Putting the Enemy Back in CAS: An Argument for Flexible Tactics in Close Proximity

Putting the Enemy Back in CAS: An Argument for Flexible Tactics in Close Proximity

By Major E. Aaron Brady

Boar 81, we’ve got approval to strike the convoy you found. This will be Type 2 control, single GBU-38s, 30-second spacing, attack from the north. Your target is a column of vehicles near coordinates 123 456. Nearest friendlies are 40 kilometres east. Expect weapons clearance on final…

Introduction

The situation described above is becoming increasingly common in US and NATO air operations. Aircrew found a legitimate target in an area in which risk of fratricide is nil, yet the strike is being closely controlled by ground personnel hundreds of kilometres away via satellite radio and using Close Air Support (CAS) procedures. The trouble with this example – based on an actual occurrence during Operation INHERENT RESOLVE – Is that it illustrates the US military’s misapplication of CAS procedures to situations for which those procedures were not designed. This issue largely stems from two factors: a continued inability to resolve tensions inherent in operational frameworks (how we divide battlespaces up for command and control purposes) and weaknesses within United States and European doctrine that cleaves all air-to-surface operations against enemy military capabilities into either Air Interdiction (AI) or Close Air Support (CAS) categories.

The framework issue is discussed often, and therefore largely ignored in this article.[1] However, the doctrine issue remains mostly unaddressed. The main notable exception is a 2005 RAND study entitled Beyond Close Air Support.[2] More importantly, the flaws in the doctrinal models reflect deeper issues with the theoretical foundation western militaries use to understand air-to-surface operations. This article attempts to resolve this issue by presenting a more nuanced theory of counterland operations by examining the differences between the CAS mission and CAS procedures as well as addressing why this difference matters.

Understanding the purpose of CAS and the intent of CAS tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) as codified in US Joint Publication (JP) 3-09.3 Close Air Support helps one recognise that CAS TTPs are intended to mitigate the risk of fratricide. However, the CAS mission is focused entirely on affecting an enemy in close support of a friendly land force. This, in turn, suggests that while many air actions may fall under the purview of the CAS mission, only a subset of these missions require the level of control typically used. The current poor understanding will create significant issues if the US or NATO fights a peer adversary. Ground commanders, Tactical Air Control Parties (TACP), and aircrew should foster a culture of flexible TTP application based on risk assessment to enable a more effective tempo depending on the specific operational environment.

AR.2002.115
Nicknamed the ‘Hun,’ the F-100 Super Sabre was possibly the best-known USAF close air support aircraft in the Southeast Asia War. Here, a forward air controller in an OV-10 directs these two F-100s in accurately delivering firepower in support of the ground forces. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

Examining Definitions of CAS

Determining what defines CAS as a mission begins with JP 3-09.3 Close Air Support, which views CAS as an action by fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft against targets in close proximity to friendly forces which require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.[3] The two key phrases most often keyed upon by CAS-focused communities like the TACP and A-10 tribes in the US Air Force are ‘close proximity’ and ‘detailed integration.’

Interestingly, the NATO definition of CAS includes the same definition almost word for word but adds that TTPs are executed ‘for fratricide avoidance and targeting guidance performed by a […] Forward Air Controller.’[4] British air and space power doctrine does not include detailed integration in its most basic definition but notes that ‘intensive air-land integration and coordination’ is necessary for fratricide prevention and target identification.[5]  Most other American allies match either the NATO or US definition. The US and its allies, therefore, agree that the mission of CAS is airstrikes in close proximity to ground forces and that detailed integration is needed. However, most allied doctrine notes explicitly that the purpose of detailed integration is to either mitigate fratricide risk or enable target correlation.

Close proximity is clearly a subjective term. Close means one thing to an infantry unit defending urban terrain and something entirely different to an armoured formation attacking through a desert. Doctrine even describes close as situational.[6] Likewise, detailed integration may encompass entirely different issues depending on the situation. So, even though these two clauses are the cited hallmarks of CAS, one cannot easily list out the explicit characteristics required to meet the conditions because they are too situationally dependent. JP 3-09.3 even states that when deciding if a mission should be considered CAS or not, ‘the word ‘close’ does not imply a specific distance […] The requirement for detailed integration because of proximity, fires, or movement is the determining factor.’[7] Therefore, even though proximity is considered one of the two main factors, the emphasis for describing CAS is detailed integration.

Three main elements drive a need for detailed integration: proximity, fires, or movement. These elements are multifaceted in the ways they influence air-ground integration. Proximity presents the most obvious issue in CAS: risk of fratricide. There is also a risk to the aircraft due to their proximity to surface-based fires which requires mitigation. Proximity further mixes with fires and movement to suggest another theme not mentioned in any of the definitions. Airstrikes occurring within a land commander’s area of operations (AO) may have a considerable impact on future actions by the effect those strikes may have on the enemy, the terrain, or civilians. These effects might be long-term, such as the destruction of crucial infrastructure or critical damage to military equipment, or short-term like the psychological effect of a large airstrike on an enemy unit. In either case, the land commander must both approve the strikes – in a sense ‘buying’ the effects of the attack – and ensure that the effects facilitate the overall operation. Considering fires and movement, the intent of CAS is to strike targets that directly enable the land scheme of maneuver. Doctrine hints at some of these points. This discussion highlights a weakness prevalent in all the doctrinal definitions of CAS that feeds into the misunderstandings throughout the US and allied forces: the definitions describe what CAS is, not the purpose of CAS. This is due in no small part to the way that most doctrine organises the various missions of air power.

The Counterland Doctrinal Framework

Once again, there is a large degree of consensus between the US and its allies over air power’s mission structure. US JP 3-0 Joint Operations simply classifies most air power missions within the various joint functions; most of the subjects discussed in this essay naturally fall under fires. In contrast, NATO doctrine creates a hierarchy of air missions. Air attack encompasses most missions which directly influence an enemy. One subset of attack is counter-surface force operations, under which falls air power contribution to counterland operations, which in turn incorporates two missions: AI and CAS.

UK doctrine closely aligns with NATO thinking. The US Air Force theory lies between the US joint doctrine and European concepts. It describes all-action intended to influence an enemy’s land forces as counterland which includes just two sub-missions: AI and CAS. The US Marine Corps presents a slightly different perspective. Marine thinking classifies six functions of Marine aviation, one of which is offensive air support (OAS). OAS incorporates CAS and deep air support (DAS), which includes AI, armed reconnaissance, and strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR). Of note, Marine doctrine states explicitly that ‘detailed integration is accomplished using positive control’ and that ‘positive control is provided by terminal controllers [JTACs].’[8] This listing shows that, except for US joint and Marine Corps doctrine, militaries tend to organise CAS and AI under a broader counterland concept (see Figure 1). Therefore, most US and NATO service members view CAS as a subset of a counterland concept.

Doctrine Models (JPG)
Figure One

CAS, as shown earlier, occurs close enough to friendly land forces that strikes require detailed integration. AI – the other half of counterland operations – occurs far enough away that this level of integration is unnecessary. Adopting a more conceptual view, the larger counterland mission set is enemy-centric – any counterland mission focuses on affecting an enemy’s combat system. AI and CAS, though, are friendly-centric – the doctrinal difference between the two lies in the level of integration mandated by the proximity of friendly land forces. Harkening back to the earlier identification of fratricide risk as to the primary reason demanding detailed integration with target nomination as a close second, we arrive at the crux of the issue.

To solve these two problems, CAS is differentiated from AI in that while executing CAS, aircrew does not have weapons release authority. By mandating that the land force commander must approve target nomination and weapons release and because the land commander is the authority for expenditure of weapons in the assigned area of operations, the various systems seek to resolve the two critical issues associated with airstrikes near friendly land forces. This clarification enables one to define the purpose of the CAS mission while still acknowledging the characteristics that separate it from AI.

The Purpose of CAS: A Mission-Based Definition

CAS is an air mission flown in close support of land forces to disrupt, degrade, or destroy enemy forces. These enemy forces are in close enough proximity to friendly land forces that risk mitigation mandates detailed coordination between the air and land forces. This definition does not roll off the tongue as easily as the current definition in JP 3-09.3 but does address both what the CAS mission is in addition to its characteristics and requirements. By creating a definition that addresses the purpose of CAS, we introduced the key elements that form the basis for CAS procedures.

