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 email@example.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.’ 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.’
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.’
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.’
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.’ Military officials reaffirmed this view afterwards, citing helicopters as counterinsurgency tools essential for ‘mobility, rapid deployment of troops and logistics support.’ The US Army declared that helicopters ‘represented the most revolutionary change in warfare since the blitzkrieg.’
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.
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.’”
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.’
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. 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.’
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.’
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).’ 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.’ 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.
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.’ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.’
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.’
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.
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.’ 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.
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.’ 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.
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.’
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. 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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)
 Lieutenant General John H. Hay, Jr., Vietnam Studies: Tactical and Materiel Innovations (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 6.
 Raymond D. Gastil, Toward the Development of More Acceptable Limits for Counterinsurgency (New York: Hudson Institute, 1967), pp. IV-15.
 Lieutenant Colonel William R. Fails, Marines and Helicopters, 1962-1973 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, US Marine Corps, 1978), p. 111.
 ‘COIN in the Air: Army Attack Aviation Must Embrace Irregular Warfare,’ Armed Forces Journal, 1 April 2013.
 The Virtual Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University (VVA-TTU), John T. Wheeler, ‘Copter Warfare: How it Evolved,’ Associated Press, 9 March 1969, Associated Press.
 Colonel Achid Muchlas, ‘The Role of Airpower in Counterinsurgency Operations’ (USAF Air War College Report, 1988).
 Hay, Vietnam Studies, p. 179.
 ‘Lessons U.S. Has Learned in the Helicopter War,’ US News and World Report, 23 November 1970, p. 50.
 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.
 Major Beau G. Rollie, ‘Helicopters in Irregular Warfare: Algeria, Vietnam and Afghanistan’ (MA Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 2013), p. ii.
 Robert Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, updated edition (New York: David McKay Company, 1970), p. 136.
 James M. Gavin, ‘The Future of Armor,’ Infantry Journal, 62:1 (1948), p. 7.
 James M. Gavin, ‘Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses,’ Harper’s Magazine, April 1954, p. 58.
 J.A. Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board and Army Combat Developments (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1994), p. 30.
 Major Edward P. Gavin, ‘LTG James M. Gavin: Theory and Influence’ (MA Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 2012), p. 27.
 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.
 Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board, p. 17.
 Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility.’
 Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 86.
 Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility.’
 Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board, p. 25.
 Fails., Marines and Helicopters, p. 85.
 Ibid., p. 85.
 Ibid., p. 86.
 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.
 Ibid., p. 70.
 Ibid., p. 73.
 Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 86.
 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).
 Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 132.
 FMFRP 12-15 – Small Wars Manual (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1940), p. 39.
 Jen Judson, ‘Armed Reconnaissance Still biggest Gap in Army Aviation,’ Defense News, 28 April 2017.