Helicopter crews are gutsy folks, a 21st-century version of America’s gunfighters of yore. Except their high-tech steeds go a lot faster and can inflict major pain.
They first proved their mettle when they morphed from whirlybirds with jury-rigged machine guns into missile-toting, mini-gun-mean killing machines back in 1960s Vietnam. That’s when our daring young guys wrote the hairy book on chopper tactics and how to put “iron on the target” right in front of the grunts’ Thin Red Line. But at a bloody price: Thousands of crewmen were KIA, WIA and MIA when a reported 10,000 birds went down because of enemy fire or mechanical problems.
Again in Somalia and now in Iraq, choppers continue to be the soldiers’ best friend because of their awesome firepower, fast response and ability to set down on a hot parking-space-sized landing zone to evacuate the wounded.
But as was the case in Vietnam, Somalia and Afghanistan – where 333 Soviet choppers were blown out of the sky in the ’90s by CIA-supported freedom fighters, now relabeled international terrorists – the insurgents in Iraq get better every day at bringing down our birds.
Since last October, Iraqi guerrillas have shot down at least 10 U.S. helicopters, ranging from a small recon Kiowa to a massive Chinook, and killed 49 American soldiers. About half of these aircraft were downed by shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades – RPGs, the weapon of choice in Somalia – and the rest by Russian-manufactured SA-7 and SA-16 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. When Saddam was in the saddle, he purchased at least 5,000 SA-7s and SA-16s, and so far our occupation forces have accounted for only about 1,500 of the heat-seeking Russian missiles, known for their deadly accuracy if fired by well-trained shooters.
The 3,500 missing missiles really worry both fixed-wing and helicopter aircrews in Iraq, all of whom are well-acquainted with the high priority the guerrillas place in bringing down our aircraft. And when 16 soldiers died in a downed Chinook on Nov. 2 and 17 more died in a Black Hawk on Nov. 15, these missile hits became big-time terrorist twofers – worldwide headline-news sound bites coupled with the burgeoning body counts that are a real morale-buster for the troops.
But our forces in Iraq have come a long way from late last year when the guerrillas were playing the tune and we were dancing badly. Now our intelligence machine is cranking out smarter skinny, our fast-moving strike forces often clobber the guerrillas before they can make their moves, and our chopper community keeps coming up with more tricks of the guerrilla-fighting trade.
I asked for some tips for this piece at my website – hackworth.com – and got about 100 replies from current aircrews in Iraq. These gallant warriors say their main mantra is a replay of one of the oldest lessons of war, especially guerrilla war: Don’t set patterns.
“Never fly in multiship formation, as the bad guy will let the lead aircraft pass over and shoot down the second aircraft in the formation,” says a pilot in Iraq.
“We do not fly with our aircraft lighting at night,” reports another pro. “The rule book says we must, and we say this is crap … We also try and fly as many missions at night as possible.”
A pilot with almost a year in Iraq says: “We fly low and fast. Period. The less opportunity you give a rebel with a weapon, the better your chances.”
“Our major bitch is our missile-detection system that frequently goes on the fritz just when you need it. And not getting complacent and doing stupid things like flying as if we were back home,” says another pilot. “It is life-and-death essential to keep a sharp focus.”
The biggest plus reported by these heroes is that the order of the day appears to be: Damn the stateside regs. Their battlewise aviation commanding officers listen to the crews and aren’t afraid to demand that the generals make relevant changes.
We can do our part by demanding that George Bush get on the red phone and tell his “new best friend” Vladimir Putin to stop those Russian missiles from being hawked like Russian vodka. Or no more fun Texas barbecues. And no more food stamps.