May 15, 1966
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.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
- 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
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
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 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
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.