Tactics 101 039 – Air Assault: The Basics
"In any problem where an opposing force exists and cannot be regulated, one
must foresee and provide for alternative courses. Adaptability is the law
which governs survivability in war as well as in life."
-Sir Basil H. Liddell-Hart "Strategy"
In our last article, we began a series focusing on air assault operations. In our initial piece, our goal was to set the conditions for future articles tied to the planning, preparation, and execution of air assault operations. With that in mind, we keyed on the following subject areas: 1) A brief history of air assault operations. 2) What air assault operations can do for you. 3) What air assault operations cannot do for you. 4) The tactical employment of air assault operations. 5) The operational guidelines of conducting operational guidelines. We hope last month provided you sufficient background so you can truly grasp the intricacies of air assault operations. If you have been involved in an air assault before; we believe you will quickly find just how challenging it can be. Of course, this challenge if met will likely result in huge benefits!
In this month’s article, we will key in four areas. First, we will begin with a little ‘war story’ from our past. Hard to believe this was almost 25 years ago! Second, we will highlight the second most critical element of an air assault (after the Soldier) – the helicopter. Third, we will define some critical terminology related to air assault operations. Finally, we will briefly describe how an air assault should be executed by the book. (Of course, the book normally does not read as planned). These areas will set the conditions for the upcoming articles focused on the air assault planning sequence.
Summer in the Mojave Desert, 1985: As a member of the US Army’s opposing forces (OPFOR), chartered to replicate the then current resident threat of the Soviet Union, I had fought against every unit in the US inventory. On this particular occasion we were facing a heavy-light enemy consisting of a mechanized infantry brigade reinforced by an air assault battalion. We had our work cut out for us. The enemy had Abrams Tanks and Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and, if that wasn’t enough, they had an air assault battalion. The ‘sky troopers’ came packing a deadly and elusive company of TOW Hummers and the lift required to move the whole shooting match. We were not optimistic, but we were determined to give it our best.
My motorized rifle battalion (MRB) began the rotation by defending a remote cluster of hills nicknamed ‘Australia’. The name referred to the ‘outback’ location surrounded by desert—an island in a sea of sand. We laid in a motorized company (MRC) as a forward security element (FSE) ten kilometers north of our Alamo defense. They sat in a narrow gap of a hull ridgeline called the Whale Gap because the ridge looked like Moby Dick on the map. Their mission was not to defeat the attacking enemy forces, but to damage them, slow them down, and make their passage through the gap difficult. They would buy our main defense time to continue preparation and would direct deep artillery. Once the enemy was close to breaking their position, they would withdraw to the main defense ‘down under’. This was standard Soviet doctrine.
My MRB faced a reinforced blue (US) brigade combat team (BCT) consisting of a mech battalion task force, an armored battalion task force and an air assault battalion. Ouch! They were another 10km north of our FSE, masked by another ridgeline north of the Whale. We wouldn’t see them until they busted over the ridge headed south into our security zone. The FSE wouldn’t have all that much early warning. The question was the air assault troops. The distance was too far for them to come in on the ground unless they moved at night so the question of the day was—where would they insert their troops?
Australia is on high ground that gradually slopes upward from the Whale Gap. We could see all the way to the northern ridge that masked the blue BCT. As the MRB executive officer (XO), I was placed just below the highest point (to see, yet avoid enemy targeting) in order to see the entire battlefield and call artillery fires for the main body and the FSE. We intended to make them pay for the gap and the 10km dash from the Whale to our main defense. We might just win if we could weaken them during their twenty-kilometer trek south.
The sun came up and the enemy had not yet attacked—no armored recon, no light fighters from the air assault, nothing. This surprised us. We figured the blue forces (BLUFOR) would at least hit the FSE before sunrise. Late in the morning we watched armor build up on the northern ridge; the attack seemed imminent, but there had been no sign of the heliborne troops.
The tanks and brads continued to mass on the ridgeline north, but did not advance. As I waited and watched I noticed a sudden and dramatic build-up of dust behind the ridge. The dust cloud wasn’t a dust trail. This was a sign of helicopters spinning their rotors in preparation of lift off — not armor on the move. So where were they headed in broad daylight?
Soon I saw a few Blackhawk’s pop up above the ridgeline. This was the air assault, but where were they going? I had minutes to assess the enemy course of action. I’m no military genius, but I did have thirty plus rotations under my belt and this pseudo combat experience told me that the enemy was going for a hammer and anvil approach against the FSE. The air assault troops would land behind the FSE as the ‘anvil’ while the BCT would take them on frontally as the ‘hammer’ in order to cause them to fight in two directions while severing their egress route to the main defense.
