Article Archives (11-13-2004)
What's up with the army and its helicopters?
We are all familiar with the now famous "Blackhawk down" incident in Somalia on October 3, 1993 where two army Blackhawk helicopters were shot down with small arms and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) fire. It appears the army has not learned much since that incident about the vulnerability of its helicopters to small arms fire. The army's helicopters can generally be placed into three categories: (a) transport, (b) scout, and (c) attack. The Blackhawk is mainly used for transportation although it is also sometimes configured with attack weapons such as hellfire missiles. link. Most of the deaths from military helicopter crashes come when transports go down with troops on board. Here are some recent factoids from Iraq:
There have been significant crashes and loss of life in Afghanistan as well:
- April 3, 2003, an Army blackhawk helicopter was shot down with small arms fire, 7 soldiers were killed.
- Nov 2, 2003, an Army Chinook helicopter, transporting a group of soldiers to Baghdad International Airport who were heading home for leave, was shot down near the town of Fallujah with a missile, 16 soldiers were killed.
- November 15, 2003 - Mosul, two UH-60 Blackhawks crash (apparently by running in to each other in an attempt to avoid ground fire), at least 17 killed. link
- List of US military helicopter crashes in Iraq over past 2 years (99 soldiers listed as dead in these crashes, 8 of whom were British as of 11-13-2004).
- UPDATE: 31 US personnel (30 Marines and 1 Sailor) killed January 26, 2005 when their CH-53E Super Stallion transport went down in a sandstorm, no enemy fire was reported.
- Update: April 21, 2005--11 were killed in Iraq when their helicopter was shot down by Islamic militants. Among the dead were six American employees of the security firm Blackwater USA, three Bulgarian crew members and two Fijian security guards. Link.
- UPDATE: On May 26, 2005, 2 soldiers were killed when their reconnaissance helicopter (an OH-58 Kiowa) was brought down by small arms fire near Baquba 40 miles north of Baghdad.
These are just the Afghan crashes I picked up through a short Google search. I'm sure there are more.
- January 30, 2003--four U.S. military personnel aboard a U.S. Army Special Operations helicopter were killed when it crashed during a routine training mission in Afghanistan.
- March 24, 2003--6 Americans killed when their HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter (Air force equivalent of the Blackhawk) went down. There was no report of enemy action.
- November 23, 2003--5 American serviceman died when their MH-53M helicopter went down due to mechanical difficulty.
- August 13, 2004--A Black Hawk helicopter loaded with U.S. troops crashed in a troubled Afghan province on Thursday, killing one crew member and injuring 12.
- October 21, 2004--An Air Force HH-60 helicopter crew member was killed and two others were injured when their aircraft crashed during a medical evacuation mission.
- UPDATE: April 7, 2005--18 Americans were killed in the crash of a CH-47 Chinook (Vietnam era transport) in bad weather.
- UPDATE: On June 26, 2005, 16 soldiers died (mostly special forces personnel) when their MH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border by Taliban forces presumably using RPGs. The MH-47 Chinook is only flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers. Link.
To this untrained observer of military events, there does not appear to be a ready answer to the problem the Army and Marine Corps face with their helicopter transports. The Marine Corps has put mucho effort into developing the tilt-roter V-22 Osprey--an aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like an airplane. link. Its advantages are increased speed, range, payload, and crash survivability. It's risks--unproven technology and difficulty transitioning from level flight to vertical (or, put another way, from airplane mode to helicopter mode). The V-22 program was nearly canceled after two crashes in 2000 killed 23 Marines. I pray the Marines are able to fix whatever problems plague the V-22 and develop a dependable aircraft. Until then, the military is stuck with essentially 1970s technology for its transport helicopters.
One digression--the problem in Mogadishu with the shoot down of two Blackhawks minutes apart by the Somalis, in retrospect, was not the aircraft but how it was used. First, the unit flying these aircraft, the Night Stalkers, is a highly trained night operations unit. That advantage (high level of training and special equipment for night operations) goes right out the window during a daylight mission. Second, these helicopters were not shot down during ingress or egress of the Rangers they were transporting that day. Essentially, they were circling the area of operation in a fixed holding pattern providing close air support from the helicopter's door gunner. That's the job the Apache was designed for. The Blackhawk is larger and slower, thus, more vulnerable to ground fire. Bad idea using it for close air support (much less in broad daylight).
