. Andrew served in the Royal Australian Air Force from February 1977 to February 2005, and is the publisher of GI Zhou Newsletter – a monthly compilation of translated Chinese and Russian source material pertaining to the Chinese military. He is the author of How the PLA Fights: Weapons and Tactics of the People’s Liberation Army, a “warfighter’s handbook” with customers in the US Army (the most recent edition of which will be published here at Analytica Camillus in the hopefully near future); The Guerrilla’s Artillery – The RPG in Action in Eurasia, and dozens of academic papers, the list of which you can see here.

Works Cited

i The Vietnamese credit the use of sappers to create trenches and saps to nibble away and launch assaults from these positions at the French defenses at Dien Bien Phu, to General Giap. The Vietnamese claim that the Chinese advisors insistence of frontal assault s caused heavy Viet Minh casualties for little or no real effect. The Chinese disagree with this. Simpson, Howard R. ‘Tres Secret’, Army, April 1994, p. 48; Chen Jian, ‘China and The First Indo-China war, China Quarterly, No. 133, march 1993, p. 103.

ii Mao Zedong. ‘ Resolutions of the Sixth Congress of Party Representatives from the Fourth Red Army (6 December 1928)’, in Scrahm, S.R. Mao’s Road to Power Revolutionary Writings 1912.1949 Volume III From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets July1927-December 1930, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, 1995, p. 125.

iii A Red Army division was a regiment in size, a battalion was a company in size and a company was a platoon in size. Collier, Harry H. & Chin-Chih Lai, Paul. Organizational Changes in the Chinese Army 1895-1950, Office of the Military Historian, Taipei, 1969, p. 186.

iv ‘A Summary of the Minutes of the Meeting of the Military Affairs Commission on Military Training (20-26 January 1961) in Cheng, C.J. (ed). The Politics of the Chinese Red Army: A Translation of the Bulletin of Activities of the People’s Liberation Army, Hoover Institution of War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford, 1966 Cheng, p. 218.

v James M. Cloninger Jr. Analysis of Communist Vietnamese Special Operations Forces during the Vietnam War and the Lessons that Can Be Applied to Current and Future US Military Operations, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, 2005, pp. 13, 25 & 33.

vi Online conversation between CWO2 (Ret) Stephen L Sewell, a US Army intelligence specialist in the Vietnam War and the author on 20 and 27 June 2015.

vii Ibid

viii Ibid.

ix ‘Yuejun tezhong budui zhuangbei xin dongxiang’, Qing Bingqi, 2014 Niandi, 7 (shang) Qi,Zhongdi 418, pp. 30 & 31.

x Ibid.

xi Vu Doan Thanh, Trieu Minh Duong;Final & Ha Dinh Loan, translated by Merle Pribbenow for Wilson Digital Center Archives Excerpts from the Calendar of Events in the History of the Sapper Branch of the People’s Army of Vietnam (1967- 1997), People’s Army Publishing House, Hanoi, 1997, pp. 67, 103 and 180.

xii Pham Xuan Truong. Nguyen Xuan Nghi & Tran Ngoc Tan, translated by Merle Pribbenow forWilson Digital Center Archives. Excerpts from official Vietnamese Sapper Handbook, Sapper Command, Hanoi, 1992, pp. 130 & 131.

xiii Vu Doan Thanh, Trieu Minh Duong;Final & Ha Dinh Loan, op.cit., pp. 105 & 109.

xiv ‘Lujian qigongde 67shi 82mm pojipaou’, Qingbingqi, 2007 Niandi, 6 (xia) Qi, Zhongdi 249, pp. 28 – 32.

xv ‘Yuhuo zhongsheng ___ Dui Yue ziwei fanjizhan dui wuguo qingwuqi fazhande yingxiong’, Qing Bingqi, 2014 Niandi, 7 (shang) Qi,Zhongdi 418, pp. 14 – 20.

xvi Mirsky, Jonathan. ‘China’s 1979 Invasion of Vietnam: A View from the Infantry, RUSI Journal, Vol. 126, No. 2, June 1981, p. 49.

xvii Qiang Zhai. China and the Vietnam Wars 1950-1975, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2000, p.13.

xviii Moore, H. ‘After Action Report, IA DRANG Valley Operation 1st battalion 7th Cavalry 14 – 16 November 1965’, 1ST BATTALION, 7TH CAVALRY, 1ST CAVALRY DIVISION (AIRMOBILE, dated 9 December 1965, p. 14.

xix Ibid., pp.17 & 18.

xx ‘Yuhuo zhongsheng ___ Dui Yue ziwei fanjizhan dui wuguo qingwuqi fazhande yingxiong’, Qing Bingqi, 2014 Niandi, 7 (shang) Qi,Zhongdi 418, pp. 14 – 20.

xxi ‘Chinese Army takes on New Look’, Peoples Daily Online, 19 June 2002.

xxii ‘China Dispatched 30 Z-9G helicopters to the Sino-Afghan Border to Prevent Terrorists from Entering China and to Annihilate Terrorists Associated with Eastern Turkestan’, loc.cit.; ‘PLA Dispatched 10 Additional Divisions to the Sino-Afghan Border’, loc.cit.

xxiii Lavrentiev, A.P. The International Workhorse – the Mi-17, located on the Kazan Helicopter Production Association website: profiles/ k/kvz/lavent.html, accessed on 26 February 2003.

xxiv ‘Mi-8/Mi-17 Hip – Multi-Mission helicopter’, Army Technology, projects/mi8t/specs. html accessed 10 November 2008; Grau, L.W. The Bear Went over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan, Foreign Military Studies office, Fort Leavenworth, 2005, p. 101.

