The U.S. Army Had Plans for Helo-Riding, Tank-Killing Rangers
Soldiers would pick off any stragglers the gunships missed
In 1972, the U.S. Army Combat Developments Command designed an experimental Ranger unit. The specialized infantry company would work with helicopter gunships to take out enemy tanks.
USACDC’s Ranger Airmobile Infantry Company had 12 teams. Each of these six-man units included a Dragon missile launcher, depicted in the photo below.
In addition, each team had a Huey helicopter to fly it around the battlefield. In a shooting war with the Soviets, the Rangers would scout ahead and locate enemy tanks for AH-1 gunships packing lethal TOW missiles.
The Rangers would fire their own Dragon missiles to pick off any stragglers the helicopters missed.
These air-mobile anti-tank teams were among the unique units the Army proposed for its so-called “Triple Capability Division.” The new force attempted to blend tanks, air-mobile troops and gunships into a single fighting force.
America’s experiences in Vietnam drove the TRICAP concept. After years of chasing guerrillas, the ground combat branch wanted to refocus on fighting big land battles.
The Army had put helicopters to good use in Southeast Asia, quickly moving infantry between battle zones. But would the aircraft also be useful in World War III?
After Vietnam, the Army aimed to “combine air-mobility and tanks in something other than a low-intensity environment,” according to a 1979 study of the service’s tactics.
One of the Pentagon’s great fears at the time was the prospect of Russian armored formations rolling straight over West Germany. A division with tanks, attack helicopters and missile-toting Rangers might counter that threat, the military reasoned.
The TRICAP Division “[combines] an airborne tank-destroying force with a ground armored force,” Lt. Gen. John Norton, the head of USACDC, said in 1971.
The concept proved to be too much for an army facing deep budget cuts and also trying to distance itself from Vietnam. The Army liked TRICAP’s various parts, but couldn’t figure out how to make them work together.
The air-mobile anti-tank unit never materialized in the end. The company was a “paper idea,” according to military historian and former Special Forces soldier Gordon Rottman.
The Rangers assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division—the TRICAP test unit—trained to perform more traditional recon missions instead, Rottman explained. In 1974, those commandos left the 1st Cavalry Division in order to help stand up the Army’s new Ranger battalions.
By 1975, the ground combat branch had entirely ditched the TRICAP plan. Today, the Army has separate brigades for tanks and helicopters—and there aren’t any special, missile-armed Rangers.