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How U.S. Air Cavalry Evolved in 60 Years


New video on the evolution of U.S. Army divisional air cavalry units (helicopter focused on reconnaissance, security and attack) from their inception in the early 1960s to today. We cover the structure of Air Cavalry Troops and Squadrons over that 60-year period.


Transcript:

There is almost nothing more synonymous with the Vietnam War than the Air Cavalry. The chop of helicopter blades, the funny hats. So classic. Part of this was simply tradition. The 1st Cavalry Division was the U.S. Army’s first Airmobile Division. However, the bulk of the 1st Cavalry was air assault infantry with Cav traditions.


A more specialized type of air cavalry is the kind focused on aerial reconnaissance and security. A type that still operates in the U.S. Army today. This video is going to cover the 60 year evolution of divisional air cavalry. To keep the video concise and simplify a complicated timeline, I’m going to keep the scope narrowed to just Air Cav part of maneuver divisions. Armored cavalry regiments and air cavalry brigades probably deserve their own videos.


In 1961, before the 1st Cavalry Division ever became airmobile, the Army implemented the Reorganization of Army Divisions or ROAD. This force redesign was the result of the Kennedy administration’s shift towards a “flexible response” doctrine stating the Army should be able to fight both the nuclear big war and the non-nuclear small wars. This was an about face from the Eisenhower administration’s strategy focused mainly on nuclear deterrence. Full video on the Army’s ill-fated Pentomic force design linked on screen now.


Among many organizational changes to make Army divisions more practical, the number of aircraft basically doubled. What was once an Aviation Company under the Pentomic model became an Aviation Battalion with airlift and general support helicopters. But at the same time, a company-sized Air Cavalry Troop was added to the division’s battalion-sized Armored Cavalry Squadron, besides an HQ and HQ Troop and 3 Armored Cavalry Troops. Or 2 Airborne Cavalry Troops in airborne divisions.


But when the 1st Cavalry Division became an airmobile division in 1965, they had an Air Cavalry Squadron. It was the reverse of an Armored Cav Squadron, with 3 Air Cavalry Troops and only 1 Ground Cavalry Troop mainly mounted on jeeps.


The purpose of the Air Cav Troop was to extend the reconnaissance and security effort with both aerial reconnaissance and airmobile ground reconnaissance. It was more well suited to operations in undeveloped areas and rough terrain than the armored cavalry, and was an interesting combined arms unit in its own right.


The troop consisted of a Troop HQ, Operations Section, Aero-Scout Platoon, Aero-Rifle Platoon, Aero Weapons Section, and Service Platoon. This structure was basically a scaled up version of the Sky Cavalry Platoon formed in 1957 to test airmobile tactics.


The Air Cav Troop’s Aero-Scout Platoon consisted of a Platoon HQ with one H-13K observation helicopter, 2 Light Sections, each with 4 H-13s, and a Heavy Section with 4 HU-1B utility helicopters armed with SS-11 anti-tank guided missiles. This provided the troop with visual reconnaissance, particularly over large areas. Relevant for nuclear damage assessment, but also jungle operations. It also provided an anti-armor capability useful for offensive action and delaying enemy armor as part of its security mission. Security involves putting oneself between the friendly main force and enemy so they don’t sneak up on you. And one thing that could be even better than telling the commander the enemy is coming is destroying the enemy before they get there. Using that air mobility and AT weapons to lead the main force, especially during a pursuit or exploitation in the enemy’s rear, can also allow the commander to maintain more constant pressure on the fleeing enemy and speed up the advance of ground forces.


The Aero-Rifle Platoon meanwhile consisted of 4 9-man rifle squads carried in 5 utility helicopters. Initially the UH-1B and later the long-body UH-1D. Initially the helicopters in the Aero-Rifle Platoon were assigned to the Platoon HQ, but later in the conflict they were split into a dedicated Airlift Section with their own Lieutenant in charge. This platoon gave the Air Cav Troop the ability to seize lightly defended terrain, conduct ground infiltrations; ambushes and reconnaissance; especially of areas that cannot be reconnoitered well from the air, like a canopy-covered jungle; establish ground observation posts; and rescue downed aircrews.


