US Army in Vietnam - Eagle Flight Operations; a method of employing heliborne forces in counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam


INTRODUCTION

An Eagle Flight operation was a tactical concept which involved the employment of a small, self-contained, and highly trained heliborne force. Tactical planning emphasised the use of this force to locate and engage the enemy or to pursue and attack an enemy which was fleeing from a larger friendly force. As an airmobile force it was also prepared to engage any enemy force which had been located and fixed by other friendly forces. The inherent flexibility of the Eagle Flight as a force that was ready for immediate commitment, either alone or in conjunction with other forces, was it's most significant feature.

An 'Eagle Flight' was a variation of the normal heliborne operations developed in Vietnam in order to:

As it's name implies, it was a force that was designed to search for, pursue and attack it's quarry.

AREA OF OPERATIONS

The Delta region of South Vietnam (IV Corps Tactical Zone) was an ideal area for the Viet Cong and insurgency operations. Characterised by it's lack of an adequate road network, great expanses of inundated land during the monsoon season, vast and intricate networks of tree-lined rivers and canals, and dense yet widely dispersed population centers, made it an extremely difficult area of operations for conventionally equipped land forces.

Finding, fixing and destroying the enemy in this type of terrain seriously challenged the imagination of US tactical planners. The Eagle Flight was an answer to this challenge and was created exactly for this particular area of operations. So successful was the concept of Eagle Flights that they were eventually adopted, with some adaptation, to any area which was suited to heliborne operations but in which the location, pursuit and destruction of enemy forces were principle problems.

OPERATIONS

i) Task Organisation

The basic Eagle Force consisted of four squads of soldiers, plus command elements - Company Commander, Executive Officer, four squad leaders and an optional Artillery Forward Observer - mounted in four troop carrying helicopters, as shown below. In the case of ARVN units, advisory elements such as a US Advisor and interpreter would also be present. As an aid to command and control, as well as for identification purposes in expediting loading and reloading, each person would wear a scarf or piece of cloth affixed to his uniform of an appropriate colour (red, green, blue and yellow).


"Eagle Leader"
Company Commander
Radio Operator
Artillery FO
1st squad
'RED TEAM'


Squad Leader
2nd Squad


'GREEN TEAM'


Executive Officer
Squad Leader
3rd Squad

'BLUE TEAM'

"Eagle Trail"
Squad Leader
4th Squad


'YELLOW TEAM'

ii) Planning Considerations

Several of the following considerations resulted directly from local conditions and which were peculiar to operations in RVN where, in particular, language difficulties were encountered in supporting an ARVN Eagle Force with armed escort helicopters operated by US personnel. In circumstances where the entire Eagle Force was manned by US personnel, several of the following considerations would have been unnecessary.

1. It was considered highly desirable that an additional flight of four troop carrying helicopters were available on standby commencing two hours after the initial operation started. These helicopters would be dispatched to the operational area to replace the original helicopters when refueling became necessary and thus would eliminate any delays in the conduct of the operations.

2.

When operating independently from other air-mobile or ground forces an Eagle Force would normally be supported by Tac Air.

3.

Helicopter availability often dictated alterations in the loading plans and in accommodating these changes the tactical integrity of the squads was always the primary concern. In operations involving ARVN with US support, any loading plan had to make provision for the need of maintaining the US Advisor in close proximity to his interpreter.

4.

An O-1 'Bird Dog' aircraft, capable of operating on the US radio net was essential for the purposes of spotting and marking, and to act as a radio relay as needed. In ARVN operations, a second O-1, operating on the ARVN radio net, was considered desirable.

5.

It was also highly desirable that the armed aircraft were be capable of communicating on the infantry FM net in order that air-ground operations could be coordinated effectively, especially in the case of ARVN operations where coordination between all ARVN forces and US units and personnel participating in the operation was the responsibility of the US Advisor on the ground. The US Advisor had a radio with him on the ground and would normally wear the crew chief's head set while airborne in the lead helicopter.

iii) Missions

Reconnaissance in Force

An Eagle Force, supported by Tac Air and with light observation aircraft attached, could be assigned the mission of probing for the enemy in several 25-50 square kilometer areas, depending on the population densities in those areas. Sectors of search were assigned to the observation aircraft which, operating 'on-the-deck' would report on fleeing groups, armed persons, camouflaged individuals and positions, concentrations of sampans and the general reactions of people in the search areas. They would also recommend possible landing zones.

The eagle Force commander would be responsible for target selection while orbiting in the lead helicopter and would perform closer inspections of the potential objectives. He would also coordinate landing and/or assault plans with the armed escort helicopters and Tac Air. The armed escort helicopters would make assault passes prior to landings by the troop carrying helicopters. The eagle Force would then land and assault the enemy or else screen the area and interrogate civilians.