So what about the Apache, the Army's specially designed close air support helicopter? It's got its own problems as well. Here are a few recent facts:
"The AH-64 Apache was designed primarily as a tank killer for a potential ground war in Europe against massive numbers of Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks charging into Germany. It has Hellfire anti-tank missiles and a powerful cannon. It can hover behind trees and other obstacles before popping up to fire missiles at a target that could be 'illuminated' by a laser fired by another aircraft or even troops on the ground." See Assault Helicopters. The army now has an improved version of the Apache, the Longbow (AH-64D), with its radar mounted over the rotors to aid in hiding behind trees and other terrain obstructions. Just a little note to the Army brass--Iraq is in a desert, hardly any trees there to hide behind. The Blockbuster video store in Pentagon City must have been out of Lawrence of Arabia or I'm sure you guys would have noticed this fact. The long and short of it is that the Apache has shown itself very capable of fulfilling its intended mission of destroying enemy armor at a standoff distance, however, it has been vulnerable to small arms fire when closely engaging irregular units (like the insurgents in Iraq).
- In April and May of 1999, two Apache helicopters crashed in Albania during training missions in preparation for use in the Kosovo peacekeeping mission (with 2 deaths to servicemen). Due to the crashes, the Apache was never deployed to Kosovo.
- In November of 1999, between 300-400 of the Army's Apache helicopters (out of a total of 743 in the Army fleet) were grounded awaiting replacement of bearing assemblies. This order was in response to problems found with the aircraft during accident investigations following prior incidents.
- On March 24, 2003, 33 Apache helicopters were ordered to move out ahead of the 3rd Infantry Division to attack the Iraqi Republican Guard near Karbala. Meeting heavy fire from small arms and RPGs, the Apaches flew back to base, 30 of them shot up. One helicopter was shot down in the encounter with its two crewmen taken prisoner. link
The first step to solving a problem is recognizing you have one. See AA Step 1 for reference. The Army's attack helicopters were designed to fight tank wars on the plains of central Europe but that ain't happening in our generation. Insurgent / guerilla wars of the Afghanistan or Fallujah type shall be the order of the day. The Army establishment needs to step up to the plate and recognize that they have a need (close air support against irregular troops) that is not being met by current aircraft. In urban settings, they may want to consider going with smaller, quicker attack helicopters such as the AH-6 "Little Bird" which saved the Rangers' bacon in Mogadishu. It was the only aircraft able to operate at close range over the city to support the trapped Rangers through out the night. If not for the AH-6, the Blackhawk Down incident might have ended as a modern Little Bighorn (i.e., Custer and all his troopers dead). Armed drones are another possibility for high risk operational areas.
There is one other little-known, historical issue that compounds this problem. The Air Force was initially part of the Army (then called the Army Air Corps). In the Key West Agreement of 1948, the various branches of the military agreed to what roles each would play. In this agreement, the Army was limited from arming its fixed wing aircraft. Thus, the job of close air support (CAS) of Army infantry with fixed wing aircraft was given to the Air Force. (Note: the Marines operate under no such restriction and this is why the operation of their air wings are closely integrated with Marine infranty units.) The Army relies heavily upon its helicopters for CAS due to the Key West restrictions. The A-10, although an aging veteran, has shown itself to be an invaluable CAS aircraft with much greater range and survivability / durability than helicopters. As the CAS mission takes a backseat to strategic bombing in the Air Force hierarchy, might it make sense for the Army to have its own A-10 type jet for CAS? I don't know but a dumbass bureaucratic fight over turf among the services should not stand in the way of giving the grunts on the ground the best air support current technology affords. If the Army needs highly armed, low and slow jets for CAS, give it to them and let the Air Force suck eggs over this loss of turf.
- The V-22 has been cleared to begin final testing that shall determine whether it goes into full-scale production. Link. 3-29-05
- Here is a story listing all the American military deaths in Afghanistan from 2001 up to the date of the article (March 2005): link. It is very interesting to note how few of the deaths are actually due to enemy combat.
- The Marine Corps has recalled to service three aged MH-53E Sea Dragons that had been sitting in an aircraft "boneyard" in the Arizona desert for about a decade. It'll take 20 months to rehab these vintage beauties into serviceable aircraft. "Restoring the helicopters, which have been out of production since 1999, is an extraordinary step; but the Marines have little choice: They're running out of big choppers. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are taking a bite out of their deteriorating helicopter fleet, not just in aircraft lost -- six Super Stallions have been destroyed in crashes since 2001 -- but also in hours that the helicopters are flying." Link. 8-23-2005.