Lastly, the Aero-Weapons Section included 4 UH-1B or C utility helicopters with 2.75 inch rocket launchers. This section could act as an armed escort for other helicopters during air assaults and aerial recon, isolate a landing zone with rocket fire to enable the landing of the aero-rifles, and provide close air support to ground troops and scouts with far more precision than artillery.


Doctrinally, an Air Cav reconnaissance would be led by the scouts, followed by the commander, weapons and rifles in that order. The troop headquarters and flight operations section each had a utility helicopter for command and control, as did the maintenance and supply sections in the service platoon for emergency transport of spare parts and mechanics.


These elements would all support each other and be task organized as a rule. From the earliest days of Vietnam, they took to calling the Aero-Scouts the Whites, the Aero-Rifles the Blues, and the Aero-Weapons the Reds.


For example, two gunships would be a Red Team and two light scouts would be a white team. But a composite team with 1 scout for spotting targets and 1 or more gunships for engaging would be a Pink Team. A gunship would always operate with at least another gunship or observation helicopter for target acquisition purposes.


By the late 1960s, the Air Cav Troop was largely similar, although new helicopters started to be introduced. As of a 1967 MTOE, the OH-13 Sioux was replaced with the new OH-6 Cayuse, colloquially called the Loach. The improved UH-1H also started to replace the UH-1D in the Aero-Rifles.


But by the early 1970s, the heavy scouts were disbanded. This coincided with the adoption of the AH-1G Cobra attack helicopter. At that time, the Aero-Weapons Section and Heavy Scout Section with their UH-1 gunships were replaced by an Aero-Weapons Platoon with 9 Cobras.


It also seems to have been planned for the Platoon HQ to have a 2nd Cobra to functionally provide 2 weapons sections with 5 Cobras each. This was mentioned in the 1969 Air Cav Squadron field manual and a 1969 report from the 164th Aviation Group, although as a future state to replace the 9-ship standard. However, by a 1971 organization table, 9 Cobras was again the standard and it’d stay that way for a while.


The new OH-58 Kiowa also began operating alongside the Loach in 1969. The reason for this quick replacement was basically after the OH-6 beat Bell’s Model 206 in the 1965 light observation helicopter contest, the Army re-competed the contract in 1967, prompted by production issues and a corresponding price hike in the Loach. Bell resubmitted a refined Model 206A, which won out against the OH-6 and was selected as the OH-58A.


Around 1969, shortly before the Kiowa was introduced, the Aero-Scout Platoon was enlarged from 9 to 10 scouts. In a TO&E, this looked like 2 helicopters in the Platoon HQ rather than 1, but in practice it meant 2 sections of 5 helicopters. Unlike in the Aero-Weapons Platoon, the 10-ship Aero-Scout Platoon persisted beyond Vietnam


But by the 1979 reference data, change 10 of that table of organization, there were some minor alterations. For example, the 1st Aeroweapons Section remained on the initial AH-1G attack helicopter, but the 2nd was authorized four AH-1S helicopters equipped to use the new TOW anti-tank guided missile. In this table, the Aero-Rifles were also then referred to as the Recon Platoon, and although the squads were little different the riflemen were redesignated as scouts.


By change 13 in the early 1980s — sorry for jumping around I don’t have every single TOE change — the UH-1 in the Troop HQ was replaced with a Kiowa. The Aeroscout Sections were both brought back to 4 helicopters, for a total of 9 in the platoon. In Infantry, Airmobile and Airborne Divisions, the number of Recon Squads also went from 4 to 3, with only 4 UH-1Hs to lift them. Although Armored and Mechanized Divisions still had 4 squads. And both Aero Weapons Sections were equipped with the TOW missile-capable AH-1S.


However, going into the 1980s with the Army of Excellence reorganization, there were more fundamental changes.


