Attrition: Helicopter Losses


April 26,2008: After a spike in helicopter losses in Iraq last year (seven in one month), losses have been sharply reduced. This was due to several factors. First, there was one group of Iraqi terrorists who were using heavy machine-guns, and predictable flying patterns by some American pilots, to stage ambushes last year. Then there was the beginning of the surge offensive, which put helicopters into the air more often, and less predictably. The Iraqi ambush gang was caught and destroyed, and helicopter pilots changed their tactics (they now fly higher, on random flight paths, and in twos instead of larger groups.) Another important factor is pilot experience. More of the pilots in the air now, have been to Iraqi before. Experience counts. Finally, the surge offensive of 2007 put most of the opposition out of business (either because they were killed or captured, or because they changed sides.)

The most dangerous anti-aircraft weapon has always been the machine-gun. However, aircraft losses to ground fire have been declining every year, since 2003, mainly because of good defensive tactics. The losses in early 2007 were largely the result of getting sloppy.

Although the most vulnerable aircraft, helicopters, have been spending more time in the air. In 2005, U.S. Army aircraft (mainly helicopters) flew 240,000 hours over Iraq. That increased to 334,000 hours last year, and went over 400,000 hours in 2007. The more time helicopters are in the air, the more opportunities someone has to shoot at them.

Since 2003, the United States has lost 63 helicopters in Iraq. Most of them belong to the U.S. Army, the rest are marine and civilian (mainly security contractors.) In 2007, helicopters were fired on about a hundred times a month, and about 17 percent of the time, the helicopters were hit. In Vietnam (1966-71), 2,076 helicopters were lost to enemy fire (and 2,566 to non-combat losses). In Vietnam, helicopters flew 36 million sorties (over 20 million flight hours). In Vietnam, helicopters were about twice as likely to get brought down by enemy fire than in Iraq. In both wars, the main weapons doing this were machine-guns. Today's helicopters are more sturdy, partly because of Vietnam experience, and are more likely to stay in the air when hit, and land, rather than crash. That means choppers that do crash in Iraq, have fewer of their passengers injured than in Vietnam.


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