Helicopter Support In Desert Storm: Fixes Are In Order!
SUBJECT AREA - Aviation
Title: HELICOPTER SUPPORT IN DESERT STORM: FIXES ARE IN ORDER!
Author: Major E. J. Spinella, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: Marine helicopter support in Southwest Asia (SWA),
although effective overall, was beset with communication
shortfalls, planning and intelligence pitfalls, and a host of
logistic self-support deficiencies. These problems must be solved
in order for Marine helicopters to be effective on the joint
battlefield of tomorrow.
Background: During Desert Storm, Marine helicopters were
confronted with medevac, assault support, and logistic self-support
problems. Medevac problems were characterized by innappropriate
requests by the Ground Combat Elements (GCE), poor or nonexistent
control by the Direct Air Support Center (DASC), and inadequate
enemy and friendly intelligence for the medevac crews to mission
plan. Assault support missions, in addition to communications and
intelligence deficiencies, were routinely provided inadequate
mission planning and rehearsal time. Helicopter logistic self-
support deficiencies were influenced by two realities: Marine Air
Groups (MAGS) possessed no organic vehicular, material handling or
messing capability and the TAVB (aviation support vessel) concept,
although valid, needed modernization.
Recommendation: The solutions to the problems that characterized
helicopter support are easily achieved. Some funding is required
to update communications, provide better access to navigation
capabilities, and better disseminate intelligence to the user. But
critical to the solutions is the need for training that will
improve decisionmaking and planning flexibility in war. That
requires more of a desire to fix the problems rather than a belief
that money alone can solve them.
HELICOPTER SUPPORT IN DESERT STORM: FIXES ARE IN ORDER!
Marine helipcopters provided superlative support to the Marine
Corps' overall mission in Desert Storm; however, major deficiencies
were noted in helicopter medevac, assault and logistics self-
support missions. Although not critical to the outcome, these
failures might have become so had a protracted war become reality.
The solutions are feasible and necessary; the Marine Corps must
solve these problems in order to function effectively on the joint
battlefield of tomorrow.
I. Marine Helicopters Contributed to Desert Storm
A. The majority of aviation assets were helicopters
B. Helicopters provided troop and cargo support
C. Problems evident in medevac, assault and self-support
II. Medevac Operations
A. Communications connectivity an often unreliable link
B. Helicopters used where surface means more appropriate
C. Pilots provided poor intelligence situation updates
D. Ground Combat Elements not properly supported medevacs
III. Assault Support Operations
A. Missions not provided ample planning or rehearsal time
B. Mission intelligence shortfalls
C. Helicopter navigation deficiencies
D. Task Force X-ray
IV. Helicopter Self-Support Deficiencies
A. The Marine Air Group lacked organic self-support
B. The TAVB concept good but poorly supported
HELICOPTER SUPPORT IN DESERT STORM: FIXES ARE IN ORDER!
Marine Corps aviation played a significant role in support of
US/Coalition efforts during Operations Desert Shield and Storm.
Built around the 3rd Marine Airwing (MAW), Marine aviation
consisted of over 70 squadron-size or larger units, over 500 combat
aircraft, and more than 16,000 personnel.1 Marine helicopters
provided sixty percent of the total aviation assets and
approximately forty percent of the hours flown in Southwest Asia
(SWA). Although the C-130 contributed, the millions of pounds of
cargo and thousands of troops transported during the war were
accomplished primarily with Marine helicopter assets. Marine
helicopters, however, encountered a myriad of problems in providing
this support. Some problems, like their across the board old age
save for the CH-53E, and the expected operating environment could
be partially anticipated and planned for. Problems stemming from
a relatively large area of operations (AOA) and the huge
requirements for helicopter support, however, were often not
anticipated or well planned for. The support provided by
helicopters was most deficient in medevac, assault support and
self-support, that is, the logistic support internal to helicopter
aviation. These three areas shared common symptoms: communications
shortfalls, planning and intelligence pitfalls, and aircraft poorly
equipped and in the case of the CH-46E and UH-1 too antiquated to
1 Roberts, M.A. Major, Aviation Operations in Southwest Asia,
Marine Corps Research Center Paper #92-0003, 15 June 1991.
conduct business on today's battlefield. None of the deficiencies
proved to be critical; however, the symptoms still exist in varying
degrees today and could prove critical should we fight against a
more determined foe than the one we met in Sadam Hussein.
