Military & Aerospace

Army Aviation: A dream to realise
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Issue Vol. 27.2 Apr-Jun 2012 | Date : 13 Oct , 2012

Helicopters have tremendous usage, both in times of peace as well as war. Also, they can be used across a wide spectrum of conflict from low-scale counter-insurgency operations to full-fledged highly intense warfare. Initially, helicopters were used in the Korean War (1950-1953). The Vietnam War (1965-1973) saw the maximum use of helicopters in all roles. On a battlefield which is becoming increasingly lethal, this would demand utmost professionalism in acquisition of support measures which enhance survivability, of devising tactics and strategy which will enhance mission accomplishment, and of avoiding pitfalls which detract from the above.

Well, what’s wrong with Indian Army trying to mould itself on the lines of the US Army? After all, the US Army has an air arm, second largest in the world next only to the USAF. While the USAF has 5,628 aircraft of all types, the air arm of the US Army boasts of 3,877 aircraft including helicopters.2 But we need to examine this state of affairs in the context of evolution of the air arm of the US Army with the then prevailing economic conditions.

The helicopter machine was the most welcome transportation in the tropical rain forests…

The US Army Air Force (USAAF), the only air arm of the US, began as part of the US Army and continued so till 1947. Then the USAF became an independent service. What one needs to remember is that even when the USAF was integral to the USAAF, It was manned by highly air minded professionals. During World War II the Chief of the US Army, General George C Marshall allowed the USAAF to function in the most independent manner largely governed by the rules of air warfare. The defeat of the allies at Kasserine Pass at the hands of Rommel was more a result of divided air assets under different army commanders due to administrative convenience. However, such short cuts overriding the fundamental of centralised control were never repeated by the Americans. The result was that US troops never had to fight under the threat of opposing air force since 1943 to the present day.

The US involvement in Vietnam beginning in early 1960s coincided with the Golden Age of the US economy. The now well-matured helicopter machine was the most welcome transportation in the tropical rain forests where the deadly booby traps of Vietcong were exacting rather heavy casualties on unsuspecting GIs. Helicopters were welcome in increasingly new roles and numbers. The US economy was robust enough to support this requirement. Many new roles for the helicopters evolved. The ground commanders tried helicopter integration by way of air regiments mounted on helicopters. But the attrition to helicopters was by no means small. Yet the US economy could sustain these losses. When the MANPADS arrived on the scene in 1972, it seriously curtailed helicopter usage in the affected areas.

Since the days of the Vietnam War, helicopters have been used in many places – in wars, in skirmishes and in many other roles. While the employment of some has been highly successful, there have been instances of its misuse leading to mission failures. We need to study both types of employment to derive proper lessons for the future. This will guide us properly in selecting the correct roles and tasks, the correct helicopters, the employment philosophy and the correct culture for helicopter professionals. How armies, air forces and navies need to equip themselves with helicopters will also become self evident. An analytical study of helicopter employment in war like situations follows.

Ground forces were over-reliant on helicopters, even with the peculiarities of the terrain and communication difficulties…

Helicopters have tremendous usage, both in times of peace and war. Also, these machines can be employed across a wide spectrum of conflict from low-scale counter-insurgency operations to full-fledged highly intense warfare. Initially, helicopters were used in the Korean War (1950-1953). The Vietnam War (1965-1973) saw the maximum use of helicopters in all roles. On a battlefield which is becoming increasingly lethal, this would demand utmost professionalism in acquisition of support measures which enhance survivability, of devising tactics and strategy which will enhance mission accomplishment, and of avoiding pitfalls which detract from the above. For this, we need to study the threats faced by helicopters in relation to small arms fire, light ADA, heavy ADA, MANPADS, SAMs and hostile fighters, and consider each element relating to its kill zones. We need to relate the possible additional support equipment which enhances helicopter survivability in relation to above threats, the possible tactics and strategies which can minimise the above threats. Due to the topographical factors, we need to consider three areas of operations mainly – the valleys and hills in the Northern areas, the plains of Punjab, the desert and semi – desert areas and the tropical jungles.


Helicopter deployment in South Vietnam commenced with 1,483 helicopters in 1965 reaching a figure of over 3,636 in 1969. The year-wise deployment was as follows:

Helicopters were deployed with the ground forces under the direct command and control of ground force commanders. There were two specialist divisions equipped with helicopters, the First Air Cavalry Division and 101 Airborne Division, each with about 450 helicopters. The rest were deployed with other units and in other specialist roles. The type of helicopters were CH 6A, UH1-4, UH-1C, AH1-G, CH-47, CH-53, CH-54, CH-58. Used mainly for observation, these were utility helicopters and armed utility helicopters. From 1967 onwards, the Huey Cobra was utilised for armed attacks. They were used in the following roles:

In the sixties, the US was spending nine per cent of its GDP on defence.

