Understanding Survivability

by LtCol Alfred J. Ponnwitz

In the classic manner of the TV evangelist glibly quoting Biblical passages out of context to “prove” a point of convenience, Mr. Lind uses the history of warfare to allege that helicopters (and the MV-22) are too “vulnerable” to survive. For illustration, he cites the statistics of Operation DEWEY CANYON II (Lam Son 719), inplying that the helicopter losses were unacceptable and, as a consequence, that the helicopter operations were ineffective. These statistics must be taken in context and circumstance.

Operation DEWEY CANYON II began with the incursion into Laos by Republic of the Army of Vietnam (ARVN) forces (supported by U.S. Army and Marine helicopters) on 8 February 1971 and concluded on 6 April 1971. During that two month period, Army records indicate that 107 helicopters were lost and 618 were damaged. These losses were consistent with the magnitude of the combat encountered; the following numbers are presented for perspective. According to Keith Nolan’s Into Laos the total casualties were: United States-219 killed, 1,149 wounded, and 38 missing; ARVN-1,529 killed, 5,483 wounded, and 625 missing; North Vietnamese Army (NVA)-19,360 killed, unknown wounded, and 57 captured. The NVA also lost 5470 individual weapons; 1,963 crew-served weapons; 93 mortars; 106 tanks; 13 artillery pieces; 11 combat vehicles; 2,001 other vehicles; and 170,346 tons of ammunition.

The success or failure of the operation should not be measured on these statistics, nor should the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the helicopter support be evaluated solely on the basis of “body counts.”

Let’s examine these helicopter operations in more detail. On the first day seven helicopters were lost Yet by the end of the third day helicopters had been instrumental in the ARVN 1st Infantry Division establishing two fire bases (one held by one battalion and the other by two) in Laos south of Route 9. The ARVN 1st Airborne Division established two fire bases (each held by a battalion). Concurrently, the ARVN 1st Armor Brigade had moved about 10 kilometers into Laos on Route 9.

As the operation progressed some roads were found to be impassable, particularly to Aloui where ARVN forces were totally dependent on aviation for support. Helicopters operating in this area were subject to effective antiaircraft fire every day. This fire was described by author Nolan as:

. . . the worst concentration of fire U.S. aircrews experienced in the Vietnam War, frail Hueys [slicks] going through World War II-style flak barrages. The casualties were high in men and material, but the NVA. never succeeded in halting U.S. Army Aviation support.

In perspective, there were 90,000 U.S. helicopter sorties flown in the two months of Operation DEWEY CANYON II. The aircraft loss to sortie rate was .12 percent Of the 618 damaged helicopters, it is conceivable that some did not return to battle; but it is also a good assumption that many did return to battle and were damaged again, resulting in multiple damage assessments to the same airframe. Those of us personally familiar with helicopter operations in Vietnam undoubtedly remember the bullet hole patches on every helicopter we flew. Despite the fact that almost every helicopter may have been hit during the war, few were damaged severely enough to be totally lost For the sake of argument, even if we presumed total loss of the additional 618 airframes, the aircraft loss to sortie rate in Laos is still less than 1 percent

However, helicopter losses in DEWEY CANYON II must also be evaluated by comparative standards. For example, in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (October 1973), Israel lost 120, Egypt 182, and Syria 165 aircraft Israel flew 11,233 sorties, Egypt 6,815, and Syria about 3,000. The respective loss to sortie rates were: 1.1 percent, 2.7 percent, and 5.5 percent In short, losses must be viewed in a reasonable perspective and measured against a realistic standard.

Perhaps Mr. Lind’s skewed conclusions result from his confusing vulnerability with the more encompassing term survivability. Survivability on the battlefield consists of at least four aspects, of which vulnerability is one. They are:

* Orientation: The combatant must be aware of his situation in relation to the activities on the battlefield. He must have selected the proper tactics, procedures, and routes commensurate with the mission and the threat he must correctly observe the events of the battlefield and decide his actions accordingly. If he is not correct in his observations, he is disoriented, likely to make bad decisions, and seriously endangered.

* Susceptibility: The combatant must position himself and his forces so that the enemy does not have a probability of successful detection, acquisition, and targeting either by sight, sound, radar, and so forth.

* Defendability: If the combatant is detected, acquired, and targeted, he must be able to respond with some weapon system or evasive action that thwarts the enemy.

* Vulnerability: If fired upon, the combatant must be able to withstand the impact of the weapon and continue his mission. If not, he must at least be able to return to a secure area where he can recover and be committed to combat again. If he is unable to do either, then he does become a combat loss.

The Marine Corps has been effectively working for years to improve our chances for survivability in combat. In Marine aviation major improvements have been made in all four of the areas above. Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 was created to make us more familiar with our tactical options on the battlefield, to keep us from being stupid with our choices for tactics, and to train us to be skilled enough to take advantage of all of our options. We have also developed new tactics, practiced masking techniques, increased our speed, improved our night and bad weather capabilities, and enhanced our equipment to reduce our susceptibility to enemy detection. We have introduced a suite of defensive weapons to our aircraft and developed effective evasive tactics to improve defendabilily. Finally, we have introduced equipment improvements, such as frangible fuel fittings, ballistic tolerant structures, and armored panels on critical components that have lessened our vulnerability.

It is certain that Marine aviation contributions will continue to evolve commensurate with the abilities of our MAGTFs to successfully exploit all of its combined arms resources in maneuver oriented combat scenarios. Perhaps even one day well adopt the term “MAGTF Warfare” to express the truly unique warfighting capabilities of the U.S. Marine Corps.