Medevac operations, theoretically, should have been easily
executed. The support plan appeared sound. The Ground Combat
Element (GCE) would evacuate wounded to battalion or regimental aid
stations. Those requiring further evacuation would be transferred
to Casualty Clearance Companies (CCC) following in trace of the
GCE. The CCC would determine the precedence of the medecac and
whether surface or helicopter means were appropriate. A helicopter
evacuation required a request to the Direct Air Support Center
(DASC) where a medical regulating team made the final decision as
to the appropriateness of the request and then coordinated with a
field hospital normally well to the rear where helicopters and
surgical support teams stood around the clock standby. The medevac
would launch with a medical team, contact the DASC for any update,
pick up the wounded at the CCC and transport them back to the field
hospital. It was a good plan but acknowledged to be heavily
dependent on communication connectivity between the CCC, the DASC
and the field hospital.
The ground situation was fluid and fast developing the weeks
prior to and the days immediately following G-Day, the day the
ground war began. The GCE would evacuate the wounded to the CCC,
which was unable to remain in trace and often lagged far behind.
In the daylight, the CCC would often opt to ground transport the
wounded to the hospital especially if the medivac precedence was
not urgent. The problems at night, however, proved to be enormous.
The GCE was generally reluctant to surface evacuate at night
because the featureless terrain required Global Positioning System
(GPS) to safely navigate long distances, and GPS was hard to come
by and rarely available for vehicular navigation short of a large
convoy. When confronted with a medivac at night, the GCE would
often bypass the CCC to request a helicopter directly from the
DASC. If communication connectivity with the DASC was attained,
and often it was not, the DASC normally consented to helicopter
support and attempted to reach the field hospital. This GCE-DASC-
field hospital communications link was weak and unreliable. Often
the DASC did not have access to daily changing call signs and
therefore was not even on the same frequency as the GCE or field
hospital. Other times, the distance between these controlling
agencies precluded effective communications. In either case,
helicopter response time suffered.
Once notified, the helicopter crews were normally given the
following information: a grid square location of the medivac and a
general idea of the medivac precedence. This was insufficient
information for the helicopter crews who relied upon GPS
coordinates to get directly and precisely to the GCE location. The
GCE rarely provided GPS location in their medivac requests,
ostensibly because GPS hardware was in short supply. Pilots
launched with only a rough idea of the medivac location and no
enemy situation update. The medivac helicopter would attempt
communications with the DASC once airborne. Pilots complained that
they often could not talk with DASC and that when they could did
not normally receive timely information update concerning the
medivac. The pilots would fly to the grid square location provided
and not be able to locate the GCE because their location had
changed or the incorrect grid square was originally given to the
DASC. In an after action report, one pilot reported that during one
night mission to medivac a heart attack victim, the first position
the pilots flew to was 60 miles from the eventual pickup site.2 It
is likely that either an inaccurate position was given by the GCE
or that the GCE was on the move that evening and unable to update
the pilots as to their new position by radio. Finding the exact
location for the medivac pickup once the general trace of the GCE
was located was extremely difficult. The helicopter after flying
a good distance over featureless terrain under normally low light
conditions with night vision goggles (NVGS) required landing zone
support for a safe landing. An NVG compatible beacon was optimum
but chem lights or flashlights sufficed. The GCE was not normally
equipped to provide this support and in many cases was reluctant to
provide any light source that would compromise their position to
With the medevac safely on board, the pilots task was only half
complete; he now had to make his way back to the field hospital to
deliver the patient. Having enough gas to return safely was now
2 Marine Corps Lessons Learned Tape # 1432, 27 Mar 1991.
the chief obstacle to a successful mission. Often the helicopters
had expended more fuel in locating the GCE than was expected.
