#DesertStorm30 – Lessons Taught, Lessons Forgotten

#DesertStorm30 – Lessons Taught, Lessons Forgotten

By Dr Benjamin S. Lambeth

Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.

From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. These article were originally presented at a day-long Mitchell Institute program on the DESERT STORM air campaign held on 19 March 2016, You can download the report here.

In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by Dr Benjamin Lambeth of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. In this article, Lambeth discusses some of the lessons learnt and forgotten from the DESERT STORM air campaign and their influence on more recent operations.

It is a special honor for me to have been invited to share the podium with this symposium’s roster of distinguished speakers to offer some final thoughts on what I believe we all would agree still remains even today – a quarter of a century later – the most epic American combat experience since Vietnam. Having now heard all of the preceding presentations this afternoon, I believe that my charter for my concluding remarks is to try to reinforce the most important and memorable recollections that were voiced earlier by those who were actually there in the fight—both in the war zone in Southwest Asia and back here in Washington.

A Combat First

To begin with, as most of you all will remember, not long after Operation Desert Storm ended, then-Secretary of the Air Force Don Rice commissioned the Gulf War Air Power Survey, or GWAPS as it is more commonly called for short. That was an in-depth, five-volume assessment of the air war modeled on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey conducted after World War II. Professor Eliot Cohen at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington led it.

In the preface to their unclassified synopsis of the GWAPS effort, Eliot and his co-author Tom Keaney wrote that one important purpose of the exercise had been to provide ‘an analytical and evidentiary point of departure for future studies of the air campaign.’ Inspired by that enticement, I subsequently sought to try my best to make broader sense of the Gulf War and its meaning in a substantial study of American air power’s evolution since Vietnam that was sponsored by General Ron Fogelman during his tenure as Air Force chief of staff. That study was eventually published as a commercial book by Cornell University Press in 2000. After much careful consideration, I finally chose as its title, The Transformation of American Air Power. I did so, I will now admit, before what I later came to disparage as the ‘T-word’ became so popularized and devalued by the Rumsfeld Pentagon that it eventually ended up meaning almost anything one might want it to mean. But I still have no regrets over having made that title choice, since, if used with all due discretion and discipline, ‘transformation’ remains an uncommonly powerful word. My dictionary defines ‘to transform’ as ‘to change the nature or character of something radically.’ And that is exactly what I believe happened to the substantially improved American air posture after Vietnam that we finally took to war against Saddam Hussein in 1991.

A F/A-18C Hornet strike-fighter VMFA-232 of the US Marine Corps taxies on the runway before a mission in support of Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

Transformed Airpower in Action

We have already heard abundant first-hand testimony this afternoon as to the main details of the air component’s performance throughout the campaign, so I will not waste time recapitulating any of those events in my own remarks. Let me just say that after the campaign’s cease-fire went into effect, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind about the determining influence that the initial air attacks had in producing the subsequent course and outcome of Desert Storm. Those attacks against Iraq’s air defenses and command and control facilities were uniformly effective, with initially, more than 600 strike sorties launched in radio silence against the country’s most significant targets the first night and with just one coalition aircraft lost to enemy fire—a Navy F/A-18, presumably to a lucky long-range infrared-guided air-to-air missile fired from an Iraqi MiG-25 that had somehow escaped being detected and identified by our E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that was operating on station nearby. Over the next three days, the air war struck at the entire spectrum of Iraq’s military assets, gaining unchallenged control of the air and the needed freedom to operate with near-impunity against Iraq’s airfields, ground forces, and other targets of interest. In one of the first serious assessments of the campaign’s air offensive to have appeared in print after the dust settled, the United Kingdom’s most respected commentator on air warfare, retired RAF Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason, aptly characterized it as ‘the apotheosis of 20th-century air power.’

Perhaps the single most important point to be made about the planning approach that underlay Desert Storm’s air effort has to do with its having sought and achieved desired combat effects as a major departure from our earlier targeting practice. For example, there was no assessed need for the air component of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) that conducted the campaign to destroy each and every last Iraqi acquisition and tracking radar and surface-to-air missile (SAM) site. It was enough for it simply to be so effective in its initial SAM-suppression attacks that Iraq’s SAM operators were intimidated from turning on their radars and engaging the coalition’s attacking aircraft, since they had quickly learned from the first-hand experience of others that if they did, they would invite a high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) shot down their throats with the certainty of sunrise.

And, by the same token, there was no assessed need for the air component to destroy each and every last Iraqi fighter aircraft. The coalition was so totally dominating in the air-to-air arena that the Iraqi Air Force soon lost any incentive to turn a wheel. Before long, it was said by some inside observers of the ongoing air war that the three most fearsome words to an Iraqi fighter pilot were ‘cleared for takeoff.’

An aerial view of four hardened aircraft shelters at Kuwait International Airport that were attacked by coalition air forces seeking to destroy Iraq aircraft during Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

What Made it Possible?

To sum it all up in brief, American airpower showed during Operation Desert Storm that it had finally matured in its ability to deliver the kinds of outcome-determining results that its early visionaries had promised in vain years before. Thanks to our exploitation of the latest technology, our pursuit of more realistic aircrew training, and our development of better strategies and concepts of operations after Vietnam, American airpower in all services underwent a nonlinear growth in capability as a result of the advent of stealth and our ability to attack targets consistently with high accuracy around the clock. Only later, of course, with the subsequent advent of the satellite-aided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), could it do so in any weather conditions as well.

But by the time of Desert Storm, our air assets had finally gained what they needed by way of combat wherewithal to set the conditions for victory in high-intensity warfare. They also ever more steadily came to supplant the traditional role of our ground forces in contributing the bulk of heavy lifting toward achieving joint-force combat objectives, with friendly ground forces now fixing enemy ground troops and air power doing most of the killing of them rather than the other way around, as had been the case in all previous joint air and land operations.

To offer just two examples of this momentous combat role reversal, during the pre-campaign Operation Desert Shield buildup of allied forces in the war zone, CENTCOM shipped nearly 220,000 rounds of M1A1 Abrams main battle tank ammunition to the forward area, of which less than 2 percent were actually fired in combat. For its part, the air component dropped more than 23,000 bombs on Iraq’s ground forces, making for 67 percent of the campaign’s overall air effort.

By the same token, fast-forwarding to the three-week major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003, the U.S. Army flew only two deep-attack missions with fewer than 80 of its AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and it fired only 414 of its high-end MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) in support of its march northward from Kuwait to the heart of Baghdad. In contrast, CENTCOM’s air component during the same three weeks flew more than 20,000 strike sorties, using 735 fighters and 51 bombers to attack, with devastating effect, more than 15,000 Iraqi target aim points in direct facilitation of CENTCOM’s land offensive, but also mostly ahead of and independent of any friendly ground-force action.

Perhaps the most compelling testimony to what that air capability allowed in Operation Iraqi Freedom came from Lieutenant Nate Fick, a Marine Corps platoon commander during CENTCOM’s land offensive, who later wrote in his book One Bullet Away:

For the next hundred miles, all the way to the gates of Baghdad, every palm grove hid Iraqi armor, every field an artillery battery, and every alley an antiaircraft gun or surface-to-air missile launcher. But we never fired a shot. We saw the full effect of American air power. Every one of those fearsome weapons was a blackened hulk.

Later Airpower Successes

With respect to the air component’s successful performance in beating down Iraq’s ground forces in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO) in just a little more than a month to a point where they no longer presented a major threat to the coalition’s final four-day land push, some observers tended for a time afterwards to dismiss that performance as nothing more than a one-off anomaly. It was, they said dismissively, the open desert setting, or the unusual vulnerability of Iraq’s armored forces to precision attacks from above, or any number of other unique circumstances that somehow made the air war an exception to the familiar time-honored rule that it takes friendly ‘boots on the ground’ in large numbers, and ultimately in head-to-head close combat, to defeat well-endowed enemy forces in high-intensity warfare.

To many people, that argument sounded reasonable enough when American and allied air power’s rapid rout of the Iraqi army was something the world had never seen before. Yet in the 12 years that followed Desert Storm, allied air power prevailed again in four widely dissimilar subsequent cases, starting with NATO’s two air-dominated wars over the Balkans in 1995 and 1999 and followed soon thereafter by Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001 and then by the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March and April 2003. True enough, in none of those five cases, with the one exception of Kosovo, did air power produce the sought-after result all by itself. Yet one can fairly say that in each instance a mature air component was the main enabler of all else that followed by way of producing the desired outcome at such a low cost in friendly and noncombatant enemy lives lost. In so doing, American air power showed to the world that it had finally come of age, at least for high-intensity wars against well-equipped enemy forces.

A US Air Force F-15 Eagle from the 494th Fighter Squadron taxis for take-off for an airstrike against a Bosnian Serb target during Operation DELIBERATE FORCE. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

Airpower’s Triumphant Years

In the wake of that uninterrupted succession of air warfare achievements, the first twelve years that followed Desert Storm looked for the entire world like an unqualified air power success story. Thanks to its preeminent role in the 1991 Gulf War, it seemed to many that the air weapon had finally become the tool of first choice for U. S. Joint Task Force (JTF) commanders. That impression was further reinforced by the similarly preeminent role played by air power in shaping the equally successful outcomes of Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force in 1995 and 1999. Indeed, as Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute remarked at the turn of the 21st century, by the time the second Bush administration took office in January 2001, ‘not only did it look like air power could win wars, but there was a new crop of policymakers ready to embrace that message,’ starting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

That view was further reinforced by the outcomes of the major combat phases of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in late 2001 and early 2003, both of which were also largely enabled by the effective use of air power in making possible the unimpeded ground operations that brought an early end to the existing regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. In all, by the end of major combat in Iraq in April 2003 after just three weeks of sustained allied air and land operations, the evolved capabilities offered by transformed American air power seemed finally to have heralded a new style of war for the United States and its coalition partners, at least with respect to high-intensity combat against conventional forces like the ones that Saddam Hussein had fielded.

A New Insurgent Challenge

Unfortunately for that fact-based and well-founded conviction, however, the end of major combat in Iraq heralded a new era of warfare for Americans in not just one way but in two. Just as the Iraqi Freedom experience confirmed our final mastery of high-intensity combat, it also confronted us with a newly emergent wave of counterinsurgency fighting for the first time since Vietnam. That second challenge, for which we were totally unprepared, became clear within just days of the occupation’s onset as coalition ground forces were shown to have been both completely untrained and un-resourced to meet the needs of post-campaign stabilization. A similar challenge arose in Afghanistan after the Bush team took its eye off the ball there, opening up a chance for the Taliban to move back into the ensuing power vacuum in an attempt to regain control of the country.

Before our initial successes in Afghanistan and Iraq went sour and morphed into prolonged land-centric wars of attrition, the main focus of the American defense debate in Washington had been on the relative merits of air power versus ground power in joint high-intensity combat. By the time we were ready to take on Iraq in 2003, the American ‘boots on the ground’ community had clearly become the more beleaguered of the two in the continuing inter-service tug-of-war over roles and resources. However, the insurgencies that soon thereafter consumed us in Iraq and Afghanistan for half a decade and more entailed enemy wartime conduct of a quite different sort—designed to avoid our greatest strengths and instead to make the most of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. As a result, the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps gained a new lease on life after 2003 as the challenges of combating newly-emergent insurgencies moved the spotlight from air power to our ground forces as those bearing the brunt of daily combat losses and accordingly those in greatest need of daily sustenance and funding.

Lessons Forgotten in the Fight Against ISIS

Looking now at our current effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it has already been under way at a lethargic pace for more than two years, with still no end in sight or any truly significant progress achieved so far, yet at a cost of more than $5 billion in sunk cost to date, to say nothing of the additional cost in reduced service life for our jets that have flown so many combat sorties for so little gain. To my mind, it has been more than disheartening to see just how far we seem to have regressed in the 25 years since the first President Bush told us after Desert Storm that “we’d finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” We are now back to Vietnam all over again, it appears, with the return of the daily body count and CENTCOM’s daily recital of the number of sorties flown, bombs dropped, and targets attacked in the absence of any more meaningful metrics of performance to show how effectively we are actually faring.

I am reminded too in this regard of how we seem to have forgotten the wise counsel of the classic Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, who stressed the criticality of correct situation assessment and of duly fighting the war one is actually in rather than the war one believes one is in or would prefer to be in. In that respect as well, it is hardly surprising that a U.S. Army-dominated CENTCOM that has been so deeply habituated to counterinsurgency warfare as a daily diet for more than a decade would naturally roll into this latest fight against ISIS as though it were just a continuation of the counterinsurgency war in Iraq. That unthinking approach has, among other things, occasioned the draconian no-civilian-casualties rules of engagement that have so badly hampered our air effort since it began ever so haltingly in early August 2014.

But ISIS is not an insurgency. On the contrary, it is a self-avowed emerging nation state that is replete with coherent leadership, territory, an infrastructure, an economy, a central nervous system, and the beginnings of a capable conventional army, all of which are eminently targetable by precision air power. Accordingly, it should be engaged by our air assets as such and not in the more gradualist and ineffectual way in which CENTCOM has pursued the Obama administration’s half-hearted campaign so far.

Two US Navy E/A-18G Growlers and two US Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornets fly in formation over the US Central Command area of responsibility in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, 25 September 2020. (Source: US Department of Defense)

Has Airpower Paid a Price for Its Precision?

In that regard, before turning to my final reflections on Desert Storm, it behooves us to ask first how the current fight against ISIS may offer the latest telling example of how our very ability to avoid causing noncombatant casualties in warfare almost routinely has increasingly rendered air power a victim of its own success since 1991. People like most of us in the audience here whose formative images of air power were steeped in Vietnam had our eyes opened during the first few nights of Desert Storm by watching cockpit weapon system video clips on the nightly TV news showing laser-guided bombs homing down the air shafts of Iraqi bunkers one after the other with unerring precision. Thanks to that substantially improved capability that was first pioneered in Vietnam, avoiding unintended civilian casualties in the course of conducting air strikes naturally became a goal that air campaign planners sought to bend every effort to strive for in future conflicts.

But by the time of Operation Deliberate Force against the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, just four scant years after Desert Storm, American political leaders and rank-and-file citizens alike had become so habituated to such accuracy that what campaign planners once strove for in good faith, because air power could now generally permit it, had become not just expected but was now a binding precondition for getting an approval to drop a bomb or strafe a target. Even one inadvertent civilian fatality as the result of an errant air attack was now likely to become front-page news, as it has been ever since our would-be air war against ISIS began in early August 2014.

True enough, air power’s heightened ability to minimize unintended civilian casualties in warfare has brought along with it a new responsibility on the part of airmen to make the most of that ability in their target planning in good faith. But at the same time, it has also levied a new challenge on our most senior leaders, both civilian and uniformed, to do better at managing public expectations when even the most stringent Laws of Armed Conflict are not as exacting as our own self-imposed rules of engagement have lately become. Otherwise, collateral damage avoidance will continue to trump mission accomplishment in priority, which is tantamount to the tail wagging the dog in the conduct of war.

What Made Desert Storm Unique

With all of that by way of background, how can we best summarize the main takeaways to be drawn from the 1991 Persian Gulf War? For my money, American air power between the end of the Vietnam War and the start of Operation Desert Storm had finally evolved to a point where it had become truly strategic in its character, thanks to its by-then proven ability to produce outcome-determining effects. That was not the case before the advent of low observability to enemy radar, precision target attack capability, and vastly better real-time battlespace situation awareness in the American air posture. Earlier air wars were limited in the combat successes they could achieve because it simply took too many aircraft and too many losses to achieve too few results at too high a cost. But by 1991, American air power had finally arrived at a point where it could make its presence felt quickly and could impose effects on an enemy from the very outset of fighting that could have a determining influence on the subsequent course and outcome of a campaign. How? In large part by enabling almost unopposed friendly ground maneuver and thereby establishing the needed conditions for achieving a JTF commander’s campaign goals fairly quickly. Or, put more simply, by granting JTF commanders and their subordinate forces freedom from attack and freedom to attack.

This breakthrough in capability, however, was not just about technology. As Congressman Les Aspin rightly remarked after the Gulf War ended when he was still chairman of the House Armed Services Committee: ‘One, the equipment worked and was vindicated against its critics.’ But also, he added: ‘Two, we know how to orchestrate it and use it in a way that makes the sum bigger than all the parts.’ His second point in that statement was really the more important of the two by far. For if Desert Storm’s ultimate successfulness heralded any ‘revolution’ in warfare, then it was as a result of the campaign’s effective exploitation of all the inputs discussed earlier this afternoon, including the critically important and unquantifiable intangibles like training, tactics, proficiency, skilled leadership, concepts of operations, and boldness in execution in addition to all the technology magic that Americans usually fixate on when considering the main ingredients of military capability.

What the Gulf War Bequeathed to Us

In light of all the foregoing, it is long past time for airmen to stop seeking their intellectual guidance from such outmoded prophets as the Italian general Giulio Douhet, who advocated for air power at a time in the early 1920s when it was still embryonic and had virtually nothing in common with what it has since become today. If we need to identify new sources of such guidance for tomorrow’s still-evolving air weapon, then they should be drawn instead from the successor generation of American airmen whose path breaking insights into force employment allowed the example set by airpower’s more recently acquired performance capabilities in 1991. For in Operation Desert Storm, air power showed, for the first time ever, its ability to achieve strategic effects directly through its increased survivability and lethality. In earlier years, air forces sought to impose the greatest possible pain on enemy populations and industry, as was done against Germany and Japan in World War II and even against North Vietnam toward that war’s end in 1972, because such a strategy was the only one that air power could then underwrite with any hope of achieving success. Today, however, there is so much more one can do with air power to produce combat outcomes that more directly affect an enemy’s ability—not his will, but his ability—to continue fighting.

