In the short span of January 20 to February 7, four U.S. military and two private security firm helicopters were lost due to enemy ground fire in Iraq, raising concerns that insurgents have introduced new tactics or weapons in their battle against coalition air supremacy. According to the February 8 issue of al-Hayat, Iraqi insurgents may have acquired “a new generation” of Strela missiles, presumably the Strela-3 (SA-14 Gremlin), which has increased range and a warhead twice the size of the SA-7. After an Apache gunship was downed with the loss of its two-man crew, the Islamic State of Iraq (an umbrella group for Sunni insurgents led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi) claimed that it had “new ways” of bringing down coalition aircraft (al-Furqan Foundation, February 2). Responsibility for the attacks has been claimed by a variety of Sunni insurgent groups through internet statements and video recordings, such as those found on http://www.hanein.net.
The Pentagon has claimed that only four of the six helicopters were brought down by ground fire, while two others suffered mechanical failure (AHN, February 9). Eyewitness and video evidence suggests three helicopters were lost to missile fire, and three to automatic weapons fire. Some 400 coalition helicopters are active in Iraq, and nearly 60 have been lost to various causes since the start of the invasion in 2003. The military craft lost since January 20 include two AH-64 Apache gunships, a UH-60A Black Hawk and a CH-46 Sea Knight troop transport (the naval version of the twin rotor Chinook).
Helicopters are used heavily in central Iraq to avoid the roadside IEDs that cause most U.S. casualties. The majority of U.S. military helicopters in the theater are fitted with missile sensors, infrared emitters, chaff dispensers and flares designed to deflect incoming missiles. Helicopters typically stay low to the ground, flying quickly at tree-top level when possible. This makes them more difficult to strike with a heat-seeking missile, but increases the chance of damage through machine gun fire. Although numerous technical means have been found to increase ballistic tolerance and reduce the chance of flight-threatening damage from small-arms fire, helicopters simply cannot be fitted with enough armor to make them impervious to bullets. An RPG has little chance of hitting a fast-moving helicopter, but can be used with some chance of success against hovering or slow-moving aircraft. Sand and dust pose additional challenges in keeping the aircraft operational.
The pre-invasion Iraqi army was well-equipped with shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, and thousands of these remain unaccounted for. Most common is the Russian-made 1971-model Strela 2-M (SA-7b in Iraq), a “tail-chase” heat-seeking system with filters for infrared emissions and decoy flares. This weapon is produced in many countries under license and is easily available on the arms market. Last year, there were unverified reports that SA-7 missiles were included in Iranian arms shipments to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (Zaman, May 13, 2006). The Iraq Study Group also alleged that Iraqi insurgents used Saudi money to buy missiles through the black market in Romania (AP, November 8, 2006).
While worrisome, recent helicopter losses are partly the result of increased exposure in the midst of a U.S. offensive and a greater reliance on helicopter transport to avoid IEDs. Increased exposure equals increased risk. Varying flight schedules and flight patterns, flying at night and other evasive tactics were already introduced in November 2003 to counter growing helicopter losses. There is no evidence yet that a new generation of surface-to-air missiles has been introduced. Greater use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles is one means of reducing the threat to manned reconnaissance aircraft, and the U.S. Army is deploying a wide variety of such craft, including those capable of attacking targets, like the Air Force’s Predator.