Evaluating CAS Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

CAS TTPs intend to mitigate the risk of fratricide and integrate air effects into a larger fire support plan by efficiently nominating, correlating, and approving weapons release against targets. A process termed Terminal Attack Control accomplishes this goal, hence the name for the person that controls CAS strikes, the JTAC. Standardised communication – most notably the CAS Briefing, referred to as the 9-Line – and specific weapons release authorities and parameters combine to achieve the overall intent. Compared to defining the purpose of CAS, deducing what CAS TTPs intend to do is simple. However, two major presumptions within the CAS TTPs are not readily plain and may cause issues in a large-scale conflict. These concerns drive the overall conclusion that there is a disconnect between the intent of CAS and the procedures laid out in current doctrine.

First, CAS procedures are almost entirely reactive. One can argue that planned CAS is an exception to this, but two factors reduce the strength of this claim. In this author’s decade of experience practising CAS, preplanned missions were far and away the exception rather than the norm. Mike Benitez’s article ‘How Afghanistan Distorted CAS’ shows that my experience is typical. Further, unless the plan includes detailed restrictions and weapons release authority, TACP and aircrew must still resort to using the entirety of CAS TTPs even during a planned mission. Nevertheless, in my experience reactive TTPs are so ingrained that even when strikes are planned in detail, both the controllers and aircrew have difficulty merely executing the plan. Decades of experience in the Middle East created a sense within the minds of both parties that 9-Lines need to be passed and confirmed on the radio even if there are no changes to the plan.

In stark contrast to aircrew performing AI, there is a limited ability within this paradigm for CAS aircrew to exercise initiative during battle. Since CAS is doctrinally a form of fire support, at first, this seems reasonable. However, on closer inspection, it should cause concern for several reasons. None of the doctrinal models with the notable exception of JP 3-0 specifies CAS as a form of fire support – it is air attack against land forces near friendly forces. This suggests that either the doctrinal models are flawed or that CAS is a distinct mission that happens to provide fire support, not a fire support mission that happens to be conducted by aircraft. Putting that point aside, ground-based fire support may conduct any number of missions with some level of internal initiative. Artillery raids or counter-battery fire are two examples. Further, harkening back to the doctrinal model point, CAS is quite different from other forms of fire support.

If lethal fire support for land maneuver is broadly divided into the categories of CAS and artillery, note that virtually all forms of artillery employ indirectly. That is, the artillery crew aimed at a location derived and passed from another source. CAS aircrew, on the other hand, receives target information from the JTAC and aim or guide the munitions themselves. Apart from bombing on coordinates, a technique not commonly used, CAS aircrew perform the aerial equivalent of aiming a rifle at the assigned target. Thus, even though they might be dropping a bomb from several miles distant, the aircrew is employing a direct-fire system as compared to other, indirect forms of fire support.

This distinction is significant because it shows that in many cases aircrew, unlike artillery operators, have the capability to find their own targets independent of specific target nominations from a controller. In recent years, CAS practitioners even added guidance to the doctrine explaining how CAS aircrew could nominate a target to a JTAC then receive a nomination and weapons release authority for the same target.

Going back to the concept of reactivity, one should now see the first issue clearly. CAS procedures, as an adjunct of fire support procedures, are inherently reactive. However, aircrew, unlike artillery operators, can identify targets independently. Therefore, the possibility exists that CAS can be performed proactively, given the right circumstances and presuming risk to friendly forces is mitigated. This suggests that the doctrinal models are correct: CAS is a distinct counterland mission that has fire support characteristics but is not inherently a fire support mission that happens to be performed by aircraft. If one accepts this notion, then we necessarily come to the second presumption behind extant CAS doctrine.

The reactive nature of CAS rests on the idea that detailed integration and risk mitigation are best accomplished through the close control of individual targets and, in most cases, individual attacks. This may be proper in many cases. In some cases, though, a single target or target set may require multiple attacks. This notion is part of the rationale behind Type 3 control in current doctrine, in which the land force commander approves multiple strikes on the same target. This type of control is still inherently reactive. However, with enough planning and an appropriate command and control capability, forces may be able to conduct CAS with a level of initiative unheard of today. Therein lies the problem with the mindset prevalent in the US military today.

A-10 Aerial Refueling
A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft conduct a combat air patrol mission over an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, 21 September 2019. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The Grey Area between AI and CAS

While the earlier discussion showed that all counterland missions are inherently enemy-centric, but the difference between CAS and AI revolves around friendly land dispositions. AI is performed in areas in which the risk to friendly land forces is nil and therefore, only minimal integration is required. CAS, on the other hand, is performed in areas where the risk of fratricide exists and detailed integration into the land fires scheme is required. In practice, this means that battlespaces are cleanly divided into AI and CAS areas by the Fire Support Coordination Line (FSCL). Virtually any US doctrinal manual that discusses the FSCL conveys that the FSCL is not a dividing line between AI and CAS TTPs, but instead ‘delineates coordination requirements for the joint attack of surface targets.’[9] The line is closer to a command and control border than anything else. However, for all intents and purposes the mindset discussed at length that aircraft operating within a land component area of operations are conducting CAS, the FSCL becomes a border between AI and CAS areas. While joint doctrine attempts to negate this thinking.

Accepting the argument regarding CAS TTPs are inherently reactive, one sees how the FSCL creates a zone where aircraft can operate proactively and a second zone in which aircraft must function entirely reactively. The problem is the size of the second zone. During the major combat phase of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the US Army often placed the FSCL more than 100 kilometres from friendly troops.[10] Obviously, friendly forces were at basically zero risks of fratricide if aircraft struck targets that far away. Additionally, most surface-to-surface fires were shot at targets well short of that distance.

Recent Warfighter exercises indicate that FSCLs today are often placed about thirty to 40 kilometres from the friendly lines.[11] Even in this battlefield geometry, there is still a sizeable portion of the battlespace between the friendly front and the FSCL in which the risk of aircraft causing fratricide is minimal. This article does not address the operational framework concerns raised by this example, i.e., where should the line be, or should there be other coordination lines? Instead, this author posits that regardless of how a force organises a battlespace there will be a grey area.

This grey area is entirely subjective and based on the context of each individual battlespace. When analysing a battlefield, one can usually clearly lay out the areas near friendly troops where CAS procedures must be used to mitigate risk to friendly forces and integrate air strikes into the larger fires plan. One can also clearly see the areas in which no risk is present to friendly troops and the need for detailed integration into the fires plan is nil – the AI area. However, there will be many areas on the map that do not fit neatly into either category. These areas might be far enough away from friendly troops that fratricide risk is low but still close enough that detailed integration is required to deconflict aircraft with surface-to-surface fires.

Alternatively, there might be areas that, due to the nature of the terrain or the friendly scheme of maneuver, are relatively close on the map (say within a few kilometres) but the risk of fratricide is nevertheless quite low. These two simple examples illustrate the notion that between CAS and AI is a nebulous area that can be found in many battlespaces. The pressing concern for US and NATO CAS practitioners is to learn to conduct proactive CAS in these grey areas to achieve the purpose of CAS while retaining enough control to accomplish the intent of current CAS TTPs.

Finding Solutions to Enable Proactive CAS

The extant CAS paradigm relies on the idea that CAS fires must be reactive. A reactive mindset, however, is not conducive to success in a modern battlespace in which the speed of decision-making is paramount. The paradigm should allow for aircrew to proactively achieve the purpose of CAS – disrupting, degrading, and destroying enemy forces per a land maneuver commander’s intent and with minimal risk to friendly forces. The 2019 US JP 3-09 Joint Fire Support identifies the criticality of fast-paced decision-making in modern combat, emphasising that joint fire effects are best achieved through ‘decentralized execution based on mission-type orders.’[12] A myriad of options to do this is already within US doctrine.

