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.
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
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:
Alter any takeoff and landing directions from known or predictable
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.
Never follow a predictable altitude or route, including rivers,
canyons, streets or roads, for any length of time.
Evade any population centers, such as a town or village.
If these rules must be compromised, arrange for effective fighter
cover and rescue capability.
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.
Vary any insertion or extraction tactics as well as those of
support aircraft and their stand-off defensive coverage.
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.
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.
Never fly a mission without overwhelming firepower in immediate
reserve, whether artillery or air cover. That includes rescue
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