Sitting on my hilltop to the south I guessed the air assault would land behind the gap. As the sky filled with Blackhawk’s I called for fire south of the gap figuring that the rounds would land about the same time the choppers would. I was right. The Blackhawk’s touched down as the artillery hit and the air assault battalion was annihilated. The hammer had to strike without the anvil and between the FSE and the main defense. We managed to attrite them enough to hold our little cluster of hills. The mission ended in an OPFOR victory.
The plan was obviously flawed since I as a 1LT managed to decipher it. First off, the timing was wrong since I could clearly see the dust build-up from the rotors. Next, the route was wrong since I could see their flight path throughout the insertion. Lastly, the landing zone (LZ) was obvious enough that I could predict it from 20km away. The BCT and air assault battalion planners killed the battalion and doomed the BCT because they did not understand their capabilities, limitations, or operating environment.
To be fair I had beaten air assaults before. We had shot down helo’s attempting to drop down on our heads; separated troops from equipment when they chose LZ’s that were too dispersed and we ambushed Apache Gunship support. We had also lost to air assault troops when they landed outside our range allowing the infantry to disappear in the night only to reappear a few hours later—in our rear. In this case, they over-ran our defenses from behind during limited visibility when we didn’t expect it from where we didn’t expect it. In the desert, air assault wins when they combine rotors with legs to place light fighters in an advantageous position versus dug in armor.
START WITH THE BASICS
Before you plan an air assault you have to know the basics. To misunderstand the pieces of the puzzle is to almost guarantee their misuse. This happens more often than one might expect. It happens when planners launch missions under weather conditions that reduce airlift capacity or when equipment is dropped in a clearing that the crews can’t get to. It also happens when the air assault lifts off in full view of enemy surveillance and heads to an obvious landing zone that can easily be targeted.
Air Assault is complex: the systems technical and sensitive; the distances are great; the potential points of failure are more numerous; timing is critical; and failure can be catastrophic. Light, mechanized, and armored operations are more forgiving; the troops usually not too far from their support. Only airborne operations are more tenuous.
The air assault is built on the back of the helicopter. The first bird in the air is the observation helicopter (OH). These are the hunters—the rotary wing scouts that recon the route, its flanks, the landing zones, and the areas around them. They find obstacles and enemy positions enroute and artillery and reserves that can respond to the landing. Right behind the scouts are the attack helicopters (AH). These are the killers that destroy the targets uncovered by the scouts. They clear the path for the main body, maintain overhead cover, and provide fire support during the assault on the objective. Next come the utility helicopters (UH). These are the backbone of the mission. They carry the men and equipment to the objective. They evacuate the wounded and bring in the supplies that allow the mission to continue. The utility helicopters move in the reserves, emplace supporting artillery, and deliver heavy systems to the field. Heavy equipment can also make the mission given the lift and capacity of the cargo helicopters (CH).
Below we will provide some thumbnail sketches of these helicopters.
OH-58 Kiowa Scout – This two man scout bird is the eyes and the ears of the air assault. It is an agile low flying aircraft that is amply equipped with high-speed reconnaissance gear. It can also carry a threatening array of weaponry and can engage targets in defense or as part of the clearing operations although it is not recommended. Ideally, Kiowa’s operate in two bird teams or in partnership with an attack bird.
The OH-58 mission is reconnaissance, surveillance, and intelligence gathering. The latest incarnation of the Kiowa in the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, which adds, target acquisition and laser designation to its capability list. The Kiowa can fly day and night and in adverse weather. The Kiowa has a two-man crew, weighs 2.8 tons fully loaded, has a top speed of 149 mph, and a range of 288 miles. The Kiowa weapons configuration is tailored to the mission. The menu includes: Stinger missiles, Hellfire missiles, Hydra 70 rockets, 50 cal and 7.62 guns.
UH-1H Iroquois – The Iroquois is more commonly referred to as the ‘Huey’. The Huey was the original utility bird of the experimental air assault division and was the workhorse of Vietnam. Although the Huey is being phased out of the US Army: it still flies in the guard and reserves and is in use all around the world. The primary mission of the Huey is general support, troop and cargo transport, aero-medical evacuation, search and rescue, and electronic warfare. As you can see, this is a versatile aircraft.
The Huey comes with a 3 to 4 man crew and, most importantly, can haul 11 to 14 passengers. It weighs 4.7 tons and can carry an internal payload of 1.5 tons and an external load of 2 tons. The Huey can hit a top speed of 127 mph and a range of 318 miles. Lastly, the Huey can haul side mounted 7.62mm guns and even rockets.
