Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Concepts that didn't work. The 2003 attack on Karbala & the death of the US Army's "Deep Strike" concept with rotary winged aircraft.

Note. With an eye toward the USMC's (I believe) haphazard and ill advised move toward "missile Marines" I feel its time to look back at some of the concepts that tested well in wargames, had the full confidence of the guy in the big chair running the organization but ultimately failed when put to the test. I'm looking for examples from all services and all nations. Hopefully I'll get some good feed back on this series.


Via Wikipedia
Iraqi morale was high after putting up stiff resistance at the Battle of Nasiriyah. The U.S. sought to continue its shock and awe campaign by crippling the elite Medina Republican Guard division, thus demoralizing the enemy.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the Iraqis learned from the no fly zones over their country. The threat of small arms fire from Iraqi soldiers was gravely underestimated by the U.S. attack helicopters participating in the attack.[3]

I automatically feel a shiver when commanders start talking about winning hearts and minds.  That shiver turns into a bit of anger when it becomes about demoralizing the enemy.  I'm on a tangent now.  Back on task.


The 31 AH-64 Apaches of the 11th Aviation Group took off from Tactical Assembly Area Vicksburg, which was inside Objective Rams. One Apache crashed immediately after takeoff when its pilot became disoriented. When the Apaches turned north toward Karbala, signals intelligence picked up over 50 Iraqi cell phone calls alerting the Iraqi forward units of their approach. As the helicopters came within range, the Iraqis signaled their troops to open fire by turning off the city's power grid for several seconds. Ground troops then opened up with a barrage of PKM, NSV, 23mm, and 57mm fire.

Lieutenant Jason King, gunner of Apache "Palerider 1-6", was hit by AKM fire[8] in the neck and suffered a severe hemorrhage, 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 as 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.[citation needed]

Apache "Vampire 1-2", flown by Warrant Officers David S. Williams and Ronald D. Young Jr., was forced down into a marsh after gunfire severed its hydraulics. Its radio was also hit, preventing communication with the other helicopters. Attempting to flee the crash scene, both men swam down a canal, but were captured by armed civilians. The Iraqi government would later show the helicopter on TV and claim that it had been shot down by a farmer with a Brno rifle; however due to the high volume of anti-aircraft fire and the armor of the Apache, it is unlikely that a bolt-action rifle was responsible.[9]

The Apaches turned back for Tactical Assembly Area Vicksburg after a half-hour of combat. Most were without functioning navigation equipment. At least two narrowly avoided a mid-air collision.[3] Post-battle analysis indicated the American gunships were targeted in a deliberately planned ambush[10] with cannon fire, RPGs, and small-arms all emanating from camouflaged fire teams.


Of the 29 returning Apaches, all but one suffered serious damage. On average, each Apache had 15-20 bullet holes. One Apache 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 fit to fly. It took a month until the 11th Regiment was ready to fight again. The casualties sustained by the Apaches induced a change of tactics by placing significant restrictions on their use.[11] Attack helicopters would henceforth be used to reveal the location of enemy troops, allowing them to be destroyed by artillery and air strikes.[3]

Thomas E. White, the U.S. Secretary of the Army, stated, "we were very fortunate we didn't lose more aircraft."[12]

The above is how this thing worked in war.

Major Paul Gautron wrote a paper for the Canadian War College titled "Beyond Karbala: The US Army's Approach To Apache Doctrine" that covers the development of the above failed concept.  The following is from his paper.

 1.4.      Cold War – Rise of Deep Strike

While the United States was deeply involved in the war in Vietnam, NATO continued to face off against the Soviet Union in the Cold War confrontation of Western Europe. In spite of the intensity of the Vietnam conflict, U.S. Army planners had continued to develop attack helicopter doctrine focused on the anti-armor mission.30

American planners believed that the Soviet Union enjoyed a significant numerical and technological advantage in terms of the armor they could bring to bear in a conventional conflict with NATO.31   By 1970 Army doctrine developers had a fully articulated aviation based concept of operations in anticipation of the fielding of the Cheyenne helicopter that foresaw the army leveraging the Cheyenne’s ability to move rapidly across a West German battlefield in order to interdict columns of Soviet armor. The concept saw the Cheyenne conducting battalion sized anti-armor attacks against massed Soviet tanks using TOW missiles, Nape of the Earth (NOE) flight and static firing positions.32

29 Stanley S. McGowen, Helicopters An Illustrated History of Their Impact…111.

30 Matthew Allen, Military Helicopter Doctrines of the Major Powers…21.

31 Ibid,. 18.

32 United States, Department of Defense. Employment of Attack Helicopters to Defeat Armor

Threat in Europe in the Mid-1970s, Film, Prepared for the U.S. Army Combat Developments Command, Directorate of Doctrine Air Mobility Operating Task Group, Washington, DC. 1970.


