Contemporary Strategic Effects of Army Attack Aviation

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Army attack aviation is a niche capability possessed by a minority of global militaries. As a capability which had its genesis in the Vietnam War, and received its validation in the deserts of Kuwait and Southern Iraq in 1991, Army attack aviation has established and consolidated its role as an essential element in the combined arms team across the spectrum of military operations. Doctrinally, the role of Army attack aviation has traditionally been limited to the tactical and operational sphere, but does attack aviation have a strategic role to play? By applying an Effects-Based Operations (EBO) methodology to Army attack aviation, we can explore the significant strategic influence of which it is capable.[1]

Effects-based operations was the foundation of the US led Desert Storm air campaign. The premise of the doctrine is an attempt to conceptualise the second and third order effects stemming from first order actions.[2] By selecting an end state – such as the disruption of an enemy strategic command and control functions – planners can then analyse the tactical means at their disposal in which to achieve this goal. By employing the EBO approach, US planners in the First Gulf War shifted from a traditional force-on-force posture which sought the physical destruction of the enemy, to a more precise application of force which emphasised precision and stealth with reduced resources and casualties.[3] By applying EBO, Army attack aviation’s suitability to achieving strategic effects becomes evident.

A shortlist of potential strategic effects is provided by USAF officer William Eldridge in his dissertation Achieving Strategic Effects with Army Attack Aviation, which postulated strategic targets which were consistent with the Desert Storm and Second Iraq conflicts.[4] A non-exhaustive list of these targets includes power systems, C4I nodes, concentrations of uncommitted forces, strategic transportation assets and key manufacturing facilitates. The suitability of affecting these targets was satisfied with the employment of AGM-114 Hellfire missile equipped Army attack aircraft; and by analysing the second order effects of destroying these targets, tangible strategic contributions to manoeuvre, logistic and information superiority were identified.[5] By applying a similar process to the contemporary operating environment, it is possible to update the strategic effects achievable with Army attack aviation. This process is simplified by the fact that AGM-114 wielding aircraft continue to form the centrepiece of modern attack capabilities around the globe.

The contemporary operating environment has a preponderance for non-state or quasi-state actors, rather than the more clearly defined battlelines of Desert Storm and The Iraq invasion. The targets offered by these actors are justifiably different, yet the option to garner strategic outcomes by their destruction is enduring. Key leadership, transportation systems, fuel storage and instrumental infrastructure are still requirements of non-state military actors, albeit in reduced quantities. As they exist in smaller scales, arguably the destruction of these strategic targets with Army attack aviation can yield greater strategic benefits for employing commanders. Since Eldridge penned his dissertation, the role of drones in Army attack aviation has increased significantly, especially in the United States. Complementing these advances has been the establishment of a new doctrine, Manned, Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T), which has seen the high situational awareness of manned aircraft complemented by the increased endurance of unmanned vehicles.[6] The employment of MUM-T significantly enhances Army attack aviation’s ability to achieve strategic effects.

So far, this post has focused primarily on strategic outcomes through a kinetic EBO application. By applying EBO to friendly force protection and defensive operations, further strategic effects of Army attack aviation may be discerned. Friendly force key leaders, vital assets and high value targets, such as aeromedical evacuation aircraft, are naturally strategic targets for the non-state and quasi-state actors present in the contemporary operating environment. Army attack aviation’s ability to contribute to the security of the aforementioned assets are significant. With superior sensors, rapid responses and high situational awareness, attack aviation can achieve strategic effects by denying enemies the opportunity to accomplish their own EBO methodology. As with the offensive kinetic examples, the effects can be enhanced through the employment of MUM-T.

Like all military capabilities, Army attack aviation has its unique limitations which are worth mentioning, but which also must be balanced against its unique strengths. Strike range and survivability against specific ground based air defence platforms, when compared to faster fixed-wing aircraft, are identified by USAF officer Andrew Nocks as potential weaknesses of attack aviation.[7] However they are well counterbalanced by its unmatched ability to locate hidden targets and provide real time battle damage assessments.[8] Ultimately it is the ability to employ the AGM-114 Hellfire, and it variants, which provides the key to Army aviation’s utility. The precision and versatility of the weapon system is a truly unique capability which affords distinctive weaponeering opportunities compared to fixed-wing or ground based alternatives.

Army attack aviation has long been synonymous with an effective tactical element in combined arms teams. By analysing the characteristics which make attack aviation a successful tactical capability, and employing an EBO methodology to the contemporary environment, strategic opportunities become apparent. Armed with a unique weapon system and the same characteristics which make attack aviation a tactical necessity, strategic outcomes can be identified as an underutilised potential of Army attack aviation.

About the author

James Kingham is a Troop Commander posted to the 1st Aviation Regiment.


[1] Eldridge. W, Achieving Strategic Effects with Army Attack Aviation, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2003. p. iii

[2] Deptula. D, Effects-based Operations: Change in the Nature of Warfare, Aerospace Education Foundation, Virginia, 2001. p. 7

[3] ibid. p. 8

[4] Eldridge. W, Achieving Strategic Effects with Army Attack Aviation. p. 43

[5] ibid.

[6] Schnappauf. M, ‘Now Hear This – It’s Time to Push Rotary Manned-Unmanned Teaming’, in Proceedings Magazine, 2016.

[7] Eldridge. W, Achieving Strategic Effects with Army Attack Aviation. p. 40

[8] ibid. p. 41


Deptula. D, Effects-based Operations: Change in the Nature of Warfare, Aerospace Education Foundation, Virginia, 2001.

Eldridge. W, Achieving Strategic Effects with Army Attack Aviation, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2003.

