A Vital Concept Refined

By Colonel Glen Butler, U.S. Marine Corps

The ‘Helicopter War’

Operation Shufly, the secret deployment of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 362 to South Vietnam in April 1962, was but one of several incremental increases in U.S. involvement there. The mission for HMM-362—the first Marine operational unit committed to the burgeoning conflict—was to provide vertical envelopment capability for South Vietnamese forces: the squadron’s UH-34 Seahorse crews were to use their weapons only if fired on first. In early 1963, however, inevitable changes in the rules of engagement permitted preemptive engagement of enemy forces. Helicopters thus became gunships in spite of the official prohibition on their use for close-air roles.

During that time, Marine Helicopter Squadron (HMX) 1 in Quantico, Virginia, was developing a weapon package, “Temporary Kit-1.” TK-1 comprised two M-60 machine guns and two 2.75-inch rocket pods, each with a 19-rocket capacity. UH-34s outfitted with TK-1s were deployed to South Vietnam when ground forces were committed to the fight in 1965 and the Marines realized the need for dedicated CAS platforms to support their mission. HMX-1’s innovative work progressed, and by April 1967 an enhanced TK-2 had been created for the UH-1E Huey—along with rotating gun turrets for increased firepower.

On the fixed-wing side, Marine tactical aircraft were put to the test in Vietnam during Operation Starlite in August 1965, widely recognized as the first major U.S. offensive of the war. Newly arrived A-4 Skyhawks from Marine Air Group (MAG) 12 and F-4B Phantoms from MAG-11 dropped 20 tons of napalm and bombs in support of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade’s engagements against 2,000 Viet Cong troops. Pilots serving as forward air controllers (FACs) on the ground proved their worth, as did those who were airborne—FAC(A)s—who performed vital close air control in OV-10 Bronco observation aircraft. On the ground or in the air, the FACs were the “linchpin that connected air and ground power in close air support.” 1

The Marine Corps took delivery on the AH-1G Cobra in 1967, spawned as an evolution of armed Hueys. That year, as rotary-wing squadrons increasingly improved their CAS tactics and procedures, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 6 pilot Captain Stephen W. Pless, with his Huey crew, heroically rescued four American soldiers on 19 August—action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. By year’s end, fixed-wing aircraft of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) had dropped almost 148,000 tons of ordnance; warfighters on the ground knew that close air support was truly indispensable to their efforts.

The spring of 1967 marked the opening stage of the Battle of Khe Sanh, as the 3d Marines assaulted Hills 861, 881 North, and 881 South in late April, supported by heavy artillery and air support, seizing terrain from North Vietnamese (NVA) troops in a prelude to the 77-day siege that commenced 20 January the following year. At Khe Sanh, air power delivered almost 96 percent of the ordnance expended against the enemy—an average of approximately five tons dropped for every NVA soldier. 2 Although Air Force B-52 strikes clearly played a significant role, on further examination there is little doubt that the Marine Corps version of close air support—more widely integrated with ground-force maneuver and intent, more responsive, and at closer proximity—was even more critical to U.S. success. One Marine innovation that stood out during Khe Sanh was the “Super Gaggle,” a conglomeration of multiple aircraft—often up to a dozen A-4s, UH-1E gunships, and a dozen CH-46Ds—used to prep and cover landing zones for resupply missions.

Vietnam came to be known as the “helicopter war,” but both fixed- and rotary-wing CAS continued to prove invaluable. Lieutenant General Victor H. “Brute” Krulak, commanding general, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, echoed the thoughts of every Marine in 1968: “Air support is as inseparable to the combat team as is his artillery, his tanks, or even his infantryman’s M-16.” 3 From Operation Dewey Canyon in early 1969—the last major Marine offensive of the war—through the evacuation missions in Cambodia (Eagle Pull) and Saigon, South Vietnam, (Frequent Wind) at war’s end in 1975, Marine aviation’s steady ability to support ground forces remained vital. Aircraft improvements during this era included delivery of the AV-8A Harrier to the Marine Corps in February 1971, and the first combat missions for AH-1J twin-engine Sea Cobras a month later.

