Published Airpower Journal - Fall 1988
Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.


Maj Richard D. Newton, USAF

The time has come for a fresh revision of the doctrine. It should be undertaken on a Combined Service basis, to produce an agreed solution-for there is a dangerous discordance of doctrine at present.

-- Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart, Strategy

Quite a bit has been written lately concerning air-to-air combat between helicopters. The theme common to these writings suggests that the US Air Force is ignoring or avoiding the responsibility for this counterair mission. Given the history of Air Force protectionism with regard to issues involving roles and missions, its lack of operational participation in the air-to-air helicopter business seems surprising. This author believes the Air Force has a doctrinal obligation to address this latest change in the character of aerial warfare. It is no longer feasible for the Air Force to concentrate exclusively on the high-altitude, fixedwing aspect of the air-to-air problem. The air-to-air environment has expanded into the realm of the low and slow movers, especially in the forward battle area. The Air Force appears unwilling to adapt its doctrine, training, and equipment so that it can enter into this new type of aerial combat.

Department of Defense (DOD) Directive 5100,1, Functions of the Department of Defense and Its Major Components, assigns counterair operations to the Air Force as one of its primary missions. Air Force Manual (AFM) 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the USAF, expands upon the DOD directive by explaining how the Air Force views its role and intends to accomplish its assigned primary missions. Air-to-air combat (one aspect of counterair) is one of those assigned missions.1 The growing threat to traditional Army helicopter missions-aerial fire support and combat assault--from a new generation of Soviet helicopters specifically designed for air-to-air combat is forcing Army aviation to enter the counterair mission area.2

AFM 1-1 further states that the reason we fight the counterair battle is to protect friendly forces, ensure freedom to use the aerospace environment, and deny the use of the air to the enemy.3 Our traditional ties to the Army have caused us to devote considerable resources to protecting those soldiers on the ground from enemy air threats. As too many good ground commanders have found, control of the air does not guarantee success, but failure to control it makes winning awfully difficult. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder once said, "The outstanding lesson of the late war [World War II] was that air superiority is the prerequisite to all war winning operations, whether at sea, on land, or in the air."4

When the Army began duplicating the Air Force's capabilities in close air support (CAS) and tactical airlift early in the Vietnam War, the Air Force did in fact defend its assigned missions. The Johnson-McConnell Agreement of the midsixties attempted to sort out the problem. However, the solution was based on equipment rather than assigned roles and missions. In general terms, the Johnson-McConnell Agreement assigned most fixed-wing close air support and tactical airlift missions and equipment to the Air Force, while nearly all responsibility for rotary-wing aerial fire support and assault airlift went to the Army.5

Are we paying for the shortsightedness of the Johnson-McConnell Agreement today? At the time, dividing responsibility for equipment was an easy, though perhaps not the best, solution. Helicopters, until the recent past, were simply an enhancement of Army fire support mobility--like trucks or artillery but capable of limited forays into the air. However, that was before the advent of air-to-air helicopter combat. Few people foresaw the changes in helicopter combat capability that are occurring today. As technology changes the character of aerial warfare, doctrine becomes less clear, and the solutions from 20 years ago do not work as well as they once did.

Doctrine is a continually evolving entity. According to AFM 1-1, "Doctrine . . . applied rigidly and inflexibly has often degenerated into dogma and consequently failed."6 The purpose of doctrine is to provide basic guidelines for the employment of forces-in our case, aerospace forces. Likewise, it also directs us as we organize, train, and equip aerospace forces. Army doctrine and operational thought appear to be changing to meet the new threat to Army aviation and ground forces. It appears that Air Force doctrine is stagnating as it avoids change to its traditional fixed-wing missions. This type of attitude kept the horse cavalry as a combat arm during the interwar years and into World War II. It is frightening to think that the Air Force might be going the way of the horse cavalry by failing to adapt to new technology.

As we've said, the Air Force's basic doctrine states that the "goal in air warfare is to gain freedom of action in the air environment."7 "The most precious thing an air force can provide to an army," said Gen William Momyer, "is air superiority, since this gives the ground commander the ability to carry out his plan of action without interference from an enemy air force."8 If Soviet technological advances are denying the Army freedom in the air just above the battlefield, is it not the Air Force's responsibility to counter this new aerospace threat? If one believes that the purpose for tactical air forces is to provide ground troops the freedom from aerial interference so that they can take and hold ground, then the answer has to be yes, even in the face of shrinking budgets. Gen Carl "Tooey" Spaatz promised General Eisenhower in 1946 that the Air Force would "maintain a Tactical Air Command to supply the Army's air power needs."9 General Spaatz also told Lt Gen Elwood "Pete" Quesada, the first commander of Tactical Air Command, "that he had made this promise and he didn't want to be let down by a half-assed implementation of it."10

