helicopters at war
of the 1st Aircraft Repair Unit supplies critical parts to a B-29 unit
operating in the Marianas during World War II.
Helicopters played an inconsequential
role in World War II. However, they did see service to a limited extent as
supply craft and for rescue operations in the China-Burma-India theatre,
and were operated by the 1st Air Commando unit. World War II
demonstrated that the helicopter could perform useful missions, but the
helicopters of the day were still limited in their power, size, and hence
By Korea, helicopters were more numerous
but were still confined largely to support roles, primarily search and
rescue and medical evacuation, not to combat. They were also used in
certain logistical roles by both the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps.
Although Army leaders thought about using helicopters to ferry troops
during Korea, the service was prohibited from operating large aircraft by
a law passed when the U.S. Air Force was created in 1947.
The Army and the Air Force
signed an agreement on November 4, 1952 that continued the limitation on
the size of Army fixed-wing aircraft, but redefined helicopters by
function performed in the combat zone. This paved the way for the use of
large Army helicopters. This came too late to seriously impact the war,
but the Army sent the 6th Transportation Company (Helicopter)
with Sikorski H-19s to Korea before the war ended.
The United States first used this new
concept of warfare, soon named "air mobility" during the early years of
its involvement in the Vietnam conflict. The Vietnam War was the first
real helicopter war. The Army quickly began refining its way of fighting
as the war escalated.
American H-21 helicopters were used to
ferry Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) troops into battle against
communist Viet Cong guerrillas in 1962. At first, communist troops fled
when the troop-carrying helicopters landed. But at the important battle of
Ap Bac, they soon learned that if they stood their ground, they could
bring down the helicopters with relative ease. Communist training manuals
described the best ways to shoot at the H-21 and Huey helicopters—how to
shoot ahead of the target to increase the chance of hitting it and where
to shoot to cause the most damage.
Despite the proven vulnerability of
helicopters to ground fire, the U.S. Army soon fully embraced the concept
of "air mobility." By the mid-1960s, as American involvement in Vietnam
dramatically increased, the Army began moving massive amounts of troops by
air, not just the small groups of only a few years earlier. Some combat
operations involved over 100 helicopters at a time, plus fixed-wing air
support to drop bombs and fire rockets at enemy troops.
Huey Cobra was a dedicated helicopter gunship that supported ground troops.
The helicopter ushered in a radically
different way of fighting a war: instead of armies engaging each other
across vast fronts, advancing slowly, and holding ground, the U.S. Army
would quickly carry troops into hostile territory and deploy them, then
removing them after the fighting ended. While the overall strategy was
questionable—no territory was ever really held—the tactic was often very
successful. Helicopters offered high mobility for troops and a tremendous
element of surprise. An enemy that had been sitting unchallenged for days
or weeks could suddenly, without warning, find itself under assault from
troops brought in by helicopter. Large troop transport helicopters like
the CH-47 Chinook were developed for this purpose, but the workhorse UH-1
Huey became the most popular helicopter for moving troops into and out of
CH-47 Chinook was used to transport troops and equipment in and out of
The Army also used armed helicopters to
support ground troops, eventually fielding dedicated helicopter gunships
like the AH-1 Cobra. A helicopter could be equipped with guns, grenade
launchers, rockets, or even guided missiles, and provide rapid and
wide-ranging fire against an adversary on the ground. By the middle of the
war, the helicopter had become as important to the Army as the tank, the
armoured personnel carrier, and the jeep, and the Huey was the most
symbolic weapon of the Vietnam War.
"Air mobility" came at a heavy price,
however. During the Vietnam War, between 1962 and 1973, the United States
lost 4,869 helicopters to all causes (with more than a thousand lost in
1968 and another thousand in 1969). Fifty-three percent of these losses
were due to enemy fire (including enemy attacks on airbases). The rest
resulted from operational accidents. The high rate of operational
accidents occurred largely because helicopters are prone to mechanical
breakdown if not regularly maintained, and during a war, maintenance often
suffers. Vietnam's heavy jungle canopy also made helicopter operations
difficult, with few places to land a stricken helicopter.
