So, you’re a light infantry brigade and you’re facing an opposing force. You have more troops then they do, but they have tanks and mechanized infantry. You, being a light infantry brigade, do not. You have a few Stryker armored vehicles, and light infantry with vehicle-mounted and man-portable, anti-tank missiles — man-portable being a loose definition since a Javelin system weighs 50 pounds with a single missile.
The scenario is like sitting down to play chess, and your opponent reaches across, plucks your queen from the board and pronounces that you don’t get one of those. No rooks either. But for your trouble, have a couple extra knights and more pawns.
Now, that’s not to overstate the capabilities of main battle tanks: high caliber main cannons firing high-explosive or depleted-uranium projectiles, .50-caliber and 7.62 mm machine guns, copious armor and maneuverability. But yeah, tanks. Of course, tanks do not operate alone or independently, so you also have to contend with mechanized infantry; armored personnel carriers and infantry-fighting vehicles.
That is the challenge for the Indiana National Guard’s 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team as the unit undertakes its rotation through the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. The brigade is augmented by soldiers and airmen from more than 20 states for a combined force of almost 6,000 troops.
Attached to the 76th Brigade a battalion-sized aviation task force that includes an attack company of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, a medium lift company of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, both from the South Carolina National Guard, a heavy-lift company of CH-47 Chinook helicopters, from the Georgia and Alabama National Guard, a medevac company with additional Black Hawks from the Colorado National Guard and an aviation support unit from New York National Guard.
This is not to say that aviation is the magical cure-all for armor-related ails, but there is a certain cachet to “death from above.” There are pros and cons to every course of action and aviation, like any tool, has to applied with intelligence and, in this case, with more than a little creativity.
So when confronted with the above skewed chess board and the seemingly lopsided balance of power, to paraphrase Sun Tzu about attacking an opponent’s strength: don’t, just don’t. There’s no use of attrition warfare out of this fight. So, you make your other pieces more valuable. Shape the battlefield. Congest the board so the long-range capabilities of the queen and rooks are mitigated, use the knight’s ability to threaten and strike over pieces and force unpleasant choices, bishops in concert are a powerful combination for restricting mobility, and a pawn can become a queen. Contain, trap and kill.
The Apaches provide that serious punch against enemy armor and mechanized forces, said Maj. Gen. David C. Wood, 38th Infantry Division commander and an aviator, who flew AH-64 Apaches in Desert Storm.
Taking down tanks and armored vehicles is the Apaches' forte.
“The AH-64s have three weapons systems: they have a 30 mm cannon, 2.75 in. folding-fin aerial rockets, typically with high explosive warhead, and then they carry the Hellfire laser-guided missile which is typically used for armor and heavy vehicles, it can also be used against point targets such as buildings, but it was designed for anti-armor,” said Wood.
While a light infantry battalion does pack anti-tank guided missiles such as wire-guided and self-guided missiles, taking on a combined-arms force may require ground support.
“If something heavy comes up against a light infantry company and they really can’t take care of it, they do have some anti-tank weapons capability, but the Apache’s sole mission, really, is anti-armor,” said Wood. “It has, over the years, changed into a close-air support role for infantry in the field and it does that mission very well. If there’s something heavy out there, that company commander can rest assured the Apache can take care of it.”
While the Apache is an ideal weapon against armor, the biggest challenge is keeping these angels of death above the battlefield.
According to 1st Lt. William Harvey, commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 130th Aviation, North Carolina Army National Guard, maintenance and planning are crucial to AH-64 utilization.
“We have to set expectations. When the brigade commander looks at this company and sees nine Apaches, not all of them will be available at the same time,” said Harvey. “People not accustomed to aviation don’t really think about how much work goes into these birds. These things are flying projects; the maintenance never stops. Once they understand what we’re capable of, we get used, a lot.”
That ratio is roughly is one hour of flight time to three hours of maintenance, said Harvey.
It’s easy to look at the Apaches and forget that Army aviation fills other roles than weapons platform.
The Apaches are just one facet of what aviation provides for the 76th IBCT. Suffice to say, an army needs more than missiles in a battle. That’s where the other aviation assets come into play.
The Black Hawks and Chinooks of the lift companies are valuable transportation and resupply assets that move soldiers and the supplies that keep them in the fight, according to Capt. Jay Hosack, commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 131st Aviation, North Carolina Army National Guard. Company C is a medium-lift company operating UH-60 Black Hawks.
“Anything a Black Hawk can do, we are able to do,” said Hosack. “Primarily, this has been logistical, moving people and equipment from A to B. It’s what we’ve done since the start and will continue to do throughout the exercise.”
During the exercise soldiers of the 76th performed sling-load operations, transporting materials suspended from a helicopter.
“One of the inherent needs of any ground force is resupply; water, food, medical supplies, etc., the things that are first to run out,” said Hosack. “So depending on the flow of the battle, supplies can be delivered by air or ground — whatever is most efficient and can get to the ground units where and when they need it.”
During the exercise elements of the 76th were airlifted to locations within the training area, colloquially known as the box. With a cruising speed of 170 mph, the Black Hawk can transport troops about a dynamic battle space with startling celerity, appearing where an enemy force may not expect.
“Passenger movement is a huge piece, there are a variety of people needing to go places for multiple different reasons at any time of day or night,” Hosack said. “As a lift asset, be it air assault or air movement, we’re happiest when we have a ground customer that can utilize us.”
The firepower, mobility and flexibility of Army aviation offers the 76th IBCT an effective countermeasure against enemy armor. The ability to move and strike at enemy formations, either by Apache or position infantry, at key locations to rapidly focus combat power and achieve victory … checkmate.