At the troop-level, the service platoon was taken out completely. Maintenance and supply elements were centralized at the squadron-level. The troop headquarters elements were also stripped back significantly, and the ground recon capability was disbanded. What was left was an Aeroscout Platoon with 6 OH-58C scout helicopters, and an attack helicopter platoon with 4 helicopters. Division 86 plans in the early 80s anticipated the yet-to-be-adopted AH-64 Apache, although by the end of the 1980s Air Cav Troops outside of Europe were still doctrinally fielding AH-1S. However, the AH-64A was fielded by Air Cavalry in Europe along with the Cobra, and did redeploy from Germany to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. The OH-58D Kiowa Warrior also entered service in the 80s.


Under Army of Excellence, the allotment of air cavalry troops also changed at the squadron-level. While after Vietnam it had essentially became a split between the armor-heavy Armored Cav Squadron and the air-heavy Air Cav Squadron, by the late 1980s, heavy division Cav Squadrons would have 2 ground and 2 air cav troops. Light divisions would have 2 light ground and 2 Air Cav troops. The air assault division would have 4 Air Cav Troops plus about a companies worth of UH-60 Blackhawks in the headquarters troop, but no ground troops. And the airborne would have 3 Air Cav Troops and a motorized ground troop. In addition to these elements, Army aviation battalions and squadrons added an Aviation Unit Maintenance Company in 1989 or 1990. This was done by separating those assets from the headquarters companies and troops, so it was more of a shifting around than a whole addition.


Also worth noting under the Army of Excellence, Division Cav Squadrons were transferred to the new Division Aviation Brigades. That was despite there being ground recon elements in the squadrons. This was mainly to streamline sustainment for the helicopters, but the cavalry was tactically employed by the division commander.


By the late 90s, under the Force Projection series of TOEs, the Air Cavalry Troop structure had been simplified to two platoons with 4 aircraft each. In most divisions, these could either be entirely OH-58 armed scouts or AH-1 attack helicopters, but no longer a mix within the same troop.


At the squadron-level, Heavy Division cavalry added a 3rd ground troop, as had been desired in the mid-80s but not resourced with Army of Excellence. Light infantry divisions had also lost one of their ground troops sometime in the 90s. This is reflected in a 1991 manual.


This state continued until the division’s demise as a proper tactical unit in the mid-2000s.


As part of the U.S. Army’s 2004-2006 Modular Force reform, brigades were permanently converted into self-contained, independently deployable units of action. Whereas before, an armored brigade would normally be task organized as a brigade combat team by their parent division, that BCT configuration became permanent. Divisional cavalry assets were replaced by Reconnaissance Squadrons at the brigade level, but they didn’t have aviation.


Meanwhile, aviation brigades became “aviation units of action” with three designs. All of them had two attack reconnaissance formations, one assault helicopter battalion, one general support battalion, one aviation support battalion, and a headquarters. The difference was in the heavy design, the 2 attack recon battalions were AH-64 Apache units under Aviation Regiments, while in the medium design, one battalion was a Cavalry Squadron with Kiowa armed scout helicopters, and in the light design, both were Cavalry Squadrons with Kiowas.


For example, the heavy 1st Air Cavalry Brigade came to have 1-227 and 4-227 as attack battalions, 2-227 as general support, and 3-227 as assault. While the medium 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade had 1-17 Cav as Kiowa squadron, 1-82 as an Apache attack battalion, 3-82 as general support, and 2-82 as assault. Interestingly, the 101st Airborne Division had 2 medium CABs, the 101st and 159th CABs. And finally, the light 25th Combat Aviation Brigade included 2-6 and 6-17 Cavalry as Kiowa squadrons, 3-25 as general support and 2-25 as assault.


There were some non-standard modifications during this time frame though. For example, in the 10th Mountain Division, elements of the Kiowa-equipped 6-6 Cavalry and Apache-equipped 1-10 Aviation came together to form a composite flight company with 6 Kiowas and 6 Apaches.


