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Iraq: Crashes, Collisions Call Into Question Vulnerability Of Helicopters In Battle

  • Jolyon Naegele

A spate of recent crashes, collisions, and crash landings have once again put the spotlight on the vulnerability of helicopters in combat.

Prague, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On 23 March, a U.S. Apache helicopter crash-landed near Karbala, some 80 kilometers from Baghdad. Its two U.S. pilots were taken prisoner. That same day, a U.S. Air Force rescue helicopter crashed in Afghanistan, killing six.

On 22 March, two British Royal Navy Sea King helicopters collided in mid-air over the Persian Gulf, killing seven crew members. A U.S. Sea Knight transport helicopter crashed in Kuwait on 20 March, killing all 12 soldiers aboard. Also on 20 March, a U.S. special-operations helicopter crash-landed in southern Iraq. All aboard were rescued.

The Pentagon has declined to comment in any detail on these crashes.

According to "The New York Times," the U.S. Army lost nearly 5,000 helicopters in the Vietnam War, "mostly to small arms and machine guns." Experts say technological developments since then have made flying combat helicopter missions somewhat safer, but that it will always be dangerous sending such slow, low-flying aircraft into hostile situations.

According to Nick Cook, an aviation consultant with "Jane's Defense Weekly," "An immense amount has been done to try to protect combat helicopters since Vietnam. The principle form of countermeasures has been the introduction of heat-baffling systems on the helicopter's engine exhaust to try and stop heat-seeking missiles honing in on them. But having said that, you know for all the innovations that have been introduced, helicopters are slow moving. They fly low typically, and they are vulnerable to unseen threats."

America's advanced Apache Longbow helicopter, in service since 1997, has radar, infrared, and night-vision equipment, a machine gun mounted under its nose, and up to 16 missiles for use against tanks or other aircraft. All of these are intended to keep the helicopter a relatively safe distance from enemy forces.

Moreover, the Apache -- unlike some other helicopters -- can usually keep flying after being hit by small-arms fire. Indeed, although the one Apache helicopter did crash-land on 23 March near Karbala, some 30 Apaches are reported to have returned to base that same day, even after being hit by small-arms fire.

Iraqi Information Minister Sa'id al-Sahaf rejoiced at the news that peasants had allegedly brought down two Apaches, although the U.S. military said only one helicopter was missing. "A few peasants, brave peasants, have shot down two Apache helicopters," al-Sahaf said.

But Cook is skeptical of the Iraqi claims as to how the helicopter was brought down. "Possibly, a farmer with a rifle may give a rather misleading impression of what is actually happening on the ground, which appears to be, you know, civilian or militia-type fedayeen -- members of an elite Iraqi military unit pledged to fight to the death for the regime -- armed with AK-47s. Now, although it would be difficult to bring down an Apache even with an AK-47 assault rifle, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility if bullets or a sustained burst of fire were directed at a particularly vulnerable system, like the tail rotor, for example," Cook said.

The original Apache, introduced in 1984, has shown its durability as the U.S. Army's primary attack helicopter. It proved itself in the 1991 Gulf War, when it was credited with destroying hundreds of Iraqi tanks, and in the war in Afghanistan in late 2001.

The British military recently bought 67 Apaches to be used against tanks, replacing one-quarter of its battle tanks. However, firing missiles from the Apache is hazardous for the aircraft and its crew. The U.S. military has reportedly restricted its Apaches to firing missiles only in wartime and only from the right side of the aircraft to ensure that debris does not hit the tail rotor on the left side.

"Jane's Defense Weekly" aviation consultant Cook adds: "The Apache is an extremely effective antitank weapon, particularly the AH-64D Longbow version of the Apache, which is in the Gulf. The Longbow is equipped with much more intricate 'fences' than were available in the first generation of Apaches. In particular, it has a sensor sweep that can sweep the battlefield and pick up to 1,000 targets within literally a couple of seconds of sweeping the immediate vicinity. And then it can process those targets and attack multiple targets simultaneously with its Hellfire antitank missiles."

The Apache has not always enjoyed Washington's full trust, however. In 1999, the Pentagon deployed Apaches to Albania for use against Serbian forces in Kosovo. But following two crashes in Albania while training, the administration of then-U.S. President Bill Clinton decided that the Apaches would be too vulnerable to Serbian attack.

The Kosovo campaign was fought by NATO from aircraft flying at an altitude of at least 15,000 feet. Serbian forces capitulated before a ground war became necessary. As a result, the 78-day campaign incurred no combat losses for NATO.

In the current war in Iraq, the coalition is willing to take many more risks and incur losses to man and machine to reach its goal of ousting the regime of Saddam Hussein.

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