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The Role of the Helicopter in the Vietnam War


Army Aviation at War in Vietnam

South Vietnam was a country conducive to the use of the helicopter in both a tactical and nontactical environment. The country was bereft of an extensive road and highway system. The roads in existence often came under attack by the Viet Cong and/or North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which precluded or attenuated their use.

Besides this situation, the varied topography of South Vietnam, which included an extensive canopy of jungle, mountainous terrain, swamps, and an expansive delta should be considered; therefore, the helicopter was used for lift and support purposes.

Throughout the period of active U.S. participation in the Vietnam War (1965-1973), the Army and Marine divisions in country had organic helicopter units, as did a number of Army brigades that served in South Vietnam. American combat units normally were not in country very long before they were in the field, sometimes called the "bush," engaging the enemy.

Three things favored American ground forces: tactical mobility, firepower, and logistical support. All three were achieved with the helicopter.

The use of the helicopter in the Vietnam conflict was to change forever the American doctrine of tactical warfare. Helicopters were found to multidimensional. American combat units conducted tactical airmobile missions that included: insertions and extraction of ground forces; rescue of downed aviators; CAS with the UH-1 and AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships; aerial reconnaissance; and MEDEVAC missions, known as "dustoff" missions.

The MEDEVAC helicopter crews saved about 390,000 wounded American fighting menís lives during the Vietnam War. This figure was more than 10 times the number of American lives saved by helicopters in the Korean War.

Two reasons for this seemingly disparate statistic were that helicopters in the Vietnam War were able to carry more litter cases than the small H-13 helicopters (precursor of the OH-13E MEDEVAC) used during the Korean War. In addition, the Vietnam War itself was a longer war.

Finally, helicopters provided the majority of logistical support to troops in the field, fire bases, and isolated outposts throughout South Vietnam. Unique to this war was the fact that light and medium artillery could be lifted and moved, as needed, by helicopters from one fire base to another with reasonable alacrity. This capability saved American lives and was instrumental in thwarting enemy attacks.

However, the helicopter was not without its detractors. It seemed unit commanders often used the helicopter as an aerial command, control, and communications (C3) platform from which they surveyed the battlefield and communicated by radio to guide subordinate unit commanders on the ground. Many tacticians believed the commanderís place was on the ground with his troops.

Another criticism directed against airmobility was that it reduced the ability or desire of ground units to move on the ground against the enemy, fix him, and destroy him. Apparently, in the mindset of infantry commanders, it was easier to insert troops quickly; engage and defeat the enemy; extract the American troops and eventually repeat the same tactical process.

Some commanders posited the complaint that the extensive use of the helicopter in Vietnam, coupled with the noise of the aircraft, had served as nothing more than a timely warning device. The noise from the helicopter alerted the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese on the ground that American troops were coming into a specific area. This gave the enemy time either to stand and fight or disengage and withdraw to fight somewhere else at his time and choosing. The helicopter also was assailed as being too lightly armored to withstand ground fire.

Though there is merit to these criticisms, or what might be considered by some as cavils, it should be noted that: The terrain, along with the tactical and political dictums of the war, precluded the use of large numbers of American troops to occupy a position on the ground for an extended period of time. The enclave or fortress mentality, which troubled the French and brought about their defeat in the earlier Indo-China War, was not a desirable option.

As was previously mentioned, the terrain and surfeit of roads favored the defender, not the attacker. Movement on the ground, even with armored and artillery support, often was hazardous and time-consuming. The argument certainly can be made that tactical unit commanders should be on the ground with their troops. However, the tactical fluidity of the situation often necessitated having a unit commander airborne where he could make the proper decisions based on his aerial observations of what was happening on the ground.

