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Freed from Terrain

By Mark Alberston: On the 50th anniversary of the release of the Howze Board findings, Army Aviation offers a glimpse at the genesis of Airmobility.2

U.S. Troops board CH-47 Chinooks and UH-1 Huey's during Operation Crazy Horse, Republic of vietnam, 1965. / US Army photo

1810 freed1The helicopter may be used as a supplement to or as a substitute for, slower surface transportation.

Commanders employing helicopters may maneuver reserves rapidly to envelop critical terrain features, circumvent stubborn centers of resistance, and counter hostile threats to attack.

Maneuver is possible over and around hill masses, across water barriers, and into areas lacking in suitable road nets.3

20-20 hindsight would seem to suggest the inevitability of Airmobility as far back as 1952. Indeed, as early as 1909, John D. Taylor observed that the airplane would make a suitable replacement for the horse as the modern soldier’s steed of mobility. Fixed wing, though, proved limited because once a soldier is debarked he is on foot, just like any other infantryman.

In addition, large troop-carrying aircraft operate from hard runways, which are usually miles from the front.

Parachutes and gliders offered alternative forms of mobility, particularly suited to inserting manpower behind the lines. The bold German rescue of Mussolini from atop the Gran Sasso and Allied actions on Sicily and Normandy come to mind here.

But again, once on the ground paratroopers and glider troops become walking infantry that rumpled silk and broken crates can no longer convey.

Not so the helicopter. The vertical landing and takeoff capability of rotary-wing aircraft, in virtually all types of terrain, seemed to provide the answer to that nagging question of how to properly exploit airlift with the movement of ground troops.

The Marine Corps, as an early practitioner of the tactical employment of rotary-wing aircraft, put the future into action during the Korean conflict. On September 21, 1951, Operation Summit, the Marines employed helicopters in the relief of Republic of Korea (ROK) troops on Hill 884.

In four hours, Marine helicopters made 65 flights, delivering 224 Marines and 17,772 pounds of stores and equipment. This was the first heliborne insertion of combat troops in history; a significant step in establishing the helicopter’s utility on the battlefield.4

1810 freedIn December 1955, the Marine Corps took a fresh look at amphibious warfare with Landing Force Bulletin-17. It was recognized that conventional amphibious operations could be enhanced with air assault troops being inserted by helicopter, miles beyond the landing beaches.5

What followed was the Hogaboom Board, convened in 1956, to reorganize the Fleet Marine Force to accommodate the new concept. In turn, the Navy introduced the Amphibious Assault Ship.6 The Army, though, was hardly resting on its oars, letting the Marines set the pace. In 1954, LTG James Gavin, airborne soldier extraordinaire, penned a Magna Carta for Sky Cavalry titled, “Cavalry, And I Don’t Mean Horses!”

Here Gavin championed the use of helicopters and small aircraft to shuttle infantry, together with their automatic weapons and light anti-tank guns, from one battlefront to another.

He drew inspiration from an analysis of Red Chinese and North Korean troops using the rugged Korean countryside to their advantage to force road-bound Allied troops into retreat during the winter of 1950-51.7

Another Army proponent was BG Carl I. Hutton, Aviation School Commandant. He favored the armed helicopter. Hutton chose COL Jay D. Vanderpool, a combat veteran of World War II and Korea, to explore the possibilities; an effort which helped to pave the way for the gunship/attack helicopter. But Vanderpool did not stop here. He ransacked his brains and came up with an air-cavalry scheme modeled on the dragoons of Lord Wellington’s light cavalry. To the imaginative Vanderpool the concept was the same: mobile soldiers would not be far from their steeds, whether their chargers had four legs or rotor blades. Vanderpool’s efforts helped to set the stage for the Rogers and Howze Boards.

In January 1960, LTG Gordon B. Rogers was selected to chair the Army Aircraft Requirements Board. AKA the Rogers Board, the aim was to review Army air assets and capabilities and consider industry design concepts. One of the recommendations to emerge was the idea of Army Air Assault formations.