Restoring Order in Grenada

Early on 25 October 1983, President Ronald Reagan told the world that U.S. forces and those of six Caribbean nations had landed on the island of Grenada to “restore order and democracy” and evacuate almost 1,000 U.S. citizens following a Cuban communist-led coup. 4 The 22d Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU), en route to Lebanon, was diverted to participate in the operation just one day before the infamous Beirut Marine barracks bombing on 23 October. Throughout the conflict CAS was a key enabler. While several missions stand out, the most dramatic culminated in the downing of two AH-1T Super Cobras in what was that aircraft’s first combat engagement.

As President Reagan was announcing the mission, Cobra helicopters from the 22d MAU’s HMM-261 had launched from the USS Guam (LPH-9) to support heavily engaged U.S. Army forces, as well as Navy SEALs, who were rescuing British Governor-General Paul Scoon.

Marine Captains Douglas J. Diehl and Gary W. Watson (Diehl’s wingman) linked up with an FAC from the Army’s 1st Ranger Battalion for a talk-on mission to destroy a 90-mm recoilless rifle concealed in a house. With Diehl firing his 20-mm cannon and Watson firing tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) missiles, the Cobras destroyed the targets, returned to the Guam for fuel, and conducted an over-radio battle handover to squadron-mates Captains John P. “Pat” Giguere and Timothy B. Howard, also piloting Cobras.

Giguere and Howard checked in with a FAC who directed them to a target at Fort Frederick, an old outpost overlooking Grenada’s capital, St. George’s. After multiple runs on the target, and while he was attempting to line up a TOW missile shot, Howard and copilot Captain Jeb F. Seagle were peppered with antiaircraft fire from a ZU-23 23-mm gun. At least one round went through both engines, and others wounded the pilots: Howard’s right arm was nearly severed and his right leg was broken; Seagle was knocked unconscious.

Miraculously, Howard managed to crash-land the aircraft in a nearby soccer field. Seagle, regaining consciousness, pulled Howard from the burning wreckage and rendered immediate first aid. Then, taking Howard’s pistol, he set out in search of help. Overhead, Giguere coordinated a rescue effort from his Cobra, at the same time providing close air support against the antiaircraft gun and advancing enemy forces. The rescue aircraft, a CH-46 piloted by Major Melvin DeMars, successfully picked up Howard and evacuated him to the Guam , but Giguere and his copilot, First Lieutenant Jeffrey R. Scharver, were shot down and killed while flying in escort. Compounding the tragedy, Seagle’s body later was found on the beach; enemy forces had captured and killed him.

Seagle was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. Howard, DeMars, and Staff Sergeant Kelly Neidigh (the CH-46 crew chief) were presented Silver Stars. Giguere and Sharver were posthumously awarded Silver Stars.

The introduction of night-vision devices into the aviation community in the late 1970s provided a significant technological advancement in close air support. Though not fully exploited during operations in Grenada, night-vision “goggles” became mainstays of Marine Corps aviation during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Other notable events in close air support in that time frame include the arrival of the first AV-8B Harrier IIs (January 1985) and receipt of the first AH-1W Super Cobras (March 1986). The first combat action for the F/A-18 Hornet—the replacement for the F-4 Phantom—came against Libya in April 1986 during Operation El Dorado Canyon. While a milestone in that regard, the Hornets were not used in that mission for CAS. But they would prove their worth to Marines on the ground in years to come.

Into the Storm of Kuwait—and Beyond

Although short when measured against other conflicts of similar magnitude, the “100-hour war” of Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait (January–February 1991) was punctuated by constant CAS from all of the services using a wide variety of aircraft. One memorable engagement among many was the Battle of Khafji—what author David J. Morris called “the battle that changed the course of the Gulf War.” 5

When an outnumbered Marine reconnaissance team became trapped on 29 January, a friendly position known as Observation Post 4 became a close-air magnet. AV-8B Harriers destroyed Iraqi vehicles near the main road intersection in the southern part of Khafji; Marine air-naval gunfire liaison teams coordinated key communications for the Coalition troops, controlling both air and artillery support; and Cobras of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadrons 367 and 369 delivered a steady curtain of rockets, missiles, and 20-mm gunfire.

