Leadership: June 5, 2003

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The U.S. Armys aviation leadership is faced with some unpleasant changes. Throughout the Cold War, the armys attack helicopter force was designed, equipped and trained to go out and destroy massed Soviet armor. When the Cold War ended, that thinking remained; go out and find the enemy armor and kill it. The AH-64 Apache didn't get its first real combat test until 1991, during the liberation of Kuwait. Apaches had seen their first action two years earlier in Panama, but the opposition there was not vigorous. In 1991, the Apaches went in after Iraqi troops that had been bombed for over a month, and chewed up the opposition pretty well. But 2003 was a different story. The Iraqis had learned, from their 1991 experience and their Serb friends, that attack helicopters are vulnerable. Just tell all the troops to fire on any enemy helicopter they see and the damage will add up. Many AH-64 pilots had been aware of this  and were pushing for new tactics, but the senior people still had visions of Apaches smothering enemy troops with missile and cannon fire. On March 23rd, 2003, several dozen Apaches went out to attack a Republican Guard division. Two helicopters were shot down (plus one that crashed while taking off in a sand storm) and over two dozen were hit, but got back to base. Meanwhile, the tank crews and infantry were calling for helicopters to assist them in their fighting advance towards Baghdad. So the AH-64s were sent to provide close support. This worked. It worked in Vietnam, and in the 70s and 80s, many helicopter pilots and infantry commanders wanted that kind of close cooperation to continue. In light of the Iraq experience, and advice coming from Israeli and Russian helicopter commanders, the official doctrine may switch back to close support. Israel has developed new tactics for the use of helicopter gunships in urban areas. Russian helicopter units have developed similar tactics based on their Afghan and Chechen experience. Indeed, for want of any other targets, Apaches in Afghanistan got in close during the 1991 fighting. Forced to keep moving, because the thin air at high altitudes prevented hovering, the Apache pilots found that speed was life. A moving target was harder to hit than a hovering one. But many "helicopter generals" still have visions of independent gunship going off and doing their own thing. Old illusions die hard.

 


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