Lethal Chess Game In Skies Over Iraq




 
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Lethal Chess Game In Skies Over Iraq
 
February 23rd, 2007  
Team Infidel
 
 

Topic: Lethal Chess Game In Skies Over Iraq


Lethal Chess Game In Skies Over Iraq
San Diego Union-Tribune
February 22, 2007
Pg. 1

Improved tactics, firepower used against copters
By Rick Rogers, Staff Writer
Roger Herman flew 520 combat missions for the Marine Corps in the late 1960s and had three helicopters shot out from under him.
It might have been worse had the United States not altered its tactics each time the Viet Cong refined theirs.
What was true 40 years ago over the canopied jungles of Vietnam is playing out again above the deserts and cities of Iraq, where the U.S. military is trying to stanch the loss of helicopters downed by increasingly sophisticated weapons and tactics.
At least eight U.S. military and civilian copters, including one from Camp Pendleton, have crashed or been shot down since Jan. 20. The most recent incident occurred yesterday, when insurgents brought down a Black Hawk north of Baghdad. A second helicopter evacuated everyone on board, said a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Christopher Garver.
The losses reveal a truth that helicopter squadrons know all too well.
“There are only so many ways to fly in combat. Either you stay up high, out of small-arms range, but are then susceptible to surface-to-air missiles, or you fly low and fast but are susceptible to small arms and rocket-propelled grenades,” said Herman, a retired major living in San Diego.
“The problem they are having today is the enemy seems to have more threats than it used to.”
In recent days, U.S. commanders in Iraq and Washington, D.C., have acknowledged that insurgents apparently possess advanced versions of shoulder-mounted, surface-to-air missiles.
They also described complex attacks in which the enemy observed U.S. flight patterns for days, then used different combinations of weapons to confuse the copters' crews and attack them from multiple directions to increase the chances of scoring a hit.
“This is clearly a major tactical initiative by the insurgents,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer for the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank in Arlington, Va.
U.S. forces have lost roughly 60 helicopters since the Iraq war began in March 2003, with about 30 of those downed by enemy fire, Thompson said.
“More than 25 percent of them have been lost in the last few weeks,” he said. “This is not coincidence.”
The downings generate headlines worldwide for the insurgents. They also have a tactical significance by denying U.S. commanders what had been a well-tested and largely safe way of moving troops and supplies.
“It's one more indication of how the walls are gradually closing in on the U.S. forces in Iraq,” Thompson said. “First, insurgents force us off the roads with improvised explosive devices. Then they force us out of the cities with suicide attacks and snipers. ... We are kind of running out of options.”
Helicopters carry service members who would otherwise be hauled in convoys open to ambush by roadside bombs, which cause nearly 70 percent of U.S. deaths in Iraq.
The Army and Marine Corps rely heavily on their fleets of helicopters.
Last year, Army copters flew 300,000 hours in Iraq. That figure is expected to top 400,000 hours this year, the military said.
About seven rotary-wing Marine squadrons – including several based at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and Camp Pendleton – fly in Anbar province, a region in western Iraq where Marines have the combat lead.
This week, Lt. Col. Kevin Lee and his squadron of CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters are leaving San Diego for Iraq. At least two CH-46s have crashed or been shot down in the war theater since Dec. 3, killing 11 U.S. personnel.
Lee said his 200-member squadron from Miramar is cautiously optimistic despite the recent crush of bad news. He said that in some ways, a little concern might keep his men sharp.
“I think everyone who goes into combat should have a degree of apprehension,” said Lee, 38.
Without being specific, Lee said the Marines are adapting to a surprisingly tenacious and resourceful enemy by “modifying and refining the way we do things.”
Commanders are being urged to try new flying techniques in case the insurgents are exploiting the old ones, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense research think tank in Alexandria, Va.
“I've heard that they've told squadron commanders that everyone should make up their own flying procedures,” whether it's for a special combat mission or routine trips, Pike said.
“Adapt and overcome” is a well-known saying in the military.
As the Viet Cong changed strategies during the Vietnam War, so did Marine pilots. For example, the Marines handling medevac flights would sometime come in high over the landing zone and then spiral down. At other times, they'd come in fast and low over the trees, with a wingman up high navigating them to the right landing spot.
Then and now, U.S. military commanders don't care to discuss how their helicopter crews are trying to stay out of the sights of insurgents.
Flying at night – all the recent downings occurred during daytime – is an obvious countermeasure. So is avoiding urban areas, which offer insurgents more cover to target copters.
But such tactics aren't always possible or effective, especially against the enemy's increasingly powerful weapons.
On Tuesday and again yesterday, military officials in Washington suggested that insurgents are using not only the Vietnam-era SA-7, a shoulder-mounted missile, but also the far more advanced SA-14, SA-16 and perhaps even the SA-18.
When correctly employed, double-digit SA missiles have more than enough range, speed and precision to beat a helicopter's defense systems.
It might have been an SA-14 or SA-16 missile that shot down a Camp Pendleton-based CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter Feb. 7, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a military spokesman, said yesterday.
As if potent SA missiles weren't enough, U.S. forces are seeing an unprecedented level of coordination in enemy ground fire aimed at helicopters.
On Monday, for instance, three copters were struck by ground fire from several directions as they helped repel an insurgent attack on a U.S. outpost in the town of Tarmiya, north of Baghdad. The helicopters made it back to their base for repairs.
In Tarmiya and other Iraqi locations, the enemy attacked with a maelstrom of shoulder-mounted missiles, heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and unguided rockets.
On average, helicopters are shot at about 100 times a month in Iraq, the Pentagon said. The spate of downings might be a sign that the worst lies ahead, some defense experts warned.
“We could be in for a world of hurt,” Pike said. “We lost 5,000 helicopters in Vietnam.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
 


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