Chopper Use in Vietnam Versus Afghanistan

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.

29 Comments on "Chopper Use in Vietnam Versus Afghanistan"

  1. This point here is strong:
    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.

    — Our problem was we didn't have a corresponding ground-force capable enough (due to politics and other things) to effectively target the enemy where it hurt the most – which ultimately means that you HAVE to be prepared to go ALL THE WAY or get the heck outta Dodge PDQ.

    Of course, it was not the Huey's fault, it would be invaluable asset either way, but if you rely on a tool or a vehicle or single weapon to win your wars for you, then be prepared for the painful consequences. Has anyone ever 'won' or 'defeated' an enemy or insurgency/guerilla force simply through air power and mobility? Or by a single weapon?
    No. Everyone had boots on the ground.

    The Huey, like all other vehicles, weapons, and tools, was meant to expand our capabilites and effectiveness. It was not a blank check to skirt the rules of war that cannot be altered. As long as we remember that it doesn't matter how many helo's we use.

    But I'm no expert.

  2. While I agree that going airmobile takes away actually controlling territory I don't think you can actually control territory in a place like Afghanistan, especially with such limited numbers of ground forces. What does it really mean to control territory if your opponent doesn't wear a uniform and lives with people you think are friendly. I know nobody wants to do this but I feel the only you way defeat the enemy in this situation is by total way, destroying the will of the enemy and anybody that supports the enemy and you can't stop because a line on a map tells you that mountain is somebody else's country. You gotta do like what Sherman did in his March to the Sea, what firebombings of Tokyo did in WWII….you must destroy their will to wage war. I don't think we'll ever do that again, it looks too ugly for the average person to watch on the nightly news or on a website.

  3. Great debate. Obviously the type of conflict seems to be the overriding and most critical factor. Any occupational/transitional mission, vietnam, korea, afghan, iraq will require significant on the ground presence from the outset to solve the 'hearts and minds' issue. The US failed to have enough boots on the ground from the outset to educate what the bombs were meant to do. They assumed that the 91 gulf war would be indicative of how easy success would be…which does bring the point that airpower and helicopter mobility can have a monumental impact on the right type of conflicts, which is why we will be seeing armed unmanned helicopters in the very near future because they solve almost all you need for a defensive position be it pirates, or rougue countries trying to occupy another. Just some random thoughts.

  4. i like "Pooles" argument in regards to this. (paraphrasing) the new general on the battle field is/has been the "squad leader". although our armed forces have not figured that out until maybe…. now…?
    academy educated officers may not like to admit it but, they've been reduced to "facilitators", "rear ech enablers" of trigger pullers and their respected/motivated buddy's who lead them.

    and they cant get out of that roll despite their pay grade. even if they pick up a rifle and hump with the grunts… they must still respect the chain of command, up or down.

  5. The main problem in Vietnam like now in Afghanistan is that Washington DC wont let the GIs win the war. Like a invasion of North Vietnam or even killing Ho Chi Mien and other top party leaders in Hanoi would have severely damaged the NVA's war effort that it and possible collapse it. But Washington think tanks and the President didn't want to hurt possible reelection chances so they just played and played in the south till we gave up over the whole thing. Same in Afghanistan it would take a major invasion of tribal regions of Pakistan to destroy the Taliban but President Obama will never do that so were wasting time there and losing good men in the end for nothing.

  6. Warfare with "rules" is a recipe for defeat. There is no "honorable" war, and concerns for collateral damage and civilian casualties only increases the American body count and lengthens the war to a point where defeat of simply giving up is the only option. The Taliban will never be defeated unless the tactics of Alexander the Great is used. Remove the population from the disputed area and re-populate with "friendlies" Removing can be accomplished by genocide (a harsh word, but it works) not gently re-locating the desert religion tribes elsewhere. Wars are won by waging "Total War" waged by Union Generals to save the Union. Think World War II. Destroy the enemy, totally or don't attempt to wage war.

  7. The main problem is making the right choice at the outset. We should not have fought some of the wars we've waged, and with one exception the outcomes reflected that (we were just lucky to get out of the War of 1812 with our national sovereignty intact).

    I believe Mr Skinner's placement of blame for our tragedy in Vietnam is correct.

  8. "A Question of Command" by Mark Moyar has some very interesting points regarding Vietnam and counterinsurgency in general. Check it out. I learned something. I'm too young to really have any firsthand insight into Vietnam one way or the other so my only resource is books and the people who experienced it. I do think that not enough responsibility is given to the civilian administration at the time and the American congress in letting South Vietnam get swallowed by the north.

  9. Almost half the helicopters used in the Viet Nam War were destroyed (5,086 out of 11,827).

    A staggering loss rate, sustainable only by a very wealthy nation in a very limited war… and in a relatively benign environment (no enemy air-to-air threat against the U.S. choppers, and reasonably safe main operating bases & supply lines).

