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Royal Marines Commandos preparing to abseil down from a Royal Marines Lynx helicopter from 847 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), used in utility support of 3 Commando Brigade. They can also act as attack helicopters with the addition of 2 pods of 4 TOW wire-guided anti-tank missiles.

Air assault is the movement of ground-based military forces, most commonly infantry, by VTOL aircraft such as the helicopter to seize and hold key terrain which has not been fully secured and to directly engage and destroy enemy forces [1]. In addition to regular infantry training, these units usually receive training in rappelling and air transportation, and their equipment is sometimes designed or field modified to allow better transportation in helicopters.

Due to the transport load restrictions of helicopters, air assault forces are usually light infantry though light tracked armored fighting vehicles like the Russian BMD-1, German Wiesel 1 and Swedish Bv206 designed to fit the heavy lift helicopters which enable assaulting forces to combine air mobility with a degree of ground mechanisation. Invariably the assaulting troops are highly dependent on aerial fire support provided by escorting armed helicopters or fixed wing aircraft.

Air assault should not be confused with an airborne assault when infantry called paratroopers, and their weapons and supplies, are dropped by parachute from transport aircraft, often as part of a strategic offensive operation. Another form of delivering troops to an area of combat operations by air which is not a type of air assault is called air landing, and can involve either glider infantry, before and during the Second World War, or almost any type of Combat Arms or Combat Support Arms troops using an already-secured airhead to form an airbridge for a larger airlift operation. An air landing airlift is also conducted as part of a strategic offensive operation.


Organization and employment

Air Assault and Air Mobility are related concepts, however Air Assault is distinctly a combat insertion rather than a transportation to an area in the vicinity of combat. "Air assault operations are not merely movements of soldiers, weapons, and materiel by Army aviation units and must not be construed as such." [2]

Air assault units can vary in organization, using helicopters not only in transport but as close air fire support, medical evacuation helicopters and resupply missions. Air mobile artillery is often assigned to air assault deployments. Units vary in size, but typically are company to brigade sized units. Even in the largest air assaults only a maximum of a battalion is lifted at any one time due to safety and tactical considerations.[3]

A Royal Navy Seaking Helicopter delivers artillery to Royal Marine Commandos deployed on exercise.

Airmobile units are designed and trained for air insertion for vertical envelopment ("a tactical maneuver in which troops, either air-dropped or air-landed, attack the rear and flanks of a force, in effect cutting off or encircling the force".[4]) air resupply, and if necessary air extraction.

One specific type of air assault unit is the US Army air cavalry. It differs from regular air assault units only in fulfilling a traditional cavalry reconnaissance and short raids role. Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade was formed in 1999 following an amalgamation of elements of 5th Infantry Brigade (5 Airborne Brigade) and 24 Airmobile Brigade, bringing together the agility and reach of airborne forces with the potency of the attack helicopter[5]. Similarly, the US 101st Airborne Division was originally classed as airborne, was airmobile and is now air assault.

First Air Assault

On November 5, 1956 the Royal Marines' 45 Commando performed the world's first combat helicopter insertion and air assault during an amphibious landing as part of Operation Musketeer, in Suez, Egypt[6]. They were flown in Westland Whirlwind Mark 2s of 845 Naval Air Squadron from the deck of the HMS Theseus, and Whirlwinds and Bristol Sycamore HC.12s and HC.14s of the Joint Experimental Helicopter Unit (JEHU) of the RAF from the deck of HMS Ocean. 178 Officers and 2,300 NCO’s & men of the Royal Marines were deployed in the operation overall. Four Royal Navy carriers and three cruisers of the naval force also had RM detachments. The Royal Marines suffered 9 dead and 60 wounded, many of the latter surviving due to the speed with which they received medical treatment by being returned to the carriers by helicopters. The British helicopters the first to ever do so, had managed to land a large formation in the battle area: with 415 men and 23 tons of stores put down in 83 minutes. A tactical success, the operations were overshadowed by the political failure of the conflict.[7]

Royal Marines from 40 Commando go into a huddle as the Royal Navy Seaking helicopter that flew them in takes off.


