Pentagon sources are telling Fox News that hostile fire may have caused last weekend's deadly helicopter crash in Iraq, which killed 13 U.S. soldiers. The UH-60 Blackhawk went down northeast of Baghdad on Saturday. Witnesses say some sort of "rocket" or "projectile" was fired at the chopper shortly before it went down.
However, other details on the incident remain sketchy. For example, it would be helpful to know the helicopter's heading and altitude before it went down, or if any maneuvering was observed prior to the aircraft being struck. That would give us some idea if the crew had any idea they were under attack, and took evasive action (to include the dispensing of counter-measures), used to defeat enemy shoulder-fired missiles. The absence of that information suggests the attack may have been unobserved; the terrorists got lucky, scored a fat hit on the Blackhawk, and by that time, it was too late.
The helicopter crash accounted for almost half of the U.S. military fatalities reported in Iraq over the weekend. At least 28 military personnel died during that period; 15 in ground attacks and 13 in the helicopter crash. While it was the deadliest American chopper crash in Iraq in more than a year, the incident is not a genuine reflection of rotary-wing operations in the war zone. As we've noted before, the number of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft lost to hostile fire has actually declined (per 100,000 flying hours since 2003), reflecting improved on-board counter-measures and tactics. The number of attacks or missile launches against our aircraft has remained fairly constant over the past four years, but the enemy's success rate has declined. That's another reason the terrorists emphasize roadside attacks, because their prospects for downing a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft are decidedly low.
Unfotunately, our enemies get lucky every now and then, resulting in the type of losses experienced near Baghdad on Saturday. But compared to other campaigns against insurgent (notably Russia's experiences in Afghanistan and Chechnya), our attack, transport and scout helicopter units have experienced remarkably low losses in Iraq. That may be little consolation for the families who lost loved ones near Baghdad on Saturday, but it is a testament to the skill and dedication of pilots and crews performing helicopter operations in Iraq--and to the maintenance crews that keep them flying.
The apparent Blackhawk shoot-down came a little over a year after another UH-60 was lost in Tal Afar Province, killing 12 soldiers. That incident was part of a sudden rash of American helicopter losses in early 2006; three choppers were shot down in a two-week period, resulting in the deaths of 14 military personnel. At the time, we expressed concern that the sudden spike in shoot-downs might indicate the introduction of a more advanced shoulder-fired missile among insurgents, perhaps the Russian-made SA-18. But those concerns never panned out, and we rather doubt that the terrorists are using more advanced missiles at the present time. For engaging helicopters in Iraq, the weapons of choice are older, more readily available MANPADs (SA-7s/14s) and RPGs. And under the right circumstances, even those weapons can be deadly.