The joint force could incorporate the US Marine Corps concept of the Battlefield Coordination Line into joint doctrine. This line allows land commanders to simply denote where the risk to friendly forces is low enough to justify AI TTPs. Whether land commanders and TACP utilise preplanned 9-Lines with Type 3 control, engagement areas with specific restrictions attached, or even restricted fire areas, the possibilities for enabling initiative to abound. If targets appear outside those areas, or the ground situation changes, then switch to close control of individual attacks. Nonetheless, in large conflicts, allow CAS aircrew to achieve the intent of CAS by providing enough freedom of action to enable initiative. US forces should foster a mindset that emphasises the concepts of mission command and decentralised execution – delegate decision-making authority to the lowest appropriate level. The simple fact is that US forces in all domains must make decisions faster than the enemy. A reactive CAS mindset virtually ensures a slow decision cycle. A proactive perspective, with proper risk mitigation, allows for thinking aircrew to engage the enemy faster with commensurate effects on the enemy’s tempo.

Conclusion

In summary, let’s review the key takeaways. First, counterland missions affect an enemy’s land military capabilities and consist of AI and CAS subsets. The only difference between these two is that CAS is executed in close proximity to friendly forces while AI is distant enough that detailed integration is not needed. Second, the purpose of CAS TTPs is to facilitate target nomination and mitigate risk to friendly ground troops. Third, the current US mindset is that a CAS mission must be controlled using individual 9-Lines for every target regardless of actual risk to friendly forces. The disconnect between the first two points and the third point creates a potentially dangerous concoction for CAS effectiveness during future major conflicts.

Land commanders, TACP, and CAS aircrew should train now to using various control methods to enable initiative on the part of aircrew. Whether that means more sophisticated uses of fire support coordination measures or learning to transition between CAS and AI TTP control methods flexibly is irrelevant. The point is to learn now, on bloodless training grounds, how to delegate initiative to the lowest levels to make decisions as rapidly as possible. The lessons learned today at Combat Training Centers and countless air-to-surface ranges around North American and Europe concerning how to conduct proactive CAS missions will pay dividends in a potential future conflict.

Major E. Aaron ‘Nooner’ Brady is a student at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. He graduated from the US Air Force Academy with a BS in History in 2006. He is a graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School A-10 course and is a senior pilot with more than 1,800 hours including more than 360 combat hours.

Header Image: A US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II maneuvers through the air during Red Flag-Alaska 19-2 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, June 17, 2019. The exercise provides counter-air, interdiction and close air support training in a simulated combat environment. (Source: US Department of Defense)

[1] Mike Benitez, ‘How Afghanistan Distorted Close Air Support and Why it Matters,’ War on the Rocks, 29 June 2016; Clay Bartels, Tim Tormey, Jon Hendrickson, ‘Multidomain Operations and Close Air Support: A Fresh Perspective,’ Military Review, 97:2 (2017), pp. 70-9.

[2] Bruce R. Pirnie, Alan Vick, Adam Grissom, Karl P. Mueller, David T. Orletsky, Beyond Close Air Support: Forging a New Air-Ground Partnership (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2005).

[3] Joint Publication (JP) 3-09.3 – Close Air Support (Washington DC, US Joint Staff: Department of Defense, 2019), p. I-1.

[4] Allied Joint Publication 3.3(B) – Allied Joint Doctrine for Air and Space Operations (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Standardization Office, 2017), p. 1-11.

[5] Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) 0-30 – UK Air and Space Power, Second Edition (Shrivenham: Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre, 2017) p. 34

[6] JP 3-09.3, p. I-2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Marine Corps Reference Publication 1-10.1 – Organization of the United States Marine Corps (Washington DC:, Department of the Navy, 2016), p. 6-1.

[9] JP 3-09, Joint Fire Support (Washington DC: Department of Defense, 2019), p. A-5.

[10] Pirnie et al, Beyond Close Air Support, p. 68.

[11] Travis Robison and Alex Moen, ‘Reinventing the Wheel: Operational Lessons Learned by the 101st Division Artillery during Two Warfighter Exercises,’ Military Review, 96:4 (July-August 2016), p. 75.

[12] JP 3-09, Joint Fire Support, p. IV-1.

#BookReview – Harnessing the Airplane: American and British Cavalry Responses to a New Technology, 1903–1939

#BookReview – Harnessing the Airplane: American and British Cavalry Responses to a New Technology, 1903–1939

Reviewed by Dr Tyler Morton

Lori Henning, Harnessing the Airplane: American and British Cavalry Responses to a New Technology, 1903–1939. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. Figures. Tables. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xi + 224pp.

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The advent of flying craft was, without doubt, a threat to the long-established roles of ground forces. Most historians are familiar with the intra- and inter-service battles that raged during the early days of aviation, but rare are the works that dive into specific details within the various army branches. Seeking to fill that historiographical gap, Lori Henning’s meticulously researched book does just that.

Harnessing the Airplane tells the story of how cavalrymen in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) dealt with the integration of aircraft – and to a lesser degree, the tank – into their branch. Analysing the first four decades following the aircraft’s invention, Henning shows that cavalrymen generally accepted the new technology, but were cautious about relinquishing the cavalry’s reconnaissance mission too hastily. Instead, the cavalry sought to experiment with aircraft to find ways to improve the reconnaissance service they provided to ground commanders.

Chapter one, ‘State of Affairs,’ sets the stage for the following analysis. In this chapter, Henning provides brief histories of the US and British cavalries. This baseline helps explain why both services saw the integration of the aircraft differently. The US cavalry embraced a wide range of missions and used the horse primarily for mobility purposes. This view of how to use horses led to strong resistance against aircraft as the US Cavalry viewed ground reconnaissance as one of its most essential functions. The British used the cavalry primarily for mounted combat and the pursuit of retreating enemy forces and this view allowed the British cavalry to be somewhat more accepting of aircraft.

Chapter two, ‘Early Response to Heavier-Than-Air-Flight,’ highlights the natural connection between aircraft and the cavalry. With reconnaissance being the first purpose of aircraft, cavalry reconnaissance was not surprisingly one of the first missions the aircraft sought to assume. In the earliest days, both nations’ cavalries acknowledged the potential of aircraft, but concluded that the technology was not sufficient; as Henning stated (p. 32):

The general consensus was that aviation would support the cavalry in the field as an auxiliary service and not replace mounted forces.

Chapter three, ‘Developing a Relationship in the 1920s,’ explores how both nations’ evaluated the First World War and the effectiveness of the new technologies that were introduced in that conflict. In the First World War, aircraft played a significant role while both cavalries were effectively absent. The public sentiment that the cavalry had become obsolete increased and cavalrymen in both nations had to defend their branch and find ways to justify its continued existence.

Chapter four, ‘National Economy,’ looks at the factor that may have been more damning to the cavalry than its poor performance in the First World War. In examining the financial arguments favouring aircraft over the cavalry, Henning provides a glimpse into reality. This was that the US and UK sought ways to decrease military expenditures and the aircraft’s proponents were more vociferous and persuasive in making this case than the proponents of cavalry.

Chapter five, ‘Autogiros and Mechanization,’ examines how cavalrymen continued to seek ways to work with the air forces to maximise both services’ effectiveness. By the 1930s, the relationship between air forces and cavalry had stabilised, but as time passed, airmen sought independence and increasingly focused on the strategic vice tactical use of aircraft. Both the British and American cavalry branches realised the need for its own air support, and as such, they turned to a new type of aircraft – the autogiro – to provide the airborne reconnaissance they needed.

Henning’s concluding chapter reminds us of the folly of abandoning functioning capabilities without first providing suitable replacements. Cavalrymen instantly recognised the potential of aircraft and tanks but approached their integration into the army from a cautious view. Despite being labelled as ‘backwards,’ the cavalrymen prudently sought ways to integrate the aircraft as its capabilities increased slowly. In telling this story, Harnessing the Airplane captures the essence of how organisations incorporate new technologies. Henning’s expert analysis highlights the challenge leaders face when presented with the next ‘game-changing technology.’ As she demonstrates, often, many are eager to go all-in without first ensuring that the ‘new’ can replace the ‘old.’ As we now stand at another technological crossroads with continual talk of replacing soldiers with robots, manned aircraft with drones, and analysts with artificial intelligence, this work highlights the rational approach of the early 20th century cavalrymen and provides a case study for today’s military thinkers to consider.