It is prudent, at this point, to have an understanding of the political backdrop that existed at this time. The year was 1961. The Eisenhower Administration had given way to the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The former had favored the Air Force doctrine of massive retaliation, based on atomic ordnance delivered by strategic bombers to counter the Soviet superiority in conventional weaponry.8

The Kennedy Administration offered Flexible-Response. America’s conventional capabilities were to be refreshed and enhanced so as to take their places alongside the nation’s nuclear muscle to enforce the Cold War doctrine of Containment. And America’s deepening involvement in Southeast Asia provided fertile ground for Flexible-Response and a battlefield laboratory for Gavin’s and Vanderpool’s notion of Air Cavalry.

In 1962, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, displeased with the state of mobility in the Army, ordered a reassessment of same. This reappraisal was to be attended to by fresh and novel concepts that would enable the Army to shuttle troops in sufficient numbers, together with their equipment and with the degree of alacrity necessary to insure success on the modern battlefield.

Beginning in April 1962, the Tactical Mobility Requirements Board, chaired by LTG Hamilton H. Howze – an avid practitioner of airmobility and rotary-wing capability – reviewed four scenarios: that of air assault operations versus the Soviets, Chinese Communists, anti-guerrilla operations and developing threats in Latin America and Africa.

The Howze Board established those standards of airmobility and air assault that resonate to the present day; and, proved a boon to the helicopter as a conveyance of troops to circumvent impediments that hamper competing forms of surface transportation. Indeed, “the Army had freed itself from the tyranny of terrain.”

Notes

  1. “Freed From the Tyranny of Terrain” can be attributed to General Harry W.O. Kinnard. See page 2, Major Thomas C. Graves, USA, “Transforming the Force: The 11th Air Assault Division (Test) from 1963- 1965.”
  2. The Howze Board findings were released on August 20, 1962, nearly two weeks ahead of the September 1st deadline originally set by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
  3. See pages 55&56, Department of the Army, Field Manual, FM 20-100, Army Aviation, February 1952. See pages 3&4, Colonel Russell Stinger, “Army Aviation— Back to its Roots,” U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, March 3, 2009.
  4. See pages 17-19, Major James W. Berich, USMC, “The History of Heavy Lift: Can the 1947 Vision of an All Heavy Helicopter Force Achieve Fruition in 2002?” See page 37, Dr. John W. Kitchens, “Cargo Helicopters in the Korean Conflict,” Part 1,Army Aviation, October 31, 1992. See page 7, Major Rodney Propst, USMC, “The Marine Helicopter and the Korean War,” History of Vertical Envelopment. See page 1, Mark A, Olinger, “Conceptual Underpinnings of the Air Assault Concept: The Hogaboom, Rogers and Howze Boards.”
  5. This was seen as a viable alternative to the use of paratroopers, such as at Sicily and Normandy.
  6. Vessels of the Amphibious Assault Ship (LPH)—Landing Platform Helicopter— class were, at the outset, conversions of aircraft carriers, such as the Essex-class flattop, Boxer (CV-21), reclassified in January 1959 as LPH-4. These vessels were stopgap in nature; that is, until the advent of ships built as LPHs from the keel up, like USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2), commissioned August 26, 1961.
  7. The Allied advance into North Korea was confined to the few roads available. And the farther north the advance, the greater the divergence between the Allied spearheads as the North Korean countryside fanned out along the approaches to the Yalu River, with X Corps to the northeast and 8th Army to the northwest. Since the Allied prongs were not mutually supporting, the void was filled by a massive infusion of Communist troops; indeed, into this glaring abscess poured 300,000 Chinese. The rollback of UN forces condemned the Korean peninsula to a protracted conflict, and, set the stage for a stalemate akin to that of the Western Front in World War I.
  8. The two-and-a-half year impasse in Korea provided the latitude necessary for those proponents of atomic ordnance delivered by the strategic bomber to gain the upper hand in fashioning U.S. defense policy throughout most of the 1950s; a consequence not too unlike the aftermath of the Great War. For during the 1920s and 30s, proponents believed that the bomber offered the panacea to the ghastly horror of the trenches. Both agendas favored the strategic employment of airpower in order to carry the conflict to the enemy’s rear to destroy his capacity to make war; this at the expense of the tactical use of aircraft and ground forces. In both cases, reliance on the strategic use of airpower proved lacking in the face of evolving political, military and strategic realities.