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Vietnam:  Army Multiplier, The Birth Of Air Mobility
AUTHOR Major J.W. Barton
CSC 1988
                      Executive Summary
TITLE:   Vietnam:  Army Multiplier, The Birth of Airmobility
I.   Purpose:   To examine the role of the helicopter and
airmobility in Vietnam.   Airmobility was born in
Vietnam--The United States lost that war--Is airmobility
suited for combat?
II.  Thesis:   In Vietnam, Airmobility was a misapplied
combat multiplier and as such, a failure to understand the
nature of that war.   In perspective, airmobility was not the
cause of the ultimate defeat of the U.S. national
objectives.   It did, however, contribute to that defeat.
III. Data:   Nothing has done more to multiply the combat
power of the Army as the helicopter.  It has driven force
structure changes and revolutions in tactics.  Today's Army
Aviation was born in the Vietnam War, a war we lost.
Airmobility, synonymous with Vietnam, contributed to that
defeat.   Unable to carry America to victory in a
low-intensity-conflict, the most limited form of war,
airmobility is given no place in future wars by military
reformers.   Airmobility did not cause the American defeat in
Vietnam--it did, however, contribute.  Too much reliance was
placed on airmobility.  The move to airmobility was rushed
from the beginning.  Needing a quick end to the conflict, the
Secretary of Defense pushed for a technological answer,
disregarding the political and social problems.   The Army
leadership, blinded by the initial successes of airmobile
forces, came to view airmobility the tactic as a strategy.
This strategy, highly successful in battles with main
forces, removed the Army from the Vietnamese villages, a
must in a counterinsurgency war.   The American pattern of
operations,  from basecamp to landing zone, was quickly
recognized by the enemy, allowing them to gain control over
the pace of the war.
IV.  Conclusions:   The improper application of airmobility
contributed to America's loss in Vietnam.   With the
political leadership avoiding the social and political
problems, and the Army,  locked into a body count mentality
substituting tactics for strategy, the North Vietnamese were
able to control the operational tempo of the war.   Unable to
defeat the US Army on the battlefield, they conducted a "war
of time" against the American will and won.
V.  Summary:   Not prepared for a counterinsurgency war, the
Army's reliance on technology distorted its strategic
vision.   This misapplication can be forgiven,  for the
military decisions were made in the heat of battle, and the
management of the war effort directed from Washington D.C.
Not so easily overlooked are the military reformers
conclusions that the helicopter and airmobility are not
suited for combat.   This conclusion fixes the failure on a
tactic, a part of the whole effort, which was mistakenly
utilized as the strategy for prosecuting the war in Vietnam.
    Vietnam:  Army Multiplier, The Birth of Airmobility
Thesis Statement:  In South Vietnam, Airmobility was a
misapplied combat multiplier and as such, an indicator of a
failure to understand the nature of the conflict.
I.   Helicopter and Airmobility, Product of Vietnam
     A.  The War Lost
         1.  Military Failure
         2.  Tactical/Strategic Errors
     B.  Helicopter Love Affair
     C.  The Death Knoll
         1.  Military Reformers
         2.  The Contradiction
II.  Airmobile Combat Score
     A.  Casualties
     B.  Insurgency Destroyed
     C.  NVA Main Force Intervention
     D.  South Vietnam Falls
III. Failure of Understanding/The Misapplied Multiplier
     A.  Cause/Contributor
     B.  The Technological Solution
     C.  Rush to Airmobility
         1.  PreVietnam
         2.  Rogers Board Report
         3.  The Secretary of Defense
             (a) Civilian Control
             (b) New Look
             (c) No Veto
             (d) Operation Chopper
         4.  Howze Board Report
         5.  Newest Technology Toy
IV.  1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)
     A.  Strategy before Testing
     B.  The Ia Drang
         1.  The Battle
         2.  Glorified Strengths
         3.  Forgotten Vulnerabilities
V.   The US Leadership
     A.  Overlooked Weaknesses
     B.  Tactics Substitution for Strategy
         1.  Combat Victory Dilemma
         2.  Waiting Game
     C.  The American Style
         1.  The Press
         2.  Village Operations
VI.  The North Vietnamese
     A.  Quick to Adapt
         1.  Initiative
         2.  Casualty Rates
     B.  Force Sacrifice
     C.  The American Will
VII. Technology and Tactics Blind Strategy
     A.  Social/Political Conflict
     B.  Counterinsurgency Strategy
     C.  American Leadership Retrospective
     D.  The Reformers
         1.  Sterile Evaluation
         2. Flawed Conclusions
    E.   The True Airmobility
     Vietnam:  Army Multiplier, The Birth of Airmobility
     Nothing since the introduction of mechanized forces and
the tank in World War I has done more to multiply the combat
power of the American Army as has the helicopter.  It has
driven force structure changes and revolutions in tactical
doctrine. Today's Army Aviation was born in the Vietnam War.