Dr Tyler Morton is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He is an active duty US Air Force officer who holds a PhD in Military Strategy from the Air University. He is the author of From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance (2019). He can be found on Twitter at @ty_morto.

Header Image: Dayton-Wright DH-4s of the US 12th Aero Squadron flying liaison with US Army cavalry on patrol on the United States/Mexico border, c. 1920. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Stephen Bourque

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Stephen Bourque

Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, the series builds on the success of From Balloons to Drones, and it provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.

In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Stephen Bourque, author of Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France, to talk about the allied bombing of occupied France in 1944. Through a detailed look at local French sources, combined with official US sources, Bourque provides as thorough – and possibly controversial – assessment of General Dwight Eisenhower’s use of air power.

9781612518732

Dr Stephen A. Bourque served in the US Army for 20 years after which he obtained his PhD at Georgia State University. He has taught history at several military and civilian schools and universities, including the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, and Command and General Staff College, where he is professor emeritus.

Header Image: Interior of one of the E-boat pens at le Havre, showing the collapsed ferroconcrete roof, caused by 12,000-lb deep-penetration ‘Tallboy’ bombs dropped by No. 617 Squadron RAF in a daylight raid on 14 June 1944. (Source: © IWM (CL 1208))

2019 in Review

2019 in Review

By Dr Ross Mahoney

As we come to the end of 2019, it is time to take stock of what has happened and what is to come in 2020.

Twenty-nineteen has been another year of growth for From Balloons to Drones. We have expanded our editorial team, our list of contributors, and we have moved into new areas of engagement with you, our readers.

In terms of our editorial team, we were pleased to welcome Victoria Taylor onto the team. Victoria is a British based PhD student looking at the Nazification of the Luftwaffe. In 2020, Victoria will be increasingly taking over at the helm of our social media accounts. We also became more organised with how we manage content with Dr Brian Laslie taking over responsibility for our book review processes and Dr Mike Hankins overseeing our new podcast series. Alexander Fitzgerald-Black oversaw the development of our new logo, which I am sure all of you will agree is very attractive!

Personally, I am grateful to all the members of the From Balloons to Drones editorial team for their hard work. While we do not peer-review material per se, we do read and comment on all the article submissions that we receive, and this is done in addition to the work noted above.

We also reached the 80,000-hit mark. This was a nice milestone to reach. We recognise that in terms of both the military history and professional military education ecosystems that we offer a niche product. However, it is good to see that people are taking the time to read and engage with the material that our contributors write.

Over the year we have published around 35 pieces at From Balloons to Drones. These have ranged from articles through our ongoing book review series to our newly launched podcast series.

During the year we have published two themed series of posts. In the first series, Assistant Editor, Dr Brian Laslie produced a series of book reviews to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 11. This was an excellent series of reviews, and we are grateful to Brian for taking the time to produce these insightful reviews.

The second series was our themed #AirWarVietnam series. While we did not publish as many articles as we had hoped, we did receive some fascinating contributions. It was particularly pleasing to receive articles that looked at the role of helicopters in war. It is important to remember that the history of air power, and its application in war, is not just about fighters and bombers. A particular favourite of mine in this series was Hayley Hasik’s article on the cultural iconography of the helicopter during the Vietnam War.

The most significant development to occur in 2019 was the launch of our new podcast series. Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins manages this series. The podcast series aims to build on the success of From Balloons to Drones, and it provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. So far, we have released four interviews with more lined up for 2020. You can find the podcasts at our SoundCloud channel here.

Finally, but certainly not least, here are the top five most-read posts of 2019.

  1. Dr Mike Hankins, ‘#AirWarVietnam – Making a MiG-Killer: Technology and Signals Intelligence for Air-to-Air Combat in Vietnam’;
  2. Dr Mike Hankins, ‘Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam’;
  3. Dr Mike Hankins, ‘A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker’;
  4. Andy Zhao and Justin Pyke, ‘Unseating the Lancer: North Korean Challenges in Intercepting a B-1B’;
  5. Dr Mike Hankins, ‘#AirWarVietnam – Contested Skies: A Brief Guide to the Historiography of the Air War in Vietnam.’

So, what about 2020? More of the same but better. We will aim to continue to refine what we offer in terms of content and build on the success of this year’s developments. If you are interested in contributing to From Balloons to Drones, then you can find out how here. Also, we have already put out a call for submissions for a series of themed articles to be published in 2020. The ‘Bombing to Win Revisited’ series will aim to explore the varied use of air strikes, both kinetic and non-kinetic, at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. We also have more podcasts coming in 2020 as well as more book reviews, which will, of course, be added to our ever-expanding ‘Air Power Reading List.’ We are also looking at what anniversaries our coming up and what we might publish to coincide with these.

Finally, again, we would like to thank our contributors and you, our readers, for taking the time to read and engage with what we have published throughout the year. See you in 2020!

Header Image: A US Navy Grumman F4F-3 in non-specular blue-grey over the light-grey scheme in early 1942. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Roger Launius

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Roger Launius

Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, this series aims to build on the success of From Balloons to Drones and provide an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.

In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Roger Launius about the history, legacy, and memory of the Apollo program and the moon landing, at the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s famous steps for all mankind. Looking back after all this time, what does the Apollo program mean for us today?

Dr Roger Launius retired from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 2016 as Associate Director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs having previously served in several other positions. Before that, he had been Chief Historian for NASA. As well as being a specialist in the history of air and space power, he has also written on 19th century American history. You can find his website here.

Header Image: A photograph of the Apollo 11 crew just after they had been selected for the mission. Left to right, are Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., the lunar module pilot; Neil A. Armstrong, commander; and Michael Collins, command module pilot. They were photographed in front of a lunar module mock-up beside Building 1 following a press conference in the MSC Auditorium, c. January 1969. (Source: NASA)

#BookReview – Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind

#BookReview – Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

James R. Hansen, Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2019. Appendix. Notes. Hbk. 400 pp.

Neil Armstrong

Twenty-nineteen represented, for me, a golden age of space nostalgia. Twenty-eighteen through to 2022 represents the fiftieth anniversaries of the 11 human-crewed Apollo flights. Everywhere you turn you see someone in some NASA paraphernalia. Books on the Apollo program and NASA writ large are taking over the Science sections at local bookstores and larger chain stores. The government organisation is enjoying an undeniable resurgence and moment of ‘coolness,’ though I ponder whether anyone under the age of 40 uses that term. Perhaps no single individual enjoyed a greater resurgence in this regard over the last two years than the first man on the moon, Neil A. Armstrong. Twenty-eighteen saw the release of the film First Man, based on the authorised biography of the same name by James R. Hansen. The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission witnessed the release of CNN Film’s Apollo 11 documentary and those in Washington DC were even able to witness the Saturn V launch from the Washington Memorial.

Hansen returns to his topic with the release of Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind. At its core, the book is simply a collection of letters, a representative sample of the hundreds of thousands of letters that were sent to Armstrong before, during, and after his mission; a series of letters that lasted until his death in 2012. This correspondence is now held in the Purdue University Archives as part of Armstrong’s papers. Hansen indicated that this book is the first of at least two books covering the trove of correspondence now housed at Purdue University.

Hansen’s preface included the words given to Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin printed on a small silicon-disc and left on the surface of the moon. Much like the rest of the book, Hansen only included samples. From Félix Houphouët-Boigny, President of the Ivory Coast (p. xiv), ‘I especially wish that he would turn towards our planet Earth and cry out how insignificant the problems which torture men are when viewed from up there.’ John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia (p. xv), chose to quote Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses ‘to strive, to seek, and to find, and not to yield.’ The disc remains at the foot of the Lunar Module Descent Stage where Aldrin dropped it while climbing back into the Module.