Since 1947 the Army has generally relied on the Air Force to provide its air-to-air protection. We now face a new threat to Army ground-attack helicopters in the form of Soviet air-to-air helicopters. The Army believes the best way to counter these helicopters designed specifically for air-to-air combat is with another helicopter.11 Army aviators developing helicopter air-to-air doctrine and employment tactics at the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama, believe that present-day fighters are only marginally competitive against an air-to-air helicopter.12 It seems that the Office of the Secretary of Defense agrees with this assessment, having directed the Army to fund an air-to-air capability for ground-attack helicopters in its fiscal year 1990 Program Objective Memorandum.13 Those Army assets must now delay their primary role of "tank-busting" and concentrate on the defensive counterair mission (until now an Air Force mission) in order to gain the air superiority they need before they can kill tanks.

Will the Army have to relearn and is the Air Force ignoring what we both learned the hard way during the 1942 North African campaigns, specifically, that air assets are best employed when controlled by a centralized air commander? After the invasion of North Africa, air forces were attached to and controlled by the ground-force commanders. These ground commanders used "their" airplanes primarily for CAS before obtaining air superiority. Consequently, German fighters were able to concentrate on the small formations of American air defenders maintaining "umbrellas" over the ground forces and effectively remove any ability to provide either CAS or air defense for the troops.14

Although he has the best of intentions, the ground commander can be expected to keep control of his assigned air assets and apply them to the mission he understands best-fighting the land battle. Part of the reasoning used to justify our separation from the Army was the belief that an air commander centrally controlling air forces can exploit the inherent flexibility and mobility of aircraft to maximize combat power. We found in North Africa that the ground commander, with a small number of aircraft assigned to him, was unable to capitalize on the full potential of air power. Army helicopters belonging to the ground commander are likely to be similarly misused during today's air battle, as were our P-40s in North Africa in 1942.

Effective doctrine must constantly evolve in order to meet the ongoing challenges confronting a nation. Gen Henry H. "Hap" Arnold once observed that

national safety would be endangered by an Air Force whose doctrines and techniques are tied solely on the equipment and process of the moment. Present equipment is but a stop in progress, and any Air Force which does not keep its doctrine ahead of its equipment, and its vision far into the future, can only delude the nation into a false sense of security.15

We can infer from both General Arnold's comment and our past history that if we are saddled with a doctrine that cannot change, the Air Force will have to face the consequences of shortsightedness. Dr Richard Hallion recently stated that "doctrine must function in the present, be appropriate for the near term, possess flexibility and adaptability to meet changing conditions, and be rooted in the past."16 Present air-to-air doctrine seems too deeply rooted in the past, still fighting Bolo Sweep or living in MiG Alley. Our doctrine is not flexible enough to adapt to the changing nature of aerial warfare.

To be fair, however, one must consider the limitations placed upon the Air Force's ability to meet the new challenge. Doctrine in a pristine sense--free from such constraints as economy, geography, or national policy--has the luxury of being absolute. In other words, it can afford to be idealistic in its outlook. Doctrine in a pragmatic sense, though, is shaped by the same forces that mold national character--it cannot be divorced from economic or political realities.

Equipping and training aerospace forces to fight the high-and-fast air battle is an enormous drain on the total defense budget. Recently announced force structure adjustments designed to meet congressionally mandated budget reductions attest to the fact that there are not enough dollars to cover all our needs.17 Although the Air Force leadership is forced to make hard decisions, perhaps they have put too many "eggs" into the high-and-fast "basket." Because war is very much a combined arms effort, sharing the counterair mission with Army helicopters is probably a valid budgetary decision, but it sidesteps the doctrinal question once again. It still leaves ultimate control of counterair assets with the ground force commander.

The Army is developing "swing-role" attack helicopters that, like Air Force swingrole F-16s, will have to fight and win the air battle before they can support the land force commander. The terminology appears to be in a doctrinal "gray area"--seemingly rooted in a turf battle-that both services find difficult to address. Helicopters designated as swing-role types still "belong" to the land force commander (just as F-16s doing CAS belong to the air component commander), it is impossible to expect one aircraft--helicopter or fighter--to be in two places or perform two missions at the same time. One of the great lessons of the Battle of Midway was the fatal error committed by the Japanese when their swing-role attack airplanes changed from ship-attack bombs and torpedoes to ground-attack fragmentation and incendiary bombs. When the Japanese patrol aircraft finally found the American fleet, there was no time to change the bomb loads back and avert disaster.18 Swing-role sounds appealing on paper, but history shows it can be fatal.