Of course, all force elements, including ground forces, have the opportunity in principle to seek the effects of mass without actually having to mass by leveraging modern technology to the fullest in quest of greater precision in force employment. But what was unique about modern air power as it first showed its hand in 1991 was that it had finally pulled well ahead of surface forces in its relative ability to do this, thanks not only to its newly-gained advantages in stealth, target-attack accuracy, and battlespace awareness, but also to its long-standing and enduring characteristics of speed, range, and flexibility. That, I would suggest, is the main legacy of air power’s transformation since Vietnam that we saw demonstrated for the first time in Operation Desert Storm.

Dr Benjamin S. Lambeth is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in the US. He assumed this position in July 2011 after a 37-year career as a Senior Research Associate at the RAND Corporation, where he remains an adjunct associate. Before joining RAND in 1975, he served in the Office of National Estimates at the Central Intelligence Agency. A civil-rated pilot, Lambeth has flown or flown in more than 40 different types of fighter, attack, and jet trainer aircraft with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and with eight foreign air forces worldwide. He also attended the USAF’s Tactical Fighter Weapons and Tactics Course and Combined Force Air Component Commander Course, the Aerospace Defense Command’s Senior Leaders’ Course, and portions of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Instructor’s Course. In 2008, Lambeth was appointed by the Secretary of Defense to serve an eight-year term as a member of the Board of Visitors of Air University, which he completed in 2016. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Air Force Association, the U.S. Naval Institute, the Association of Naval Aviation, the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, and the Editorial Advisory Boards of Air and Space Power Journal and Strategic Studies Quarterly. He is the author of numerous books including The Transformation of American Air Power (2000), which won the Air Force Association’s Gill Robb Wilson Award for Arts and Letters in 2001. His most recent book is Airpower in the War against ISIS (2021).

#DesertStorm30 – Leading with Airpower

#DesertStorm30 – Leading with Airpower

By General John Michael Loh, USAF (Ret.)

Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.

Over the coming weeks, From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. You can download the report here.

In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by General John Michael Loh, USAF (Ret.). In this article, General Loh discusses some of the debates and decisions that took place in Washington in the months leading up to the start of the DESERT STORM air campaign as well as some of what he viewed as the lessons learnt from the campaign.

Desert Storm was the only major war since World War II that ended in victory, with all objectives met; a war dominated by airpower and remarkable for its brief duration—only 43 days. Airpower played the dominant role in Desert Storm. But Desert Storm did not start with airpower in the lead. The air campaign plan had many detractors. The decision to lead with airpower, before and independent of a ground invasion, was a war in itself. I am going to take you through the debates and decisions in Washington that put and kept airpower in the lead in the five months preceding the start of the war, and give you my version of lessons learned from Desert Storm.

The War of the Pentagon

Four battles characterized what I call ‘The War of the Pentagon.’

The first was a phone call from General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of U.S. Central Command and the Joint Force Commander for Desert Storm, to me on Wednesday, August 8, asking for help in expanding the existing war plan for a Middle East regional war.

The second was the meeting of our Air Staff team, called Checkmate, with General Powell and the Joint staff that Saturday, seeking the Chairman’s agreement to proceed with our air campaign planning activity.

The third were the frequent skirmishes in the Tank between me and the other three service chiefs who wanted their service to take the lead and be the dominant player in Desert Storm. I called them the counterattacks.

And the fourth was the meeting at the White House on October 11 with President George H. W. Bush, the Commander in Chief, seeking his approval to proceed with the air campaign plan.

I will briefly describe each of those four ‘battles’ in the ‘war of the Pentagon.’

Request from General Schwarzkopf

I received a call from General Schwarzkopf on the morning of August 8. It surprised me because I only knew Schwarzkopf professionally, but not personally. Here’s what he said:

Mike, I need your help in expanding our war plan to include a more robust air campaign that includes strikes against strategic targets as well as tactical targets. The air operations plans here are traditional air/land battle scenarios in collaboration with, and tethered to, ground forces, but very little independent air operations that destroy strategic targets around Baghdad and other parts of the country.

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Here was an Army commander talking like an airpower advocate. General Schwarzkopf was an airpower champion in a green suit.

Fortunately, our Checkmate planning cell on the air staff was already putting together a strategic-level air campaign concept. Checkmate was formed to think ahead about the application of airpower in several scenarios. Checkmate’s leader was Colonel John Warden, a bright conceptual thinker, who was already designing an air campaign for the Iraq war.

I told General Schwarzkopf:

We have the concept of the air campaign you want. I will take the lead in fleshing it out as best we can and bring it to you ASAP. I need a day or two to make sure it works your problem, and I will bring it to you ASAP. “He said, “Thanks. Please hurry!

I then called our Ops Deputy, and told him to get John Warden and his Checkmate team here immediately. I gave Warden strong marching orders and told him:

Get with Intel, turn your generic plan into one that begins to address the strategic target set in Iraq, and be prepared to brief General Powell later this week.

I also called General Bob Russ, commander of Tactical Air Command, and General Jack Chain, commander of Strategic Air Command, telling them of Schwarzkopf’s call and asking them to send a few of their air planners to the Pentagon to assist Checkmate. They did.

Briefing to General Powell

The second battle was our meeting with General Powell and the Joint Staff directors on that Saturday, three days after the call from Schwarzkopf. The Joint Staff was dominated by Army officers, not just Powell, but particularly the influence of the J-3, an Army general steeped in land warfare and dismissive of airpower.

A stormy session ensued. Colonel Warden briefed and I chimed in from time to time for reinforcement. We emphasized the independent application of airpower against the Iraqi centers of gravity, and our confidence in waging both an air campaign in the greater Baghdad Theater and also tactical-level attacks in the Kuwaiti Theater.

General Powell listened for the most part, but let his J-3 argue against a pre-invasion air campaign. His arguments centered on his experiences in Vietnam, and those of others present. They claimed that airpower could not defeat an enemy and could not even interdict effectively. He even cited the World War II air armadas against Germany, claiming they were ineffective. And on and on. Others piled on.

I listened patiently for a while, but after listening to these false claims, I spoke up forcefully with logical arguments countering accusations about airpower, but, mostly, I argued about the renaissance in airpower in the 20 years since Vietnam. I gave a full-throated defense of our plan based on this rebirth of airpower in the Air Force. I challenged them with information of which they were unaware regarding a new generation of combat aircraft and weapons and training since Vietnam that changed the nature of air warfare, which made possible the innovative plan for Desert Storm. Stealth, precision weapons with lasers, night attack with FLIRs and Red Flag force-on-force training, the real 2nd offset strategy in my opinion, gave us confidence for a dominant air campaign plan.

Ground crews service F-117A aircraft of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing on the flight line in 1990 as the Wingprepared to deploy to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield. (Source: USAF)

At the end of this meeting, General Colin Powell, under great pressure from SecDef Cheney and President Bush to devise a winning plan quickly, agreed to let us continue our planning as we briefed it. His only objection was not to the two-theater air campaign and its strategic nature, but that he wanted us to destroy the Republican Guard Armies as part of the strategic plan. And he insisted we make it a joint campaign, not just Air Force. So, I agreed to include Navy and Marine air where it fit. General Powell said he would tell General Schwarzkopf that he approved.

We briefed Schwarzkopf. He approved and told the team to take it to General Chuck Horner and the operational air planners in Riyadh.

Skirmishes in the Tank

The third battle was a series of skirmishes in the Tank, the room where the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet in the Pentagon. While Air Force planners—Lt. General Chuck Horner, Brig. General Buster Glosson, and the Checkmate guys, Colonel John Warden and Lt. Colonel Dave Deptula—went to Riyadh to plan the specifics of the air campaign, I continued to fight for, and defend, the air campaign as the leading edge of the upcoming war.

The Pentagon is the temple of parochialism. Now don’t get me wrong. We fight as a joint team. Jointness works beautifully on the battlefield. But it doesn’t work as well in the wars of the Pentagon where each service wants to show how vital it is, and, therefore, how it must be in the vanguard of any major military action, particularly a major regional war.

I vigorously defended our leadership role in the Tank during September and October when the other chiefs realized the Air Force was dominating the plan. Each of the other service chiefs—Army, Navy, and Marine—had his own ideas for taking the lead.

The Navy wanted to divide the airspace into route packages the way it was done in Vietnam, which, incidentally, was not an efficient way to allocate airpower. The Navy wanted to control all air action in the east from carriers in the Persian Gulf, and in the west from carriers in the Red Sea. The Navy’s plan would leave only the middle for the Air force working with Army forces. We won those skirmishes handily.

The Marine Commandant argued forcibly that the Marines take the lead with an amphibious landing from the Persian Gulf and then attack through Kuwait. After all, amphibious operations are the Marines’ primary competence. But his proposal was shot down over time.

Now, the Army Chief did not like the idea of the Air Force operating independently. The Army preferred a simultaneous, dual invasion, with the bulk of air sorties tethered to the Army supporting the ground war. Their chief had two motives: position the Army, not the Air Force, as the leading force in the war, and keep most of the air sorties under the air/land scenario doing close air support and shallow interdiction.

In the end, General Powell sided with our air campaign plan because it made good sense.

President Bush Gives his Approval

The final battle was the meeting with President Bush on October 11. General Schwarzkopf sent Brigadier General Buster Glosson to brief President Bush on the air campaign plan. The evening before, Secretary Cheney, General Powell, and the Joint Chiefs previewed both the air and ground plans in the Pentagon. Glosson gave a powerful briefing with detailed information about the air campaign and his confidence in its successful execution. On the other hand, the Army general presented a ground campaign that was unimaginative, lacked detail, and was not a confidence-builder. General Powell was displeased with the Army plan, but also wary of the confidence Glosson displayed in his briefing.

After the meeting, General Powell stopped Glosson after I had already departed for my office. He told Glosson to tone down his confidence level, that the briefing and the air campaign were too optimistic. Glosson hastened to my office and asked what to do. I told him to not change anything in his briefing, but to invoke General Schwarzkopf’s name several times during the briefing.

Buster, remember this is not your plan, it is not General Horner’s plan, it is not an Air Force plan, it is the Joint Force Commander’s air plan. So, let the President and all present know you are speaking for General Schwarzkopf and he has approved the essence of the air campaign plan.

General Glosson gave his briefing superbly. President Bush, to his credit, knew the value of airpower and was excited about our plan. After hearing the briefing by Buster Glosson, he wanted to begin the war right then. But General Powell dissuaded him arguing that ground operations were necessary to ensure victory. He wanted to deploy the VII Corps from Germany to Saudi. President Bush approved. That took more than two months. We won that battle and the air campaign concept spawned in the Pentagon became the vanguard force in Desert Storm.

Then the war began on the morning of January 17 with a massive air attack against strategic targets around Baghdad led by the stealthy F-117, and continued for the next 42 days, followed by a 4-day ground invasion before the Iraqis surrendered. We won Desert Storm quickly, decisively, with overwhelming force and few casualties, leading with airpower.

Airpower lessons learned

So, what are the lessons learned? There are many. Let me give you three macro, ‘big picture’ lessons that I took from Desert Storm and are still applicable today. One: airpower is consistently underestimated and not well understood, even in the Air Force. Two: computer models and ‘experts’ always over-estimate air attrition. And three: strong, decisive leadership and trust from the top down are essential for success.

Let’s look at each one more closely.

F-15E Eagle fighter aircraft from the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing is parked on a desert airfield during Operation Desert Shield. (Source: USAF)

Airpower disparaged

Recognize that others do not share your enthusiasm about the effectiveness of airpower. Just before Desert Storm the other military services did not recognize the ‘Rebirth of Airpower’ from 1970 to 1990 in the Air Force. In my opinion, the 2nd offset strategy for the Air Force was the investment in three technologies: stealth, precision weapons, and forward looking infrared (FLIR) sensors to take away the sanctuary of night the enemy had enjoyed in Vietnam. We fielded systems that exploited all three technologies: the stealthy F-117 Nighthawk with its FLIR and laser designator; the laser-guided bombs employed by many fighters, and laser designators on the F-11F and F-15E, and going from flares to FLIRs to attack at night. These systems were ready for Desert Storm but most war planners did not appreciate their significance.

Currently, the Army’s zeal to get ‘boots on the ground’ in the war against ISIS has had the unintended effect of disparaging airpower as ineffective in that fight, giving airpower an undeserved bad reputation. The real problem with air attacks against ISIS is the misapplication of airpower, dribbling it out piecemeal, six sorties per day (in Syria, the locus of ISIS) rather than over a thousand strikes a day as in Desert Storm.

In the recent past, our Air Force leaders, seeking to be team players in the joint arena, have promoted airpower tethered to the ground battle rather than having a component of the air campaign in which airpower is employed independent of the ground battle. They have forgotten this valuable lesson of Desert Storm.

And, some seek to promote their own service at the expense of the contribution of air. The Army teaches and preaches Desert Storm as the ‘100-Hour War.’ They deliberately forget that it took only 100 hours to ‘mop up’ after 1000 hours of airpower put Iraq in shambles and rendered the Iraqi army virtually ineffective as a fighting force.

So, we need to continually learn, then educate. Now, don’t get me wrong: airpower can’t do everything. We must have ‘boots on the ground’ to force total victory and surrender. But the right formula should be the Desert Storm formula: lead with relentless, overwhelming airpower, then follow with a massive ground invasion.

Models overestimate air attrition

Computer models and ‘experts’ always over-predict air attrition. Historically, a mismatch exists between the forecasts versus actual attrition experienced in air campaigns. Models have always erred on the pessimistic side. They predict higher loss rates. This was true for Desert Storm and other major air campaigns.

Why is this so? Well, models cannot replicate the complexity of large-scale air battles. Models are good for evaluating the relative impact of changing one or two parameters of threats or air defense systems, but not for predicting the absolute outcomes of large air battles. Modelers also invariably assume the adversary is ‘ten feet tall,’ with systems working at peak performance and 100 percent reliability.

A brief look at past air campaigns, including Desert Storm, will prove my point and warn you to be wary of attrition analysts.

In December 1972, in operation Linebacker II, B-52 raids over heavily defended Hanoi, Vietnam, were successful in destroying the state-of-the art IADS and other military targets in North Vietnam. This led to the successful negotiation of our exit from Vietnam and the return of our prisoners of war.

Analysts and ‘experts’ predicted we would lose one B-52 out of every three B-52 sorties flown. In the 11-day operation, we lost 15 B-52s in 729 B-52 sorties flown into the teeth of the air defense system—an attrition rate of 2%, not 33%.

In the June 1982 Bekaa Valley campaign, the Israeli Air Force mounted a mass operation against a modern Soviet-supplied air defense system fielded by Syria in Lebanon. Analysts predicted an attrition rate of 15%. In 1,100 fighter sorties, the IAF lost no aircraft—zero percent attrition, not 15%.

How about Desert Storm? In the first five days, the experts, even Air Force leaders, predicted a loss of 70 or so aircraft before total air dominance was achieved. Analysts’ models predicted much higher attrition. After all, the IADS around Baghdad was the state-of-the-art French Kari system. Coalition forces flew more than 5,000 combat sorties in those five days and lost 27 fixed-wing aircraft, an attrition rate of less than 0.4%—less than half of Air Force estimates, and way below analysts’ predictions.

Why are forecasts of air attrition consistently higher than actual results, and why is this important today? Models lose their fidelity when they try to simulate large-scale air campaigns like Desert Storm because they cannot faithfully replicate their enormous complexity. They just cannot account for the countermeasures, both electronic and kinematic, the decoys, on-scene decisions by pilots, changes of tactics as the campaign progresses, or the sheer quantity and swarming tactics air battles. Many models merely extrapolate from a one-versus-one single-engagement to many-versus-many scenarios.

That is grossly faulty modeling.

Why is this mismatch important today? Well, today we again hear the predictions of the analysts that manned aircraft cannot penetrate modern ‘anti-access/area denial’ systems in development by Russia, China, and Iran. They tout results of their models to show that air losses would be unacceptable. I have been hearing that argument for more than 50 years! Manned fighters and bombers can negate sophisticated air defense systems and successfully attack heavily defended targets with the same success enjoyed in these three campaigns with a combination of standoff and penetrating aircraft, decoys, drones, and smart tactics.

The lesson is to challenge assumptions of the models, examine the algorithms critically, and use models only where they apply: for limited, relative changes, not absolute outcomes in large air campaigns. Be skeptical and critical of attrition models.

Leadership from the top down

The third lesson: Strong, decisive leadership from the top is necessary for success. President Bush 41 provided that leadership. He set clear military objectives and let his military leaders plan the campaign without interference from the White House. He gained the support of both the Congress and the U.N. for the war. He skillfully knitted together a large coalition of international partners in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia from Congress and the U.N. He placed heavy demands on General Colin Powell to put together a winning war plan with force sufficient to win quickly. He recognized the problems of a long war without an exit strategy. In short, he wanted to get in, win, and get out after meeting his military objectives.

President Bush 41 was under enormous pressure politically and from the whole U.S. population to not invade. Instead, political leaders of both parties advised him strongly to allow economic sanctions to continue for another year, hoping that would force Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait. The pressure against the war was intense. Various studies concluded upwards of 10,000 American lives would be lost. The airwaves and newspapers were replete with comments like “8,000 body bags are being shipped to Saudi.” One hundred forty-eight American lives were lost in Desert Storm—148 lives, not eight or ten thousand.

Eight of the nine living former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including one Air Force chairman, wrote a letter and testified before Congress that we should not go to war, but rather let sanctions continue. Senator Sam Nunn, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued and voted against the war. This doomed his plans to run for president in the 1992 election. The fierce opposition underscored the lack of understanding of the impact of airpower in 1990, and the advances in airpower since Vietnam.

But, throughout it all, President Bush was steadfast and resolute. He displayed undaunted courage, and he placed unprecedented trust in his military leaders. That trust pervaded all the way down the chain of command to the troops engaged in Desert Storm. Trust was the coin of the realm at every level of command from the commander-in-chief to the aircrews and troops on the ground. And trust went both ways: down the chain and back up the chain. The pilots and troops trusted their leaders. They knew their leaders had their back and that confidence allowed them to perform knowing their leaders would support them even if they made an occasional honest mistake in the heat of battle.

