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Chopper Use in Vietnam Versus Afghanistan

by John Reed on November 10, 2011

There’s an interesting post that Carl Prine did over at our sister site, Line of Departure, a few months back. It’s all about how he hates the UH-1 Huey because, to him, it represented a lack of control over the ground situation during the Vietnam War. I’ve got to wonder how this compares to our current fight in Afghanistan.

(Somewhat fittingly, I’m writing this post as an Air Force UH-1N Huey from Andrews Air Force Base is thumping around flying circles over my neighborhood in Washington — as the Hueys do multiple times a day here.)

Here’s the meat of Prine’s post:

While the choppers could put U.S. Army LTC Harold Moore’s 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry at the door of the NVA, the enemy also could shoot back from prepared positions, killing scores of soldiers and turning reporter Joe Galloway into something of a grunt.

Moore and Galloway were saved not by helicopters scooting above LZ X-Ray but rather by U.S. Air Force B-52s dragooned to run tactical air support.  Their dumb bombs flattened the countryside, the NVA inched back into the jungle and 1st Cav eventually flew off for other engagements.

And then the jungle slowly returned over the craters.  And so did the NVA, never mind the doctrine that insisted airmobility’s technology and innovative divisional infrastructure  had turned the tide in Vietnam.

Ia Drang and the Hueys and Kinnard and the rest convinced the U.S. military that airmobility solved a strategic problem, which meant that its use might sort out every other messy thing in Southeast Asia, too.  In this regard, airmobility was like strategic bombing in World War II or the leap of faith we call “COIN” doctrine today, and the Huey became its very powerful symbol, something of an icon reminding the faithful of a patron saint.

Instead of curing all our strategic ills, however, the Huey and airmobility made everything worse.  As Bernard Fall would’ve been the first to tell Kinnard, the French already had learned in Algeria that the helicopter not only couldn’t beat the revolutionaries;  by buzzing off elsewhere it in fact ceded the strategic goal – the control of villages and those who lived in them – to the insurgency.

The Huey, you see, never really addressed the center of gravity in the war — the political infrastructure of a guerrilla enemy.  It flew over it.

“After all, when you come to think of it, the use of helicopters is a tacit admission that we don’t control the ground. And in the long run, it’s control of the ground that wins or loses wars”—that’s how an advisor to ARVN quoted in Malcolm W. Browne’s The New Face of War in 1968 put it.

And he was right.

Prine goes on to argue that the Heuy’s allowed commanders in Vietnam to observe the fighting from afar, isolating them from the tactical realities of the war:

Rather than ennobling generals, AirCav’s Hueys made the managerial caste of them even more detached from their troops, the war and reality.

As James William Gibson reminds us in The Perfect War:  Technowar in Vietnamit wasn’t uncommon for the highest ranking man on the ground during a pitched battle against the NVA to be a captain.

All the brass were micromanaging from the clouds.

One thing I wish Prine had done in his post was draw a line to the current fight in Afghanistan.

What do you guys think? There’s no doubt that the helo is an extremely useful and necessary tool of warfare. Still, we’ve often heard about the need to transport as many supplies as possible by air in Afghanistan in order to get logistics convoys off the roads where they can fall prey to IEDs and ambushes. Is Prine’s argument relevant to the battlefields of Afghanistan, or do our combat troops patrol and occupy the ground — and bleed heavily for it — enough to fully control it? There’s plenty of material out there to argue about this one, so go for it.

Here’s the original post.

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