Helicopters and irony

Five helicopters shot down in three weeks . These seem to have been brought down with plain machine guns, but the irony is bitter indeed. It was portable ground-to-air missiles supplied by the CIA that enabled the Taliban to run the Russians out of Afghanistan. How long until a black-market Russian shoulder-fired (or one of our own Stingers that weren’t gathered up from the Mujahideen) brings down a US chopper?

Why do we use so many of these low, slow, delicate, sitting-duck aircraft anyway? The officers I knew from the Kennedy School’s DoD executive program many years back were quite bitter about it; the Army Air Corps took its monopoly on fixed-wing aircraft with it on the way to becoming the Air Force in 1947, allowing the Army to fly only small observer planes (think, Piper Cub on steroids), and the rules have stuck. Accordingly, the Navy and Marines can supply their own ground-support by airplanes or helicopters as they see fit, and use the latter quite sparingly in combat, but the Army has had to constantly ask for air support from one of the other branches, or, understandably, build up a helicopter service many of whose functions would be much more safely and effectively performed by airplanes.

Luckily, all the services’ higher-ups know they’re on the same team, collaborate selflessly and seamlessly, and interservice rivalry that might compromise the mission is unknown in the US Military.

UPDATE: A reader points out that the Afghanistan era Stingers are almost certainly hors de combat by now, though others may be in circulation. He also provides an interesting eavesdrop on real experts talking about helicopter vulnerability to plain old machine gun fire.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.