Schnappauf. M, ‘Now Hear This – It’s Time to Push Rotary Manned-Unmanned Teaming’, in Proceedings Magazine, 2016.


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9 thoughts on “Contemporary Strategic Effects of Army Attack Aviation

  1. Do you not think it a bit odd that you are trying to justify Army attack aviation doctrinally, but are using such a small scale tactical weapon system (Hellfire) as the basis?
    It is also not unique, as it is being operated by the MH-60R currently in service with the RAN. The Air Force will also gain the capability with their new MALE UAV. What then does Army attack aviation bring to the fight?

    1. G’day Dylan,
      Thank you for your questions.
      Regarding your first, the entire premise of Effects-based operations is to identify what strategic outcomes are possible from the second and third order effects of employing a tactical weapon. For example, AGM-114 is capable of destroying satellite relays and power transformers. The destruction of these assets would degrade an adversary’s C4I capabilities and contribute to attaining friendly information superiority. The key to AGM-114 is it’s precision, which enables it to achieve similar effects to larger, less precise weapons.
      The reference to uniqueness was regarding the weapon system itself, not its operators. The MH-60R is equally as capable of employing an EBO methodology, with the key exception that they will be operating in the maritime environment. As for manned versus unmanned vehicles; they are complementary. Manned helicopters provide a flexibility, integration and degree of situational awareness yet to be realised by UAV’s. Manned aircraft can switch tasks faster, employ greater freedom of manoeuvre and integrate their fires with ground elements. As described in the post, combining manned and unmanned vehicles into an aerial combined arms team provides the greates effect from both systems.

      1. Further to James’ points, the attack helicopters emplyed by Army Aviation offer a greater flexibility in weapons effects. Yes, the AGM-114, especially Romeo, is a highly useful weapon, but the 30 mm and the 70 mm rockets (especially with APKWS) offer additional accurate effects that can minimise collateral damage. No other platform can do this.

  2. Nice article James. I guess the question then becomes, can we extrapolate from the EBO framework that was seen to be relatively successful in Iraq and Afghanistan (although a number of exceptions could be highlighted) to the employment of Attack Aviation in a more congested and high intensity battle-space? Do we need to consider a different framework for its employment in the future fight or is it just an evolution in EBO thought?

    1. G’day Sir, thank you for your comment. After taking some time to ponder your question, I think an key element to the success of EBO has been its application in a below-peer air environment. A hypothetical application of EBO in a high intensity bsttlespace would see the opportunities to achieve this methodology as increasingly fleeting. As the CO highlighted today; survivavility is a key advantage of manned platforms. The ability to avoid, react and autonomously suppress threats is unlikely to be attained by unmanned vehicles, and will be increasingly relevant in a high intensity conflict.

  3. You mention the uniqueness of the Hellfire capability for Army Aviation, what about the same capability on unmanned systems, such as the MQ-9 Reaper. This platform has greater versatility in all aspects weapons wise, but also in endurance, precision, and integration.

    When considering Army attack aviation’s relevance to the wider spectrum of ADF operations did you consider its must-have need to integrate and be able to communicate with a variety of assets easily and seamlessly? The ability to affect strategic goals surely requires a high level of C4ISR.

    I would also love to hear you expand on your thoughts on how Army attack aviation is able to provide a unique capability with reference to locating hidden targets or conducting BDA. Traditionally and ever increasingly this is being conducted by persistent, unmanned systems, who have the advantage of higher fidelity systems, endurance, and the ability to easily share their tactical information.

    1. G’day Cojah, thank you for your comments.
      The Reaper, like all UAV’s has it’s distinct strengths of endurance and high quality sensors, but it would be wrong to say that it is holistically superior to manned aircraft. Firstly, the ARH can carry up to 8 Hellfires, compared to a Reaper’s 4. Manned helicopters are also fitted with the same high quality sensors which enable Hellfire to be employed to its maximum range. The real strength of manned helicopters is their higher degrees of situational awareness and increased freedom of manoeuvre, when compared to UAV’s. The manned aircraft enjoys the versatility of employing a sitting system or the luxury of near 360 degree views from the cockpit. UAV’s are limited to the view of their sight; somewhat akin to viewing the battlespace through a straw. Additionally, the ability of maned vehicles to traverse the battlespce with a high degree of freedom and flexibility is yet to be attained by unmanned systems.
      This feeds into your last point about locating hidden targets and BDA. It is the increased situational awareness and freedom of manoeuvre which facilitates the finding of hidden targets by manned aircraft. But as I mentioned in the post, the preferred outcome is for manned and unmanned vehicles to work together, so that their individual strengths are complementary.
      Jumping back to your second point, while high levels of C4ISR are always desirable, the most important element to successfully targeting a strategic goal is intelligence. The destruction of a strategic target is most likely going to occur as part of a pre-planned mission, which would be heavily reliant on high quality intelligence.

  4. G’day James. While I disagree with you semanticly on what you describe as ‘Strategic’ targets or achieveng strategic effects, I think your raising of EBO as a targeting philosophy is worthy of further discussion. Our current planning methodology tends to view the enemy as a heirachy rather than as a system. Revising standard enemy analysis processes to focus on enemy system analysis would better facilitate EBO planning and see attack aviation tasked to achieve High level operational/tactical effects.

  5. Another thread to the argument… When does a fleet of low cost, highly reliable and flexible manned systems become a better option to achieve the desired effect? Do we need to pair this approach with a complex and lethal attack capability, or is it enough when coupled with a layered and teamed UAS?

    This writer used the baseball analogy (not that familiar to many of us…) but it reflects the ‘bang for your buck’ analysis when considered in the context of recent conflicts:

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