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All aboard air oblivion.

Gregg Easterbrook's 1981 piece was more than a pointed, technically sophisticated critique of our Army's helicopter force. It showed how the bureaucratic culture of the Pentagon gives us weapons we don't need.

Today the United States Army has a bigger air force than the Air Force-second largest in the world, in fact, trailing only the Soviet air force. The Army's air force is composed almost entirely of helicopters, 9,000 of them. (The Air Force has 7,000 aircraft, very few of which are helicopters.) America has more helicopters, and spends more money on helicopters, and is betting more of its security on helicopters, than any other nation.

Yet most of today's helicopter Army would not exist at all were it not for interservice rivalries. Army helicopter development began in earnest after the Air Force was split away from the Army, and new regulations barred the Army from having any airplanes. But the Army needed airplanes. It needed them to transport troops and equipment, and for "close support" attacks against enemy tanks during the heat of battle. The new Air Force was supposed to perform these tasks. It didn't. Desperate, the Army turned to helicopters-something it was allowed to have--to move its men and protect them from the air.

And these thousands of helicopters are, militarily and economically, a disaster area. Helicopters are fine for certain specialized military purposes-medical evacuation, rescue, commando raids, antisubmarine patrols, and terrorizing defenseless peasants (Russian helicopters in Afghanistan have been employed mainly for terror attacks). But in the two missions for which most army helicopters are built, front line transpor"close support," the machines are a fiasco.

Vietnam (sometimes called the "helicopter war") demonstrated how shockingly vulnerable helicopters were to even light opposition. At the height of Vietnam, the Army was losing one-third of its helicopter force per year, informed Pentagon officials say. These losses were not to flak batteries or sophisticated missiles but to "small arms fire," meaning infantry rifles.

Why is so much money being spent on a weapon of such limited practical value? One reason is that the helicopter has developed powerful institutional momentum. Four of the nation's largest defense contractors (Bell Textron, Boeing, Hughes, and United Technologies) have devoted significant resources to helicopter construction and agitate constantly for new contracts.

But much more important is the Army-Air Force rivalry. The Army's petty generals like helicopters simply because they are green and fly, and can be used to torment the Air Force during budget battles. Its sincere generals, knowing the Air Force's dismal record of support for army troops, feel they would rather take their chances with their own pilots and machines, even if those machines are inferior.

Unarmed dumbos

The 1950s proved to be an almost unbroken string of bureaucratic victories for the Air Force. After starting life with the old Army Air Corps's "tactical" missions and the new atomic bombing mission, it also walked away with most of the big missiles. Nearly every exciting (and expensive) new technical challenge-giant jet bombers, ICBMs, supersonic fighters-went to the Air Force, which replaced the Navy ('Join the Navy and see the world") as the country's glamor service.

Many of the military's new bureaucratic turf lines were drawn at a series of high-level meetings that began at Key West in 1948. The Air Force, riding a crest of prestige, would control any "fixed-wing aircraft" heavier than 5,000 pounds. The Key West agreements, however, placed few restrictions on control of "rotary-winged aircraft," meaning helicopters.

For all its other faults, the Air Force understood something essential about the helicopter: it is the most inefficient, improbable way to fly ever devised.

The helicopter's inherent aerodynamic and mechanical drawbacks result in its consuming about three times as much fuel, per weight carried and distance traveled, as an airplane. For most purposes, aircraft designers say, times-three is a valid rule: anything you can do with an airplane will cost you three times as much to do with a helicopter.

At Key West the Air Force promised to fulfill the Army's aerial needs, transport and close-support attacks on tanks. The Army had little choice but to take the Air Force's word. But in fact, notes one retired air force colonel, "We accepted those missions solely to keep them away from the Army. We had no intention of sinking our budget into things we didn't like."

Transport planes are lumbering, unarmed dumbos that do nothing to advance the Air Force's primary mission of striking deep in enemy territory. To fund them the Air Force must take money away from its bombers and fighters, which is like asking the Business Roundtable to underwrite the FTC. So transport planes are always at the bottom of air force budget requests. (Similarly, troop ships usually bring up the rear of the Navy's budget.)

