Tactical doctrine developed by the U.S. Army in the 1960s. An innovative concept, air mobility entailed the use of helicopters to find the enemy, carry troops to battle, provide them with gunship support, position artillery, carry out medical evacuation, and provide communications and resupply. In Vietnam the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry and 101st Airborne Divisions were designated airmobile divisions, but most other allied combat units used air mobility to some degree.
Air mobility had its origins in the Korean War (1950–1953) and the potential for tactical nuclear war in Europe. In their infancy in the 1950s, helicopters proved their worth in Korea by completing many missions, including reconnaissance, limited repositioning of troops, aerial resupply, and medical evacuation. So impressed was the U.S. Army with the helicopter’s potential that in 1952 it committed itself to organizing 12 helicopter transport battalions.
The danger of tactical nuclear warfare in Europe led the U.S. Army to examine the helicopter not just for transport but also for direct use in combat. Lieutenant General James Gavin, a U.S. Army corps commander in Germany in 1952, ran war games that showed his corps being decimated in a nuclear attack. He proposed using aircraft to disperse his troops in defense and to concentrate them for attack, thus presenting fleeting nuclear targets. While heading operations on the U.S. Army General Staff, Gavin pushed the idea of using troops in helicopters to fulfill traditional cavalry missions. Like-minded officers soon advocated development of a turboshaft utility helicopter, an experimental cavalry unit, and armed helicopters. Gavin secured an airmobile doctrine, appointed a director of U.S. Army aviation to push air cavalry concepts, and arranged flight training for senior officers. Thus, somewhat ironically the foundations for air mobility were laid under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, despite his administration’s emphasis on massive retaliation by nuclear weapons.
The John F. Kennedy administration placed emphasis on conventional warfare during a nuclear standoff and was highly receptive to air mobility because it promised increased combat power through greater mobility. Despite opposition from the U.S. Army staff, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara ordered the army to experiment with air mobility. The result was the 1962 Tactical Mobility Requirements Board (also known as the Howze Board, named for its chair, Major General Hamilton H. Howze), which recommended the organization of airmobile units. McNamara supported further testing of the Howze Board recommendations, using the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) at Fort Benning, Georgia.
In 1964 the airmobile 11th Division, commanded by Major General Harry W. O. Kinnard, outperformed the 82nd Airborne Division in Exercise Air Assault II in the Carolinas. The need for such a division in Vietnam led to the redesignation of the 11th Division as the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and its deployment there in 1965.
Before the 1st Cavalry Division arrived in Vietnam, the army had already been experimenting there with airmobile concepts. In 1962, U.S. Army Piasecki H-21 Shawnee/Workhorse and U.S. Marine Corps Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw helicopters began lifting Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnamese Army) troops into battle. Using ground troops or air reconnaissance to locate Viet Cong (VC) units, army and marine advisers developed quick reaction “Eagle Flights” of ARVN troops to be flown into pursuit or blocking positions. Beginning in 1962, the army used the Army Concept Team in Vietnam (ACTIV) to test airmobile concepts. The team tested many workable ideas, including armed helicopters, Bell UH-1 Iroquois (“Huey”) helicopters as troopships, reconnaissance helicopters, and improved communications and navigation.
In Vietnam, the 1st Cavalry Division consisted of eight maneuver battalions controlled by three brigades. Other units included four artillery battalions, an air cavalry squadron, an engineer and signal battalion, and an aviation group. Artillery was organized into three 105-millimeter howitzer battalions and an aerial rocket artillery battalion. The aviation group included two UH-1 Huey battalions and a Boeing CH-47 Chinook battalion, enough lift for a third of the division’s troops at one time.
After organizing at An Khe, the 1st Cavalry entered battle near the Ia Drang Valley. The tactics used were typical of later operations. Teams of Bell H-13 Sioux scouts and UH-1 gunships from the 9th Cavalry sought out and located People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, North Vietnamese Army) forces near the Ia Drang. Then CH-47s lifted artillery to landing zones (LZs) Columbus and Falcon to cover infantry landing sites near the Chu Pong Massif. After suppressive fire at the LZ, UH-1s lifted infantry to LZ X-Ray on the Chu Pong, where they made contact with the PAVN troops. Soon Hueys carried reinforcements and supplies to LZ X-Ray and evacuated the wounded. As PAVN troops hurled themselves at the U.S. forces, forward observers called in artillery and air strikes, the latter delivered by the air force and the division’s own aerial artillery battalion. The area outside the infantry’s perimeter became a killing zone. When the battle ended, UH-1s lifted the troops to home base. These airmobile tactics were repeated in fast-paced actions that emphasized attrition rather than holding ground. Later tactics featured airlifted platoons or companies to contact the enemy while other units were inserted in blocking positions.
Operations in which the 1st Cavalry and 101st Airborne divisions used airmobile tactics included the Ia Drang operation; Operations MASHER/WHITE WING, CRAZY HORSE, LEJEUNE, PERSHING, PEGASUS–LAM SON 207A, DELAWARE–LAM SON 216; and the Cambodian Incursion. These operations showed that airmobile units were capable of many types of missions, including scouting, search and destroy, pursuit, raiding, and cordon. Airmobile divisions were also capable of long moves on short notice.
While the 1st Cavalry and the 101st Airborne had organic (dedicated) aircraft, many other combat units had helicopters attached to make them airmobile for short periods. For this reason, the U.S. Army located aviation units in every corps tactical zone. Units using these aircraft developed their own procedures, so aviation units could not easily be switched from one combat unit to another. The army thus established the 1st Aviation Brigade in 1966 and named Brigadier General George P. Seneff its commander. He quickly established training schools, enforced safety regulations, and standardized operating procedures throughout Vietnam. Seneff allocated one aviation battalion headquarters to each division. By 1968 the 1st Aviation Brigade managed four combat aviation groups containing a total of 14 aviation battalions and 3 air cavalry squadrons.
Air mobility proved itself in Vietnam, and the war thus became known as the “Helicopter War.” Airmobile divisions were proficient in airmobile operations because artillery, aviation, cavalry, and infantry units worked together. Their men had a different concept of combat because terrain was not a major obstacle. These units were more flexible in responding to enemy initiatives and had shorter reaction time. Troops could go into battle rested and carrying less weight. While helicopters proved survivable in battle, a great many were also shot down, and they still required the air superiority and close air support provided by the U.S. Air Force.
References Stanton, Shelby L. Anatomy of a Division: The 1st Cav in Vietnam. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1987. Tolson, John J. Airmobility, 1961–1971. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1973.