Although Army aviation has continued to use some fixed-wing aircraft up to the present, its evolution to its current role and status resulted to a large degree from the development of the helicopter and of rotary-wing tactics and doctrine. The war in Korea clearly demonstrated the potential of the helicopter, especially for MEDEVAC and tactical transportation. Although the Army was not able or prepared to employ helicopters for other missions during that period, the Marine Corps successfully demonstrated the helicopter's value in "vertical envelopment" operations--an early version of air mobility and air assault.
Helicopters were first used to transport Vietnamese troops in January 1962. They played an ever-growing role in the conflict in Southeast Asia from that time until the American withdrawal. In 1965, the first air mobile division, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), was organized and sent to Vietnam. With the arrival of the UH-1 (Huey), other turbine-powered aircraft, and two airmobile Army divisions, helicopter warfare became the most important innovation of the conflict. The armed helicopter in the tactical role of fire support to the infantry was developed and perfected. Armed helicopters became essential for providing direct fire support to units operating outside the range of their direct support artillery.
Army aviation units were involved in all major contingency operations during the 1980s and 1990s. In Operation Urgent Fury, the American invasion of Grenada in October 1983, both the Marine Corps and the Army used helicopters. For the Army, Urgent Fury was the first combat test of the new UH-60 Black Hawks, which were used for assault, MEDEVAC, and transport during the operation. Three Army aviation battalions took part in Operation Urgent Fury.
Another new Army helicopter, the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, was employed in the Persian Gulf in 1987. The Army armed 15 of these aircraft with Hellfire missiles and stationed them on U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf to protect shipping during the war between Iran and Iraq.
Approximately 160 Army helicopters took part in Operation Just Cause, the American invasion of Panama beginning in December 1989. AH-64 Apaches self-deployed from the United States and engaged in combat for the first time. Other Army aircraft performing attack, assault, transportation, and observation roles in Operation Just Cause included Cobras, Black Hawks, Chinooks, Kiowas, and Hueys. The invasion of Panama employed the largest number of special operations aircraft (65 helicopters and 20 fixed-wing planes) ever employed by United States forces. There was general agreement that special operations air support was the best that had ever been provided. Although the Apache exhibited some mechanical problems during Just Cause, it performed well as an advanced attack aircraft. Operation Just Cause enabled Army aviators to demonstrate in combat that, through the use of the night vision devices with which they had trained, they could "own the night."
In the early morning of 17 January 1991, an Army aviator fired the first shot of Operation Desert Storm from an Army helicopter. Within a few minutes, two teams of Apaches totally destroyed two Iraqi radar stations, paving way for the air war over Iraq to be conducted with relative impunity. During the 100-hour ground war, which began about a month later, Army attack helicopters played their most decisive role ever in combat. Whatever doubts remained regarding its durability and combat effectiveness were quickly dispelled. Dozens of aviation units and several hundred helicopters of all types took part in the Gulf War. In addition to attack, helicopters were used for air assault, reconnaissance, transportation, combat search and rescue, and observation. Operation Desert Storm was the first major military operation conducted on a largely electronic battlefield. Army aviation amply demonstrated its effectiveness in this environment and also proved again that it could own the night by carrying out many of its combat operations during darkness.
Since Desert Storm, Army aviation has taken part in several other operations: Provide Comfort in northern Iraq, Restore/Continue Hope in Somalia, Uphold Democracy in Haiti, and the NATO operation in Bosnia.
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