1961: "America's Helicopter War" in Vietnam Begins
Both Army Aviation and the helicopter came of age during the conflict in Southeast Asia. From the arrival in Vietnam of the first Army helicopter units in December 1961, until the completion of the disengagement processes in 1973, Vietnam was America’s “Helicopter War.”
The most widely used helicopter, the UH-1 Iroquois, or Huey, began to arrive in Vietnam in significant numbers in 1964. Before the end of the conflict, more than 5,000 of these versatile aircraft were introduced into Southeast Asia. They were used for medical evacuation, command and control, air assault; personnel and materiel transport; and gun ships.
The AH-1 Cobra arrived in 1967 to partially replace the Huey in its gun ship capacity. Other important helicopters in Vietnam included the CH-47 Chinook, the OH-6 Cayuse, the OH-58 Kiowa, and the CH-54 Tarhe.
Although the concept of air mobility had been developed with a mid-intensity European conflict in mind, Army Aviation and the helicopter had proven themselves during the low intensity conflict in Southeast Asia. Afterwards, the Army turned its major attention back to the threat of a mid or high intensity conflict in Europe, and doubts reemerged about the value of helicopters in that sort of arena.
Some military leaders believed that the helicopter could not survive and perform an essential role in a heavy combat environment. To gain general acceptance and ensure further success, Army Aviation continued to develop new doctrine, tactics, aircraft, equipment, and organizational structure. New or radically modified aircraft were adopted from the late 1970s into the mid-1980s. These included the UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, D-model of the CH-47 Chinook, and OH-58D version of the Kiowa.
The creation, implementation, and consolidation of the Army Aviation Branch dominated the 1980s. Prominent aviators, aswell as other Army leaders, had debated the establishment of Aviation as a separate branch since the time of the Korean conflict.
The opposition to a separate aviation branch had resulted in part from Army attitudes regarding the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Air Force. In Army circles, both of these aviation organizations were believed to have been unreliable in performing their mission of supporting the ground forces -- even after having been given resources to do so.
Since Army Aviation had demonstrated its commitment to the support of the ground battle in Vietnam, however, opposition to a separate aviation branch began to wane.
Also, Army Aviation had grown in size and technological sophistication. This growth caused increasingly complex problems in training, procurement, doctrine development, proponent responsibility, and personnel management. Many non-aviators as well as aviators became convinced that these problems could be solved more effectively by the creation of an aviation branch.
April 1983: The Birth of the Army Aviation Branch
Both Department of the Army and U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command conducted extensive studies of the separate-branch question during the 1970s through 1982. In March 1983, the Chief of Staff of the Army recommended forming a separate aviation branch. The Secretary of the Army approved that recommendation on April 12, 1983 – the date celebrated as the Branch’s birthday.
Aviation Officer Basic and Advanced Courses began at Fort Rucker in 1984, and a gradual consolidation of aviation-related activities followed. In 1986, the U.S. Army Air Traffic Control Activity became part of the branch. In the following year, a Noncommissioned Officers Academy was established at Fort Rucker. In 1988, the Army Aviation Logistics School, which had been dependent on the Transportation Center at Fort Eustis, was incorporated into the Aviation Branch.
Also in 1988, the Army Aviation Modernization Plan was given final approval and implemented. The modernization plan called for a gradual reduction in the number of Army aircraft as older models were replaced by modern ones. Aircraft that appeared during the late 1980s and early 1990s included the armed OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and the new TH-67 Creek training helicopter.
Army Aviation’s role of providing the indispensable vertical dimension to the modern battlefield has become universally recognized. For example, during operations in Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf region, Army Aviation played major and decisive roles.
One of the very first blows of Operation Desert Storm was struck by Army Aviation. Apache helicopters destroyed key Iraqi early warning radar sites and thus opened the air corridors to Baghdad for the bombing campaign that preceded the ground war. Then during the 100 hours of ground combat, Army helicopters dominated nighttime operations.
The decreased military budgets following the end of the Cold War forced both the Army and Army Aviation to downsize. Army Aviation’s response was to develop the “Aviation Restructure Initiative,” a plan to decrease the size of the force while continuing to provide a capable, ready force.
By the late 1990s, continuing deficiencies and unintended results of the ARI led to a series of aviation plans as key pieces of the Army-wide modernization and transformation. In 2003, the Aviation Branch assumed overall responsibility for unmanned aerial vehicles within the Army.
Operations since Desert Storm showed the versatility and flexibility of Army Aviation. Examples were uses of AH-64 Apaches in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans as a deterrent to mobs threatening fellow citizens or paramilitary groups trying to remove weapons from agreed cantonments.
The beginning of the Global War on Terrorism in 2001 drew Army Aviation again into ongoing combat.
Events in Afghanistan and Iraq have reaffirmed the qualities that caused the creation of Organic Army Aviation in 1942. These qualities included the responsiveness to the needs of the ground commander and commitment to the Soldier in the ground fight. At the same time, Army Aviation – including Army Special Operations Aviation – has played vital and ever-expanding roles across the spectrum of Joint and Combined operations.