  • Observation – The Bell CH-58A Kiow A, carrying up to four passengers was used for visual observation and target acquisition.
  • Assault Role – For quick induction and de-induction of assault troops in a battle zone. The Bell UH-1D, with a maximum capacity of 14 passengers, was normally the first to land and secure the area. The CH-47 Chinooks each carrying 44 troops or under-slung 155mm gun brought in troops and weapons.
  • Airborne Command Post – The air mobile force commander controlled operations from a Bell UH-1D. This was the airborne command post consisting of a force commander, staff officer, air liaison officer for close air support, and artillery support liaison officer.
  • Recovery and Support – The CH-54 Skycrane can carry a payload of 15,400lbs or an external load of 20,760lbs. It was used for transportation and positioning of heavy artillery and recovery of downed or damaged helicopters.
  • Casualty Evacuation – 116 Bell UH-1 helicopter ambulances each capable of carrying six patients were used. 85 per cent of the casualties survived due to this timely and speedy evacuation. Normally within 20 to 40 minutes, the wounded soldier was on an operating table.

A heli-borne force can seize enemy ground but cannot hold it indefinitely…

  • Fire Suppression – Attack helicopters such as the Huey Cobra and UH-B Irqoqis and armed utility helicopters were used for suppressing enemy fire in escort and offensive attack role. The armament for AH-6 was a 7.62mm, six-barrel gun, 40mm grenades x 2, and 19×2.77” HEAT rockets.
  • Sortie Rates – Total sorties from 1966 to 1971 were 36 150 481. However, sorties were multiple counted if more than one mission was performed even without intermediate landings.

For a comprehensive understanding, the average sorties per day are shown below:-

Take, for example, 1969 as a year for further study. Daily sortie averages are:

Attack Sorties                –              2,507 per day

Combat Assault                –              5,002 per day

Combat Cargo                –              2,185

Others                –              13,431

A total of around 23,125 sorties per day.

3,636 helicopters were deployed in 1969. Therefore, each helicopter would have done 6.36 sorties per day if no un-serviceability, battle losses and other such factors are taken in to account. However, in 1969, 1,048 helicopters were lost averaging 87 helicopters per month. These must have been replaced. The sortie rate seems feasible.

A force commander onboard a helicopter does not get the actual feel of the battle or the confidence of his troops…

There were 590,000 ground troops in South Vietnam in 1969. Let us consider a division comprising 10,000 troops. That means there were 59 divisions. Thus the sorties work out to 392 sorties per division per day. It seems the ground forces were over-reliant on helicopters, even with the peculiarities of the terrain and communication difficulties.

Battle of Lam Son 719

One of the major battles fought mainly with helicopter support was Lam Son 719 in 1971 (Lam Son is a South Vietnam prefix for all operations). It was the largest combat assault by helicopters in which 1,500 helicopters were used to fly in virtually two divisions worth of infantry and seize the mountain ridges on either side of Route 9, near Khe Sanh, the road to Laos with an objective of cutting off North Vietnam’s supplies to South Vietnam. In fact, Khe Sanh, a quiet mountain village had been occupied by US Marines in 1967 for the same purpose. Then it had a force of 6,000 Marines. It also had an airstrip fit for transport aircraft. In the 1968 Tet Offensive, this force was surrounded by North Vietnam, cutting off the US forces from the rest. The North Vietnam supplies bypassed this place. But the US held on to this place during the 1968 Tet Offensive as a prestige issue and later evacuated all personnel. In the Op Lam Son 719 in 1971, it was this place again which the South Vietnamese and Americans wanted to recapture.

Initially, all went well in the absence of opposition from North Vietnam. The US troops seized the airstrip at Khe Sanh. The engineers were flown in by helicopters for rebuilding the runway. However the first C-130 to land sank in the mud on the runway, hence no more supplies could be flown in by transport aircraft. Helicopters, therefore, were used to fly in the required stores. It took 14 days for the job, a delay which enabled the North Vietnamese to pull off the battlefield to regroup and eventually chase the South Vietnamese back. This muddle was in no small way responsible for the failure of overall plan. Except for para-drop of 504 Para Regiment in early stages, no further such attempt was made. There seemed to be overuse/over-dependence on helicopters.

