While few weapons in the US arsenal are more capable or useful than the attack helicopter, many are questioning the tactics they use to engage the enemy.
No U.S. Marine Corps attack helicopters was shot down during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), but the fleet was so heavily damaged in combat that service officials are expressing doubt about two fundamental wartime roles for rotor-wing aircraft, a senior commander said July 29.
Echoing recent concerns by some U.S. Army officials, Maj. Gen. James F. Amos, commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, said current tactics that allow attack helicopter crews to penetrate deep behind enemy lines on long-range strike missions and hover above cities to provide close air support are ill-advised.
Many will remember the April 28 deep strike carried out by 101st Division Apaches near the end of the sandstorm against Republican Guard units southwest of Baghdad. That mission ended up with one Apache shot down, one down while trying to land, and thirty birds shot up pretty bad. The unit was declared unfit for combat after the engagement. The Apaches never attacked their objectives, instead they ended up ambushed by a large number of ground troops, many of whom simply fired their weapons blindly into the air when the choppers approached.
Helicopters’ slow speed and low altitude make them ideal ground-attack platforms, but that knife cuts both ways. They are also far easier to hit with ground fire than fixed-wing aircraft, and their relatively fragile construction makes them easier to bring down. The 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia started when Rangers and Delta Force units were stranded in downtown Mogadishu when a Blackhawk helicopter was brought down by an RPG. Instead of grabbing their warlord targets (which they did, by the way) and getting out of Dodge, they were forced to move to the downed chopper to help recover the crew. Later that day, a second Blackhawk was brought down, again by an RPG.
Helicopters are an incredibly versatile military vehicle, and we certainly won’t be phasing them out any time soon. Unless the Area 51 guys are working on anti-grav vehicles, of course. But World War III deep strike tactics, flying far behind enemy lines and attacking strong enemy ground forces, may result in losses greatly exceeding the returns, especially against enemy units consisting mainly of light infantry and irregulars. In these days of JDAM satellite-guided aerial bombs, J-STARS “ground AWACS”, and real-time targeting, perhaps the deep strike missions by attack helicopters are no longer needed.
But helicopters themselves will contribute greatly to our military for years to come. When the army called off the deep strikes and instead assigned Apaches to close ground support of the men and tanks on the ground, the results were astounding. Although the missions are not as “sexy” as Airwolf-type assaults, helicopters can be incredibly valuable members of infantry and armor attacks. They provide manueverablilty, a good vantage point, and incredible firepower when employed as part of a combined-arms assault. Even in Mogadishu, the Little Bird gunships were invaluable to the US troops making it through the night.
Every battle brings new lessons. It looks like we may actually be learning. (Hat tip to Winds of Change for the link. The WoC post also has some items on Marines in space)