The helicopter produced a "new mobility" to fight a
guerrilla war, yet, like any weapons system it can only be
viewed as part of the whole.
     The United States lost the war in Vietnam.  The
national objective of maintaining a friendly non-communist
government in South Vietnam was just another strategic
failure in light of the North Vietnamese invasion and
subsequent fall of Saigon in the Spring of 1975.  If the
United States lost, then the United States Military failed.
Given that the military failed, glaring tactical or
strategic errors must have been made upon which the failure
can be fixed.  The United States enjoyed overwhelming
technological and materiel superiority.  A look at how the
Army operated in Vietnam revealed "the dominate
characteristic as the development of infantry organizations
and tactics during the war with increasing emphasis and
dependence on airmobile concepts and tactics." (4:31)  There
it is then!  The Army's love affair with the helicopter in
Vietnam grew to be a blinding love.  The helicopter, and
with it, the tactics it generated (airmobility), were not
the combat multiplier that the Army thought, but rather a
"combat divider."  The answer seems so obvious. That
magnificient flying machine, synonymous with the Vietnam
War, must have, in a large measure, contributed to the
United States' defeat.  The helicopter was not suited to
counterinsurgency warfare.
     The death knoll for the helicopter and airmobility has
been sounded by numerous military reformers.  Tied to
Vietnam, unable to carry America to a victory in a
low-intensity-conflict, the most limited form of war, the
helicopter and airmobility are given no chance of success or
survival in any future conflict, especially on a mid to high
intensity battlefield.  Mr. Bill Lind, renowned Marine Corps
reformer, most recently pronounced this position during his
address to the Marine Command and Staff College at Quantico,
Virginia, in January 1988.  As a student in that audience
and an Army Aviator, the deductive logic he followed to
arrive at his conclusion was hard to swallow, yet sounded
convincing.  As I pursued this theme, however, something
seemed amiss.  An argument lodged somewhere in the back of
my mind kept tapping on my consciousness.  As I read and
researched I found myself surrounded by examples of
capabilities that do not support the premature death of
Airmobility.  A fundamental inconsistency appeared in the
reformers' arguments.  It is best expressed through a
conversation between an American and North Vietnamese
Officer.  "An American colonel on diplomatic duty in Hanoi
remarked to his North Vietnamese counterpart, 'You know you
never defeated us on the battlefield.'  The North Vietnamese
General paused and then responded, 'That may be so, but is
also irrelevant.'"(10:573)
     The United States Armed Forces were successful in
inflicting terrible casualities on the North Vietnamese
Forces.  As one observer stated, "On the battlefield itself,
the United States Forces were unbeatable.  In engagement
after engagement, the forces of the Viet Cong and the North
Vietnamese Army (NVA) were thrown back with terrible
losses."(13:1)  How then, does one point to an Army tactic
and label it a combat divider?  The Army won most of the
battles.  Such success is not found through the use of a
combat divider.  Airmobility was an effective tactical tool
in defeating the enemy forces.  General Bruce Palmer has
stated, "The direction, conduct, and operational performance
during the 1962-1969 period generally were professional and
commendable."(11:155)  By 1972 the United States and South
Vietnamese Forces had defeated the guerrilla insurgency
(Viet Cong) to the point that the North Vietnamese were
forced to conduct a massive invasion of their own using
conventional forces.  At two in the morning on the tenth of
March 1975, seventeen (17) NVA Divisions began a campaign
that would defeat the South.(14:279)  The often overlooked
irony of course is that, in the end, the Victor was an
invading army, not an internal insurgency force.
