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The Aerial Tank Destroyer Brigade? (Part 1)

New video on the U.S. Air Cavalry Combat Brigade (ACCB) of the 1970s. It was an attack helicopter formation that could be described as tank destroyer group meets armored cavalry regiment.


So I bought a manual with my Patreon money. FM 17-47, the Air Cavalry Combat Brigade. But it won’t come for like 2 months. This video isn’t going to be a deep-dive into the history of the concept because I want to wait on that manual, but I do want to briefly talk about the brigade’s role, organization, and some ways of task organizing for combat when it went from experimental to permanent in the mid-1970s.

To give an abridged timeline, in 1962 the Howze Board released its report on how the U.S. Army should integrate aviation into its force. This report was very ambitious. Among other things, it called for the creation of 5 air assault divisions with over 450 aircraft. Of course the most air assault or airmobile divisions the Army had at one time was two briefly from 1969 to 1971, and just one for the rest of history.

But the Howze Board also recommended creating three air cavalry combat brigades. The board described this brigade as "an air fighting unit which destroys or punishes the enemy by aerial maneuver, surprise and heavy application of firepower delivered from rotary wing, light attack helicopters, and by air delivered riflemen and tank killer teams." The focus was on destroying or neutralizing enemy armor and mechanized forces, with a lesser emphasis on soft targets when equipped with anti-personnel weapons. As the brigade also had reconnaissance elements to find the enemy, it was also able to conduct reconnaissance and certain defensive security missions like a screen. Their air mobility was expected, as the result of war games, to reduce the time to bring up a mobile anti-tank reserve by 25%.

You could perhaps compare their broad doctrinal role to the U.S. Tank Destroyer units of World War II. Like the observation helicopters who found the enemy for the attack helicopters who killed them, Tank Destroyer units had organic jeep and armored car scouts to do the same. Superior mobility characteristics were also a selling point of tank destroyers, and pursuit by fire was a prescribed method of employment, similar to the Attack Helicopter’s employment in attack by fire, delay by fire and defend by fire, as opposed to seizing and holding terrain.

Although the Air Cav Combat Brigade’s reconnaissance and security roles in support of a higher headquarters would be out of scope for a Tank Destroyer Battalion.

I’d also like to note that in the 1970s and 80s, the U.S. Army’s unit icon for attack helicopters was aviation plus armor, as opposed to today where they just use the letter A to signify the helicopter type. This was the result of a shift in the Army’s mindset on attack helicopters. From units mainly for delivering rocket fire in close support of ground troops or other helicopters, to units that could also maneuver independently and deliver anti-tank fire in service of a higher-level objective. Fire support versus operational fires. This was clearly demonstrated by the fact that during Vietnam, the largest concentration of attack helicopters and Huey gunships was in the Aerial Rocket Artillery battalions, which were subordinate to the airmobile division artillery, led by artillery professionals, and dedicated to delivering rocket fire as artillery. And attack helicopter battalions in airmobile divisions were mainly focused on providing security to air assaults. Those missions were oriented around the supported unit and their task, while the post-Vietnam Attack Helicopter mission statements were more oriented on the enemy, and the ability to be decisive units that conduct fire and maneuver.

Simmons’ paper on attack helicopter doctrine references the Armor School’s influence on the development of aviation doctrine post-Vietnam.

Attack helicopters needed the ability to react independently and penetrate and maneuver through the attacking army to find tank reserves. However, because attack helicopters can’t do certain things that tanks can, like close with the enemy, seize ground, etcetera, I’d hesitate to go as far to call the Air Cav Combat Brigade a flying tank brigade.

The Air Cav Combat concept was not put into action immediately, however. It was tested as part of the 1st Cavalry from 1971 to 1975 as part of the “triple capability” experiment, where the division had airmobile infantry, armor and the air cav combat brigade. The division concept itself didn’t go anywhere, but the ACCB was successful and spun off into its own independent formation—the 6th Cavalry Brigade—under corps command.

At that time, it included a Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 2 Attack Helicopter Battalions, 1 Air Cavalry Squadron, 1 Support Battalion, a Signal Company, attached Medical Company that would be OPCON'd to the Support Battalion, and an attached Admin Company.