During the course of this operation, reports were continuously made to higher headquarters using the airborne observation aircraft for radio relay where necessary. The observation aircraft also scouted beyond the area in an attempt to detect enemy forces who had reacted to the Eagle Force landing, either by fleeing or preparing to attack.

If no enemy contact was made, or upon completion of the action, a pickup was then arranged. The troop carrying helicopters, under the cover of the armed escort, complete the pickup and the Eagle Force was then ready to continue it's search or else pursue any enemy reported by the observation aircraft.

Reinforce an Airmobile Force

An Eagle Force could be committed to reinforcing an airmobile force. By scheduling the arrival of the Eagle Force on-station to coincide with the arrival of the initial lift of a heliborne force at it's objective, the Eagle Force was in a position to immediately engage any enemy fleeing the AO. 

Reinforce a Ground Force

An Eagle Force was quite capable of reinforcing a ground force by being placed on-station to operate in areas adjacent to the committed unit. In this situation, the armed escorts could perform low level search and target marking missions whilst coordination between the Eagle Force and the ground force could be accomplished as shown above.

Reinforce Itself

When heavy opposition was encountered by a committed Eagle Force, or if it was required to block an exit from the area of contact, the Eagle Force could reinforce itself quickly by using it's four empty troop carrying  helicopters to bring additional squads into action. Within a few minutes after receiving a request for assistance relayed from the Eagle Force commander, four squads of soldiers from the nearest unengaged friendly unit could be made ready for pickup. Since the helicopters were in radio contact with the requesting eagle Force's commander, the reinforcements could be briefed on the situation, assigned objectives and given landing instructions whilst enroute.

Reinforce Air Strikes

An eagle Force could be landed immediately following the completion of an air strike in order to inflict additional casualties and damage or to engage surviving elemets of an enemy force.

Vertical Blocking Force

In areas of generally open terrain, an Eagle Force could assist ground troops whose movement had become slowed or halted by fire from snipers or small groups of enemy in covered or concealed positions. The threat posed by the hovering Eagle Force and the fires of the armed escort helicopters were used to pin down the enemy while ground forces were maneuvered to destroy them.

Immediate Reaction Force

Of particular use and value was the ability of an Eagle Force to react immediately in support of isolated outposts or units. Upon request being made by such, either that intelligence suggested enemy activity in the area or that the outpost or unit was under attack, an Eagle Force could be dispatched to assault the enemy or reinforce the position.

Covering Force

An Eagle Force could be given a mission to provide cover for surface movement in the protection of boat and road traffic. Since this was considered to be a very costly mission in terms of forces and equipment it was only given in cases involving extremely high priority movements.

OPERATIONAL LIMITATIONS

In some respects the Eagle Force concept had inherent weaknesses. Some of those remained for the duration of the War whilst others (notably communications) were gradually minimised or eliminated through technological improvements. One of the most notable difficulties was that of language arising from the participation in operations by personnel of different nationalities. To overcome those problems it was necessary to employ additional communications equipment and procedures which were adapted to the conditions. This limitation was not a consideration in the operations of a homogeneous force.

The Eagle Force could not move by stealth since it's mode of transport advertised it's presence well in advance.

The force was dependent upon considerable support and the more independent it's mission, the more support it required. As a consequence, coordination of the force and it's supporting elements was of paramount importance.

Some other limitations were as follows;

Reliance on Suitable Terrain

An Eagle Force could only be employed successfully in generally open terrain appropriate for helicopter operations. Extended areas without suitable LZ's, which would tend to 'swallow' a small force or which would render the armed escort useless, or which would limit LZ's to only a few that could be ambushed by the enemy prohibited their successful employment.

Vulnerability of Helicopters

Helicopters, and the Eagle Force itself, were particularly vulnerable to enemy ground fire during assault landings. In many cases, to be effective and to preclude an exhausting and possibly unsuccessful pursuit on foot, the eagle Force had to be landed amidst or immediately adjacent to the enemy.

Quite often the force would be separated by a terrain feature (e.g. canal or tree line). If, upon landing, these small forces were surprised by a large enemy force they could not be extricated easily since the helicopters were extremely vulnerable to loss if called in during a heavy engagement.

Limited Combat Power

An Eagle Force was, basically, a small platoon sized force and upon landing it's combat power was limited to the skill and fire power of the squads. The force itself usually carried no heavy weapons and only a limited number of machine guns (if any).


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SOURCES

US Army Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam (MAAG) - Lessons Learned No. 32 Eagle Flight Operations (October 1963)


 

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