Crews now had to decide to press on or to look for a Fuel/Arming
Refuel Point (FARP) between them and the field hospital. Of course
they also had to take the condition of the medivac into account and
often pressed to the field hospital landing with less than minimum
Medevac operations suffered from all the symptoms common to
helicopter support problems: communication unreliability, planning
and intelligence gaps, and aircraft poorly equipped to properly
accomplish the medevac mission. One may ask how the mainstay
medevac helicopter, the CH-46E, was poorly equipped to accomplish
the mission if it was configured with a GPS receiver. The fact is
that with less than two hours of useable fuel, the aircraft was
severely range limited. The workaround was the installation of an
internal fuel tank that added an additional forty-five minutes of
fuel but sharply reduced the number of medevac patients that could
be transported. The war was short and the medevac system was never
tested for mass casualty response. In fact, one pilot quipped that
Marine helicopters medevaced more Iraqi prisoners of war than
Solutions to the medevac problem are not difficult. Better
training, planning and equipment will mend most of the problem.
Marines at all levels need to be better educated to the fact that
helicopters are a limited asset and that all wounded do not require
such support. In an accident involving a HUMMWV vehicle, one
Marine was already dead and the others had non-life threatening
injuries. It was a moonless night and the accident occurred within
a twenty minute drive of a field hospital. Despite this, a medevac
helo was called. The helicpoter had trouble locating the LZ due to
darkness and the featureless terrain.3 In this case, both the dead
and wounded Marines were a routine precedence better supported by
surface means. Even if they were an urgent precedence, surface
means would have been more timely. The HF medevac communications
net that connects the CCC, DASC and field hospital support needs
improvement. This net was often unreliable especially at night.
Alternate procedures must be established and practiced to ensure
medevac control should the DASC fall out of the loop due to
communications failures or other reasons. Finally, an investment
to outfit Marines down to the squad level with GPS capability is
Helicopter assault support was a second major area of overall
helicopter support with its share of problems. After action
reports and interviews with helicopter squadrons uncovered the same
theme: not enough time was provided to plan and rehearse troop
transport missions. Although optimum when received at a set time
each day, Air Tasking Orders (ATO) containing the following days
helicopter taskings would arrive at any hour of the day or night.
Squadrons had operations duty officers working around the clock to
ensure proper coordination and dissemination of taskings upon ATO
3 Marine Corps Lessons Learned Report # 0061, 9 March, 1990.
receipt. Problems arose due to geographic distances between the
supporting helicopter units and the supported GCE's. Time and
distance factors precluded necessary face to face planning or
rehearsals which would have enhanced overall confidence in a
mission. Often ATO's designated helicopter units to a 15 minute
stand by alert, allowing for little preplanning for the supporting
Coupled with inadequate planning time for mission planning was
the sheer unavailability of useable friendly and enemy
intelligence. One Marine Air Group (MAG) Commanding Officer stated
that he was promised friendly situation reports hourly but never
received them.4 He further remarked that 3rd MAW Headquarters
rarely had an idea where friendly GCE units were. This made it
difficult for helicopters to determine the Forward Line of Troops
(FLOT). In essence, helicopter crews often did not know where
friendly forward lines ended and where enemy locations began.
Although not normally a major factor during daylight missions, it
was crucial for safe mission accomplishment at night. Some GCE
units had Position Location and Reporting System (PLRS) hardware to
update their locations; however, it was not universally utilized by
all major ground units and few helicopters possessed such
receivers. When both the GCE and the Air Combat Element (ACE)
utilized PLRS, a general FLOT could be ascertained and utilized for
4 Marine Corps Lessons Learned Tape # 00294, 10 March, 1991.
In addition to inadequate planning time and intelligence,
assault support was hampered by another factor: inadequate numbers
of helicopter GPS units. Most helicopters in SWA possessed Long
Range Aid to Navigation (LORAN) capability but due to ground
station reporting problems LORAN was somewhat unreliable till after
the war. GPS, although extremely accurate, was available in
numbers to outfit less than half of all helicopters. This
deficiency hampered assault support forcing planners to ensure that
sufficient GPS equipped aircraft were involved in every mission.
