Night Hunter Operations

 by Captain Richard C. Keehn

U.S. Army Aviation Digest – May 1969

[Text version]



From 31 Oct 68 through 4 Nov 68 a new operational concept directed against enemy forces and logistical traffic in the Mekong Delta was put into effect. This new operation, called the "Night Hunter Concept," was tested by A Troop, 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry in support of the 1st Brigade, 9th Infantry Division.


For this type operation to be successful, the terrain had to be sparsely populated with only scattered heavy vegetation and the area of the Mekong Delta just south of Saigon proved to be ideal. This area was level, open country, with easily definable waterways lined with nipa palm and large areas of rice paddies with scattered patches of trees, and brush.


Populated areas proved to be no problem in most cases as these areas were usually in concentra­tions adjacent to the rice fields or in clusters along the navigable waterways where the nipa palm was the thinnest and did not ob­struct access to the waterways.


The Night Hunter operation was designed to exploit targets acquired by ground surveillance radar. The Night Hunter Task force consists of a mobile AN/TPS 25 radar set, an air cavalry ele­ment, roving waterborne patrols, infantry ambush sites and supporting artillery.


The command and control element was located at the ground surveillance radar detection cen­ter and included the infantry brigade commander, the direct support artillery battalion com­mander, commander or S-3 of the air cavalry element and the command element of the water­borne forces.


The command and control ele­ment directed the radar search patterns and analyzed the sight­ings as they were acquired and plotted. Small isolated sightings were attacked by artillery alone. When a target of sufficient mag­nitude and concentration was de­tected, the entire task force was put into action.


The maximum shock action, surprise and fixing of the enemy timetable was carefully followed. When all the elements of the task force had been briefed, an artil­lery time-on-target (TOT) was in­itiated which would bring variable timed high explosive rounds, illu­minating rounds and the air cav­alry elements into action simul­taneously. When targets were within population overlays, only illuminating rounds were used. Continuous artillery illumination was adjusted by the air cavalry fire team leader until the entire enemy target area had been searched. When a target was ac­quired by the air cavalry elements, it was subjected to an immediate and devastating attack by mini­guns, 40 mm grenades and 2.75 inch rockets. The waterborne forces were maneuvered into an area adjacent to the target area, water routes permitting, to en­gage enemy personnel attempt­ing to flee the target area.


The operation scored 67 kills and destroyed 15 sampans with two secondary explosions in four nights of operation. On the first operation, the night of 31 Octo­ber, the air cavalry element reg­istered 14 kills on four separate engagements, three of which re­sulted in later contact for the waterborne forces and resulted in three additional KIAs. The sec­ond night, the air cavalry scored one kill and destroyed two sam­pans in two engagements, and the waterborne forces killed 15 enemy attempting to flee the tar­get area. The third night the air cavalry killed 15 enemy and de­stroyed four sampans, two of which resulted in secondary ex­plosions.

The fourth night, there was no operation due to heavy daytime cavalry commitments. The last night, 4 November, the air cavalry killed 16 enemy and destroyed eight sampans, three of which were loaded with supplies. The waterborne forces killed an additional four of the enemy in a later engagement.


The mobile AN/TPS 25 radar utilized during the operation cov­ered a searching radius of 20 kilometers in a 360 degree radius. The entire area was broken down into four equal quadrants. Each quadrant was searched as directed by the command complex. As tar­gets were sighted, they were re­corded and plotted on the master overlay. As radar sightings accu­mulated, definite patterns emerged, showing numbers of personnel, di­rection of movement and density of movement in a given area.


Two-way radio communication was established between the radar operator and the air cavalry ele­ment in the air. When a target complex was under attack, the radar would scan the area 2 kil­ometers either side of the target. With minimal training the radar operator was able to vector an aircraft to the center of target movement if it was flying at or below 200 feet above ground level and all other aircraft were at a higher altitude.


