Attack helicopter employment in the COIN fight

That’s what I heard/read. So…they have a deep strike mission too :wink:

Mods - we might break this off to a new topic to keep the F1 thread at least moderately on topic?

So as I put in my previous post, doctrinally in the “modern” cold war era, helo gunships (at least in he US) were designed to function as independent maneuver elements on the scale of an armored cavalry battalion. Their job was to find, fix, and kill the enemy, not to support ground troops in the CAS sense. Their job was extremely similar to an armor formations job. They got supporting fires and air assests to support them in this mission just like a tank company would. They could be parceled out like a tank platoon as well, attaching them to a specific unit for a specific mission. The combined arms theory utilized air cav units as basically faster, farther reaching armored units. Create a breakthrough and exploit it to run riot in the enemy’s rear.

Then came the GWOT.

During the initial invasion of both theaters, the employment of helo gunships remained largely unchanged. Find the enemy, fix them, kill them. As the fight settled into COIN operations, things changed. If you want to get in the fight, you don’t accomplish that by saying “that’s not my mission.” We suddenly started dusting off ideas and concepts from Vietnam to start to integrate helicopters into situations that doctrinally they weren’t supposed to be involved in. Grounds force commanders started getting helo’s where they never had them before. This led to new TTP’s, even if doctrine never really changed.

So that brings us to using helo gunships in the COIN environment. The US military against a clearly defined target set is the best in the world at making that target go away. We can remove entire grid squares within a couple hours of tasking, or go into a compound and selectively remove certain individuals. However, when the target set is much less defined, the ability to force project becomes much less one sided. In the GWOT we faced an enemy who had extensive experience in combat. A lot of lessons had been learned during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as well as Vietnam. These would all be put to good use against us.

One of the major issues that bit us in the GWOT, was underestimating our opponents. Yes, compared to a soviet motor rifle regiment, an insurgency is not that big of air defense threat. In the Ukraine right now, we’re seeing just how dangerous the airspace is for helicopters against modern air defense systems. A lot of the helo losses seem to stem from trying to use airpower in a way military’s have been able to against low capability threats, versus how doctrinally air powered was planned to be used. Rather than platoons of Shilkas and SA-13s with MANPADS galore, we faced an enemy with small arms and the occasional heavy machine gun. However, they were able define the battle space on multiple occasions, creating AAA ambushes just like in Vietnam and Afghanistan, that were highly effective.

To the ground forces supporting fires of any type (artillery, air, heck orbital for that matter), exist to provide additional fire power above and beyond the units organic fires. How heavy/effective the fire is, how accurate that fire is, the risk it creates to ground force by its employment, and how fast it can be on target are the major concerns. Attack helicopters score well on all of the metrics a ground force commander looks it. They provide a heavy volume of well-aimed fire, that is precise, and usually highly effective against the targets commonly encountered. If they are close by, they are responsive and get in the fight quickly. Other air assests are usually not as responsive, and don’t usually have the same breadth of ordinance options on board to address threats.

We learned in Vietnam that to support troops on the ground as effectively as possible someone in that “kill chain” has to be close to the fight. This unfortunately puts air assets in the heart of the enemy’s air defense capabilities both in terms of range and effective altitude. If you just need a JDAM dropped on a building a kilometer away, we can do that in almost complete safety. If you need an irrigation ditch suppressed, and it’s 25 meters away from the ground forces that is a much more dangerous proposition.

The “smart” employment of attack helicopters is to keep them back, maximize their weapons and sensor advantages. Unfortunately, this isn’t the most effective form of support for the ground forces. They want up close and personal support and scouting to minimize their risk of being ambushed. As we found in Vietnam and relearned in Vietnam, combining scout assets with attack assests is probably the smartest option. It is still not immune to the AAA ambush but it maximizes the ability to detect it ahead of time, or failing that to fight through it.

For DCS purposes, you have to look at are you trying to emulate how we actually employed helo’s? Or what the “smarter” answer would have been? The first was with the goal of supporting the grunts as much as reasonably possible, the later would be maximizing the effectiveness of the platform while minimizing the risk. If you’re looking at building out decisive engagements against fixed targets, that is another issue, that is much closer to how attack helo’s were designed to be used.


Awesome stuff there dude! And it really helps. As for…

Well, both really. But most of my influence is from research via books, to include ‘official’ documents where publicly available.

I’ve found (and this may not have much to do with the real world - or even be correct) but it is easier to ‘infer’/imply the type of mission for me. Contrived examples is all I can think of right now but:

If your task is to find and kill armor (not counting targets of opportunity) within a grid square one might call that: Armed Recon. Now, where that fits in above I’ve no idea.

If HQ gives you the exact coordinates of, say, some arty - well behind the FLOT I might call that ‘interdiction’.

But, from reading your excellent post, I think my issue was more about “does this sound right - make sense?”. I couldn’t answer that to my own satisfaction ← the real issue. I’ll refer back to this when I add the Apache[1] in. I’ll have more questions then :slight_smile:

[1] It’s actually already ‘in there’ and accounted for like all the rest but the CAS missions is complex nut to crack - to do it justice.