UH-60 Blackhawk – The Blackhawk is the ubiquitous helicopter of the US military—wherever there are American troops, there are Blackhawk’s. This helicopter is the new workhorse in the wake of the UH-1H and had to be good to replace such a venerable bird. The Blackhawk is faster, stronger, and tougher and can execute a broad range of missions. In the Blackhawk portfolio you’ll find: air cavalry, electronic warfare, Medevac, and troop carrying. The Blackhawk can carry a squad of 11 in its standard configuration and double that when the seats are pulled out. The Blackhawk carries advanced avionics and has global positioning.
The Black comes with a 3 to 4 man crew. It weighs 10 tons and can haul an internal payload of 2 tons and an external payload of 4 tons. It can reach speeds of up to 184 mph with a range of 368 miles. The Blackhawk can mount auxiliary fuel tanks that extend its range to 1,102 to 1,380 miles. It can also carry 7.62mm machine guns.
CH-47D Chinook – The Chinook is the air assault team’s cargo bird. Its powerful engines and dual rotors make it fast while its long body accommodates to a wide range of equipment. The Chinook has become the backbone of operations in Afghanistan in that it is the only helicopter that can operate at the altitudes of the Hindu Kush.
The Chinook is a highly versatile heavy lift helicopter that can carry troops, artillery, and a full assortment of support equipment from bulldozers to forty-foot containers. The Chinook carries advanced avionics and GPS and is manned by a crew of 4. It weighs 27 tons and can carry an internal payload of 12.5 tons and external payload of 17 tons. As big as this bird is, it is pretty fast reaching speeds of up to 177 mph with a range of 706 miles.
AH-1 Cobra Attack Helicopter – The Cobra is the air assault forces first generation gunship. It made its mark in Vietnam alongside the Huey and like the Huey is being phased out of front line service although it is seen in service in the Marine Corps, the Army Reserves and in foreign militaries around the world. The Cobra has enhanced fire control, thermal imaging, radar jamming, and infrared countermeasures. The Cobra weighs 5 tons and can make 195 mph with a 315-mile range. The Cobra packs TOW anti-tank missiles, Hydra 70 rockets, and the 20mm cannon.
AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter – The Apache is America’s second generation gunship and replacement for the Cobra. The Apache is a fearsome and lethal attack bird, often able to destroy elements of the air defense threat on its own. It was the Apache that struck the first blows of Operation Desert Storm (ODS) by destroying a key Iraqi ADA radar site that cleared the way for the massive Air Force strikes that followed. The Apache has a 2-man crew, weighs 10.5 tons, can make 227 mph, and has a range of 300 miles. It packs Hellfire missiles, Hydra 70 rockets, and a 30mm Chain gun.
TERMINOLOGY (Talk the Talk)
ACL – The ACL is the allowable cargo load—the amount the helicopter can carry. The ACL is not set in stone; it literally changes with the weather. High humidity and hot temperatures reduce ACL. Planners must always take the ACL into account.
ACP – An aerial checkpoint is a graphic reference point that can be identified from the air. An ACP allows the troops to track where they are on their maps.
Air Axis – An air axis is a less restrictive air movement control measure and usually is reserved for attack helicopters. The air axis is broader and movement outside of it is authorized.
Air Corridor – An air corridor is a formal and restrictive air movement control measure. The air corridor designates the specific ‘lane’ the helicopter must be in, the altitude it must maintain, and its speed. All friendly units, air and ground, know where the air corridor is and how to avoid it. Fires and other aircraft see the space as ‘reserved’.
Chalk: A chalk consists of the personnel and/or equipment designated to be moved by a single aircraft. Troops don’t simply jump on whatever bird they want to. Each man and piece of equipment is assigned an aircraft. This guarantees that men and equipment are inserted into the area of operations in a logical manner that fits the scheme of maneuver.
CSAR – CSAR is combat search and rescue. Each air assault designates a CSAR bird to track and recover downed aircraft that go down enroute or are shot down. A CSAR bird must be set aside and may include attack helicopters and utility birds.
False Insertion – A false insertion is where helicopters drop down to a hover or even touch the ground, but do not let troops out. Again, this is a deception measure designed to misdirect enemy forces in depth and fool them as to the actual location of the air assault.
False Prep – False prep is artillery fires delivered to a landing zone that will not be used. The intent is to fool the enemy as to the actual location of the actual landing.
Lift: A lift is the total number of aircraft assigned to the mission of inserting men and equipment in the vicinity of the objective. This includes the helicopters that pick up troops and/or equipment and set them down on the LZ. It does not include the scout and attack helicopters whose mission is to support the air assault through reconnaissance and fires—they fly semi-independent routes.
