By Dr. Kaylene Hughes, AMCOM HistorianNovember 17, 2017
by Dr. Kaylene Hughes, Historian
Prior to its provisional standup in Jul. 1997, the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command's (AMCOM's) predecessor missile and aviation organizations had cooperated to help develop, field, and sustain the armed helicopters that became an iconic part of the Army's weapon inventory because of their extensive use in the jungles of South Vietnam from 1961 to 1973.
In addition to prompting the outfitting of some older model aircraft with already extant smaller missiles, the conflict in Southeast Asia (SEA) sparked or accelerated new projects for attack, cargo, observation, and utility helicopters being managed from cradle to grave by ATCOM's aviation predecessors. At Redstone Arsenal, the Missile Command (MICOM) oversaw missile programs of similar scope designed to provide the Army's rotary wing aircraft with the highly accurate and lethal firepower needed to confront then current as well as future threats to the nation's security.
Simultaneously, the extensive use of both fixed and rotary wing aircraft, rockets and missiles such as the 2.75-inch folding fin aircraft rocket (FFAR), SS-11 antitank missile, HAWK, and the Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided (TOW), along with other materiel translated into a major supply challenge for the Army. The escalation of the U.S. commitment in Vietnam under the Johnson administration required the Army to create and sustain a logistical pipeline 9,000 to 11,000 miles long essential for support of the large numbers of soldiers deployed to fight in a non-conventional theater of operations in a part of the world little-known to most Americans before 1965.
Compounding the plethora of issues confronting Army logisticians was the fact that the Department of Defense (DoD) launched a major buildup in Vietnam before logistics requirements could be determined or a logistical base could be established to provide for the orderly management of and needed accounting methods for the rapid inflow of materiel and supplies into SEA.
Charged with helping to meet the unprecedented aviation and missile demands of combat in the RVN was the newly created U.S. Army Materiel Command (AMC) and its major subordinate commands (MSCs) in St. Louis, Missouri, and Huntsville, Alabama. Their combined efforts dovetailed with actions undertaken by various organizations at the DoD and Department of the Army (DA) levels to ensure the efficient movement of materiel needed to sustain U.S. operations in SEA.
The Conflict in Vietnam. American involvement in the conflict in Southeast Asia first began in the late 1940s, when the United States contributed supplies and materiel to the French under a series of treaties with that country. When French troops left in 1954, American military advisors started entering South Vietnam. The United States also supplied military materiel to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) under provisions of the Southeast Treaty Organization (SEATO) established on Feb. 19, 1955 by a collective defense pact signed by eight member nations reminiscent of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Subsequently, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established a Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) to supervise and coordinate this support program; the group later assumed responsibility for organizing and training South Vietnamese armed forces. In Dec. 1961, after the Viet Cong assassinated and kidnapped several RVN government officials and supporters, President John F. Kennedy approved additional aid that included two aviation companies and a small logistical team of less than 500 personnel. That same month, the 400 soldiers of the 57th and 8th Transportation Companies (Light Helicopter) arrived in-country accompanied by 32 of their 44 organic rotary wing aircraft.
The United States created the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in Feb. 1962 and placed the MAAG under its jurisdiction. By year's end, U.S. advisors in-country controlled U.S. helicopter missions supporting the Army, Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). On Jan. 2, 1963, the two light helicopter transportation companies began combat operations. In Apr. 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the deployment of U.S. combat troops to Vietnam, and on Jul. 20, 1965, the U.S. Army, Vietnam (USARV) was established.
The first U.S. Army combat troops arrived in the RVN on May 5, 1965. This began eight years of active Army combat in the decades-old struggle of the South Vietnamese government to repel attacks on its independent republic by the Viet Cong (VC) and Viet Minh (VM). The VC, or National Liberation Front, were the anti-RVN, communist guerilla forces that fought the United States in South Vietnam and Cambodia. The VM were a Communist front organization originally founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1941 to resist the Japanese invaders, overthrow French colonial rule, and eventually fight to rejoin North and South Vietnam under the rule of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), as the North was known officially.
By Jan. 1969, the number of U.S. military personnel in-theater peaked at 542,400; over two-thirds (365,000) of that force were U.S. Army soldiers. In Jun. 1969, President Richard M. Nixon announced a new policy of "Vietnamization" designed to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War through a program to "expand, equip, and train South Vietnam's forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops."
The drawdown of American troops from SEA started that same year, and by Aug. 31, 1972, all Army ground combat units had left the RVN. The soldiers remaining in-country after that date reverted to providing air cavalry, gunship, and lift support to South Vietnamese troops. In some companies the steady withdrawal of U.S. troops meant that as many as 25 percent of the soldiers assigned to a maintenance company served on guard duty at any given time, defending the remaining American installations still operating in the RVN.