An analysis of the aborted Task Force (TF) X-ray troop lift
illustrates how a combination of communication, intelligence,
planning and decisionmaking factors placed obstacles for a
On 24 February (G-Day), a battalion-size troop lift supported
with 56 helicopters was scheduled to move TF X-ray of 1st Marine
Division from LZ Sandy to an LZ across the second obstacle belt in
Kuwait.5 The mission was scheduled for a tentative 1000 launch
time. For several reasons, including resistance from Iraqi forces
against another task force, the launch order was delayed several
times with an eventual 1745 launch. Due to the delay, the mission
was flown on NVG's, adding substantially to the difficulty of the
5 Marine Corps Desert Storm Reconstruction Report, Volume III:
Third Marine Airwing Operations. Center for Naval Analyses,
Alexandria, Va., October 1991.
mission. The mission was aborted short of the LZ due to enemy fire
in the landing area and the helicopterborne force returned to LZ
Sandy. The following morning TF X-ray was helo inserted to a
different LZ in the area.
Many things went wrong with the TF X-ray helicopterborne assault
and it is amazing that no loss of life resulted. Let's start with
the communication and intelligence failures. Due to unreliable
secure communications between MAG-16 the helicopterborne unit, and
the 1st MarDiv, the MAG mission commander commuted to division some
distance away for planning and coordination.6 This was not ideal
for mission planning. No overhead imagery of the LZ was available
causing concern because there were likely trenches in the area. On
the morning of G-Day the mission commander obtained information via
courier that enemy tanks were in the LZ. No further updates
concerning the ground war were given the rest of the day.
Additionally, the mission commander was unable to make radio
contact with the Helicopter Tactical Air Command Center (HTACC),
the senior helicopter controlling agency, for situation updates
although it was only 10 miles away. When it became evident that
the launch would become a night lift, a three hour extension was
requested for night planning needs. The request was denied
apparently because it was misunderstood as a request to cancel the
6 Marine Corps Desert Storm Reconstruction Report, Volume III:
Third Marine Aircraft Wing Operations. Center for Naval
Analyses, Alexandria, Va., October 1991.
mission.7 And so the mission launched at 1745 and eventually was
Task Force X-ray brings to light the compexities inherent in
such large helicopterborne assaults. Communications, intelligence
and adequate mission planning are essential ingredients to a
successful mission. The planning time required for a night mission
will always exceed that required for one executed during daylight.
More MAG size helicopterborne missions must be practiced during
peacetime so that all appreciate the complexities of such an
undertaking. Lastly, a word about mission decisiomaking. It
appears that the lift on G-Day was certain to be aborted due to the
enemy situation. An alternate LZ either was not planned for or
prepared for in time for such a force to land. It seems that the
intent behind a helicopterborne assault was not supported by the
conditions the 1st MarDiv encountered on G-Day. The mission should
have been canceled before launched.
The last major area causing problems in SWA was the high degree
of self-support helicopter units required in order to function.
This included all the communications, vehicular, material handling,
and messing support necessary to maintain a system capable of
producing operationally ready aircraft. The helicopter MAG's
missed not having these as organic capabilities. According to one
MAG CO interviewed postwar, the MAG is the largest Marine
organization without vehicular or communications assets, or the
capability to feed its own people without outside support.8 The
MAG was totally dependent on the Marine Wing Support Squadron
(MWSS) for such support. In theory, one MWSS is organized to
support each MAG. But in Desert Storm, there were more MAG's
requiring support than there were MWSS's to go around. To best
ration this available support, the Marine Wing Support Group (MWSG)
collected requests from all the MAGs, prioritized them and tasked
subordinate MWSS's to support the requests. Where a MAG was placed
on the priority list determined if and how much support would be
provided. If there was a conflict for a limited asset, the "higher
priority" unit received the support. The problem was that often
the first indication to the MAG that their request was denied or
not fully supported was when the assets failed to show up. Marine
Air Group 26 moved four times in 60 days prior to the ground war.
For one of these moves, 23 trucks were requested with one showing
up. The MAG CO, in this instance, was left wondering how he was to
move an entire MAG with one truck. The MAG had its own helicopters
to support its own move; however, this reduced the availability of
these assets for their primary function of GCE support. Vehicles
contracted from Saui Arabia supported MAG requirements but became
scarcer as the MAG moved closer to Kuwait; the civilians who
operated Saudi Motors were not about to get personally involved in
The Marine Corps has placed warfighting and thus support
8 Marine Corps Lessons Learned Tape # 00294, 10 March, 1991.
emphasis on the composite squadrons of the ACE as a supporting
element of the Marine Experditionary Unit (MEU) to the detriment of
the MAG. One officer opined that squadrons deploy everywhere, but
MAG's deploy nowhere. This emphasis on supporting squadron size
needs in peacetime has permitted the MWSS to tailure its support
posture for squadrons piecemeal but remain ineffective in
supporting the MAG as a whole. MAGs need to train as a an entity
in peacetime whenever possible. This will better focus the MWSS to
the requirements of a MAG. Of course, the best solution is to
increase the number of MWSS's so that there is one to support each
MAG. The MAG/MWSS relationship needs to be better solidified
during peacetime thus enabling a smoother transition in war.
