We often discuss amphibious assault problems and one of the common rationalizations for those shortcomings is the notion that we’ll use helos to conduct all or portions of the assault landings. This kind of vertical assault is deemed by its supporters to be fast, stealthy, powerful, and “safe”. I say “safe” because no one who discusses helo assaults ever includes a factual and logical assessment of helo survivability on the modern battlefield. Well, with that lead in, you know we’re going to look at it.
Far and away, the best historical record is the
war. The Viet Nam had undisputed control of the air, at least in areas where helo operations took place, and faced an enemy with no practical radar or electronic detection capabilities that applied to helos. US helos could roam the skies unhindered. Indeed, helo insertions were a common tactic. So, what were the helo losses in US ? 1%? 5%? Surely not much more than that. Viet Nam
From the Viet Nam Helicopter Pilot’s Association website comes this statement (1).
“Total helicopters destroyed in the Vietnam War was 5,086 out of 11,827.”
That’s a 43% loss rate.
From that same site come the following statistics for the UH-1 family of helos.
UH-1 80 80
UH-1A 8 1
UH-1B 729 376
UH-1C 696 415
UH-1D 1,926 1,028
UH-1E 156 100
UH-1F 31 18
UH-1H 3,375 1,285
UH-1L 2 0
UH-1M 5 0
UH-1N 2 2
UH-1P 3 0
Total 7,013 3,305
That’s a 47% loss rate for UH-1’s.
Now, let’s bear in mind that those loss rates are not for one-time missions. Helos flew repeated missions. The loss rate for a single mission might be acceptably low but it adds up over time. Note, though, that that’s exactly what we’re talking about in an aviation assault. A helo or MV-22 will conduct multiple flights over the course of an operation. That acceptable 5% loss rate for a single sortie becomes 23% for five sorties and 40% for ten.
The next best historical example might be the Soviet incursion in
. I’m unaware of any data for that conflict but, anecdotally, the helo losses were staggering. Afghanistan
So, how do these examples and data inform our discussion of helo-borne assaults?
The obvious conclusion is that helos have a significant loss rate over the battlefield. They are not inherently a highly survivable platform. Low tech forces have enjoyed great success against helos. The combination of shoulder launched SAMs and simple guns are a lethal and nearly undetectable counter to helos. As we discuss helo assaults, we need to factor significant losses into the discussion – more so against a high tech, capable, disciplined peer.
We also need to bear in mind that the loss rate has a double effect. The effect of losses during the assault (initial landing), itself, are obvious. We need to remember, however, that every helo lost impacts the subsequent sustainment portion of the assault for the entire duration of the operation. Those troops that were inserted need continuous resupply and support and every helo loss has a cascading effect on sustainment.
OK, that much is straightforward, if sobering. Is there more to this?
Yes. What is never discussed are the helo numbers that are available for vertical assaults and sustainment. Look at the number of helos in an Amphibious Ready Group (MEU).
For a typical ARG based on 1
class LHA, 1 LPD-17 class, and 1 LSD, the vertical aviation component consists of around America
- 12 MV-22
- 4 CH-53K
- 6 attack helos
There you go. That’s 16 transport aircraft for an entire MEU. Factor in losses and you can see that both the assault itself and the sustainment will be severely impacted. Remember that losses don’t have to be combat related. Helos and the MV-22 are notoriously unreliable and maintenance intensive. Why do you think that every helo assault since President Carter’s disastrous hostage rescue attempt has included spare helos? It’s not because of their reputation for utter reliability! Where are the spare helos in the MEU?
We need to recognize that the Marines are sorely lacking in amphibious assault waterborne transport capability and no amount of rationalizing a vertical assault element will make up for that. The 16 vertical aviation transports of a MEU will suffer heavy losses in an opposed assault and we must factor that into our discussions. Helos can and will be useful in an amphibious assault but their vulnerability and limited numbers mean they are not a viable option as the main or even important means for conducting an opposed assault against a peer. The limit of their assault capability is a light raid in an almost unopposed scenario.
Helo assault is not the answer.
Helicopter Pilot's Association, Viet Nam