Queen of battle

DREW Middleton, who writes a syndicated column on military affairs, issued a moving plea the other day to have all of us, and Congress, remember the humble GI, the fighting soldier, in the midst of all the talk about superweapons. After all, he pointed out, it is the foot soldier who alone can take and occupy and hold and consolidate ground. He further noted that in the wars since World War II it has in every case been the foot soldier with conventional and sometimes simple weapons which has been decisive, not any of the new superweapons.

It is timely to add to the plea for the GI a footnote on the weapon that has been most important to him in recent wars.

There are four wars going on now which will influence the shape of the future in various parts of the world. They all have one feature in common. In every one it is not the bomber or the long-range missile or any ``star wars'' type of device that is the important weapon. In each case it is the helicopter gunship that is the the GI's best friend.

Not much has been heard of late about El Salvador. That's because the national armed forces, backed by the United States, have been able to take and hold the military initiative. The rebel forces have been forced to give up large-scale action. They have been broken up into small guerrilla groups. They can no longer hold significant areas of the country.

The weapon that made this possible was the helicopter gunship. The government has four gunships, plus 36 general-purpose helicopters.

Then move next door into Nicaragua, where the same weapon (from a different source) has also made a difference, also in favor of the government. The Nicaraguans have received 24 Soviet helicopters since November 1984. Six are MI-24s -- Moscow's latest and best helicopter gunship. Some Western experts consider it the best in service today. It has served the Nicaraguans well. During the whole of 1985 and during the current year to date, it has dominated the skies over Nicaragua and, in effect, driven the US-supported contras out of action and back to their base camps inside Honduras.

The same Soviet gunship, the MI-24, has also served the Soviets well in Afghanistan. The Soviets have 140 of these superhelicopters there, plus 185 ordinary helicopters, used mainly for moving troops, supplies, and equipment over difficult terrain. It is highly doubtful that the Soviets could hold anything but the cities and main highways in Afghanistan, were it not for their helicopters. It is the one weapon that keeps the fedayeen, backed by the US, in hiding.

Our fourth example is South Africa, which has 142 helicopters. They are in constant use for moving small raiding parties over substantial distances. They supply and support South African units that operate at will in any of the neighboring black countries and, in effect, give the white South African government effective military control over everything south of a line from Zanzibar to Luanda (Angola).

In each one of these four military situations the serious question is whether the irregular, rebel, or guerrilla forces on the ground can obtain and learn to use the kind of antiaircraft weapons that can bring down helicopters.

President Reagan wants to provide Stingers (hand-held antiaircraft weapons) to the contras in Honduras, the fedayeen in Afghanistan, and Jonas Savimbi in Angola (for use against Cubans there, not against the South Africans). The Angolans have 12 Soviet MI-24 helicopter gunships, plus 100 ordinary helicopters.

On all these battlefields, the active ones of today, the queen of battle is the helicopter gunship, and its handmaiden is the ordinary transport helicopter, which can carry so much weight and so many men so quickly and easily over jungles, deserts, or mountains.

In each situation the military advantage today is with the side that looks down from helicopters.

Mr. Harsch is off for a month of travel. His column will resume in this space in mid-October.

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