Monday, May 21, 2007

Back to the Air Defense Drawing Board

USA Today is reporting something we noted last week; the terrorist "air defense network," believed responsible for that rash of helicopter losses earlier this year, is now apparently on the ropes.

A senior U.S. commander in Iraq tells the paper that recent raids have broken up the terrorist network responsible for the attacks, which resulted in the downing of eight helicopters in January and February. Major General James Simmons described the effort as both an "operational and intelligence success." He declined to specify the number of terrorists detained in the recent raids, saying only that it was "less than 100."

Still, USA Today reporter Jim Michaels couldn't resist taking a few digs around the way. He strays from the topic of helicopter losses to those familiar stand-bys of Iraq coverage, troop casualties and violence levels. Mr. Michaels claims that violence hasn't decreased, based on the number of troops killed since late March. Apparently, Michaels isn't aware of the recent, dramatic decline in attacks in Al Anbar Province and parts of Baghdad. Additionally, he ignores recent analysis that suggests that troop casualties have declined over the past month, despite increases in the number of soldiers and Marines in the field, and the tempo of their operations. Clearly, the loss of even a single military member is too many, but there are signs that their efforts--and sacrifice--are making a difference. Sadly, that sort of information doesn't fit the media template.

Equally laughable is Michaels' observation that defeat of the terrorist air defense network "gave allied forces more control in the skies over Iraq." Excuse me, Mr. Reporter, but it's hard to improve on total air dominance, which coalition forces have enjoyed since the invasion of Iraq four years ago. True, the helicopter losses earlier this year were a cause for concern, but they never impacted our ability to fly where we wanted, whenever we wanted. Additionally (as we've noted in the past), stories about chopper shoot downs were placed in the proper context; the military assesses aircraft losses per 100,000 flying hours. Despite the shoot downs earlier this year, the number of helicopters downed by hostile fire in Iraq is less than 40. That's a cumulative loss rate of three choppers per 100,000 hours of flight time--a measure considered more than acceptable by combat standards.

Obviously, the eradication of the terrorist air defense network won't end the threat faced by our helicopters. The battle between insurgents and aviators is a tit-for-tat affair. They modified their tactics and we responded; the ball is now back in the bad guys' court. In the coming months, they will likely try new wrinkles to produce a few more shoot-downs, and predictable headlines in organs like USA Today. However, short of new weapons--like the SA-18 shoulder-fired SAM, it seems unlikely that modified tactics can substantially bring down more helicopters. The intelligence and operations system that broke the back of this terrorist network can be equally effective against future air defense cells. That assumes that we remain less predictable in flight activity and vigilant in our analysis of insurgent activity.

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