The United States signed a cease-fire agreement on Jan. 27, 1973, which included provisions for withdrawing the remaining 24,000 U.S. military personnel, all of whom had left South Vietnam by Mar. 28. The Department of the Army deactivated the USARV that same day, thereby officially ending the Army's role in the Vietnam conflict.
During the period between Dec. 11, 1961 and Mar. 28, 1973, the number of Army aircraft in Vietnam, 90 percent of which were helicopters, steadily grew from the initial 32 aircraft to a peak of 4,228 on Sep. 30, 1969. By the end of U.S. involvement in the conflict, Army aircraft had flown almost 15.3 million hours, carried over 5 million tons of cargo, and transported over 40 million passengers.
Logistical Challenges. The war in Vietnam was unlike any other U.S. Army combat experience up to that time. It was a war fought essentially by small units in constant pursuit of an elusive enemy. The basic strategy was one of "search and destroy" involving mostly small, isolated actions consisting of ground and air assaults mounted from numerous isolated base camps scattered throughout the RVN. The relative degree of security varied by time and place, with logistics facilities and operations at all levels frequently coming under attack.
The war required new tactics and new weapons to counter the enemy, whose key strategy was to retain the initiative through offensive stratagems such as raids, ambushes, or attack by fire. The latter was a tactical mission task in which direct fire, supported by indirect fire, was used to engage but not close with ARVN or U.S. forces in an effort to destroy, suppress, pin down, or manipulate them.
Intent on inflicting casualties as well as destroying equipment and installations, the Viet Cong and their Viet Minh allies normally did not occupy, hold, or fight to protect their own strategic positions, instead attempting to mass, attack, and withdraw before their opponents could react. The survival of the lightly-equipped VC and VM depended on their mobility and skill at quickly disengaging from or avoiding contact with ARVN and U.S. troops.
Because the heavy vegetation of SEA provided excellent cover for the lightly loaded, easily hidden enemy combatants, the war in Vietnam intensified the Army's push to develop aircraft capable of finding an enemy who was hard to pin down. Introduced first during the Korean War, the helicopter proved to be extremely important in such a combat zone and added new dimensions in both mobility and airborne firepower.
U.S. and allied tactics centered around detailed reconnaissance, airmobile maneuver, and overwhelming firepower. Unlike previous wars, there were few objectives of terrain for the ARVN and its American and SEATO allies. Consequently, the latter groups' main targets were the individual enemy units wherever they could be found throughout South Vietnam.
In Vietnam, the armed helicopter became one of the Army's most versatile weapons carriers. One of the major artillery innovations of the war was aerial rocket artillery (ARA), the main armament of which was the M3/2.75-inch FFAR system mounted on UH-1 Iroquois (more commonly known as Huey) helicopters and later on the Huey Cobra. The ARA also used the SS-11 antitank wire guided missiles, which were valuable against point targets such as enemy bunkers.
Because of the extreme length of the logistical supply line, problems caused by the rapid buildup of combat forces before adequate logistical support could be established, an immature logistical theater, the inaccessibility of up-to-date communications and lack of sufficient automatic data processing (ADP) resources, many of the widely accepted techniques and assumptions about supply held valid in conventional warfare did not apply in the harsh, primitive jungle environment of Southeast Asia.
These problems were complicated further by the fact that the Army's logistics structure in the Pacific region was undergoing significant changes. DA's wholesale logistics system by 1965 was completely dependent on computers. However, the U.S. Army, Pacific (USARPAC) Inventory Control Point (ICP) in Hawaii, established in 1963 to provide a centralized source of logistics data for the Pacific theater, was still working out ADP implementation problems when the SEA buildup began in 1965. Consequently, it did not have the capability to function as a central source of information, particularly for the expanded wartime requirements of Vietnam.
Other logistical challenges identified by AMC early in the period of rapid deployment of combat troops after Apr. 1965 included a shortage of deep water ports, suitable warehouses, and enough depots in the RVN, along with a serious scarcity in essential materiel handling equipment and trained personnel for the rapid unloading, storage, and distribution of cargo in-theater. Another issue confronting AMC, its subordinate commands, and other organizations helping to sustain the force in Vietnam was a lack of readily available spare and repair parts partially as a result of ineffective item management, diminished inventory accountability, and loss of item visibility as materiel shipped to SEA "disappeared" into in-country storage or was "lost" in a mass of poorly identified shipping packages, boxes, and containers.
