David H. Hackworth
May 18, 1999


David Gibbs and Kevin Reichert are dead. Their helicopter crashed on May 5 while on a training flight in the rugged mountains of northeast Albania.

Both pilots were highly motivated and loved to fly the Army's most lethal killing machine, the Apache. One of the most dangerous soldiering jobs going.

While Gibbs and Reichert are the first reported American dead from Clinton's conflict in Serbia, there surely will be more dead and wounded from their Task Force Hawk if this bad war bumbles on and cooler heads don't prevail.

Albania-based Task Force Hawk is composed of helicopters, tanks, infantry grunts, artillery and support troops. The Apache pilots are its teeth. The rest of the 5300 troops --its tail-- secure the perimeter, maintain the birds and provide the necessary support.

So far, two birds have been lost to accidents. Aviation insiders say the mishaps might have been prevented had the crews been trained up to snuff at their home, base in Germany. But insufficient training funds cut back flying hours, and complaints of local civilians reduced night-flying exercises.

Now, as the crews prepare to fight a lethal Super Bowl at night in some of the world's worst terrain and weather, they're desperately trying to play catch up with the cannons barking just across the border.

Another problem is a shortage of crews. Because commanders in trouble areas such as South Korea, Kuwait and Bosnia want this awesome weapon, too, many of the flyers go from one year's short tour without family to the next. And when not employed in hot spots, they're flying simulated combat missions at
training centers.

This over-commitment has placed great strain on pilots and their families. As a result, many have quit, leaving hundreds of pilot vacancies -- which has introduced still more stress and turbulence into the Apache community.

To fill the squadron in Albania, the 11th Aviation Group had to merge pilots from two Germany-based squadrons and bring in more sky soldiers from other outfits in the United States and Germany.

Not the best fix, since these warriors must train together just like sports teams. They need to learn and practice complex drills as a unit in order to execute their deadly missions safely.

As seen on a small scale with the Apache pilots, the Army's slogan, WE FIGHT AS WE TRAIN is more spin than fact. Throughout today's military, few units are up to strength or have sufficient money to train. All are doing too much with too little because of Clinton's seven-year misuse and abuse of our forces.

Too frequently, the top brass bite the bullet and say "Can do, Sir" to the commander-in-chief and his inept civilian national security advisers instead of "Boss, you've broken us. Back off or a lot more good people will die. And if you don't, here are my stars. I'm out of here."

An aviation battalion commander told me last week, "I have no faith in the uniformed senior leaders protecting us from the idiots in the White House." I do. The Pentagon "Four Stars" running things today were the lieutenants and captains in Vietnam. No way they've forgotten the mistakes the top brass made back then and how no one stood tall.

They'll stand tall and keep asking: How can a few Army choppers make a difference when more than a thousand NATO aircraft haven't done the job in two months of bombing?

Another rub: The Apache is designed to work with ground troops spotting targets for them. This tactic worked brilliantly in Desert Storm, where tank/infantry teams proved a winning combination.

Gen Clark is choosing instead to use the Apache solo in "Deep Strike" Missions, much as the Air Force uses planes. But the Apache won't be zipping along at 15,000 feet, it'll be flying "slow and low" against Serb grunts well supplied with hand-held, heat-seeking missiles -- the same type of missiles that ate up the Soviet gunship fleet in Afghanistan.

Clark should know that the battlefield is not the place to experiment with new tactics. But, like Westmoreland in Vietnam, he's desperate to win and willing to gamble with his soldiers' lives.

Unlike their Vietnam predecessors, the Four Stars of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must do their duty and ground the Apaches for now. The risk is not worth the potential gain.