But even in units that didn’t directly integrate Kiowas and Apaches in the same companies, which was basically all of them, there was doctrine for task organizing dual scout weapons teams.


An example would be a Kiowa Warrior from an Attack/Recon Troop acting as wingman and air mission commander, while an Apache from an Attack/Recon Company acted as the lead. In that set up, the Kiowa Warrior, ideally manned by a troop commander, platoon leader, or senior warrant officer, would direct the team, focus on reconing the objective, communicating with higher up, marking targets, and coordinating with ground forces. The Apache meanwhile, being the more heavily armed helicopter, would engage targets, protect the Kiowa, and guide the Kiowa if the Apache made contact with the enemy first. This was basically the ultimate evolution of the Pink Team of early Vietnam, with OH-13 scouts and UH-1B gunships, and the later OG Kiowa and Cobra Scout/Weapons Teams that persisted into the 90s.


Although efforts like that wouldn’t save the armed scout


The current state of standardized Air Cavalry Squadrons came about in the 2015 to 2016 time frame, as a result of a comprehensive Army reorganization announced in 2013. At that time, the Attack/Recon Squadron in the light Aviation Brigades converted from the OH-58D Kiowa Warriors to the AH-64 Apache. In heavy divisions, one of the Attack/Recon Battalions reflagged into a Attack/Reconnaissance Squadron, later called an Air Cavalry Squadron.


To set them apart from the Apache-only Attack Battalions, three platoons of RQ-7 Shadow drones were also added to the Air Cav Squadron. These were integrated at one UAS platoon per company-sized Air Cav Troop.


So today, each divisional Combat Aviation Brigade has one Air Cavalry Squadron with the same design regardless if the division is light or heavy. Its purpose is to provide accurate and timely information to the commander by conducting reconnaissance missions; give the division the time and space to react to the enemy by conducting security missions; and defeat, delay, divert and disrupt enemy forces by conducting security or strike missions. The Attack Battalion with just Apaches has the same mission profile, but are less capable in reconnaissance and security tasks due to the lack of organic drones.


The squadron includes a headquarters and headquarters troop, 3 air cavalry troops, an aviation maintenance troop, and a forward support troop to provide multifunctional logistics.


The Air Cavalry Troops in turn consist of a small Troop HQ, 2 Attack/Recon Platoons and a Shadow Unmanned Aircraft System platoon.


Each Attack/Recon Platoon consists of 4 Apaches. It has one Lieutenant as Platoon Leader, while the rest of the pilots are Warrant Officers. Ground-based crew chiefs are also allotted to the platoons. The platoons are authorized fewer pilots than necessary to man all the Apaches because the Company Commander and three Warrant Officers in the Troop HQ also act as pilots. The platoons are mainly administrative constructs though. In combat, the Apaches would be task-organized into elements as small as a two-ship Scout Weapons Team. I’m not sure if this is still doctrine, but back in the late 90s, it was assumed that an attack helicopter company with 8 helicopters would functionally have 6 helicopters or 3 scout weapons teams with 75% being fully mission capable at any time. In that situation, each team would have either the company commander or a platoon leader to provide mission command. Although if all helicopters are in the air, one would presumably be left with a senior warrant officer in charge.


The troop has a total of 3 Longbow fire control radars. That’s the saucer you see above the rotor on some Apaches. As a separate piece of equipment from the helicopter itself, it can be installed on any Delta or Echo Apache to provide tracking for up to 128 targets and simultaneous engagement. In footage you will often see the Longbow-equipped Apache paired with those without, as target data can be shared with other Apaches.


The Shadow platoon meanwhile has the necessary equipment to launch, recover, and control 4 RQ-7BV2 Shadow UAVs. With an endurance of about 9 hours, the platoon is equipped to conduct up to 3 missions a day to provide 24 hour coverage. Although they can surge up to 2 drones in the air at once to provide more aerial surveillance coverage, but unsustainably.


