Stuck in the desert

I’m out in the desert for a few days with limited connectivity, so posting will be light to nonexistent. Sorry ’bout that. I promise we’ll have our Tuesday Load HEAT, but that’s all I can guarantee.3322135-el_paseo_drive_sculpture_and_courtesy_cab-palm_desert

Where’s Sox?

I got a little worried when I couldn’t find the furball this morning. Normally he’s perched on the seachest or by the patio door.  It took a little while to realize he was hiding right behind me.


Two hours later, he’s still there. And really, who can blame him for curling up in a nice warm, clean, fresh from the dryer, custom kitteh bed?

Japanese Armor Bleg

Courtesy of our correspondent in Saipan, here’s a picture of the hulk of a Japanese armored vehicle on the island. My knowledge of WWII Japanese armor would fit into a thimble, so if any of you out there have any insight into the type or history of the vehicle, please let me know. In fact, any insight into armor fighting on Saipan would be welcome.


Little remembered today in most circles, the invasion of Saipan was a huge battle. It was a huge fight against the Japanese, and it led to a battle between the Marines and the Army as well. Suffice for now to say that there were distinct differences in the way the two services approached fighting, and more than one ego was involved. After acrimony involved with the fighting there, it was no surprise that the Army insisted that Okinawa be fought under Army command, not Marine.

Thoughts on a draft

It isn’t often I turn to a guy wearing a Batman suit for inspiration for posts here:

FYI, Richard Nixon is a hero to me. When I was in college, my lottery number was 13 and my Selective Service classification was 1-A. I expected to be drafted upon graduation when my student deferment expired — meaning, I was bound for Vietnam. This was not something I really wanted to do, being recently married, and after having served my country with rigorous duties in a Boy Scout marching band.

But, by the time I graduated, the war was over, and the draft was over, following the Paris Peace Talks. All this happened on Nixon’s watch.

Of course, after the Paris Peace Talks, the ARVN collapsed and South Vietnam became a communist dictatorship. So maybe I should have been drafted. I’m conflicted about this 35 years later.

I wanted to talk about this a bit. As someone who has enlisted voluntarily (twice!) from civilian life, and as a former recruiter for the all volunteer force, I fully support the AVF. The transition to the AVF after the Vietnam war was a very rocky one, with the service having severe trouble just finding enough people to join, let alone finding quality people. In the late 70’s, drug use was rampant, racial tensions high, unit readiness was in the toilet, and discipline was so bad, officers were sometimes fearful for their own safety should they visit the enlisted barracks. That’s no way to run an army. Much of this was a result of the antipathy much of society had for the Army after Vietnam. An even larger cause was the fact that Army pay was pitiful.

The Reagan buildup is often seen in terms of hardware. Oddly enough, most of those systems were actually developed and procurement began during the Ford and Carter years. Where Reagan really made an impact was in the personnel sphere. He boosted pay by a huge margin, making life for servicemembers if not comfortable, at least tolerable. And the Army itself took some hard steps. Random, universal urinalysis testing for all hands helped put a dent in drug use. When the Army made the decision that it would rather be shorthanded with good people than fully staffed with bad people, something else happened. People who previously would have walked away at the end of their enlistments started sticking around. Soldiering is a hell of a lot more fun when you aren’t spending all your time dealing with a bunch of hopped up druggies. Improving the facilities soldiers lived in helped a lot as well.

The other Reagan helped solve by throwing money at it was training. The Army put an awful lot of intellectual capital into deciding how to train. But it took a ton of money to put that into practice. And in the 80’s, there was finally enough money for fuel, ammo, spare parts and training aids to get out and train forces to a fare-thee-well. The results of this payed off handsomely, as seen in Desert Storm.

Even now, with our Army fighting two wars and supporting untold numbers of other operations globally; with soldiers deployed from home at rates that were utterly unthinkable when I served; in the midst of what was until recently an economy with an extremely tight labor market, we are still able to recruit a force of a quality that even Reagan era leaders could only dream of. For years, we’ve seen doomsday articles about how the Army is broken or soon will be. Yet enlistments are still keeping pace, even as we seek to raise the endstrength of the Army, and reenlistments are at historical highs. This isn’t to deny the challenges that the Army faces, but it’s a little early to claim the sky is falling.

To say that the All Volunteer Force has been a success is a bit of an understatement.

But what about the Draft Army of the Vietnam era? When I say I don’t want a draftee Army, let me be clear that in no way am I trying to minimize the magnificent service millions of Americans provided, at not only great inconvienence to themselves and their families, but at great personal risk. When their country called, they answered. Some stayed in the Army. But the vast majority did their duty to the best of their ability, went home, and picked up their lives where they had been interrupted. I’ve known folks who were drafted and never forgave the Army for that. I’ve known others who were drafted and thought it was a great experience. But mostly I’ve known people that were drafted, did their service and left that behind them. As to folks who were elegible for the draft yet received deferments? I can’t say I blame them. Provided they used no chicanery to avoid service, they did nothing wrong, and have no reason not to hold their honor as intact. The question only they can answer is, “If your country had called you to serve, would you?”


Just about anybody who’s spent any time thinking about fighting understands the almost inate desire to seek the high ground. High ground gives you better lines of sight on the battlefield, and if you are defending, your enemy must attack uphill. If you are attacking, you get the momentum of going downhill. So it is no surprise that as aviation came into being, it was seen as the ultimate in high ground. And while eventually, the Air Force came to be the service with the claim to the majority of that slice of the battlefield, the Army became an enthusiastic supporter of using aviation for observation.

