Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Modest proposal. Scrap the Key West Agreement.

Most people view the AH-64 as an unstoppable weapon of war.

It has the reputation of being the most lethal, survivable helicopter flying today.  It boasts impressive electronics, weaponry and weapons.

But in 2003 in the attack on Karbala,  members of the 11th Aviation Regimen, 3rd Infantry Division in particular had a very bad day.

This from Wikipedia...

The 31 Apaches of the U.S. 11th Regiment took off from Rams Base. One crashed immediately after takeoff when its pilot became disoriented. As they turned north toward Karbala, signals intelligence picked up over 50 Iraqi cell phone calls alerting the enemy's forward units of the Apaches.
As the strike neared Karbala, the Iraqis signaled their troops to open fire by turning off and then, a few second later, on the area's lights. Ground troops, having recovered from the suppression air strike, opened up with small arms and other weapons. Lieutenant Jason King, pilot of Apache "Palerider 16", was hit by AK-47 fire[8] in the neck and suffered a severe hemorrage, but he never lost consciousness.[3] He was later evacuated to Germany for surgery, but returned to his unit a few weeks later.[8]
The Apaches were reluctant to return fire; most enemy fire was coming from houses and the risk of collateral damage was high. The helicopters scattered in search of the Medina Division, but were hampered by poor intelligence. Apache "Vampire 12", flown by Warrant Officers David S. Williams and Ronald D. Young Jr., was forced down after gunfire severed the hydraulics. The air commander's radio was also hit, preventing communication with the other helicopters.
The Apaches turned for home after a half-hour of combat. Most were without functioning navigation equipment or sights. At least two narrowly avoided a mid-air collision.[3]


Of the 29 returning Apaches, all but one suffered serious damage. On average each helicopter had 15-20 bullet holes. One helicopter took 29 hits. Sixteen main rotor blades, six tail blades, six engines and five drive shafts were damaged beyond repair. In one squadron only a single helicopter was deemed fit to fly. It took a month for the 11th Regiment was ready to fight again. The casualties sustained by the Apaches induced a change of tactics. Attack helicopters would now be used to reveal the location of enemy troops, allowing them to be destroyed by artillery and air strikes.[3]
Thomas E. White, who was then United States Secretary of the Army, felt disappointed by the outcome of the battle, adding "we were very fortunate we didn't lose more aircraft."[9]
There were some big changes for Army aviation after this battle.  Not only would it lead to a more 'vigorous' use of artillery but it would end the deep strike role for Army aviation.

Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate Magazine an article called "Chop the Chopper"...
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.
Quite honestly I never liked Kaplan.  I always considered him a hack and believed that he was too influential when it came to military matters during the Bush Administration.  But on this issue he gets it half right. Attack helicopters fill a vital role and should continue but he's right on this point... The Key West Agreement should be scrapped and the US Army should be allowed to field Close Air Support aircraft.

The Battle of Karbala proves that if nothing else does.


  1. I'm at work right now so am sending this from my phone and don't have time for a complete rebuttal,but I have to say the events don't support your conclusion. The events, and A-10 experience in the same war do support not using low slow movers of any type deep in Indian Country. The Kaplan you quote is probably not the Kaplan you associate with Bush. Fred was an Aspin (spit) lackey. Don't hate me Bro! ;-)

    1. Actually, A-10s during both Gulf Wars frequently violated altitude limits to use their guns for attacking Iraqi ground troops, and overall survivability of A-10 (counting all wars it has participated in) was far better than either AH-64 or F-117.

  2. Instead of scrapping the Key West Agreement why not scrap the USAF? Keep around 75% of the tactical aircraft and spread them out to the other services. Have a few joint commands for the bombers, and heavy transports.

    Right now we already have six air forces in the USAF, US Army, USN, USMC, SOCOM, and USCG. The compelling reason for the existence of the USAF was the strategic Cold War mission. With that gone as a supporting service, that still likes to think of itself as as strategic force, it's underlying rationale is gone. Let them have Space Command, it's where they want to go anyway.

  3. SMSGT Mac. i'm not proposing slow movers for the US Army but dedicated high subsonic strike aircraft. much like the USMC they will only have a secondary fighter role but be mainly concerned with ground support. additionally, and i don't know what to blame it on but the friendly fire incidents concerned me a great deal. if nothing else, assuming things stay the way they are then i really think we need better integration of AF and Army training.

    Lane. i don't want to go down the road of disbanding air arms. what i would recommend is more specialization so that perfection can be achieved. i would have the USAF concentrate on more strategic issues. deep strike beyond battlefield support. air superiority. strategic bombing. etc...

  4. Solomon, the irony in this is that we (all forces) have been reducing fratricide incidents and consequences steadily over time. It is just fortunate for us that in the conflicts since Vietnam we have also been reducing casualty rates due to enemy action even more (easily 'orders of magnitude' more). This gets shown in the perversity of statistics as in increase in friendly fire casualties as a percentage of total casualties. There is another irony as well in that during Desert Storm, there were far more Ground on Ground fratricide incidents, and even one Air on Ground incident involving an AH-64 attacking US ground forces that resulted in the hesitancy of the ground commander to call for Air Force A-10 support. SO it is not a service-separation issue. There is an excellent paper written right after Desert Storm that covers the events of DS and holds up fairly well (other than not punching up the 'tyranny of small numbers' aspects enough IMHO) at:
    You are spot on that training is a key element for the human factors, and it would go a long way in limiting air-to-mud fratricide if the Army could first be trained to think of Airpower as a maneuver force instead of flying artillery on call. If I get time I may expand on this topic at my place, but work has been killer (plus side I can buy my AR upper this week with the proceeds). The Air Force for its part should get rid of a lot of the fluff in AFDD-1 ( and get back to where we almost went after Carl Builder wrote "The Icarus Syndrome". One of the unfortunate side effects of the successes in Desert Storm is that they damped what had been some serious enthusiasm for getting back to the basics as Builder was advocating.