Desert Storm compared to the War against ISIS

 The contrast between Desert Storm and the current war against ISIS could not be sharper. President Bush 41 gave the military clear objectives, gained approval of Congress and the U.N., formed a strong coalition that participated willingly and actively, and won quickly and decisively with few casualties on both sides. None of these principles defining a justified war are present against the Islamic State.

The trust, so prevalent in Desert Storm, is weak in the ISIS war. Rules of engagement for pilots are so restrictive that the pilots are fearful of retribution and thus too risk averse in combat. Instead of clear military objectives and a defined end state for combat action, attrition of ISIS members appears to be the measure of success. Vietnam taught us the folly of using body count as a measure of success. How soon we forget.

Since Desert Storm, airpower seems to have stepped backward. Current conflicts do not unleash airpower like Desert Storm. Today, critics disparage airpower, but only because it is misapplied against ISIS. That must change.

Closing Observations and lessons

At the start of Desert Storm, airpower was not the leading force. Airpower had to fight its way to take the lead. We had to convince our critics that a rebirth of airpower took place after Vietnam, emphasizing the asymmetric application of stealth, precision weapons, and night attacks. That took away the sanctuary of night the enemy enjoyed previously. The battles in the Pentagon were waged and won that positioned airpower as the dominant force with compelling arguments and forceful logic.

President Bush 41 let the military plan both the air and ground campaigns without interference, approved the air campaign plan, and never wavered from his support.

The air campaign became the vanguard force in Desert Storm. Generals Horner and Glosson broadened the conceptual work done in the Pentagon, put together detailed force packages to take down the air defenses, and matched air forces against targets in both the Baghdad and Kuwait theaters. The six-week air campaign allowed the ground forces to complete the victory in just four days.

Three broad lessons emerged. First, we have already forgotten the lesson of Desert Storm that airpower can be applied independent of a ground campaign and in close support of ground forces at the same time. Airpower continues to be misunderstood and misapplied in the War against ISIS.

Second, air attrition is always over-predicted because computer models and ‘experts’ do not understand how airpower is applied in an overwhelming way. The examples of Desert Storm, Linebacker II, and the Bekaa Valley campaign prove the point. Modelers do not understand and account for the many complex variables in air campaigns that allow for changes in tactics and on-scene decisions. Over-predicting air attrition is happening in models today to declare that manned fighters and bombers cannot penetrate A2AD air defense systems of Russia, China, and Iran. Airpower advocates need to challenge the assumptions and methodology of air attrition models.

And third, President Bush 41 placed enormous trust in his military leaders to plan and wage a decisive two-theater campaign that allowed the coalition to win, quickly, decisively, with overwhelming force, and few casualties. That trust flowed down to the pilots and troops in the cockpits and on the ground. In turn, the pilots and troops trusted that their commanders would support them in the heat of the battle. That mutual trust is not as strong today as it was in Desert Storm.

The lessons of Desert Storm, from inception of the air campaign through its execution that led to victory, must not be forgotten. Rather, as we look forward to future enforcement of deterrence and plans for wars across the spectrum of conflict, airpower should be the leading force, the vanguard to pave the way for the successful conduct of campaigns and victory.

General John Michael Loh, USAF (Ret.) graduated from the USAF Academy in 1960. His final command was as Commander, Air Combat Command from June 1992 to July 1995. During Operation DESERT STORM he served was the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. He served as Commander, Tactical Air Command from March 1991 to June 1992. Loh has a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He commanded the Aeronautical Systems Division, Air Force Systems Command. He was a command pilot with more than 4,300 flying hours, primarily in fighter aircraft, and flew 204 combat missions in Vietnam. Loh retired from the USAF in 1995.

#DesertStorm30 – The First Gulf War – Future Lessons

#DesertStorm30 – The First Gulf War – Future Lessons

By Colonel John Warden, USAF (Ret.)

Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.

Over the coming weeks, From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. You can download the report here.

In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by Colonel John Warden, USAF (Ret.) on the lessons learnt from the conduct of the air campaign during DESERT STORM. Warden is widely acknowledged as the main architect of the theory that underpinned the planning and conduct of the DESERT STORM air campaign.

The first Gulf War, also known as Desert Storm, reversed the successful Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, left Iraq functional but incapable of invading any of its neighbors, lasted 43 days, of which 38 were almost exclusively air operations, saw fewer than 150 American die of which about a half were as a result of enemy action, and cost the US taxpayer about 80 billion dollars. Other American wars since 1950 have been dramatically less satisfactory from the standpoint of results, time, and costs.

For many years prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, Central Command and its air component, 9th Air Force, had been developing plans and logistical capability for a contingency in the Persian Gulf area. As a result, by 1990 the United States had a network of air bases and logistics available in the region. The planning to this point, however, had assumed that the enemy would be the Soviets or perhaps the Iranians and the combat plans were almost entirely designed as defensive reactions to stop an incursion. Immediately after the Iraqi attack, however, President Bush declared, “This invasion will not stand.” The problem then became one of offense, as a successful defense of Saudi Arabia would not have fulfilled the President’s declaration.

On the 6th of August 1990, a small group of Air Staff officers assembled in the ‘Checkmate’ offices in the basement of the Pentagon to develop a plan to win a likely war against Iraq, which would ensure that ‘the aggression would not stand.’ The intention was to use airpower to achieve war success. Two days later, General Schwarzkopf telephoned the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Mike Loh, to ask for help in building what he called a ‘strategic air campaign.’ The Vice Chief told him work was already underway and that the planners would visit him two days later to present the concept. General Schwarzkopf told the planners on 10 August that he was most pleased with the plan and that they should take it to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs the following day, which they did. General Powell was generally supportive but directed that the other services be brought into the planning. That afternoon, Navy and Marine aviators came to Checkmate where they worked with Air Force officers to develop a full air campaign plan, which was to be presented to General Schwarzkopf the following Friday. After the Friday presentation, General Schwarzkopf asked the planners to take the plan to General Horner, who was the Joint Force Air Component Commander in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The plan delivered to General Horner became the basis of subsequent air operations and the underlying architecture for the war itself, to include the very brief ground attack at the end of the conflict. To the best of our knowledge, this became the first example of a war built around an air campaign as opposed to one built around a land or sea campaign.

The first Gulf War was successful by almost every measure and thus is worth emulating. To do so, however, planners, commanders, and political leaders should consider the lessons of this war for application to those of the future.

F-15E Strike Eagles from the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing are parked on a desert airfield during Operation DESERT SHIELD. (Source: Wikimedia)

Recognize what can and cannot be achieved with military force. President Bush said, “This aggression will not stand,” which framed the problem in a way suitable for military force. Military force can prevent an opponent from doing something such as invading, occupying, governing, or even surviving, but it cannot change fundamental philosophical, religious, or political views. In the case of the Gulf War, the objectives suggested to Generals Schwarzkopf and Powell and shortly thereafter presented to the President were straightforward and susceptible to achievement with military force: Iraq out of Kuwait; Iraq weapons of mass destruction programs broken; Iraq incapable of another strategic invasion for the foreseeable future, Iraq capable of defending itself against its neighbor, and Iraq not a basket case. Fortunately, the President did not allow these objectives to morph into political conversions, nation building, or any of the other non-military objectives that are difficult or impossible to realize.

Think about war as against an enemy as a system, not as a clash of military forces. In the weeks—and months—after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, many in the United States argued that the effort should be against the Iraqi army in Kuwait and that there should be no attack on Iraq itself. Doubtless, we could have defeated and perhaps even destroyed the army in Iraq without crossing into Iraq, but the cost would have been dramatically higher, and at the conclusion we would still have faced a potent and dangerous Iraq that could have quickly rebuilt its lost army. As it was, by attacking Iraq as a system to include attacks on its strategic centers of gravity, we were able to achieve long-lasting objectives at a very low cost. A force-on-force war in the Clausewitzian tradition would have been pointless.

Keep wars short. Many years ago, Sun Tzu wrote that ‘no country has ever benefitted from prolonged warfare’ and his words remain true today. The longer a war, the more expensive it is in terms of blood and treasure—for all the participants. In addition, the longer a war lasts, the more opportunity there is for things to go awry: enemies find new allies; enemies develop new weapons or tactics; domestic and world opinion shifts; and political support fades. In a 43-day war, there is little opportunity for adverse events. Wars can and must be planned to be short.

Attack the enemy in parallel. To keep wars short, it is almost imperative to attack relevant centers of gravity in parallel, which simply means bringing key parts of the enemy system under attack in very compressed time frames. A parallel attack that leads to strategic paralysis—and to operational paralysis—as it did in the Gulf War is almost impossible to withstand and precludes effective reaction. The idea is not to deal with a ‘thinking, reactive’ enemy, but to put the enemy into a position where reaction is simply not possible.

Develop coherent war options. In today’s American military world, planning is done by a joint committee composed of people from all the services with a mélange of experiences, biases, and agendas. One might think this was good, but it almost certainly precludes the examination of plans based on a unique set of capabilities. In the Gulf War, the architecture of the war flowed from a plan developed by airmen with the express idea that it was possible and desirable to fight and win the war with airpower. The theater commander had the opportunity to see an uncontaminated option that he could accept, reject, or modify. In this case, he chose to make minor modifications. With the current practice, however, he would never have heard the unadulterated option.

Identify the key force. Related to the idea of developing coherent war options is the concept of the ‘key force.’ In very broad terms, a war can be fought with air, land, or sea forces or some combination thereof. In a particular situation, however, it is quite likely that one of these forces will either be able to do the job on its own, or will be the most important force. It is also possible that each one will have a dominant role in a phase of the war or, in some cases, there will be separate air, land, and sea wars going on simultaneously in different geographic areas or realms. It is important to think carefully about the key force question and avoid the ‘jointness’ trap of thinking that all components must share equally in planning or participation.

Involve many people from across the government in the planning and in the execution. Starting immediately after General Schwarzkopf’s call to General Loh, there were far more people involved in the planning than would normally have been the case. It started with many Air Force people, expanded rapidly to include Navy, Marine, CIA, and DIA officers, and later included people from the White House, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the State Department, most of the other national defense agencies, and civilian contractors. Having all of these agencies and people visiting Checkmate and participating at various points helped ensure that everyone knew what was going on and it also helped to avoid mistakes. As an example, Ambassador April Glaspie on a fall visit to Checkmate was able to tell us that a key Iraqi agency had recently changed locations—something that was not part of any database. Too often, we allow an obsession with security to interfere with smart planning. If our planning is not smart because we have prevented participation by the right people, security leaks become the least of our concerns.

Redesign the relations between the President and the Chiefs of Staff. Before the advent of the Goldwater–Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, all of the Chiefs of Staff were considered to be military advisors to the President and had access to him. In World War II, four senior officers had direct access to the President and gave him distinct options based on their expertise. The President then made the decisions that were his responsibility under the Constitution. Following Goldwater–Nichols, the Chairman became the chief advisor who was supposed to represent the views of the other Chiefs. Although this is theoretically possible, in reality it becomes extremely unlikely that a Chairman will adequately represent the views of a Chief he doesn’t like or with whom he disagrees. In the fall before the Gulf War, the President learned that there was disagreement among the Chiefs so he called a special meeting at Camp David to hear directly from each. This kind of a meeting should not depend on happenstance but should be institutionalized.

Technology is the real asymmetric advantage of the United States. Our ability to control the 3rd dimension and to do so with relative invulnerability allows us to control almost any opponent to an adequate degree. In the first Gulf War, our technological advantages in this realm were so overwhelming that they helped us to win quickly and inexpensively and without destroying Iraq in the process. Although we still have an advantage, it has eroded over the last quarter-century and no longer gives us the margin we previously enjoyed. Reversing this trend should have the highest national priority.

Plan to win. Planning to win means having a very clear, desirable objective that is attainable through military operations at an acceptable cost in an appropriately brief time period. It does not permit engaging in desultory operations that have little chance of being decisive or ending satisfactorily. A clear plan to win should be part of every war decision. Without such a plan, there should be no war.

In the first Gulf War, we were able to use lessons from the previous half-century of air warfare and to take advantage of technology translated into raw capability in that same time period. Using a new approach and new weapons, we won convincingly. For a variety of reasons, however, in most of our subsequent wars, we reverted to models that had failed us in Korea and in Vietnam. It is time to rethink and to put us back on the right strategic course.

Colonel John Warden, USAF (Ret.) is widely acknowledged as the main architect of the theory that underpinned the air campaign’s conduct during DESERT STORM. Warden graduated from the USAF Academy in 1965 with a BSc in National Security. He subsequently served as a pilot during the Vietnam War where he flew 266 combat missions. Warden graduated from Texas Tech University in 1975 with an MA in Political Science. Between 1985 and 1986, Warden attended the US National War College where he wrote The Air Campaign, which has been translated into at least seven languages. His command appointments included time as both Vice Commander and Commander, 36th Tactical Fighter Wing in Germany during the 1980s. After Bitburg, and at the time of DESERT STORM, Warden served as Deputy Director for Strategy, Doctrine, and Warfighting, Headquarters USAF. Warden retired from the USAF in 1995 after serving as Commandant of the Air Command and Staff College from 1992 to his retirement.  Since retirement, he has been Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Venturist, Inc.

Header Image: USAF F-16A, F-15C, F-15E aircraft flying over burning oil wells during DESERT STORM in 1991. (Source: Wikimedia)

#DesertStorm30 – Planning and Executing the Air Campaign

#DesertStorm30 – Planning and Executing the Air Campaign

By Lieutenant General David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.)

Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.

Over the coming weeks, From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. You can download the report here.

In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by Lieutenant General David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.) on the planning and execution of the DESERT STORM air campaign. Deptula was the principal attack planner for the air campaign, and in this article, he provides valuable insights into some of the issues and challenges that affected the conduct of the air campaign.

January 17, 2016, at 0239 Baghdad time marked the 25th anniversary of the start of Operation Desert Storm. Desert Storm was a turning point in the conduct of warfare as it set the conditions for modern warfare in five major ways: 1) it set expectations for low casualties – on both sides of the conflict; 2) it presaged precision in the application of force for all future conflicts; 3) it introduced prosecution of a combined/joint air campaign integrating all coalition/service air operations under the functional command of an airman, 4) it established desired effects as the focus of strategy and in the planning and conduct of operations, and 5) for the first time in history, airpower was used as the key force – or centerpiece – in the strategy and execution of a war.

Desert Storm was a 43-day war – airpower operated throughout the conflict from start to finish; ground forces acted as a blocking force for almost the entire war as airpower destroyed enemy forces and achieved desired effects against key systems from above. Only in the final days of the conflict were ground forces committed to combat and used to re-occupy Kuwait. In this respect, Desert Storm saw an inversion in the paradigm of traditional force application. Long-time military expert Dr Ben Lambeth has observed that today:

[t]he classic roles of airpower and land power have changed places in major combat […] Fixed-wing air power has, by now, proven itself to be far more effective than ground combat capabilities in creating the necessary conditions for rapid offensive success.

The opening attacks of Desert Storm signaled a radical departure in the conduct of war. Over 150 discrete targets – in addition to regular Iraqi Army forces and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites – made up the master attack plan for the opening 24 hours. The war began with more targets attacked in one day than the total number of targets hit by all of the Eighth Air Force in 1942 and 1943 combined – that’s more separate targets attacked in less time than ever before in history.

Twenty-five years ago, those involved in the Desert Storm air campaign applied force not only across the entire breadth and depth of the country geographically, but also across all the key strategic and operational level centers of gravity. How was that accomplished? And what was different from previous conflicts?

Advances in technology, in conjunction with an effects-based approach to planning and execution, allowed us to institute a new concept of operations that has been described as ‘parallel’ war: the simultaneous application of force across the totality of the enemy system.

While simultaneous attack has always been a desired element of offensive warfare, it had never evolved into the parallel war demonstrated in Desert Storm for three reasons: one, the requirement for mass to compensate for a lack of precise weapons delivery; two, the large number of resources required to suppress enemy air defenses; and three, the absence of a focus on effects rather than destruction to achieve control over an opponent.

The first two challenges required technological solutions, and were simply not mature before the mid-1980s. Those two solutions were stealth and precision. To provide insight into the significance of those two elements, in the first 24 hours of Desert Storm stealth, precision, and effects-based planning allowed targeting 36 stealth aircraft armed with precision-guided munitions against more separate targets than the complete non-stealth/non-precision air and missile force launched from the entire complement of six aircraft carriers and all the other ships in the theater combined. The stealthy F-117 force flew less than 2 percent of the combat sorties, but struck over 40 percent of the fixed targets.

The leverage that stealth demonstrated in the first Gulf War is further illustrated by the following example that involves the first non-stealthy attack on one target with three aimpoints in the Basrah area – Shaiba Airfield to be exact. The attack package consisted of 4 US Navy A-6s dropping bombs, along with 4 Saudi Tornado bomb droppers: 5 US Marine EA-6Bs jamming acquisition radars; 4 US Air Force F-4Gs taking out one type of surface to air missile system; 17 US Navy F-18s taking out another; 4 F/A-18s as escort; and three drones to cause the enemy radars to radiate. That is a total of 41 aircraft – 8 dropping bombs, on 3 aimpoints, on one target.

At approximately the same time we had 20 F-117s all dropping bombs on 38 aim points on 28 separate targets. That is less than half the aircraft hitting over 12 times the number of aim points.

Stealth and precision facilitated the actualization of the third and perhaps most important component of that conflict: a concept of operations designed to achieve control over an enemy’s essential systems. This methodology recognizes that negating an adversary’s ability to operate as desired is ultimately as important – or even more so – than the destruction of the forces it relies on for conquest.