LUP – A link up point is where subunits meet or assemble. This can happen on the ground and in the air.
LZ – The LZ is the landing zone. This is where the troops or equipment disembark. The LZ is in the vicinity of the objective, but usually is not the objective itself.
LZ Prep – LZ prep is artillery fires delivered on a proposed landing zone. The fires are designed to kill or suppress enemy forces that can interfere with operations on the landing zone.
Pathfinder – Pathfinders are airborne scouts who recon potential landing zones and drop zones. They carry special equipment that is used to gather weather data. They survey the drop zone or landing zone and mark it. They provide ground to air terminal guidance to aircraft to include a weather update and wind speed and direction.
A note about planning ‘flights’: in air assault—it’s all about the helos hauling the troops. Air assault planners use a unique lexicon to describe a bird; a group of birds, and a series of groups of birds. This is critical to understanding how an air assault unfolds.
PZ – The pick up zone is used before the air assault. It is where the troops and equipment are loaded onto the helicopters. There may be multiple PZ’s and /or heavy PZ’s for artillery and other sling-loaded equipment.
RP – In an air assault an RP can be both a release point and a rally point. A release point is an area that when reached, allows the troops or helicopters to disperse and take independent routes from there on. You fly or walk to the release point in order to keep the formation together and ‘release’ in order to pursue independent routes to your subunit mission sites. A rally point is where troops will meet, or ‘rally’, when dispersed due to movement or combat.
SEAD – SEAD is the suppression of enemy air defenses. This is a critical component of all air assault missions. SEAD requires reconnaissance, artillery, close air support, and attack helicopter support.
Serial: This is a tactical grouping of two or more aircraft that is separated from other tactical groupings within the lift by time or space. Not all the helicopters can fit into the LZ at one time and even if they could, it would probably be a bad idea. Therefore, serials are designated. The use of serials separated in time, allows the commander to build up combat power and deploy troops in and around the LZ.
SP – The start point is the first point that must be ‘hit’ enroute to the objective. This is where the controlling unit gains control of the operation by sequencing subunits through the SP.
AIR ASSAULT – BY THE BOOK
Now that you’re aware of the basic components and tools of an air assault mission, let’s take a look at a thumbnail sketch of an air assault executed ‘by the book’. The mission begins anywhere from 12 hours to many days before troops in helicopters will hit the ground. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and long range reconnaissance and surveillance detachments (LRSD) will do the initial recon of the LZ’s and surrounding defenses.
They will be followed by one or more Pathfinder teams. They are inserted usually by parachute, to within walking distance of one or more proposed LZ’s. They will confirm or deny the suitability of the LZ and determine the enemy forces in the vicinity. Assuming the LZ is undefended, the team will survey the area to determine the long axis of the LZ, how many aircraft it can accommodate and in what formation, the local weather to include wind speed and direction, and determine the land heading. Finally, they will reduce obstacles on the LZ and mark it.
Air Force fighters and long range artillery usually precede rotary wing scouts by attacking air defense and artillery units that can range the air assault mission and landing zone. This doesn’t tip off the enemy since the attacks are general in nature and could be in support of any of a number of operations.
Next come the OH-58 scouts who recon the aerial route for enemy positions and air defense—from the start point to the LZ and beyond, including the flanks. The scouts are closely followed by, or teamed up with, attack helicopters that neutralize air defense emplacements, artillery and nearby reserves.
Finally, the utility helicopters come in carrying the troops and equipment. They make contact with the Pathfinders and are guided into the landing zone where they touch down and disembark their troops. The goal is to be on the ground for as short a time as possible.
Combat search and rescue teams (CSAR) consisting of a few utility helicopters with a rifle squad follow the serials with the mission of rescuing crews and personnel from helicopters downed enroute either due to enemy fire of malfunction.
Once the troops are on the ground, they will organize a perimeter defense of the landing zone until they build up enough combat power to begin their attack on the air assault objective. This is an air assault in a nutshell. We will elaborate in far greater detail in the future!
In this article, we have attempted to provide you an understanding of the helicopters utilized in air assault operations and a basic knowledge of air assault terminology. These basics will set the conditions for the rest of the series on air assault. As always, you must crawl, before you walk and run – or in this case fly!
Air Assault Reverse Planning Sequence. In the coming articles of this mini-series, we will discuss the air assault planning sequence in reverse order. As with all well-planned operations, we begin planning at the objective and work our way back to the beginning. All actions are oriented towards the objective. This is particularly critical in air assault since it is tempting to plan from the beginning forward given all the moving pieces required to get to the objective area.
The Coveted U.S. Army Air Assault Badge