    "Lane": your puerile analysis isn't worth commenting on except that I would refer you to earlier posts on a "Space Force": and a "Space Coast Guard":
    Rational counter-arguments are welcome. I'll set up a new post with references to the originals since the comments are long closed on the early posts.

  5. Sol,

    You are I think not accounting for errors in tactical employment of a capability with this post. Clearly the Apache incident was a massive error on the scale of the F-117 shoot-down in Kosovo.

    Lazy, un-professional command leads to those sorts of incidents and the frontline guys are the ones who suffer.

    An appropriate helicopter is more than capable of performing deep strike, as we saw with Bin Laden, but their operational limitations have to be borne in mind in operational planning. They can't do everything, but that doesn't mean they can't do anything.

    They are not a panacea, nor is any individual platform for that matter.



  6. hey AD.

    i agree on bad intel, poor leadership and perhaps the desire to grab headlines instead of doing it the right way might have led to this problem but i disagree with you on the ability of helicopters to carry out the deep strike role.

    technically the helos involved in the Bin Laden action were not involved in a deep strike but were involved in a deep insertion. and quite honestly it wasn't actually that deep an insertion. but perhaps more importantly TRADOC stepped in and removed that from the list of functions that a Combat Aviation Brigade is to carry out.

    battlefield interdiction is best left to fast movers or rocket artillery. with the US Army being in the fix that it is, ATACMS is the only thing doing that job.

  7. Air and long-ranged fires like ATACMS needs to follow the "centralized management, distributed execution" philosophy. Penny packeting them out to individual services just doesn't work.

    Apaches opened ODS with a very successful deep strike. We just have to understand their strengths and limitations. They regularly operate in the "trashfire envelope", so don't send them directly over enemy held territory.

  8. centralized management didn't take care of that republican guard tank division lying in the path of the 3rd ID.

    i find it hard to believe that during a military age when more firepower (to include airpower) is being pushed furher down to the lowest layers of the chain (during a coin type operation) we're unable to properly respond to the needs of a division during a conventional assault.

    no. ATACMS needs to be kept under the army's umbrella. they just need more of it. same with Marine air. it needs to be kept for use by Marine ground commanders.

    the APACHE opened up with a strike but it wasn't a deep strike. it was just across the border with air superiority, no anti-air units operating and was more a beauty op than a militarily smart way of doing business.

    a flight of F-15E's, an artillery strike, ATACMS, cruise missiles, stealth fighters....a whole slew of other weapons systems would have been better used than APACHE's.

    but you're arguing in a void. the US Army has ruled out deep strike as a role for APACHE's.

  9. Distributed management wouldn't have taken care of that Republican Guard division either. They were well dispersed and hidden - a very difficult target for airpower in general.

    Most ATACMS shots in OIF were against air defense sites and C4ISR - traditional airpower missions.

    It's dumb to allocate airpower to specific ground units. Sorry, it just is. It leads to under-utilization and missing higher priority targets because one commander doesn't want to give up "his" aircraft. Penny packeting is a bad idea. It only makes sense in the Marine MEU structure during amphibious landings, when Marine artillery is unavailable. Otherwise it should be (and is) centrally managed.

    There are NEVER enough aircraft to go around. The joint forces commander MUST have them under his control to ensure targets are hit in priority order.

    The Apache strike made sense at the time. They wanted to hit those early warning sites undetected. The Apaches staged from Al Jouf, which is 100 miles south of the border. So they flew a fair distance.

  10. sorry Smitty. you're wrong as two left shoes. first the strike by the Apache's made no sense. if surprise was needed stealth aircraft were available. if speed was essential artillery for fighters were available. it was a glamour shot and its obvious.

    central control of airpower is an Air Force fantasy. sorry but it is. for years the Air Power advocates have tried to state that air power is a war winner. since world war two they have failed in that dream. additionally if you have forces advancing on the ground then the ground forces MUST become the focus of the operation.

    as Gulf War 2 demonstrated, centrally controlled airpower reverts back to the strategic instead of the tactical arena and in the case of GW2 it caused the war to become a lot trickier than it should have.

    lastly the Medina Division wasn't scattered, it was able to lay a trap and the aviation brigade stumbled into it. fast movers (even A-10's) would have been MUCH more effective.

    a rigid, centrally located command structure which ignores the need of the land forces is what led to the Army sending out Apaches on a risky mission. decentralization of airpower is beyond necessary for future warfare.

  11. F-117s were already tasked to hit targets in Baghdad. Plus, early warning radars operate in frequencies that are more favorable towards detecting the F-117.

    Central control of airpower is the (very successful) guiding principle of virtually every military from WWII on. Airpower can rapidly mass effects anywhere in a theater of operations. Tying airpower to a specific unit robs it of this inherent flexibility. Penny packeting has been tried in the past, and has proven unsuccessful.

    It has nothing to do with whether airpower can win wars by itself. That's a completely separate issue.

    I didn't say the Medina Division was scattered. I said, "dispersed and hidden." I agree, AH-64s should've never been sent on that mission.

    Centralized control does not mean "rigid". There are flex points built in the system. Aircraft tasked for interdiction sorties can be retasked in the air to respond to troops in contact CAS requests.

    Centralized control, but distributed execution.


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