Flying Iraq's deadly skies

Insurgents' weapons catching up to U.S. military helicopters

February 08, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- First, U.S. military helicopter pilots in Iraq tried flying low and fast, hoping to elude heat-seeking missiles fired by insurgents.

The insurgents responded with heavy weapons such as machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and the loss rate of American helicopters soared.

So the pilots went high -- and insurgents replied with lethal surface-to-air missiles.

A Marine Corps CH-46 helicopter was lost yesterday 20 miles northeast of Baghdad. It was the fifth helicopter that has gone down in Iraq in three weeks. Five Marines and two Navy hospital corpsmen were killed, and there was confusion over whether the twin-rotor Sea Knight troop carrier was shot down or crashed because of mechanical problems.

Sunni insurgents linked to al-Qaida said they shot it down, but a senior Pentagon official insisted that the 35-year-old aircraft caught fire and crashed because of mechanical problems.

There is no question that Iraq is becoming increasingly dangerous for the hundreds of U.S. military helicopters flying there.

With 4,000 to 5,000 increasingly sophisticated surface-to-air missiles in the hands of insurgents via the international arms markets, analysts say, American chopper pilots are caught in a narrowing flight envelope in which they can operate with relative safety. It takes years for the Pentagon to develop and field new defensive technology such as infrared jammers.

Each wrenching loss of a helicopter and crew brings an official statement saying that the military is studying new tactics. But this style of warfare requires that helicopters operate over mostly hostile territory, and pilots say there are precious few tactics that haven't been tried before.

"In many cases we are using tactics that were developed in Vietnam," said Marine Maj. Gen. Kenneth J. Glueck Jr., an attack helicopter pilot who commands the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, N.C. "There is nothing new about this," he said, referring to the skills needed to fly in Iraq.

Four helicopters have been shot down in Iraq since Jan. 20, including two AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, a UH-60 Black Hawk and a commercial MD530F helicopter operated by the private security firm, Blackwater USA. Twenty-eight passengers and crew members were killed.

According to the Iraq Index, assembled by the Brookings Institution in Washington, 53 helicopters have gone down in Iraq since May 2003, not counting yesterday's loss. At least 27 were confirmed to have been shot down, a number that roughly coincides with Pentagon data.

Slow, cumbersome and inherently unstable, helicopters are often at their most vulnerable when flying the missions on which U.S. soldiers in Iraq utterly rely: delivering ammunition to remote units, airlifting troops for a raid, evacuating casualties and attacking insurgents.

Scudding along over sparse desert or thudding low over Baghdad rooftops, troop assault helicopters such as the CH-46 hopscotch from one "green" or relatively safe area to another, while their machine gunners anxiously scan the ground from their perches on each side. The pilots have armed their automatic flare dispensers, which fire showers of white-hot fireworks to confuse heat-seeking missiles, and "yank and bank" in a corkscrew motion when approaching a dangerous or "hot" landing zone, dropping with a gut-churning, nose-high descent.

Hovering, a helicopter is at its most vulnerable. But in this war, so is almost every place.

"The problem with being down low is the small arms threat," said Brig. Gen. Robert Milstead, a Cobra pilot who recently returned from commanding a Marine air wing in Iraq. "Above about 2,500 or 3,000 feet you are out of small arms range but you've got to worry about the manpad threat," he said, referring to "man-portable air defense" weapons.

"You avoid 500 to 1,000 [feet] because you're hanging out there like a grape, to be picked," he said.

These lessons were clear in Vietnam, where the Army and Marines lost hundreds of helicopters to surface-to-air missiles and ground fire. The lesson was driven home in 1989, when the Soviet army retreated from Afghanistan after suffering devastating helicopter losses from shoulder-fired Stinger missiles. The CIA reportedly supplied about 2,000 of the heat-seeking missiles to Afghan insurgents, and while there have been attempts to buy them back, there has been no public accounting of what happened to them.

Helicopter survival on modern battlefields again came into question in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, when rocket-propelled grenades brought down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters. Eighteen American soldiers were killed in the ensuing street battle, and one of the pilots, Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant, was taken prisoner and dragged through the streets. The United States abandoned its Somalia mission months later and U.S. forces were withdrawn.

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