Air mechanization

Almost ever since I had this blog, I planned to write a thorough takedown of the Air Mechanization craze. Sadly, the amount of research required to fully lock & load for such a blog post was just below my motivation threshold for years.

This blog post idea is thus still on my list, but I certainly want to discharge a quick teaser (for a blog post that may never appear):

Air mechanization of army forces was a favourite of sci-if illustrators for about a century, and it appeared to become true during the Vietnam War. Some additional theoretical work appeared later, and the budget-rich U.S.Army as well as the wasteful Red Army invested heavily into it (the Soviets even supplied vegetables to remote Siberian villages with helicopters, as if no such thing as cost/benefit analysis ever existed).

The German army jumped on the air mechanization nonsense during the 90's when the Cold War suddenly ended and it was in dire need for a justification for its PAH-2 (Tiger) attack helicopter and NH90 utility helicopter programs. Sci-fi nonsense scenarios and concepts were developed, experimental formations were organised, the programs survived, the experimental formations survived as well - and we still don't have a single attack helicopter suitable for use in Afghanistan in service because the German air mechanization bullshit was just a scam.

That is actually a good thing, for one thing that's worse than stupid procurement is stupid procurement followed up by stupid doctrine.

Now why again is air mechanization stupid?

French cavalry, 1914
Well, it's just like cavalry. Not the 18th century cavalry or even 14th century one. More like the pre-1914 cavalry.

Pre-First World War cavalry was very expensive, had high training demands, was unsuitable for quick wartime expansion, promised great speed over most terrains while delivering quite mediocre actual march performances and it was a major pain in the ass for logisticians (huge fodder demands for all but light Eastern European horses!).

Today's helicopter forces are very expensive, have high training demands, are unsuitable for quick wartime expansion, promise great speed over all terrains but sit idle most of the time and they're a huge pain in the ass for logisticians (huge fuel demands!)

Pre-1914 cavalry proponents "justified" the costs with their supposedly great value based on their mobility. When war happened, they came, saw - and proved to be way too fragile against all but the most poorly armed and most unprepared opponents. Huge attrition in earlier wars did not make much of an impression until 1914. Nowadays everyone thinks it was a folly to trust those cavalry proponents.

Modern battlefield helicopter proponents "justify" the costs with their supposedly great value based on their mobility. When war happens, they come, see - and prove to be way too fragile against all but the most poorly armed and most unprepared opponents (and sometimes even against them). Huge attrition in past wars did not make much of an impression so far. Nowadays the world is still full of army combat aviation enthusiasts.

There's a blog post in the making about topics/hardware that fascinate military-interested people way beyond my ability to comprehend the fascination. I guess battlefield helicopters will make it on the list. I think only fools trust helicopters to prove their worth in a great war.


P.S.: 1914 cavalry proved to be most useful and at times indispensable as mere despatch riders. They were frequently ineffective as combat forces unless turned into infantry units.


  1. Hi,

    I agree with you.

    To the soviet air craze - if you have remote sites - 1k km away and no roads then it seems reasonable to use planes like An-2.

    I've just found this:


    usable translation:

    To me it looks like fine addition to yours dispersed troops concept.


  2. This has been reborn as the following:

    "Vertical Maneuver of Mounted Combined Arms Capability." This capability directly addresses increasing area-denial challenges. A key enabler of operationally significant entry capability is MVM, which is the maneuver and vertical insertion of medium weight armored forces into areas in close proximity to objectives without the need for fixed airports, airfields, or prepared airheads.

    From the recently published "Gaining and Maintaining Access; a US Army and US Marine Corps Concept" March 2012

  3. Helicopters are indispensable on the battlefield, however perhaps not in the grand, flying formations of Apocalypse Now or the 101st Airborne.

    Aside from being very expensive and logistics heavy, the problem with airborne delivery of troops is once on the ground they are largely foot-mobile.

    Attack helicopters have a place, but their use has to be constrained by their vulnerabilities. Leave deep strike over hostile territory to fixed-wing air power and long ranged missiles. Attack and scout helos are far more effective and survivable when used as part of the combined-arms team.