The Army should have seen this more clearly. The sort of transport plane it most badly needed was one that could land in proximity of the baffle. That meant a small (harder to hit) plane able to operate off very short fields of grass, dirt, or whatever was handy. Operation from short "unimproved" runways was the requirement that infuriated the Air Force most. It dictated that transport planes be propellerpowered, since prop engines are more durable than jets and generally able to lift aircraft off the ground in the shortest distance. Props! The Air Force build a prop plan& Were army tanks pulled by mules? Did navy ships have sails? It was out of the question! So through the 1950s and early 1960s, little money was invested in transports. What few cargo planes the Air Force did build, the C-130 Hercules and the jetpowered C-141 Starlifter, needed concrete runways.

The only transport plane ever to excite Air Force interest was the C5A Galaxy. It met proper standards of grandeur by being complex, expensive, unreliable, and, best of all, the largest airplane in the world.

The Air Force found its second army 'Joint mission," close support, even more distasteful. Again the type of plane required played an influential role. Close-support airplanes are small (as before, harder to shoot down) with short, stubby wings for maximum maneuverability at low altitudes. Closesupport planes spend nearly all their time at low altitudes, since their job is to find and attack small things moving around on the ground, They fly slowly, seldom at more than 380 m.p.h., so the pilot has time to figure out what's going on down below. It was the slowness of the job that most offended air force brass. Why, a close-support plane couldn't fly supersonic at all.

Also involved was a running Army-Air Force doctrinal dispute over the nature of war. The Air Force believes that "interdiction"-long-range bombing of factories, supply centers, and staging bases ("second echelon targets")-wins modern wars.

The Army, for its part, contends that "first echelon targets"-tanks and troops actively engaged in battle-are the real priority. Beat them, Army theorists maintain, and it doesn't matter what's going on at the ball-bearing warehouse. The Air Force was hardly interested in building close-support aircraft to help prove its own central doctrine wrong. So from the service's creation in 1947 until the early 1970s, it did not field a single close-support aircraft. And when it finally did, it was only because of interservice rivalries with an army helicopter.

By the late 1950s, helicopters had been perfected to the point that they were reasonably reliable for short, simple flights. General Carl Hutton (known as the father of army aviation) had successfully fired machine guns and small rockets from them. He dreamed of helicopters replacing both tanks and trucks as whole battalions went "air mobile." He gave his vision the wonderful name "Sky Cavalry." Effusion over helicopters was, at the time, becoming popular. City councils were rushing to mark out plans for "heliports."

By spring 1962 a Sky Cav unit had become a standard component of Army divisions. By fall 1962, the first helicopter division was on its way to Vietnam. Everything was coalescing in the helicopter's favor. Until it was actually used in combat.

Flying slowly and low over enemy positions, the helicopter exposed its numerous delicate components to easy destruction. Rifle bullets bounce off most warplanes, but they ripped up the (necessarily) lightly built helicopters. Ground gunners needed a bull's-eye to knock down a fighter, but it seemed that anywhere one hit a helicopter was sufficient to snap its delicate string to the sky.

Army planners thought their Sky Cavalry could surprise the enemy by dropping troops right into the middle of a fight-"vertical envelopment." That's how most helicopters were employed in Vietnam, and the losses were stagg"The drop might actually take only 30 seconds," Hoven said, "but during that time you were hovering right in front of the enemy, and he was shooting into your engines and right through the door." (Losses during landings were the reason helicopter pilots could be shot down nine times and live to be shot down again. When their helicopters crashed, it was often from just five or ten feet.)

Officially the Army lost "only" 4,900 helicopters in Vietnam, an "only" that equals more than half the entire helicopter inventory of 1966, one of the war's peak years. Pilots who were in Vietnam and Pentagon officials from the period say losses were systematically distorted-as, in this and so many other areas, lik"body counts," Vietnam seemed to have established lying and institutional selfdeception as proud Pentagon traditions. The key to manipulating helicopter losses was the aircraft's tail, where its serial number was painted. If the tail could be recovered from a wrecked helicopter-and often it could-it would be shipped back to the States and a new helicopter built around it, knowledgeable Pentagon sources say. They contend that if losses had been reported accurately, tables would show that fully one-third of all helicopters stationed in Vietnam were shot down or crashed each year. That suggests a total loss more along the order of 10,000 helicopters.

