PARIS — IF THE WARS IN SOUTHWESTERN Asia have not been kind to NATO armies, showing them to be ill-equipped and ill-prepared for the irregular conflicts which they now face, some capability areas have fared worse than others. While not plumbing the depths of irrelevancy attained by light armored vehicles, which have been shown by mines and improvised explosive devices to be deadlier to their crews than to their enemies, helicopters have not acquitted themselves much better.
A cursory look at helicopter operations in Afghanistan and Iraq highlights a surprising fact: no major helicopter model deployed has escaped being shot down. These include not only transport helicopters, such as the Sikorsky Aircraft UH-60 Black Hawk, Boeing CH-47 Chinook and CH-46 Sea Knight, but the Boeing AH-64 Apache, a heavily armored aircraft designed to survive front-line combat in Central Europe.
Unhappily for their crews, the Apache has not proved very survivable. Even though the U.S. Army has not been very forthcoming on the circumstances of their downings, several have been lost to ground fire, i.e. rifles or machine-guns, to which they are apparently not as invulnerable as claimed by the manufacturers.
Since 2003, the U.S. has lost more than 50 helicopters in Iraq from all causes; hostile fire has been identified as the primary cause in about half these cases. When Afghanistan is added, total losses increase to about 130, of which about a third are from enemy action. These unofficial estimates exclude allied losses.
These are high figures, given the fact that the enemy mostly lacks anti-aircraft weapons, and make you wonder what the loss rate would have been in Central Europe — the very high-intensity battlefield, remember, in which these same helicopters were designed to operate.
In April, Britain said a man-portable surface-to-air missile shot down an AgustaWestland Lynx in Basra in May 2006, the first time such a weapon was officially identified as having downed a helicopter in Iraq.
In February, the U.S. Army lost four helicopters — and 20 soldiers — in just two weeks. Even though the service did not identify what caused this spike in losses, it was subsequently attributed to coordinated traps using multiple, truck-mounted, heavy machine guns.
If no helicopter deployed in southwest Asia has proved to be protected against ground fire, why spend millions of dollars to buy sophisticated models that can be shot down by weapons as simple as machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades?
According to the Pentagon’s latest Selected Acquisition Report, the U.S. Army will end up spending $19.3 million to upgrade each of its Black Hawks, $16.5 million for each of its AH-64D Apache Longbows, and $10.5 million for each of its new Bell Helicopter Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters. The U.S. Navy will spend $30.6 million for each of its Bell H-1 upgrades, and the Marines a whopping $121.1 million for each of its future Sikorsky CH-53Ks. Given the level of vulnerability demonstrated, such price tags are neither cost-effective nor financially sustainable.
Because of the wide range of critical missions they can carry out, the priority is to deploy as many helicopters as possible, so NATO governments would no doubt be better advised to buy large numbers of cheaper ones than those they now operate. Commercial transport or utility helicopters like those used in the offshore oil industry, fitted with a minimal level of crew and passenger protection, could fit the bill if their survival is entrusted not to ballistic resistance, but to new tactics.
Given the accuracy of automatic weapons, helicopters shot down by ground fire were clearly flying too low. So the first step would be to increase minimum mission altitude to relatively safe levels, at least beyond range of most small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
Second, flight paths should be protected by ground patrols and by aircraft, using a combination of unmanned aerial systems, attack helicopters, and attack aircraft on offensive patrols and itinerate sweeps.
Third, helicopter itineraries should vary so insurgents have less opportunity to prepare "flak traps" using multiple, coordinated heavy machine-guns. Offsetting flight paths by even a few hundred yards can be enough, especially when facing weapons that have no sophisticated fire-control systems.
Other, no doubt better tactical options can be defined by those with access to after-action reports that the military are keeping to themselves for reasons of operational security.
Deploying greater numbers of cheaper helicopters would require more aircrews and is clearly a potential stumbling block, since trained pilots are scarce. They also would add to already high operational costs.
Are there any real options? Helicopters, unlike ground vehicles, cannot be up-armored indefinitely, so the only way to lower losses is to change tactics.
Failing to act will result in unacceptable casualties, unaffordable attrition levels and unprosecutable military missions. Buying more, cheaper helicopters, and operating them differently, is the only road to safer helicopter operations in southwest Asia.