135. Telegram From the Embassy in Thailand to the Department of State 1

12551. Subject: High Level Discussion with Thais Regarding Volunteer Program. Ref: State 166094.2

In order to transmit to the RTG ref decision authorizing our support for 36 volunteer battalions3 and to review the present status of the program, I met yesterday with Prime Minister Thanom, Deputy Prime Minister Praphat, Marshal Dawee, and Generals Phaithun and Boonchai (standing in for Surakij who is out of country). With me were Minister Newman [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. I recalled the Prime Minister’s discussion of a 36 volunteer battalion force level with Dr. Kissinger during the latter’s visit to Bangkok in July4 and noted our understanding that Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma had recently reiterated his request to the RTG that it undertake such an expansion of the program. I informed the Prime Minister that we are prepared to support 36 battalions subject only to the necessary legislative authorization of funds.
Having carefully reviewed since my return the slippage in the recruitment and training of the already authorized 24 battalion force and the severe losses by resignation, etc., among deployed battalions, I provided the Prime Minister with a rather detailed summary of the status of the program as we understand it. I explained to him that one of my purposes in doing so was to determine whether it is realistic and feasible at this time to engage in military and budgetary planning premised on the eventual availability of a 36 battalion force. My other purpose was to see that everything possible was being done to assure [Page 293]that we will be in a strong position to meet the anticipated heavy enemy pressures in Laos in the coming dry season.
I recalled that our mutually agreed schedule developed early in 1971 provided for 24 battalions to be deployed by the end of this calendar year. The last of these units were to go into training in October. There are now only 17 battalions in the field (actually the 17th will be deployed within the next several days); none are in training although we have been advised that two more battalions may start training later this month. If the original schedule is to be maintained, five more battalions must commence training before the end of October. This schedule, of course, was developed to assure the maximum possible force to repel the enemy’s effort in the upcoming dry season campaign.
The situation with respect to the actual on-board strength of units currently deployed is even more disturbing. The average onboard strength of deployed battalions is only about 55 percent of the authorized strength; approximately 7 percent are on authorized leave and expected to return; an additional 6 percent have been lost to battle casualties. More than 30 percent of the volunteers have resigned from their units or have gone AWOL. In sum, the units deployed in Laos are short more than 4,500 men. To replace these losses and to commence the training of five battalions before the end of October will require a drastic effort to meet what now appears to be a shortfall numbering approximately 7,000 men.
In this connection I noted that at the beginning of the last dry season campaign, before any of the irregular battalions were deployed, Thai forces organized into three regular battalions plus the Thai artillery units numbered about 3,000 men. Today the 8 volunteer infantry and two artillery SGU battalions available to General Vang Pao have a total strength of only slightly more than 2,800 (today there are also other Thai forces in Laos, of course). Considering the attrition that Vang Pao’s forces have suffered and the expected all-out effort on the part of the North Vietnamese during the coming dry season, there is deep concern that the forces available in MR2 will be woefully undermanned unless dramatic action is taken soon.
I suggested that it is not realistic for either of us to think in concrete terms of the formation and deployment of 36 battalions unless it is possible before the end of October to obtain enough volunteers to commence the training of the 24 battalions previously agreed to and in addition to providing replacements in the deployed battalions in sufficient quantities to bring these units up to at least 80 percent of their authorized strength level.
At this point I took note of the Prime Minister’s interest in developing a bonus system for men who have completed their tour of duty in Laos as an inducement to help with the recruiting program and [Page 294]to reduce the number of losses through resignation and other absenteeism. Discussions between [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] Bangkok and Vientiane on the one hand and the RTA staff and [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] on the other have resulted in the development of a scheme for a two part bonus system—one part to be paid to the volunteer for completing his duty and the other to be paid after reenlistment for a second tour. Though the funding of this proposal has not yet been completed, we are attempting to obtain expeditious action.
It has been our understanding that the tour of duty for each volunteer was 15 months after training. Recently we were advised that RTA headquarters has revised the tour length to be one year after training. The effect of this is to shorten the tour of duty by about 3 months. Since this might further exacerbate the recruitment problem and add an additional training burden, I inquired whether this decision to abbreviate the tour could be reconsidered.
Noting General Praphat’s concern that an adequate medevac capability be assured to handle the casualty problem during the next dry season campaign, I advised the Prime Minister that action has been taken to assure the availability of six helicopter gunships to escort medevac lift operations. We are now awaiting the identification of Thai helicopter pilots so that we can plan and institute as quickly as possible a training program. The identification of these pilots must be accomplished if they are to be gunship qualified by the time they are needed.
Finally, I called attention to the decision taken some time ago to man the Korat Friendship Hospital with sufficient RTA personnel to handle the major portion of Thai volunteer casualties. According to our information, the staffing of this hospital is going rather slowly and I requested that the problem be examined on the Thai side to make certain that adequate preparation is being made to assure proper medical support for the Thai volunteers.
