Army pilots flying VIP transport aircraft in Iraq claim that their missions
are becoming unduly risky, because their planes have no protection against man-portable
The threat of manpads has been a growing concern for aviators from the B company
2nd Battalion of the 228th Aviation Regiment, who shuttle military and civilian
VIPs in and out of Balad, Iraq.
The Army reserve unit—based at Fort Rucker, Ala., and Dobbins Air Reserve
Base, Ga.—has 77 of its members deployed in Iraq. It operates three C-12R1
Beechcraft King Air turbo-props and one UC-35B Cessna Citation business jet.
These are “off-the-shelf civilian business aircraft with high-gloss paint
and diplomatic markings,” but they are nevertheless being flown in a combat
zone, and therefore should be better protected against shoulder-fired missiles,
said Chief Warrant Officer Robert F. Jones, a Beechcraft pilot instructor.
Each of the airplanes is equipped with a military transponder, but has no countermeasures
against surface-to-air missiles, he said in a letter to Sen. Jeff Sessions,
“Restrictions have been put on the use of our aircraft,” said Chief
Warrant Officer William Lovett, a C-12 pilot. “The manpads threat is high.
One of the mitigating measures taken by our chain of command is ‘limited
The missions in and out of Sustainer Army Airfield, in Balad, only occur in
daylight hours, because the airfield is not equipped for night flying. Balad
is 42 nautical miles north of Baghdad.
“Our major threat concern is from SA-7s, due to the volume of unaccounted
systems, their simplicity of firing and ease of concealment,” said Jones.
One day in mid-July, “U.S. and British tactical aircraft were fired on
by man-carried anti-aircraft missiles,” Jones wrote in the letter to Sessions.
“Their defensive systems and evasive actions prevented a disaster. Had
the same missiles been used against any of our aircraft, the crew and passengers
would have died.”
So far, none of the 2/228th aircraft has been acquired or attacked. Further,
B company pilots say were never trained for combat operations using these aircraft.
Pilots wonder why the Army does not follow the same policy as the Air Force,
whose C-130 Hercules and C-17 cargo planes have defensive systems, as mandated
by the Air Mobility Command (National Defense, August 2003, p.28). Defensive
systems include infrared suppressive paint, exhaust diffusers, infrared and
radar warning systems, infrared and radar jamming equipment, flare and chaff
“Realistically, it would take months, if not years, for the Army procurement
process to develop and install defensive systems on our aircraft,” said
Jones. “We have been told that the Army Reserve Command has asked Congress
for the funds to acquire defensive systems for our planes.”
The Army’s public affairs office in Baghdad did not respond to questions
from National Defense concerning this issue.
The VIPs that the 2/228th typically fly are general officers and senior civilians
from Ambassador Paul Bremer’s office, said Jones.
As a defensive tactic, helicopters patrol the Balad airfield prior to takeoffs
and landings. “This may help in keeping the insurgents’ heads down,”
Jones said. “However, it is not an adequate replacement for defensive
systems.” All helicopters in Iraq are equipped with both offensive and
Before the unit was sent to Balad, most of the 2/228th flights had been from
Kuwait to Baghdad and back. “We have tried to mitigate the risk by flying
high and doing high speed descents and climbs,” explained Jones.
Last month, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo
S. Sanchez, told the New York Times that American officials were seeking to
curtail the proliferation of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles by purchasing
them from Iraqis at $500 a piece.
Back To Top