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The Helicopter's Grim Future in Modern Combat
The Helicopter's Grim Future in Modern Combat


This article is provided courtesy of DefenseWatch, the official magazine for Soldiers For The Truth (SFTT), a grass-roots educational organization started by a small group of concerned veterans and citizens to inform the public, the Congress, and the media on the decline in readiness of our armed forces. Inspired by the outspoken idealism of retired Colonel David Hackworth, SFTT aims to give our service people, veterans, and retirees a clear voice with the media, Congress, the public and their services.

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December 3, 2003

[Have an opinion about the views expressed in this article? Sound off in the Hot Issues with Defensewatch Forum.]

By Ralph Omholt

Despite our rapid defeat of the Iraqi army last spring, one clear lesson that has emerged from both the combat and occupation phases of the war is that the entire concept of helicopter operations in battle is undermined by their extreme vulnerability to ground fire.

Unlike our experience in the jungles and wooded mountains of Vietnam, the helicopter is a prime and easy target in desert and urban warfare environments such as we have seen in Somalia, and are still seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The combat record of the helicopter in Vietnam was different from subsequent battlefields. That was true by virtue of the limitations of the Viet Cong-NVA firing accuracy, the limitations of their weaponry - including quantity - and the visual limitations of the jungle or forests which served to protect the helicopters flying overhead.

It was also true that the UH-1 Huey was a simple and tough helicopter, easily repaired. The application of the helicopter was uniquely successful in a unique environment. And, their relatively low cost ensured that quantity was rarely a factor.

The harsh reality is that today the helicopter is a terrible choice of troop transport or firepower against any competent or well-equipped force - of any size.

Whether in Mogadishu 10 years ago or Iraq today, the helicopter equation has changed for the worse. Typically, the adversary's ground arms are more available. And whether by luck or skill, the effectiveness of enemy ordnance is far greater than that experienced in Vietnam.

While the details remain unclear eight months after the fact, the only major battle in the Iraq war centered on U.S. attack helicopters ended in mission failure. The raid involved 40 AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters that attacked Iraqi Republican Guard units south of Baghdad on March 24. One was shot down (the two crewmen taken prisoner) and 30 returned to base having sustained severe damage. The Washington Post subsequently reported:
"In attacking a formation of about 40 Apache Longbows on Monday, the Iraqis staged a classic helicopter ambush first perfected by the North Vietnamese in the 1960s. As the lethal, tank-killing aircraft approached on a mission to destroy the Medina Division's dispersed armor, troops dispersed throughout a palm-lined residential area and opened fire with antiaircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades and a wall of fire from rifles and other small arms. ... "The Iraqi fire was so intense that the Apaches had to break off their mission and return to base."

The results of that failed mission strongly suggest that the modern helicopter is a battlefield liability, versus such close air support aircraft as the A-10.

The Iraqis in 2003 seemed to have adapted a lesson from the Afghani resistance that fought the Soviets more than 20 years ago and was repeated over Mogadishu in 1993: The art of downing a helicopter is a well-known methodology - lure and destroy.

Of particular concern to the helicopter pilot today is the time-tested Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG). They are cheap and effective weapons. "Close" counts with RPGs, given their 4.2-second time-fuse and associated 900-meter burst-range (lacking physical contact), ensures that a volley of RPG firings will be effective against the frailty of a helicopter's main or tail rotor.

Second, the electronic frailty of the modern helicopter leaves an exposed Achilles heel. Packed with "black box" components, wire bundles and sensors, the modern helicopter is at a terrible disadvantage against a machine gun or even an ordinary rifleman's bullet. Beyond the combat scene, the maintenance factor for modern UH-60 or AH-64 helicopters is also a major challenge, compared with the Huey or CH-47 Chinook from the Vietnam era. Given the limited numbers of helicopters, ground time is the greatest expense and also a liability.

A third element of weakness involves the matter of budgetary limits on basic airmanship and training flights. Time and again, the events surrounding the helicopter accidents and combat losses show a distinct pattern of inadequate training in basic flying skills, judgment and tactics. Whether a high-altitude accident or a midair collision, certain truths stand out. There should be no doubt that part of this problem stems from unrealistic expectations by mission planners.

The modern helicopter pilot finds more demand on his/her data management skills than airmanship. The dollar expense of "blade time" additionally detracts from the skill of the pilots, through non-currency and total experience in actual flight.

Unfortunately, in a combat zone, the smart pilot must deviate from the "standardization" of the infamous "classroom solution," even as it pertains to safety. Landing into the wind is suicide if an enemy gunner is awaiting just that arrival. Since there are multiple forms of combat scenarios, a simple set of tactics is impossible to devise.

Still, there are a number of tactics that can help protect helicopters from enemy ground forces:

  1. Alter any takeoff and landing directions from known or predictable helipads.
  2. Never fly a predictable or constant schedule, route, course, altitude, "race-track" or other any other identifiable or easily predictable flight path. That includes constant hovering positions, including "nap-of-the-earth" flight.
  3. Never follow a predictable altitude or route, including rivers, canyons, streets or roads, for any length of time.
  4. Evade any population centers, such as a town or village.
  5. If these rules must be compromised, arrange for effective fighter cover and rescue capability.
  6. In multi-ship missions, allow at least 500 meters between aircraft, so as to allow all aircraft room to maneuver without risking collision or restriction of defensive gunnery. That includes the basic airmanship of always turning, so as to view a clear spot, whether climbing, descending or staying level.
  7. Vary any insertion or extraction tactics as well as those of support aircraft and their stand-off defensive coverage.
  8. Be aware that helicopters have no significant surprise element, given their speed and noise. Thus, pilots must be aware that going into an unprepared LZ is extremely dangerous. This is especially true if the LZ presents itself as a predictable insertion point, particularly if a "pathfinder" is not used. One landmine can destroy a helicopter and its mission.
  9. Be certain during night operations that a minimum of light from the ground - as simple as a trash-fire barrel - will illuminate the rotor blades, marking the helicopter as an easy target.
  10. Never fly a mission without overwhelming firepower in immediate reserve, whether artillery or air cover. That includes rescue capability.
In light of the above helicopter limitations, the U.S. military is proceeding to repeat the current crisis by fielding the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Many news reports over the past five years have cited the aircraft as unsafe in any environment. The FAA won't certify its use for civilians, yet the Marine Corps and Air Force Special Operations Command are preparing to entrust the fate of America's finest combat troops to an aircraft that begs of disaster.

A schedule of design changes and flight tests have supposedly ironed out some of the MV-22's problems. However, critics who study the flight history of the Osprey cannot shake a deep suspicion that its basic flight parameters will prove fatal on the modern battlefield. Just one identified limit, the Osprey's maximum descent rate, is so slow as to leave it a sitting duck for any amount of rifle fire alone.

Beyond the risk of life, the MV-22 also comes with an increasingly exorbitant starting price tag - $68 million apiece - independent of such factors as combat maintenance and repair. Worse, its marginal suitability compromises any mission effectiveness.

The final issue regarding helicopters on the battlefield comes down to an unpleasant premise. The United States may not always be conducting war with a third-world country. It is clear that any competent army armed with sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry or aviation assets, will quickly drive our fleet of attack and reconnaissance helicopters from the sky, rendering them to a marginal role as a vehicle used for air evacuation and mop-up operations.

It remains to be seen whether senior U.S. military leaders have the awareness and moral courage to recognize how endangered military helicopters have become.

Ralph Omholt is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at skydrifter@comcast.net. 2003 DefenseWatch. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.



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