Many historians point to a later series of anti-armor helicopter trials as the geniuses of the doctrine outlined in 1970. The official U.S. Army history suggests that given the potential impact of the post-Vietnam War draw down of military forces, U.S. Army Aviation advocates saw the European Anti-Armor mission as an opportunity to ensure the relevance of the Army attack helicopter capability. 33   In 1972 a series of tests were conducted in order to prove the utility of helicopters in the anti-armor role. Conducted near Ansbach, Germany, the tests were referred to as the “joint attack helicopter instrumented evaluation.” American, Canadian and German aviators flew simulated missions against maneuvering armor simulating eastern bloc forces. Both

helicopters and armor were equipped with simulated weapons and instrumentation that were capable of scoring the number of successful engagements of both helicopters and tanks. In the end, the Anti-Armor equipped helicopter proved effective enough for the U.S. Army to concede that TOW equipped cobra could operate effectively against Soviet Armor in a medium to high threat environment when employed in the low level

environment.34   The result was a commitment on the part of both the leadership of the U.S. Army and Congress to the anti-armor helicopter for Europe and the hurried integration of the TOW system and Cobra helicopter by Bell helicopters.35

In 1972 the AAFSS program was cancelled due to delays and cost overruns in the development of the Cheyenne. As a result of the cancellation, the U.S. Army identified a requirement for a new program that would field an attack helicopter that was both33 United States. Department of Defense. American Military History Volume II The United States in the Global Era, 1917-2008. (U.S. Government Printing Office, July 2010), 384.

34 James Bradin, From Hot Air to Hellfire…127.

35 Ibid., 130.

survivable on a high intensity European battlefield and capable of carrying a large number of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM). In order to fulfill this requirement the U.S. Army initiated the Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) program and in 1976 the Hughes YAH-64 Apache was selected as the competition winner. Originally designed to avoid some of the technical and financial risk that had plagued the Cheyenne, the AAH

requirement eventually grew to include a sophisticated anti- armor capability.36 Based on the requirement to operate at night the helicopter had both infrared targeting and pilotage systems. When combined with the then new laser guided “Hellfire” missile, the project resulted in an anti-armor helicopter the U.S. Army believed was capable of operating on a high intensity battlefield in Western Europe.37

While the U.S. Army would not take delivery of the first Apache until 1982 the doctrinal foundations of how the aircraft would be operated were already being established. In 1976 U.S. Army doctrine began to evolve to counter the Soviet threat based on the concept of Active Defense.38 Focused on the “primacy of defense” the doctrine eventually evolved to become the more offensively minded “AirLand Battle”. AirLand Battle conceptualized operations as Close, Deep, and Rear. Deep operations were intended to “isolate the battlefield” and shape Close operations by attacking enemy follow-on forces. As a result the Apache program was one of five systems identified by the U.S. Army needed to “fight outnumbered and win.”39 

You can read the then Major's paper here (it's in PDF). 

What's my point?

Do you not see how these two totally different concepts (the Amy's aviation "deep strike" and today's Marine Corps "missile Marines") seem to rhyme?

They're decades apart but the verbiage is the same.

"Fight and win even outnumbered"


"Shape the battlefield"

The Army was so sold on the concept that they conducted a deep strike on an armored division (not first world but one of the best the Iraqis had) with an aviation regiment.

I can almost see the pilots now.

They were true believers.

They were convinced that they would sweep the ground clear of enemy forces.

They did not believe they would lose.

But lose they did.

The wargames/simulations were wrong.

The gear performed well.

The pilots did their duty and performed heroically.

Its just that the concept was jacked up.

Is the Marine Corps making the same mistake?

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