Anthony A. McIntire

"The Limits of Technology in Modern Warfare: Airmobility in the Ia Drang Campaign, 1965"

September 4, 1998

by David Jardini

Dr. Anthony A. McIntire initiated the 1998-99 Carnegie Mellon University Cold War Science and Technology colloquium on September 4 by presenting his paper, "The Limits of Technology in Modern Warfare: Airmobility in the Ia Drang Campaign, 1965." Dr. McIntire completed his Ph.D. under the direction of Vietnam War historian George C. Herring at the University of Kentucky in 1996. His dissertation, "The American Soldier in Vietnam," examines the experiences of American combat soldiers in that war. Dr. McIntire was appointed to Carnegie Mellon University's Cold War Science and Technology postdoctoral fellowship for the 1998-99 academic year, where he will be working on his latest project, a book exploring the technology of the Vietnam War.

Dr. McIntire's colloquium paper focuses on the construction, deployment and consequences of the American airmobility concept, using as a case study the first significant airmobility campaign--the Ia Drang campaign of 1965. McIntire situates the Ia Drang campaign within the larger contexts of the John F. Kennedy administration's policy concentration on counterinsurgency warfare and the nature of the Vietnamese conflict. First, he argues that Kennedy's military policy was geared to reverse President Dwight Eisenhower's strategy of "massive retaliation," under which Soviet aggression anywhere was to be met with a massive nuclear attack by the United States on the Soviet Union. Kennedy believed that this policy muscle-bound the United States, making it unable to deal with local "brush-fire" wars and guerrilla insurgencies. The collapse of the European colonial empires as well as perceived Soviet and Communist Chinese instigation promised to make such "wars of liberation" in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America the conflicts of the future. Kennedy and his Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, thus sought to reorient American military capabilities under the theme of "flexible response."

Airmobility was a key component of the Kennedy-McNamara counterinsurgency strategy. In April, 1962, McNamara formed the Houze committee and charged it with finding new and unorthodox ways of transporting troops and engaging guerrilla insurgencies. McIntire argues that the committee's principal doctrinal product--airmobility--represented the molding of a U.S. Army concept for fighting middle-intensity wars to fit within the Kennedy administration's obsession with technologically-driven counterinsurgency. The Houze committee envisioned, "airmobile divisions that would operate as integrated wholes, possessing air-maneuverable combat forces, reconnaissance, firepower, communications, and service support." The foundation of the airmobile concept was the turbine helicopter, which would provide three levels of functionality: transports, gunships, and supply ships. In operation, airmobile divisions would find the enemy (using helicopter or other reconnaissance), engage the enemy via the air assault of combat soldiers and artillery into the battle zone, then use speed and maneuverability to leapfrog over the retreating enemy, cutting off escape routes and bringing a decisive conclusion to the battle.

McIntire conceptualizes airmobility as a technological system and uses the Ia Drang campaign of 1965 to illustrate its employment and consequences. Here, he focuses on engagements between the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and North Vietnamese forces at landing zones X-ray and Albany in the Ia Drang valley. McIntire argues that airmobility worked, in its essence, in that it placed a powerful force into contact with the enemy in a remote jungle location in the shadow of an enemy stronghold. Indeed, airmobility technology was crucial in overcoming the incompetence of American battlefield leadership and avoiding the destruction of an entire U.S. battalion. However, the divergent lessons derived by the American and the North Vietnamese from the Ia Drang campaign set the tone for subsequent prosecution of the war--a disaster for the Americans.

On one hand, U.S. military leadership claimed that Ia Drang demonstrated the effectiveness of airmobility in forcing an elusive insurgent force into decisive battle. U.S. war strategy thus ossified around the airmobility doctrine, despite the numerous deficiencies in that strategy that the Ia Drang experience highlighted. Most importantly, McIntire argues, while airmobility did "win" by most conventional measures, the tactic did not contribute to the achievement of stated U.S. policy objectives in Vietnam: the creation of a strong, stable, non-Communist South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, took very different lessons away from the Ia Drang engagements. First, they learned that, like the French a decade earlier, the American's technological wizardry did not make them invulnerable. However, unlike the Americans, the North Vietnamese reoriented their military strategy as a result of the battles. Whereas they previously had entertained thoughts of a decisive, conventional military attack on South Vietnam, after Ia Drang the North Vietnamese reverted to a politically-oriented guerrilla warfare strategy that successfully adapted to the Americans' airmobility. McIntire concludes that while the Americans attempted unsuccessfully to impose a technological system on the Vietnamese conflict, their opponents concentrated on implementing a politically-oriented strategy which was far more relevant to the particular circumstances of the conflict.

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