     Now the entire problem is revealed.  Airmobility is
accused of not being suited for a counterinsurgency war,
while at the same time, the effectiveness of the U.S. Forces
in defeating North Vietnamese main forces is repeatedly
demonstrated.  In the end, however, the Viet Cong insurgency
was no longer "a serious contender for power" (14:279) and
the NVA main forces had won the victory.
     Airmobility then was not a combat divider.  In South
Vietnam. Airmobility was a misapplied combat multiplier and
as such, an indicator of a failure to understand the nature
of the conflict.  In perspective, airmobility was not the
cause of the ultimate defeat of U.S. national objectives.
It did, however, contribute to that defeat.  Too much
reliance was placed on airmobility to achieve the national
objectives in Southeast Asia.  A highly successful tactic,
airmobility became a strategic vision.  The U.S. Army had
not planned for a war such as the Vietnamese conflict.  The
rush to airmobility as a tactic, coupled with the immense
early success in Vietnam, led to its incorrect application.
The overreliance on airmobility demonstrated our faith in
technological solutions to what was a military, social, and
political problem.  Finally, airmobility contributed to the
blinding of the Army leadership in Vietnam.  That leadership
failed to recognize the tactical versus strategic
applications of airmobility, as well as the political nature
of the struggle. (1:17)
     An analysis of the war in Southeast Asia by Paddy
Griffith in his book Forward Into Battle features five
distinct campaigns waged by the participants.  These
campaigns are characterized as:
     -The International Political Struggle
     -The Strategic Bombing Campaign
     -The Interdiction Campaign
     -The Main Force Battle
     -The Pacification or Village War
The failure of the Army's leadership to recognize the proper
relationship between the village war, the main force war,
and the international political struggle are intertwined
with the analysis of airmobility.  The errors of vision that
were made, were at the time, not at all obvious.  The Army
was "set up" for misapplication and a failure to properly
focus its use of airmobility.  The airmobility effort was
rushed and blinded by initial successes.
     The rush to airmobility within the Army began in March
of 1960 with the publication of the Rogers Board report.
This report provided "essential aviation guidance for
development, procurement, and personnel planning and
recommended extensive evaluation and testing." (15:9)
Although the helicopter had been utilized during the Korean
War, it had been limited to combat support roles for medical
evacuation and resupply.  Early in 1961, General Maxwell D.
Taylor, presidential military advisor, reported after a
survey trip to Vietnam that "lack of adequate roads, lines
of communication, and means of mobility contribute to the
government's problems in South Vietnam." (15:15)  After this
impetus, events in Washington occurred with unprecedented
speed, and for the first time, a military evolution was
managed by the civilian military leadership.  In September
1961, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara directed the
Army to restudy its future aviation requirements.  Displeased
with the resulting report, the third major revision in two
years, McNamara directed a "bold new look at land warfare
mobility." (15:18)  The Secretary called for a "major effort
to exploit the aeronautical potential and increase its
effectiveness vis-a-vis a ground transportation
system." (15:18)  This tasking called for results in terms of
cost effectiveness and directed that field tests and
exercises be conducted.  There should be "no veto or
dilution by conservative views." (15:18)  The race was on.
The United States Army, an organization of mechanized and
"leg infantry" divisions would become airmobile.
     In December of 1961, 400 men and 32 H-21 helicopters of
the 57th and 8th Transportation Companies participated in
Operation Chopper, the first tactical operation involving
the air movement of combat troops into battle. Approximately
1000 South Vietnamese paratroopers were airlifted into a
Viet Cong headquarters where they captured a radio facility
from a surprised enemy. (15:3)
     The Army study on airmobility in a conventional role
was completed in August of 1962 with the Howze Board Report.