We built the air attack strategy of Desert Storm by treating Iraq and the Saddam regime as a system of systems, and designed the operation to achieve paralysis of Saddam’s strategic centers of gravity: leadership; key essential systems; infrastructure; information; and fielded military forces. The campaign had five key objectives in this regard:

    1. Gain/Maintain Air Supremacy to Permit Unhindered Air Operations
    2. Isolate and Incapacitate Hussein Regime
    3. Destroy Iraqi Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare Capability
    4. Eliminate Iraq’s Offensive Military Capability
    5. Render the Iraqi Army in Kuwait Ineffective, Causing Its Collapse
EF-111A Raven aircraft prepare to take off on a mission during Operation Desert Shield. (Source: Wikimedia)

These objectives were all achieved – rapidly, and decisively.  The tenets that made Desert Storm such a success were:

    1. Strong political will – a President who stated on 5 August 1990, ‘This will not stand’ in response to the invasion of Kuwait. President George H. W. Bush and his military commanders built a strategy; formed a coalition; deployed the forces required to execute that strategy; garnered United Nations backing; executed the strategy; and accomplished its declared objectives by February 28, 1991 – seven months from start to finish.
    2. A comprehensive, coherent campaign plan that focused on dismantling the key centers of gravity – leadership; key essential systems; infrastructure; population perceptions; and military forces – that paralyzed Iraq as a state along with its military regime;
    3. Putting a combined/joint force air component commander in charge of the air campaign, and treating each aircraft, missile, and air defense element according to the capability it brought to the campaign plan, regardless of which service or country from where it came;
    4. Reversing the errors of Vietnam by replacing the gradualism of the ‘Rolling Thunder’ air campaign with the ‘Instant Thunder’ of the Desert Storm air campaign; and
    5. Adopting a true combined/joint approach to the effort using the right force at the right place at the right time – not a traditional land-centric plan that singularly focused on fielded military forces.

Today, against the Islamic State, targets selected and ordnance employed go through a lengthy vetting process, and are approved or disapproved by ground commanders. According to a reported Air Force source on 26 August 2016 it, ‘take[s] an average of between 45 to 60 days before [targets] are vetted and approved.’ That is longer than the duration of Operation Desert Storm in its entirety.  The excessive time factor in Operation Inherent Resolve target development due to of concern of unintended civilian casualties, allows critical Islamic State functions to continue to operate.  By not rapidly striking them actually countenances the Islamic State to perpetuate its terror, atrocities, and murder.

What is the morality of a policy that restricts the use of airpower to avoid the possibility of collateral damage while allowing the certainty of the Islamic State’s crimes against humanity? Members of today’s coalition should enter into their casualty avoidance calculus how many of the Islamic State’s intentional murders of innocents would be avoided by rapidly collapsing the organizational elements that allow the Islamic State to function.

The current approach to the Islamic State is gradualist – over two years to date, and the prospect of years of continuance; it is an anemic approach – an average of only 6 US strike sorties a day over the first two years of operations; and it is without definition – no comprehensive and focused strategy has been identified to achieve the stated objectives of degrading and destroying the Islamic State. The result is an approach that is fragmented, less than optimal, and yields the advantage of time to the adversary resulting in expansion and export of its deleterious effects. The enemy, over time, learns how to deal effectively with the gradual use of airpower and grows stronger, while our allies and our citizens lose interest, and our military forces – our brave airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines – tire of the endless rotations into and out of the fight. Our present is our past: not the swift, decisive past of Desert Storm but rather the quagmire that was Vietnam.

Today’s generation of airmen must renew the spirit of innovation and creativity enabled by exploiting the virtues of operating in air and space, as did the founders of our Air Force. Those characteristics delivered success in Desert Storm, and can do so again in the future. The innovative application of the tenets of aerospace power is what made Desert Storm such a success, and can be applied to the challenge of the Islamic State. Replace the current desert ‘drizzle’ with a ‘thunderstorm’ aimed not just at the hands and feet of the Islamic State but at its head and heart as well.  It is the duty of every Air Force member to understand airpower, advocate and articulate its characteristics and capabilities, and educate those who do not understand.  For if they don’t, no one else will. The Nation deserves to hear the options allowed by airpower, and will benefit from their proper application.

Lieutenant General David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.) is the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He is a world-recognized leader and pioneer in conceptualizing, planning, and executing national security operations from humanitarian relief to major combat. He was the principal attack planner for the Operation Desert Storm air campaign; commander of no-fly-zone operations over Iraq in the late 1990s; director of the air campaign over Afghanistan in 2001; twice a joint task force commander; and was the air commander for the 2005 South Asia tsunami relief operations. He served on two congressional commissions charged with outlining America’s future defence posture. He is a fighter pilot with more than 3,000 flying hours – 400 in combat – Including multiple command assignments in the F-15. His last assignment was as the Air Force’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), where he transformed America’s military ISR and drone enterprises—orchestrating the largest increase in drone operations in Air Force history. He retired from the Air Force in 2010 after more than 34 years of distinguished service. He has BA and ME degrees from the University of Virginia and a MS degree from National War College. In addition to his duties as Dean of the Mitchell Institute, he is the RisnerSenior Military Scholar at the US Air Force Academy; a board member at a variety of organizations; an independent consultant; and sought after commentator around the world as a thought leader on defence, strategy, and ISR.

From Defence of the Baltic to the Airspace above Kosovo: The Transformation of the Royal Danish Air Force, 1989-1999

From Defence of the Baltic to the Airspace above Kosovo: The Transformation of the Royal Danish Air Force, 1989-1999

By Dr Søren Nørby

The 30th of May 1999 is an important date in the history of the Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF). On this day, Danish General Dynamics F-16s dropped bombs against a hostile target for the first time in its history. The target was in Serbia; a country located more than 1,500 kilometres from Denmark, and with which Denmark was not legally at war. Instead, what the RDAF participated in was a ‘humanitarian intervention’ that was supposed to stop a potential Serbian genocide in the province of Kosovo.

RDAF participation in the intervention against Serbia in 1999 was the end of a period fundamental transformations of the Air Force after the end of the Cold War. In this period, almost every aspect of the RDAF began to change – its doctrine, technology, and central mission. This article explores those changes by looking at the role of the RDAF during the post-Cold War conflicts in Yugoslavia between 1992-1995 and Serbia in 1999.[1]

In 1989, the RDAF was small but versatile. It consisted of more than 100 aircraft, a force of ground-based air defence centred around eight mobile missile batteries (I-HAWKs), seven large airbases, and a well-developed command-and-control-system that maintained a constant aerial picture of Denmark and the surrounding area. Its peacetime force was approximately 8,200 personnel, which could be increased to 17,500 in wartime. The RDAF was well integrated into NATO, and its main task was the defence of the western part of the Baltic Sea in case of an attack from the Warsaw Pact.[2] This was a role the RDAF undertook in conjunction with other NATO partners.

From ‘Peace-dividends’ to the Civil War in Yugoslavia

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was one of the most momentous events in the modern history of the Danish defence policy. It prompted a shift away from the low-profile approach that had been the cornerstone of Danish policy since the end of the Second World War. In September 1990 the Danish government deployed the corvette, Olfert Fischer, as part of Operation DESERT SHIELD, the United Nations (UN) sanctioned military operation against Iraq, following the occupation of Kuwait. This deployment illustrated to Danish politicians that there was political capital to be gained from participating in such operations, far from Danish shores. At the same time, the Danish Defence Command, which coordinated and controlled the Danish military, realised that operations far from Denmark were a way to stay relevant and to avoid the hard cuts to the defence budget that some Danish politicians wanted, now that the enemy – the Warsaw Pact – had disappeared.

In 1992, the UN set up a peacekeeping force for the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. The Danish government decided to participate with approximately 940 soldiers – a large contingent by Danish standards. Initial problems with recruiting the needed number of soldiers resulted in a change in Danish military law that now stipulated that members of the Danish military were required to accept participating in missions outside Denmark’s borders. Approximately five per cent of the men and women employed by the Royal Danish Army, the Royal Danish Navy and RDAF chose not to accept this and left the military.[3]

In 1993, the Danish government strengthened the Danish contribution to the UN operation in Yugoslavia by deploying ten main battle tanks. Denmark thus became the first country to deploy such heavy weapons in a UN operation. When Danish politicians voiced concern that the deployment of the Danish tanks would be perceived as a dramatic escalation of UN involvement in the civil war in Yugoslavia, the Danish Armed Forces decided that the tanks should be painted white, giving them the nickname ‘The Snow Leopards.’

The deployment of Danish Leopard 1 tanks to the Former Yugoslavia in 1992 marked an important turning point in Denmark’s defence policy. (Source: Author)

Pressure from International Organisations

The RDAF was initially not deployed on the international stage, other than a single Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which in 1992 flew ten trips as part of the emergency assistance provided to the Yugoslav city of Sarajevo.[4] The pressure to change the RDAF contribution came from NATO, which had begun its transformation towards a smaller, but more flexible organisation, capable of faster response times. This process had already begun before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it gained further momentum in the 1990s.

In 1991, NATO created two new forces: the Immediate Reaction Forces (IRF), capable of deploying within a few days, and the Rapid Reaction Forces (RRF) with a deployment time of a few weeks. Here the Danish government decided that that the RDAF’s Squadron 730 should be Denmark’s contribution to the IRF.[5]

The contribution of Squadron 730 to NATO’s IRF marked a shift in focus for the RDAF. During the Cold War era, NATO-planning envisaged that British and American squadrons would reinforce the RDAF.[6] NATO had planned to reinforce the RDAF with one Royal Air Force squadron of Hawker Harriers and two squadrons of SEPECAT Jaguars. United States Air Force (USAF) reinforcements were to consist of one squadron of McDonnel-Douglas F-15s, three F-16 squadrons, and one squadron of Republic A-10 Thunderbolts.

The 1990s, however, saw the RDAF shift to an expeditionary role whereby it contributed to the safety of others outside of Denmark’s borders. As such, the importance of making Squadron 730 available for NATO’s IRF cannot be overstated. Squadron 730 became the ‘flagship’ unit of the RDAF.

NATO’s involvement in the Civil War in Yugoslavia

In parallel with the above developments, during the first years of the 1990s, NATO became increasingly involved in the civil war in Yugoslavia. A UN ordered No Fly Zone had to be enforced by NATO, and in February 1994, this led to aircraft from the Alliance coming into action for the first time when US aircraft downed four Bosnian-Serbian fighter jets over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A Royal Danish Air Force F-35 Drakken aircraft taxis into takeoff position during Exercise OKSBOEL ’86. (Source: Wikimedia)

On several occasions, the Danish government considered contributing Danish aircraft to NATO operations over Yugoslavia. Such a move was, however, hampered by Danish politicians, who in 1991 had decided to scrap all of the RDAF’s Saab Draken aircraft. This meant that the Air Force’s ability to perform close air support had been downgraded to the degree that meant that Danish aircraft was unfit to perform their intended tasks over Yugoslavia. Therefore, despite pressure from NATO, the Danish government had to decline NATO’s request to deploy Danish aircraft over Yugoslavia. This was embarrassing for the Danish government and meant an increased focus on the close air support task. This meant procuring new equipment, such as the Low Altitude Navigation Targeting Infrared for Night laser targeting pods (LANTIRN) that would eventually enable the RDAF’s F-16s to use precision-guided munitions (PGM). However, the acquisition and introduction of such equipment was a long process, and the LANTIRNs were not operational until 2001.

In the Line of Fire – Yugoslavia

On 29 April 1994, while the debate over a possible deployment of RDAF F-16s was ongoing, a Danish tank force became involved in combat operations against Serbian forces near Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Danish tanks were ambushed, resulting in a firefight lasting approximately 45 minutes. The episode was the first time since 1943 that troops under the Danish flag had fought in battle. While the Danes did not suffer any losses, the Bosnian Serbs subsequently acknowledged that they had nine killed and 15 wounded. The battle, known under the name Operation Bøllebank (Operation Hooligan Bashing), became just as important to the Danish military as the deployment of the Olfert Fischer four years earlier. It showed that Danish soldiers were ready to put military power behind international engagement and were able to fight.

Bøllebank also showed the soldiers, airmen and sailors in the Danish military that post-Cold War UN-operations were fundamentally different from the peaceful UN-missions that Denmark had participated in before 1989. It became clear to the Danish military that personnel deployed on such a mission could be called on to undertake combat operations. Finally, Bøllebank also illustrated a high degree of political and popular support for the Danish participation in the UN-operations, which subsequently helped to expand the Armed Forces’ maneuvering room in connection with these operations.[7]

RDAF Pressure for Change

During the 1990s the RDAF tried on numerous occasions to convince Danish politicians to deploy Danish planes to the civil war in Yugoslavia. This was driven by a fear that the RDAF’s lack of an international profile would make it difficult to secure funding for new equipment. The various professional heads of the RDAF in this period all wanted to make the entire Air Force deployable, including such elements as the Hawk missile system and radars. Following recommendations from the Danish Defence Command, Danish politicians decided to invest much money in new and more mobile equipment, and the RDAF’s Hercules and Gulfstream transport aircraft were equipped with, among other things, missile warning equipment to enable them to operate in dangerous areas.[8]

The RDAF also devoted resources to developing a Danish doctrine for the operational use of air power. The RDAF was inspired by USAF Colonel John Warden’s theories regarding the strategic use of air power, especially his 5-ring model of the enemy as a system. These ideas were used to set the direction for the development of the RDAF and to provide inspiration for how Danish aircraft could be used in the event of a conflict.[9]


Following Operation DELIBERATE FORCE, the NATO air campaign over Bosnia and Herzegovina between 30 August and 20 September 1995, the civil war in Bosnia was stopped with the so-called Dayton Agreement. This peace deal ended a civil war that had cost more than 100,000 lives and driven more than four million people from their homes. Thanks to the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force of 60,000 personnel, Bosnia and Croatia have since been mostly peaceful.[10]

In the shadow of the civil war, however, another conflict lurked. Within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which after 1995 consisted of Serbia and Montenegro, a significant minority of ethnic Albanians constituted much of the population of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. The conflict between the ethnic Serbs minority and the ethnic-Albanian majority in Kosovo dated back hundreds of years but escalated in 1989 when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic deprived Kosovo of the expanded autonomy enjoyed by the region since 1974.

During the 1990s, the political environment in Kosovo gradually grew worse, and by 1998 large parts of the province were no longer under Serbian control. The Serbian military and police, therefore, initiated a particularly hard-fought effort in Kosovo to restore control of the province – preferably by cleansing the province of ethnic Albanians.[11]

Among other things, because of the experience of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, the world community could not let the Serbs pursue a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Albania. An American-led attempt to find a peaceful solution was therefore made, and the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke was given the task of trying to negotiate a solution.


To put pressure on the Serbian president, on 14 June 1998, NATO gathered a force of approximately 80 fighter jets from 12 countries. In Operation DETERMINED FALCON, these aircraft flew along the Serbian border and illustrated to the Serbian President that NATO was ready to use military power if the Serbs did not halt the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

For this operation, Denmark provided three F-16 aircraft (two plus one in reserve) at just two days’ notice. At 17:30 on 15 June 1998, Danish F-16s, together with a C-130 Hercules carrying support personnel and ammunition, flew to the Italian airbase at Villafranca. The next morning two Danish F-16s took part in the operation along the southern Serbian border to Macedonia and Albania. After a successful operation, the Danish aircraft returned to Denmark.[12]

During the summer of 1998, Richard Holbrooke managed to reach an agreement including the withdrawal of some Serbian forces from Kosovo. Whether DETERMINED FALCON played a role in that agreement or not is unclear.[13] However, the agreement did not last, and in September 1998, up to 300,000 Kosovo Albanians were once again on the run in Kosovo. These refugees threatened to destabilise the entire region and create a flow of refugees in Europe, such as those the world had witnessed during the 1997 collapse of Albania. The European authorities were very aware of this, and the European Union put much effort into stopping the Serbian cleansing of the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo.

Towards Operation ALLIED FORCE

Concurrent with this process, NATO began planning a military operation. On the 8 October 1998, the Danish government made available six F-16s (four operational plus two reserve aircraft) and support personnel, totalling 120 men, for a NATO operation named OPLAN 10601 ALLIED FORCE. This operation was designed to compel the Serbs to return to the negotiating table and ensure that the Serbian forces left Kosovo by the 16 October.

One of the six RDAF F-16s deployed as part of Operation ALLIED FORCE in 1999. (Source: Author)

The Danish F-16s and most of the personnel initially came from Squadron 730. At the time, however, the RDAF had only 36 pilots with current operational experience on the F-16 aircraft. This figure included pilots serving at the RDAF headquarters as staff officers. The Danish contribution to ALLIED FORCE required six pilots in Italy, six on standby in Denmark and six for other operations, including those on leave at home in Denmark. The deployment thus required half of the RDAF’s available F-16 pilots. This problem was further exacerbated by the fact that all the deployed pilots had to be certified for the weapons systems that were expected to be used during the operation.

ALLIED FORCE, therefore, put much pressure on the entire fighter structure and operations of the RDAF. This pressure meant that all tasks that did not directly relate to air policing the skies over Denmark or ALLIED FORCE were discontinued. For example, among other things, Squadron 727 suspended the training of new pilots, while most of its pilots were deployed to Italy. In the long run, this would ultimately have an impact on the RDAF’s ability to meet its readiness level.[14]

Thanks to political and military pressure, in February 1999, it proved possible to persuade both representatives of the Kosovar rebel movement Kosovo Liberation Army and the Serbian government to initiate negotiations about the future of Kosovo. These took place at the French president’s summer residence at Chateau de Rambouillet, southwest of Paris. On the 18 March, however, it became clear that the negotiations would not lead to a deal, and with the negotiation options exhausted, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana had no other options than on the 23 March to initiate Operation Allied Force. At 19:00 the following night, NATO began launching airstrikes against Serbian targets in Kosovo and Serbia.

