No New Tactics
That's the assessment of Army Vice Chief of Staff, General Richard Cody, in response to recent U.S. helicopter losses in Iraq. General Cody, a former attack helicopter pilot, is currently on a swing through the Middle East, and spoke about the recent spate of shoot-downs--and what they mean--with the AP:
"I see no change in trends" on the part of the insurgent's targeting efforts, "and I see no capability gaps" on the part of U.S. forces.
Cody said all U.S. helicopters in Iraq recently received upgraded defensive systems to protect them against known threats like anti-aircraft missiles, although he acknowledged that helicopters on combat missions face inherent dangers, including small arms fire if they fly low to avoid being targeted by missiles.
"We've been studying the heck out of this thing," he said, referring to the crashes, which began in January with the shootdown of a Black Hawk helicopter in which all 12 U.S. soldiers were killed. Later in January two Apache attack helicopters were shot down, apparently by small arms fire, killing two in each.
General Cody also emphasized the need for aviators to remain vigilant and less predictable in their operations.
"As soon as you get predictable, as soon as you get a little bit complacent, either the enemy will get you or this terrain will get you," he said, referring to the rugged, often mountainous landscape in which they fly
Unfortunately, AP military writer Robert Burns apparently didn't press General Cody on the rationale behind that recent "upgrade" in helicopter defensive systems. There are a number of reasons for such an upgrade, ranging from long-planned system improvements, to changes in the threat environment. Judging from Cody's comments, it sounds like the upgrade was in the works before the recent rash of shoot-downs, although revised IR jammer and/or flare dispenser programs can be quickly added to self-defense systems in response to increased threats.
Mr. Burns might have also asked about missile launch trends in Iraq, although Cody's remarks suggest that there hasn't been a major change in that area, either. Historically, the number of MANPAD launches against our aircraft in Iraq has been fairly consistent over the past three years, based on the limited data that I've seen. General Cody's observations suggest that the number of launches are within "normal" parameters, but the enemy is enjoying more success as of late. And, those meetings with aviators in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that there is concern about complacency on the part of crews.
One final observation: Burns concludes his story with cursory data on cumulative helicopter losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, noting that the U.S. has lost "a little over 100 aircraft" since the start of combat operations, a period in which American crews have logged more than 1.4 million flying hours. That's a loss rate of roughly 7-8 choppers per 100,000 flying hours, the typical benchmark on which losses are calculated. But Burns doesn't differentiate between helicopters shot down by hostile fire, and those lost due to other causes (weather, mechanical problems, crew error). And that's an important distinction; let's assume that only half of the helicopters were downed due to enemy fire; that drops the loss rate in that category to 3 or 4 per 100,000 flying hours. That's about what you would expect in combat operations, even in relatively "permissive" environments like Iraq and Afghanistan.