Saturday, October 4, 2008

Military History and Warfare: Counter-insurgency: The Birth of Air Assault: LZ X-Ray, Ia Drang 1965

Counterinsurgency and The Development of Airmobility Doctrine

The US Army defines the gestation of Airmobility as the mid 1950’s. A tactical doctrine manual, Field Manual 57-35, "Army Transport Aviation-Combat Operations” was written and a provisional sky cav platoon was formed which essentially, through extensive experimentation, eventually became the nucleus of the 792d Aerial Combat Reconnaissance Company (Provisional).[i] One of the first official steps to transformation occurred on 15 January 1960 with the formation of the Rodgers Board. The Rodgers board made several recommendations regarding helicopter type, design, funding and policy. One of its most important recommendations was the recommendation to “prepare an in depth study to determine whether the concept of air fighting units was practical and if an experimental unit should be activated to test its feasibility”. [ii] Although the scope of review of the Rodgers Board was limited, it provided the beginning’s of essential guidance for development and procurement and was indicative of the vision of transformation that was in its embryonic stage. [iii] As airmobility experimentation proceeded, the Howze board was officially appointed on 25 April 1962 [iv]. The board had an extremely demanding schedule and was required to submit its final report by 24 Aug 1962. General Howze, was given wide latitude in which to convene the board to include dealing directly with the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, other military services, government agencies, civilian industry and to convene the board at other installations as he saw fit[v].

The Howze Board final report was submitted on 20 August 1962, 4 days ahead of schedule, and the formation of the “air assault division was the principal tactical innovation”[vi]. Although many had recognized that change was essential, the recommendations from the Rodgers report, the interim field testing and subsequent Howze Board Report, was, that the Army would enhance combat effectiveness in both conventional and counter-guerrilla actions and could accomplish other tasks with smaller forces in shorter campaigns.[vii] The new tactical innovations, by inference and implication, were supposed to support operational and strategic objectives and were focused on combining all the elements of combat power, maneuver forces, reconnaissance, communications and service support. The formation of the air assault division and the air cavalry combat brigade was to combine the classical functions of cavalry operations with the air assault division’s role of closing with and destroying the enemy on the ground. 

In essence the new innovations provided the mobility to move maneuver forces quickly, provide organic and immediate fire power through aerial weapons platforms to provide and perform the traditional indirect fire role that had previously been dominated by the Artillery and Air Forces close air support roles. Additionally, the aerial weapons platforms provided enhanced standoff, and, support by fire positions from the realm of the 2nd dimension; the air. 

In hindsight, although these tactical innovations provided an enormous amount of mobility and inherent firepower, they also contributed to the idea that tasks and campaigns could be effectively shorter and or shortened, and again, by implication, the speed of which maneuver delivers superior firepower would be the capstone of doctrine.[viii] Although the innovation of airmobility was to enhance the counter-guerrilla operations in Vietnam, the development of doctrine proceeded along conventional thinking and the doctrine of airmobility received its baptism by fire in the Ia Drang Valley at LZ X-RAY when the 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division conducted air assault operations into the area with the specific mission of Search and Destroy Operations.[ix] LTC Moore, would change his tactics, techniques and procedures slightly based on the intelligence estimate he received and directed that all units use the same landing zone instead of separate landing zones for each company. Further, the timing and synchronization of the air assault with the artillery was timed to within H -1 minute, not much room for error.

The United States Army would continue to emphasize that airmobility doctrine was nothing short of a doctrine that was a subset of conventional warfighting, albeit adapted to the Vietnam War. Additionally, US Army Capstone Doctrine essentially remained unchanged from the 1941 version of Field Manual 100-5, Operations; and Airmobility doctrine helped to further reinforce the notions of short sharp campaigns of short duration that were characterized by overwhelming firepower and an increase in mobility. It is extremely hard not to draw the correlation or similarity that American Airmobility doctrine was looking at ways to emulate and exceed the “gold standard” of maneuver warfare in the integration of firepower and mobility; the German experience of WW II, or more specifically, the German campaigns in Poland, France and the Low Countries. Never the less, US Army doctrine would experience its next major change 10 years later in 1976.

- Terry Tucker -[i] Airmobility in Vietnam, 1961-1971, pgs 3-8[ii] Ibid page 8-9[iii] Ibid[iv] Ibid page 20; Secretary McNamara, much like Donald Rumsfeld of today, had serious reservations about the Army’s ability to produce a reexamination of the transformation or modernization concepts that would produce fresh, unorthodox concepts. See page 19 of Airmobility, 1961-1971[v] Ibid[vi] Ibid page 22[vii] Authors Italics[viii] Ibid, page 20-24[ix] The source documents for this are the US Army, Center for Military History; Seven Firefights in Vietnam and Airmobile Operations. Increasingly, the US Army used helicopters in its missions and mission support. The largest airmobile operation in the early years occurred in June of 1964 with the airlift of 1300 Vietnamese Marines. In June 1965, 2000 Vietnamese marines used helicopters to Air Assault positions. The 1/7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division would conduct search and destroy mission in the Ia Drang less than 6 months later in Nov 1965. In the words of the Center for Military History;1/7 Cav was going to Air Assault in to “develop there targets” based on intelligence estimates. The new Air Assault techniques gave them a “quick strike” capability. Airmobility operation was adapting the use of conventional infantry tactics and was primarily a weapons platform and a movement platform.

A CH-53 Heavy Lift Helicopter making a sling load.

A team on board the aircraft waiting to take off, The aircraft is a UH-1H Model and was commonly called a Huey or a Slick

Captured enemy equipment: a 51 caliber MG and a two recoilless rifles, compliments of the Special Forces and 75th Ranger Battalion, Republic of Vietnam

Pictures courtesy of Earl S. Wemple III, Major, US Army Special Forces, Retired

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