The Howze Report concluded that the shift to airmobility was
"inevitable, just as was that from animal mobility to
motor." (15:24)  Secretary McNamara was given his newest
technological invention, the Airmobile Division.  Trucks
were reduced from 3452 to 1100 and helicopters were
increased from 100 to 459. (15:22)  Had a veto or diluting
view been allowed, the Secretary might have taken notes from
a Viet Cong manual captured in 1962 outlining the
disadvantages of airmobile tactics:
     -Operations separate forces from population
     -Separation from villages retains insurgency
     -Necessarily small forces lifted can be
     -Enemy strike elements are unfamiliar with terrain
     -Easily surrounded and defeated
     -Ambushes easily employed against landings (15:27)
     The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), the Army's first
airmobile division, was activated on 1 July 1965 after a
tentative decision in March of that year (the steamroller to
airmobility was in gear). (15:61)  One month later, elements
of the 1st Cavalry Division (1st Cav) were in Vietnam.
Airmobility was envisioned as the combat multiplier that
would cut the force ratios required for counterinsurgency
operations from 10-15 to 1 to 4 to 1. (6:157) (A strategic
implication before the first tactical engagement)  The
opportunity for the first test of the 1st Cav and
airmobility came during the Battle of the Ia Drang, which
quickly demonstrated the vulnerabilities of the new
"American way of war" as well as its strengths.
     LTC Harold G. Moore's 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry
was airlifted into a small clearing near the Ia Drang.
General Giap's NVA Division detected the insertion, and he
ordered two of his regiments, the 66th and 33rd, to quickly
encircle and eliminate the Americans.  As LTC Moore sent one
of his companies out to a supporting position, the Americans
ran into the NVA troops positioning to attack the landing
zone.  This accidental encounter probably saved the 1/7th
from annihilation, and the ensuing battle raged for two
days.  Properly warned, LTC Moore's Battalion fought off
numerous human wave assaults, decimating the two attacking
regiments.  As the survivors of these two regiments and the
rest of the committed NVA division attempted to withdraw
toward the border, five South Vietnamese battalions were
airlifted into blocking positions astride their escape
routes.   Caught in a trap, the unsuspecting NVA were
annihilated by American artillery and the South Vietnamese
battalions. (12:116-131)
     The Battle for the Ia Drang had been a dramatic
success.   Airmobility had made a glorious entrance.   "As an
example, artillery batteries displaced sixty-seven times and
still managed to fire 33,108 rounds!" (12:130)  The NVA,
committing a division of regulars with the expectation of
cutting South Vietnam in half had been decimated by one
airmobile battalion. (10:548)
     "The political and military leaders of the United
States were buoyed by the superb performance of the first
Marine and Army battalions that met the NVA." (10:552)
General Westmoreland stated, "The ability of the Americans
to meet and defeat the best troops the enemy could put on
the field of battle was once more demonstrated beyond any
possible doubt, as was the validity of the Army's
airmobility concept." (6:169)  What was overlooked were the
vulnerabilities and weaknesses inherent in the plight of LTC
Moore's 1/7 Cavalry on the Ia Drang.   Once dismounted from
the aircraft, his forces had no mobility. American units
developed the pattern of tying themselves to their landing
zones.   They would not leave the security of the air
lifeline.   The initiative belonged to the enemy.   He could
maneuver, fight, or withdraw as he chose.   On the Ia Drang,
the 1st Cav engaged an enemy unfamiliar with airmobility or
the dangers of massing in the face of overwhelming American
firepower.  The NVA and Viet Cong forces were quick to
adapt. Airmobility's utility on the battlefield was
considerable as future operations would show.  It provided a
"Sunday Punch of unequalled flexibility and
versatility." (11:156)  But that "Sunday Punch" had to be set
up, the location and timing carefully selected.  Instead,
"it came to dominate American tactical thinking and to
dictate the very manner of fighting." (11:180)
     Where soldiers walked, they had to stay close to
planned landing zones (LZs) to insure casualty pickup and
resupply.  When inserted by air, troops were forced to
travel light--too light to survive without an air LOC.  This
in turn necessitated leaving combat troops behind to guard
the precious LZ after each insertion.  The enemy forces
seized on the American pattern and took control over the
tempo of the war.  As Sir Robert Thompson observed, "you
were never mobile on your feet.  The enemy, who was mobile
on his feet, could actually decide whether he was going to
have a battle with you in the first place, and he would
break it off whenever he wanted to." (14:178)  The enemy
could then move from main force war to guerrilla war at his
will.   The United States continued to fight a main force
war. Once substantial enemy forces were located, airmobile
forces were quickly inserted into the area with outstanding
results.  However, once the surviving enemy broke contact,
the Americans withdrew to their firebases and basecamps, and
the enemy could move with impunity throughout the villages
and countryside.  This insistence on fighting the "American
way of war" was not nearly flexible enough.  As Professor
Earl Ravenal noted in Lessons of Vietnam ". . . it requires
the appropriate target." (14:256)  Despite this
misapplication, the reliance on the "American way of war"
even when the target was not appropriate, the US Army was,
according to many measures, successful.  This dilemma cannot
be ignored.  Tactical mobility and firepower contributed to
an 8 to 1 kill ratio of NVA and Viet Cong to American and
South Vietnamese soldiers. (13:110)  There must be another
side to the story.