The Danish Experience

RDAF F-16s participated in ALLIED FORCE from day one; however, the operation came at an unfortunate time. In addition to the aforementioned pilot issue, the RDAF was in the middle of a midlife update of its F-16s, and the number of operational aircraft was significantly reduced. Initially, the RDAF only had 14 F-16s capable of participating in the air campaign. This meant that the aircraft deployed during the air campaign worked up so many flight hours that had they operated in peacetime they would have had to be sent home to Denmark for inspection. To alleviate this issue, the RDAF’s Tactical Command issued exemptions from the rules to keep the aircraft flying.

For most of the air campaign, Danish F-16s operated in the defensive role. This was a necessary part of ALLIED FORCE. The Air Force of Yugoslavia – even though most of its fighter jets were of an older design – posed a potential threat to NATO had they chosen to resist the Alliance’s attack. However, after having lost four jets during the first days, the Air Force of Yugoslavia chose to keep most of its aircraft on the ground. Nevertheless, political demands from NATO-member states meant that approximately 33 per cent of Alliance aircraft were devoted to the air defence role against potential attacks by the Air Force of Yugoslavia.[15]

On these combat air patrols, Danish F-16s operated in pairs. Initially, their patrol zones were located over the Adriatic Sea, where the essential air tankers operated. As NATO became more confident that Serbian forces would not try to counter NATO operations, the patrol zones moved to the area over Albania and Macedonia and later also Hungary. This allowed the American jets, which had until then patrolled these areas, to be transferred to offensive operations.

Since Danish F-16 pilots were not equipped with night-vision-goggles, they were used in daylight operations. During one patrol over Kosovo, a Danish F-16 was fired at by a Serbian ground-to-air missile, which did not, however, successfully hit its intended target.[16]

Danish Offensive Air Power

While Danish F-16s primarily focused on the air defence role, in the final days of the air campaign, the RDAF aircraft became involved in offensive operations against Serbian targets.

The first Danish bombs were dropped on the 30 May. The details of the attack are still classified, but what is known is that the target was a radio mast in northern Kosovo and that the two F-16s each dropped six MK-82 bombs. From an altitude of 11,000 feet, the pilots visually observed the bombs hitting the target area. For the attack, the Danish planes used ‘dumb’ bombs. The primary reason for this was that it was not necessary to use a more expensive laser-guided bomb (LGB) on the target. Secondly, an attack with an LGB would have required ‘buddy’ lasing. This technique involved one aircraft illuminating the target with a laser and guiding the LGB, dropped from a second aircraft, towards the target. As well as the above, there was also uncertainty about which pilot was responsible for the bomb if it caused collateral damage. The RDAF, therefore, chose to use dumb bombs where there was no doubt that the Danish F-16s were fully responsible for weapons released.

According to one of the pilots involved in the 30 May attack, the target area had visible bomb damage before the Danish attack. The Danish bombs hit close to the target, but due to the uncertainty about the target’s condition before the attack, the military value of the attack was uncertain. For the RDAF, however, the attack was a significant event as it was the first time Danish aircraft had dropped bombs on an adversary.[17]

For the RDAF, its participation in ALLIED FORCE was a test of whether the Air Force had achieved the transformation that the leaders of the Air Force had wanted. The RDAF’s goal in the 1990s had been to create an air force capable of participating in an air campaign alongside its NATO-allies as well as executing the same type of missions as the USAF or the RAF. The RDAF’s conclusion following ALLIED FORCE was that this goal had not been met.

While participation in ALLIED FORCE was historic, with Danish aircraft bombing hostile targets for the first time in its history, the air campaign showed that the RDAF had fallen behind technologically when compared with Denmark’s NATO allies and especially the United States. The RDAF therefore, subsequently initiated a process to catch up with these technological deficiencies. Thus, ALLIED FORCE accelerated the RDAF’s transformation into an ‘expeditionary air force’ tailored for international operations.

A critical element of this transformation was a focus on precision-guided munitions to avoid collateral damage. The effect of participation in ALLIED FORCE was the acceleration in the acquisition of new equipment, such as LANTIRN, and ammunition for the Danish F-16s. When the RDAF deployed in support of US forces in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks on the 11 September 2001, the Air Force’s technology level had been significantly improved.

Conclusion – From Defense of the Baltic to Global Reach

The transformation described in this article meant that the RDAF in 2000, compared with 1989, had been reduced by the following: a 50 per cent reduction in air stations; a 50 per cent reduction in fighter pilots; the number of Hawk squadrons had been reduced by 25 per cent; and the number of fighter aircraft in the RDAF inventory had reduced by 35 per cent. Similarly, the peacetime force had been reduced by 17 per cent to approximately 7,900, while the wartime force had been reduced by 26 per cent to 14,800. These cuts had not only hit the RDAF, but the overall number of personnel in the Danish armed forces had been reduced from 39,000 to 33,200, while the wartime force had fallen from 103,000 to 81,200.

The RDAF had, however, at the same time managed to survive the loss of the Warsaw Pact as its enemy, and had shown Danish politicians that improvements in the RDAF’s capabilities allowed it to participate in international operations far from Denmark. The lack of success in the skies above Kosovo in 1999 was therefore not seen as a failure for the RDAF but as evidence that the Danish politicians needed to spend more money on the Air Force in order to reap the benefits of participating in international operations. This policy eventually showed its merit during the air war over Libya in 2011-2012, where Danish F-16s dropped 923 bombs on Gadhafi’s military forces and showed that they were able to work closely together with the USAF and other allies – a prerequisite today for being on the front line during international missions.

Dr Søren Nørby is a researcher and lecturer at the Royal Danish Defense College in Copenhagen. He earned his PhD from Syddansk Universitet in 2018. He specialises in naval history and is the author of 25 books and more than 50 articles. For more information see www.noerby.net.

Header Image: Based on the experience of the operations over the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, the RDAF underwent a number of critical transformations. One of these transformations was the introduction of new technologies to improve capabilities, such as the LANTIRN pod for use of on the F-16 that came into service in 2001. (Source: Author)

[1] This article is based on the author’s book Når Fjenden Forsvinder. Det danske flyvevåbens udvikling 1989 – 1999 (When the enemy disappears. The transformation of the Danish Air Force 1989-1999) (Odense, 2019).

[2] ’Fakta om Forsvaret 1990,’ København, 1990.

[3] Forsvarskommandoen, Ved Forenede Kræfter (Vedbæk, 2000), p. 210; H. Hækkerup, På Skansen. Dansk forsvarspolitik fra Murens fald til Kosovo (København 2002), p.. 103.

[4] ’Rapport fra Udvalget vedrørende forsvarets materiel’, København 1998, p. 164.

[5] Ringsmose, Danmarks NATO-omdømme. Fra Prügelknabe til duks (Dansk Institut for Militære Studier 2007), p. 19; ‘Årlig Redegørelse 2004’, København 2005, pp. 34-5.

[6] Ved Forenede Kræfter, p. 171.

[7] L. Møller, Det danske Pearl Harbor. Forsvaret på randen af sammenbrud (København, 2008), p. 57; R. Petersen, ’Den bedste ambassadør – civil-militære relationer og demokratisk kontrol i Danmark 1991-2011’ (Phd Thesis, Roskilde Universitet, 2012), p. 207ff; R. Petersen, ’Danske sneleoparder i Bosnien,’ Militært Tidsskrift, 2010; P.V. Jakobsen, Fra ferie til flagskib. Forsvaret og de internationale operationer (København, 2009), p. 9; P.V. Jakobsen, ’The Danish Libya campaign: Out in front in pursuit of pride, praise and position,’ Upubliceret artikel, 2016, p. 195; K.S. Kristensen, Danmark i krig: Demokrati, politik og strategi i den militære aktivisme (København, 2013), p. 38; L. From, ’Da et kampvognsslag ændrede danskernes syn på krig,’ Jyllands-Posten, 3 May 2015; ’Balkan har reddet det danske forsvar,’ FOV Nyhedsbrev 7/2002.

[8] S. Hartov and J.E. Larsen, Forsvarets fly efter 1945 (Flyvevåbnets Specialskole, 1995),  p. 36ff.

[9] John Warden III, The Air Campaign. Planning for Combat (Washington 1988).

[10] M.O. Beale, ‘Bombs over Bosnia. The role of airpower in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ (Thesis, USAF School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1997), pp. 33-4; Christian Anrig, The quest for relevant air power: continental European Responses to the air power challenges of the post-cold war era (Maxwell, AL, 2011), p.. 32, 179; M. Juul and S.W. Nielsen, 12 år på Balkan (København 2004), p. 46; John Olsen (ed.), Air Commanders (Dulles, VA, 2013), p. 356ff; C. Axboe, Vi troede ikke, det kunne ske her – Jugoslaviens sammenbrud 1991-1999 (København, 2018), p. 227-53.

[11] Axboe (2018), p. 275.

[12] I. Daalder and M. O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly. NATO’s War to Save Kosovo (Brookings Institution Press, 2001), pp. 32-3; G. Schaub, Learning from the F-16 (København, 2015), p. 19ff.; M. Vilhelmsen, ’Operation Allied Force (AOF): Da Flyvevåbnet med voksent,’ Upubliceret. Vojens, 2010, p.. 2; ’Rapport vedr. dansk flyvevåben deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 12 november 1999, B2-B3; Årlig Redegørelse 1998, pp.. 33-6.

[13] Nørby (2019), p. 131-7.

[14] Hammerkasterne: Historien om Eskadrille 727 gennem 50 Ar (Skrydstrup, 2005), p. 162-3; ’Flugten er stoppet – men stadig mangel på F-16 piloter,’ Berlingske Tidende, 7 May 1999; ’Rapport vedr. dansk flyvevåben deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 12 November 1999, p.. B-11 og D-10. TTJ og ’F-16 planlægningsmøde vedr. evt. overgang til anvendelse af F-16 MLU i f.m. Flyvevåbnets deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 8 March 1999.

[15] Olsen (2010), p. 233.

[16] Forsvarskommandoens Presse- og Informationssektion 2001, pp. 12-5.

[17] Schaub (2015), p. 10: Vilhelmsen (2010), pp.. 3-4; ’Danske jagere bomber Milosevic,’ Ekstra Bladet, 28. May 1999; T. Kristensen, Kysser Himlen (København, 2017), pp. 179-180.

Cold War Nuclear-Powered Aircraft: A Step Too Far

Cold War Nuclear-Powered Aircraft: A Step Too Far

By Dr Peter Layton[1]

Birds and aircraft have a fundamental problem: their range and endurance are limited. To remain aloft requires the expenditure of energy. Eventually, birds must land and rest, and aircraft must refuel. The invention of nuclear power in the 1940s appeared to offer a way to cut this Gordian knot. A nuclear-powered aircraft could, it seemed, provide dramatically improved range and endurance compared to chemically fuelled powered aircraft.

Such ambitions were strengthened as the Cold War between the US and the USSR worsened. The Cold War released immense funding for military purposes while providing an operational rationale: a requirement for very long-range bombers able to strike military-industrial complexes deep in the Soviet heartland. The generous funding now available meant numerous new high technology possibilities could be considered, built, trialled and if successful enter mass production. An obvious candidate to research and investigate seemed nuclear-powered aircraft.

The original ideas about using nuclear power for aircraft propulsion had appeared around 1944. These led to a minor research program, the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft study, beginning in mid-1946. Undertaken by Fairchild, this examined reactor technologies and engine transfer systems. These studies proved encouraging and so in 1951, with the Cold War deepening, the United States Air Force (USAF) proposed to begin actively developing manned aircraft nuclear propulsion. Contracts were let for three main elements: two X-6 prototype test aircraft, a nuclear propulsion system (reactor and turbojets) and an NB-36H reactor flight-test aircraft.

An air-to-air view of the Convair NB-36H Peacemaker experimental aircraft and a Boeing B-50 Superfortress chase plane during research and development taking place at the Convair plant at Forth Worth, Texas. This plane was called the Nuclear Test Aircraft (NTA) and was redesignated XB-36H, then NB-36H. The NTA completed 47 test flights and 215 hours of flight time (during 89 of which the reactor was operated) between July 1955 and March 1957 over New Mexico and Texas. (Source: Wikimedia)

Convair received the X-6 contract. The aircraft was envisaged as being of comparable size to the company’s B-36 Peacemaker bomber with a length of 50m, a wingspan of 70m and an empty weight of some 100 tonnes. The X-6 was planned to have 12 turbojets; eight conventionally fuelled used for take-off and landing, and four nuclear-powered used during in-flight trials. This was an ambitious but expensive test program and was cancelled by the incoming Eisenhower administration in 1953 on budgetary grounds. However, the other two elements continued.[2]

General Electric was awarded the propulsion contract, progressively developing across 1955-1961 three direct-cycle nuclear power plants under the ground-based Heat Transfer Reactor Experiment (HTRE) test-rig program. The final HTRE-3 propulsion system featured a solid moderator using lightweight hybrided (sic) zirconium instead of water, a horizontal reactor to meet aircraft carriage requirements and produced sufficient heat to power two X-39-5 (modified J-47) turbojets simultaneously. HTRE-3 had several firsts including demonstrating an all-nuclear turbojet start, having a primary shield able to handle radiation levels expected in flight and in being designed for in-flight stresses, air pressures, temperatures, and G loadings.[3]

The third element was to flight test a reactor. In mid-1952, Convair was contracted to modify two B-36 aircraft: one for a ground test, the other for flight test and designated as the NB-36H. The major modifications involved firstly, the crew compartment and avionic cabin being replaced by an 11-tonne nose section lined with lead and rubber to protect against reactor radiation and secondly, the rear internal bomb bay being altered to allow fitment of the 16-tonne reactor. Less apparent were the cockpit glass transparencies being some 30cm thick and nine water-filled shield tanks in the fuselage to absorb any escaping radiation.[4]

In the meantime, the USAF was firming up its requirements. In March 1955, General Operational Requirement (GOR) No. 81 was issued seeking a nuclear-powered weapon system, WS-125A. Aspirations included a range of about 10,000nm, an operating altitude of 60,000-75,000ft and an endurance of perhaps more than a week airborne.[5]  WS-125A was to have a cruise speed of at least Mach 0.9, desirably offer supersonic dash in the target area and enter service with operational units in 1963.[6]  Realising such high ambitions was to prove problematic.

In July 1955, the NB-36H began flight test with the reactor going critical in flight for the first time in September. The reactor did not power the aircraft, instead of being tested to verify the feasibility of a safe, sustained nuclear reaction on a moving platform. For each NB-36 flight, the one-megawatt reactor was winched up into the bomb bay at a dedicated pit at Convair’s Fort Worth plant and then removed again after landing.[7] When in flight, the aircraft was accompanied by a radiation-monitoring B-50 (a slightly updated B-29) and a C-119 transport aircraft carrying paratroopers able to be dropped to secure any crash site and limit bystander exposure to radiation.[8] In total, the NB-36H made 47 flights, ceasing flying in March 1957.

The results of the nuclear propulsion tests and the NB-36H were mixed. HTRE-3 had proven nuclear-power turbojet feasible and that a flyable propulsion unit could be built albeit technical challenges remained. The major problem was that it was hard to build a nuclear reactor small enough to fit into aircraft, but which produced the operationally significant energy output required. It seemed that using contemporary technology would mean nuclear-powered aircraft were relatively slow. For a time, concepts of ‘nuclear cruise, chemical dash’ were investigated; supplemental aviation fuel would allow supersonic dash in the target area.[9]

Moreover, the NB-36H flight programme highlighted the hazards associated with operating such nuclear-powered aircraft. While well-shielded aircraft would not normally pose radiation dangers to air or ground crew, there were worries that accidents and crashes might release fission products from the reactors, and about the dosage from prolonged human exposure to leakage radioactivity.[10] In this, the test flights mainly served to draw attention to the real difficulties that would arise in working with nuclear fuel in operational service conditions.[11]

WS-125A was accordingly cancelled in early 1957. However, there remained occasional flickers of renewed interest in nuclear-powered aircraft into the early 1960s. The Continuously Airborne Missile Air Launcher (CAMAL) concept called for a nuclear-powered strike aircraft able to stay aloft on airborne alert for 2-5 days. This led into Dromedary, a turboprop design capable of an airborne alert for 70-100 hours and able to stand-off outside hostile territory and launch the 600-1000nm Skybolt ballistic missile.[12] These ideas meant research into aircraft nuclear propulsion continued although in only a fairly desultory fashion. This finally ended in 1961 when the new Kennedy administration reallocated funding.

The US Navy had also occasionally expressed interest in nuclear-powered turboprop flying boats. In April 1955, Operational Requirement CA-01503 sought a nuclear-powered seaplane capable of high subsonic speeds primarily for the attack of ports and warships using conventional and nuclear weapons with the secondary roles of mining and reconnaissance. The USN desired to have a prototype available for its evaluation no later than 1961. By mid-1956 the Navy had decided a solely-USN power plant was unjustifiable and that the Navy’s aircraft would use the USAF’s WS-125A power plant. The cancellation of the WS-125A thus terminated the USN’s plans as well.[13]  At one stage, it seemed the UK might sell three mothballed Princess-class flying boats to the USN for nuclear-power trials, but funding oscillated and eventually was not forthcoming.[14]

Further afield, the USSR was also busy. In the late 1950s Tupolev designed but did not build two nuclear-powered bombers: the subsonic Tu-119 and supersonic Tu-120. The Soviet leadership thought the projected payloads and speed were inadequate for the costs involved. Tupolev was though authorised to continue research on nuclear aircraft.[15] Accordingly, a Tu-95 turboprop bomber was modified at a nuclear complex near Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan to allow flying a nuclear reactor, becoming the Tu-95LAL (Letayushchaya atomnaya laboratorya – flying atomic laboratory).[16] Mirroring the NB-36H trails, some 34 Tu-95LAL flights were undertaken in 1961 with the reactor on board but without providing propulsion. The tests similarly revealed that a nuclear-powered aircraft was impractical with the technology of the time. The gain in performance from not carrying chemical fuel was consumed by the heavy reactor and shields and so Soviet interest in nuclear-powered aircraft declined.[17]

The Tu-95LAL test aircraft. The bulge in the fuselage aft of the wing covers the reactor.(Source: Wikimedia)

In the end, a better technological solution won out. For both the US and the USSR, the ICBM fitted with lightweight thermonuclear warheads offered a much better answer to the problem of a long-range, highly survivable nuclear strike. The considerable effort and funds expended in investigating nuclear-powered manned aircraft yielded much technical information and engineering expertise but ultimately little else. This was not for lack of interest in the defence aerospace industry. At the time, Kelly Johnson of Lockheed’s Skunk Works fame wrote:

After a half century of striving to make aircraft carry reasonable loads farther and farther, the advent of a [nuclear] power plant that will solve the range problem is of the utmost importance […] this unique characteristic is one to be greeted enthusiastically.[18]

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: An NB-36H producing contrails in flight. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] This post partly draws on the author’s Chapter in Michael Spencer (ed.), Nuclear Engine Air Power (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2019). This book discusses contemporary nuclear-powered propulsion systems for aircraft and missiles.

