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By Joseph Trevithick,War Is Boring
As long as there’s been shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, the U.S. government has considered giving them to rebels. American commanders in the Pacific even once suggested pouring the weapons into Southeast Asia.
In 1958, the U.S. Army started work on the Redeye, the first ever man-portable surface-to-air missile. Three years later, the Pentagon debated whether the weapons could help end a crisis in Laos.
Communist and non-aligned rebels threatened an American-backed government. Soviet aircraft were funneling arms and equipment to the insurgents … and Washington wanted the planes taken out.
The immediate roots of the crisis dated to 1954, when France granted full independence to its colonies in Southeast Asia. Washington backed the new government in Laos — as it did in South Vietnam and Cambodia — as a hedge against Soviet expansionism.
The Central Intelligence Agency also supported the fiercely independent Hmong ethnic group in the countryside. But in December 1960, Laos descended into civil war after a failed coup attempt. With the Cold War in full swing, the Soviet Union rushed to shuttle aid to its own allies in the small nation.
The Kremlin threw its weight behind the Pathet Lao — the country’s communist insurgency — and the Neutralists. This latter group wanted to avoid picking any side in the global political arena.
American-trained paratrooper Kong Le of the Neutralist faction had led the attempt to overthrow the government. Now a rebel and having alienated the United States, the young captain understood his troops couldn’t fight without getting support from somewhere.
Seeing no other option, the Neutralists quickly sent a delegation to neighboring North Vietnam to plead their case to Soviet representatives. With Moscow’s support, Kong Le’s troops briefly captured and held the Laotian capital, Vientiane.
“The Russians began to support Kong Le … boasting that it was the USSR’s highest-priority supply operation since World War II,” Joe F. Leeker wrote in the monograph Air America in Laos II — Military Aid.
Soviet transport planes made more than 30 trips to Laos in the two weeks following the coup, according to Leeker. But in spite of the aid, loyalist troops ejected Kong Le’s men from the capital within a month.
The Neutralists and the Pathet Lao shifted their main base north to the Plain of Jars. “The Soviet airlift … transformed the Plain of Jars into a vast armed camp,” according to the Library of Congress Federal Research Division report.
Along with weapons and other supplies, Moscow’s Il-14 and Li-2 transports delivered North Vietnamese troops to reinforce the rebel coalition. On the other hand, the Royal Lao Air Force had no combat aircraft of any kind. The Pentagon rushed six T-6 Texan trainers armed with machine guns to give Lao flyers something to work with.
Rebels quickly shot down one of these World War II vintage single-engined propeller planes. Washington needed a real solution to the communist “air bridge.”
Enter the Redeye.
More than seven months after the coup, the head of U.S. Pacific Command “recommended … consideration be given to providing the Red Eye [sic] weapon … to the Meo or selected FAL regular units,” according to a chronology produced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“FAL” is the French acronym for the Laotian Armed Forces. At the time, “Meo” was an official term for the Hmong, who consider this term to be a derogatory slur.
After running into difficulties designing large, radar-directed anti-aircraft guns in the 1950s, the U.S. Army had decided to go in a different direction. In response to the ground combat branch’s demands, the Convair aircraft company combined technology from the still-new Sidewinder missile.
The result was a relatively lightweight guided weapon a single soldier could carry and shoot. The name “Redeye” came from the infrared sensor in the missile’s nose.
We don’t know the exact reason behind the request, but Pacific Command no doubt figured the new weapons would give Laotian troops or Hmong guerrillas an edge. The propeller-driven Soviet transports didn’t have the speed or maneuverability to dodge much of anything … let alone missiles.
Laos’ rugged terrain would have made it difficult to move larger anti-aircraft guns into position. The heat-seeking Redeyes would have been far easier to aim and more likely to hit their marks.
There were a few problems, though.
A month after receiving the request, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to wait and see how the missiles performed in upcoming tests. The Army was having trouble getting the weapons to work. Even after two years of development, “it had become obvious that the Redeye was a very intricate missile system requiring an application of technology which clearly pushed the state of the art,” an official Pentagon history of the missile explained.
Washington was also worried about its secrets getting out. If Lao rebels captured a Redeye, the weapon would inevitably work its way to Moscow. On top of that, American diplomats worried about escalating the conflict. Introducing a new high-tech weapon could easily provoke an even stronger Soviet response.
In the end, it took another six years for the Army just to get the first missiles into service. In the meantime, Washington decided that weapons — including the Redeyes — weren’t going to help the beleaguered Lao troops.
Despite superior numbers and help from Hmong forces, the FAL had failed to make any serious gains against Kong Le’s troops during more than a year of fighting. Fearing the Pathet Lao would be able to easily take over, Washington pushed the loyalists into forming a political coalition.
A tenuous peace followed as both Moscow and Washington continued to secretly aid their respective allies. By 1964, the coalition government had completely broken down, and the alliance between the Neutralists and the Pathet Lao became irrevocably fractured.
Within the Neutralist movement, factions began choose sides — something that wasn’t very … neutral. Kong Le’s troops joined together with the Royal Armed Forces to fight his former compatriots.
The Pentagon began a massive, secret bombing campaign in the country that would continue for the next eight years. The American-backed Hmong army swelled in size.
After more than a decade of back-and-forth battles, with the help of Hanoi’s troops, the Pathet Lao finally took over the country. Many Hmong fled the country and settled in the United States.
American air power had complete control of the skies over Laos during the war. And with the Soviet air bridge gone, Washington had no reason to send shipments of Redeyes to Lao forces — even when the missiles were finally ready to go.