     In October 1967, Secretary of Defense McNamara visited
Vietnam.  He departed sobered and reported that the "enemy
has adopted a strategy of keeping us busy and waiting us
out." (6:183)  The Army, with its one year tours, body count
mentality, and habit of "lunging into areas of marginal
political importance," was demonstrating a lack of
understanding of both the "village war" and the
international political struggle. (6:122)  In 1968, only
80,000 of 543,000 soldiers in Vietnam were combat troops.
The rest constituted the massive logistical tail needed to
conduct an airmobile war while maintaining the American way
of life in Vietnam. (1:6-10)  With most of these combat
troops dedicated to searching out and destroying enemy main
forces, the United States did not have the assets to conduct
or even learn the nature of the counterinsurgency
war. (6:197)  General Westmoreland felt that he could endure
less than the ideal force structures and conditions because
he was sure victory would be ours eventually.  General
Westmoreland was wrong.  The war was being fought for time,
not space or body counts.  While the United States stuck to
its style of war, the enemy could control not only his own
casualty rate, but that of the American forces as
well. (6:122)  Through the control of the casualty rate, the
will of the American people could be exploited.  If the
press reported to the American people that the Army was
winning, the NVA and Viet Cong only had to join a few
battles and inflict a few casualties to turn the Antiwar
heat back up in America.  With no strategy to control area
or be involved on a large scale with the villages, the US
Army missed the opportunity to see the war for what it was.
An Airmobility strategy, not airmobile tactics was partially
responsible for this failure.  "As one airmobile commander
ruefully stated after the war, 'We should have done less
flittin and more sittin.'"(14:88)
     The North Vietnamese did not miss the impact of their
control over the initiative and casualty rates.  The
Americans and South Vietnamese were able to destroy the
insurgency by 1968 (thus eliminating the Viet Cong as a
contender for power in 1972 and 1975) because the North
Vietnamese were willing to sacrifice the guerrilla to win
the international political struggle at TET.  Not only had
General Westmoreland failed to recognize the conflict as a
war of time against the American will, he had also failed to
understand the willingness of the North Vietnamese to take
terrible punishment.
     In retrospect, the United States' reliance on
technology and the substitution of tactics such as
airmobility and firepower for strategic efforts were
contributing factors to the prolonging of the war, and thus
the loss of the war.  We allowed the enemy to set the pace.
In so doing, we saved American lives.  "That the fewer
casualties may have been entirely wasted does not occur to
the many." (12:184)  One more seldom considered effect of the
American way of war in Vietnam was its cumulative effect on
the people of South Vietnam.  The long years of
indiscriminate high technology warfare and the suffering it
inflicted did much to undermine the efforts of the South
Vietnamese government (corrupt as it was) (3:112) to win the
allegience of its people. (8:403)  Dr. Andrew F.