[2].  Jay Miller, The X-Planes: X-1 to X-31 (Arlington: Aerofax, 1988), pp. 69-73.

[3].  F.C. Linn, Heat Transfer Reactor Experiment No.3: Comprehensive Technical report, General Electric Direct-Air Cycle Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program (Cincinnati: General Electric Company, 1962), pp. 15-18.

[4].  Raul Colon, Flying on Nuclear: The American Effort to Built a Nuclear Powered Bomber.

[5].  Theo Farrell, ‘Waste in weapons acquisition: How the Americans do it all wrong,’ Contemporary Security Policy, 16:2 (1995), p. 194; ‘Thoughts on WS-110A,’ Flight, 10 January 1958, p. 44.

[6].  Comptroller General of the United States, Review of the Manned Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense, B-146749, 28 February 1963, p. 133

[7].  Colon, Flying on Nuclear.

[8].  Miller, The X-Planes., p. 210.

[9]Ibid., p. 73.

[10].  Brian D. Bikowicz, The Decay of the Atomic Powered Aircraft Program, 12 Nov 1992.

[11].  Bruce Astridge, ‘Propulsion,’ in Phillip Jarrett (ed.), Faster, further, higher: leading-edge aviation technology since 194 (London: Putnam, 2002), p. 134.

[12].  Peter J. Roman, ‘Strategic bombers over the missile horizon, 1957–1963,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 18:1 (1995), pp. 208-13.

[13].  Comptroller General, Review of the Manned Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program, pp. 134-40.

[14].  Raymond L. Garthoff, ‘The Swallow and Caspian Sea Monster vs. the Princess and the Camel: The Cold War Contest for a Nuclear-Powered Aircraft,’ Studies in Intelligence, 60:2 (2016), p. 3.

[15].  Arthur J. Alexander, ‘Decision-Making in Soviet Weapons Procurement,’ Adelphi Papers, 18:147-148, (1978), p.32.

[16].  Garthoff, ‘The Swallow and Caspian Sea Monster vs. the Princess and the Camel,’ p. 2.

[17].  Piotr Butowski, ‘Steps Towards Blackjack,’ Air Enthusiast, 73 (1998), p. 40.

[18].  F.A. Cleveland and Clarence L. Johnson, ‘Design of Air Frames for Nuclear Power’, quoted in Bikowicz, Decay.

#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]

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.

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.

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.

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]

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]

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.


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.

#AirWarVietnam – Making a MiG-Killer: Technology and Signals Intelligence for Air-to-Air Combat in Vietnam

#AirWarVietnam – Making a MiG-Killer: Technology and Signals Intelligence for Air-to-Air Combat in Vietnam

By Dr Mike Hankins

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 Mike Hankins discusses the use of signals intelligence via Project Teaball that helped to improve the air-to-air combat ratios of the United States Air Force during 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.

Air-to-air combat in the Vietnam War has long been a sore subject for some observers.[1] Sources vary, but U.S. forces overall killed approximately 200 MiGs while losing about 90 planes to them, for a ratio of about 2.2:1.[2] Robert Wilcox, in his history of the Top Gun program, calls this ‘embarrassingly low.’[3] Looking just at 1968, the picture is even bleaker. The US Navy was disappointed with its 3:1 ratio and the US Air Force (USAF) traded McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms for MiGs at nearly a 1:1 rate. During the bombing halt between 1968 and 1972, both services sought to upgrade their technology and training, including the creation of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as ‘Top Gun.’ In 1972 when the LINEBACKER bombing campaign began, the US Navy’s air-to-air record jumped to 6:1. The USAF struggled in the early months of LINEBACKER, earning a negative kill ratio for the first time in the war and perhaps in its existence.[4]

The US Navy is often praised for their changes to training procedures (even though Top Gun initially had little support from US Navy leaders) while the USAF is often criticised for over-reliance on technological solutions.[5] However, the most significant improvement in air-to-air combat for the USAF was the result of a technological system: Project Teaball – a Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) system that allowed analysts on the ground to track enemy planes in real-time and communicate that information to pilots in the air.

‘Teaball’ was just as critical to the USAF’s air combat success during the LINEBACKER campaigns as Top Gun was for the US Navy. It demonstrated that the USAF was open to change and adapted its technological culture to meet new challenges. This is not to take away from the undeniable success of the Top Gun program, nor to diminish the importance the USAF’s effective RED FLAG program that began shortly afterwards. In the last throes of the Vietnam War, both technology and training worked in tandem.

Web of Confusion

North Vietnamese pilots had long relied on GCI to direct their movements – ground controllers used their extensive radar coverage of the area to track aircraft and give detailed second-by-second instructions to MiG pilots.[6] American forces were different. They tended to rely more on the initiative and skill of individual pilots, but they also had far less radar coverage of the areas they flew over in North Vietnam. Complicating, this was the fact that US radar stations were not well integrated, creating a confusing web of systems competing for pilots’ attention.

NVAF MiG-19 pilots of the 925th fighter squadron discussing tactics in 1971
North Vietnamese MiG-19 pilots discuss air-to-air combat tactics (Source: US Air Force)

The USAF operated a ground radar covering the southeast at Da Nang. Another radar further north at Dong Ha known as ‘Waterboy’ covered the lowest reaches of North Vietnam, although few air-to-air engagements occurred there. For further coverage, USAF flew a Lockheed EC-121 known as ‘College Eye,’ which was excellent over water but was less accurate over land. Other radar stations existed in Thailand, including ‘Brigham,’ at Udorn, and ‘Invert,’ at Nakon Phanom. These stations contributed ground control and navigational assistance, although their short-range provided almost no coverage of North Vietnam itself.

Hankins Radar Map
This map shows the radar coverage of systems prior to Project Teaball. Note that coverage above the 20th parallel, where air combat was much more likely, was almost nonexistent.

The US Navy used a system called ‘Red Crown,’ a ship-based radar located in the Gulf of Tonkin, to provide early warning of approaching MiGs. There was some limited cooperation between ‘Red Crown’ and ‘College Eye’ during Operation ROLLING THUNDER. The bottom line for all these radar systems was that none of them was effective for strikes further North than the 19th parallel, where air combat was more likely, and some of these systems, such as ‘Red Crown,’ could not effectively track planes below 10,000 feet, where MiGs often flew.[7]

However, radar was only one way to gain situational awareness of enemy MiGs. Communications surveillance, or signals intelligence (SIGINT), could track enemy movements and plans. In 1967, the USAF brought in new EC-121s known as ‘Rivet Top; to do just that: Intercept North Vietnamese communications and pass on vital information to American pilots. ‘Rivet Top’ was a success. In its limited time of employment, American forces claimed 20 MiG kills, 13 of which received direct contributions from ‘Rivet Top.’[8] However, the ROLLING THUNDER campaign ended before they could make a more significant contribution. At the beginning of the LINEBACKER Campaign, the US Navy’s ‘Red Crown’ ship returned, and the USAF instituted a system known as ‘Disco,’ essentially a slightly upgraded version of ‘College Eye.’ Under ‘Disco,’ multiple EC-121s provided a larger area of radar coverage and continued the SIGINT role provided by the ‘Rivet Top’ equipment, although the system suffered many of the same problems that plagued the ‘College Eye’ system, such as a limited range, limited crew and equipment capacity, and the need to stay in slow, controlled orbits.[9]

Both sides found that GCI was key to air-to-air victory. General John Vogt, Director of the Joint Staff and later commander of the Seventh Air Force, argued that MiG successes were attributable entirely to how their radar systems connected to their command and control practices.[10] USAF Ace fighter pilot Richard ‘Steve’ Ritchie went so far as to state that flying a protective escort without GCI warning of incoming MiGs was ‘useless,’ and that employment of US GCI ‘was one of the primary reasons that we were able to engage MiGs and effect kills.’[11] Yet the limited range, communications problems, and frequent technical failures limited US GCI efforts.

The F-4D flown by Captains Richard S. Ritchie and Charles B. DeBellevue at Udorn AFB in 1972. This aircraft is currently on display at the Air Force Academy. (Source: US Air Force)

Green Door Syndrome

An equally serious bureaucratic problem aggravated these technological difficulties. Unknown to most fighter pilots, the National Security Agency (NSA) frequently intercepted North Vietnamese communications – including information about MiG flights. Some NSA analysts, such as Delmar Lang, had previously advocated combining these intercepts with GCI to provide a more accurate picture of enemy locations and movements. Lang had developed such a system in the Korean War, contributing to the success of North American F-86 Sabre pilots. Lang had offered to create a similar program in Vietnam, but both NSA and USAF leaders, particularly Major General George Keegan, Director of Air Force Intelligence, repeatedly turned him down.[12] Interception of North Vietnamese transmissions was classified, and American pilots did not have proper security clearance. This policy was not unfounded. Using these intercepts could undoubtedly aid American pilots but using them too frequently risked alerting the North Vietnamese that the US was intercepting their signals.[13]

This was a dilemma for American planners who needed to balance using the data with keeping its existence secret. However, USAF leaders such as Keegan simply refused to pass on any information to American pilots in combat. This created a sense of ill will between pilots and intelligence agents. As former USAF intelligence officer, Gilles Van Nederveen noted, ‘US pilots, already frustrated by the small amount of data provided to them, felt betrayed when they learned that some losses over Vietnam could have been prevented if intelligence data had been shared with them.’ This animosity grew so prevalent that it received a name: ‘green door syndrome,’ so labelled because, in many combat wing bases in the theatre, classified information was kept in vaults usually behind a green door.[14]

LINEBACKER and Project Teaball

When bombing (and air-to-air combat) resumed in earnest with the LINEBACKER campaign in May 1972, the US, particularly the USAF, received what Colonel Russ Everts, an F-4 Pilot, generously called ‘an old fashioned butt kicking, pure and simple.’[15] After some initial successes that May, in June and July, USAF F-4 Phantoms claimed 8 MiGs, with the US Navy shooting down only 3. While the US Navy only lost one F-4, USAF lost 13.[16] The US Navy could still claim their previous 3:1 ratio; the USAF had sunk to its lowest ratio during the war, 0.6:1. For the first time in the war, the kill ratios favoured the North Vietnamese.

These reversals rippled through USAF quickly, prompting investigations into the quality of fighter pilots. General William Momyer, then commander of Tactical Air Command (TAC), who had previously resisted any alterations to training procedures, changed his mind and recommended the creation of an ‘Aggressor’ squadron to simulate MiGs in air combat training (building on a program at Nellis run by Major Roger Wells). Although Chief of Staff of the Air Force General John Ryan approved the Aggressor concept at that time, the program did not begin until after the war was over and thus it had no effect on air combat in Vietnam.[17]

However, one element the USAF could fix in time to make a difference was their GCI system. The summer’s heavy losses, increasing concern from Vogt about the shortcomings of American GCI, and pressure from eager NSA analysts and USAF pilots all overrode earlier concerns with sharing classified intelligence and pushed the issue higher up the chain of command. Ryan directly contacted the head of the NSA, Admiral Noel Gayler – himself a former US Navy aviator – and requested the creation of an improved early warning system to alert pilots to approaching MiGs. With Ryan and Gayler’s approval, General Vogt worked with Delmar Lang and Lieutenant Colonel William Kirk to establish Project Teaball at Nakhom Phanom Air Force Base in Thailand in August 1972.[18]

Teaball 1
The flow of information from various radar and SIGINT sources, to the Teaball center that was eventually disseminated to pilots. (Source: Nederveen, ‘Wizardry’)

‘Teaball’ took the classified NSA intercepts and combined them with other US radar sources. These included the radio calls sent from North Vietnamese pilots to their ground controllers and vice versa, revealing precise locations and vectors for their MiGs. This information was fed into a computer known as ‘Iron Horse’ that took data from these sources and quickly synthesised it into a composite display showing a near real-time picture of the location of all friendly and enemy aircraft over North Vietnam.[19] ‘Teaball’ operators then sent this information directly to pilots via Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) radio signals relayed through a Boeing KC-135 aircraft code-named ‘Luzon.’

There was still tension between some pilots and the intelligence community. Kirk worked to build trust between the two groups and overcome ‘green door syndrome’ by personally visiting every single wing in the theatre to brief them on ‘Teaball’s’ capabilities, the accuracy of its data, and the methods he used to contact pilots directly.[20] Finally, US pilots could have situational awareness of the aerial battlefield and early warning of MiG threats. However, ‘Teaball’s’ implementation differed from the authoritarian North Vietnamese GCI system and simply provided information to pilots. The American ground controllers often suggested courses of action, but individual pilots handled threats at their discretion.

The Best Show We’ve Had

‘Teaball’ was only active from August 1972 until the end of LINEBACKER operations in October. In that time, USAF F-4’s shot down 21 MiGs with only six losses. Of those kills, 13 were a direct result of vectoring from ‘Teaball.’[21] Of those losses, five of the six occurred when ‘Teaball’ was down due to technical failure, demonstrating just how critical the system was to the USAF effort. When examining only MiGCAP flights, USAF F-4s claimed 18 kills with five losses, a nearly 6:1 ratio.[22] During that same timespan, the US Navy got two kills but lost two Phantoms.[23] General Vogt extolled the program’s success:

This is the most effective show we’ve had during the entire war with the battle against the MiGs […] This proved one thing – if you can show the American fighter pilot where [the enemy] is in sufficient time, he’ll shoot him down.[24]

Vogt went on to say:

Same airplane, same environment, same situation, same tactics; largely [the] difference [was] Teaball. It was one of the most impressive developments we’ve had out here.[25]

Pilots praised ‘Teaball’ as well. One mission report stated: ‘A good GCI capability made the difference, and will in the future.’ Another echoed: ‘Computerized real-time intelligence will get more kills than all the fighter sweeps we can put together.’[26]

No matter how well-trained a pilot is, if they do not realise they’re under attack, they cannot use their training. ‘Teaball’ gave them that warning, preventing further losses. ‘Teaball’ also provided more accurate visual recording of encounters than the memory of pilots could provide, enabling both a better study of enemy tactics and a useful training tool. It was also invaluable for search and rescue efforts, as ‘Teaball’ data could pinpoint the location of downed aircrews, enabling rescue craft to arrive quickly.[27]

However, the program, literally operating out of the back of a van, was not without problems.[28] The ‘Iron Horse’ computer was powerful for its time, but processing the data of all the SIGINT and radar inputs took an average of two minutes – an eternity in a dogfight. For this reason, ‘Teaball’s’ role was limited to providing early warning only. Once combat began, most pilots relied on more timely information from ‘Disco’ or ‘Red Crown’ if in range.[29] Also, the UHF radio relays in F-4 cockpits were old and broke down frequently.[30]

Increased American success forced the North Vietnamese Air Force to scale back its operations, flying fewer missions and attempting to counter ‘Teaball’s’ tracking ability by turning off their IFF (Identify-Friend-or-Foe) signals. However, that separated North Vietnamese pilots from their GCI, their chief advantage to this point. They could run with radio silence, but that risked making them vulnerable to their surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). ‘Teaball’ operators could spot them as soon as they tried to alert their missile sites. The more common technique the North Vietnamese used to get around ‘Teaball’ was deception. Ground controllers sent messages pretending to be pilots, essentially creating ‘ghost MiGs.’ However, ‘Teaball’s’ operators could easily distinguish between these fake calls and authentic ones due to differences in the signal itself.[31]

When LINEBACKER ended, so did most air-to-air combat, but ‘Teaball’ stood ready when LINEBACKER II commenced on 18 December 1972. Lieutenant General Horace Wade, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was impressed enough with ‘Teaball’ to move it into a permanent facility at Nakom Phenom.[32] However, MiGs barely flew during the operation – only 26 were even sighted. USAF Phantoms took down four, the US Navy got one more, and B-52 gunners shot down two. USAF lost two Phantoms to MiGs. North Vietnamese sources claim that MiGs shot down two B-52s as well, but this is unconfirmed by the U.S.[33] This 3.5:1 is above average for the war, if not as impressive as when ‘Teaball’ was most active in LINEBACKER. However, the sample size for LINEBACKER II is incredibly small, and the operation was unique. In any case, although SAMs wreaked havoc on the B-52 fleet, MiGs did not pose a significant threat. By 28 December 1972, North Vietnam had exhausted its SAM supply and was incapable of defending itself from the B-52 raids. When Hanoi expressed its desire to renew serious negotiations, President Nixon halted all bombing north of the 20th parallel. With the signing of final settlements on 23 January 1973, air-to-air combat in the Vietnam War ended.[34]


The typical, perhaps romanticised narrative of air combat in Vietnam is that the US Navy used the ‘correct’ approach when creating the Top Gun program and that the USAF deserves criticism for its failure to produce a similar program and its adherence to technological chimeras. However, this story ignores that the US Navy also used technological improvements, including upgrades to their missiles and the jamming of enemy communications. It fails to note that the US Navy engaged fewer MiGs during the LINEBACKER period, with little contact with the more advanced MiG-21 Fishbed, so perhaps a direct comparison of each service’s kill counts is misleading.