xxv Pham, Nguyen & Tra, loc. cit.

xxvi Ibid., p. 131.

xxvii Li Youyou, ‘Paratroops are a Strategic Arm for Future Warfare’, Beijing Kongiun Bao, 16 April 2005.

xxviii Kiselev, Valeriy. ‘Acquired – Destroyed’, Armeyskiy Sbornik, Number 8-2001, pp. 35 – 39.

xxix “Eagle Owls’ Over Chechnya’, Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, Number 20, 21- 27 June 2002, p. 2.

xxx ‘Ruhe shishi jinju kongzhong zhiyuan’, Bingqi Zhishi, 2008 Niandi, 9A Qi, Zhongdi 252 Qi, pp. 16 – 19; ‘Mubiao miaozhuan mingzhong he cuihuide qubie’, Bingqi Zhishi, 2009 Niandi, 7A Qi, hongdi 272 Qi, pp. 16 – 19; ‘Ruhe gongji xiao mubiao’, Bingqi Zhishi, 2008 Niandi, 3 Qi, Zhongdi 245 Qi, pp. 16 – 19.

xxxi ‘Airborne Unit Begins Winter Drill to Retrain Troop’, Beijing Kongjun Bao, 11 December 2004; Wei Chun. “Battle on the Sea of Death Battlefield”, PLA Pictorial, 1 April 2005, pp. 28 – 31.

xxxii ‘China passes armed police law’, Chinese Military Online, 25 August 2009, http://eng.chinamil.comcn/news-channels/ china-military-news/2009-08/27/content_ 402931.htm accessed 28 August 2009.

xxxiii ‘Special operation members conduct anti terror training’, PLA Daily, 31 May 2011, accessed 7 June 2011.

xxxiv Renmin Gianxian, 28 January 2005.

xxxv Fazzhi Ribao, 4 January 2005.

xxxvi ‘China passes armed police law’, Chinese Military Online, August 25, 2009, http://eng.chinamil.comcn/news-channels/china-military-news/2009-08/27/content_ 402931.htm accessed August 28, 2009.

xxxvii ‘Special operation members conduct anti terror training’, PLA daily, May 31, 2011, accessed June 7, 2011.

xxxviii ‘Vietnam in ASEAN : Toward Cooperation for Mutual Benefits’, ASEAN Secretariat, 2014, economic-community/item/vietnam-in-asean-toward-cooperation-for-mutual-benefits accessed 27 June 2015.

xxxix ‘Jianzhi nansha ___ Yuejun zai nanhai zhengjun jingwu’, Tanke zhuangjia cheliang, 2011 Niandi, 8A Qi, Zhongdi 337, pp. 49 – 52.

xl ‘Yuejun tezhong budui zhuangbei xin dongxiang’, op.cit., pp. 31 & 32.

xli ‘Hecheng yingle zhi yide zhencha liliang’, Jiefangjun huabao, 2010 Niandi, 11 Qi, 8 Ri

xlii The Z-8JA requires better avionics and more powerful engines than currently installed to make it comparable to the Pave Low IV. ‘Tuxi xingdong jingguo’, Qing Bingqi, 2014 Niandi, 12 (xia) Qi, Zhongdi 429 Qi, pp. 40 & 41.

xlii.5 ‘Zhongguo 03 zidong buqiang’, Qing Bingqi, 2005 Niandi, 2 Qi, Zhongdi 193 Qi,pp. 32 – 35.

xliii ‘Amphibious frogmen in training’, PLA Dailyonline,12 March 2009, http:/ accessed 16 March 2009.

xliv ‘Zhonnguo haijun huajian biandui qingwuqi zhuangbei yu wunlian jiangying’, Qing Bingqi, 2012 Niandi,12 (shang) Qi, Zhongdi 385, pp. 2 & 3; ‘Zhongguo haijun “Jiao tujidui” paiolian jijing’, Qing Bingqi, 2013 Niandi, 2 (xia) Qi, Zhongdi 380, pp. 1 & 2.

xlv ‘Xinxing 5.8 gaojingdu juji buqiang & 88 shi juji buqiang’, Bingqi Zhishi, 2010 Niandi, 3A Qi, Zhongdi 288, pp. 42 & 43.

xlvi ‘Tiezhan gongji zhantou duixingde yuanyong jiji’, Qing Binqi, 2012 Niandi, 10 (xia) Qi, ‘Zhongdi 377, pp. 46 – 48; ‘Xinxing 5.8 gaojingdu juji buqiang & 88 shi juji buqiang’, Bingqi Zhishi, 2010 Niandi, 3A Qi, Zhongdi 288, pp. 42 & 43.

xlvii ‘Gangtie shi zheyonglian chende zoujin Zhoingguo tezhongbing’, Bingqi Zhishi, 2010 Niandi, 5A Qi, Zhongdi 293, pp. 50 – 53.

xlviii ‘Yuejun tezhong budui zhuangbei xin dongxiang’, op.cit., pp. 30 – 33.

xlix ‘QLT89A shi 50mm liudan dansheqi’, Qing Bingqi, 2007 Niandi, 10 (xia) Qi, Zhongdi 257, p. 3.

l Its role is similar to the British Army’s old 2-inch and 51mm platoon mortars. The 0.7kg HE fragmentation bomb has a minimum range of 200m , a maximum range of 800m and a lethal radius of 16m.

li ‘Yuejun tezhong budui zhuangbei xin dongxiang’, loc.cit.

lii Ibid., p. 33.

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  1. Konrad

    The American Nazi war machine killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Vietnamese people between 1954 and 1975.


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