Apollo_11_ticker_tape_parade_1
A ticker tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts in Manhattan, New York City on the section of Broadway known as the ‘Canyon of Heroes.’ Pictured in the lead car, from the right, are astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. (Source: Wikimedia)

The book is divided into thematic chapters: ‘First Word,’ presents correspondence that poured in during the weeks leading up to the launch of Apollo 11 and deals with letters giving Armstrong advice on what to say. ‘Congratulations and Welcome Home’ samples some of the hundreds-of-thousands cards and messages that poured into Armstrong’s inbox in the immediate aftermath of the mission from military service secretaries, general officers, old friends, and civic leaders. Chapter three entitled ‘The Soviets,’ contains selections from the letters that came in from behind the Iron Curtin including from leaders and citizens of Poland, Serbia, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. Congratulations from behind the wall also came from fellow Soviet Cosmonauts. Perhaps no better chapter demonstrates how the Apollo 11 mission was viewed as a globally unifying event. ‘For all Mankind’ contains the letters coming in from women, men, and children of all ages all around the globe.

The final three chapters go especially well together: Many Americans wanted a piece of what they considered to be their man on the moon and these letters are found in the chapters ‘From all America,’ ‘Reluctantly Famous,’ and ‘The Principled Citizen.’ Many of the appeals were harmless requests for autographs and at higher levels requests for appearances, but some requests were outright bizarre. For example, one letter requested an impression of Armstrong’s foot in clay (p. 161).  Hansen has done a superb job of providing the breadth of requests made to Armstrong in the years following his return to Earth. The simple fact remains that too many of us asked for too much of this man who simply could not respond and give of all he was asked to do.

It would be remiss if I did not ponder what this book tells us about air and space power? As I poured through the selected letters and pondered the many thousands more that Hansen could not include, it became clear that there was and remains to this day something ephemeral and special about crewed spaceflight. The book brought to mind the importance of Joseph Corn’s The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation (1983); however, it also demonstrated that the romance with crewed spaceflight is not unique to America at all. In America and around the world, the love and excitement for space exploration were undoubtedly not monolithic, but Armstrong became the embodiment for those who recognised the crewed Apollo missions as something significant and special in the history of mankind.

Dear Neil Armstrong will appeal to those seeking a deeper understanding of what the Apollo program meant, much like Roger D. Launius’ magnificent Apollo’s Legacy, but Hansen’s reaches us on a deeper personal level here. Hansen’s First Man is and will remain, the definitive biography of Armstrong, but the collection Hansen has put together is a must-have for those seeking to understand the more profound social and cultural meaning of Apollo, namely how the world viewed this particular man and what it desired of him in return. As Hansen more eloquently reflected (p. xxiii), ‘[c]ertainly it is my own conclusion that the letters ultimately tell us more about ourselves than they do about Neil.’

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force.  He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: Neil Armstrong is seen here next to the X-15 ship #1 after a research flight. Armstrong made his first X-15 flight on November 30, 1960, in the #1 X-15. He made his second flight on December 9, 1960, in the same aircraft. This was the first X-15 flight to use the ball nose, which provided accurate measurement of airspeed and flow angle at supersonic and hypersonic speeds. The servo-actuated ball nose can be seen in this photo in front of Armstrong’s right hand. The X-15 employed a non-standard landing gear. It had a nose gear with a wheel and tire, but the main landing consisted of skids mounted at the rear of the vehicle. In the photo, the left skid is visible, as are marks on the lakebed from both skids. Because of the skids, the rocket-powered aircraft could only land on a dry lakebed, not on a concrete runway.

#Podcast – Interview with Valerie Insinna

#Podcast – Interview with Valerie Insinna

Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, this series aims to build on the success of From Balloons to Drones and provide an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.

In our latest podcast, we interview Valerie Insinna, the air warfare reporter for Defense news. She talks to us about the world of defence journalism and reporting, focusing on the realm of aircraft and military air power technology. Of course, we could not help but also indulge in some nerdy fandom.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News’ air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Before that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau. She can be found on Twitter at @ValerieInsinna.

Header Image: A US Navy X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System makes an arrested landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush as the ship conducted flight operations in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia on 10 July 2013. The successful landing marked the first time a tail-less, unmanned autonomous aircraft landed on an aircraft carrier. (Source: Wikimedia)

#AirWarVietnam #BookReview – Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam

#AirWarVietnam #BookReview – Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

Gaillard R. Peck, Jr, Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2019. Appendices. Glossary. Illustrations. Plates. Hbk, 304 pp.

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In the 1990s there was a plethora of published material on D-Day and the Second World War writ large. For example, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers was published in 1992. The service members who served during that conflict were in their 70s and sought to tell their stories. Comparatively speaking, the veterans of the Vietnam War were in their 40s at the time; however, time marches on. In 2019, we are where we were in the 1990s, but this time it is the veterans of the Vietnam War who are now in the 70s, and a fresh new wave of scholarship and memoirs are being published on that most confusing of conflicts.

Into the mix comes, Gaillard R. Peck, Jr.’s Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Peck admitted early on that his mission here is not to rehash politics or make sweeping judgments, ‘It is not my intent to go into details as to how the war was fought. Nor will I delve into policy.’ This book is simply, and excellently presented. It provides one pilot’s perspective, through his own window on the world about his time flying during the Vietnam War. Peck’s work joins other recent accounts including David R. Honodel’s The Phantom Vietnam War (2018) and Terry L. Thorsen’s Phantom in the Sky (2019), as well as Dan Pederson’s TOP GUN: An American Story (2019).

Readers might recognise Peck’s name as he was also one of the commanders of the famed MiG-flying Red Eagles squadron and author of America’s Secret MiG Squadron: The Red Eagles of Project CONSTANT PEG (2012) that was also published by Osprey. Peck now turns his attention to his time as a young pilot flying and fighting in the F-4 Phantom II in 1968-1969. ‘Evil’ as he has been known to generations of fighter-pilots at Nellis Air Force Base has decided to add prolific writer to an already fantastic resume. Peck is something of a legend in the US Air Force’s Fighter community, as he has been a staple at the F-15 and F-22 Weapon’s School for decades.

Former US MiG pilot retells 4477th TES experience
Colonel Gail Peck in front of a Soviet MiG-21 he flew as commander of the Red Eagles in Operation Constant Peg, Nellis AFB, Nevada.(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Sherman Lead is ostensibly about flying the F-4 in combat, but this work is much richer than just that. Peck included the social side of life for American aircrews flying out of Thailand, something missing in other works. Peck also deftly included aspects of flying left out of so many books. This included the process and importance of mid-air refuelling, a nice tip of the hat to the tanker community.

The book generally follows his training progression, from learning to not only flying fighters but also how to employ them. Peck also deftly demonstrated how the training at an air-to-ground gunnery range was accomplished as well as the physics and geometry of putting bombs on a target. By using both the training environment as well as his experiences employing munitions in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the reader gets the sense that there is a genuine difference between precision-guided munitions and the precision-employment of munitions. Peck adroitly described all of these without being overly technical; thus the book can be enjoyed by the professional and the enthusiast alike.

Of course, the real effort of the book is to be found in his operations flying out of Ubon Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand and his missions over North Vietnam as part of Operation ROLLING THUNDER or over Laos as part of Operation STEEL TIGER. Perhaps the most significant contribution Peck has made to our understanding of the Vietnam War is that this is a dual ‘biography’ in that it is a memoir of himself, but it is also the biography of the F-4 Phantom II. This book is as much about how the war changed man as it is about how the war changed the machine.

Sherman Lead is destined to join the other classic memoirs on air power in Vietnam, including Jack Broughton’s Thud Ridge (1969) and Rick Newman and Don Shepperd’s Bury Us Upside Down (2006). Historians of air power and the history of the US Air Force will especially enjoy this book, but it will also find a wider audience in those seeking to understand individual and unique perspectives on America’s participation in the war in Vietnam.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force.  He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: An image of an F-4 Phantom II being refuelled during Operation ROLLING THUNDER. Aerial refuelling permitted tactical aircraft to operate in the northern part of North Vietnam, something noted in Peck’s memoir. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Melvin Deaile

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Melvin Deaile

Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, this series aims to build on the success of From Balloons to Drones and provide an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.

