US Airpower Vietnam: What Went Right


Bell AH-1 Cobra Attack on the Mekong River. ~ Vietnam War

There were a number of things that went right in the Vietnam air war that critics often missed or chose to ignore. In the spring of 1972, decisive use of air power (including antitank missile-firing helicopters and laser-guided bombs) destroyed North Vietnam’s hopes for victory during the Easter invasion of the South. Then, of course, came the December 1972 Linebacker II offensive (an integrated air offensive of a sort never previously tried in the war). It shattered North Vietnam’s air defense network; more significantly, its results, combined with the failure of the Easter invasion earlier, compelled the North Vietnamese government to return to the Paris peace talks and sign an agreement within a month. The introduction of helicopter gunships and the unquestionable success of heliborne air assault tactics resulted in a reshaping of Army thought and started a process of doctrinal examination that would eventually lead to the Army’s notion of AirLand Battle in the 1980s. Airlift within the war zone and to Southeast Asia from the United States worked extremely well. Tactical airlifters—C-123s, C-130s, and ex-Army C-7s, with a smattering of helicopters —moved 7 million tons of cargo and passengers over the ten-year war, including 42,000 tons in a one-month period in May 1967. “Smart weapons,” experimented with during the Second World War and Korea, made a major appearance midway through the war, proving their ability to destroy targets precisely and thus obviating the need for often costly return sorties. (Nowhere was this more evident than when laser-guided bombs destroyed the infamous Thanh Hoa bridge in May 1972; its defenses had claimed many strike aircraft dropping conventional bombs over the previous seven years.) Reputedly, of 21,000 laser-guided bombs dropped in Vietnam, 17,000 scored direct hits on their targets, generating an impressive 80-percent success rate for this innovative weapon.

Throughout the war, air-ground warfare was a standout success. On a number of occasions, battlefield air support saved hamlets and outposts that might otherwise have fallen to the Viet Cong. The most notable of these was the Marine encampment at Khe Sanh; had it fallen, it would have had the same devastating political impact as Dien Bien Phu fifteen years earlier. When the extensive involvement of American ground forces in Vietnam began, there were precious few air-support resources available for them; within several years all this had changed. The Army went to battle by helicopter, and those helicopters were themselves protected by attack helicopters. The Air Force, Navy, and Marines supported ground operations with a wide range of aircraft, including the A-1, A-4, A-6, A-7, and A-37 attack aircraft; F-4, F-5, F-8, F-100, and F-105 fighter-bombers; B-52 and B-57 bombers; AC-47, AC-119, and AC-130 gunships; and orbiting O-1, O-2, and OV-10 forward air control (FAC) aircraft directed air strikes. Virtually every spot in South Vietnam was within a fifteen-minute jet flight by aircraft, for the countryside contained a number of jet bases: Binh Thuy, Bien Hoa, Tan Son Nhut, Phan Rang, Phu Cat, Chu Lai, and Da Nang. So great was the volume of aerial firepower present that when ground forces were engaged in combat, they often elected to hunker down, call in all available air support (both from their own service, and from the Air Force, Navy, or Marines), artillery as well, and wait for the dust to settle. In a post-Vietnam Army survey of generals, only 2 percent rated Army—Air Force cooperation “unsatisfactory”; instead, fully 60 percent rated it “excellent.”

Perhaps the best words on what timely air intervention could mean are those of an Army troop commander and an unidentified “grunt,” both of whom had personal experience with what air power could do. “I learned after a while,” the officer stated, “that my casualties were tremendously decreased if I used the air power and air strikes and used [them] properly. And it was there to use.” The GI put it on a more personal level:

When you’re … pinned down under fire, and here comes the Air Force and they just drop the bombs right where they belong and they knock out what they are supposed to knock out … It’s a fantastic feeling. It’s more than thanks. You just can’t express it, really.