In addition, the lack of adequate ADP and modern communications equipment in-country resulted in a degraded system for "developing and maintaining responsive, accurate supply distribution facilities." These problems mounted to such an extent by Dec. 1965 that a significant bottleneck began to block the vital supply chain at a time when large numbers of American troops were inbound to the theater of operations. Additional logistical confusion stemmed from an initial lack of consistent customer assistance as well as a multiplicity of makes and models for various equipment and materiel that adversely impacted the capability of the Army pipeline to supply an almost overwhelming assortment of spare and repair parts in a timely manner.
Logistical Solutions. Numerous studies undertaken throughout the Vietnam era by DoD, DA, and AMC identified several ever-changing problems that had to be resolved by refining then current practices, devising new solutions for unprecedented problems, and proactively innovating to accommodate the demands of evolving strategy and tactics, changes in the tempo of combat operations, and the requirements of more modern technology. This was especially true for the growing numbers and changing types of Army aircraft deployed to Southeast Asia. One crucial logistical remedy supported extensively by ATCOM's predecessor aviation commands was the Red Ball Express System named for the "legendary (logistical) lifeline" of World War II.
To fulfill the unique supply needs of the situation in Vietnam, the Army established special procedures for high priority items. Some of these management devices were adopted later for use elsewhere. One such process was the Red Ball Express (RBE) system that came into being as a result of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's Nov. 1965 visit to the RVN. The Army used RBE to expedite the delivery from the Continental United States (CONUS) of repair parts causing equipment deadlined for parts (EDPs). Organized under the direction of the Defense Supply Agency (DSA), the main feature of the RBE system activated on Dec. 2, 1965 was the direct dispatch of EDP requisitions to CONUS, bypassing the USARPAC supply system.
The Aviation Systems Command (AVSCOM) in St. Louis immediately established its key Red Ball role by establishing an RBE Project Office on Dec. 7. Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the AVSCOM office allowed 24 hours for processing requisitions and locating equipment which it then dispatched to Travis Air Force Base, California, where Military Airlift Command (MAC) C-141s awaited loads for delivery to SEA.
Less than a year after it started, the RBE system helped to remove 7,000 aircraft from deadline, which as AMC Commander Frank S. Besson noted "meant that each Army aircraft in Vietnam had received a Red Ball part two or three times." By Jul. 1966, the Red Ball Express system had achieved an almost 95 percent answer rate to the expedited requisitions flowing in from the RVN. In Jan. 1967, the Army further refined the system to allow commanders in Vietnam to requisition parts in anticipation of deadlines expected within the next 13 days. Known as RBE Expanded (RBX), this aspect of the Red Ball system operated until Jul. 23, 1970.
Used to support all kinds of equipment in-theater, by 1968, Red Ball, had airlifted "more than 49,000 short tons of cargo" to SEA and was receiving approximately 4,000 requisitions from the war zone each week. But the true "significance of the Red Ball system was in its timeliness.... Its importance was not in its bulk but in its responsiveness to critical requirements."
Also in 1968, the Army Aeronautical Depot Maintenance Center (ARADMAC), Corpus Christi, Texas, inaugurated a DA-approved Special Assignment Airlift Mission (SAAM) which involved the direct airlift of helicopter engines to Vietnam. The shipment of 38 engines aboard a MAC C-141 departed the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station on May 29 headed for the Aviation Materiel Management Center (AMMC) depots located at Tan Son Nhut and Phu Cat, Vietnam. By the end of the year, 3,169 engines had been airlifted in 88 flights.
According to a Gateway Reporter article of May 29, 1969, "Not only has the shipping time been drastically reduced but in less than a year, over $300,000 in shipping costs has already been realized by use of SAAM aircraft. More important, this reduction in shipping time has provided a sufficient number of reparable engines for induction into the overhaul system at ARADMAC, that now maximum capacity of the overhaul line is being maintained. Up to a 30-day stockage of serviceable assets is now on hand in Vietnam; thus eliminating Red Ball requirements for all turbine engines."
That same year, another aviation RBE milestone was achieved in July when AVSCOM's Red Ball Overseas Branch announced the receipt of its 100,000th requisition. A similar "red letter day" for the Aviation System Command's RBE operations occurred on May 12, 1970 when the Red Ball representative at the Boeing-Vertol plant in Morton, Pennsylvania, reported that the facility had processed its 10,000th AVSCOM RBE requisition.
The successful implementation of the Red Ball Express System helped make possible the "remarkable logistics achievement of the U.S. Army in Vietnam." As LTG Joseph M. Heiser, Jr., who served during the Vietnam conflict as Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff, Logistics (Supply and Maintenance) in Headquarters, DA and as Commanding General of the 1st Logistical Command, Vietnam, remarked a decade after hostilities had ceased, "At no time was logistics support a constraint on a major logistical operation. This record was made despite the conditions which imposed a fantastic strain on logistics operations and which offered an enormous challenge to all logisticians."