Technologically, Desert Storm saw the employment of enhanced Global Positioning System–guided bombs, and an E-8C joint surveillance and target-acquisition radar system (JSTARS). As at least one Air Force study noted, “the new JSTARS system proved a vital asset in beating back the Iraqi attack [at Khafji].” 6

Unfortunately, even with rapidly improving technology and the rise of the “joint force” cooperation stemming from the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, close air support remained (and remains) a risky business. At Khafji, 11 Marines were killed when an A-10 Warthog’s missile hit their vehicle. When an Air Force AC-130 loyally remained over targets as the sun rose at dawn, it was struck by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile, resulting in the deaths of its 14 crew members. Nevertheless, the battle was deemed an overall success, having beaten back an Iraqi offensive and illustrating the strength of the Coalition’s resolve. Today it remains what some historians refer to as the “defining moment” of Desert Storm. By the time a cease-fire was announced on 28 February, the 3d MAW had flown more than 18,000 sorties using 13 different types of aircraft.

The final decade of the millennium was later punctuated by several humanitarian operations and short conflicts in which Marine aviation—including its CAS assets and capability—played significant roles. The operations included Southern and Northern Watch; Provide Comfort; Restore Hope; Deny Flight—highlighted by the June 1995 rescue of Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady—and Allied Force, among many others. In the humanitarian Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1992–93, one report explained the significance of close air support in clear terms:

Marine Corps attack helicopters provided close-in fire support to operations against factions in Mogadishu and Kismayo. . . . The absence of traditional ground supporting arms (e.g., tanks and heavy artillery) during [the operation] was offset by the use of attack helicopters. These aircraft filled an important void in the organizational structure . . . [and] provided a psychological effect that helped in intimidating potential threats. . . . On several occasions [their] mere presence . . . served as a deterrent. . . . They added appreciably to the coalition mission to create a secure environment. 7

Technological advances during this span included increasing use of forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR), improved night-vision devices, infrared pointers and laser designators, and aircraft (and ordnance) embedded with GPS.

A New Century, Two New Conflicts

Shorty after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Marines of Task Force 58 made history with the longest amphibious extension of the Marine air-ground task force team, flying almost 430 miles from ships to secure Forward Operating Base Rhino deep in Afghanistan in late November. Two weeks later, the Marine Corps received its first AN-AAQ-28 Litening II targeting pod, allowing AV-8B Harriers to deliver precision-guided ordnance autonomously, and bringing yet another significant new CAS asset into what was then called the “Global War on Terror.”

In March of the following year helicopters of HMM-165 (Reinforced) supported Operation Anaconda, a problem-plagued mission in the Afghanistan’s Tora Bora region/Shahikot Valley, which reportedly narrowly missed capturing Osama bin Laden. Marine Cobras, Hornets and Harriers provided close air support for soldiers of the Army’s 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne divisions, Afghan forces, and U.S. Special Forces. Despite many tactical successes, the mission was problem-plagued overall.

A post-Anaconda joint “lessons learned” symposium identified many concerns about tactics, techniques, and procedures, with criticism largely focused on planning and command and control. Agreement was nearly unanimous among participants that the lack of joint planning, flawed intelligence, poor coordination, and procedural deficiencies and differences during the battle all led to confusion, lack of appropriate close air support and poor execution, and the overall arguable nature of that battle’s so-called victory. Several studies and books discuss those topics in enlightening (and often disheartening) detail. 8

On the bright side of that operation, Colonel John Jansen, MAG-11’s commanding officer, opined, “I believe that Anaconda to a great degree accelerated a lot of the integrated planning that took place for the invasion of Iraq.” 9

Commencing in March 2003, the campaign in Iraq witnessed the Marines’ “race to Baghdad,” with 3d MAW forces again supporting their brethren on the ground. During the push to the Iraqi capital, MAG-11 and -13 Hornets and Harriers flew more than 4,000 close air support and air-interdiction sorties. CAS was irreplaceable at Nasiriyah, as Task Force Tarawa Marines slugged it out with Iraqi infantry, mechanized forces, Fedayeen, and Ba’ath militia. Task Force Commander Brigadier General Richard F. Natonski recognized close air support as literally a lifesaver there. 10 Marines on the ground, interviewed later, also spoke to its value. According to one assessment:

Air support, both fixed-wing, and rotary, was also critical. [H-1] helicopters, in particular, were very effective in the urban environment. They controlled the rooftops, which proved vital in Nasiriyah. . . . The Cobras often played an important role in observation and were able to destroy enemy [targets] with their own fire. Their very presence often boosted the morale of Marines and . . . had the opposite effect on the enemy. Sometimes the sound of their rotors suppressed enemy fire and sent [the enemy] scrambling for cover. . . . Only when hovering in a stationary position were the helicopters seriously vulnerable to enemy fire. 11