Always

In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Melvin Deaile of the US Air Force Air Command and Staff College. In this episode we discuss Deaile’s recent book Always at War. We discuss the early days of USAF’s Strategic Air Command and its culture, as well as the controversies surrounding General Curtis LeMay.

Dr Melvin Deaile is Director of the School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. His book, Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-62 was published by Naval Institute Press in 2018. Deaile is a retired USAF Colonel, with a PhD in American History from UNC-Chapel Hill, who flew the B-52 Stratofortress and the B-2 Spirit. He has flown combat operations as part of Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom, including a record-setting 44.3-hour combat mission. Deaile is the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and is a distinguished graduate of the USAF Weapon School.

Header Image: Boeing B-47 Stratojet bombers of the USAF’s Strategic Air Command, c. the 1950s. The B-47 was the world’s first swept-wing bomber. The B-47 normally carried a crew of three; pilot, copilot (who operated the tail turret by remote control), and an observer who also served as navigator, bombardier and radar operator. (Source: Wikimedia)

#AirWarVietnam – Weaponised Helicopters and Counterinsurgency: An Exploration of the Different Approaches Advocated in Vietnam by the US Army and the US Marine Corps

#AirWarVietnam – Weaponised Helicopters and Counterinsurgency: An Exploration of the Different Approaches Advocated in Vietnam by the US Army and the US Marine Corps

By Dr Robert J. Kodosky

Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Dr Robert Kodosky discusses the differing attitudes towards armed helicopters between the US Army and US Marine Corps as they entered the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series, then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.

In Vietnam, the US Army utilised helicopters according to its thinking about conventional warfare during the previous decade. Without the ‘helicopter in Vietnam,’ US Army officials concluded that America and its allies in Vietnam ‘would not have been able to outmanoeuvre the enemy nor exercise their superior firepower.’[1] While accurate, this observation adhered to the assumption that these tactics aligned to an effective counterinsurgency strategy. As one wartime study commissioned by the Department of Defense contended, ‘the crude use of overwhelming firepower seems more appropriate to total war.’[2]

The US Army appropriated helicopters to fight the war it wanted in Vietnam, one of attrition. In comparison, Marines employed rotary craft to fight the war they got. The US Marine Corps (USMC) weaponised helicopters to align with counterinsurgency goals and remained cautious about the firepower they delivered. In July 1967, for example, the commander of Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific, General Charles Krulak noted that armed helicopters carried out two-thirds of all USMC UH-1E flights in Vietnam during the previous year. He found this unacceptable. More arms, Krulak observed, denied the USMC ‘the eyes which are so urgently needed over the jungle environment.’ He suggested that the USMC had erred in putting ‘too many rocket pods’ on UH-1Es and had ‘unconsciously encouraged their misuse.’[3]

UH-1E_Helicopters_at_Fire_Support_Base_Cunningham,_1969_(11950756174)
USMC UH-1E helicopters touch down with their loads at Fire Support Base Cunningham. Artillerymen of the 12th Marines at Cunningham are supporting elements of the 9th Marines conducting search and clear operations, c. 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

This example, set by the USMC in Vietnam, remains vital today. Despite ‘deliberate application of COIN [counterinsurgency] practices in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ some aviators have remained ‘focused on killing insurgents.’ One AH-64 Apache battalion commander deployed to Iraq cited ‘winning hearts and minds’ as ‘ground-guy stuff.’[4]

As such, this article explores foundational thinking surrounding the decision to weaponise helicopters in both the US Army and the USMC. Each initially conceptualised weaponising helicopters to wage a conventional war, whether as weapons platforms to combat tanks or to facilitate amphibious landings. This resulted in experimentation in ways to arm helicopters to deliver indiscriminate firepower. While the US Army remained on this path, the USMC deviated from it, based on their observations of the French effort to quell insurgents in Algeria and their own early experience in Vietnam. The USMC then decided to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam because they perceived them better able to deliver discriminate firepower than fixed-wing craft.

Blitzkrieg from Above

Contemporary observers largely concurred that the Vietnam War provided the ‘crucible for the helicopter.’[5] Military officials reaffirmed this view afterwards, citing helicopters as counterinsurgency tools essential for ‘mobility, rapid deployment of troops and logistics support.’[6] The US Army declared that helicopters ‘represented the most revolutionary change in warfare since the blitzkrieg.’[7]

This view found widespread acceptance. According to US Army General William C. Westmoreland, commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam between 1964 and 1968, America ‘achieved the ability to use the helicopter and employ the tactics of air mobility.’ This reflected the US Army’s view that its efforts during the Korean War suffered from doctrinal and technological limitations that prohibited employing rotorcraft to gain the initiative by enabling mobility. In Korea, this resulted in a deadlock. Westmoreland observed that the Vietnam War readied America’s use of helicopters to ‘take off.’ This ‘is not the end,’ he advised, it ‘is only the beginning.’[8]

This proved prescient. In 2004, the US Army alone deployed more than 500 helicopters to Afghanistan and Iraq. In counterinsurgency missions especially, the helicopter played ‘a key role.’ It continues to do so. There exists an ‘intensive use of rotary wing aircraft,’ rendering the helicopter as ‘omnipresent across a large spectrum of defense missions.’[9]

There exists good cause, however, to explore the centrality of helicopters critically in the execution of counterinsurgency operations. A recent study concerned with American involvement in Vietnam, Soviet engagement in Afghanistan and French participation in Algeria argues that helicopters proved ‘indecisive or bad at enabling legitimacy, population control, and isolation, key tenets of successful COIN.’[10]

This view is reflected by commentary offered by a counterinsurgency veteran to the Armed Forces Journal. It cited the proclivity of AH-64 Apache and OH-58D operators for flying low to the ground. While this proved ‘occasionally fruitful in detecting enemy activity,’ it observed that helicopters ‘can only scatter a farmer’s sheep so many times before he sees coalition forces as an annoyance rather than an ally.’[11]

Such criticism is not new. Sir Robert Thompson, who directed the British Advisory Mission to the Republic of Vietnam between 1961-1965, became an outspoken critic of America’s strategy in Vietnam. Thompson was a widely respected expert on counterinsurgency based on his experience in Malaya. Thompson labelled attrition, using the number of Vietnamese communists killed as a metric of success, as an ‘error.’ The ‘main contributing factor to this,’ he contended, ‘was the helicopter.’[12]

The Army Way – Cavalry Without Horses

The development of the US Army’s thinking about the use of helicopters as air cavalry capable of aerial assault originated during the Korean War. In July 1952, the US Army’s 6th Transportation Company (Helicopter) received the H-19 Chickasaw. Capable of faster and farther travel than the H-13, the Chickasaw constituted the US Army’s first true cargo and transport helicopter. While used to assist medical evacuation and resupply efforts, the H-19 executed the US Army’s first air assault combat missions, shaping Army thinking about helicopters after the war.

Korean_War_HA-SN-98-07085
Troops boarding a US Army H-19 Chicksaw of the 6th Transportation Company in Korea, c. 1953. (Source: Wikimedia)

In 1955, Redstone Rocket likened helicopter performance favourably in Korea to fixed-wing operations during the Second World War. It framed the helicopter’s potential within conventional missions such as ‘smoke laying’ and ‘armor column control.’ It observed that helicopters took with them ‘two American military traditions: To get there ‘fustest with the mostest’ and to ‘hit ‘em where they ain’t.’”[13]

James M. Gavin, a veteran of the Second World War and later a Lieutenant-General in the US Army of the 1950s, introduced his concept of airborne armoured cavalry in ‘The Future of Armor,’ an article that appeared in the US Army’s Infantry Journal in 1948. He argued that ‘striking at high speed by air’ and ‘entering ground combat’ enabled ‘mobility and the retention of the initiative.’ Armoured cavalry offered this potential, Gavin contended, rendering it uniquely able to ‘play the decisive role in future airborne combat.’[14]

Gavin expanded on his idea over the next 15 years, including in an article for Harper’s Magazine, published in 1954. In ‘Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses,’ Gavin suggested that the US 8th Army in Korea suffered from a lack of airmobile cavalry. He pressed for the return of a ‘mobility differential,’ one that could make a difference for American commanders in Korean-style conflicts and any war waged directly against the Soviet Union.