Furthermore, this narrative fails to recognise that the USAF saw a more significant improvement in its effectiveness than did the US Navy in the same period owing to the systems-based, technological approach of Project Teaball. Top Gun worked, but ‘Teaball’ worked better. The role performed by ‘Teaball’ laid the foundation for the later role of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) that has become an essential element of American air power strategy. In the final phase of the Vietnam War, the USAF demonstrated that technological solutions could be effective.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.’ He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A U.S. Air Force Lockheed EC-121K ‘Rivet Top’ of the 552nd Airborne Early Warning & Control Wing, based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, in 1967-68. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] This article is adapted from Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam, 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63:3 (2016), pp. 7-24.

[2] John Correll, The Air Force in the Vietnam War, The Air Force Association (Arlington, VA: Aerospace Education Foundation, 2004), p. 17. See also Robert Futrell, et al., Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1973 (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Air University, 1976); Chris Hobson, Vietnam Air Losses: United States Air Force Navy and Marine Corps Fixed-Wing Aircraft Losses in Southeast Asia 1961-1973 (England: Midland, 2001); and the Red Baron Reports, Volumes I, II, and III, Institute for Defense Analyses Systems Evaluation Division.

[3] Roger K. Wilcox, Scream of Eagles: The Dramatic Account of the US Navy’s Top Gun Fighter Pilots: How they Took Back the Skies over Vietnam (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1992), p. xii.

[4] Red Baron II Vol. I, C-1–E-2, USAF Fighter Weapons Center, 1973; and Red Baron III, Vol. I, C-1–D-6, USAF Fighter Weapons Center, 1974.

[5] Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, 214-215; See for example Steven A. Fino, ‘Breaking the Trance: The Perils of Technological Exuberance in the US Air Force Entering Vietnam,’ Journal of Military History, 77:2 (2013), pp. 625-55.

[6] United States Air Force Oral History Program, Interview #K239.0512-630, Captain Richard S. Ritchie, 11 Oct 72 and 30 Oct 72, 1, pp. 74-5.

[7] William Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Washington D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1978), pp. 150-5.

[8] Marshall Michel, Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), p. 114.

[9] Futrell, Aces, p. 14; Momyer, Air Power, p. 155; Michel, Clashes, p. 226.

[10] M. F. Porter, ‘Linebacker: Overview of the First 120 Days,’ Project CHECO Report, 27 Sept 1973, p. 48.

[11] Ritchie Interview, 37, 8.

[12] Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology During the Cold War, 1945-1989, Book II: Centralization Wins, 1960-1972 (Fort Meade, MD: Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 1995), p. 580.

[13] Michel, Clashes, p. 115; See also Walter J. Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ Air Force Magazine (July 2008), p. 68; and Gilles Van Nederveen, ‘Wizardry for Air Campaigns: Signals Intelligence Support to the Cockpit’ (Research paper for the College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education, Airpower Research Institute, Maxwell: 2001), pp. 2-3.

[14] Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ 24.

[15] Quoted in Marshall Michel III, “The Revolt of the Majors: How the Air Force Changed After Vietnam” (PhD Thesis, Auburn University, 2006), p. 145.

[16] Red Baron III, C-1–D-6.

[17] Michel, ‘The Revolt,’ 146-52. See also, Brian D. Laslie, The Air Force Way of War: US Tactics and Training after Vietnam (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

[18] Johnson, American Cryptology; Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ p. 69; Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ p. 25. See also Calvin R. Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations: September – December 1972,’ Project CHECO Report, 31 December 1978, p. 50.

[19] Author redacted, ‘TEABALL: Some Personal Observations of SIGINT at War,’ Cryptologic Quarterly, 9 (Winter 1991), p. 92.

[20] Quoted in Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ pp. 69-70. See also Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ p. 25-6.

[21] Johnson, American Cryptology, p. 580. See also Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ p. 52.

[22] William Sayers, ‘The Red Baron Reports: What They Really Said,’ Air Power History, 52:3 (2005), p. 12, 39. See also Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ p. 52.

[23] Red Baron III, Vol. 1, C-1–D-6.

[24] Quoted in Porter, ‘Linebacker: Overview of the First 120 Days,’ pp. 46-7.

[25] Quoted in Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ pp. 52-4.

[26] Red Baron III, vol. III, C-29.

[27] Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ pp. 28-9.

[28] Johnson, American Cryptology, p. 579.

[29] Ibid., p. 31.

[30] Ibid., pp. 28-9; Ritchie Interview, p. 8.

[31] Author redacted, ‘TEABALL: Some Personal Observations,’ 94-5.

[32] Ibid., p. 95.

[33] Red Baron III, C-1–D-6. Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat (Mechanicsburg, VA: Stackpole Books, 2010), p. 141, 145. See also, István Toperczer, Mig-21 Units of the Vietnam War and MiG-17 and MiG-19 Units of the Vietnam War, both from Osprey Press. Toperczer and Boniface each claimed to have examined North Vietnamese records, but make no mention or citation of specific documents, and their work has not been peer reviewed. Naturally their claims for NVAF victories are significantly higher that official US records. While their claims may have merit, this article has chosen to rely on official US records where possible, admitting that these are also not perfect.

[34] Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: The Free Press, 1989), pp. 188-9, 198-200.

The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare

The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare

By Dr Heather Venable

It is evil to approach war with fixed ideas; that is, without an open and flexible mind, but it is certain to lead to disaster to approach it with the inapplicable formulas of the past.[1]

To the U.S. Army’s Air Corps Tactical School’s (ACTS) Class of 1936, Major Harold George proclaimed, ‘[W]e are not concerned in fighting the past war;–that was done 18 years ago.’[2] Having dismissed much of the value of studying the First World War for insights into air power, George emphatically returned to this theme a few minutes later, reminding his students that they sought to ‘peer down the path of future warfare. We are not discussing the past.’[3] Similarly, Major Muir Fairchild emphasised the problems caused by the ‘lack of well established principles, developed from past experience, to guide the air force commander.’[4] Suggesting that little of value could be derived from a study of the First World War, it is no wonder that one monograph focusing on the impetus for the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces’ strategic bombardment campaign of the Second World War highlighted the inter-war period as a source of problematic thinking. Tami Davis Biddle’s Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare has stressed the ACTS motto as fittingly emblematic of its institutional culture: ‘we progress unhindered by tradition.’[5]

Austin Hall at Maxwell AFB. Austin Hall was the home of the Air Corps Tactical School before the Second World War. (Source: Wikimedia)

Paradoxically, however, ACTS instructors struggled not to mine the First World War for historical lessons. Fairchild spent almost one-tenth of his lecture reading from the British official history of the First World War in the air, The War in the Air.[6] Similarly, George identified one historical lesson as central to future warfare: Germany had been defeated in the First World War not because its army had surrendered but because its people had crumbled.[7] As Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson explained, it was the ‘collapse of the German nation as a unit’ – largely because the people constituted the ‘weak link’ – that explained the war’s end (emphasis in original). As a result, ACTS ought to focus primarily on targeting civilian morale, albeit indirectly.[8]

Their vision can be modelled in order to depict how ACTS conceived of strategic bombardment and how these ideas changed as they began contemplating how to apply these ideas against Germany in the Second World War. Air War Plans Division (AWPD)-1 and AWPD-42, drafted in July of 1941 and August 1942, respectively, demonstrated important shifts in thinking about air power’s application. Moreover, they presaged a far more tactically minded employment of American air power in the Combined Bomber Offensive than has been recognised generally.[9]

This model draws on a modern interpretation of Carl von Clausewitz’s famous triangle, which is often thought of today as consisting of the following three legs: the government, the people’s passions, and the military.[10] The ACTS model could be depicted as follows: air power is best used at the strategic level to bend the enemy’s will; thus it should focus on affecting an opponent’s government and people because this approach provides the most direct path to achieving one’s desired political ends. A tactical focus on fielded forces, by contrast, is far less desirable because it is fundamentally inefficient. On occasion, however, a focus on the military might have a significant strategic effect. In other cases, an effect on electricity, for example, might have a strategic effect on the government and people as well as a more tactical effect on the military.

Diagram 1 Venable

This thinking went beyond ideas of an ‘industrial web,’ which continue to dominate many scholars’ discussions of ACTS thinking.[11] By zeroing in on the concept of a national structure, ACTS worked to link kinetic effects on industrial targets to the military as well as to the population, thus helping to refresh some aspects of strategic thinking in the wake of the Industrial Revolution – albeit with critical flaws. This thinking can be seen in ten recently published lectures of ACTS edited by and commented upon by Phil Haun. Of the more than 60 lectures presented at ACTS, Haun has identified these ten as representing the school’s ‘most mature thinking’ while reaching the greatest number of officers.[12]

A kind of national structure potentially could make room for a wider array of effects than an industrial web theory could, even if it struggled to make causal links between effects and political ends. By 1936, for example, ACTS envisioned a strategy that targeted the ‘vulnerabilities’ of ‘modern industrial nations’ aimed primarily at one point of the triangle: the people, as reflected in two lectures by George and Captain Haywood Hansell.[13] These lecturers advocated the destruction of carefully selected points in societies to cause ‘moral collapse’ – or effects on the population – as the immediate effect of strategic bombardment. The nation’s ‘will to resist’ was ‘centered in the mass of the people,’ as Hansell explained. Attacks on ‘vital elements upon which modern social life is dependent’ allowed for a focus on an opponent’s will rather than the more circuitous and inefficient focus on its means.[14] Hansell struggled to connect the effect on the people to any ‘express[ion] through political government.’[15] In effect, he wished away the government leg of the triangle. George further reasoned that even if strategic bombardment failed to have the desired effect on the population, it could have a positive effect on the military leg of the triangle due to the abundant material requirements of industrialised warfare.[16]

As such, George’s lecture anticipated a more mature 1939 lecture by Fairchild, which better integrated the effects of selected industrial attacks on two legs: people and the military, with the hope of simultaneously:

[r]educing the capacity for war of the hostile nation, and of applying pressure to the population both at the same time and with equal efficiency and effectiveness.[17]

Fairchild’s carefully parsed assumption about equal effect is dubious; after all, airpower thinkers have been infamous for their promises to be able to quantify the effect. Moreover, again, the government leg of the triangle remains absent. His point that the enablers of industry such as electricity and oil are ‘joined at many vital points’ places these critical aspects within the triangle, thereby potentially affecting each point, at least in theory.[18] Fairchild reasoned regarding the importance of preventing one’s opponent from acquiring key materials, such as petroleum, as well as the transportation system and electricity.[19] Today it is common to describe ACTS as efficiently identifying key industrial bottlenecks, but such a characterisation falls short of Fairchild’s greater vision. He did not seek to attack industry so much as ‘national structure,’ as he described it.[20]

For Fairchild, this vision appealingly provided a convenient shortcut to waging war so common to advocates of strategic attack. The ‘resulting shock effect’ and the ‘degree of facility with which these installations may be destroyed’ lured airmen with the perennial promise of being home by Christmas.[21] In doing so, Fairchild made assumptions emblematic of ACTS thinking by envisioning a kind of paralysis complemented by efficient destruction.[22] These effects allowed the ‘maximum contribution toward the Allied aim in the war at that time,’ unlike what he regarded as a more ineffective and tactical focus on the fielded forces, which airmen viewed as synonymous with slow attrition.[23]

This theory came to life in AWPD-1, hurriedly envisioned over nine days in July of 1941 by former ACTS instructors such as Lieutenant Colonel Harold George, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Walker, Lieutenant Colonel Orvil Anderson, Major Haywood Hansell, Major Laurence Kuter, Major Hoyt Vandenberg, and Major Samuel Anderson. All but one of these officers had attended and/or taught at ACTS. The plan posited 154 targets of strategic attack to be destroyed in six months in the following priority:

  1. Electricity;
  2. Transportation;
  3. Oil;
  4. Aircraft factories;
  5. Aluminium sources;
  6. Magnesium
  7. Air support in joint operations.

In compiling this list, air planners claimed to adhere to the strategic vision of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy’s War Plans ABC-1 and Rainbow 5, which in Europe required an air offensive designed to reduce German air and naval assets and material while preparing for a ground offensive. However, the planners did not set out a traditional air superiority campaign with an array of targets, including airdromes, aeroplanes, and factories. Rather, they adhered to Fairchild’s emphasis on national structure, relegating aeroplane assembly plants – the first hint of an air superiority campaign – to the fourth priority.[24]

The emphasis of ACTS continuing into AWPD-1 is modelled below, showing the split emphasis on the military and the people as two legs of the triangle, with the people receiving the primacy of focus. A plan focused on enablers such as electricity and oil doctrinally targeting national structure represented the most matured form of ACTS thinking, albeit with a problematic hope in the efficacy of strategic attack.

Diagram 2 VenableBy September of 1942, however, this vision underwent a substantial change in focus, as the emphasis shifted down the spectrum toward more tactical means. AWPD-42 prioritised the destruction of the Luftwaffe, albeit still attained primarily through industrial means in the form of attacks against aeroplane and engine factories. Regardless, such a change represented a significant change in thinking away from more general enablers such as electricity to war material itself that had a less immediate effect on society as a whole. Second, the US Army Air Forces needed to concentrate on submarine building yards, before finally turning its attention to transportation in order to sever the ‘vital link in the Germany military and industrial structure.’[25] Electricity, the epitome of a structural target, had dropped from first to fourth place.[26] In effect, AWPD-42 represented a more traditional and tactical focus, designed as it was to interdict material, though admittedly at its source, before seeking to paralyse the economy.[27] The model below reflects this distribution with more emphasis placed on the military rather than the people, as the general trend in thinking shifted toward destroying a military’s ability to meet its material requirements. Production to strike at the enemy’s fielded forces – rather than the dual enablers of the people’s will and military means – received the greatest focus in AWPD-42.

Diagram 3 Venable

The notion of a quick and easy path to victory through strategic attack proved a chimaera, as it has so often in history. Germany responded to attacks against its aircraft factories, for example, by dispersing them.[28] It also fully mobilised its economy in 1944, although it could do only so much to make up for poor strategic choices. Germany had a price to pay in reduced efficiency; but so too did the Allies in terms of the very kind of attrition that they sought to avoid in the first place. It was not enough to wage an air superiority campaign against factories. German fighters and American fighters and bombers battled each other well into 1945, especially during the Battle of the Bulge.[29]

Modelling and parsing out how ACTS envisioned strategic bombardment provides a historical case study in conceptualising strategic attack and changes in thinking over time. Doctrinally, the US Air Force continues to insist that air power used in strategic attack has the ‘potential to achieve decisive effects more directly without the need to engage enemy fielded forces.’ It cited several operations over the last 50 years in which the Air Force denied its opponents

[a]ccess to critical resources and infrastructure, defeat[ed] enemy strategies, and decisively influence[d] the enemy to end hostilities on terms favorable to US interests.[30]

Amidst the U.S. military’s reemphasis on great power conflict, it is useful to return to the fundamentals to consider how, exactly, a strategic attack might help to achieve its desired ends through a focus on the military, the people, and the government.

Dr Heather Venable is an Assistant Professor of Military and Security Studies at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918.

Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17A in flight near Mount Rainier in Washington state, c. 1938. (Wikimedia)

[1] Quoted in Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Phil Haun (ed. and commentator), Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), p. 71.

[2] Major Harold George, ‘An Inquiry into the Subject ‘War” in Haun, Lectures, p. 35.

[3] George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 37.

[4] Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 48. For another similar lecture opening, see Captain Haywood Hansell, ‘The Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 73. This same tension between rejecting history yet almost immediately jumping to a discussion of historical examples can be seen in Major Frederick Hopkins, ‘Tactical Offense and Tactical Defense’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 100-8. Hopkins also sought relevant lessons from the Spanish Civil War, for which Biddle has argued some airmen were too dogmatic to do. See Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 171.

[5] Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, p. 138.

[6] Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 52-4.

[7] George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 40-1. George even concluded his lecture by returning to this theme. Ibid., p. 44. Also see Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 62 and Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 144. Also see Haun, ‘Introduction’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 8.

[8] Major Muir Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 140. Of course, one’s intent can differ from one’s effects, as occurred in the Second World War due to bad weather and the challenges of precision bombing. For this ethical discussion, see Douglas P. Lackey, ‘The Bombing Campaign: The USAAF’ in Igor Primoratz (ed.), The Bombing of German Cities in World War II (New York: Berghan Books, 2010), pp. 39-59.  Even with precision, indirect effects on civilians can be highly problematic. See Daniel T. Kuehl, ‘Airpower vs. Electricity: Electric Power as a Target for Strategic Air Operations,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 18:1 (1995), pp. 237-266.  

[9] See, for example, Heather Venable, ‘The Strategic Bombardment Campaign that Wasn’t? The Army Air Forces in the European Theater of Operations, 1942-1945,’ The Strategy Bridge, 6 May 2019.

[10] For background on how those ideas are improperly attributed to Clausewitz, see Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres, ‘Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity.’ By contrast, Clausewitz himself set out elements of emotion, chance, and reason. See Christopher Bassford, ‘Teaching the Clausewitzian Trinity.’

[11] For this characterisation of an ‘industrial web theory,’ for example, see Scott D. West, ‘Warden and the Air Corps Tactical School: Déjà Vu’ (Thesis, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1999), p. v and 1.

[12] Haun, Lectures, p. xv.

[13] George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43.

[14] Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 78, 81 and 84. Even as Hansell insisted this was the ‘primary strategic objective’ of Air Forces, he did not make this link for navies’ ability to blockade, instead taking the more Mahanian view that the primary role of the Navy was to destroy other navies. In this way, he highlighted his bias for air power as offering unique shortcuts. Ibid., p. 84.

[15] Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 77.

[16] George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43. Fairchild similarly highlighted the importance of this military capacity. See Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 188-9.

[17] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 143.

[18] Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 189.

[19] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 152-7.

[20] Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 182.

[21] Ibid., p. 185.

[22] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166.

