A New Kind of War: How Choppers Changed the Battlefield

Huey escorting patrol boats

A UH-1 Huey gunship escorts river patrol boats, 1968.

A Cayuse and two Cobras on patrol

A hunter-killer team of consisting of an OH-6 Cayuse and two AH-1 Cobras en route to Phuoc Vinh.

Sea Knights resupply

Two CH-46 Sea Knights airlift supplies to a Marine base southwest of Da Nang.

Hueys central highlands

A flight of Hueys awaiting departure in the Vietnam Central Highlands, 1969.

With the proliferation of VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft in the years following the Second World War, helicopters took on observation, support, and troop transport roles, although mostly with the aim of assisting conventional ground and air forces. The true versatility of the helicopter first became apparent during the Korean Conflict, encouraging the United States to further invest in the technology, and at the beginning of the Vietnam War, many of the prototypes which had been field tested years earlier were finally ready to replace the older models. In the oppressive jungle terrain of Southeast Asia, helicopters rose to the task of filling logistical roles that were previously exclusive to airborne and airmobile units, rapidly deploying and extracting troops behind enemy lines in a new form of warfare known as the Air Assault. Those soldiers and Marines forced to contend with the low visibility, hidden combatants, and ill-defined battle lines of the Vietnamese jungle were now assisted by eyes in the sky that could observe, communicate, and evacuate wounded in areas that would have been impractical or outright impossible with more traditional aerial technology. Gunships and Air Cavalry could also apply directed fire support in a capacity that would be infeasible for similar air and ground forces in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, and mass movements of troops over land became possible at an unprecedented scale. From air assault and support transport to reconnaissance and medical evacuation, the choppers of Vietnam flourished on the battlefield, and dominated popular images of the war as it forever transformed the modern battlefield.

[1] Herbert P. Lepore. “The Coming of Age: The Role of the Helicopter in the Vietnam War.” Army History, No. 29 (Winter 1994): 29-36.

[2] Lawrence P. Lessing. “Helicopters.” Scientific American Vol. 192, No. 1 (January 1955): 36-41.

A New Kind of War