The OH-6A was normally used because it returned a special radar echo that made it easy to distin­guish from other type aircraft. When the cavalry scout element was directly over the target the radar operator would transmit the word "target" The OH-6A would thoroughly search the area and call in AH-1Gs to destroy the enemy. The use of radar to adjust rocket fire into an isolated, heavily vegetated area was experimented with successfully. The Cobra team leader would expend one pair of rockets on the target area and the radar would adjust the fire. The team.leader's wing man would commence his attack with the necessary corrections and devas­tate the area.


The enemy position which had been destroyed would be moni­tored later from time to time to see if any movement recurred in the area. As each target in the complex was neutralized the radar would direct the pilot to a new target in the area. In several instances the radar plotted sampans moving along a river and was able to plot to which side of the river the enemy had fled and the direc­tion of his movement.


Three tango boats were used during the operation, without troops on the first night and with two platoons of infantry the re­maining nights. The tango boats were armed with machineguns, grenade launchers and a 106 mm gun. Starlight scopes were used for initial target acquisition. The star­light scopes proved extremely ef­fective in all engagements.  Illumination for engagements was avail­able by flares shot from T Boats or an artillery battery located at the command complex.


Strategic numbered check points on navigable rivers were plotted on all maps of the cavalry ele­ments, tango boats and the com­mand and control complex. The entire Night Hunter Task Force kept track of the tango boats movement. When a significant contact was made, troops could be dismounted and air cavalry located at the staging area could be scrambled and airborne over the engagement in less than five minutes. If the air cavalry was airborne neutralizing another tar­get area, it could be diverted im­mediately to the tango boats engagement, giving sustained close air support to the infantry on the ground pursuing the retreating enemy.


Two artillery batteries were used during the testing, one battery of 155 howitzers and one battery of 105s. Sufficient illumination rounds were on hand for six hours of continuous illumination. Varied heights and amounts of illumina­tion were tried during the first two nights of the operation. Ideal il­lumination was attained on the third night. With a bright moon two artillery flares over the target area igniting at an altitude of 400 meters and followed immediately by two more flares at an altitude of 600 meters provided good illu­mination. Continuous illumination, one round every 60 seconds at an altitude of 600 meters, was pro­vided following the initial rounds. During dark moon phase the same initial illumination was used. Con­tinuous illumination was shot every 30 seconds. When more than one target complex was sighted and plotted, data was sent to the artil­lery batteries for the primary and secondary targets. One battery was utilized on the initial target while the second battery of artillery was primed and ready with high ex­plosive and or variable time and illumination rounds. They were on call from the air cavalry team lead­er when the primary target had been fixed and neutralized.


When a significant target com­plex had been sighted and plotted, the data was transmitted by radio to the air cavalry team leader, to include target coordinates, type of targets, number of enemy person­nel, route of flight, type of artil­lery ordnance to be used and pro­jected time-on-target. After the remainder of the flight crews had been briefed, a 10-minute pro­jected time-on-target was initiated, as this proved to be the most effec­tive response time for all elements of the task force. Within five min­utes of the projected time for on target, all aircraft were ready for takeoff. Takeoff was on order of the command element based on the calibrated mission data.


On command the aircraft would take off and form a staggered trail formation in the following order: one OH-6A, two AH-1Gs and one UH-1H. The cavalry elements would fly the flight route based on a given airspeed and prominent check points easily distinguishable from the air at night. The cavalry would arrive over the release point 2 miles from the target complex at one minute projected time-on-­target. The cavalry team leader was then given 10 second count downs and artillery "shot" and "splash" information from the command element. The team lead­er had to traverse the final distance to arrive one-half to one-fourth mile from target at zero hour.


