The Marine Corps has been rapidly moving away from the traditional over-the-beach amphbious assault using landing craft to an aviation based assault concept using helos and MV-22’s. ComNavOps has questioned the feasibility of this approach in numerous posts. Let’s continue to examine the issue.
Defense Update website has a fascinating article describing numerous helo shootdowns. Here are some numbers to get a feel for the magnitude of the problem.
lost more than 120 helicopters in the war on terror, about 25 percent of them
due to enemy engagements. According to recent official statistics, some 57 U.S. helicopters
had been downed in U.S. until Feb.
4, resulting in 172 deaths, or about 5.5 percent of total American deaths since
the conflict began in March 2003. According to U.S. Army General Simmons, the Iraq Army has
lost 29 helicopters to enemy fire since March 2003.” (1) U.S.
How have these losses occurred?
“The majority of the firefights involve machine-gun and heavy-machine-gun fire, categorized as up to 23 mm, Simmons said. But, he added, some surface-to-air missiles, such as SA-7s, SA-14s and SA-16s, have been used to shoot down Army helicopters.“ (1)
While that may seem like a lot of losses for a semi-war, we have to recognize that helos have heavy workloads and fly a lot of hours and missions. It is simple statistical probability that some will be shot down or damaged.
“Army helicopters average 100 enemy firefights monthly and are hit about 17 times a month. Most times the helicopters are able to fly back to base. Simmons said that is a testament to the quality of pilots, crews and equipment. The number of flight hours for the Army has nearly doubled in the past two years. In 2005, pilots logged about 240,000 hours. This year, Simmons said, he expects that number to reach nearly 400,000 hours. In 2006, pilots and crews flew 334,000 hours.” (1)
On the other hand, highly sophisticated helos should be quite successful against ill-equipped and ill-trained terrorists so any losses should be viewed with a degree of alarm.
What about countermeasures and defensive tactics?
“As result [of losses due to SA-18 type missiles], U.S. military helicopter pilots in Iraq tried flying low and fast, hoping to elude heat-seeking missiles fired by insurgents. But the insurgents responded with heavy weapons such as machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and the loss rate of American helicopters soared. So the pilots went high again and insurgents replied with lethal surface-to-air missiles. The vicious circle continued.” (1)
It’s not just newer surface-to-air (SAM) missiles that threaten helos.
“What is still more vexing to Helicopter pilots flying combat missions in
constant threat from RPGs.
helicopters are equipped with long-range sensors and devices to jam radar and
infrared technology, but they have proven vulnerable to intense gunfire, as
well as rocket-propelled grenades.“ (1) U.S.
American pilots learned to fear good old fashioned barrage fire in
and the threat remains just as valid today as then. Vietnam
Helicopters are particularly vulnerable when landing. At that time they have no choice but to be low, slow, and non-maneuverable – they have to be in order to unload and to maintain flight control in the inherently “unstable” hover mode. Consider what this means for aviation assault.
“… pilots … "yank and bank" in a corkscrew motion when approaching a dangerous or "hot" landing zone, dropping with a gut-churning, nose-high descent. Hovering, a helicopter is at its most vulnerable… Brig. Gen. Robert Milstead, a Cobra pilot who recently returned from commanding a Marine air wing in
"Above about 2,500 or 3,000 feet you are out of small arms range but
you've got to worry about the MANPADS threat, by all means avoid 500
to 1,000 feet because you're hanging out there like a grape, to be
This is bad enough for conventional helos but now consider the MV-22, envisioned by the Marine Corps as the backbone of aviation assault. The MV-22 is not a helo. It is a conventional aircraft that can temporarily, carefully, and cautiously enter helo/hover mode for brief periods while landing and taking off. However, it is even more unstable than helos while in hover mode and cannot even remotely “yank and bank” during its landing.
, helo assault pilots learned to come in fast and
hard, hit the ground in a tightly packed grouping, unload the troops in
seconds, and haul out. Now, watch any
MV-22 “combat” landing video – there’s plenty on YouTube. MV-22 landings are the complete opposite of
what I just described. The MV-22
requires large spaces – there will be no such thing as tightly packed landing
groups, slow, careful maneuvering to deal with the inherent instability of
hover mode and the poor visuals that the pilot has, and a relatively slow rate
of unloading. Vietnam
|UH-1 Huey Assault|
We previously discussed helo operations and losses in
where over 5000 helos were destroyed – a
43% loss rate (see, “Helo Assault”). Consider the helo assault losses in Vietnam and then compare the physical size and performance
of the UH-1 Huey versus the MV-22. As a
reminder, here are a few relevant specifications. Vietnam
- Size: 57 ft long rotor tip to tail
- Fuselage: 20 ft x 8’7” approx fuselage = 170 sqft
- Troop Capacity: around a dozen troops with wide exits from both sides
- Size: 57 ft long x 85 ft rotor tip to tip
- Fuselage: 50 ft x 15 ft approx fuselage = 750 sqft
- Troop Capacity: around two dozen troops with one exit at the tail
As seen, the MV-22 fuselage, the major targeting mass, is 4.5 times the size of the Huey when viewed in profile. Combine that with the greatly reduced combat landing performance of the MV-22 and the loss rate in a contested assault will soar even over the shocking
loss rates. Vietnam
|MV-22 - Compare the Size to the Huey!|
Let’s look at more recent evidence. Consider the
– During Operation Iraqi Freedom, ambush barrage
fire from the Iraqi Medina division routed 31 Karbala, Iraq helos of the 11th Regiment / 3rd Infantry
Division. Two helos were lost (one to a
non-combat crash) and all but one were heavily damaged. The helo unit was effectively wiped out. US
Recognize that all these helo losses were under best-case scenarios where the
had total control of the sky and the enemy was
generally ill-trained and ill-equipped.
What will losses be against a peer, under contested skies, and against
well trained troops with state of the art weapon and sensor systems? US
So, with all that said, I have to pose the question,
How are we going to conduct a successful helo/MV-22 aviation assault?
The answer seems pretty obvious: we aren’t.
If that’s the case, why are the Marines basing so much of their doctrine and acquisitions around aviation assaults?
(1)Defense Update website, “Deadly Scourge of the US Helicopter Pilots in
”, Colonel David Eshel, 2007, Iraq