[23] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166. For the very rare recognition that ground operations occasionally could be decisive, see Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces,’ p. 186.

[24] ‘Appendix 2: AWPD-1’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 232-3.

[25] ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 258.

[26] ‘Appendix 1 – Trenchard Memo,’ p. 232 and ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42,’ p. 258 in Haun, Lectures.

[27] While highlighting the more overt focus on supporting an invasion, Robert Futrell argued that the ‘strategic philosophy of the two studies was virtually the same.’ See Robert Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1989), p. 131. For a discussion of strategic interdiction as compared to operational interdiction, see Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 75.

[28] Haun, Lectures, p. 3.

[29] See Danny S. Parker, To Win the Winter Sky: The Air War over the Ardennes, 1944-1945 (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1994), pp. 248-305.

[30] Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, Annex 3-70 Strategic Attack, ‘Fundamentals of Strategic Attack,’ last reviewed 25 May 2017.

#AirWarVietnam – From Combat to Cultural Icon: Unraveling the Legacy of the Helicopter in the Vietnam War

#AirWarVietnam – From Combat to Cultural Icon: Unraveling the Legacy of the Helicopter in the Vietnam War

By Hayley Michael Hasik

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, Hayley Michael Hasik discusses the cultural legacy of American helicopters during 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.

The scene opens with a squadron of helicopters sweeping across the landscape flying in formation over the open rice paddies of Vietnam. The whap-whap-whap of the Huey rotors quickly fades into the background becoming part of the soundtrack of the scene. Gunfire echoes in the background as the helicopters move into the landing zone encountering anti-aircraft fire from nearby North Vietnamese forces. The enemy remains hidden by the dense ground cover; their position betrayed only by the muzzle flashes of their weapons. The Huey slicks touch down, and soldiers quickly disembark and scatter before the Hueys take off just as quickly as they landed. Troops fan out across the open paddies, slogging through high water on alert looking for any sign of the enemy. The whole process seems to happen in slow motion, taking several minutes, but takes mere seconds; the longer these helicopters are on the ground, the more susceptible they are to enemy fire. Or so the narrator declared.

The scene above is not taken from a Hollywood blockbuster, but rather archived footage used in the Bell Helicopter-sponsored 2005 documentary entitled Huey in a Helicopter War, produced as part of the series, Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles. This was not the first instance where Bell, responsible for the development and manufacture of the iconic UH-1 Huey helicopter, helped shape the public image of the Huey in the Vietnam War. Bell was just one of many corporations involved in helping to construct the symbolism of helicopters both during and well after the war.[1] Corporations like Bell, Sikorsky, Hughes Helicopter, and AVCO Lycoming Division participated in and directed the creation of the helicopter mythology and iconography during the Vietnam War. Corporate advertisements and sponsorships in Army Aviation magazine reveal an intimate connection between the legacy of helicopters and these corporations.


As Army Aviation developed into a distinct entity within the U.S. Army in the 1950s and early 1960s, a separate culture also began to develop. Part of this culture included periodicals like Army Aviation, whose readership included ‘civilians, military in every grade from NCO to general officer, and a handful of loyal industry supporters’ with connections to companies such as the helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky and the AVCO Lycoming Division, which produced Lycoming engine used to power many of these helicopters.[2] The Department of Air Training Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma published the first edition in 1952 as a newsletter, The Army Aviator. This newsletter kept readers apprised of events in army aviation. Examples include the construction of airfields, updates and changes to flight safety, various aspects of training, and plans and projects slated for the future of army aviation. There were no images, and certainly no sponsorships, within these yellowed pages. In 1953, the Artillery School became the Army Aviation School at Fort Sill before moving to Camp Rucker, Alabama (now Fort Rucker) in late 1954. Coinciding with this restructuring and increasing professionalisation of Army Aviation, in May 1954, The Army Aviator became the Army Aviation Magazine:

[a]n unofficial, all-component monthly publication financially & editorially supported by voluntary subscriber/correspondents […] No implication must be made that ‘Army Aviation’ is an authorized Army publication.’[3]

In 1957, the Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A) was founded as a ‘not-for-profit organization dedicated to representing the broad interests of Army Aviation.’[4] The Quad-A took over publication of the magazine, providing ‘an essential public forum for the current and future leaders’ in the field of army aviation.[5] This professionalisation coincided with the introduction of corporate sponsors and advertising and contributed further to the developing culture of army aviation.

Corporate Sponsorship and Advertisements

Focusing specifically on the corporate sponsorships and accompanying advertisements published in Army Aviation during the early years of the Vietnam War helps to uncover how the iconography of helicopters developed during the war. Much credit for the imagery of helicopters is given to the media during the war and popular culture after the war. These corporate sponsorships also illustrate how the military-industrial complex was both an economic and cultural phenomenon. The imagery, rhetoric, and symbolism used in the magazine are similar to the images and rhetoric later used in films, on book covers, and recounted in histories of the war. The sponsorships fit into three broad categories. First, advertisements relied on old technology to reinforce the newness and progress of the new technology. Second, the language used in these ads worked alongside the imagery to highlight the toughness and durability of these fragile aircraft. Finally, corporations co-opted actual events in Vietnam, specifically the Battles of Ap Bac and Ia Drang, to portray helicopters as the future of warfare. Focusing on the early years of the war allows one to understand better how helicopters were introduced to the Army and how they were contemporarily incorporated into the narrative of the Vietnam War. How did machines that were fragile, difficult to fly, and, as Jim Willbanks once noted in lecture, could be punctured with an icepick, eventually become the sight and sound of the Vietnam War.

The efforts to draw specific connections between helicopters (the new technology) and tanks or other Second World War machines/weapons (the old technology) is a recurring theme in corporate efforts to promote helicopters as the epitome of technological progress. The most striking visual representations of this phenomenon are the Sikorsky Aircraft advertisements from February 1963 and December 1965. Sikorsky blatantly placed this technology side-by-side to illustrate how this new technology had subsumed old technology, making it hard to ignore the portrayal of helicopters as a sign of military progress. The 1963 advertisement showed a Skycrane effortlessly lifting a tank over a tree line. The symbolism of this photograph is palpable. The new technology (helicopter) reduces the old technology (tank) to cargo. The new technology (helicopter) makes the old technology (tank) obsolete. Not only can this helicopter transport the tank, but, in many instances, the helicopter can go where the tank cannot, rendering the tank incapable of the same role it played in the Second World War and even Korea. The description that accompanied the advertisement explained how these helicopters were in their final testing phase, meaning they had not yet been used in Vietnam, but that did not stop the corporations from marketing them.[6]

A U.S. Army Sikorsky YCH-54A Tarhe helicopter in the 1960s. This helicopter was the first of six pre-production aircraft and was written off in Vietnam on 9 August 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)

This symbolism continued at the end of 1965 with a two-page advertisement highlighting the workhorse capabilities of the Skycrane, which was described as capable of carrying ‘over 10 tons of almost anything […] or 67 combat-equipped troops.’[7] Not only was the Skycrane capable of carrying a tank, as demonstrated nearly three years earlier, but the advertisement showed the Skycrane hovering over a bulldozer, truck, 105-millimetre howitzer, a small aeroplane, and a detachable van capable of holding 67 combat-equipped troops. This new technology subsumed the old technology of the tank and replaced multiple other forms of technology, like the truck and jeep, or made these machines and weapons accessible where they might not have been due to an inability to handle the rugged terrain or dense jungles of Vietnam.

These comparisons between the Second World War and the Vietnam War provided vivid visual images that people could relate to and put the helicopter into terms of America’s most recent large-scale military victory. General John Tolson asserted that the ‘versatility and uniqueness’ of helicopters made them the ‘keystone to airmobility,’ and, ‘The simple fact is that no other machine could have possibly accomplished the job of the helicopter.’[8] In reality, compared to tanks and other armoured vehicles, helicopters of the Vietnam era were vulnerable, easily breakable, and just not that tough. Helicopters were portrayed as more powerful than the technology that helped the US win the Second World War, so they must be powerful enough to win in Vietnam. Or so these ads suggested.

US helicopters also gained cultural resonance in other countries such as Australia. Here a ‘Huey’ lands to take members of 7RAR back to Nui Dat after completion of Operation Ulmarra, August 1967. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

The use of targeted language provided a corporate answer to understanding why helicopters were such a prominent symbol of the Vietnam War. Not only were the advertisements visually promoting the concept of military progress but the phrasing and word choice throughout these sponsorships throughout the Vietnam War reinforced these visual images. AVCO Lycoming Division described the Huey as ‘one of the world’s toughest, most durable helicopters’ and the Lycoming engine that made it fly was ‘the world’s toughest, most durable helicopter engine.’[9] Not only were these helicopters tough and durable, but the missions they carried out were described as ‘demanding’ and ‘rough.’ They were, as Hughes Helicopter pointed out, a ‘tough machine for a tough war.’[10] ‘Helicopters with demanding missions are powered by General Electric,’ was General Electric’s motto.[11] AVCO portrayed the Huey as the ultimate hero. ‘Out here, when things get rough they call in Huey,’ is nothing short of a Superman reference made by AVCO.[12] Hueys were called in for everything from reinforcements and fire power to evacuations and rescues; they were showcased as being capable of any mission. On top of that, one advertisement alluded to helicopter engines, and by association helicopters, as bulletproof.[13] The chosen descriptors worked alongside well-chosen photographs to reinforce certain conceptions of the helicopter. As Alasdair Spark noted in his social history of helicopters, ‘the helicopter became the American touchstone, symbolizing a transcendent American power incarnate in metal.’[14] Society began to see the helicopter as a tough and rugged and exceptional piece of technology.

General Electric, AVCO, and Hughes Helicopter all used this type of terminology to emphasise the toughness and ruggedness of these fragile, or at the very least complicated, machines. Veteran pilots like Warrant Officer James Scott recounted the real-life difficulties of flying helicopters stating, ‘Helicopters are not meant to fly […] They’re an anomaly – they fly, but they’re not supposed to.’[15] Philip Chinnery echoed this sentiment stating:

It is said that flying a helicopter requires great faith and that becoming an old helicopter pilot requires constant suspicion. When one considers how a helicopter flies through the air, we can understand how helicopter pilots grow old before their time […] To fly a helicopter, the pilot requires both hands and both feet and most of his fingers too.[16]

That fragility and extreme diligence and skill needed to operate these machines were not evident in these advertisements. Indeed, further research is required to understand why toughness, rather than speed, manoeuvrability, or versatility was the characteristic most heavily used throughout these advertisements.

Helicopters, Advertisements and the Future of Warfare

Finally, these advertisements co-opted events in Vietnam to further develop perceptions of helicopters as the future of warfare. Both Ap Bac and Ia Drang were the focus of these sponsorships. Generally, these advertisements appeared a few months after the event. In March 1963, a Bell Helicopter ad declared, ‘Combat Proven.’ The ad goes on to say, ‘throughout the engagement, the five Iroquois provided steady fire support.’[17] The image is hard to make out, but it is clearly a Huey flying over what appears to be some dense jungle. The Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963 is generally viewed as the first significant test of US helicopters in combat. American helicopters supported and inserted roughly 1,500 Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops. However, Bell spun the events of Ap Bac. Fourteen of the 15 American helicopters used in the battle were damaged, and five were destroyed. Ap Bac was far from the successful inauguration the Army had hoped for. The helicopters might have been combat tested, but it is hard to call them combat proven.[18]


The second event that corporations appropriated was the Battle of Ia Drang. In the January 1966 issue of Army Aviation, there are references to Ia Drang on the cover and the advertisements inside. This cover had a set of images featuring the Chinook helicopter. The first image was a Chinook in flight against a plain white backdrop and immediately below it was a second image of two Chinooks on the ground being loaded with troops for transport. The headline reads: ‘This is a horse. (It must be a horse. The First Cavalry rides it.)’[19] Before even opening the issue, AVCO presented the reader with powerful imagery referencing the 1st Cavalry Division, which had been recently battle-tested in the Battle of Ia Drang. Although Ia Drang proved more successful than Ap Bac, it was still a great test for helicopters, which suffered heavy damage. Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division General John Tolson noted that throughout the 35-day campaign, 59 American helicopters were hit by enemy fire, three while on the ground. The North Vietnamese shot down four helicopters, of which the U.S. Army recovered three.[20] Despite these losses, helicopters proved their worth by providing over 5,000 tons of cargo to troops in the field, transporting whole infantry battalions and artillery batteries, and transporting 2,700 refugees.[21] Bell and Lycoming were quick to capitalise on this ‘success.’ Whether or not these corporations were trying to sell actual helicopters or an idea the helicopter symbolised is something deserving further exploration.

It is worth noting the profit motive of corporations like Bell. A document found at the Texas Tech Archives entitled, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights’ offers a timeline of Bell helicopter contracts, key production developments, and record achievements published by Bell Helicopter Textron. The U.S. military contracts with Bell from 1961 through 1973 total over one trillion dollars. This total is just the contracts listed within this single document and warrants further inquiry to verify exact numbers. Nevertheless, these preliminary figures allude to the stake that corporations like Bell had in both the technological development and public perception of army aviation during the Vietnam War.[22]


Through both images and language, these magazines presented the idea of military progress by way of helicopters. All these images and the accompanying descriptive language served to create and reinforce the helicopter as a symbol of technological progress. These helicopters were the latest and greatest accomplishment from the military-industrial complex and as such were capable of not only carrying out the tasks of outdated and obsolete equipment, like the tank but should be capable of winning the war in Vietnam. There were no true obstacles these machines could not overcome. This imagery reinforced Alasdair Spark’s assertion that ‘in technology and mobility this was the ideal American way of war, and appropriately evoked the mythic American style of war.’[23] The problem with these advertisements was that in some cases, they used actual events to help craft their imagery. By grounding their advertisements in perceived reality, these corporate sponsors perpetuated the notion that helicopters were ubiquitous and only capable of success. These images failed to examine or display the failures of helicopters.

Chris Bishop summed it up best when he said:

The Huey became an icon of the Vietnam War. It was a star of primetime news reports, its distinctive shape and the sound of its twin-bladed rotor becoming more familiar to the world at large than any other aircraft of the time.[24]

Although the Huey is arguably the most recognisable helicopter, it was not the only one to come of age during the Vietnam War. The iconic status of Hueys and other helicopters was not merely a post-war phenomenon and cannot be credited only to the media. From advertisements in Army Aviation to documentaries and film, helicopters became a prominent sight and sound of the Vietnam War during the war. In many ways, ‘the helicopter, like the soldier, is a veteran of Vietnam’ and it is time we understand how the helicopter developed from combat to cultural icon.[25]

Hayley Michael Hasik is currently a third-year doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi working on a degree in U.S. history with an emphasis on cultural history, war and society, the Vietnam War, helicopters, and veterans’ experiences. Hayley’s current research focuses on examining the legacy of the ‘Helicopter War’ in Vietnam. Her project seeks to uncover how and why helicopters became such an integral part of Vietnam War history and memory. Hayley has extensive oral history experience and co-founded the East Texas War and Memory Project in 2012.

Header Image: U.S. Army Bell UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment from the Filhol Rubber Plantation area to a new staging area, during Operation ‘Wahiawa,’ a search and destroy mission conducted by the 25th Infantry Division, northeast of Cu Chi, South Vietnam, 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles, Huey in a Helicopter War, directed by Bill G. Buck (Entertainment One Ltd., 2005).

[2] James R. Bullinger (ed.), Army Aviation Association of America: 50th Anniversary, 1957-2007 (Monroe, CT: Army Aviation Publications, 2007), p. 19.

[3] ‘Army Aviator Newsletter,’ Army Aviation, Army Aviation Association of America [hereafter AAAA], May 1954, p. 2

[4] ‘About,’ Army Aviation Association of America,

[5] ‘About,’ ArmyAviationMagazine.com.

[6] Sikorsky Aircraft, ‘10-ton lift for our armed forces,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, February 1963, p. 47.

[7] Sikorsky Aircraft, ‘Sikorsky’s Skycrane can carry over 10 tons of almost anything,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, December 1965, pp. 24-5.

[8] John J. Tolson, Vietnam Studies: Airmobility, 1961-1971 (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1973), p. 104.

[9] AVCO Lycoming Division, ‘What does Bell see in us?,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 28 February 1966.

[10] Hughes Helicopters, ‘Tough machine for a tough war,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 30 December 1968, pp. 18-19.

[11] General Electric, ‘Helicopters with demanding missions are powered by General Electric,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 20 August 1966, pp. 18-19.

[12] AVO Lycoming Division, ‘Out here, when things get rough they call in Huey,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 22 December 1966.

[13] AVCO Lycoming Division, ‘What does Bell see in us?,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 28 February 1966.

[14] Alasdair Spark, ‘Flight Controls: The Social History of the Helicopter as a Symbol of Vietnam’ in Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich (eds.), Vietnam Images: War and Representation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 89.

[15] Texas A&M University-Commerce, Archives and Special Collections, James G. Gee Library, East Texas War and Memory Project, Interview with James Scott, OH 1001.1, interviewed by Hayley Hasik, 6 May 2013.

[16] Philip D. Chinnery, Vietnam: The Helicopter War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991).

[17] Bell Helicopter, ‘Combat Proven,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 31 March 1963.

[18] James R. Chiles, The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks: The Story of the Helicopter (New York: Bantam Books, 2007), p. 165.

[19] AVCO Lycoming Division, ‘This is a horse,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 31 January 31 1966.

[20] Tolson, Airmobility, p. 83.

[21] Ibid., pp. 82-3.

[22] Texas Tech University, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Dominick Cirincione Collection, Box 04, Folder 03, 4020403002, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights,’ (ND). Figures calculated by the author; Walter Boyne, How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2011), pp. 90-4.

[23] Spark, ‘Flight Controls,’ p. 89.

[24] Chris Bishop, Bell UH-1 Huey “Slicks” 1962–75 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003), p. 15.

[25] Spark, ‘Flight Controls,’ p. 102.