The Marine Air Logistics Squadron (MALS) afloat, also known as
the TAVB (aviation support vessel), was a success during Desert
Storm although beset with fundamental problems. Docked at Al
Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, the USS Wright provided full helicopter
intermediate maintainence activity (IMA) services. The TAVB is a
container ship, operated by merchant marine crewman with
approximately 130 vans containing extensive helicopter maintenance
support.9 Rather than removing and transporting the vans to the MAG
ashore, the majority remained aboard the ship and a Fly in Support
Package (FISP) of about 14 maintenance vans moved ashore and
functioned as an IMA forward.
The TAVB concept worked well but needs modernization. There was
9 Roberts, M.A. Major, Aviation Operatiions in Southwest Asia,
Marine Corps Research Center Paper #92-0003, 15 June 1991.
no intercom among the 130 work vans so that contacting another
maintainance van required physically walking the ship to find it.
The consumable parts bin in the ship's holds was not lighted
requiring workers to carry a flashlight or lantern. The ship
possessed no fire or crash alarm or public address system. The
FISP ashore had no radios or phone lines to reach back to the TAVB,
relying on the MAG for such access. A solution to the TAVB concept
is to place the ship into the active naval fleet where it might be
better attended to. Solutions to the TAVB concept are critical as
without it, Marine aviation will not possess the ability to provide
sustainment support to the GCE on the battlefield of tomorrow.
In summary, Marine helicopters were required to perform in a
large and inhospitable theater of the world. The problems they
encountered, like communications connectivity, were partly to be
expected in such an austere environment. Problems with
intelligence partly occurred due to the rapidly evolving
battlefield; assault support shortfalls partly a result of the
communications and intelligence deficiencies previously described.
But we cannot place the blame solely on equipment and the
environment; it was the absence of leadership in training, planning
and decisionmaking at many levels that caused most of these
failures. This aspect is particularly worrisome because technology
will never fix what proper leadership should.
In conclusion, Marine helicopters performed in an overall
admirable manner during Desert Storm; however, that conflict should
not be viewed as the model for future wars. The problems discussed
if not corrected will continue to hamper Marine aviation's, thus
the Marine Corp's ability to function effectively on the joint
battlefield of the future. Money is not the major solution to
these problems; in many cases little funding is required. What is
essential is the desire of Marine Corps leadership to want to fix
1. Aircraft and Munitions: Performance in Desert Storm. Marine
Corps Lesson Learned Report # 12952-22244, June 1991.
2. Conduct of the Persian Gulf Conflict, Title V Report, Volume I,
3. Fourth Marine Expeditionary Brigade Briefing to the House Armed
Services Committee. Air War Study Group, NAS Oceana, VA., 1
4. Marine Corps Lesson Learned Report # 12954-98168, Third Marine
Airwing Southwest Asia Briefing, undated.
5. Marine Corps Lesson Learned Report # 000286, 14 March 1991.
6. Marine Corps Lesson Learned Report # 000288, 12 March 1991.
7. Marine Corps Lesson Learned Report # 000294, 10 March 1991.
8. Marine Corps Lesson Learned Report # 000295, 9 March, 1991.
9. Marine Corps Lesson Learned Report # 000528, 17 March, 1991.
10. Marine Corps Lesson Learned Report # 0001432, 27 March 1991.
11. Marine Corps Desert Storm Reconctruction Report, Volume III:
Third Marine Airwing Operations. Center for Naval Analyses,
Alexandria, Va., October 1991.
12. Office of the Secretary of Defense Postwar Briefing on NAVSTAR
Global Positioning System Performance in Desert Storm,
13. Roberts, M. A. Major USMC, Marine Corps Research Center
Research Paper, # 92-0003, 15 June 1991.
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