Skip to comments.Iraq rebels refine tactics vs. aircraft
Posted on 01/18/2004 9:32:34 AM PST by Indy Pendance
Washington - A classified Army study of the downings of military helicopters in Iraq found that guerrillas have used increasingly sophisticated tactics and weapons - including at least one advanced missile - to attack American aircraft, senior Army officials in Iraq and the Persian Gulf region say.
The insurgents have proved adept at using both rocket-propelled grenades, which are point-and-shoot weapons, and heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, which require greater maintenance and skill, said Army officials familiar with the study.
No type of helicopter is more vulnerable or more protected against the problem, the review found. But the team recommended specific changes to help pilots better evade ground fire, Army officials said. Senior officers declined to elaborate, but changes in the past have included flying more missions at night with lights off to avoid detection.
The study was conducted before the three most recent downings this month, but those incidents in the restive area near Fallujah, west of Baghdad, have only reinforced the team's findings and raised fears that insurgents are closely studying the flight patterns of helicopters and other aircraft, Army officials said.
"The enemy has clearly seen the possibilities from earlier successes," said one senior Army aviator in the Persian Gulf. "The enemy enjoys a strategic success each time one of our aircraft is shot down. It becomes a major media event, and questions arise as to who is winning. So the enemy sees this as very useful."
It was concern about these attacks that prompted Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the senior American commander in Iraq, to go beyond the standard review after any crash and order last month that a comprehensive study examine all downings, Army officials said. The aim was to detect more about the insurgents' techniques and weaponry, and possible weaknesses in the Americans' defensive countermeasures and tactics.
One troubling finding, Army officials said, is that on at least one occasion the insurgents used SA-16 shoulder-fired missiles, which have guidance systems that are harder to thwart than the SA-7 missiles and rocket-propelled grenades that insurgents have used in other attacks.
Since Oct. 25, nine military helicopters have been shot down or crash-landed after being hit by what the authorities believe was hostile fire, killing a total of 49 troops. On Jan. 2, American military authorities say, a rocket-propelled grenade or a surface-to-air missile downed an OH-58 Kiowa reconnaissance helicopter, killing the pilot.
Six days later, another missile struck a UH-60 Black Hawk medical evacuation helicopter, killing nine crew members and passengers. And on Tuesday, ground fire brought down an AH-64 Apache gunship, but the two crew members survived.
Senior military officials in Iraq emphasized that with the three latest incidents near Fallujah still under investigation, it was premature to draw any conclusions about long-term trends. "It's hard to say whether it's been a bad couple of weeks or it's something larger," said one senior officer in Baghdad. "But clearly, that area has us concerned." Maintenance problems
Senior military officials also point to another area of concern: Army helicopters in Iraq experiencing crucial maintenance problems with a defense system designed to protect against heat-seeking missiles.
The system, the AN/ALQ-144, electronically jams incoming missiles and fires flares to divert the missile from the aircraft. It is manufactured by BAE Systems North America, a Rockville, Md.-subsidiary of the European defense giant.
The device, which is on U.S. Army Black Hawk, Apache and Kiowa helicopters, routinely breaks down in the desert conditions and requires extensive maintenance, the officials said.
Marine Corps Capt. Bruce Frame, a spokesman of the U.S. Central Command, said that the military is investigating the possibility that on-board self-defense equipment malfunctioned on the helicopters that were shot down.
Brig. Gen. E.J. Sinclair blamed the fine, talc-like sand whipped up by helicopter rotor blades for causing mechanical bearings inside the defense system to malfunction.
"It has happened a lot," said a senior Army official of the failures. A spokesman for BAE Systems, John Measell, declined to comment.
The AN/ALQ-144 consists of a transmitter that continuously operates during flight, issuing false infrared signals to confound enemy heat-seeking missiles, and a separate control unit. Army policy in Iraq is that an aircraft with a broken AN/ALQ-144 must be grounded until it is fixed.
"What we've done is come out with an interim fix where we are doing much more repetitive maintenance on the bearings - pulling it out, cleaning it and greasing it," said a senior Army official. The manufacturers are working to install a filtration system to protect the bearings from sand, the official added. Crash review team
The team conducting the comprehensive review of all downings was headed by Col. Stephen Dwyer, a brigade commander at the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., and it included about a dozen forensic and weapons experts, crash analysts and helicopter specialists. The team spent about four weeks in Iraq visiting each crash site, taking soil samples for forensic analysis and talking to aviators.
"They went over to look at Army aviation, make an assessment and make recommendations on how to improve it," said Lt. Col. James Bullinger, a spokesman for the Army Aviation Center.
Bullinger said that even before the team started its work, the Army was adopting lessons from Iraq, teaching pilots to fire their weapons while "running and diving," instead of hovering, when a helicopter is more vulnerable to an attack.
Senior Army commanders said the assessment team provided several valuable insights for pilots in Iraq, and for the fresh crews preparing to rotate into the country.
"This is a case of our Army coming through quickly with the right expertise at the right place," said Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division.
American intelligence analysts have said that during Saddam Hussein's rule, Iraq stockpiled at least 5,000 shoulder-fired missiles of all types, and that fewer than a third have been recovered.