Mobility comprised more than speed, Gavin clarified, it included the capability to deliver superior firepower.[15] The Second World War informed Gavin’s thinking and influenced the US Army’s development of its air assault concept. During the Second World War, in addition to its functions of target acquisition and artillery fire observation, organic US Army aviation ‘provided highly responsive capabilities.’[16]

Gavin served in President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration as Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations (G-3) and was a critic of the President’s ‘New Look’ national security policy that prioritised massive nuclear retaliation. Gavin advocated the need for force readiness, ‘based on his concepts of mobility, firepower and control derived from his experience in World War II.’ He cited helicopters as able to ‘provide the mobility advantage that U.S. forces needed.’ These fulfilled the traditional cavalry missions of ‘reconnaissance, screening and exploitation.’[17]

Gavin’s notions about air mobility became those of the US Army. General Hamilton Howze, appointed by Gavin as the first Director of Army Aviation in 1955, instituted them. In this capacity, Howze ‘saw to it that every imaginable weapon was strapped onto a US-1 (Huey).’[18] Also a veteran of the Second World War, Howze envisioned the utility of air mobility within conventional thinking about linear warfare against a mechanised adversary.

By the winter of 1961, with ‘the Army’s aviation resources suddenly in high demand’ due to America’s increasing commitment in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense for the President John F. Kennedy’s administration, Robert S. McNamara, grew ‘sharply critical of the Army’s conservative approach’ to improve air mobility.

Kennedy had shifted national defence from the massive retaliation endorsed by Eisenhower’s New Look. He called for ‘Flexible Response.’ This aimed to counter Soviet aggression using proxies throughout the world. It emphasised a rebuilt conventional force with the capacity to deploy quickly. McNamara pressed the military for ‘maximum mobility.’ He tasked the US Army with figuring out how to achieve this, within ‘an atmosphere divorced from traditional viewpoints and past policies.’[19] Howze, McNamara suggested, stood capable of creating such a climate.

The Howze Board

The US Army’s Tactical Mobility Requirements Board convened under Howze’s direction in May 1962. Its membership included 200 officers and 41 enlisted personnel from the Army, along with 53 civilians. The US Air Force (USAF) observed the Board’s work, carried out from May until the end of July. Testing utilised 125 helicopters and 25 fixed-wing aircraft to log over 11,000 hours of flight time. Conditions simulated a variety of scenarios, from Lieutenant-General Walton Walker’s withdrawal to Pusan in 1950 to counter-guerrilla exercises.

It all constituted ‘tactical experimentation’ with considerable attention provided to wargaming against the Soviet Union and an emphasis on the potential to deliver ‘heavy firepower.’ One ‘suggestive scenario’ featured in the Board’s final report, for example, simulated a Soviet incursion in Iran through the Zagros mountains.[20]

Howze briefed the Pentagon in 1957 about the potential of air mobility to defend against a Soviet attack. Only the terrain shifted between then and 1962 as the earlier simulation situated the campaign in Bavaria. The interest in maximising the firepower of helicopters remained unabated.

As Director of Army Aviation, Howze worked ‘to prove that the helicopter’ constituted a ‘superior weapons platform.’[21] In 1958 the US Army successfully tested an H-34 loaded with 40 2.75- and 2.5-inch rockets, nine machine guns and two 20mm cannon.[22]

For McNamara, the Howze Board staged a full field demonstration which featured four gunship helicopters attacking fortifications with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets. It all climaxed with 30 Hueys ‘flying low, from behind the grandstands, at 110 miles per hour.’ Loaded with infantry, the helicopters landed in the smoke where soldiers dismounted and attacked. It all took two minutes.[23]

The Howze Board sought out information about Southeast Asia by dispatching a team to visit Military Advisory Assistance Groups in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Marine Task Force 116 Headquarters at Udorn, Thailand. Since the middle of 1962, a UH-1 Tactical Transport Helicopter Company armed with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets operated in Vietnam to escort CH-21 helicopters. Nevertheless, the visiting Board members reported back that there existed resistance to arming helicopters from the USAF.

OV-1_Mohawk_of_73rd_Aviation_Company_in_Vietnam_c1966
US Army pilot, crew, and ground crew with a Grumman OV-1 Mohawk in Vietnam. (Source: Wikimedia)

This only intensified with the Board’s recommendation for US Army air mobility, to include weaponised helicopters. A USAF Board headed by Lieutenant-General Gabriel Disosway issued a four-volume rebuttal to the Howze findings. It criticised weaponising helicopters, utilising an OV-1 Mohawk as a close-support aircraft and argued that USAF fighter-bombers provided better support.

This resulted in the decision to further test the airmobile concept by activating the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) at Fort Benning in 1963. Eighteen months of tests and exercises brought approval from all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff except USAF General John McConnell who maintained his services’ opposition. For the USAF, the fundamental issue remained ‘centralised versus decentralised aircraft management and command.[24]

Ultimately, the USAF won the battle, but it lost the war. The US Army relinquished the 24-armed Mohawks recommended by Howze. It activated the 1st Cavalry Division, however, in July 1965. By the 3 October 1965, the entire division reached its base area at An Khe in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Its orders to seek out and destroy a North Vietnamese force building up in the area culminated in the Battle of Ia Drang in November.

Bruce_Crandall's_UH-1D
Operations during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. Major Bruce Crandall’s UH-1D helicopter climbs skyward after discharging a load of infantrymen on a search and destroy mission. (Source: Wikimedia)

The US Marine Corps Mantra – Tolerance, Sympathy and Kindness,

The USMC had long expressed interest in the idea of weaponising helicopters. As far back as 1949 they ‘envisioned that the supporting tactics’ of helicopters ‘might include the use of covering artillery fire’ to ‘neutralize anti-aircraft weapons’ and tanks.[25] The limited lift capability and the instability of helicopters at the time rendered it unworkable. The idea remained, however, and the war in Vietnam reinvigorated it.

Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat served as the first USMC advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). An authority on French military matters, Croizat visited Algeria where the French faced an insurgency. Accompanied by Major David Riley, Croizat reported their observations to Washington in July 1957.

The French employed helicopters judiciously, in support of ground elements, only until these became ‘capable of self-support with organic weapons.’ While obsolete helicopters ‘hampered’ French efforts, Croizat recommended that the USMC remain ‘abreast of the French experiences.’ As the USMC did that, the Division of Aviation cited that ‘the basic problem [still remaining] is that of determining whether or not Marine Corps Helicopters should be armed.’[26]

There existed a few reasons for opposing armed helicopters in the USMC. These included the inadequacy of rotary-wing aircraft to serve as weapons platforms and the perceived inferiority of helicopter pilots. The most substantial objection, however, stemmed from fears of helicopters replacing fixed-wing to protect helicopter transports.

This necessitated a ‘major change of concept’ while threatening the identity of the USMC. According to Major General Norman J. Anderson, planners foresaw that ‘sacrificing fixed wing capabilities to helicopters’ risked the USMC losing its primary distinction from the US Army; ‘its combination of ground and air combat power.’[27]

By April 1962, a USMC medium helicopter squadron had deployed to Vietnam. Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 (HMM-362) constituted the second element of task unit SHUFLY which occupied an old Japanese landing strip near Soc Trang, 85 miles south of Saigon. It operated in support of ARVN forces throughout southern Vietnam.

Unlike US Army helicopters already operating in other parts of South Vietnam, the USMC HUS-ls remained unarmed. USMC commanders reasoned that weapons mounted in the cargo hatch mitigated against efficient loading and unloading in landing zones. Moreover, armed aircraft presented hostile appearance to Vietnamese civilians. They acknowledged this as counterproductive to counterinsurgency by providing fodder for insurgent propaganda.[28]

HUS-1_HMM-362_Vietnam_1962
US Marine Corps Sikorsky HUS-1 (UH-34D) Seahorse helicopters of Marine medium helicopter transport squadron HMM-362 in Vietnam, 1962.