Finally, it was true that the helicopter was lightly armored, noisy, and could, at sometimes did, compromise tactical situations by these shortcomings. Yet, it must be remembered, this war was unconventional war in many ways, and as mentioned earlier, favored not the attacker, but the defender. The use of the helicopter by the U.S. Army and USMC reduced markedly this defender advantage of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

With the implementation of the helicopter as an instrument of war during the Vietnam conflict, the new Army had to have a means whereby it could maintain tactical and administrative control of all of its divisional and nondivisional helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in Vietnam. The Army did this with the creation and use of the 1st Aviation Brigade, which served in Vietnam from May 1966 to March 1973. After that time, the 1st Aviation Brigade was sent to Fort Rucker, Ala., as a training brigade, until 1988 when it became a combat aviation regiment. While in Vietnam, the Brigade had under its suzerainty 4,000 rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft and 24,000 troops. During the war, the Aviation Brigade and its support units became involved in four significant tactical operations that warrant examination.

The first noteworthy tactical operation in which the Brigade wand its units became involved was the Tet Offensive from January to March 1968. In this operation the Brigade and its units responded to the precarious tactical situation wrought by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong armiesí sudden incursions into major cities throughout South Vietnam.

The 1st Aviation Brigade established airborne command and control (C2) operation. At the same time, successful counterinsurgency operations began that eventually drove the enemy out of the urban areas and restored the tactical status quo.

The second important operation involving Army Aviation units, in April 1968, was relief operation by the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) to lift the North Vietnamese Army seize of the embattled USMC base at Khe Sanh. Dubbed PEGASUS, the operation successfully combined airmobile operations and sustain road march by 1st Cavalry "Sky troopers" and Marine Corps units to lift the seize.

The third significant Army helicopter operation South Vietnam was the incursion of the American and South Vietnamese Armies into neighboring Cambodia in May 1970 to ferret out and destroy North Vietnamese units and their supply depots. The Armies were allowed to advance only 30 kilometers (km) into Cambodia because of a presidential order. However, the deployment into Cambodia was successful. The Armies uncovered a number of large ammunition and food caches. These caches were later transferred back to South Vietnam where they were either destroyed or, so far as food, given to local villagers.

The fourth and final important large-scale operation involving mass use of Army helicopters in South Vietnam was LAMSON 719, which took place from January to April 1971. This mid-intensity-level operation had as its mission the coordinated insertion of South Vietnamese troops by air and armored units into Laos to drive North Vietnamese regulars out of areas contiguous to the South Vietnamese border. American lift helicopters ferried South Vietnamese troops into Laos. Helicopter gunships provided CAS for the South Vietnamese and destroyed a number of North Vietnamese P-76 tanks. The Army suffered the loss of about 100 helicopters, most of which were shot down by Soviet-built 37 millimeter (mm), radar-directed, antiaircraft guns. Some helicopters were lost because of the pervasive inclement weather resulting from the monsoon season in Southeast Asia.

During LAMSON 719, Army helicopter pilots often were forced to fly in what at best could be discerned as marginal weather. Helicopters serving in the Vietnam War did not have tactical radar on board, so pilots had a difficult time flying during inclement weather. The fact that more helicopters were not lost during this operation was due, in large measure, to the flying skills and bravery of these pilots. LAMSON 719 itself incurred a great deal of controversy within and without military circles as to its efficacy and results. The operation served as a lessons learned report for the Army. It also brought out the need for the Army to have more heavily armed helicopters in such operations, and attendant and better close air coordination with the USAF.

During the Vietnam War, the Army had a number of helicopters in its inventory that played important roles during the conflict. The UH-1 Huey was a multifaceted aircraft serving as a troop carrier, gunship, MEDEVAC helicopter, and cargo carrier. The CH-47 Chinook and the CH-54 Sky Crane Tarhe were primarily supply, lift and transport helicopters.

The Army also had two observation helicopters that acquitted themselves well in South Vietnam. They were the OH-6 Cayuse (Loach) and the OH-58 Kiowa. However, the most formidable helicopter to serve in Vietnam was the AH-1 Cobra gunship, which first arrived in country in 1967. The Cobra carried wing mounted 7.62mm machineguns, 2.75-inch rocket launchers, a 40mm M75 grenade launcher, and an XM 134 minigun. It caused much havoc upon enemy units, equipment, and personnel during a period of service in South Vietnam. The Army still uses the AH-1.


Vietnam

Role of Helicopters

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This page last updated: 1/2/03
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