1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry troopers landing at LZ X-Ray1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry troopers landing at LZ X-Ray

Sgt Luis Carlos Bergenthal Júnior

The Vietnam War was the first in which helicopters played a key role in various aspects of military operations: transport of heavy objects; fire support to troops; rescue of downed pilots; refueling of isolated fire support bases; psychological warfare; casualty evacuation; and transport of authorities. In addition, the helicopter took troops to the battlefield, replaced the jeeps and trucks of earlier wars, and ushered in an entirely new form of warfare – airborne operations.

Large formations of helicopters transported entire divisions of soldiers to the scene of the action to augment American involvement in the Vietnam War. The U.S. Armed Forces lost nearly 5,000 helicopters in Vietnam, half of which were shot down by the enemy.

The first helicopters used in Vietnam were propelled by piston engines. The most widely used model was the Sikorsky CH-34 choctaw, used by the Marines or Marines and the South Vietnamese Air Force until the late 1960s as the main assault helicopter. Like the French in Algeria, the Americans and South Vietnamese soon discovered the great mobility of the helicopter which, unlike jeeps and trucks, could traverse Vietnam’s dense forests and mountainous and river regions at much greater speeds than wheeled vehicles, while carrying a large amount of men and equipment.

The Battle of la Drang was the first major battle fought between the United States Army and the Vietnam People’s Army (more precisely the first combat fought by the Americans against the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War). The battle took place in two parts: on November 14 and 18, 1965, in two landing zones (ZPH) northwest of Plei Me in the highlands of South Vietnam (approximately 56 km southwest of Pleiku). The name of the battle derives from the Drang River, which runs through the valley northeast of Plei Me, where the main fighting took place. “Ia” means “river” in the Montagnard language.

The Americans had two battalions of the 7th Cavalry Regiment and the 5th Army Cavalry Regiment. The Vietnamese had five Army battalions in the region, plus help from the Viet Cong guerrillas. The Americans often had to launch their bombers, fighters and helicopters very close to where the fighting was taking place. This was the beginning of the use of helicopters in an airborne operations concept.

Mobile operations (Op Amv) are those conducted by helicopters or mobile forces (F Amv), in order to fulfill combat, combat support, and logistical support missions for the benefit of a particular Land Force element. Aeromobile operations are normally used in deep areas that are poorly defended or unoccupied by the opponent.

Eventually, aeromobile operations may also be conducted in areas occupied by better organized enemy forces, provided they are preceded by neutralizing aerial bombardments or intense artillery fire. Electronic warfare measures must also be employed against enemy command and control systems and air defense weapons that could interfere with operations.

In the early hours of May 2, 2011, the death of Osama Bin Laden, leader of the Al-Qaeda group and responsible for the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers (Word Trade Center) and the Pentagon, was announced.

The military operation, called “Operation Neptune’s Spear,” took place in Pakistan and was led by U.S. Navy Development Operations Group (DEVGRU) soldiers, known as Navy SEAL Team Six, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents, who left the U.S. base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, crossed the border, and attacked the target on his property in Abbottabad, using helicopters.

Mark Owen, pseudonym given to the member of the US Navy’s elite group (DVGRU), wrote the book “No easy day”, telling the details of “Operation Neptune’s Spear”: after September 11, 2001, the members of the DVGRU went on a mission-hopping spree in Iraq and Afghanistan, targeting Al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders.

The CIA obtained all information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts and, using intelligence techniques, was able to provide the operation’s executors with all available data for the success of the mission. In this operation, two teams and Black Hank helicopters modified with Stealth technology were used. Even though it was carried out by special forces soldiers, the operation was an aeromobile incursion.

Special operations (Op Esp) are those conducted by specially organized, trained, and equipped military forces in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments. They are intended to achieve military, political, informational, and/or economic objectives by employing specific military capabilities not found in conventional forces.

These operations often require covert, covert, or low visibility capabilities. Special operations may be conducted independently or in conjunction with operations of conventional forces and other government agencies, and may involve allied irregular indigenous forces as well as special operations forces (S ops) of allied nations.

They differ from conventional operations in the following aspects: degree of physical and political risk; use of peculiar tactics, techniques, and operational procedures; mode of employment; dependence on intense intelligence functionality; relative independence of support from friendly forces; and significant use of local resources in the area of operations.

Resupply and medevac at Landing Zone X-Ray. Photo by Joe Galloway

In Combat Ia Drang Valley and Operation Neptune’s Spear, most of the decision factors were different. Both operations had international repercussions, but took place in totally different terrain. The first in a jungle environment and the second in the city of Abbottabad/Pakistan in an urban environment.

The mission in Vietnam was an aeromobile assault, carried out by conventional troops trained for aeromobile operations. In Pakistan, it was an aeromobile incursion carried out by specialized troops (special forces). The two operations, even though they have a considered temporal distance, were aeromobile operations that had distinct missions, enemies, terrain and time. They were the same only in terms of the means used: rotary-wing aircraft and military helicopters in their respective eras.

Due to certain peculiarities such as surprise, flexibility, maneuverability, and opportunity, as well as the speed to quickly overcome great distances and terrain obstacles, the use of helicopters was of fundamental importance for the success and implementation of this employment modality in both missions, both in urban and jungle environments, with different enemies and different missions. Thus, it can be said that aeromobile operations have predominance over the others, and it is necessary to adapt our troops to this type of operation.


About the author

1º Sgt of Communications LUIS CARLOS BERGENTHAL JÚNIOR Has a degree in Public Security Technology. He concluded the Training Program for Adaptation to Aeromobile Operations. He was auxiliary of the Operations Section of the 23rd Jungle Logistics Battalion, communications platoon adjunct of the 13th Mechanized Communications Company and communications sergeant of the 3rd Combat Car Squadron of the 4th RCC. He is currently Chief of the Communications and Electronics Sector of the Florianópolis Garrison Hospital.

*** Translated by the DEFCONPress FYI Team ***

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