The USMC began devising counterinsurgency-specific roles for helicopters. For example, they soon observed that during large engagements, small numbers of insurgents peeled away to escape into covered areas. The USMC instituted ‘Eagle Flights’ aimed to thwart such escapes in which four helicopters loaded with ARVN troops circled over contested areas and timed landing to cut off any attempted escapes.

The USMC quickly deduced the ‘unique links’ between the ‘political and military aspects of the struggle in Vietnam.’[29] By August 1962, the US marines at Soc Trang began arming their helicopters by mounting M-60 machine guns inside the cargo hatch. While this constituted a radical change, one that realised fears of surrendering fixed-wing capabilities to rotary craft, the USMC adopted it as a defensive tactic, one compliant with the counterinsurgency they sought to execute. The M-60s served as protection for landing and only fired at clearly identified enemies. The USMC refrained from their use in the Mekong Delta’s heavily populated areas.[30]

The US marines who served at Soc Trang became the most vocal advocates of weaponising helicopters. Their argument, however, derived from their conviction, gained from experience. That argument was that counterinsurgency success hinged on a discriminate application of firepower. The early operational experience gained by the US marines that served at Soc Tran convinced them that helicopters could operate with restraint better than fixed-wing aircraft. They sought to explain that in the densely populated areas where helicopter assaults transpired, the application of firepower required ‘almost surgical precision.’

While 500-pound bombs delivered by fixed-wing aircraft ‘might indeed suppress fire,’ this would ‘hardly win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the frightened or uncommitted residents.’[31] According to Colonel Noah C. New, the USMC ‘learned early’ the incompatibility of helicopters and jets in Vietnam. Because there ‘were so few Marines involved, at Soc Trang’ however, making a ‘convincing argument’ to others that the war in Southeast Asia required ‘new approaches’ proved difficult.[32]

General Wallace M. Greene, Commandant of the USMC between 1964 and 1967, grasped the problem. In May 1965, six-armed Marine UH-1Es arrived at Da Nang. Greene explained this to the press, attributing the development to the ‘peculiar circumstances’ that the USMC confronted. He rationalised it as a counterinsurgency imperative, noting that ‘tactical fixed wing aircraft have not been available because of political considerations.’ The armed helicopter, Greene insisted, represented an appropriate tool for the USMC ‘in the environment of political-military artificialities which exist in the Republic of Vietnam.’[33]

Bell_UH-1E_Huey_takes_off_from_USS_Topeka_(CLG-8)_off_Vietnam,_in_1966
An armed US Marine Corps Bell UH-1E Huey takes off from guided missile cruiser USS Topeka (CLG-8) off Vietnam, in 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)

The decision by the USMC to weaponise helicopters exhibited recognition of the Vietnam War’s nature. It derived from the early experience at Soc Trang but also profited from the USMC’s experience in waging America’s ‘small wars’ in the early twentieth century.[34] This is evident through the efforts initiated by USMC General Lew Walt. He commanded Marine Amphibious Force III that operated in I Corps, the tactical zone that included South Vietnam’s five northernmost provinces.

Walt, a veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War, identified the conflict in Vietnam as something different. It resembled the kinds of engagements he heard about as a young officer ‘from men who fought Sandino in Nicaragua or Charlemagne in Haiti.’ Walt understood the USMC mission in Vietnam as framed by ‘sympathy, understanding, regard for the people.’[35] This echoed advice from the Small Wars Manual of 1940 that noted that ‘tolerance, sympathy and kindness should be the keynote of our relationship with the mass of the population.’[36] That insight informed the decision made by the Marines to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam.

Conclusion

In contrast to the US Army, the USMC sought to apply firepower discriminately. They also recognised the value of helicopters to provide reconnaissance, a critical task of counterinsurgency as ‘the enemy relies on stealth instead of mass.’[37] According to Major General William Gayler, commander of the US Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence, ‘the most critical gap for the Army is a light armed reconnaissance helicopter.’ One with the ability ‘to fight for information about terrain and enemy, that enables ground force commanders, that gives decision space, manoeuvre room and reaction time.’[38] Superior eyesight is sometimes more important than superior firepower. In Vietnam, the USMC understood this well. As military officials contemplate the use of helicopters in contemporary counterinsurgencies, ones where ‘hearts and minds’ remain as vital to secure as they did in Vietnam, the history of thinking within both the USMC and the US Army about weaponising helicopters for use in Vietnam offers valuable lessons.

Dr Robert J. Kodosky chairs the history department at West Chester University and advises the Student Veteran Group. He is the author of Psychological Operations American Style (2007), numerous articles about the Vietnam War and the forthcoming Tuskegee in Philadelphia: Rising to the Challenge (2020).

Header Image: An AH-1G Cobra gunship helicopter of the 334th Helicopter Company, 145th Aviation Battalion over Vietnam in 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Lieutenant General John H. Hay, Jr., Vietnam Studies: Tactical and Materiel Innovations (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 6.

[2] Raymond D. Gastil, Toward the Development of More Acceptable Limits for Counterinsurgency (New York: Hudson Institute, 1967), pp. IV-15.

[3] Lieutenant Colonel William R. Fails, Marines and Helicopters, 1962-1973 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, US Marine Corps, 1978), p. 111.

[4] ‘COIN in the Air: Army Attack Aviation Must Embrace Irregular Warfare,’ Armed Forces Journal, 1 April 2013.

[5] The Virtual Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University (VVA-TTU), John T. Wheeler, ‘Copter Warfare: How it Evolved,’ Associated Press, 9 March 1969, Associated Press.

[6] Colonel Achid Muchlas, ‘The Role of Airpower in Counterinsurgency Operations’ (USAF Air War College Report, 1988).

[7] Hay, Vietnam Studies, p. 179.

[8] ‘Lessons U.S. Has Learned in the Helicopter War,’ US News and World Report, 23 November 1970, p. 50.

[9] Etienne de Durand, BenoÎt Michel and Elie Tenenbaum, Helicopter Warfare: The Future of Airmobility and Rotary Wing Combat (Paris: Laboratoire de Recherche sur la Défense, 2012), p. 32.

[10] Major Beau G. Rollie, ‘Helicopters in Irregular Warfare: Algeria, Vietnam and Afghanistan’ (MA Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 2013), p. ii.

[11] ‘COIN in the Air: Army Attack Aviation Must Embrace Irregular Warfare.’

[12] Robert Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, updated edition (New York: David McKay Company, 1970), p. 136.

[13] Kaylene Hughes, ‘Army Helicopters in Korea, 1950-53,’ 28 October 2016.

[14] James M. Gavin, ‘The Future of Armor,’ Infantry Journal, 62:1 (1948), p. 7.

[15] James M. Gavin, ‘Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses,’ Harper’s Magazine, April 1954, p. 58.

[16] J.A. Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board and Army Combat Developments (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1994), p. 30.

[17] Major Edward P. Gavin, ‘LTG James M. Gavin: Theory and Influence’ (MA Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 2012), p. 27.

[18] Glen Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility: Birth of the Air Cav,’ Warfare History Network, 18 November 2018.

[19] VVA-TTU, Douglas Pike Collection, Unit 01 – Assessment and Strategy, Proposed Army Aviation Program Subjected to Thorough and Critical Examination by McNamara’s Staff, 1962.

[20] Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board, p. 17.

[21] Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility.’

[22] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 86.

[23] Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility.’

[24] Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board, p. 25.

[25] Fails., Marines and Helicopters, p. 85.

[26] Ibid., p. 85.

[27] Ibid., p. 86.

[28] Captain Robert H. Whitlow, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory and Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1977), p. 65.

[29] Ibid., p. 70.

[30] Ibid., p. 73.

[31] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 86.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] On the use of USMC aviation in the small wars between the First and Second World War, see: Wray Johnson, Biplanes at War: US Marine Corps Aviation in the Small Wars Era, 1915-1934 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2019).

[35] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 132.

[36] FMFRP 12-15 – Small Wars Manual (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1940), p. 39.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Jen Judson, ‘Armed Reconnaissance Still biggest Gap in Army Aviation,’ Defense News, 28 April 2017.