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Air Cavalry


AIR CAVALRY was formed on 16 June 1965, when the U.S. Army received Department of Defense authorization to organize the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile). The First Cavalry was designed to increase troop mobility and included more than four times the number of aircraft in a standard army division. Although the intensifying war in Vietnam provided the immediate impetus, the army had been contemplating such a division for several years. Army planners believed the military could have fought more effectively during the Korean War if American technology had been better exploited to provide superior mobility. Moreover, lack of mobility had been fatal to the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In Vietnam the landscape and climate impeded American ground mobility, yet the army needed to move swiftly to offset the enemy's initiative and familiarity with the country.

The air mobility concept involved airborne maneuvers during an engagement, long-distance moves, airborne logistical and medical support, flexible and informed command through aerial command posts, and superior firepower. In a theater such as Vietnam, where American control of the air afforded protection from enemy fighter aircraft, helicopter and propeller-driven gunships could offer ground troops the sustained gunnery support that jet-powered airplanes could not. Transports bearing side-firing weapons could circle a ground target while maintaining extended fire at a constant altitude and range. By The spring of 1966 the C-47, the military version of the Douglas DC-3 transport, was armed with three 7.62 mm miniguns, electrically powered versions of the Gatling gun, each capable of firing six thousand rounds per minute. The appearance of its tracers earned this gunship the moniker "Puff the Magic Dragon." Other types of gunships were progressively more heavily armed.

The usual gunship, however, was a helicopter. During the American ground buildup in Vietnam, the standard helicopter gunship was a heavily armed version of the UH-1B Huey carrying fourteen rockets and door-mounted M60, 7.62 mm machine guns. Later, the AH-1G Cobra helicopter gunship appeared, carrying seventy-six air-to-ground rockets, a 7.62 mm minigun, and a 40 mm grenade launcher capable of firing four hundred rounds a minute. With this weaponry the Cobra gunship in the early 1970s figured heavily in army tests of the First Cavalry Division. Later reorganized, the unit added tank battalions to challenge Soviet armored superiority in Europe.

The airmobile concept proved to be one of the more successful American military innovations of the Vietnam War. In late 1965 the First Cavalry Division entered the Ia Drang Valley in a campaign to destroy North Vietnamese troops in the Central Highlands, who threatened to cut South Vietnam in two. In the battle of Plei Me, units of the division, uplifted to new positions at least forty times, helped drive Vietnamese soldiers into Cambodia. Thereafter, the army increasingly sought enough helicopters to give all infantry units air mobility whenever operations made it desirable. The success of American airpower in Vietnam opened a new era in the history of land warfare, as evidenced in U.S. tactics in subsequent conflicts, such as the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and the Kosovo Bombing in 1999.


Johnson, Lawrence W., III. Winged Sabers. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1990.

Krohn, Charles A. The Lost Battalion. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993.

Moore, Harold G., and Joseph L. Galloway. We Were Soldiers Once—and Young. New York: Random House, 1992.

Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars 1945–1990. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Russell F.Weigley/e. m.

See alsoHelicopters ; Korean War ; Vietnam War .

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