Air mobility has been a key concept in offensive operations since the 1930s. Initial approaches to air mobility focused on airborne and glider-borne troops. American forces later used air mobile, support and transport to great effect during the Korean War showing that the helicopter could be a versatile and powerful military tool. [8]

Paratroopers were dropped by the Luftwaffe during Operation Plan Yellow in May 1940 in Holland and Belgium, the Battle of Crete, and by the Allies during Sicily, Normandy, and Holland operations. Meanwhile, the Germans were using helicopters such as the Focke Achgelis Fa 223 and Flettner Fl 265 to rescue shot down Luftwaffe pilots. The small batch of Flettner 265s were operated off ships in the Baltic Sea and were fitted with rescue winches. Fl 282s were used in many combat theatres, both land and sea and the large transport Fa 223s was even involved in rescues of civilians. The Fa 223 was used to airlift mountain infantry with 75mm guns and all their ammunition in the Alps close to Innsbruck.

Airborne tactics in WWII differed between nationalities and theaters of war. In Europe, Allied airborne tactics often involved broad area landings in advance of ground forces, with limited reinforcement. The airborne forces then linked up with the ground forces when they arrived.

The Luftwaffe tactic in Holland and Crete was to establish an airhead at an airfield using parachute and glider infantry similar to a beachhead in amphibious operations and rapidly reinforce the airhead with specially trained troops, such as the 22.Luftlandeinfanteriedivision, in military transport aircraft. In the Pacific Theatre, Allied forces performed a similar airborne landings of the Australian 7th Division at Nadzab, west of Lae, between 7-9 and 12 September, with American paratroopers of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment taking the airhead and the 7th Division providing the reinforcing infantry in conventional transports. This operation follows the model of an air landing operation of today.

Units like the 1st Air Commando Group performed extensive aerial resupply using gliders and conventional transports in the China-Burma-India theater (CBI). The Germans fielded the first troop carrying helicopter, the FA-223 in WW2 and would have used it to rescue Italian dictator Mussolini after the glider assault had their aircraft not needed repairs at the time. In its stead, a short take-off and landing (STOL) Fieseler Storch observation plane was used to fly him to safety. The United States Army Air Forces flew Sikorsky R-4 helicopters in the China Burma India Theater, performing the first allied helicopter casualty evacuation. The helicopter on that mission could only carry one person other than the pilot. They also used the R-6 which could carry two casualties in pods on the side of the helicopter. All Allied helicopter pilots in WWII were trained by the United States Coast Guard at Brooklyn Air Station.

In 1946 U.S. Marine General Roy S. Geiger observed the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll and instantly recognized that atomic bombs could render amphibious landings difficult because of the dense concentrations of troops, ships and material at the beachhead. The Commandant of the Marine Corps convened a special board, the Hogaboom Board, that recommended that the USMC develop transport helicopters in order to allow a more diffused attack on enemy shores. It also recommended that the USMC form an experimental helicopter squadron and HMX-1 was commissioned in 1947 with Sikorsky HO3S-1s. In 1948 the Marine Corps Schools came out with Amphibious Operations—Employment of Helicopters (Tentative), or Phib-31, which was the first manual for helicopter airmobile operations. The Marines used the term vertical envelopment instead of air mobility or air assault. HMX-1 performed its first vertical envelopment from the deck of an aircraft carrier in an exercise in 1949.

Korean War

After the start of the Korean War, four HMX-1 helicopters were attached to VMO-6 and sent to the Pusan Perimeter in 1950. They were used for battlefield observation and control as well as medical evacuation and the rescue of fliers. During the Battle of Chosin Reservoir they were used for liaison between the different Marine units strung along the western edge of the Chosin Reservoir. The Marines began commissioning transport helicopter squadrons flying Sikorsky HRS-1s in 1951. After moving to Korea, these units began performing aerial resupply and aerial assault missions. HMR-161 transported over 200 Marines and 18,000 pounds of cargo in the first helicopter vertical envelopment Operation Summit in September 1951. 3rd Battalion 7th Marines was the first battalion to be operationally air mobilised, in October 1951 in Operation Bumblebee.

In addition, the U.S. Army had their first combat test of the Piasecki H-21 helicopter in Korea. It was unofficially called the "Flying Banana" because of its banana-like appearance.

General James Gavin, the famous U.S. Army airborne officer, wrote a passionate article in the popular press in 1954, criticizing what he considered the 'deification of heavy equipment'[9] by the military of the day and the consequent loss of speed and agility in conventional warfare, including Korea - Gavin's solution was the greater use of airmobility. This article was influential in encouraging elements of the U.S. Army to start considering airmobile-type operations, but the Army was held back by the U.S. Air Force, which thought that it should control all aircraft including helicopters that would be used to support the Army.

