May 15, 1966

1st Cav Loses Air Firepower

(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 - The First Air Cavalry Division, back in the days when it was the 11th Air Assault Division (Test), had a total close-support air firepower for its infantry troops which was greater than it took into combat in Viet Nam.

It lost this firepower from the air when the 20 armed Mohawk (OV-1) aircraft it had been using during the test were taken away from it.
There are several versions of the reason behind the decision which came from the Army chief of staff.

One source in Washington said it was done because the Mohawk was vulnerable to ground fire and top men in the Army didn’t want to send “. . . brave young pilots in on shooting and napalming missions in an aircraft without good single-engine performance.  As you know, a Mohawk operating with one engine at 90 feet altitude just isn’t operating.”

Appealing Argument

This is an appealing argument to make the decision about the Mohawk easier to live with, but it just doesn’t explain why the Army then decided to take the money it could have spent on the Bell Aircobra helicopter and put it into other areas, canceling the program which helicopter pilots thought was certain to give them a more maneuverable and faster aerial artillery platform than they now have.

It also doesn’t explain why the F-5 fighter plane, a $690,000 jet which is specifically suitable to the Army for close support of ground troops, and which has been available for 10 years as an off-the-shelf product, is just now receiving a combat test in Viet Nam. A reluctant Air Force finally sent 12 of the rugged, cheap and easily maintained fighters there last year for a “test” after it had become embarrassed by questions from some of our allies - such as Thailand.

The Air Force representatives to those allied nations had been selling them on the F-5 as the best possible kind of aircraft for use in primitive fights of the kind in Viet Nam.  Some of the men in charge of these countries’ air forces suddenly asked one of those embarrassingly obvious questions:

“Why Don’t You Use It?”

“If the F-5 is so great, why doesn’t the U.S. Air Force use them in Viet Nam to support its own troops on the ground?”

The question reportedly came from Thailand officials, who are very much interested in aircraft suitable for Southeast Asian style wars, since they have a rapidly developing one of their own in the northern and eastern provinces.  Wherever it actually came from, it accomplished more than long and fervent pleas from the U.S. Army about the F-5.
The Army cannot name the airplane it wants.  The delineation of roles and missions of the services as defined at the Key West conference on this matter in 1947 - which has been an effective straight jacket in many areas of Army aviation development in recent years - keeps Army officials from saying they want a specific model aircraft to be flown by the Air Force to support infantrymen.

The Army can draw up its requirements and the specifications and ask for a certain amount of these planes and the Air Force can heed them, or, as in the case of the F-5, ignore them.

The Army drew up its requirements for support of the infantry in such a matter that no other aircraft on the market filled the need, Washington sources say.  The F-5 was a tailored model.  It costs a fraction as much as the other aircraft the Air Force uses in its tactical force.  It is a little guy, it doesn’t require much maintenance, it carries a lot of bombs and guns and has very simple equipment, it can go 1,000 m.p.h. or throttle down to the slower speed a pilot needs to find a target on a battlefield, and it can stay around the fighting area much longer than high performance jets.

Two hundred of this type aircraft were said to be the minimum number the Army felt would satisfy its requirement for aircraft to shoot for infantrymen on a battlefield.

The Army is still looking for them in Viet Nam combat.  The Army will not get the production-ready helicopter which would give pilots flying an under-powered UH1-B transport model, with what is really a jury rig weapon system, a faster ship with more firepower and a better chance of living through the day while doing a better job.

The Army now, sees Air Force high performance jets, designed for interdiction in conventional war, reconnaissance at high speed or knocking out enemy fighters at thousands of feet altitude, attempting to shoot for riflemen.  They don’t work as they should work in Viet Nam and they won’t work in any similar type war.

High performance jets have their basic missions denied them in this kind of war.  Enemy supplies are carried by coolies through the trees. Enemy columns sneak through the brush, not along highways in convoys of trucks and tanks.  The nearest thing to an enemy air force is the monsoon season so there aren’t any fighters to shoot out of the air.

The argument about the Mohawk’s vulnerability ignores the vulnerability of the infantryman who needs all of the firepower he can get in the kind of engagements he is taking on in Viet Nam.

The nature of fights in that country is almost always this:  a U.S. unit on the move hits a Communist force which has the opening advantage of superior numbers and local surprise; the unit making the contact is quickly reinforced and calls in heavy support of air and artillery to make a violent and critical defense against the Communists; the support fire and reinforcements overpower the Communist attack and deal heavy casualties.

In the beginning - and this is almost accepted - the U.S. unit making such a contact will be fighting for its life against superior numbers and firepower.  Quick and violent reaction is necessary to save it and to turn the contact into a tactical victory.

The reaction from the Air Force’s jet aircraft is often delayed because of  the problem of aircraft availability and fuel supplies.  The jets, when they get there, go too fast to shoot as accurately as this close fighting demands.  The jets cannot stay there long enough.

The infantryman’s favorite airplane now is the obsolete old A1E Skyraider, which as the same kind of vulnerability argument going against it as the Mohawk.  It is accurate, it hangs around and it carries a big load, just as the Mohawk can do when armed.

The difference between the A1E and the Mohawk is the time in which they could get into the fight.  The Mohawk flew as part of the division.  It is based up close to the fighting, it is as readily on call for the Army commanders as their rocket-shooting helicopters.  Knocking them out of the division arsenal before it went into combat just didn’t make good fighting sense.


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