Two major concepts of air-ground warfare received their “baptism of fire” in Vietnam: the “airmobile” movement of troops on a large scale, and the helicopter and fixed-wing “gunship.” Further, for the first time, air attackers routinely directed precision-guided weapons against ground forces, including tanks. In 1962, the Army established the Army Tactical Mobility Requirements Board, presided over by Lt. Gen. Hamilton H. Howze, and thus known to history more familiarly as the Howze Board. Rather than view his mandate from the secretary of defense as just to find a new means of shipping soldiers to battle, Howze chose instead to see if advanced air mobility could enable Army forces to assume the functions of flying cavalry, emphasizing shock and firepower. In an era of generally lackluster leadership, Howze and his board (including the distinguished aircraft designer Edward H. Heinemann) were extraordinarily prescient, and forecast many of the critical technology items that appeared in time for the Gulf war—“drone” observation systems (now termed “unmanned air vehicles”), airborne targeting and location systems, and precise position-fixing systems and high-resolution radars (for the latter, think of the present Global Positioning System and the JSTARS system that functioned so well in the Gulf). But more significantly than these, the Howze Board structured a series of theoretical airmobile units that could function as the cavalry traditionally had: exploiting, pursuing, counterattacking, delaying, and protecting flanks. The Howze Board’s work eventually led to the operational testing of two formations (an air assault division and an air transport brigade) in 1962, their war game evaluation in 1964, and deployment to Vietnam in 1965 of the air assault division as the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).

The “Air Cav” baptized itself in the bloody and protracted Ia Drang Valley battle, and its success both in that battle and subsequent engagements went a long way toward establishing a permanent airmobile cast upon the U.S. Army. To give some example of how prominently air figured in the Army’s scheme of maneuver and operations, one need only note that the service’s 1st Aviation Brigade at one point had no fewer than 641 airplanes, 441 Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, 311 Boeing Chinook cargo helicopters, 635 observation helicopters, and no fewer than 2,202 Bell UH-1 utility helicopters. Indeed, when one thinks of the Army presence in Vietnam, it is not so much the World War II image of the “grunt” in the mud, but the image of the airborne assault that comes to mind.

That the Army could rely as much as it did upon the helicopter was due to remarkable advances in the capabilities of these awkward-looking machines. The development of the lightweight gas-turbine helicopter engine in the late 1950s vastly increased the power available to helicopters, making possible longer range and higher payload. The Army settled on two basic types: the Bell UH-1 utility helicopter (dubbed the “Huey”), and the heavier and larger Boeing-Vertol CH-47 Chinook. (Later models of both of these workhorse machines served in the Gulf war.) The Huey served as a troop transport, medical evacuation helicopter, and armed “gunship,” carrying rocket pods and machine guns. But the armed Huey lacked the speed and agility to be a true attack helicopter, and therefore Bell modified the basic design extensively, creating a two-seat streamlined gunship called the AH-1 Cobra that first flew in 1965. The Cobra had a gunner and a pilot, a swiveling nose turret with a minigun and grenade launcher, and stub wings that could carry rocket or gun pods. In every respect the Cobra can be considered the direct ancestor of the multitudinous antiarmor helicopter gunships in the world’s armies today. As with the Huey, later models of the Cobra served in the Gulf with the Marines and the Army.

The Cobra gunship, although vulnerable to automatic weapons fire and (later) SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles, proved a devastating fire support system in Vietnam (particularly during the bitter fighting in 1972.), and its early and rapid success encouraged the Army to proceed with development of an “Advanced Aerial Fire Support System.” The AAFSS became the abortive Lockheed AH-56A Cheyenne gunship, an important interim step on the road to the present-day Hughes-McDonnell-Douglas AH-64A Apache that worked so well in the Gulf war. Equally devastating, though very different, were the fixed-wing gunships introduced in Vietnam: the AC-47, AC-119, and AC-130. These modified transports, initially intended as hamlet defenders using batteries of side-firing machine guns, gradually evolved into sophisticated aerial-fire support systems carrying a variety of optical and electronic sensors, light cannon, and even modified 105mm howitzers, operating deep into enemy territory on interdiction missions against the Ho Chi Minh trail network. The four-engine AC-130E Pave Spectre was one of three weapons singled out as unqualified successes by Army Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, Jr., commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, when he commented on the efficacy of air support during the 1972 North Vietnamese spring invasion (the others were the helicopter-fired TOW antiarmor missile, and the guided “smart” bomb). Like the helicopter gunship, the fixed-wing gunship continued in service and development after the Vietnam War, seeing combat in such subsequent engagements as the Mayaguez rescue mission, Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf war.


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