Where the Lam Son battle really started to go wrong in the air was the establishment and re-supply of fire bases by helicopters. The fire bases had worked earlier in the absence of any meaningful artillery from North Vietnam, but now they had 130mm artillery, superior in range. In Laos, small positions were soon surrounded and isolated. When the time came to evacuate because the defence perimeter shrunk, the question was who evacuates and who stays? Also, to add to the woes, the weather turned unfavourable.

The Losses

The overall helicopter losses in Vietnam and the attrition rate suggest a misleading conclusion mainly for two reasons. The way of counting sorties as already explained. And barring a small percentage of helicopter operations, the rest were in a relatively less lethal air defence environment, the maximum opposition being from small arms, Light Machine Guns and 12.7 LMG deployed sparsely. The losses at Lam Son represent a more actual picture and even here, there were no SAMs.

The Overall Attrition

Up to February 1971, the Americans had lost a total of 4,252 helicopters out of which only ten were lost over North Vietnam. Over 15,000 helicopters which were damaged or crashed were recovered using the CH-54 Skycrane. Up to 1970, 4,398 aircrew were killed. About 3,000 helicopters were damaged and 300 totally destroyed by enemy ground action alone.3 This works out to a loss rate of one helicopter for 760 hours of flying. If we include the damaged helicopters then the loss rate works out to one helicopter per 199 hours of flying. Americans could sustain this rate of loss as in the sixties, the US was spending nine per cent of its GDP on defence. Even otherwise, on an average, the US spends five per cent of its GDP on defence. When compared with India’s allocation of its GDP to defence, it becomes crystal clear that we cannot afford this approach.

Lam Son 719 Attrition

For all helicopters            –              14 per cent

For Attack helicopters            –              17 per cent

Damage Data            –              453 out of 659 normal helicopters

149 out of 177 attack helicopters.4

Usage of helicopters needs to be integrated with artillery and fixed-wing aircraft to contain attrition…

Analysis of Helicopter Operations

Before drawing any meaningful lessons or conclusions about the use of helicopters from experiences of Vietnam and blindly applying to present or future wars, the following factors must be kept in mind which reduced the losses to a great extent:

  • The Americans enjoyed total air superiority in Vietnam.
  • The opposition to helicopters in terms of ground fire was minimal at most of the places, except in the Battle of Lam Son 719.
  • There were virtually no radar directed AA Arty or SAMs. Once SA-7 came in 1972, the use of helicopters reduced drastically.
  • The nature of the terrain, jungle and the presence of the Vietcong all over were such that it was safer to move American men and material by helicopters rather than over ground. Also, it was faster, hence the Americans’ heavy reliance on helicopters.
  • For the same reason, spotting and identification of targets by helicopters was easier.

Some of the lessons which emerge are as follows:

  • A heli-borne force can seize enemy ground but cannot hold it indefinitely; the link up with the main body must take place in a reasonable timeframe, say 24 hours.
  • Helicopters should not be employed for support missions against targets which can be tackled by mortars, artillery or other ground-based organic weapons.
  • A force commander onboard a helicopter does not get the actual feel of the battle or confidence of his troops. It is like leading from behind. The ground fire directed at helicopter tends to make the command and control chain weak.
  • Since helicopters are rather costly compared to fixed-wing aircraft of similar performance, the roles of rece and artillery support should be given to light fixed-wing aircraft.
  • Many helicopters were lost because of following the same route over and over again. This was more a flaw in tactics but nevertheless needs taking note of.
  • Attack Helicopters are mainly planned to be used in anti-tank roles. With the advent of precision munitions, a reality and brilliant munitions in the near future, are attack helicopters a good choice for this role?
  • While the helicopter is good for assault roles, it is dangerous to rely on for withdrawal.
  • In the tactical mobility role provided by helicopters, it is worth noting the following comparison between helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and surface vehicles to understand the financial and logistics problems:

“In the course of a ten-hour day, a single CH-47A Chinook could deliver about 25 tonnes of mixed stores across a distance of 200 miles. But in so doing, it would consume nine tonnes of ATF and occupy more or less directly some 50 men. A Caribou would deliver 12 tonnes, consume 3.5 tons of fuel and employ roughly the same number of men. However, five 5-tonne trucks travelling at 25 mph on good straight and direct roads, can deliver 25 tonnes yet need 1.5 tonnes of fuel and generate work equivalent to that of just 15 men full time.”5

The Yom-Kippur War 1973

The Egyptian Air Force during the pre-emptive on October 06, 1973, in its plans to seize Mitla and Jiddi passes, launched 72 sorties of Mi-8 helicopters with commandos onboard. They admitted losing 20 Mi-8s whereas the Israelis claimed to have downed/ destroyed 35 Egyptian helicopters. The mission was a failure.