    It does clearly indicate how vulnerable helicopters are in combat operations. Helicopters would not survive an equally matched opponent in a full-scale war.

  10. just say "vietnam" and every monday morning quarterback from here to next sunday feels the need to solve a long lost war with their junior varsity explinations and accusations.

    its striking how many people now-a-days have absolutely no idea what we were dealing with as concerns the Vietnam War. the cold war, geopolitics the very nature of our enemy seem to have no effect on the armchair generals.

    ima let all you idiots in on a little secret… "hippies" didnt lose the vietnam war

    our officer corps. was out-thought and out-fought period.

    the UH-1 was a revolutionary machine, the capabilities of a "jeep of the sky" were squandered by "ring-bearers" who couldnt see past a WarsawPact assault in central europe using strategy and tactics suited ONLY for that narrow theater. it was their only reference and they couldnt get out of the box.

  11. We tried the whole control the border thing, which led us to penny-packeting units along the AfPak border in vulnerable, hard to cross-support outposts. And since troop counts were low, they were quite small outposts. Wasn't Wanat just a platoon-plus?

    Pointing the finger at helicopters doesn't change the facts on the ground: what if we moved from place to place by truck and APC? Does it make it any better that we came by ground vehicles?

    We didn't control the villages, nor did we control the countryside. That's the real deliverable.

  12. This is incredible. Blaming a good weapon for the incompetence of those running the war is idiotic. In VN the US lost because it had nothing of value to offer the people. US leaders at that time had a love affair with right-wing dictators. They were not an attractive alternative to the nationalistic appeal of Ho Chi Min's movement.

    Today? Do you think the corruption of Karzai's companions is more attractive than a movement that insists on moral rectitude? The Taliban will return to power.

    In both cases the wonderful weapons are really irrelevant. You are not going to defeat a people on their own soil, unless you want to kill them all. What you can do is offer those people a better alternative.

  13. Afghanistan is a tragic waste of lives and resources. Looking at it from afar, one would have to conclude it was designed to ensure the drastic reduction of future strategic capabilities for the US in the future. This view fits with Obamas views as he laid out in "Dreams From My Father".

    Nation building and counter-insurgency is a loser for the US Military. If problems cannot be solved directly by killing and destruction, then the military should not be involved. It is not the right tool.

    As far as air-mobility goes, it seems to me it is simple arithmetic. 100k people in Afghanistan means maybe 10k rifleman, to "control" how many 1000's of square miles ? The military cannot do this job. We have to look at Afghanistan and keep drawing larger and larger circles. At some point the problem that is inside the circle will no longer be asymetric. We will then have identified our objective, the destruction of the society inside that circle. In this case it is probably Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

    its perfectly reasonable to conclude that we don't want to take on that burden. It is however, a task the military would be capable and suited to doing. It would be suited to the Military's and the nations particular talents. Not occupation of those nations, but their utter destruction.

    What holds us back is not the difficulty of the task, but our own unwillingness to accept the moral responsibility for killing multi-millions. Maybe thats admirable and maybe not. But where it leads the west is to the impossible situation it finds itself in afghanistan today.

    As I observe the last 10 years of warfare, my conclusion is that our current society will never be capable of making decisive war, because we will never be capable of bringing ourselves to ruthlessly kill millions. It therefore makes little sense to maintain such a large standing combat force or to engage in these inconclusive but bankrupting actions (such as iraq and afghanistan). As it is, our leaders are more willing to see our own soldiers killed than conduct war decisively.

  14. One the Best piece's I've read in this place……

    Bravo!

  15. Geography And The IED make the Chopper the tool that it is. With no highways, rail or river systems how else to we cover any distance in Afghanistan?

  16. The helicopter provides the illusion of winning a war that's being lost on the ground. That is highly prized by our casualty adverse military.

  17. to blame the helos for the tactical ineptness of the officers is folly. An example of helos used effectively is the Rhodesian light infantry's Fireforce tactic during the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia bush war.

  18. Plt Sergeant Chee | November 11, 2011 at 10:30 am | Reply

    I deployed with the First Air Cavalry from Benning in 1965. Evidently, our civilian chain of command had already negotiated a loss of the Vietnam War with Communist China, Russia and North Vietnam. Think about it, Our troops could not cross the DMZ to engage the NVA. The NVA, however could and did swarm troops into South
    Vietnam to link up with and support the Viet Cong. North Vietnam did not use their
    air power in the south–and our air-power was micro-managed by LBJ in Wash.
    After 33-months in Vietnam I realized, finally, that victory against communist Russia and China had been negotiated away –our efforts betrayed. A military victory, over N. Vietnam alone, could have been achieved by the end of 1966; however, the USSR,
    China and the USA settled for a sustained struggle of American v communist will.
    Ho Chi Minh had the moral high-ground; his intent to reunite N & S Vietnam gave heart to his people– while the morale of the South Vietnamese and U.S. troops was
    undermined by NO CLEAR OBJECTIVE; despite the obvious air-power advantage.
    IMHO, air power only wins wars when politics are left out of the cockpits.

