Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Thinking Enemy

Military officials now say a Black Hawk helicopter that made a "hard landing" near Baghdad on Wednesday was actually downed by hostile fire. None of the nine soldiers on board the chopper were seriously injured, and all were rescued by American ground forces.

With Wednesday's apparent shootdown, the U.S. has now lost eight helicopters to enemy fire over the past month, resulting in the deaths of 28 military personnel and civilians. At first, senior military officials suggested that many of the losses were the result of luck and coincidence. But in recent days, three American generals have indicated that more sophisticated weapons and tactics have played in some of the recent losses.

A recent AP story from Baghdad says it is unclear if terrorists have obtained more advanced air defense weapons, or they're simply using what they have in a more effective manner. The New York Times reported Sunday that in several shootdown incidents, enemy gunners employed multiple weapons systems against individual choppers, including shoulder-fired SAMs, rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machineguns and unguided rockets--essentially creating a "wall of fire" that is more difficult for pilots to avoid, and increases the chances for an enemy "hit."

It's a classic air defense ambush technique, and variations of this tactic have been employed for years. In Vietnam, for example, enemy air defense crews often used their SA-2, radar-guided SAMs to force our aircraft into a lower altitude environment, where they became an easier target for anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), and in extreme cases, small arms fire. On some occasions, the North Vietnamese would create a "curtain" of fire for our aircraft to fly through, if they could determine the exact flight route that our fighters planned to follow.

Creating an ambush point is much easier if you know something about the operating patterns and flight routes of your adversary. I'm not saying that the terrorists are getting a copy of our Air Tasking Order (ATO), which lists most of the day's preplanned air sorties. But, if helicopters and/or fixed wing aircraft follow predictable flight routes and are more active at certain times of the day or night, finding the right spot for your spotters and gunners becomes a much less complicated task. Additionally, if any of our radio calls are passed "in the clear" (without encryption), it would be relatively simple for the enemy to monitor active frequencies and glean intelligence information. However, I don't put much stock in that latter possibility, since the military has been using encrypted or frequency-hopping radios for year, making it more difficult for adversaries to monitor our communications.

Additionally, even some of our counter-tactics can inadvertently aid the enemy. Another report from Baghdad suggests that many chopper pilots often follow rivers, reducing the possibility of a missile shot from directly beneath the aircraft. But following major rivers--like the Tigris--can also serve to "channel" aircraft, and help the terrorists locate potential ambush sites. That's one reason U.S. commanders have recently encouraged helicopter crews to be less "predictable" in their operations, making it harder for enemy gunners to target their aircraft.

And, despite our best efforts, on-board defensive systems are not perfect. In a recent Congressional hearing, Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway testified that the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, shot down on 7 February, had "not properly released its anti-missile defensive measures." The a number of potential reasons for that failure, ranging from system failure to aircraft maneuvering. Pilots are taught to execute specific defensive maneuvers if they detect a missile launch, but those maneuvers can also (in some cases) lessen the effect of on-board flares or jammers, designed to defeat the missile. I've watched video of the Sea Knight shootdown, and can't determine whether the chopper was maneuvering as the missile approached.

U.S. commanders say the apparent change in enemy tactics reflects a "thinking enemy," which is hardly surprising. Since the start of the Iraq War, terrorist have proved adept at modifying their employment techniques, to offset our advantages in numbers and technology. As we've noted before, there have been past spikes in helicopter losses, reflecting another adjustment in enemy tactics, followed by a corresponding drop in shootdowns, as we figure out what the enemy's up to, and make the necessary adjustments. The forgotten rejoinder to the "thinking enemy" assertion is that we're never idle, either. The latest wrinkle in the air defense war is a reminder that the enemy changed his tactics because our last round of counter-moves had been so successful.

Strategy Page recently provided an excellent summary of helicopter losses in Iraq, and put those numbers in a realistic context. Since the start of the conflict, the U.S. Army has lost a total of 30 helicopters, including the Black Hawk that crash-landed on Wednesday. During that same period, Army choppers have logged almost a million flying hours, producing a cumulative loss rate of roughly three helicopters per 100,000 flying hours. That remains a remarkably low tally, considering that the number of flight hours has almost doubled since 2004. But again, you won't find that in reporting from the AP, or the NYT.

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