Saturday, November 08, 2003

Boston.com / Latest News / Washington / Surge in attacks on helicopters escalates death toll in Iraq 

Surge in attacks on helicopters escalates death toll in Iraq
By Robert Burns, Associated Press, 11/8/2003 12:38

WASHINGTON (AP) Whether by chance or design, the string of attacks on U.S. helicopters in Iraq has added a new and worrisome dimension to the anti-occupation guerrilla war and escalated the American death toll.

In the first six months after Baghdad fell in early April, attacks on U.S. troops were mainly in the form of roadside ambushes of vehicle convoys using small arms or homemade bombs. There were occasional, unsuccessful attempts to hit aircraft with missiles or rockets. But only in the past two weeks have the strikes found their targets: one Chinook and two Black Hawk choppers.

The worst was an attack Nov. 2 on a CH-47D Chinook helicopter near Fallujah, at the heart of the insurgency. The strike killed 16 American soldiers and wounded 25. It is believed an SA-7 shoulder-fired missile slammed into one of the chopper's rear-mounted engines.

That was the deadliest attack of the entire war including the heavy combat phase in late March and early April. A senior Army official familiar with the investigation of the attack called it a lucky shot, but it raises questions about the vulnerability of U.S. aircraft.

On Friday a UH-60 Black Hawk was downed near Tikrit, apparently by a rocket-propelled grenade. All six aboard four crew members and two passengers from Department of the Army headquarters in Washington were killed. Officials said they had not sorted out details of what happened.

On Oct. 25 a rocket-propelled grenade forced down a Black Hawk north of Baghdad, wounding one soldier.

Before that, there had been only one helicopter hit, shortly after President Bush flew aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 to declare that major combat operations had ended.

The U.S. Army has more than 600 helicopters in Iraq, almost half of which are Black Hawks.

It may be too early to conclude that the insurgency has entered a new and more deadly phase, more heavily targeting helicopters, said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

But he said there is little reason to think the recent attacks are mere coincidence, either.

Attacks on airplanes and helicopters with shoulder-fired missiles and rocket-propelled grenades are a well-established guerrilla tactic. ''It's the standard playbook and it's being fully exploited now,'' he said.

U.S. commanders have been concerned all along about threats to aircraft, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said Friday. But he said there is no reason to believe the insurgents have figured out more effective ways to target helicopters.

''We've known for a long time that there is an aviation threat out there,'' he said, adding that American aircraft have been fired upon 20 or more times over the past few months.

There is no practical way the U.S. military could stop using helicopters in Iraq. They are used daily throughout Iraq to ferry troops and supplies, in addition to their occasional combat roles.

But there is little doubt the attacks on helicopters have markedly escalated the U.S. death toll.

Since Bush's declaration on May 1, 252 American have died in Iraq, 149 of them from hostile fire.

Until recently the casualty trend had been downward, with the monthly tally of dead falling from 46 in July to 35 in August and 31 in September, according to an unofficial count.

Last month, there were 42 deaths, of which all but nine were hostile. In just the first eight days of November the death count was 34, and all but one was hostile.

Thus, nearly half of all hostile deaths among American forces in Iraq since May 1 66 of the 149 took place in the past five weeks.

O'Hanlon, who traveled around Iraq by helicopter during a September visit, said he sensed then that the pilots and crews had become complacent.

''There was a certain set of expectations about the vulnerability of helicopters that was colored by the fact that none had been shot down at that point,'' he said.

All helicopters flying in Iraq are required to be equipped with self-protection equipment. That includes one of many variants of an electronic jammer/sensor linked to a system that dispenses metallic chaff to confuse enemy radar as well as flares to decoy a heat-seeking missile.

These systems are considered reliable but not foolproof.
Boston.com / Latest News / Washington / Surge in attacks on helicopters escalates death toll in Iraq


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