Many thanks

I don’t think I have ever agreed with anything else I have read here as much as I agree with this.

The only thing I would add is that when it comes to COIN Ops. It doesn’t matter if it is a team of ‘door kickers’, JDAM or ‘that one stray round’ from a 155 barrage. If it hits the wrong building it can wipe out months of careful planning and a couple of risky Ops. Such as, hypothetically, spending six months establishing a reliable source only to have them (and their family) taken out. Not because they had been compromised, but because some else had a grudge and wanted to collect a ‘bounty’.

What I’ve always wondered is why the lessons from Vietnam and the Soviet-Afghan War weren’t put to good use against the enemy.

:dizzy: Mod Edit: Time stream shenanigans. To jump to the continuation of this topic, in it’s new location, follow this link: link

Ok. That didn’t work as I hoped it would. For those joining us, this post is at the end of the merge of topics from the original thread. I will add some guidance in the posts above to attempt a correction to the time stream :slight_smile:

Sorry about that. Moving topics from one thread to another doesn’t merge them, but it does append them. I added a few ‘redirect links’ to try and point someone reading this thread fresh, in the correct order. Otherwise, just wave your fingers in front of you in a timey-whimey, stardust sprinkling fashion and pretend that I didn’t put us into a loop.


More of a scout helicopter employment in the COIN environment example, but in Ward Carroll’s recent interview, Casmo discusses a “scout” mission where an army convoy they happened to be flying over was ambushed. Since the convoy vehicles had their frequency printed in large digits on their IFF panels, the Kiowa scouts were able to call up the convoy commander and offer CAS. More on topic, he later discusses a convoy interdiction in the Apache of a suspected Wagner group unit.


Wow. That’s both genius, and scary that it was a necessity. Does that simultaneously paint a picture of good unit leadership, and poor upper-level coordination?

(I know nothing, just a guy wondering if it’s really desirable to (have to) have your unit frequency of the day in block letters on the outside of your vehicle.)

My first thought when I saw that you’d edited my post was ‘oh no’, wondering what I said that was inappropriate. :joy:


Oh yeah. Sorry about that. I also forgot that it does that :slight_smile:

1 Like

No worries, appreciate you doing what you doing all that you do!


oh, thats unfortunate. thought that this modern forums has better tools.

how about creating brand new topic and then moving the pieces one by one together keeping the timly order ? :slight_smile: I believe that could be tedious though.

1 Like

@WarPig In that case (unless it was SOP) it was probably somebody in the convoy showing some iniative… my money is on a SNCO :wink:

Having the freq for all to see isn’t a problem. Radios are encrypted, so nobody else would be able to listen in or ‘inject’ false messages.

As an aside, we have our callsign painted on the roof of our Rural Fire Service trucks (as do all emergency service vehicles in Aus). Makes it easier for the water bombers, etc.


I think this was the case. I need to go back and listen to the interview again, but from memory there was often frustration at not having a clear mission. Just go out and fly this many hours and burn this much fuel. As they flew over the convoy, which was in an urban environment, they heard a boom, which was the beginning of the ambush. They called up the convoy, who were very happy to have the Kiowas overhead.


Every infantryman I’ve ever known or spoken with was always happy to have Kiowas overhead. :smile:


:smile: I guess that’s probably in the no sh17 Sherlock category.


I think the take-away from all this is to let the mods do the heavy lifting. :+1:

we should keep derailing the threads at will and then ask mods to make it separate discussion and wait for their action.

cause it seems that combined operation of user created new topic and then merge from mods could cause some havoc instead of order :slight_smile: (as seen in this and racing tread)


I think this is the same for some decades now - close support is frustrating for the supporters but boost morale for the supported.

maybe it is more psychology thing than the fact that valuable assets are not used to its full potential.

wondering if knowledge of someone doing his job properly out there can boost my morale better than seeing him close by pretending he is doing something (and knowing he is risking similarly as I do in that particular situation) :wink:

Nah, I mean creating a thread off a derail, then having the mods derail it by merging it, seems to be the ultimate derail recursion!

Back to the topic at hand (for the moment):

An insurgency by most definitions is not going to be clearly defined objectives, targets, and lines of threat. That is where our combat power lies in the west. The ability to operate in the human terrain is an area that we tend to do relatively poorly in a “big army” sense. Individuals and smaller tactical commands may do so in an exemplary fashion, but as a whole a Regimental Combat Team isn’t designed for winning the “hearts and minds” fight. Combat air power, whether fixed wing, rotary, fast, or slow, is ill equipped to address the social dynamics of the insurgency environment. It truly takes knowledgeable skilled people on the ground solving social problems, with the ability to discriminate in that moment who a threat is for years at a time. The big green and blue military aren’t designed for that. Air assets can be powerful for ISR, and when a target is finally defined provide a significant overmatch in capability to address it.

