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Helicopter downings vex U.S. military analysts
San Francisco Chronicle


February 12, 2007
Monday PM

Alarmed by the recent spike in successful attacks against American helicopters in Iraq, military officials and analysts are trying to discern: Is this a string of bad luck for U.S. pilots, or an ominous escalation in capabilities enabling insurgents to bring down aircraft crucial to American operations in Iraq?

If the latter conjecture is true, these new tactics could significantly impede the U.S. effort in Iraq, experts say. At worst, they might lead to an American defeat in the war by making the Iraqi airspace as dangerous to navigate as its roads, in the same manner CIA-supplied Stinger missiles contributed to the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan nearly two decades ago.




"Either it's bad luck of no larger consequence, or we have an Afghanistan-sized problem," said John Pike, director of, a military think tank in Alexandria, Va.

Six helicopters have crashed in Iraq over the past three weeks. The latest accident took place Wednesday, when a Sea Knight helicopter crashed, for reasons unclear so far, near the town of Taji about 20 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing all seven people onboard.

The military, which has been poring over the wreckage and an insurgent video of what appears to be the Sea Knight downing, says it is still trying to determine a pattern behind the attacks.

"I do not know whether or not it is the law of averages that caught up with us ... (or) a change of tactics, techniques and procedures on the part of the enemy," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during Senate testimony last week.

But as the Pentagon plans to increase the number of troops in Iraq by 21,500, and the domestic debate over the war intensifies, the spike could become an essential element in the argument for withdrawal, said Nathan Hughes, a military analyst at Strategic Forecasting, a Texas-based private security consulting group.

"It's a delicate time politically, domestically, and if there's suddenly all these new casualties from helicopter crashes, that's gonna be difficult at home," Hughes said.

U.S. troops rely heavily on aircraft, using helicopters for fire support of ground missions and for transportation.

Pike estimated that about 600 American military helicopters operate in Iraq today, flying an average of one or two sorties daily. Of at least 58 helicopters that have gone down in Iraq since May 2003, when the insurgency took off, only about half were brought down by enemy fire, according to the Iraq Index of the Brookings Institution.

At least 172 U.S. troops have died in the crashes - a small fraction of the more than 3,110 U.S. war casualties the Associated Press reports to date.

"We've had pretty much free rein in the air," Hughes said.

Loss of air superiority in counterinsurgencies can become cause for defeat. In the late 1980s, the CIA supplied Afghan guerrillas, through Pakistan, with shoulder-mounted Stinger missiles that helped bring down as many as 300 Soviet helicopter gunships, fighter jets and transport aircraft. The introduction of the missiles is widely regarded as a turning point in that war. The Soviets withdrew in 1989.

If Iraqi insurgents have acquired anti-aircraft missiles, the United States could soon find itself in a similar position. That is why it is critical to determine how the insurgents are shooting down the helicopters, Hughes and other experts said.

Adam Raisman, an analyst who monitors Islamist Web sites at the nonprofit SITE Institute, said he has seen no indication that fighters in Iraq have acquired new missile technology, but said that there was "no way of knowing for sure" whether insurgents have the missiles.

On Friday, a Sunni insurgent group released a two-minute video of what it said was the "downing of U.S. aircraft on Feb. 7," showing a helicopter that appears to be a Sea Knight. The video shows an object trailing smoke in the sky near the helicopter. Then it shows the aircraft, its hull on fire, spewing debris and trailing smoke, heading downward and hitting the ground behind a line of trees.

The group that posted the video, an umbrella organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which includes al Qaeda in Iraq, has said its "anti-aircraft" battalion was responsible for the downing.

Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the Joint Chiefs' chief operations officer, cast doubt on the authenticity of the video, telling a Pentagon news conference Friday that "there are some eyewitness accounts that cause professional aviation officers to believe (the cause of the crash) was most likely ... mechanical."

If Iraqi insurgents do have missiles, where did they get them?

Winslow Wheeler, a military expert at the non-government Center for Defense Information in Washington, said they could be Russian-made SA-7s, bought by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s for the war against Iran and looted from caches of the old Iraqi army after the U.S. invasion.

But Hughes said the recent spate in downed helicopters suggests that militants could have access to newer, more sophisticated missiles, probably supplied recently from abroad.


E-mail Anna Badkhen at abadkhen(at)
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