When I put up my post on the Apache development, I asked BillT from Castle Argghhh! to take a look and let me know if I’d made any colossal blunders. As I fired off the email, I knew in my bones he was going to come back with a word about the Apache’s daddy, the venerable AH-1 Cobra. How did I know this? Bill is a retired Army Aviator (in fact, I believe he’s a Master Aviator), with combat time in Vietnam and long experience in attack and scout aviation. My request was like asking the owner of a ’64 Mustang to give me his thoughts on the new Dodge Magnum. Sure, he’ll help, but you know he’s gonna want to talk a little Mustang.
Almost from the first helicopter, people had the bright idea to arm them. Everyone in the Army knows to seek the high ground, and how much higher can you get than in a helicopter? But the concept was easier than the implementation. Early helicopters had little power, and were only able to lift relatively small loads. Think back to the opening shots of M*A*S*H. Not a lot of room there for lifting heavy stuff. Early helicopters were powered by piston engines. You could use a bigger engine to get more power, but the weight of the engine increased faster than the improvement in power. It wasn’t until the invention of the gas turbine that lightweight, powerful helicopters became a reality.
A gas turbine is a jet engine that transfers its power to a drive shaft, instead of pushing air out the back. The first practical gas turbine powered helicopter was the UH-1B Iroquois, far better known as the Huey. Early in the Vietnam war, Huey’s began to be used to ferry troops to the battle, saving time that would otherwise be spent walking in the woods. Unfortunately, the VC learned that they could predict where the Huey’s would land, and soon began laying ambushes for them. The Huey’s were tough, capable birds, but they can only take so much damage. What was needed was an escort to keep the VC’s heads down while the Huey’s landed and offloaded their troops. The Army quickly developed an armed version of the Huey, equipping it with machine guns and 2.75” rockets, just the thing to discourage the VC from shooting at the transports.
While the new gunship escorts were a great improvement over nothing, they still weren’t perfect. The extra weight of the guns, rockets and ammunition actually left the escorts slower than the transports.
The Army and Bell Helicopter took the parts of the helicopter that they liked, such as the rotor, transmission and basic engine, and developed a specialized gunship. By using a more powerful version of the basic engine (and not many aviators will ever complain about having more power) and using the smallest possible body, they were able to introduce a chopper that was both faster than the transports and more heavily armed than previous gunships. The AH-1G would be the Army’s primary gunship in the Vietnam war. Over 1,000 were produced.
Armed with two 6-barreled 7.62mm Mini-guns and 2.75” rocket pods, the AH-1G Cobra had plenty of firepower to suppress the VC when transports were landing or taking off at an LZ. In addition, they were used to provide close support for troops on the ground. In fact, some units were used primarily for this and were designated Ariel Rocket Artillery Battalions. Many a grunt blessed the familiar “Whop-whop-whop” sound of a Cobra overhead.
After the Vietnam War, the Army turned its attention back to Western Europe. The Army was in bad shape and facing a truly massive Soviet army. With budgets tight, forces demoralized and equipment obsolete, how would the Army be able to defeat the Soviets and prevent them from conquering Western Europe. The Army had a large supply of Cobras on hand, but rockets and Mini-guns were next to useless against tanks and armored personnel carriers. The answer lay with the TOW missile. TOW stands for Tube Launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided missile. With a range of 3000 meters and a warhead capable of destroying any tank, the 70 pound missile gave the Cobra the firepower it needed to be useful on the battlefields of Europe. A new 20mm three barreled cannon was also added to deal with targets like trucks.
With this new, powerful anti-tank weapon, Army aviators began thinking beyond the front lines. By using the mobility of helicopters, they could search out and attack Soviet formations behind the front lines, before they were attacking our troops. In conjunction with the evolution of what would become AirLand Battle doctrine, the concept of “Deep Strike” came to be accepted. No longer would aviators be thought of as glorified truck drivers or simply flying artillery, but as Cavalry in the tradition of JEB Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
BillT was kind enough to give me his thoughts on the subject (see comments) and better yet, send pictures!