The Air Cav Squadron was the hunter in the hunter-killer team. I have a full video on these types of formations on the main channel, but in 1977 it included an HQ and HQ Troop and 3 Air Cav Troops. Each troop had a Troop HQ with a UH-1 Huey. A Flight Operations Section. An Aeroweapons Platoon with 5 AH-1G and 4 AH-1S attack helicopters split into two sections (the difference being the Sierra could use the wire-guided TOW missile). An Aeroscout Platoon with 10 OH-58A Kiowa observation helicopters. An Aerorifle Platoon with 4 dismounted reconnaissance squads and 5 Huey utility helicopters. And lastly, a Service Platoon.

Meanwhile, the Attack Helicopter Battalions were the killers. They included an HQ and HQ Company and 3 Attack Helicopter Companies.

They had an HQ, Flight Operations Section, 3 Attack Helicopter Platoons, a Scout Helicopter Platoon, and a Service Platoon. Unlike the Air Cav Troop Aeroweapons Platoons, the Attack Helicopter Platoons were equipped with 7 of the AH-1S helicopter split into two unequal sections, all capable of using the TOW Missile. You will find historically, dedicated Attack Helicopter formations have gotten first dibs on new attack helicopters over Air Cavalry Squadrons. That also applied to AH-64 Apaches in the 1980s.

The Scout Platoon meanwhile included 3 sections of 4 Kiowa scout helicopters.

Doctrinally, it was encouraged to mass all 9 platoons of a battalion at a single point against a singular enemy, ideally the enemy’s main effort.

One option the company commander had at his disposal was to form mixed teams for combat consisting of one scout section and one attack platoon, allowing for one-third of the company on station, one-third en route and one-third being refueled and rearmed. This type of rotation allowed for continuous fire on the enemy. Operating in this way also prevents the entire company from getting decisively engaged and getting stuck. Two or three teams forward were also possible if maximum destruction in a short time was necessary but it provided less sustainable coverage.

Alternatively, the Scout Section could be employed separately from the Attack Helicopters. This allowed for the Scouts to remain in constant contact with the enemy while Attack Helicopters cycled, as the Cobras often expended their ammunition quickly.

The big picture difference between the scouts in the ACCB’s Air Cav Squadron and those in the Attack Helicopter Battalions was that the Air Cav Squadron fulfilled a dedicated reconnaissance and security mission for the corps commander. They could screen well in front, while the scouts in the attack helicopter battalions fulfilled a specific recon and target acquisition role for their paired Cobras. The attack helicopter battalions were capable of reconnaissance as well, but as a secondary role.

[For the Cobra, the scout's ability to search out the enemy translates into almost immediate target handover, as the Cobra can then use its airborne laser tracker to hone in on the target and destroy it.]

Certain security missions were inherent to the Cobras though, like acting as a covering force to disrupt or destroy the enemy. A covering force often seeks to become decisively engaged. A decisive engagement is basically a battle that has to be fought to its final conclusion.

A decisively engaged force has generally been fully committed and doesn’t have the freedom of maneuver to withdraw or reposition itself, so it either has to win, lose or be extricated by an outside friendly force. This differs from a screen, which does destroy or repel enemy forces when possible, but is more about providing early warning in a defensive manner. A screening force generally seeks to remain in contact with the enemy, but retains freedom of maneuver and does not become decisively engaged.

On the other hand, the difference between the Cobras in the Air Cav Troops and those in the Attack Helicopter Companies was the former were meant to support the reconnaissance and security effort first and foremost. The troop could attack, but not sustain a sizeable attack. By the rule of three, the whole squadron, the size of a battalion, was probably capable of sustaining only a platoons worth of Cobras in the field continuously. With normal operation as part of the Air Cav Troop in scout-weapons teams, it would actually be smaller elements more spread out. Each Attack Helicopter Company meanwhile could sustain a platoon-sized attack indefinitely through rotation. With some math, you can figure the brigade’s two Attack Helicopter Battalions were thus capable of sustaining 6 platoon-sized attacks continuously, and even more if time gaps between attacks were acceptable.

If you want more Air Cav content, check out this video on the 60 year evolution of Air Cav Squadrons. I’ll see you over there.

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