War Stories

Chop the Chopper

The Army’s Apache attack-helicopter had a bad war.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is gearing up for his next war—not with the Syrians or the North Koreans but with the hidebound generals of the U.S. Army. These are the generals who criticized Rumsfeld’s battle plan while Gulf War II was still raging and who beat back his efforts, over the past few years, to “transform” the Army into a lighter, lither fighting force. With Rumsfeld’s star rising and the generals’ tarnished, he can be expected to mount a new offensive on their bureaucratic turf at the first opportunity.

He might want to start by junking the Army’s attack helicopter. The current version, the AH-64D Apache Longbow, is in many ways a vast improvement over earlier models, but it is still too dangerous to the pilots who fly it and not dangerous enough to the enemy it’s designed to attack.

The U.S. Army’s only disastrous operation in Gulf War II (at least the only one we know about) took place on March 24, when 33 Apache helicopters were ordered to move out ahead of the 3rd Infantry Division and to attack an Iraqi Republican Guard regiment in the suburbs of Karbala. Meeting heavy fire from small arms and shoulder-mounted rocket-propelled grenades, the Apaches flew back to base, 30 of them shot up, several disablingly so. One helicopter was shot down in the encounter, and its two crewmen were taken prisoner.

After that incident, Apaches were used more cautiously—on reconnaissance missions or for firing at small groups of armored vehicles. Rarely if ever did they penetrate far beyond the front line of battle, out in front of U.S. ground troops or without the escort of fixed-wing aircraft flying far overhead.

Shortly afterward, when a speech by Saddam Hussein was broadcast over Iraqi television, some armchair commentators observed that the speech was probably live, or at least very recent, because he referred to the downing of an Apache. In fact, that proved nothing. If one thing could have been predicted before the war started, it was that an Apache would be shot down.

Last year, during the Afghanistan war, seven Apaches were flown in to attack Taliban fighters as part of Operation Anaconda. They all got shot up, again by RPGs and machine-gun fire. None crashed, but five were so damaged they were declared “non-mission-capable”—in other words, unable to go back into combat without extensive repair—after the first day.

In the 1999 air war over Kosovo, 24 Apache helicopters were transported to the allied base in Albania. Their arrival was anticipated by many officers and analysts as a turning point in the war. Yet, within days, two choppers crashed during training exercises. Commanders decided not to send any of them into battle; the risk of losing them to Serbian surface-to-air missiles was considered too great.

Attack helicopters have always been troublesome. The U.S. Army lost over 5,000 helicopters in the Vietnam War. (Nor is this a uniquely American problem: The Soviets lost hundreds of Hind helicopters to mujahideen firing shoulder-launched Stinger missiles during their Afghan venture.)

This sorry chronicle raises the question: Why did the Army build helicopters in the first place?

It all goes back to the end of World War II, when the Air Force became an independent service of the armed forces. (Before and during the war, air forces were a branch of the Army.) In its first few years of independence, the Air Force became involved in tumultuous budget battles with the other services. Finally, in April 1948, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal called a meeting with the service chiefs in Key West, Fla., where they divvied up “roles and missions.” The emerging document was called the Key West Agreement. An informal understanding that grew out of the accord was that the Air Force (and, to an extent, the Navy) would have a monopoly on fixed-wing combat planes.

The Key West Agreement specified that one mission of the Air Force would be close air support for Army troops on the battlefield. However, it soon became clear that the Air Force generals—enamored of the A-bomb and then the H-bomb—had no interest in this task. To their minds, the next war would be a nuclear war. Armies would play no serious role, so why divert airplanes to giving them cover?

The Army realized it would have to provide its own air support. Blocked from building its own fixed-wing planes, it built rotary-wing planes (or, in civilian parlance, helicopters). And it built thousands of them.

During the Vietnam War, the Air Force’s reluctance—at times refusal—to provide close air support became a grave problem. Congressional hearings were held on the lack of any airplane dedicated to that mission. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara briefly brought a wing of the Navy’s late-’40s A-1 fighter bombers out of mothballs to take up some of the slack.

Finally, the Army got bold and began research and development on a hybrid aircraft, a bizarre-looking fixed-wing helicopter called the Cheyenne.

McNamara killed the Cheyenne before it got off the ground, but meanwhile, an Air Force general named Richard Yudkin was furious about the Army’s maneuver. He saw it as an infringement of the Key West Agreement and a raid on the Air Force’s share of the budget. In response, he initiated the Air Force’s very first dedicated close-air-support attack plane called the A-X, which grew into the A-10.

Yudkin was a bit of a rebel within the Air Force. The establishment generals (who, by the early ‘70s, were still dominated by the nuclear-bomber crowd) hated the idea of the A-X for the same reason they hated the close-air-support mission: It had nothing to do with the Air Force’s bigger, more glamorous roles. Yudkin couldn’t even get the Air Force R & D directorate to work on the project, so he set up his own staff to do it.

The A-10 rolled onto the tarmac in 1976. The brass still hated the thing. It survived only because of pork-barrel politics—it was built by Fairchild Industries in Bethpage, Long Island, home district of Rep. Joseph Addabbo, who was chairman of the House appropriations’ defense subcommittee. The plan was to build 850 of the planes. By 1986, when Addabbo died, Fairchild had built just 627, and the program came to a crashing halt. No more A-10s were ordered, and 197 of those in existence were transferred to the Air National Guard and allowed to rot.

When the first Gulf War was being planned in 1990, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the chief of U.S. Central Command, had to fight the Air Force to send over a mere 174 A-10s for his use. Yet in the course of the war, those A-10s knocked out roughly half of the 1,700 Iraqi tanks that were destroyed from the air, as well as several hundred armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery guns. They also conducted search and rescue operations, blew up roads and bridges, and hunted for Scuds.

Even the Air Force brass had to admit the planes had done a good job, and they kept them in the fleet. (They had planned on replacing all of them with modified F-16s.) Though the statistics aren’t yet in, the A-10s seemed to do well in Gulf War II, especially now that the Army, Air Force, and Marines are more inclined to coordinate their battle plans.

The A-10 is an unsightly, lumbering beast of a plane. (It’s commonly called the Warthog.) It flies low and slow, but its cockpit is made of titanium; it can be shot up very badly, all over, and still not crash. It was the only plane that the Desert Storm air commanders dared fly at under 15,000 feet. Its GAU-8 gun can fire 3,900 rounds of 30 mm armor-piercing ammo per minute. It can also fire Maverick air-to-ground missiles.

So here’s a suggestion for Donald Rumsfeld: Deep-six the Apache, and restart the A-10.