Was Task Force Hawk a Blessing in Disguise?

January 27, 2000

Comment: #343

Comment #342, "Roots of Crisis in Army Aviation - An Old Fart Aviator Sounds Off" triggered some interesting email from insiders long concerned about the welfare and betterment of the Army as an institution.

Attached is a response from Lieutenant Colonel Greg Wilcox (Ret.) a West Point Graduate with three tours as an infantryman in Vietnam, participated in over 200 combat assaults, and was heavily wounded on his last tour. He also has considerable experience as a tanker in Europe. He thinks deeply about doctrine and was part of the small group of officers in the early 1980s who tried to move the army out of its flawed 2nd generation attrition doctrine into a 3rd generation maneuver-centric doctrine based on the ideas of Colonel John Boyd (USAF Ret) [2nd & 3rd generation warfare are contrasted in Reference #2, Comment #244, new readers will find an introduction to Boyd's ideas in Comment #199].

Wilcox loves the army, but he believes the Task Force Hawk Fiasco, while humiliating, may have been a blessing in disguise because it probably kept the Army (and the United States) out of trouble and it forced the Army to acknowledge the need for a lighter, more mobile force structure in the form of medium weight divisions.

Attached is his reasoning.

----[Email from L/C Wilcox USA Ret]-------


I used to think that the helicopter would be the future tank. That was before I read about Lam Son 719.

I knew from An Loc experience that the helicopter could not survive in a high intensity environment with 23mm, 57mm, and larger radar controlled AAA. I still think we can beat the missiles, but the ground fire at low altitudes from even small arms and 12.7mm machine guns are devastating in any terrain. So my original attitude about the helicopter becoming the future tank is another pipe dream.

I tend to think that the same thing would have happened to our helicopters in Kosovo as happened in Laos had we employed them. TF HAWK would have taken serious casualties. The current crop of aviators has no experience base like Vietnam to know.

Our aviators in Vietnam, for the most part, were warrant officers straight from flight school. There was good reason for this. They were young, had great attitudes, and had excellent reflexes. They were also a lot cheaper than RLOs (Real Live Officers). They also took horrendous casualties, especially in the latter part of the Vietnam war. Our generals tend to overlook the statistics and combat losses of the latter part of Vietnam. They also tend to forget that the jungle terrain was conducive to NOE [nap of the earth] flying and it protected our helicopters from a lot more fire than they might have received in more open terrain. [Comment: Wilcox is referring to terrain in Kosovo where foliage is less dense than in Viet Nam and very hilly, giving the defender places to hide, and set up ambushes, while at same time providing the defender with better lines of sight than a guerrilla had when beneath triple canopy jungle.]

Our pilots were adept at identifying VC or people on the ground. They say that when a person looks up at a helicopter it is like turning on a flashlight. Well the NVA got pretty smart in the 10 years they were exposed to the airmobile concept [of helicopter assault], and by the end of the war, I would say that the ground air defenses had the advantage over helicopters. That is almost proved by the many "no fly" zones or "off limits" areas to helicopters at the end of the war.

So my message is that even if we would have employed TF HAWK, to include the MLRS [multiple launch rocket system for ground based fire support], I think they would have taken unacceptable losses and dragged us into a ground war that we were not prepared for and had no strategy for.

I consider it a mixed blessing that TF HAWK was not sent into combat. We now have a bunch of firebrands who think we should employ these guys in that way and considerable pressure to "use or lose", as you say. On the other hand, the Army has been forced to rethink its entire force structure and we did not lose those valuable men.

What about next time?


----[End email]-------

Chuck Spinney

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