Friday, May 8, 2015

Helo Assault

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 Viet Nam war.  The US 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 Viet Nam?  1%?  5%?  Surely not much more than that.

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.

          Served    Destroyed
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 Afghanistan.  I’m unaware of any data for that conflict but, anecdotally, the helo losses were staggering.

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 America class LHA, 1 LPD-17 class, and 1 LSD, the vertical aviation component consists of around

  • 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.

(1) Viet Nam Helicopter Pilot's Association,


  1. 16 helos is actually a lot for a battalion-sized organization.

    The MEB ACE has upwards of 80 transport rotorcraft.

    Otherwise, I agree with your assessment.

    1. "Otherwise, I agree with your assessment."

      Well, where's the fun in that? I guess it had to happen eventually.

    2. For rough comparison, a notional Army Air Assault Division Ready Force (battalion sized) has 22 transport helicopters (8 Chinooks, 14 Blackhawks). (pg 13)

      IIRC, Marine air assault doctrine is a bit different from the Army's. The Army emphasizes the importance of landing close to the objective, which of course incurs higher risk. Marine doctrine has forces landing further away, in presumably safer LZs.

      The whole problem with air assault in general is how little the Marines and soldiers on the ground actually bring with them. Only those hideously expensive micro-Jeeps fit in the MV-22, at the expense of anything else. CH-53Ks will be able to carry HMMWVs, but will take a while to build up credible combat power.

      Until then, troops have to fight and move on foot, with only what they can carry.

      When looking at Marine force composition from the standpoint of high end amphibious assault, I think they spend far too much on rotor-wing aviation and not enough on ground combat power and ship to shore connectors.

      However if you look at it from the standpoint of packets of forward deployed, peacetime, ground combat power, their aviation makes more sense. A battalion-sized MEU with V-22s and CH-53Ks can perform a wide variety of missions short of high-end conflicts. (e.g. HA/DR, embassy defense/evacuation, show of force, raids, SPECOPS support).

      A repeat of Operation Eagle Claw could almost be conducted by such a MAGTF, using 9 MV-22s to carry the assault force directly to Tehran, air refueling both ways. Flying the hostages out would require additional MV-22s.

    3. "hideously expensive micro-Jeeps fit in the MV-22"

      I hadn't known about those until your quote prompted me to look them up. That's quite an understatement!

    4. Smitty,

      The report you cited is hideously outdated (1998); and the numbers are very dubious as AFAIK the army has always deployed its H-60 assault battalions in companies of five (5) H-60s each.

      As you point out, the army and the marines differ greatly in how they organize and train to conduct air assault, but for a number of reasons, the USMC organization in many ways vastly inferior in capability, and shockingly over-priced in comparison to the army.

      The titanic rotor wash from the V-22 and H-53s make them particularly unsuited for HA/DR and NEO operations in urban environments (seen too many roofs destroyed by the rotor wash from H-60s - I cannot imagine the havoc caused by a V-22 trying to land on an embassy compound).


    5. I think Smitty nailed another major problem with helo assault. The size and weight that a helo or V-22 can carry is severely limited. We will get the Marines to the LZ, but with little in the way of heavy equipment or logistics support. You need boats for the big stuff. And then you have to get it from the beach to the LZ.

    6. Chip, see the Jan 2014 post, "From Here To Eternity".

  2. Anyway to get loss stats for our helos in Afghanistan & Iraq?

    1. I'm not aware of a source but I'm always looking!


      YMMV on the accuracy of these numbers.

    3. If it means anything (and this is kind of off topic), there have been accusations that in the past, the US Army has concealed the number of M1 Abrams tanks that have sustained heavy damage - in some cases, categorizing total write-offs as not totally destroyed tanks. I do not know whether those accusations are true, and by nature, it will be very hard to verify that and the real losses in the War on Terror.

      So I would not be surprised if any publicly available information though, understates the real losses.

  3. I'd expect that the loss rates would be far higher even against an underpowered enemy these days.

    MANPADs have become widespread, as have other weapons. Helicopters have tried to respond by adding countermeasures, adopting "shoot and scoot" tactics, or things like the pop-up launch. These have not had the survivability benefits expected, while adding unit cost and worse, mass (thereby reducing performance even more).

    Against a modern nation state opponent, a helicopter assault on even a moderately well defended area would be suicide. It would only be viable with complete surprise in an undefended area.

    Attack helicopters too have become incredibly vulnerable for that reason. I'm of the opinion that where possible, use fixed wing aircraft.

  4. a good example of helo attrition (in a smaller scale) can be seen in the last year's ukraine conflict , where the goverment's advantage in air power was negated by rebel's air defense. so much so that it wiped out the goverment's air power , and the conflict turned into classic ground war with no airpower from both sides (in a number that matters)

    what can be learned from ukraine's debacle in the eastern provinces ?

    - Air power should have numbers to sustain their operation , in the face of moderately equipped enemy and attrition.
    - Bad tactics in employing air power against barely equipped insurgents should be changed into more training in a heavy/densely defended battlefield with enemy have modern air defense systems

    im sure everyone here knew the history of Apache helicopter, their original purpose and mission , their tactics against soviet tanks .. those are real tactics developed for helo gunships against peer enemies..