  19. I get the impression that the US is trying to fight the war in Afg. on the cheap, with minimal support and minimal helicopters. We had thousands of helos in Vietnam, who can tell me how many helos we have in Afg.?

  20. How do you kill an enemy who lies his head across the border from you in Pakistan? Thats why i say there is no military solution. The Paki's are our "frenemies" and its damn frustrating. Air-Assault still works its a shame the enemy lives in Pakistan.

  21. I bet every soldier who was blown up in his Humvee wishes he rode instead in a Huey. Hell they would probably even settle for a H34.

  22. first of all if you all who commented have ever operated in afghanistan you would realize that you have to have air. medevacs are 20 minutes (any longer the hundreds of amputees would have died), the IED threat is huge and if everyone were on the ground driving around, count on billions and billions more in money spent on ruined equipment and even worse- KIA/WIA. we conducted helo raids for 8 months one deployment and if we didnt have that we wouldnt have effects. plus the area that we were in we couldnt get ground resupply, we needed helo or CDS drops. thats how it works. forget about talking to the village elders. trust me it is a lost cause. the whole thing is a lost cause. we have handed over billions in cash and they squander it, steal it, keep it and leave to pakistan or somewhere else. that is where karzai is going. i dont think you all understand how uneducated and stupid afghanis are. they are all selfish, stupid, inbread, drug addicted woudned assholes. we should seriously pull the hell out of there. we will achieve nothing. pull back, observe and drone strike there asses! for all of you who disagree, well then you have a false reality. i was in the helmand and am going back to the helmand!

  23. Kill them all is the only way to win a war.You can bomb them back to the beginning of a stone age, but once you start with the "Feel good,politically correct" rebuilding of their primitive societies your war is lost.

    The only way is for the enemy to have bed wetting nightmares of the thought of you returning to finish the job once and for all.There is a lot to say for the way Genghis Khan and the Romans pacified an area.

    The way we do it is to shoot up an area and then give them a few billion dollars to be our friends.What a joke when they can drop their weapon and immediately become a non target. Miranda rights? They have the right to die or be in a POW camp until hell freezes over.

  24. Your comparing 40 years of technology. The helicopter was a force multiplier in Viet nam. Giving us vertical lift to re-position troops quickly and removed wounded quickly. The L & O (Logistics and Ordinance bird stood buy at Battalion to re supply quickly enemy unit that came in contact. The terrain was forested jungle (except where Orange took of the third canopy) so flying low was good defense exposing the helicopter for minimum time.
    The threat to the helicopter has increased. Now the RPG has a surface to air war head. MANPADS make the helicopter a sitting duck. The terrain of Viet Nam is mountainous. An Infantryman dream. We dont have large forces to engage like NVA regiments to cut off. Instead the IED is responsible for over 50% of the fatalities.
    Vertial lift has its place and its restrictions. m Using B 52's was not the method of operation for protecting helicopters. It was used on troop concentrations and H & I purposes

  25. Apaches are racking up more kills in Afghaniland than any other military asset. Insergent wars have to be fought with surgical units, SF, UAV/UAS, and air.
    Ground troops skirmish the theater to a standstill, victories are won by the surgical strike units. Just my thoughts
    -CWO US Army

  26. Wayne Morgan (CW4 Ret) | November 23, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Reply

    Army Aviation is an extension of the concept of using vehicles to deliver troops – who can take and hold ground – to where they need to be. They provide commanders with the means to move troops rapidly from place to place over longer distances than possible by ground transport. But it’s up to the Commander to correctly conceptualize and plan military operations making the best use of available resources; there is no “magic bullet” that will save a poor battle plan and no one piece of equipment that will overcome faulty doctrine.

  27. I wonder about the bigger question: how does the US stabilize or defend a country that does not or cannot defend itself? Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are all poor, corrupt and politically divided to the point of civil war. South Korea (eventually), and Great Britain needed our help but were certainly motivated to do their part with US help, and did not face internal civil war. We were able to reform Germany and Japan because we organized a large scale occupation of unified nations that never devolved into ethnic war or insurgency.

  28. the objective is to gain support of the local population…..if you are removed from them and never engage them in conversion they wont support you. if you fly over them, or drive by them then you never engage them……insurgency is less about shooting and more about talking…….however lets not lose sight of the advantages these give us…….you will have to engage the insurgents eventually and when that happens……your going to want your helo's…..however the example in the text from Ia Drang illustrates two conventional forces against each other….and not an insurgency… part of our collective issue is that we still dont understand insurgencies…….other wise a better comparison would have been made…..

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