Copyright John T. Reed

Elsewhere at this Web site, I said I believed U.S. Navy surface ships were sitting ducks against a modern enemy. I feel much the same way about helicopters.

They are relatively slow-moving, extremely loud, metal objects that from the ground are silhouetted against the sky. Unlike some world war II aircraft, they do not seem to be be able to make it home safely after taking many hits, that is, they are very fragile. You cannot bail out of them when they no longer are airworthy.

Blackhawk down

The most famous shootdown of a U.S. military helicopter was the Blackhawk Down incident in Somalia. The enemy there was about as primitive as we are ever going to see, yet they were able to shoot down multiple U.S. military helicopters with AK-47 assault rifles, RPG bazookas, and possibly heavy machine guns mounted on pickup trucks (called “technicals”).

Not worthless

I am not saying that the helicopter is worthless. One of the reasons so many U.S. Rangers and Delta Force members survived the Blackhawk Down incident was other U.S. helicopters shooting at the enemy all night to protect the trapped U.S. guys.


Helicopters are also typically the only way to rescue downed U.S. pilots and although some have been shot down trying, many others have succeeded.


I was in the first war where helicopters were used for combat operations: Vietnam. We used them all the time for transportation. I was medevacked in one once (because of an illness not a combat wound). They saved a lot of lives.

We could avoid enemy fire by traveling fast and low to the jungle. That worked because they could only see us for a second as we zipped by and then only if we went right over their position. Or we could avoid it by flying above the altitude where enemy weapons could reach us. We did both.

But hovering or flying relatively low where the ground was partly clear put helicopters at great jeopardy. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little vegetation so the enemy can hear and see helicopters coming for miles.

Bosnia Apaches

In the Bosnia war, we shipped a bunch of Apache combat helicopters to the area, but never used them, apparently because our top leaders were afraid to. In that case, why have them?


In February, 2007, reports came out of Iraq saying that the enemy had decided to target helicopters and were having considerable success with that tactic. The Afghans had similar success using our Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet helicopters there. Indeed, when we later invaded Afghanistan, we offered money to buy them back from the Afghans lest they be used against our helicopters.

Useful in many, if not all, roles

Again, I am not advocating abolishment of helicopters. They have been and remain extremely useful to the U.S. military for all sorts of purposes. They are even useful in some combat situations as weapons platforms. But they appear to have been somewhat oversold for some purposes and appear to have extreme, perhaps unacceptable, vulnerability when within range of effective, cheap enemy weapons like RPGs, heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, and shoulder-launched guided missiles.

Because they need to be light and have an exposed huge rotor and another exposed small, but crucial, tail rotor, it would appear that no future design could make them less vulnerable.

Lightly armed

Also because they must be light, they cannot employ overwhelming firepower like the Gatling guns on Navy ships or on C-130 (large fixed-wing airplanes) gunships or A-10 Warthog jets. Actually, the helicopters could probably carry the gun, but not the enormous quantity of ammunition it needs.

They can also carry some rockets, but if they blast away with their weapons as frantically as the enemy blasts up at them, they would have to leave for more ammunition within minutes of arriving in the battle.

Door gunners in Vietnam

Video from Vietnam often shows door gunners spraying the jungle with M-60 machine guns. I doubt that was more than symbolic. They fired a relatively small rifle-type bullet and only in bursts of six with time in between to let the barrel cool. It reminds me of words from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was required reading when I was at West Point. He was describing a French warship off the coast of Africa.

In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech--and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere.

I wonder if any U.S. Huey in Vietnam ever hit even a single enemy when they were spraying the jungle with M-60 fire. They could certainly hit targets they could see, but seeing the enemy was rare in Vietnam, as it reportedly is in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

Don’t know they’re being shot at

If a helicopter could fire back at the person firing at it, it would have a decent chance to win the gun battle. The problem is that many ground-based enemy soldiers could be firing at the helicopter simultaneously without the helicopter being aware of a single one until bullets hit the chopper.

They cannot hear the enemy gun fire over the roar of the engine and rotors. Even when the helicopter crew becomes aware it is under fire, they still might never visually locate a single one of the persons firing at them.

The enemy can fire from inside buildings or vehicles where only the slightest twinkle of muzzle flashes, if that, would be visible hundreds of yards away in the chopper. If there is a gun battle on the ground, it is hard for the chopper to distinguish friendly from enemy and to distinguish enemy who are firing at ground targets versus enemy who are firing at the helicopter.

Rules to avoid unnecessary risks

I hope that the military has rules for pilots to avoid risking them and their passengers and aircraft unnecessarily, but, having been in the Army, I know that what ought to happen often does not. If they have no such rules, they need to formulate them and enforce them.

Too many resources allocated to combat helicopters?

I also suspect that the Army has sold the Congress a bill of goods to an extent with regard to combat helicopters, that is those intended to get into gun fights with enemy combatants. These helicopters cost a great deal of money, money that probably could be spent on more effective, less vulnerable weapons platforms. Training the pilots also costs a lot.

I suspect there is a, “You can tell the men from the boys by the size of their toys” aspect to the Army’s fondness for fighter-plane-type helicopters. There needs to be a department of preventing military officers from procuring equipment just because it’s fun to operate and command and notwithstanding its questionable utility in combat—or because it means jobs to some Congressman’s district. That would cover fighter jets, some bombers, and most Navy surface ships as well.

Perhaps the best argument against combat helicopters is the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. We gave the Taliban Stinger missiles. The Russians had helicopters. The Taliban won in spite of the superpower status of the Soviets.

If I have a Stinger missile and you have the latest whiz bang helicopter gunship, which of us is more likely to wet his pants if we meet on the field of battle? If you ever see me it will be because of the smoke trail from my RPG—which will be too late.

The worst loss of American lives in Afghanistan was an 8/16/11 RPG shootdown of a Chinook helicopter containing 30 Navy SEALs, Afghan commandoes, and air crewmen.

John T. Reed

Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military

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