During the Gulf War of 1991, Apaches were credited with destroying 800 Class A Vehicles and 500 Class B Vehicles…

Helicopter Missions Abandoned due to Heavy Attrition

  • Iran Hostage Rescue, 1980

The plan called for six plus one reserve helicopter. By the time of establishing a launch pad deep within the Iranian desert, only four out of five helicopters remained serviceable and the mission had to be abandoned.

  • Grenada 1983

Helicopters were to support the Delta Force (USA) to capture the prison on Richmond Hill. During the mission, four lead helicopters were lost to ADA and four others severely damaged leading the helicopter mission and the raid to be abandoned. The opposition was not too lethal. They only had 23mm, manual ADA, Qty 24.

At 6.30 a.m., almost an hour after the SEALs had been launched, Delta Force came to rescue the prisoners from Richmond Hill, mounted in helicopters of the ultra Secret Task Force 160 of 101 Air Assault Division. They were a full hour behind schedule. The delay, it seems, had been caused in miscalculating the local time correctly. That was not the miscalculation of the Delta Force planners. The more serious lapse, which caused the mission to be eventually aborted was the failure to objectively evaluate and appreciate the problems that Richmond Hill topography would pose to a heli-borne rescue mission. They failed, for instance, to take into account that there was no suitable helicopter landing ground in the vicinity of the jail and that the jail, which has sheer drops on three sides, could be approached only from one side which was not only covered with thick tropical foliage but more significantly dominated by the nearby Fort Frederick. The consequence of the failure by the Delta mission planners to foresee the topographical problems that the Delta rescuers would face caused first, surprise, and then panic, amongst the Delta commandos that reached Richmond Hill on D-Day. The surprise and panic was fueled by the panicky fire from Fort Frederick that overlooked the prison. As a result after a half-hearted attempt to rappel down, Delta Force aborted the mission. At least one set of helicopter pilots lost their nerve, and flew out while some Delta members were still dangling precariously from the rappelling ropes. In the wake of the Delta force failure, Richmond Hill and Fort Frederick were subjected to numerous aerial attacks, in one of which the nearby mental hospital was destroyed. The Richmond Hill prisoners, however, remained un-rescued, except for the few who got away as a result of the bombing.6

  • Somalia, 1993

US forces as part of UN Peace Keeping Force in Somalia launched an operation in Mogadishu in October 1993 to capture two top rebel lieutenants. A total of 19 MH-60L Black Hawk helicopters were part of the force. While they captured the rebels, in the process, they lost two Black Hawks to RPGs and another three were damaged. 19 American soldiers died and the Somalis lost nearly a 1,000.

The typical anti-tank role by itself seems to be a thing of the past…

  • Mayaguez Incident, 1975

To rescue American hostages after the hijack of naval vessel Mayaguez, a rescue force mounted on helicopters was launched. Eight out of nine helicopters that hit the beach were disabled due to unanticipated hostile fire and the mission had to be aborted.

  • Soviets in Afghanistan

Various sources put helicopter losses between 200 and 600. The rate of loss became significant after the induction of the Stinger MANPAD.

  • Operation Allied Force – Kosovo, 1999

The Task Force Hawk with AH 64-A and US troops was deployed to Albania since Serbians were continuing to fight with little signs of defeat. However, the force was not committed fearing heavy casualties and attrition.

Successful Helicopter Operations

  • Israeli Air Force

The Israeli AF has used helicopters quite successfully on many occasions for airlifting an artillery gun across the border, shelling enemy locations and withdrawing in the few hours of darkness during 1973 War. There has been extensive use of helicopters with commandos in operations against terrorists and the PLO. The use of helicopters in Southern Lebanon in 2006 during the 34-Day War against the Hezbollah was extensive. The attack helicopters flew 2,500 sorties firing 1,070 precision munitions. Combat medical evacuation of wounded soldiers often under enemy fire involved 110 sorties. Combat search and rescue another 120 sorties. Assault and Utility helicopters flew another 2,000 sorties. It is believed there were hardly any losses to enemy fire. Loss of one CH-53 heavy-lift helicopter to direct enemy action was reported by Israel. Of course, there were no SAMs in the area. During the 23-Day War in 2008 against the Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the attack helicopters flew 1,150 sorties and fired 1,120 precision munitions.

