I've put this post back up at the top of the site, after today's tragic events in Iraq.When three American copters crashed over Iraq in about a week, Kiowa Warrior pilot ME chalked it up to dumb luck and thinly-armored aircraft. Now that a fourth and a fifth have been shot down, ME is having second thoughts. It could be that Iraq insurgents have gotten their hands on a new, more deadly strain of surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs), he thinks."Sunni militants" have recently boasted that "'God has granted new ways' to threaten U.S. aircraft," the AP says. And that could be a major problem for U.S. commanders, the wire service observes, in another story. American forces "rely heavily on helicopters not only in combat but also to move soldiers and supplies around the country. Helicopters have been used more and more as the war progressed to avoid a bigger threat from roadside bombs."The latest helicopter casualty, an Apache, "exploded in a ball of fire" on Friday, according to witnesses."That's unlikely to happen due to small arms fire," ME says, "and the odds of hitting an Apache heads on with an unguided RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] are pretty slim."
The fuel cells are crashworthy, and unless they are hit by something like an API (armor piercing incendiary - like a .50 cal or higher) shell, I don't think they are going to explode. Hitting munitions onboard isn't likely to make a fireball either. But the explosion of a SAM hitting it might look like a fireball.If a copter pilot does get attacked by an advanced SAM, he has a couple of ways to defend himself. He can fire off flares to confuse heat-seekers. He can set off radar or infrared jammers. Or he can fly "NOE" ("Nap of the Earth"), very low to the ground, following the contours of the landscape. That "minimize[s] the amount of time to acquire, and shoot a targe -- whether it's an AK[-47 assault rifle], RPG, or SA-7/14/18 [SAM]," according to ME.But in training for Iraq, ME recalls, "we weren't too worried about SAMs... [W]e didn't think they had very many of them, in operating condition, in the hands of trained users. The more likely threat was massed fire from the vastly more common AK and RPG."That threat assessment seems to be changing, quickly. "Based on what we have seen, we're already making adjustments in our tactics and techniques and procedures as to how we employ our helicopters," Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters.But there are only so many changes that can be made. These copters don't have a lot of armor. And not much more can be added, without "trading off fuel, weapons, or some other weight," ME notes. "Helicopters are already at very near their max weight... Improved electronics/avionics would help save a lot of weight, but most pilots would rather have the improved flight performance that reduced weight provides, rather than more armor.""The real problem," he adds, "is the idea of using an anti-armor bird like the Apache or a scout like the Kiowa to slug it out with insurgents on the ground. Neither were really built for it, and the pilots aren't trained for it (unless its done at the individual unit level). TF160 [160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment] teaches and trains the best air to ground engagement tactics, but the rest of the aviation community doesn't get the ammunition, or range time to really teach it."OK, sure. But now that we're in this counterinsurgent fight, what choice do those pilots really have?UPDATE 02/08/07 11:10 AM: "The two military and intelligence sources believe al-Qaeda has organized a grouping of cells [with a mission of] deny[ing] Coalition forces the free use of helicopters to ferry troops, resupply outlying areas, and conduct assault missions," Bill Roggio reports.
Al-Qaeda wants to force Coalition forces to use ground transportation, where it believes heavier casualties can be inflicted on U.S. forces via roadside bombing and mine attacks (IEDs). Helicpoter shoot-downs also "make for compelling television," according to a military source, which "helps project the image of a deadly, unbeatable enemy." Al-Qaeda is believed to have deployed multiple anti-aircraft cells along the known overflight routes in and around Baghdad.The cells are thought to be armed with Russian made Strela SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles, a first generation shoulder fired anti-aircraft missile which is widely distributed throughout the world. These weapons are not as sophisticated as U.S. made Stingers, which were used with deadly consequences by mujahideen in Afghanistan against Soviet fixed and rotary wing aircraft. U.S. aircraft have systems to deter missile threats (jammers, flairs, chaff) but there are no reports these systems were deployed during any of the engagements.