Post Korean War

Helicopter use in Indochina in the 1950s by the French Army was limited by the limited availability and capability of the helicopters of the time. One early attempt to apply air mobility to warfare in this conflict was the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. French military leaders believed that they could resupply the highland garrison there by air indefinitely, drawing the fight away from the vulnerable coastal areas and over-coming the challenges of land-supply lines. In practice, the vigorous Viet Minh assault on the base combined with the weaknesses in the air technology and materiel available, the means in which it was employed, and the terrain and geography itself to lead to the surrender of French troops.[10] The primary use of the helicopter in this conflict was in medical evacuation, but the utility of the helicopter was obvious to forward looking military planners.

The French Army subsequently gained considerable further valuable experience during the Algerian War between 1954 and 1962. The French used American helicopters for what was termed "Aeromobilité", linking the isolated villages and towns of what the Arabs term al-jazair, or 'the islands', into a single campaign.[11] The first air assault operations were small, but quickly grew in size and scope to full battalion sized actions. French Army Light Aviation (Aviation Legère Armee de Terre, ALAT) helicopters were used as flying command posts, equipped with radios and to carry troops directly into battle. Helicopters were also used to supply units in the field and outposts.

In 1956 the U.S. Navy modified and recommissioned the USS Thetis Bay, a WWII escort carrier, as an Assault Helicopter Aircraft Carrier (CVHA-1). It was the first ship purposely modified for air assault operations. The Marines started receiving their much-used Sikorsky HUS helicopters in 1957. They would be redesignated as UH-34s in 1962. Later three WWII Essex-class fleet carriers were also converted and in 1961 the U.S. Navy commissioned the USS Iwo Jima, the first carrier planned and built as a platform for air assault operations.

Vietnam War

Extraction of troops after an airmobile assault during the Vietnam War.

U.S. Army CH-21 helicopter transports arrived in Vietnam on 11 December 1961. Air assault operations using South Vietnamese (ARVN) troops began 12 days later in Operation Chopper. These were very successful at first but the Viet Cong (VC) began developing counter helicopter techniques and at Ap Bac on January 1963, 13 of 15 helicopters were hit and four shot down. The Army began adding machine guns and rockets to their smaller UH-1 Huey helicopters and developed the first purpose built gunship, the UH-1B with the M-6E3 armament system.

U.S. Marine helicopter squadrons began four month rotations through Vietnam as part of Operation SHUFLY on 15 April 1962. Six days later, they performed the first helicopter assault using U.S. Marine helicopters and ARVN troops. After April 1963 as losses began to mount, U.S. Army UH-1 Huey gunships escorted the Marine transports. The VC again used effective counter landing techniques and in Operation Sure Wind 202 on 27 April 1964, 17 of 21 helicopters were hit and three shot down.

The 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines made a night helicopter assault in the Elephant Valley south of Da Nang on 12 August 1965 shortly after Marine ground troops arrived in country. On 17 August 1965 in Operation Starlite the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines landed in three helicopter landing zones (LZs) west of the 1st VC Regiment in the Van Tuong village complex, 12 miles (19 km) south of Chu Lai, while the 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines used seaborne landing craft on the beaches to the east. The transport helicopters were 24 UH-34s from HMM-361 and HMM-261 escorted by Marine and Army Hueys. VC losses were 614 killed, Marine losses were 45 KIA and 203 WIA.

The need for a new type of unit became apparent to the Tactical Mobility Requirements Board (normally referred to as the Howze Board) of the U.S. Army in 1962. The Board met at a difficult time; the bulk of the military hierarchy were focused primary on the Soviet threat to Western Europe, primarily perceived as requiring heavy, conventional units. The creation of new, light airmobile units could only occur at the expense of heavier units. At the same time, the incoming Kennedy administration was placing a much greater emphasis on the need to fight 'small wars', or counter-insurgencies, and was strongly supportive of officers such as General Howse who were embracing new technologies.[12] The Board concluded that a new form of unit would be required, and commissioned tests - but justified these at the time on the need to fight a conventional war in Europe.[13]

Initially a new experimental unit was formed at Fort Benning, Georgia, the 11th Air Assault Division on 11 February 1963, combining light infantry with integral helicopter transport and air support. Opinions vary as to the level of support for the concept within the Army; some have argued that the initial tests against the context of conventional warfare did not prove promising, and, despite opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it was primarily the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who pushed through the changes in 1965, drawing on support from within the Pentagon which had now begun to establish a counter-insurgency doctrine that would require just such a unit.[14] Others have put more weight on the support of newly appointed senior Army commanders, including the new Chief of Staff General Wheeler, in driving through the changes.[15]

Nonetheless, the 11th Air Assault Division assets were merged with the co-located 2nd Infantry Division and reflagged as the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), continuing the tradition of the 1st Cavalry Division. Within several months it was sent to Viet Nam and the concept of air mobility became bound up with the challenges of that campaign, especially its varied terrain - the jungles, mountains, and rivers which complicated ground movement.