What is the conclusion? Doctrinally and historically, if helicopters are dedicated to offensive and defensive counterair, they should be Air Force assets. The need for air assets dedicated to the mission of air superiority was a lesson learned at great cost in World War II. This approach would free Army helicopters to concentrate on the ground battle and perform the aerial firesupport mission as originally intended. The helicopters in the Air Force inventory today, though, are just a small portion of those existing in 1966 when the Johnson-McConnell Agreement was signed. The few remaining vehicles are mostly optimized for combat rescue and special operations and are ill suited for air-to-air combat. Conceivably, the Air Force would have to purchase its own air-to-air helicopters, whereas the Army is now merely adding the extra mission to those helicopters already committed to ground attack.

Determining the responsibility for counterair will require extensive give-and-take from both the Army and the Air Force, but it can (and should) be done. Air Force assumption of the mission will be difficult and expensive, but doctrinally it makes sense. If an American air-to-air helicopter is the best technological counter to the Soviet helicopter threat, then creating an Air Force helicopter counterair capability is a "cleaner" solution. It assigns Air Force assets to the counterair mission under Air Force command and control.

The Air Force justified its separation from the Army in 1947 by challenging traditional doctrinal concepts. Had we not done so, it is possible we would still be in the Army Air Corps with our air forces controlled by ground commanders. In 1983 the Air Force and the Army exhibited the spirit of cooperation that is required to solve this issue. That effort spawned the Army and Air Force Chiefs of Staff Joint Force Development Process (JFDP) initiatives, an action that permitted evolutionary doctrinal concepts and attempted to avoid traditional service parochialism. We seem to have lost that spirit of questioning and innovation, having gone the way of most bureaucracies by avoiding changes and settling into comfortable patterns.

The potential for future doctrinal conflicts is substantial, especially as new technologies further obscure the distinction between a helicopter and an airplane. just as we are now revisiting issues supposedly settled by the Johnson-McConnell Agreement, so can we expect to see them again unless we resolve the doctrinal question. The Air Force and the Army must confront this problem, if not now, then certainly in the near future. We need to examine both ourselves and the implications for our future with a critical eye. Countering the air-to-air helicopter threat is part of the Air Force's doctrinal counterair obligation. Relying on the Army because it already owns most of the helicopters is ducking the issue. Air-to-air combat that ensures ground troops the freedom to fight without aerial interference is an Air Force mission--we have a responsibility to do our job.


1. AFM 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the USAF, 1984, 3-2.

2. Maj Lawrence E. Casper, "Helicopters with Air-to-Air Capability Needed," Army 37, no. 9 (September 1987): 14.

3. AFM 1-1, 3-3.

4. Gen William Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1983), 111.

5. Richard G. Davis, The 31 Initiatives (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1987), 20.

6. AFM 1-1, A-1.

7. Ibid., v.

8. Momyer, 158.

9. Davis, 9.

10. As related by General Quesada in Air Superiority in World War II and Korea, ed. Richard H. Kohn and Joseph P. Harahan (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1983), 65.

11. David Harvey and Don Toler, "Air-to-Air Combat: The Army Weighs Options," Rotor & Wing International 21, no. 5 (April 1987): 26-30.

12. This statement is based upon their experience participating in air-to-air combat tests, during which attack helicopters armed with air-to-air missiles were paired against state-of-the-art fighter airplanes. While part of this claim may be fighter pilot bravado, there is a wealth of material in assorted trade journals that supports it.

13. Inside the Pentagon, 23 October 1987, 1.

14. Momyer, 40.

15. AFM 1-1, Functions and Basic Doctrine of the USAF, 1979, 4-11.

16. Richard P. Hallion, "Doctrine, Technology, and Air Warfare," Airpower Journal 1, no. 2 (Fall 1987): 26.

17. Secretary of the Air Force Office of Public Affairs message, February 1988, unclassified.

18. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1963), 153.


Maj Richard D. Newton(USAFA; MA, Webster University) is the operations officer, 155st Flying Training Squadron of the 1550th Combat Crew Training Wing, Kirtland AFB, New Mexico. He has been an HH-3E pilot at Osan AB, Korea; Tyndayll AFB, Florida; and Keflavik NAS, Iceland. He spent one year as an ASTRA in DCS Plans and Operations working as an airlift force structure planner and in the Joint Assessment and Initiatives Office. Major Newton is a graduate of Squadron Officer School and the Airlift Operations School.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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