During the initial approach to the target area the formation was changed to staggered three abreast, with the OH-6A in the middle. The UH-1H remained one-fourth mile behind the attacking elements. A shallow dive was initiated from 1,500 feet into the target area with each aircraft 200 yards apart. If the enemy was seen fleeing the area, they would receive immedi­ate fire from anyone of the three cavalry elements. If no enemy were seen the two Cobras would level out at 75 feet and continue their pass through the area. The OH-6A would continue its descent to nor­mal scouting altitude and be joined by the UH-1H "firefly." The four aircraft flying low level through the area gave maximum eye cov­erage to the enemy target. The AH-1Gs would climb alternately to the right or left on command of the team leader, and assume the standard close-air support forma­tion over the firefly and scout air­craft


Normal daytime scouting pro­cedures were employed by the OH-6A. The UH-1H flew at ap­proximately 100 feet, roaming back and forth across the area as­sisting the scout element. Concen­trated illumination was afforded by the firefly element.


On the first night of operation two starlight scopes were used on the mission to search the target area without illumination from the UH-1H. This proved unsatisfac­tory because of the vibration level of the aircraft and the limited area of vision with the scope from a moving aircraft. On subsequent missions only artillery illumination and the firefly were used. Addi­tionally on the first night, flares dropped from helicopters were tried. This proved unsuccessful compared to the artillery illumina­tion. It would have required four additional UH-1Hs loaded with flares to provide enough sustained illumination over the target area. This would have congested the air­space and interfered with the effec­tiveness of the mission.  Throughout the entire four nights of operation standard day­light cavalry tactics were employed after initial illumination.


At the completion of each mis­sion the aircraft would return to the tactically lighted staging area which consisted of two-way radio communications, a refueling area and two re-arming pads. The two re-arming pads each had a stock pile of varied ordnance: 2.75 inch rockets were pre-stacked in two piles of 100 each, consisting of 10 pound and 17 pound VT; 250 rounds of 40 mm grenades and 4,000 rounds of 7.62; two pre­loaded 7.62 minigun ammo boxes for the OH-6A were also located at the re-arming pads. The replen­ishment of the two re-arming pads came from the main ammo point located nearby.


A standard mini-pump refueling point was used with a fuel reserve of 5,000 gallons. The mini-pump was preplanned to accommodate 10 aircraft in case airmobile oper­ations were initiated.


The two AH-1G helicopters were armed with 4,000 rounds of 7.62 minigun ammo and 250 rounds of 40 mm grenades in the nose turret. The wing stores con­sisted of four rocket pods per air­craft. The two outboard pods were loaded with a total of 38 ten-pound VT 2.75 inch rockets on each air­craft. The inboard pods on one aircraft were loaded with 14 seven­teen-pound VT 2.75 inch rockets. The other aircraft's inboard pods were loaded with 14 beehive 2.75 inch rockets. The OH-6A was armed with the standard XM-27E1 minigun, with 2,000 rounds of am­munition. The UH-1H had its two standard M-60 machineguns with 4,000 rounds per gun mounted, plus the firefly apparatus.


An additional phase of the op­eration was to develop an early morning target complex into a sig­nificant contact for the deployment of airmobile forces at daybreak. This was attempted at 0430 hours on 3 November. A radar sighting of 50 personnel was made in a heavily populated area along a river. The findings of two large motorized sampans, trails less than 30 minutes old and direction of movement verified the radar sight­ings. No visual contact was made due to the density of hooches. Air­mobile assets were not available until 1000 hours. When insertion was finally made in the area, 10 of the enemy were either killed or captured. Two POWs admitted that 50 NVA troops armed with AK-47s and two machineguns had landed by sampans at approxi­mately 0400 hours that morning and moved to the southeast. The POWs further stated helicopters had been over many of them early in the morning and they were in fact hiding in the hooches. All the facts collected on this one early morning operation gave significant support to the concept's effective­ness.


Two significant facts were estab­lished during the Night Hunter Operations:



31 October,  02   +-  15 per aircraft

1 November, 01  +-  30 per aircraft

2 November, 03  +-  00 per aircraft

4 November, 01  +-  50 per aircraft




Certain facts were established that helped to successfully accom­plish this type of night operation.








Submitted by Chuck Oualline

A Troop, 3rd Squadron 17th Air Cavalry

Posted 30 August 2005 by the Silver Spurs


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OH-6A                                AH-1G                                 UH-1H