By Colonel David Eshel
The downing of six helicopters in the past three weeks shows that Iraqi insurgents are becoming more adept at attacking these aircraft, which the military relies on for a variety of critical functions, regarding them as central elements to counter insurgency warfare. U.S. military officials are carefully studying the downing to determine whether they reflect a mere statistical anomaly, or “some new kind of tactics and techniques that we need to adjust to,” said Marine General Peter Pace, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Intelligence reports caution that it is unclear whether insurgents have obtained new sophisticated anti-helicopter missiles, but that probably small-arms fire was responsible for the recent shoot-downs. A U.S. Army “shootdown assessment team” from Fort Rucker, Ala., is currently in Iraq investigating the crashes of a UH-60 Black Hawk and two AH-64 Apaches between Jan. 20 and Feb. 2 that left 16 Soldiers dead, Col. Robert Quackenbush from the Army Aviation Directorate told American Forces Press Service.
Officials believe two of the Army incidents were linked. According to U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James E. Simmons, deputy commanding general for support for Multinational Corps Iraq, in two separate incidents, insurgents set up explosive devices along the routes most likely to be used by the deploying coalition quick-reaction force. Simmons discounted reports, though, that advanced missile systems are being used to shoot down helicopters in Iraq. There is no evidence supporting that, Simmons said. He also said there is no evidence that a specific group has been targeting the aircraft. But, he said, insurgents are adapting, their tactics have evolved, and Army air missions have increased.
The 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 that Syrian border towns in the area are used to funnel arms and money into Iraq.
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.
What 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.
During 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!
In 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.
The 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.
Meanwhile, 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!”