Three helicopters have been lost in Iraq in the past 10 days, including one over the weekend. While insurgents and militias have plenty of weapons capable of shooting down helicopters, the U.S. has developed tactics to minimize the risk, and many experts doubt the threat to the military's workhorse has significantly increased.
Since May 2003, the U.S. military has lost 54 helicopters in Iraq, about half of them to hostile fire, according to figures compiled by the Brookings Institution. In addition, an OH-6A helicopter owned by the private security company Blackwater USA crashed last Tuesday in Baghdad in heavy gunfire, killing four civilian contractors.
The private aircraft was among three helicopters which have crashed in Iraq since Jan. 20. They also include a U.S. Army Black Hawk that crashed in Diyala province, killing 12 soldiers, and an unspecified army helicopter that went down Sunday during heavy fighting near Najaf, killing the two crew members.
Both helicopters were believed to have been shot down, although the U.S. military will not confirm the cause until investigations are completed. However, a U.S. military official in Washington said the helicopter that crashed near Najaf was shot down by small arms fire rather than any sophisticated anti-aircraft weapon.
The recent spate of losses raises questions about whether Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias may have stepped up attacks on helicopters or may have received new supplies of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons. Sunni insurgents are already known to have SA-7 anti-aircraft weapons in their arsenal as well as rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, all of which pose a threat to aircraft.
If the insurgents have new weapons or have decided to step up attacks on aviation, that would be a major problem for U.S. commanders, who rely heavily on helicopters not only in combat but also to move soldiers and supplies around the country. Helicopters have been used more and more as the war progressed to avoid a bigger threat from roadside bombs, the major killer of American and Iraqi forces.
The use of American-supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles by Afghan fighters was a major factor in the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan during the 1979-1989 Afghanistan war.
U.S. officials will not comment in detail on the crashes or speculate publicly about a possible change in insurgent tactics for security reasons.
But several civilian analysts doubt that the latest crashes are part of a pattern and say there is no evidence that the crashes are more than just coincidence and bad luck. All three helicopters lost in the past 10 days crashed either in combat or in areas where insurgents are active.
"There are bound to be a number of helicopter accidents per year as a matter of course," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.com. "Even if they were all shot down, our countermeasures would seem to work pretty good" considering the heavy use of helicopters by the military in Iraq.
Military officials are also reluctant to discuss those countermeasures to avoid giving insurgents valuable tactical information.
After a series of attacks in 2003, the military issued new instructions to helicopter pilots, ordering them to fly lower and faster, measures which experts say makes if difficult for insurgent gunners to site in on the aircraft. Pilots were also ordered to vary their routes during trips between military bases.
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