May 10, 1966

Army’s Air Mobility Concept Delivered Blow

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, is now in the field with troops of the 1st Cavalry Division in Viet Nam.  His dispatches on the war in Southeast Asia will continue daily in The Enquirer.)

Enquirer Military Writer

SAIGON - Despite a public endorsement of the Army air mobility concept proved by long tests at Fort Benning and by the 1st Cavalry Division in South Viet Nam - and budget provisions to begin converting another division to the concept during 1966-67 - Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recently struck a blow at a basic part of the Army aviation program.

Almost in passing, the secretary said in his Senate report on defense matters that the CV7 Buffalo would not be procured because “other aircraft” are available to perform the job the Buffalo is designed to do.

The facts, as illustrated in Viet Nam for many years now, make the decision sound as if it came from the same computer which caused the cutback in helicopter production and helicopter pilot training during the very period when men in the field were convinced that the program should have been expanded.

The “other aircraft” apparently refers to the C130, a fine, big transport made by Lockheed at Marietta, Ga.

It won’t work out.  In fact, a hasty, tardy, costly crash program eventually will be instituted to salvage the mistake which has just been made if it is allowed to stand.

A C130 cannot effectively deliver cargo to the areas required of Army Caribou aircraft now flying in Viet Nam. Nobody is more willing and eager to make this point than the men flying C130s.

The C130 flies too fast at its lowest speed to be effective in dropping cargo on limited drop zones by the low-level extraction method the Caribou has made so handy in Viet Nam.

Getting C130 from the Air Force to support an Army project is often like making reservations on a scheduled airline.  The Caribous are part of the Army’s family of aircraft, and a commander has flexibility and empathy with this kind of aviation unit.  Consideration of human factors involved in operations is not one of the secretary’s strong points, of course.

A C130 may be able to land on a short field, but it must be a good, solid piece of ground.  The big aircraft breaks through surfaces a Caribou can use like an asphalt runway.  The short-field capability is not good enough for the kind of operations the Army has supported with its Caribou companies either.

The Caribou program is finished.  No new Caribous are being bought.  There are not even any spare parts being bought for the ones now flying.  When they fall apart, the Army is going to be left depending on a ship too big and too unwieldy for its needs, flown by a service with a record of shortsightedness where close support of ground troops is concerned.

The CV7 Buffalo can do anything a Caribou can do, and do it better.  It can do things the C130 cannot do, just as a C130 is wonderful in the areas where it can operated effectively, and those areas are amazing for the size plane involved.

But from where a C130 lands to where the Army fights, there is almost a very sizable piece of distance which can be bridged only by the Caribou or - more effectively and cheaper - the Buffalo which the Army pleaded for.

Test Successful

The Buffalo had a test in Viet Nam and it was successful.  The record of Caribou operations in Viet Nam in all phases of that war is enviable.  It was made by flying them in areas where C130s could not operate, on isolated little fields in the wilderness or in other such missions where a C130 was uneconomical or couldn’t do the job because of its size, weight and speed.

When the Caribous are grounded because no money was made available for spare parts, and when the immense logistical gap between where the Air Force lands and the Army lives and fights is bridged by having helicopters pulled from close combat support to a high cost and wasteful cargo haul, the secretary probably will change his decision, as he did in the helicopter fiasco.

The lost time and cost and the harm to Army air mobility development will be covered up with the usual whitewash statements, of course, but the thing is going to cost money and combat effectiveness before it is settled.

The arguments which once were given against purchase of the Buffalo - that it is made in Canada and that the dollar deficit was involved - were settled up.

Blind Spot

The only thing which was not settled was the apparent blind spot the Dept. of Defense has toward the urgent need for the sound development of a concept in a logical manner instead of the slapdash emergency kind of affair which seems too often to be a trademark of what has happened with air mobility.

It should be remembered, in line with this, that the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) was ordered formed, the Second Infantry Division and the 11th Air Assault Division (test) moved and shelved respectively, after useless months of bickering and delay - and the process was given a six-week deadline so the new division could head for combat in Viet Nam.

It meant that replacements had to get their field training in helicopter operations in Viet Nam.  It meant that a hectic period of doing three things at once faced a unit destined for quick combat.

The decision to just forget about the Buffalo and let the Caribou wear itself out in combat - with attendant problems for the men flying them or depending on them - should be carefully remembered in the light of what is almost bound to happen in the months ahead.  It is one of the Defense Dept. and its head should not be allowed to forget they made, and it should be studied as a possible tip-off for a weakness in the department’s entire attitude toward Army air mobility.

It may be that the secretary is good at long-range plans but can’t see what is just around the corner.


© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
Return to Index