    Another form of "air mechanization" involves delivering mechanized forces via parachute. The Soviets went the furthest with this concept, developing specialized armored vehicles like the BMD series.

    I'm of mixed feelings on this. The logistics demands of delivering and sustaining a useful mechanized formation by airdrop is tremendous.

    On the other hand, , once on the ground, paratroopers are even more geographically fixed than helo-borne troops. Having the potential to drop a ground-mobile, armored unit virtually anywhere in the world, on short notice, does "feel" like a valuable capability.

    At >13 tons per BMD-3 (prepped for airdrop) it will take a tremendous amount of airlift just to get a unit anywhere.

  4. I´m not sure I understood you correctly, Sven -

    are you writing about the limitations of helicopters in the air assault/air mobility role, in their direct attack role, or in general?

    Because, like B.Smitty, I tought helicopters are considered especially valuable as anti-tank tools, above all in the context of the highly mechanized peer-to-peer warfare you usually write about. Due to their ability to hover in the vicinity of a task force, for example. Is this not the case?

  5. Helicopters have generally survivability issues if they face effective battlefield air defences. Moreover, I think that they are simply not cost efficient and fall well short of their promises.

    The AT role is a theoretical strength that faces many challenges; much has happened since that 1970's exercise when AT helicopters scored many simulated hits on open fields against a force that lacked both a good SPAAG range and experience in how to adapt.

    A handful attack helicopters maybe worth their money (because they restrict the opponent's repertoire through forcing him to adapt, but I do not think that they deserve their current share of attention (in a great war context).

    Same as with the 1914 cavalry; they're not entirely useless, but only useful if used carefully and not even remotely justifying their impact on the budgets.

  6. OK, the economical argument sure sounds plausible, though I don´t have any numbers or sources to compare the costs of different combat formations.

    Slightly tangential to the topic - is it true that according to their plans the Soviets would have carried out a series of air assaults on strategic targets in West Germany if war had broken out, parallel to a conventional mechanized offensive?

  7. Not sure what the recent research in archives says about it.
    (related: http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20100228_art016.pdf )

    It's not really of interest to me anyway, for a strategic surprise would have been decisive even if only done with the cruise speed and road range of a T-55. Western forces in Europe had their bases far too forward. Peacetime bases should have been west of the Rhine at the very least. German politics, French politics and the history of occupation sectors yielded the far too-forward basing.

    Aside from nukes, the bet for Western Europe's survival was on early warning by intelligence services or by an ongoing and known crisis.

  8. So what the hell are the attack helos good for?

  9. Matthias Wilde2 April 2012 at 15:11

    Why do you think the bases were too far forward?

    Not sure if I read it on your blog or somewhere else, but didn´t a lot of analysts come to the conclusion after the Cold War that Soviet conventional strength was widely exagerated, comparable to the infamous "Missile Gap" myth?

  10. @kesler:
    For killing monkey model tanks protected by insufficient VShoRAD in open terrain, for example. See Desert Storm.
    They're also good for hunting not too elusive militia-style ground forces in some terrains.
    Their role in great wars is in my opinion a rather small one, see the later post.

    The strength was indeed exaggerated (thanks, CIA!) as not even remotely ready formations were counted as available reserves. The Soviets furthermore didn't really want to conquer the "free world" so hard as portrayed.

    Nevertheless, a strategic surprise could have had '67 style effects in Central Europe. Ramstein AB was only ~12 minutes worth of low level flight away from the border, for example. Reaction times of combat aviation stationed in East Germany was measured in minutes from having no early warning to entire squadrons in the air.
    NVA conscript forces were able to evacuate their barracks within minutes including all vehicles. BW conscripts returned home on most weekends.
    Fast mechanised forces could easily have overrun anything within 300+ km that wasn't protected by natural obstacles. All major bases east of the Rhine were a folly and an invitation for a strategic surprise attack in my opinion.

  11. Nonono. You get it wrong. AirMech U.S. Army style with helicopters is pointless in regular warfare since it only delivers infantry and they never dared to venture outside artillery support range. Bump. But AirMech VDV style delivering is a highly dangerous (no, not for itself :-D) and relevant tool. Read Tukhachevsky's last writings - still very good FFT!