(Minor derail) I think milsim game play also isn’t designed to address that type of challenge either, as it goes far beyond time in the cockpit, or behind a rifle. I can see narrative FP titles possibly making it work, but for something like DCS I think it doesn’t work well. Introducing ambiguity into scenarios in DCS can be workable, but often times creates simply an unsatisfying scenario. While this is an accurate recreation of having to make morally ambiguous choices, it is certainly not the way most people want to spend their leisure hours. If we shift over to “asymmetric warfare,” where we have a technologically deficient enemy, who really is the enemy, I think DCS and similar milsim titles can do a very credible job of rendering that type of conflict and providing enjoyment to the player.

(Back on topic) Asymmetric warfare abstracted from the politics and human terrain of an insurgency is an area where air power provides a tremendous force multiplier when used smartly. One of the key issues we faced in the last 20 years, has been a massive area of conflict compared to the size of the force we are using to fight in it. This dramatically aides the OPFOR, allowing them significant freedom of maneuver. Air power can interdict this freedom of maneuver, provided we have good intel or a clear enemy to work against. Being able to conduct aerial ambushes of enemy formations on the move, down to vehicle interdiction of a single vehicle to capture a high value target.

Second air power provides an overmatch anytime the enemy engages or is located. This has the effect of minimizing the time an enemy can stay engaged before being destroyed by air power in a deliberate contact (ambush or direct assault), and preventing them from holding physical terrain in combat to any great extent.

With that said, the constraints on our use of air power in the West creates a series of reasonably consistent parameters for use. Add in the pure physics of weapons employment and the general ubiquity of certain tactics, and there are highly predictable courses of action taken by air assets. This is very similar to templating an enemy’s physical position, order of march, and tactics in ground combat against a peer adversary. I’ll say it again, we in the West tend to equate a lack of technical sophistication with a lack of tactical sophistication. And we’ve gotten even worse in equating a lack of new shiny technology, with a lack of technology at all. A gen 1 iPad can download US Army FM’s and watch gun camera footage off of YouTube just as well as a brand new iPhone 13. Between studying our playbook (FM) and watching game film (video footage ranging from gun camera to on the ground) it’s not hard to figure out the likely course of action for air assest employment. If you know what the enemy is likely to do, it’s much simpler to create a plan that will be effective.

I’ll add more later when I have some time this evening, addressing the tactical limitations air power has faced, and how we have worked around those limitations, and finally, what good mission design (IMO) would be to replicate some of this in an engaging and challenging fashion.


I know this thread is about airpower and more specifically attack helicopters in a counter insurgency. But because the same principles apply to the use of any ‘power’, e.g. use of indirect fires or sending in a team, etc. I will amend that to “provided we have good intel that even if it gets to the right people in time will be acted upon.”

When it comes to getting ‘good intel’. In recent conflicts, the tribal nature of the locals worked against us as well as for us (but in some cases that also worked against us). It made it almost impossible to infiltrate their networks but there was always at least one other group that was more than willing to let us know what they were up to - and that could work against us if we didn’t figure out that they were telling us what they thought we wanted to hear because they wanted to settle a grudge or for bounty cash.

When it comes to getting ‘good intel’ into the right ears, at the strategic level it worked brilliantly. Unfortunately at the lower levels the tribal nature of our militaries definitely worked against us. I have heard of teams who are specifically trained to gather HUMINT in the field being over-ridden by certain very influential units who ‘had their own sources’ but were far more interested in ‘scalps’ and blooding soldiers than winning hearts and minds - which is the only way you can ever hope to win these conflicts and the one thing that the West continues to cock up.

The use of kinetic power, airpower or otherwise, will not make one iota of difference in COIN Ops until we figure out a way to eliminate the indisciminate use of that power, whether the mis-use is inadvertant or not.

All that is too hard to model - and it gets me back to (how I) best enjoy DCS (or any combat sim) and that is to create scenarios where the illusion of ‘perfect intelligence’ is somewhat believable and the only way to do that is by having a clearly identifiable enemy (e.g. tanks, SAMs, etc).


Interesting stuff!

Bear in mind though that “Wall of Apaches” is more US Army doctrine than US doctrine.

The Marines don’t have the numbers to properly field their helos(choppers) as a completely autonomous maneuver element (that I recall). Moreover, and generally speaking, doing so runs the risk of stripping the Ground Combat Element of a significant proportion of its fire support.

Marines run light by necessity. They carry little artillery, less armor (now none as far as tanks go). So, for the Marines, Air is very much used as Airborne Artillery. And you can kind of tell that when you FAC for either Marine Air or USAF assets, pre-2000 at least, though they all train to the same Joint Pub standard.

That’s not to say that Marine Air isn’t capable of acting autonomously when circumstances allow/dictate. Marine Air doctrinally practices almost all functions of air power. It’s just that it has a clear understanding of its importance to the Ground Combat Element and emphasizes those functions that most directly support it given the circumstances.