After losing four helicopters to hostile fire in the past two weeks, the U.S. military is vowing to modify its employment tactics.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. There was a similar review and change of tactics in early 2006, after the U.S. lost three helicopters (an AH-64 Apache gunship, an OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter and a UH-60 Blackhawk transport) in a fourteen-day period. A total of 16 American military personnel died in those incidents; in the latest round of helicopter losses, 21 service members and military contractors have been killed.
The recent spate of shoot-downs has raised the same fears expressed thirteen months ago, namely that insurgents may be using more sophisticated weapons, increasing the potential threat to helicopters and slower-moving conventional aircraft. There is some evidence that Saddam's regime obtained Russian-made SA-18 shoulder-fired SAMs before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The SA-18 is a more advanced man-portable missile, with an improved ability to reject aircraft counter-measures. However, to my knowledge, the SA-18 has never been confirmed in the terrorists' arsenal; for the most part, they still rely on older man-portable SAMs (such as the SA-7/14/16), RPGs and automatic weapons fire to engage our aircraft, with middling success.
And that's an important point, one that is always ignored by the MSM. While Reuters notes that "dozens" of U.S. helicopters have been downed by insurgents, they fail to mention that such losses represent only a total fraction of the hundreds of helicopter sorties flown daily in Iraq [emphasis mine]. In fact, cumulative loss rates (per 100,000 hours of flying time) have decreased since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. An occasional spike in chopper losses--tragic though it might be--does little to change those statistics.
Indeed, the recent jump in shootdowns obscures an essential fact, one that you'll never read in a wires service dispatch: Iraq remains a permissive operating environment for U.S. tactical aircraft, allowing us to fly and employ ordnance at will. The terrorists have not been able--nor will they be able--to transform the skies of Iraq into an updated version of the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan, where American-made Stinger missiles (coupled with poor tactical employment) practically drove Russian helicopters from the skies.
After the slight surge in helicopter losses in 2006, there was a noticeable decrease in successful enemy attacks until the latest rash of shoot-downs last month. That suggests that our earlier "tactical adjustment" achieved its desired goals. For good reason, the military never releases exact details of its modified tactics, but the 2006 adjustment apparently included changes in operating patterns. The U.S. has a long history of operational predictability, and that may be part of the problem in Iraq. Conducting chopper flights at certain times (and along specific flight routes) may be convenient from a scheduling or air traffic control perspective, but it may also allow the enemy to decipher operational patterns, and establish potential ambush times/locations. Creating a little more variance in our ops cycle could (again) go a long way toward reducing helicopter losses.
On the other hand, if the recent shoot-downs are the result of "new" missiles in insurgent hands, well, we have a solution for that problem as well. The U.S. has detailed knowledge of MANPADs made by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, among other producers. Analysis of fragments and missile warhead remnants, retrieved from the wreckage of the downed choppers, will quickly pin-point which system(s) are responsible, and determine what changes--if any--should be made in our on-board countermeasures and operating tactics. Collectively, that should be enough to minimize the threat, allowing us to continue our highly effective helicopter operations across Iraq.
Previous posts on this topic here and here.