The MANPAD Problem
Thanks to Powerline for spotting this Ralph Peters column on the recent spate of helicopter losses in Iraq. Peters is correct in identifying the apparent strategy behind the terrorists' renewed interest--and apparent success--in engaging our transport, surveillance and attack helicopters. As he notes, if the terrorists are successful in limiting our mobility through the skies of Iraq, that will force our troops to rely even more on road transportation, setting the stage for more IED attacks and additional casualties.
We've been covering the issue of helicopter losses in Iraq for some time; our latest post on the subject can be found here. At this point, any analysis of the subject must be accompanied by an important caveat: officially, the Pentagon isn't saying much about the losses, other than to acknowledge that at least four of the helicopters were brought down by hostile fire. Insurgents also claim to have shot down a fifth chopper (a Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight) earlier this week, but the military indicates that mechanical problems were responsible for that crash. Additional details would be helpful in determining whether the terrorists are using both anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and man-portable SAMs, or if most of the losses were caused by missiles.
The distinction is important. Losses to both AAA and MANPADs would indicate that insurgent weaponry hasn't changed much--particularly if the missile losses can be traced to systems that have been in Iraq for years, such as the Russian-built SA-7/14/16. We have extensive knowledge of those systems, their performance and how to defeat them. If the enemy used older MANPADs to bring most of these choppers down, it would suggest that (a) their training and tactics have improved; (b) we've become a little too complacent and predictable in our operations, or (c) a combination of those factors. Even older MANPADs and basic air defense weapons (such as heavy machine guns) can be more effective if you've got some idea of when helicopters are likely to pass overhead, and optimum ways for attacking them.
On the other hand, there is also the chance that terrorists have, in fact, acquired more advanced MANPADs from external sources. The most likely missile in that category would be the Russian-made SA-18, which has on-board Infrared counter-Countermeasures (IRCCM), giving it some ability to resist/defeat an aircraft's defensive suite. This improvement is achieved (primarily) by "cooling" the missile seeker, making it more sensitive, and capable of engaging targets from all aspects. By comparison, early-generation MANPADS (SA-7/14; U.S-built REDEYE) do not have cooled seekers, and can only engage targets from their rear, where the IR signature is strongest.
While the SA-18 would represent an improvement in the terrorists' air defense arsenal, the system is not a world-beater by any standard. As with the older, Russian MANPADS, we have extensive knowledge of the SA-18 and methods for countering it. If the SA-18 is suspected, crews will receive additional intel information on potential employment sites and adversary tactics; at the same time, defensive gear on the choppers will also be tweaked, allowing IR jammers and flare dispensers to operate in the most effective manner.
Are we facing an upgraded MANPAD threat in Iraq? At this point, I can't say, based on information that is publicly available. If the terrorists had acquired an advanced, shoulder-fired SAM, we would also expect them to employ it against slow-moving transport aircraft that operate in the skies over Iraq. Downing a C-130 or C-17 could, potentially, generate far more casualties, yet there have been no reports of increased MANPAD launches around major air hubs. Aggressive patrolling around Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), Balad and other key airfields is probably one reason. Yet despite that, we would still expect the terrorists to take a potshot at a transport or even an airliner, if they had a "new" weapon that was more likely to bring down a large aircraft. The absence of such attempts (based on what we know) tends to lessen the possibility of a "new" weapon, although that possibility certainly can't be ruled out.
In reading various reports on the recent helicopter losses, I did find this interesting tidbit: some media outlets indicate that the Defense Secretary Robert Gates and JCS Chairman General Peter Pace are reviewing procedures in the wake of these incidents. That's a bit puzzling, since reviewing (and approving) changes in tactics, techniques and procedures is something normally done far down the chain. However, Secretary Gates and General Pace would be interested in the introduction of advanced weapons systems by the enemy, particularly if the hardware can be traced to a particular supplier (read: Iran).
My prediction? In the tit-for-tat world of tactics and counter-tactics, we'll know what caused these losses very soon (if we don't already) and make the necessary operational adjustments. That's the nature of warfare.