While the Shadow is unarmed, it does have sensors and a laser designator that can guide in Hellfires launched by a concealed Apache. Basically how Kiowas buddy-lazed for Apaches back in the day. That cooperation is called MUM-T, which I thoroughly explain in this video on U.S. Army large drone operations. I’ll see you over there.


Sources:

• FM 1-15 "Aviation Reference Data" (September 1977)

• FM 1-112 "Attack Helicopter Operations" (April 1997)

• FM 1-114 "Air Cavalry Squadron and Troop Operations" (February 2000)

• FM 1-116 "Air Cavalry/Reconnaissance Troop" (February 1991)

• FM 3-04 "Army Aviation" (July 2015)

• FM 3-04 "Army Aviation" (April 2020)

• FM 3-04.1 "Aviation Tactical Employment" (April 2016)

• FM 3-04.126 "Attack Reconnaissance Helicopter Operations" (February 2007)

• FM 17-36 C1 "Armored Cavalry Platoon and Troop, Air Cavalry Troop and Divisional Armored Cavalry Squadron" (May 1963)

• FM 17-36 "Divisional Armored and Air Cavalry Units" (October 1965)

• FM 17-37 "Air Cavalry Squadron" (June 1969)

• TC 1-400 "Brigade Aviation Element Handbook" (April 2006)


• "Infantry Reference Data, ROAD" (November 1962)

• "Infantry Reference Data" (June 1967)

• ST 1-100-1 "Reference Data for Army Aviation" (May 1973)

• ST 17-1-1 "Armor Reference Data in Two Volumes, Volume I, The Army Division" (FY 1977)

• ST 17-1-1 "Armor Reference Data in Two Volumes, Volume I, The Army Division" (1978-1979)

• ST 17-1-1 "Armor Reference Data in Three Volumes, Volume I, The Army Division" (1981)

• ST 17-1-1 "Armor Reference Data in Three Volumes, Volume III, Division 86 Organizations" (1981)

• FKSM 71-8 "Armor/Cavalry Reference Data in Four Volumes" (May 2004)

• FKSM 71-8 "Armor/Cavalry Reference Data: Brigade Combat Team" (November 2005)

• FKSM 71-8 "Armor/Cavalry Reference Data: Support Brigades" (May 2010) particularly in reference to the CAB


• TOE 17-108E (Modified) "Air Cavalry Troop (Modified), Armored Cavalry Squadron, Mechanized Division or Infantry Division" (January 1967)

• TOE 17-98T "Air Cavalry Troop, Air Cavalry Squadron, Airmobile Division" (June 1969)

• TOE 17285F000 "Division Cavalry Squadron (XXI), Heavy Division"

• MTOE "2d Squadron, 17th Cavalry"


• "Operational Report - Lessons Learned, Headquarters, 164th Aviation Group, Period Ending 31 Oct 1968" (November 1968)


• Bieneman, P. (2020) "Charlie Troop 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry Regiment: The Deicision made November 3, 1965"

• Carland, J. (2000) "Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide, May 1965 to October 1966"

• Donnelly, W. (2007) "Transforming an Army at War: Designing the Modular Force, 1991-2005"

• Hudges, K. (2017) "U.S. Army Helicopter Evolution during Vietnam War, Part II". U.S. Army.

• Romjue, J. (1997) "The Army of Excellence: The Development of the 1980s Army"

• Russell, M. (2004) "Is The Current Army Aviation Maintenance Strategy Efficient or Effective in the Post Cold War, Non-Linear Battlefield Era of Expeditionary Force Projection?"

• Stockfish, J.A. "The 1962 Howze Board and Army Combat Developments". RAND.

• Weinert, R.P. (1991) "History of Army Aviation - 1950-1962". TRADOC.

• Wills, D. (2015) "Air Cav battalion reflags to new, historic unit". DVIDS.


• 82nd Aviation Association: http://www.82ndavn.org/ourpresent.html

• 1st Cavalry Division Order of Battle history: https://www.first-team.us/tableaux/apndx_03/

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