U.S. Army has lost more than 120 helicopters in the war on terror,
about 25 percent of them due to enemy engagements. According
to recent official statistics, some 57 U.S. helicopters had
been downed in Iraq until Feb. 4, resulting in 172 deaths, or
about 5.5 percent of total American deaths since the conflict
began in March 2003. According to U.S. Army General Simmons,
the U.S. Army has lost 29 helicopters to enemy fire since March
2003. The majority of the firefights involve machine-gun and
heavy-machine-gun fire, categorized as up to 23 mm, Simmons
said. But, he added, some surface-to-air missiles, such as SA-7s,
SA-14s and SA-16s,
have been used to shoot down Army helicopters. Army
helicopters average 100 enemy firefights monthly and are hit
about 17 times a month. Most times the helicopters are able
to fly back to base. Simmons said that is a testament to the
quality of pilots, crews and equipment. The number of flight
hours for the Army has nearly doubled in the past two years.
In 2005, pilots logged about 240,000 hours. This year, Simmons
said, he expects that number to reach nearly 400,000 hours.
In 2006, pilots and crews flew 334,000 hours.
While still substantially lower than the U.S. suffered in the
Vietnam War, during which about 5,000 helicopters went down,
officials are extremely concerned over the latest trend. In
fact, the last recorded incident seems especially disturbing.
On Wednesday, Feb 9, 2007 a Marine CH-46 helicopter crashed
in the western province of Al-Anbar, killing seven. The London-based
Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat has reported the advanced SA-16/18
Igla -- a more modern version of the Strela which is harder
to defend against -- might have found its way into Iraq. It
could only have come from Syrian military arsenals, as Russia
has sold these weapons to Damascus recently. It is widely known
border towns in the area are used to funnel arms and money
Evading the potential risk of
SA-18 MANPADS, helicopter pilots began to fly low and
fast, hoping to elude heat-seeking missiles fired by
insurgents, while exposing themselves to heavy weapons
such as machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
In an Internet statement, the al-Qaeda-affilated Islamic State of Iraq claimed
responsibility for the latest crashes "We tell the
enemies of God that the airspace of the Islamic State
in Iraq is prohibited to your aircraft just like its lands
are," the statement said. "God has granted new
ways for the soldiers of the State of Iraq to confront
your aircraft." Intelligence sources are unclear
if the "new ways" referred to new and advanced
anti-aircraft weapons - such as SA-18 missiles - or was
simply a boast of recent successes.
According to John Pike, of GlobalSecurity.com, a military information
Web site, U.S. forces should be concerned over the latest crashes
because of "newer more modern and effective anti-aircraft
missiles." Helicopter countermeasures are probably effective
against the 1960s era SA-7, but "their effectiveness against
the 1980s era SA-18 is less certain, cautions John Pike. As
result, U.S. military helicopter pilots in Iraq tried flying
low and fast, hoping to elude heat-seeking missiles fired by
insurgents. But the insurgents responded with heavy weapons
such as machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and the
loss rate of American helicopters soared. So the pilots went
high again and insurgents replied with lethal surface-to-air
missiles. The vicious circle continued.
is still more vexing to Helicopter pilots flying combat missions
in Iraq is the constant threat from RPGs.
U.S. military helicopters are equipped with long-range sensors
and devices to jam radar and infrared technology, but they have
proven vulnerable to intense gunfire, as well as rocket-propelled
grenades. In one new tactic aimed at helicopters, groups of
insurgents have waited in places where helicopters frequently
fly and then attacked with a combination of small arms, rocket-propelled
grenades, The "swarming" strategy may have played
a role in some of the recent crashes.
The first shoot down from RPG is recorded on August 6, 1966
in Vietnam, when a 'Stingray' team UH-1E 'Huey' gunship was
downed by ground fire, suspected to be a rocket propelled grenade
fired by the NVA.
the Afghan war against the Soviets, the Mujahideen perfected
anti-helicopter tactics by luring these into well placed ambushes,
from which multiple RPGs would be fired at them in volleys.
The Mujahideen found that a frontal shoot at 100m range was
the optimum, but helicopters at longer ranges, 700-800m were
also attacked; by using the explosion of the rocket's self-destruct
mechanism, although chances at this range deteriorated substantially.
In order to get close to their targets, insurgents would lay
ambush to hovering helicopters, by hiding RPG gunners in tree
tops overlooking landing pads. The Al Qaeda technique, found
in captured documents in Afghanistan, used to shorten the warhead's
time fuse, resulting in the warhead detonating much earlier
in an air-burst, making it a highly effective and cheap weapon
against low-flying helicopters.
Perhaps the most publicized incident in which RPGs destroyed
low flying helicopters was over Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993,when
two Blackhawk helicopters were shot down by RPG in quick succession
over the urban battlefield.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom 2003, over Karbala, 32 AH-64D
Longbow were attacked in a classic ambush, by the Iraqi Medina
armored division. The world was shocked when nearly all aircraft
were hit by withering ground fire, including RPG salvoes, which
forced one of those gunships to crash land, its crew captured.
It was a bitter taste of what a simple 750 US Dollar 'black
market' RPG rocket could still do to a highly sophisticated
and ultra-expensive weapon system!
October 2004 Iraqi insurgents first used a rocket propelled
grenade to bring down a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter over Tikrit.
The RPG hit one of the engines, forcing the pilot to make an
immediate emergency landing. The five crew member, unhurt by
the attack emerging from their damaged craft, came under intense
ground fire, which also flamed the helicopter. This incident,
although not the first in US history, became the harbinger of
things to come in Iraq.