  • IPKF in Sri Lanka

The IPKF operated in Sri Lanka to aid the Government of Sri Lanka against the Tamil rebels from October 1987 to 1989. These operations can be considered in two parts. The first part was from October 10 to 31 in 1987, wherein IAF helicopters, mainly Mi-25/35 and Mi-8 operated in concert with the Indian Army to drive out the LTTE. Then a rather long period was from November 01, 1987 to 1989 wherein helicopters were used in counter-insurgency roles against the LTTE operating with typical guerilla tactics. Mi-8s flew a total of 35,000 sorties lifting 100,000 troops and 5,700 tonnes of load. The Mi-25/35 flew 500 sorties. No helicopter was lost totally due to hostile action barring loss of one army Chetak on the ground due to hostile action. Thus, these were highly successful operations.

Due to the complexity of operations, helicopters are best manned by the air force.

Helicopters in the Gulf War, 1991

During the Gulf War of 1991, Apaches were credited with destroying 800 Class A Vehicles and 500 Class B Vehicles and 66 bunkers and 24 helicopters plus aircraft destroyed on ground. They fired approximately 2,876 Hellfire missiles, whereas the Huey Cobras were credited with destroying 201 Class A and B Vehicles 16 bunkers and 2 ADA sites. They used TOW/ Hellfire missiles and suffered no loss. The Huey Cobras flew a total of about 10,000 hours. The Apaches operated during night and the Huey Cobras during the day. Of course, there was fratricide. Apaches attacked UK troops killing nine troops and destroying two Bradely AFVs. Two Huey Cobras were lost to own SAMs. There were 274 Apaches and 271 Huey Cobras deployed. Apaches flew about 7,000 hours. One Apache was lost during the War. The Gulf War 1991 started with the first strikes being undertaken by helicopters. Eight Apaches, flying long distance attacked two GCI stations within Iraq (at Rutba) and destroyed the Antenna, the power equipment, the communication equipment in matter of minutes – at 0238 hours. All returned successfully, having created a gap in the Radar cover for the following strikes. Similarly, another helicopter force of four Apaches destroyed two EW radars, 30kms inside Iraqi territory.

Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003

In this fast moving war wherein air power, land power and naval power undertook simultaneous offensive operations characterized by “shock and awe”, some important lessons emerged for helicopter operations. Damian Kemp opined, “The tank-busting attack helicopter is dead; long live the multi-role attack helicopter – a platform fitted out for missions as diverse as urban warfare and disaster relief.”7 Nearly all the AH 64D Apache Longbow helicopters used in this war were battered by small arms fire and ADA from the Iraqi Madina division. Every Apache used as an independent manoeuvre force (anti-tank role) unsupported by fixed-wing aircraft and artillery returned with battle damage whereas the Marines used their Huey Cobras in an integrated manner with better results. Probably this is the main reason that Americans have cancelled the Stealth RAH-66 Commanche Attack Helicopter programme in spite having spent $3 billion.

The usage of helicopters needs to be integrated with artillery and fixed-wing aircraft to contain attrition. It needs to fire on the move rather in a hover.


The aforestated war time experiences suggest that helicopter usage planned simplistically will cause more failures. The typical anti-tank role by itself seems to be a thing of the past. The usage of helicopters needs to be integrated with artillery and fixed-wing aircraft to contain attrition. It needs to fire on the move rather in a hover. Even in low intensity operations, suitable tactics and associated self-protection equipment needs to be fitted. The complexity of operations would suggest that helicopters are best manned by the air force rather than part-time aviators. The units can be operated in a decentralised manner under army command where required but they must be raised, trained and maintained in a purely air force environment. The culture of the two services differs markedly and has a bearing on its employment.


  1. Refer Military Balance 2010.
  2. Neville Brown, “The Future of Air Power,” London, p. 172
  3. Fulbrook, Jim E. Capt USA, “Lam Son 719- Pt III. Reflections and Values”, US Army Aviation Digest, August 86. p.3.
  4. Neville Brown, Op cit., P. 170.
  5. Maj Vijaya Tiwathia, “The Grenada War-Anatomy of a Low Intensity War”, Lancer International, New Delhi, 1987.
  6. Jane’s Defense Weekly, 19 July 2006, p. 65.
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One thought on “Army Aviation: A dream to realise

  1. This author was a senior officer of IAF and reflects its sick mentality.
    He has the nerve to cite in the end that Army Aviators are “part time aviators”.
    Nothing more needs to be said about the credibilty of this author who is stuck in the past of “turf wars”. Such third rate mentality has no place in the present day armed forces facing high intensity wars on multiple fronts.
    This author and his low grade thinking is best put in the garbage bins.

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