The first unit of the new division to see action was the 1st Battalion/U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore, an old army paratrooper. The 7th Cavalry was the same regiment that Custer had commanded at the ill fated Battle of the Little Bighorn. On November 14, 1965, he led his troops in the first large unit engagement of the 1960s Vietnam War, which took place near the Chu Pong massif near the Vietnam-Cambodia border. It is known today as the Battle of Ia Drang Valley.

This unit gave common currency to the U.S. term Air Cavalry. Units of this type may also be referred to as Airmobile or with other terms that describe the integration of air and ground combat forces within a single unit.


An important measure during an air assault: securing the landing zone.

In the United States military, the air assault mission is now the primary role of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). This unit is the Army's only division-sized helicopter-borne fighting force. Many of its soldiers are graduates of the Air Assault course qualifying them to insert and extract using fast rope and rappel means from a hover in addition to the ordinary walk on and off from an airlanded helicopter. Since the 101st relinquished its parachute capability in 1968, the 82nd Airborne Division is the United States Army's remaining parachute division.

The 10th Mountain Division Light Infantry regularly perform air assault operations, as do many other US Army infantry units. On September 19, 1994, the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division conducted the Army’s first air assault from an aircraft carrier. This force consisted of 54 helicopters and almost 2,000 soldiers. This was the Army's largest operation from an aircraft carrier since the Doolittle Raid of WWII.

All U.S. Marine Corps ground units are trained in basic air assault tactics and capable of performing heliborne operations that require them to walk off the airlanded helicopter. The U.S. Marines also specialize in conducting air assault that launches from specialized helicopter carrying naval ships during amphibious warfare.

There are other major "conventional" units in the United States Army that have parachute capabilities; the separate 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, based in Italy and Germany, and the Alaska-based 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, which has its division headquarters in Hawaii, and the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry Regiment based in Fort Polk, Louisiana supporting the Joint Readiness Training Center as the opposing force for training rotational units. The 173rd ABCT parachuted into Northern Iraq during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. These units are considered regional quick reaction parachute forces for the Pacific and Atlantic regions.

The 16th Air Assault Brigade of the British Army is Britain's main air assault body. It comprises units of paratroopers from the Parachute Regiment and light infantry units trained in helicopter insertion, as well as light tanks and artillery.

Britain's 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marinesare also highly experienced in air assault, both for boarding ships and in land attacks, see article above.








 Republic of China (Taiwan)

  • 601 Air Calvary Brigade
  • 602 Air Calvary Brigade
  • 603 Air Calvary Brigade



  • 25th Air Cavalry Brigade

 South Africa


 Sri Lanka


  • 61st Air Assault Brigade

 United Kingdom

 United States

  • 101st Airborne Division
    • 1st Brigade Combat Team
    • 2nd Brigade Combat Team
    • 3rd Brigade Combat Team
    • 4th Brigade Combat Team
    • 101st Combat Aviation Brigade
    • 159th Combat Aviation Brigade

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ pp.217-218, Scales & Scales
  4. ^ vertical envelopment,, Retrieved 2009-12-03. Quotes "The Oxford Essential Dictionary of the U.S. Military").
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ PDF from the Royal Marines Museum of the Suez deployment
  8. ^
  9. ^ Gavin, James. "Cavalry, and I Don't Mean Horses." Harper's (April 1954), p54.
  10. ^ See for example the challenges noted in Windrow, Martin The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Vietnam Cassell, London (2005), pp.437-8.
  11. ^ Polk, William R. Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism and Guerrilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq Harper: New York (2007), p.125.
  12. ^ Freedman, Lawrence Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam Oxford University Press: Oxford (2000) pp.334-5.
  13. ^ Krepinevich, Andrew F. The Army and Vietnam John Hopkins Press: Baltimore (1986) pp.121-2.
  14. ^ Krepinevich, Andrew F. The Army and Vietnam John Hopkins Press: Baltimore (1986) p.124.
  15. ^ Stockfisch, J. A. The 1962 Howze board and Army Combat Developments Rand Corporation: Santa Monica, C.A. (1994) pp9-10.
  16. ^ Sri Lanka Army Air Mobile Brigade Air Mobile Brigade (Sri Lanka)


  • Scales, Robert H. & Scales, Jr., Robert H., Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War, Brassey's, 1994

External links


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