In his response, the Prime Minister admitted that they had had a number of problems with the Thai volunteer effort. Morale among the volunteers has not been very good and one of the reasons for this is that the the men in the program see no future for themselves. The pay has been low and the fighting has been tough. The Prime Minister expressed his appreciation for the effort to get the bonus system approved. He feels this is essential to help keep the men in their units and to give a boost to the recruitment effort. For example, he noted that many of the volunteers from the Black Panthers returning from Vietnam are interested in the volunteer program but they are not attracted by the lower pay and loss of the other benefits which they had been receiving, including their mustering out payment at the end of their duty in Vietnam.
The Prime Minister praised the RTA for its efforts and said it is doing its best to recruit, but he expressed his regret that it has been unable to maintain the recruitment schedule and replace losses. He went on to say, with General Praphat nodding agreement, that the RTG would redouble its efforts and that it will have 24 battalions by the end of this calendar year. He needs help from us in obtaining prompt approval of the bonus system, but with that assistance, he feels certain that this target can be met. The Prime Minister, again with General Praphat in agreement, concluded this part of his comments by asking that we continue to plan and program for 12 additional battalions (36 battalion total) saying, “I guarantee we will do it.” I inquired whether a further boost to recruitment and retention of the program might be achieved by offering to those volunteers who perform successfully an opportunity for a career in the RTA. Dawee replied that they have been working on this and have already announced the performance, experience, and educational criteria for volunteers who wish to join the RTA. In order to open this opportunity to more men, the educational requirement has been reduced from Matayom Hok to Matayom See (equivalent respectively to 10th and 8th grades).
Dawee said that the Supreme Command is issuing an order to the various Thai services and will provide us very shortly with the identity of the pilots for gunship training.
The Thais strongly resisted our request to reconsider the decision already taken concerning the length of duty tours for volunteers. They noted that the men are kept on the line with little relief or leave. As Dawee said, “We can’t expect to keep them in the foxholes longer than 12 months.” A move now to restore the 15 month tour of duty after training would aggravate rather than help solve the recruitment and training program. In view of their strong feelings, I did not press this further, but pointed out that it made it even more essential to pursue recruiting with real vigor.
Finally, concerning the medical treatment of casualties, Praphat assured us that orders have gone to the RTA Surgeon General who is responsible for developing surgical and medical teams which can move quickly to Korat or elsewhere as needed. The RTA suffers from severe shortages in this field and it cannot man the Korat Hospital beyond the level of current needs. However, steps are being taken to identify and prepare the medical teams to move rapidly when the situation requires.
Comment: The atmosphere throughout the session was constructive and forward looking. Though my brief was implicitly critical of the shortcomings of Thai performance, it was received without recrimination and the spirit of the meeting evidenced Thai determination to solve their problems and meet the 36 volunteer battalion goal. General Praphat did note in passing at one point that in the early stages [Page 296]of the program there had been some shortages in support on the American side but he had no complaints concerning the current level of support, and his comment was made in the context of the need for mutual understanding of the problems that exist on both sides in an effort to make this program succeed.
I do not think that we should expect any miraculous recovery of the slippages which have already occurred. Unquestionably, however, Thai leadership is impressed and grateful for our continued support of the volunteer program and for our decision to expand it to the 36 battalion level if funds become available. Their success in the course of the next six to eight weeks in identifying and placing into training the remainder of the previously authorized 24 battalions should provide a pretty good index of their ability to reach the 36 battalion level in 1972. In the meantime, it is quite essential that we authorize promptly the bonus system as developed [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. It is my understanding that this can be accomplished within currently authorized program levels since it is quite clear that the average number of volunteers deployed is unlikely to exceed 80 percent of their authorized strength.
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 563, Country Files, Far East, Thailand, Vol. V. Secret; Priority; Nodis. Repeated to Vientiane.
  2. Attached but not printed was telegram 166094 to Bangkok, September 10, which requested Unger to inform the Thai Government that the U.S. Government would support 36 Thai SGU battalions for Laos and to urge them to accelerate recruitment of these forces so that they would “be of service during 1971–1972 dry season.” The telegram added that Unger should inform them “that implementation is contingent upon our continuing to have the necessary legislative authority,” noting that “restrictive amendments (concerning Thai volunteers in Laos) have been proposed in FY 72 defense procurement bill.”
  3. The decision to support 36 Thai SGU volunteer battalions for Laos was made at the August 10 WSAG meeting, when all agreed to Kissinger’s suggestion to “go ahead with the 12 additional Thai SGUs in the last quarter of this year.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–082, WSAG Meeting Laos, 8/10/71)
  4. See Document 127.