Two months later, another Blackhawk was not so lucky. On November
16 two US helicopters crashed after being hit by ground fire,
killing 17 soldiers on board, the worst single loss of American
lives in Iraq since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Investigation
of the crash scene indicated clearly, that at least one of the
choppers was hit by RPG in the tail section, causing the pilot
to lose control, colliding in mid-air with his wingman, bringing
both of them down.
Helicopter pilots soon realized that they were facing a big
problem. Rocket propelled weapons do not respond to chaff and
flares, the only way for protection is skilled flying techniques,
trying to evade hovering over high-risk zones, or adding heavier
armour suites, which is not practical for transport helicopters
due to their excessive weight factor.
Inevitably change of operational flight patterns and avoiding
routine was thought to be the answer. Lieutenant Colonel Orlando
Lopez , a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot and a member of the Army's Aviation
Task Force in the Pentagon Helicopter mentioned that counter-measures
include flying more nighttime missions, using unmanned aircraft
and pairing more vulnerable transport helicopters with Apache
attack helicopters to suppress ground fire had been ordered
in the field. But US officials have redoubled their efforts
to identify innovative ways to protect the helicopters.
US Army has already added armored crew seats on its Black Hawk
helicopters, for instance, along with shielding critical engine
components, and in some instances fitting vulnerable sections
of the fuselage with ballistic blankets. The Israeli firm Plasan
Sasa has developed and fielded a lightweight armor "cockpit
protection" solutions for aircraft that are expected to
operate in the forward battle area. Both the pilot and co-pilot
are provided with armor-protective seats. Protective armor on
the Black Hawk, for example, can already withstand hits from
23mm shells. But US helicopter commanders caution that "We
do not have the ability to detect small arms, large caliber
weapons, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]," unleash a barrage
of different weapons when a helicopter flies nearby". Such
an an ambush can simply consist of training insurgent troops
to 'swarm' their fire if a helicopter happens to fly by and
only the use of on-the-ground intelligence to determine safer
routes can be a solution. Each leg of helicopter flights --
whether to transport wounded soldiers and or deliver VIPs has
to be painstakingly planned, altitudes and flight profiles are
tailored based on the best available intelligence. However,
a constantly changing flight profile also contributes to stress
on pilots and equipment, which over time can become problematic
on sustaining operations. There is already a determined lookout
for any technical advancement to solve the dilemma. But it usually
takes years for the Pentagon to develop and field new defensive
technology such as infrared jammers.
pilots have armed their automatic flare dispensers, which fire
showers of white-hot fireworks to confuse heat-seeking missiles,
and "yank and bank" in a corkscrew motion when approaching
a dangerous or "hot" landing zone, dropping with a
gut-churning, nose-high descent. Hovering, a helicopter is at
its most vulnerable. being down low is the small arms threat.
Brig. Gen. Robert Milstead, a Cobra pilot who recently returned
from commanding a Marine air wing in Iraq claims: "Above
about 2,500 or 3,000 feet you are out of small arms range but
you've got to worry about the MANPADS threat,
by all means avoid 500 to 1,000 feet because you're hanging
out there like a grape, to be picked!"
Indeed, a new generation of infrared-guided SAMS can attack
from any direction, unlike earlier versions which had to be
fired directly at a heat source such as a jet exhaust. The missiles
carry "staring array" sensors that see a wide field
of view and are less easily fooled by flares. Defenses against
improved missiles seem to take agonizingly long to develop and
field. A new missile warning system that the Pentagon had been
working on for years suddenly became a high priority early in
2004, when the Defense Department realized that it was needed
to help protect helicopters in Iraq. Every helicopter in Iraq
now has one, but it took 2 1/2 years to accomplish. A new device
called a "laser jamhead," which scrambles a missile's
brain, is under development.
A new Iraqi Sunni insurgent anti-air weapon
which is proving deadly for low-flying helicopters became known
early last year as "aerial
improvised explosive devices" (AIED). It works on the
same principle as the roadside bomb (IED
or improvised explosive device). This primitive weapon was thought
to account for the unexplained downing in 10 days of three American
combat helicopters. The projectile is fired to a height of some
50 feet before being detonated, proximity fuse alongside a chopper
and covering it in a shower of sharp metal shards. This assumption
was confirmed when a unit of the US 101st Airborne Division
discovered a large cache of materials for building improvised
explosive devices near Hawija on the Tigris River east of Balad.
fired to a height of about 50ft before a proximity fuse detonates
the explosive, filling the air with thousands of metal shards.
By firing a salvo of these improvised bombs simultaneously,
the Iraqi insurgents create an aerial "daisy chain,"
a trap the targeted helicopters finds it very hard to evade.
In some cases, the Iraqi guerrillas set a double trap. A roadside
bomb first strikes a US land convoy. The medical helicopter
summoned to lift the casualties will then be targeted by the
new weapon as it comes in low to pick them up.
To sum up: a helicopter, if hit by an RPG-7 round stands little
chance, especially if scored in the rotor head. The main reason
is that 'there is no warning unless someone on board can actually
see the launch below’. If not, there is no indication
until the actually rocket slams into the aircraft. Then survival
depends on luck-or where it hit!
If you have sufficient altitude left, you may get away with
a controlled crash landing, but usually the RPG gunners aim
at low flying or hovering helicopters, so there is not much
time left for evasive tactics.
The most dangerous area to chopper pilots flying at low altitude
is the so-called "six o’clock" shadow. RPG shooters
prefer to launch their weapon when the chopper has passed, usually
aiming for the trailing aircraft, if these fly in wingman formation.
In the words of a veteran helicopter pilot: " There is
no real defense against a lucky RPG shot 'if they are in the
right place and you are in the wrong place' at the wrong time!"
Read David Eshel's past commentary here