In February 1971, the Army launched Lam Son 719, a six-week massed helicopter "incursion" into Laos. Sky Cav units encountered ground fire from dual .50-caliber machine guns and the ZU-23-2, a 23mm light cannon that is the Soviet's main portable antiaircraft weapon. They destroyed, officially, 107 helicopters and "damaged" 608 more. Pentagon sources say that little more remained of many of the "damaged" helicopters than a salvageable tail with serial number. For days at a time during Lam Son, relief helicopters were unable to approach stranded squadrons because they could not buck the ground fire.

Helicopters, when surprised by enemy fire, have considerable trouble maneuvering away. Because of their light airframes and fragile rotor assemblies, helicopters cannot make the sharp, drastic banking maneuvers airplanes use to evade fire. The most helicopter"pull" is about 2.5 times the force of gravity; fighter planes can generally pull around eight times gravity, Army planners thought they could compensate with the helicopter's unique ability to make a 180-degree turn, thus running directly away from fire. But this generally didn't work. What exposes an aircraft (or any target) to destruction is moving on a predictable course, so that enemy guns can be set slightly ahead of present position and the target will pass into their stream of fire. About-face maneuvers, while dramatic, were predictable. The helicopter was still flying the same straight line, just in the opposite direction. The back end got shot down instead of the front.

To protect themselves from ground gunners, Vietnam pilots adopted flying procedures army planners were sure they wouldn't need. Sometimes they flew at around 1,500 feet-out of the effective range of small-arms fire, but also too high to command what was going on on the ground. Other times they flew treetop level at 115 m.p.h., coming over the enemy so abruptly ground gunners had no time to get a shot off. Flying treetop there was no chance whatsoever to scan the ground-the pilot's attention was utterly devoted to flying. One of the many complications of helicopter flight is that both the pilot's feet and hands are busy at every instant. Unlike an airplane, a helicopter has no autopilot to speak of, and certainly none at treetop level. Add to this that helicopters are deafeningly loud and vibrate viciously, and it should be clear that operating them is, even under the best of conditions, a taxing job. (It is not well understood that what marine helicopter pilots attempted during the Iran rescue raid-a 500-mile ground-level flight in the dark-was an immensely demanding physical and mental feat.)

The two compromises-flying either too high or too low and fast to see-effectively negated many of the helicopter's advertised features. Flying this way, helicopters were just doing a poor imitation of airplanes. But of course they could take off and land anywhere they wanted, couldn't they? Well, they certainly couldn't land in fire zones. The takeoff advantages did not always prove out, either. When fully loaded, Cobra gunships were so unstable they could not rise straight up. They had to make running takeoffs, like airplanes. Any old place would not do.

Even once at the target, the vaunted Cobras were effective only against very lightly armed troops who could not drive them off. This Pentagon officials simply refused to believe. Sadly, Pentagon demands for Cobra "productivity" inspired some army commanders to send their gunships against defenseless villages and even water buffalo to keep kill statistics up.

Yet throughout the Vietnam war, the Army continued to pour more and more resources into helicopters. Some Washington-based officers, really believed the helicopter was an effective weapon. Others, mesmerized by their interservice duel with the Air Force, just would not entertain the notion that their solution to army aerial problems was fundamentally flawed. Meanwhile there was the budget to consider. Throughout the army hierarchy, an informed former officer said, there was a feeling that Vietnam had at last won the budget spotlight back from the Air Force and Navy. Obviously the army budget had to be expanded in order to prosecute the war. If they could drive the budget up high enough, the generals felt, it would remain high after the war was over, and the Army would never again be reduced to a subservient position in Pentagon politics. By far the most expensive item being used in Vietnam was the helicopter. Thus, perversely, helicopters became desirable for the very reason that the were so cost) and crashing so often.
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Title Annotation:The Culture of Institutions
Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1989
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