In 1947, the U.S. military was in a state of transition. Just two short years after the end of World War II, the USAF was established as a separate service, as well as the OSS or Office Of Strategic Services of World War II being replaced by the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA – an agency with much broader powers and resources. With the onset of the Cold War, some of the traditional roles performed by the armed services were being revised to meet the new environment in which they were to operate. We will examine the role of Army aviation from its earliest days to the dedicated ground support role of today.
Army aviation actually began during the Civil War, in which both Union and Confederate forces used balloons for communications and artillery observation. While such missions could be hazardous at times, the balloons were effective in both roles. By World War I aircraft were used in direct ground support, along with other duties such as observation and establishing air superiority over the battlefield. While the ground support role of aircraft was proven during World War I, the Air Corps leadership lost interest in the concept between the wars in favor of large strategic bombers. However, this began to change as the United States entered World War II, due to a series of large scale ground exercises in 1940 and 1941. In June 1942 the War Department authorized the Field Artillery to maintain a small unit of spotter planes organic to the ground forces and independent of other Air Corps units. Small planes, such as the L-4 Grasshopper proved their worth in every theater of operations.
In 1947 the National Defense Act was passed, in which the Air Force was created as a separate service, equal to the Army and Navy. This left Army aviation with a narrowly defined mission of providing limited ground support and logistics to ground units and to disrupt enemy supply lines and communications near the line of battle. As a result of the Key West Agreement in 1948, Army aviation assumed the responsibility of transport and dispersion of troops under conditions of a nuclear battlefield. While the National Defense Act stripped the Army of most of its fixed wing aircraft, this proved to be a blessing in disguise, as it allowed the Army to devote more research toward rotary wing aircraft, or helicopters. During the Korean War the Army made significant advancements in its helicopter fleet, making it an essential item of the modern battlefield. Medical evacuation in Korea was particularly successful, with approximately 600 helicopters evacuating more than 23,000 casualties.
Although helicopters were successful in support roles, the Army was slow to develop them for a ground attack role. Part of this was due to the philosophy of massive retaliation during the Eisenhower Administration, in which USAF strategic bombers played the dominant role. Also, as tactical nuclear weapons were developed in the mid 1950s, the Army began to restructure its organization around them in the belief that large scale conventional wars were obsolete. However, as the Soviets began deploying tactical nuclear weapons of their own, the Army leadership realized the potential of a limited conventional war and began to prepare both hardware and doctrine for it. Due to experience in the Korean War, the Department of Defense authorized the Army to modify and test existing helicopters as attack platforms. While the tests were partially successful, it was clear larger helicopters with more capable engines were necessary for sustained fire support.
By 1960 the United States was finding itself more deeply involved in Southeast Asia and needed a means of providing close ground support, the helicopter being the ideal weapons platform. As a result of a Pentagon study that year, a new generation of helicopters was authorized. Purchase of the Bell UH-1 “Huey” and the CH-47 Chinook helicopters were approved, the Huey arguably the most important aircraft the Army ever procured, with many still in service today. The extensive use of helicopters during field exercises in 1963 and 1964 validated the concept of the airmobile division. However, when the 1st Air Cavalry (Airmobile) Division began operations in Viet Nam, there was a shortage of artillery support with Air Force and Navy ground support lacking accuracy. To surmount this problem, the Army developed the AH-1 Cobra, the first dedicated ground attack helicopter. The Cobra, armed with 2.75 in. rockets, was so effective that many ground commanders requested fire support from Cobra units, as opposed to regular tube artillery. Viet Nam proved that helicopters were both survivable and effective. Operational statistics revealed for a maximum force level of 2,600 helicopters in country, one copter was hit for every 1,147 sorties with one shot down for every 13,461 sorties flown with one aircraft lost every 21,194 sorties.
Army aviation had proven its value again as a vital part of the combined arms team. With both the airmobile and aerial field artillery concepts validated and the subsequent use of helicopter gunships as anti-armor weapons, Army aviation has truly progressed from the days of mere artillery spotting – becoming a separate branch of the Army in 1983. In the Gulf War, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan, Army aviation has proven itself a force to be reckoned with.