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