    The lack of real opposition is the downfall of any military... the first moment they faced a capable and willing and equipped opponent in battlefield , their confidence will be lost and their morale gone.. total defeat to follow


    the CV-22 Osprey chalks up more combat experience in South Sudan, with three CV-22 Osprey aircraft apparently taking ground fire on descent into what was probably the Osprey’s first noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO). Four of the approximately 46 aboard were reportedly hurt, and the Ospreys aborted their mission and diverted to an alternative landing zone

  6. It's only 10 V-22s per MEU. Since they are twice the size (empty weight) of the H-46 (the same as the 53E) there isn't deck space for 12. And with a ready rate of just 50%, plan on five V-22s per assault. Just watch any helo flying by and imagine yourself with a heavy machine gun and you know you can nail it.

    Read about Lam Son 791 in 1971, where the U.S. Army lost 108 helos in that month long operation, and the enemy had no SAMs or radar guided AAA! Just one modern 40mm AAA gun could down a dozen helos in a few minutes.

    Here are some ideas to adapt.

    1. "It's only 10 V-22s per MEU"

      Thanks for the correction!

    2. It's only 10 V-22s per MEU.

      Are you certain?

      VMM-263 deployed with 12 V-22s.

      The ACE of a MEU can be configured and reinforced with endless variations of detachments and squadrons, in fact it generally has aircraft assigned that never land on the ships (e.g. C-130s).

      I am not a big fan of the V-22, but the aircraft does have a significant capability to self deploy independent of ships, and significantly, it can fly the least vulnerable flight profile.

      MANPADS are certainly of concern, but are overstated: the effective slant range at most twice that of HMGS.
      When you look at an integrated air defense system, MANPADS add about as many kills as 14.5mm,12.7mm HMGS plus RPGs combined.

      The real problem for vertical envelopment are cheap, effective medium altitude SAM systems that can avoid SEAD suppression (The Serbians were very effective doing this) and then hammer the assault force.

      Again the RAND study I cited does a great job of illustrating the details.


  7. CNO,

    This 2005 study from RAND offers a fascinating look at capabilities, costs and survivability

    Page 85-89

    * Operation Allied Force, Kosovo, 1999
    – NATO could never eliminate the medium- to high-altitude threat due to clever Serb Management of their radars and concealment of firing elements
    • Resulted in lack of willingness to overfly Kosovo with transport aircraft to drop food to refugees — even at medium altitude
    – Low-altitude threat was hard to locate and was barely degraded during entire 78 day campaign
    – Task Force Hawk’s helicopters never committed due to risk

    * Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan, 2002
    – Helicopters used extensively to deploy forces and enhance maneuver in the operational area
    – Operation Anaconda (March) showed vulnerability of attack helicopters to unsophisticated low-altitude threat (small arms, RPGs)

    * Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003
    “During the course of planning for ground operations in Iraq, the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and British Army all considered, and actually planned for, air-assault operations in front of the advancing armored columns. ... Once operations started, however, no air-assault missions in front of the leading edge of the armored advance were conducted. Interviews with all three ground forces indicated that the risks of these operations were seen as outweighing the possible benefits, so the senior ground commanders elected to cancel the planned missions.

    Transport helicopters were, however, used extensively to move troops and supplies in areas behind the leading edge of troops.

    Following the 23 March “shoot up” of the Apaches of the 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment, the Army placed significant restrictions on the use of attack helicopters, in addition to the cancellation of air-assault missions. In that incident, one Apache was shot down, and all 31 others in the mission took various amounts of battle damage. During the course of the roughly 25 days of major combat operations up to the fall of Baghdad, the Army and Marine attack helicopter forces suffered considerable damage. Several aircraft were effectively destroyed, and many others (for example, 46 of 58 USMC Cobras) took battle damage, mostly from infantry-type weapons, such as machine guns, RPGs, and small arms fire.”


    Additional observations:

    The greatest potential air defense weapon against a helicopter born vertical envelopment is not 14.5mm and 12.7mm HMGs, ZSU 23-4s, or MANPADs, but instead artillery and mortars. The V-22/H-53 force is particularly at risk because these aircraft require outsized and therefore predictable landing zones.

    The real problem with the V-22 and H-53 are cost: consider that a clean C-130J costs ~$90 Million.

    The section on threats is particularly eye opening, the effect of 14.5mm and 12.7mm MGs, RPGs on attrition of a helicopter.

    An undiscussed advantage of the V-22 is the ability to

    This 2005 study from RAND offers a fascinating look at capabilities, costs and survivability: BLUF the H-53K buy was really more about shipboard compatibility, rather than any superiority of design.

    The section on threats is particularly eye opening, the effect of 14.5mm and 12.7mm MGs, RPGs

    1. That is still troubling against a more conventional military.

      Unlike insurgencies, conventional armies are likely to have access to heavy artillery (152 and 155 mm guns) and mortar weapons.

      This would make it hard to secure LZs for helicopters. I maintain though that a conventional army will have more AA weapons in their arsenal, like MANPADs, medium caliber flak guns, and of course, fixed wing aircraft.

    2. @AltandMain

      Spot on!

      Artillery is hugely lethal and can remain 100%concealed until directed to fire on a potential HLZ.


  8. Ironic how history repeats itself, or at least rhymes.

    All during Vietnam, the AF and Industry leaders all insisted that our planes were the best and our missiles were so good that we didn't guns or anything else. Well after over 5,000 Aircraft lost, NOT counting the Helicopters list above, we quietly developed the F-16, got rid of the smoky engines on the F-4, painted all aircraft ghost grey.

    Hmmm the experts never admitted they were wrong but we changed a lot of things. Unfortunately it takes the reality of combat and losses to point out that the rosy planning assumptions just don't cut it.


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