Indeed, H-1 crews had quickly realized that Cold War–type tactics (e.g., hovering to shoot precision-guided missiles at Soviet tanks coming through the Fulda Gap) were outdated. They had applied lessons learned in Somalia, joining UH-1 Hueys with AH-1 Cobras in “mixed” sections or divisions to employ their airframe-specific strengths in synergetic fashion. Nevertheless, although their fixed-wing counterparts were enjoying air superiority and an extremely safe environment at relatively high altitudes, rotary-wing aircraft became “seriously vulnerable to enemy fire” as Iraqi Freedom progressed (and deteriorated).

In the Afghan theater later that summer, AV-8B Harrier crews were performing similar heroics. Captain Michael D. Trapp, with Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 513, conducted CAS on 23 August. He spent four hours attacking enemy positions at low altitudes, exposing himself to surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft weapons. After expending all available ammunition, Trapp delivered a 500-pound laser-guided bomb directly onto an enemy position. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day.

Back in Iraq, the growing danger to rotary-wing aircraft became all too clear in August 2004. At the onset of the Battle of An Najaf, an uprising against Coalition forces that was initiated by the seizure of several police and Iraqi National Guard stations. Captain Steve “Slade” Mount’s UH-1N was shot down. During a mission in An Najaf on 5 August, enemy small-arms fire pierced his head, causing him to later lose an eye. Although Mount’s helicopter crashed, all four on board survived and were rescued—thanks in part to their AH-1W wingman providing effective suppressive fire on enemy forces closing in on the downed Huey.

Over the next three weeks of that battle, Marine crews would make close air support history, including the first engagement (by an AH-1W) of the AGM-114N “therombaric” Hellfire missile (designed initially for caves in Afghanistan); the first laser-targeting for Hellfires in combat from an UH-1N; and integration of unmanned aerial vehicle-delivered ordnance—remotely piloted from Nevada, coordinated by H-1 FAC(A) control over Najaf.

Operations Hammer and Pacific Storm—the engagements in Najaf and nearby Kufa, respectively—were highly successful, resulting in all contested ground returned to the control of the Iraqi government and an estimated 1,400 militiamen killed. Against an enemy heavily armed with rocket-propelled grenades, man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and M1939 antiaircraft artillery, a small H-1 detachment with HMM-166 (Reinforced) had delivered in excess of 100 precision-guided missiles, 560 2.75-inch high-explosive rockets, and thousands of machine-gun rounds in support of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Joint/Combined Task Force in just over two weeks. Fixed-wing support during the operation was no less impressive.

The following month, incorporating some lessons learned from the mistakes of Anaconda, the military services and U.S. Special Operations Command signed a “Joint CAS Memorandum of Agreement” to better standardize joint tactics, techniques, and procedures. Navy Rear Admiral Matthew G. Moffitt called it a “watershed event,” explaining that “we now have one joint document that drives the entire close air support process, from start to finish . . . we now operate off the same procedures, with the same terminology and the same number of briefing lines.” 12

Joint efforts would play a vital role in November’s Operation Al Fajr (New Dawn). Air and ground actions at Fallujah have been well documented elsewhere, but the abundant close air support there was controlled via an innovative approach—dubbed “keyhole CAS”—that was developed largely by 1st Marine Division air officer Lieutenant Colonel Gary “Static” Kling. It employed numerous fixed-wing aircraft stacked overhead with H-1 helicopters around the periphery. Keeping the rotary-wing shooters away from the center of the city was intended to prevent another “Blackhawk Down” scenario. Nevertheless, on 11 November 2004, two HMLA-169 Cobras were shot down in separate locations, but less than ten minutes apart—one by an SA-14 missile and the other by AAA. Indicative of the outstanding training and high level of professionalism of Marine aircrews, both severely battle-damaged aircraft were crash-landed safely and all four crewmen survived. (Three remained in theater to rejoin the fight just days later.)

Former Hornet pilot Colonel Earl Wederbrook recalled the personal nature of supporting operations in Fallujah: “You’re talking on the radio and it’s not just some voice; it’s somebody you know, personally. When he asks for an air strike—saying ‘No s--t, we need it now!’—that sense of brotherhood is real. It’s not just a recruiting slogan. You would do anything to support your fellow Marine.” 13 By that battle’s end, aircrews had delivered almost 320 precision-guided bombs, 400 missiles and rockets, and close to 93,000 machine-gun/cannon rounds—with zero fratricides. 14 Approximately 1,200 insurgents were killed.

