Iraq: January 9, 2004


Iraqis firing surface to air missiles (or a lucky RPG shot) brought down an American  UH-60 helicopter, killing all nine on board. The UH-60 was on a medical mission and flying over an area west of Baghdad populated by pro-Saddam Sunni Arabs. This is the fourth helicopter to be shot down in this area. Meanwhile, at the Baghdad airport, a U.S. C-5 transport was hit by a missile on take off. One of the aircraft's four engines was damaged, and the C-5 circled around and landed. No one on board was injured. These missiles, particularly the Russian SAM-7 and later versions, have long been known to be a problem. Iraq had thousands of those missiles and most are still unaccounted for. While these missiles are not very effective against jet fighters or commercial airliners, they are lethal to helicopters. So far, 15 percent of all U.S. military deaths were the victims of  shot down helicopters.  Because the pilots of helicopters are officers, some 25 percent of all officer deaths in Iraq have occurred in helicopters (versus only eight percent of enlisted troops.) Two of the pilots killed in downed helicopters have been female and half the women soldiers killed in Iraq were passengers or crew in downed helicopters.

Helicopters are essential for military operations in Iraq, as they provide mobility that the armed Iraqi opposition cannot match. There have already been a lot of precautions taken to decrease the risk of helicopters and aircraft getting hit.  Pilots are told to avoid certain areas in daylight (when the missiles are most effective), and fly irregular patterns in dangerous areas so as to be a harder to hit target. At the Baghdad airport, security troops use 24/7 UAV and ground reconnaissance of the area around the airport to make it difficult for missile crews to get close enough to fire. This is why there are so few attacks at the airport, despite the dozens of large aircraft landing and taking off each day. Aircraft also fly a special landing and take off pattern to make it harder for missiles to get a good shot.

American commanders in Iraq will be under more pressure to decrease the risks to helicopters, and this will lead to some imaginative measures. But the basic problem is that helicopters, flying low and relatively slow, are the perfect target for all sorts of weapons. They are too useful to not fly, and in terms of the number of flight hours per attack, not so dangerous that troops will prefer to go by road when offered a helicopter ride. 

The raids and investigations against hostile Iraqis continues. This includes attempts to find, and stop, those offering cash rewards for attacks on coalition troops. Many captured Iraqis have admitted that the reward system exists. But it also appears that many Iraqis (especially Sunni Arabs) will fire an RPG or a surface to air missile at an American helicopter just for the hell of it (and to show displeasure with the state of affairs in Iraq.) Cash rewards have been offered for turning in surface to air missiles, but most have not been turned in even when money was offered.



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