In First Test of New Concept, Air Cavalry Charges NVA

On June 15, 1965, the U.S. Army introduced a new approach in combined-arms warfare when it established the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), which redefined the cavalry concept to supplant horses with UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopters. The division used coordinated air assault troops, artillery and helicopters in scouting, transport and ground attack roles to outmaneuver, encircle, fix and destroy enemy forces. Deployed by itself or in cooperation with other U.S. Army and South Vietnamese units, the Air Cav offered unprecedented mobility to the allied forces in Vietnam.

U.S. intelligence estimated in July 1965 that 7,500 North Vietnamese Army soldiers were in South Vietnam—distinct from 245,000 South Vietnamese communist guerrillas, or Viet Cong. In November 1965 the 1st Cav had its first head-on encounter with the NVA. The bloody four-day battle in the Ia Drang Valley gave each side the opportunity to take the other’s measure at a heavy cost for both.

In US Air Cavalry Trooper versus North Vietnamese Soldier, military historian Chris McNab skips that first contact, which has received more than its share of coverage. He compares the men, equipment, strategy and tactics of both forces in the many clashes that followed from 1965 to 1968, when NVA strength in the South had risen to 55,000—and would continue to grow.

Essentially a light infantry force, the NVA had few vehicles and no aircraft in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, the North Vietnamese adapted their tactics to make the most of the terrain and set up ambushes that allowed them to fight at close quarters, reducing the Americans’ ability to bring in their air power, including the choppers, which would face the NVA’s formidable 12.7 mm machine guns. The ambushers then broke up into small units to escape the area and regroup later.

The different strengths of the two combatants are analyzed in Operation Masher (Jan. 28-Feb. 3, 1966), Operation Crazy Horse (May 16-June 5, 1966) and the Battle of Tam Quan (Dec. 6-20, 1967), all of which ended in tactical victories for the Air Cav, but strategically did little to stop the NVA over the long term. US Air Cavalry Trooper versus North Vietnamese Soldier helps explain that paradox. V

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