Once the United States had pioneered the
use of helicopters in combat, other countries soon followed. None could
create large "airborne cavalry" units like the U.S. Army, but many
countries copied the concept of using helicopters to ferry troops into and
out of combat areas quickly, particularly when fighting rebel groups. They
often used U.S. helicopters for this purpose. Countries like Great Britain
and the Soviet Union usually chose to move primarily elite troops by
helicopter. U.S. Army airborne cavalry units like the famed 101st
Airborne and the 82nd Airborne tended to be better trained than
most cavalry units.
By the 1970s, as Vietnam came to an end
and the U.S. Army refocused its attention on the threat of a Soviet ground
offensive in Europe, Army leaders began to rethink some aspects of the air
mobility concept. Before the war, the Army had only a limited aviation
capability. But by the end of the war, the Army had a substantial Air
Force of its own—centred on the helicopter—and could take on missions
that were previously the domain of the U.S. Air Force, but which were
often ignored by that service.
Lynx helicopter, produced jointly by Westland and Aerospatiale, saw action
in the Falklands War.
It was used in an anti-shipping role, where one sank a moored Argentine
submarine in 1982.
Attack helicopters like the HueyCobra
were more heavily armed and were given targets deep behind enemy lines,
such as command posts and tanks, attacking them with missiles. The new
strategy was also to fight at night, using advanced navigation and imaging
systems, and hiding down among the trees and hills using "Nap Of the
Earth" (NOE) flying. By doing so, the Army could take advantage of
superior American technology to compensate for larger numbers of Soviet
ground forces. U.S. helicopters were equipped with infrared and night
imaging systems, and pilots were given night vision goggles so they could
see in the dark. By the 1980s, the United States also fielded heavily
armed helicopters dedicated primarily to the mission of destroying tanks
and equipped with laser-guided Hellfire missiles.
These changes in tactics proved
themselves during the Persian Gulf War, when U.S. attack helicopters could
freely range the battlefield during the night, easily destroying Iraqi
tanks and other vehicles. Large numbers of U.S. troops were also ferried
deep inside Iraqi territory, establishing facilities for supporting the
attack helicopters as well as ground troops. Once again, other countries
adopted the U.S. tactics and brought their helicopters.
While helicopters have revolutionized
infantry warfare, they have had less of an impact on other areas of
combat. This is primarily because they are still relatively slow,
vulnerable, and cannot carry the large payloads that fixed-wing aircraft
Other than infantry and anti-tank
operations, helicopters have most notably been used for Combat Search and
Rescue (CSAR), where they retrieve downed pilots deep inside enemy lines.
This technique was really perfected during Vietnam, but several
well-publicized rescues took place during the Bosnia crisis and later
during the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia. These helicopters are often
equipped with highly sophisticated navigation systems and are supported by
other armed helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft during their rescue
Helicopters have also been used in the
maritime surveillance and anti-shipping role. During the Falklands War in
1981, a British Lynx helicopter fired a missile and sank an Argentine
submarine moored at dock. U.S. helicopters have also been equipped with
missiles for attacking small ships and boats.
Other than search and rescue of downed
aviators, the primary purpose of naval helicopters has been submarine
hunting and over-the-horizon targeting. Helicopters hunting submarines can
hover and lower a large sonar into the water using a winch and cable. They
are far more mobile than a ship and are invulnerable to the submarine they
are hunting. Helicopters equipped with radar are also used to detect
targets that a ship's sensors cannot see because they are over the
horizon. They relay this data to the ship and can also guide ship-launched
missiles to their targets. This has helped change the role of surface
warships from defensive platforms used to protect aircraft carriers, to
offensive platforms capable of attacking other ships at long range. In
addition, helicopters have proven their utility at clearing mines. By
towing large sleds along the water, the helicopter can stay away from any
potentially harmful mines.
Although the helicopter is a highly
useful military aircraft, it still suffers from slow speed, short range
and limited lifting capabilities, leading aircraft manufacturers to search
for ways to combine the attributes of both helicopters and conventional