In WWII, the Army used Piper Cubs for spotting artillery fire. And pretty quickly, the “grasshoppers” learned that they could also do a fair amount of reconnaisance while over enemy lines. The pilots and observers became very good at locating troops hiding in woods. In the immediate post-war years, the early piston powered helicopters soon began to replace most of the light aircraft the Army used for observation. These worked pretty well, but being piston powered, had some real shortcomings. First, they lacked power. Later models used more powerful engines, but the increase in horsepower was offset by the increase in engine weight and increased fuel consumption. Secondly, they used high octane gas. That made them pretty flammable. And the piston engines needed a lot of maintanence. With the introduction of lightweight, powerful gas turbines, the Army launched a competition to buy a new light observation helicopter.

The competition opened in 1960. Twelve firms entered the competition. Bell Helicopter’s entry was the YOH-4, known inside the company as the Model 206. It lost. The stated reason was that it was underpowered. The real reason was probably this:


It was just too ugly.

Hughes Helicopters eventually won the competition with the OH-6 Cayuse.


Now, the Army was very happy with the OH-6. It was fast, durable, didn’t need much maintanence, could carry a pilot, an observer and still have power to fit some light armament onboard. With the war in Vietnam heating up, the demand for observation helicopters skyrocketed. “Loaches”, as they quickly came to be called, were scouring the countryside, finding trails, bunkers, troops and calling in artillery, directing troops on the ground, and working hand in hand with attack helicopters to pin down and destroy the elusive Viet Cong and NVA.

The problem was, Hughes aircraft couldn’t crank out enough production helicopters in time for the Army. So the Army reopened the competition. Bell hadn’t even come in second place in the original competition. That went to the Hiller OH-5. But for the second tranche buy of Light Observation Helicopters, Bell reworked their original aircraft into what became known at the Model 206B. The Army liked it, and bought it as the OH-58A Kiowa.


Again, the Army was very happy. The new helicopter was light, easy to use, and very effective. That it was cheaper than the OH-6 didn’t hurt much either. And the civilian version, the 206B was a commercial success as well. For years, just about every news helicopter in America was a 206B. In fact, it is still in production. The OH-58A fought alongside the OH-6 throughout the second half of the Vietnam war. Not until after the war did the Army decide to settle on one helicopter for the role, choosing the Kiowa, and slowly relegating the OH-6 to the Reserves.

After the Vietnam War, the Army turned its attention again to the massive Soviet Armies facing NATO in Western Europe. We’ve talked before about the role attack aviation would have under AirLand Battle Doctrine in resisting the Soviet’s echelon attack. But one of the problems was always going to be finding the second and third echelons for aviation (both Army and Air Force) to attack. The Defense Department pumped billions of dollars into various programs to facilitate this. One thing the Army really needed to be able to do was find them at night. The boom in electronics in the 1970s based on transistorization led to among other things, Forward Looking InfraRed technology. It soon became feasible to mount sensors on helicopters that could penetrate the dark and fog. We tend to take it for granted now, but at the time, this was utterly revolutionary. Never before had helicopters been able to fight so effectively at night. And to see for any distance using anything other than flares was almost magic. And while mounting laser beams on a shark’s head might be impractical, mounting a laser next to a thermal FLIR sight is pretty doable.

By combining the thermal sensor and laser with a new transmission, a more powerful engine and a 4-blade main rotor, the Army updated the Kiowa into the OH-58D. And they stuck the sensors in a stabilized ball turret on top of the rotor. That let them hide behind a ridge or woodline and still peek over the top.


And again, the Army was very happy. The D-model Kiowa could spot enemy formations, call artillery fire upon them, it could use its laser to illuminate targets for Hellfire missiles fired from Apache helicopters and even laser guided artillery rounds. A typical scenario might have a US heavy division fighting the first echelon of Soviet Motor Rifle divisions, while Kiowas ranged 20-30 kilometers behind enemy lines looking for the assembly areas of the second echelon tank divisions. It was up to the tank and infantry battalions of the US division to hold the line against the first echelon. But as soon as the Kiowas spotted the second echelon, the division’s MLRS battery and possibly the Corps’ MLRS battalion would begin attacking the second echelon to attrit them and delay them until the US division was set to take them on.

But it wasn’t until the Navy had some problems with the Iranians that the Army started mounting weapons on them. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians had a nasty habit of putting sea mines in the Persian Gulf. Not having a huge navy, they mostly laid the mines from a variety of small civilian craft. And they did it at night. A quick run out from port, toss a couple over the side, and run back in. This was causing a great deal of havoc, since a huge chunk of the world’s energy supplies run through the Gulf. The Navy was already escorting tankers through the gulf. And they had long operated helicopters from destroyers and frigates. But their helicopters weren’t equipped to find small craft at night and sink them. They were mostly designed to find submarines hiding under the surface. The answer was to quietly base some Kiowa’s aboard a handful of Navy ships. And since the Kiowa already had a laser target designator, hanging a couple Hellfire missiles on them wasn’t a great challenge. It didn’t take long for the Iranians to notice their mining sorties suddenly got dangerous. And it sure didn’t take the Army long to notice how handy it was to have the Kiowa armed and ready to take on targets they might find. Pretty soon the decision was made to arm all the OH-58Ds. The result is the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. The armament is flexible. You can mount Hellfire missiles, 70mm rocket pods or .50cal machine gun pods on the pylons.


Kiowa Warriors are currently deployed in Iraq where they spend a  lot of time doing what Kiowas have always done- keeping an eye out for the bad guys.


Sadly, this has not been without a price.