Monday, January 16, 2006

The SAM Threat

The U.S. Army has lost three helicopters in Iraq in less than two weeks, resulting in the deaths of at least 14 soldiers. According to a spokesman for coalition forces, the most recent crash occurred this morning, north of Baghdad. Few details have been released regarding the incident; however the military said the downed chopper was an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and its two-person crew died in the crash. It was the second fatal crash in four days; last Friday, an OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter went down near Mosul, killing its two-man crew. Earlier this month, a UH-60 Blackhawk transport chopper crashed in Tal Afar Province, killing 12 Americans.

Each of these incidents remains under investigation, and the causes of these crashes have not been determined. At least three insurgent groups have claimed responsibility for downing the Apache, although their claims have not been verified. Overall, the U.S. military has compiled a remarkable flight safety record in helicopter operations in Iraq, but this sudden spike will almost certainly prompt a review of operating patterns, tactics and counter-measure employment.

There will be a similar review of insurgent tactics and weaponry. Could these losses be the result of terrorists using better weapons againts our helicopters? Since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, insurgents have had little success using man-portable, surface-to-air missiles (MANPAD SAMs) against coalition aircraft, despite their widespread availability. Among the reasons for the lack of success? Reliance on older SAMs (mostly Russian-built SA-7/14/16s), which are easily defeated by western countermeasures; poor tactical employment by the terrorists, and equally ineffective training for newly-recruited insurgent gunners. Those factors, coupled with successful western tactics and on-board countermeasures systems, have largely diminished the MANPAD threat in Iraq.

On the other hand, the introduction of a more advanced MANPAD (such as the Russian SA-18) could improve the odds for the insurgent. Like other, modern shoulder-fired SAMs, the SA-18 has an expanded engagement envelope and infra-red counter-counter measures (IRCCM), which can sometimes defeat aircraft self-defense systems. There have been periodic rumors that terrorists in Iraq have acquired the SA-18, but no confirmation of their use in combat. Military investigators will carefully comb crash wreckage, and use missile fragments to determine what weapon might have been used--if, in fact, the choppers were downed by hostile fire.

And that's an important "if." There are a number of factors that can cause the crash of a military aircraft, including weather, mechanical problems, and pilot error. Officially, we won't know what brought down these helicopters until the Army completes its investigation several months down the road. But there is suspicion that hostile fire may have been a factor in at least one or two of the crashes, again raising questions abount insurgent tactics and weaponry.

MANPADs remain an important weapon for insurgents in Iraq. MANPAD gunners are typically assigned their own security detail in the field, and they are deemed "too important" for other assignments, notably suicide missions. As the terrorists lose ground against coalition forces, this would be an opportune time to introduce more advanced MANPADs, in an effort to diminish coalition air dominance. While the jihadists will never chase U.S. helicopters from the skies of Iraq (as they did with the Soviets in Afghanistan), they could accomplish another goal, producing aircraft losses that reinforce the (false) notions that we are somehow losing the war.

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