Krepepinevich, in The Army and Vietnam, best illustrates the
effect of our sterotyped and ritualized successes in
operations and tactics:
     If the Army had followed a counterinsurgency
     strategy, both the human and financial costs of
     the war would have been significantly lower. This
     in turn would have assisted to some extent in
     maintaining popular support within the United
     States for American participation in the war.  It
     would have placed the Army in a position to
     sustain its efforts in a conflict environment
     certain to produce a protracted war.  True to its
     concept, the Army focused on technological and
     logistical dimensions of strategy while ignoring
     the political and social dimensions that formed
     the foundation of the counterinsurgency
     warfare. (6:233)
     The improper utilization and overreliance on airmobile
tactics by the United States contributed to--but did not
cause--the Vietnam defeat.  Not prepared for a
counterinsurgency war, the Army's reliance on technology
distorted its strategic vision.  This misapplication can be
forgiven, for the military decisions were made in the heat
of battle, and the management of the war effort directed
from Washington D.C.  Not so easily overlooked, however, are
the conclusions being drawn by the military reformers.
Extracted from 13 years of sterile academic evaluation after
the war, they arrive at a flawed conclusion--that the
helicopter and airmobility are not suited for combat.   This
conclusion fixes the failure on a tactic, a part of the
whole effort,  which was mistakenly utilized as the strategy
for prosecuting the war effort.   The military leadership of
the United States Armed Forces have recognized and corrected
their error.   It's time the reformers did the same, and
examine airmobility in its true context.   Airmobility is not
a strategy--it is a tactic of maneuver--a combat multiplier
as part of the combined arms team.   Viewed in this correct
context,  Airmobility is a dynamic success--the Vietnam
battle results speak for themselves.
1.   BDM Corporation Study:  "The Strategic Lessions Learned
     in Vietnam", Carlisle, Pa: The Strategic Studies Institute,
2.   Brown, Weldon A.  The Last Chopper.  New York: National
     University Publications, 1976.
3.   Buttinger, Joseph.  Vietnam:  The Unforgotten Tradegy.
     New York:  Horizon Press, 1977.
4.   Doughty, Robert A.  Leavenworth Paper Number 1: The
     Evolution of US Army Tactical Doctrine, 1946-1976. Fort
     Leavenworth, KS:  Combat Studies Institute, 1979.
5.   Dupuy, William E.  "Vietnam:  What We Might Have Done and
     Why We Didn't Do It."    20th Century War:  The American
     Experience Book of Readings. Ed. Combat Studies Institute.
     Fort Leavenworth, KS:  CGSC, 1986, PP.387-409.
6.   Krepinevich, Andrew F., Jr.  The Army and Vietnam.
     Baltimore:  John Hopkins University Press, 1986.
7.   Lewy, Guenter.  America in Vietnam.  Oxford:  Oxford
     University Press, 1978.
8.   Lewy, Guenter.  "Epilogue:  The Legacy of Vietnam."  20th
     Century War:  The American Experience Book of Readings.  Ed.
     Combat Studies Institute.  Fort Leavenworth, KS: CGSC, 1986.
9.   Millett, Allan R.  A Short History of the Vietnam War.
     Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1978.
10.  Millet, Allan R. and Peter Maslowski.   For The Common
     Defense.  New York:  Free Press, 1984.
11.  Palmer, Bruce, Jr.  The 25 Year War:  America's Role in
     Vietnam.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1984.
12.  Palmer, Dave Richard.  Summons of the Trumphet:
     US-Vietnam in Perspective.  Novato, CA:  Presidio Press,
13.  Summers, Harry G., Jr.  On Strategy:  The Vietnam War in
     Context.  Carlisle Barracks, PA:  Strategic Studies Institute,
14.  Thompson, W. Scott and Donald D. Frizzell.  The
     Lessions of Vietnam.  New York:  Crane, Russak and Company,
15.  Tolson, John J.  Airmobility 1961-1971.  Washington,
     D.C.:  Department of the Army, 1973.
16.  US Marine Corps Command and Staff College.  The Writing
    Program Volume II.  Quantico, VA:  The US Marine Corps, 1987

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