CAS: A Timeless Capability

With Marines and other U.S. and Coalition forces still in Afghanistan today—and engaged in multiple other locations around the globe, often with little or no fanfare—it is clear that close air support will retain its importance as the face of future warfare emerges. In more recently familiar places like Marjah and Sangin, and in areas with names we have yet to hear, there can be no doubt that Marine close air support’s place has been well earned over the past century, its tactics, techniques, and procedures rewritten and refined in blood. We do well to remember also the crucial contributions not just of the aircrews and forward air controllers, but of countless maintenance personnel, ordnancemen, controllers, and other support crews who are a significant part of the success of any CAS mission.

Innovations are sure to continue. Examples at hand include new aircraft models such as the UH-1Y Venom, the AH-1Z Viper, and the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (first received by the Marines in January 2012). Additionally, Harvest HAWK (Hercules Airborne Weapons Kit) CAS mission systems for KC-130J aircraft (with AN/AAQ-30 targeting sight systems, Hellfire and Griffin missiles, and a 30-mm cannon) provide the Marine Corps a platform similar to the Air Force’s much-beloved and respected AC-130 gunships. Harvest HAWK first deployed in late 2010 and will likely see much more combat use in the years ahead.

Just over 50 years ago, writing in the Marine Corps Gazette , Royal Marine Lieutenant Colonel F. N. Grant assessed the future of rotary-wing aircraft in warfare thusly:

As to the lack of close air support, the chopper can be of no avail here. It is not a weapon, however armed, [that] can engage in either street or jungle fighting. No one studying firsthand accounts of the intense fighting, around . . . Arnhem [in 1944], can imagine helicopters operating in the battle zone, much less intervening to fire rockets or machine guns. 15

Clearly, as the centennial year of Marine Corps aviation draws to its conclusion, there can be no doubt as to how widely Grant missed the mark on the future of helicopters. Likewise, close air support today is relied on in ways that would have been incomprehensible to our World War II predecessors, and undoubtedly will continue to be well into the future.



1. LTCOL Shawn P. Callahan, Close Air Support and the Battle for Khe Sanh (Quantico, VA: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2009) 126.

2. Ibid., 145.

3. Jack Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Defining Year, 1968 , vol. 5 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1997), 501.

4. LTCOL Ronald H. Spector, U.S. Marines in Grenada–1983 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1987), 1.

5. David J. Morris, Storm on the Horizon: Khafji–The Battle That Changed the Course of the Gulf War (New York: Free Press, 2004).

6. MAJ Jeffrey B. Rochelle, “The Battle of Khafji: Implications for Airpower,” School of Advanced Airpower Studies thesis, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, June 1997, 29.

7. COL Dennis P. Mroczkowski, Restoring Hope: In Somalia with the Unified Task Force, 1992–1993 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, 2005), 105.

8. For starters, see Sean Naylor, Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda (New York: Berkley Books, 2005); and Richard L. Kugler, Michael Baranick, and Hans Binnendijk, “Operation Anaconda, Lessons for Joint Operations,” Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University, March 2009.

9. Gretel C. Kovach, “At 100, spirit of Marine flight soars–San Diego aviators celebrate Marine centennial,” www.4sd.signonsandiego.com/news/2012/may/15/at-100-spirit-of-marine-flig... .

10. COL Rod Andrew Jr., U.S. Marines in Battle: An-Nasiriyah, 23 March–2 April 2003 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, 2009), 23. www.marines.mil/news/publications/Documents/U.S.%20Marines%20in%20Battle...

11. Ibid., 41.

12. Sandra I. Erwin, “Services Sign Off on Common Procedures for Close-Air Support,” National Defense 89, no. 612 (November 2004), 33, www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2004/November/Pages/CloseAir3360... .

13. Kovach, “At 100, spirit of Marine flight soars.”

14. MAJ Fred H. Allison, “Close Air Support: A core contributor to successful integrated operations in Fallujah,” www.mca-marines.org/gazette/article/close-air-support-0 , 5.

15. LTCOL F. N. Grant, “Vertical Envelopment: 1944,” Marine Corps Gazette , February 1961, 36.

 

 
 

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