What Lessons Will Chinook Mishap Yield?


It's a somewhat dubious reality that many of the military's "centers of excellence" were born from things not going right on the battlefield.  Topgun was created during the Vietnam War due to a poor air-to-air kill ratio versus NVA (and Soviet) pilots.  SOCOM was formed in the wake of the "Eagle Claw" hostage rescue failure in Iran in April of 1980.  And the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (a.k.a. "Strike U") was founded following a disasterous attempt by the U.S. Navy to hit Syrian SAM sites in response to attacks on American forces in Lebanon.

Scott Shuger summarizes the events surrounding the latter in his review of George Wilson's book Supercarrier:

When the Marines at the Beirut airport were sabotaged in October 1983, the two-carrier force offshore was told to prepare a retaliatory strike. At first, Kennedy aircrews thoroughly prepared a nighttime mission against a readily identifiable terrorist complex in the Bekaa valley, only to have it canceled by a "higher authority' after French carrier aircraft struck a nearby target. Then, after one of the Kennedy's overland reconnaissance flights drew Syrian missile fire, another raid was ordered immediately. Time pressure made planning this go-round far from fastidious. Furthermore, now the targets were virtually invisible, dug in, anti-aircraft positions. Worse still, this attack would be flown in daylight.

And there was confusion about exactly when. All the Kennedy people thought the launch would be at 11 a.m., but around 5 a.m. they got the word that it would go at 7:20. The timing change was a two-fold disaster: it meant that the pilots would be looking directly into the rising sun as they tried to locate their miniscule targets, and that there wasn't enough time to put the appropriate ordnance on the planes. As a result, most of the ten Kennedy bombers took off with inadequate loads. One that didn't had a load too heavy for the evasive maneuvers required by the Syrian anti-air threats. That plane (an A-6) was shot down.  (Editor's note - The pilot was killed and the bombadier/navigator was taken as a POW - later released mostly due to the very public efforts of Jesse Jackson.) Wilson makes the telling point that in the end, all the bombs actually dropped on the target could have come from one airplane.

Wilson concludes that the target choices and timing were not left to the on-scene commander. When the Navy's top officer, Admiral Watkins, told Wilson he did not know who was responsible for the disastrous rush to launch, it was either a lie or an admission that the command flow doesn't work.

What the review leaves out is the fact that in addition to the A-6 an A-7 -- flown by the airwing commander -- was also shot down.  That pilot managed to get the Corsair II over the water before ejecting, which allowed him to be immediately repartriated.

These lessons always seem so obvious in hindsight:  Don't do a mission during daylight that would be more effective at night.  Make sure your intel is accurate.  Make sure you have the right assets (and the right number of them) for the mission.  Don't broadcast your intentions (by flying the exact same route as the strike package that preceeded you, for instance).

The investigation into the tragic helo shootdown last Saturday has just begun.  What will it inform in terms of tactics and equipment?

More than anything else, though, we honor the sacrifice of those consummate professionals who gave their lives doing the job they loved.  They represent the best of America in all ways.

-- Ward

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