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As our magnificent warriors return from Iraq, they will tell the folks who sweated them out at home what really went down during their bold march to Baghdad and will catch them up on all the inside skinny concerning the war’s winners and losers.

At first glance, one of the big equipment losers is the U.S. Army’s crown jewel, the Longbow Apache helicopter gunship (AH-64D model). Especially since a Longbow squadron got ventilated March 24 over the city of Karbala when 34 of these $24 million birds – developed to knock out Soviet tanks during the Cold War – were shredded by a sky full of mainly small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. One Longbow was shot down – its two-man crew captured – but most of the rugged birds managed to limp home on a shot-up rotor blade and a prayer. Yet almost a month later, 27 of the choppers were still rated “not fit to fly.”

After this disaster – which got little press because of the Pentagon’s daily cover-up drills – the brass no longer considered the much-hyped Longbow the aircraft of choice to lead the aerial battle charge. Instead, caution prevailed, and the U.S. Air Force’s thick-skinned A-10 Warthog became the undisputed Close Air Support champ of the war.

Now a chorus of self-appointed experts who wouldn’t know a helicopter gunship from a flying saucer is telling the Pentagon to “deep-six” the Apache and give the prime CAS mission to the A-10.

They argue that the Apache not only didn’t cut it in Iraq, but screwed up big-time in fights last year in Afghanistan and during the 1999 Serb War, when it couldn’t even get into the game because of training accidents and the concern that Serb missiles would channel “Black Hawk Down.” Even though a less fancy, earlier model proved itself in spades during Desert Storm and, contrary to so-called expert claims, remains the favorite of our grunts – past and present – in Afghanistan.

But a closer look at the March 24 Little Bighorn reveals that the overconfident – some say even rash – commanders of the 11th Aviation Regiment fell for a classic Iraqi helicopter ambush of the sort perfected by Vietnamese guerrillas in the 1960s and refined by Somalian rebels in the 1990s. Eyewitnesses and Apache pilots say we’re talking leadership fault here rather than the failure of a formidable fighting machine. And if so, the 11th Aviation skippers and their flawed planning should wear the blame, not this great CAS aircraft.

As it proved in Iraq by not crashing and burning when it became Swiss cheese over Karbala, the Apache is unbeatably rugged. A blistering machine capable of pounding the enemy right on the deck – in their face or standing off at five miles. Not to mention how, unlike a fast-moving fighter jet, it can also stay on station – low and slow – long enough to zap the bad guys and deliver close-in, enormous firepower directly in front of our grunts’ foxholes when and where they need it.

But the ultraexpensive Longbow system – a sure winner on the open plains of Europe against Soviet armor that became obsolete the day the Berlin Wall tumbled down – makes the Longbow-equipped Apache too heavy to fly in 21st-century high-altitude trouble spots such as Afghanistan. And since its clever congressional cheerleaders have made sure that its parts are made in almost every state, killing this platinum-plated porker won’t be quick and easy.

Too bad. The money saved could be used to improve the proven AH-64A model, increase Apache pilot training, update attack-helicopter doctrine to include the lessons learned in both Afghanistan and Gulf War II – and for training senior commanders on how to use these vital war-fighting assets correctly.

As for the A-10: Great airplane that belongs to the wrong service – the U.S. Air Force – where the top brass treat it like Cinderella with wings. These trusty flying machines should be transferred to the Army and the Marine Corps for use alongside their AH-64A Apaches and Super Cobras as part of an awesome, well-rounded CAS fleet that would support our ground troops with the best combination of the right stuff.

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