The Army has made progress protecting helicopters flying in Iraq from shoulder-fired missiles, but its crews and aircraft routinely are the targets of small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
“The primary threat from the enemy that we see over here now is probably small arms, heavy machine gun fire,” said Col. Daniel Ball, commander of the Army’s 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, speaking to reporters from Baghdad.
The unit, which currently is on its third deployment to Iraq, operates 100 helicopters, and its pilots are targeted by surface-to-air fire at least every other day, Ball said. Although most of the attacks fail to hit the target to keep the enemy off guard, Army aviators frequently change altitudes, speeds and routes. “We have adjusted our tactics and techniques almost on a daily basis since we’ve been here,” said Ball.
Helicopters also are flying nighttime missions as much as possible, because the aircraft are harder to hit in the dark. “It’s a lot easier to identify if you’re being shot when you’re flying at night versus the daytime because of the tracer rounds,” he added.
Insurgent weapons used against helicopters have evolved since the early days of the war. In 2003, U.S. helicopters suffered a series of devastating shoulder-fired missile attacks. Much like the humvees that entered the conflict without adequate armor to protect occupants from roadside bombs, most of the Army’s aircraft flew into combat without the flare dispensers that are designed to decoy heat-seeking missiles.
The low point was the first week of November 2003 when insurgents shot down a CH-47D Chinook. Sixteen soldiers were killed and 26 were wounded. A few days later, an SA-16 missile took down an AH-60 Black Hawk, which resulted in the deaths of four crewmembers and two passengers.
“It’s very unfortunate that we had to lose lives for the program to get kick started,” said Maj. Jay Gautreaux, a deputy at the Army’s infrared countermeasures program.
By July 2006, all rotary-wing aircraft in Iraq were outfitted with the common missile warning system, Gautreaux said at the Army Aviation Association of America conference in Atlanta. The manufacturer of the device, BAE Systems, ramped its production up from four units per month to 40, he added.
“Soldiers are loving it. They’re going on missions, seeing missiles come after them and they’re coming back home to talk about it,” said Gautreaux, who had just returned from a four-month tour in Iraq.
Nevertheless, U.S. and U.K forces continue to lose aircraft and lives. Small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and hazards such as electrical wires and brownouts — clouds of dust that envelope aircraft — are the causes of most rotary-wing incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We can’t defeat an RPG,” Gautreaux said. Small arms fire also continues to be effective.
There have been few shoulder-fired missile incidents since 2003. The Army and Marines suffered a spate of incidents during the first two months of this year. Gautreaux said the Army losses — resulting in five downed aircraft — were the result of small arms fire. However, media reports said at least two of the attacks involved a combination of small arms fire and shoulder-fired missiles. Insurgents also shot down a Marine CH-46E Sea Knight on Feb. 7, reportedly with a missile.
Brig. Gen. Bill Phillips, deputy program executive officer for Army aviation said: “It’s great news on the [common missile warning system], but it’s not enough. I don’t know if we can ever do enough to protect our aircraft.”
High on his shopping list would be a device to detect and locate small arms fire. Intercepting bullets wouldn’t be feasible, but a sensor that would find the gunners and allow pilots to go after them would be useful, Phillips said.
Currently, pilots may not realize that they are under attack. It’s not uncommon for a crew to return from a mission and discover bullet holes in the airframe, he added.
Contractors are coming forward with ideas and devices to help counter the threats.
Northrop Grumman recently announced it has developed a “hostile fire detection” system to protect helicopters from small arms threats. The technology is a derivative of the two-color infrared missile warning sensor that the company developed to protect large aircraft against shoulder-fired guided missiles.
BAE Systems has proposed a cable and obstacle detection system. Using radar, the system can detect obstacles at distances of 2.5 kilometers, and give pilots more precise altimeter readings as a bonus. The company is also hoping to tap into the civilian market.
The Army has lost at least three OH-58 Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters in Iraq after they crashed into electrical wires that resulted in the deaths of all three two-man crews.
Lockheed Martin this spring unveiled its Pathfinder forward-looking infrared system (FLIR), which it touts as a significant upgrade from the modernized target acquisition designation system/pilot night vision sensor currently flown on Apaches to assist pilots in flying the aircraft at night and while searching for targets.
The helmet display can also be used to see through sand and dust in brownout conditions.
Bill Ryan, a representative of the contractor’s missiles and fire control division, said the resolution in the new generation of FLIR systems is so sharp, it could spell the end of night vision goggles in cockpits. Because night vision technology relies on ambient light, which is not always available because of cloud cover or moon phases, the goggles are only operating at their peak performance a few days each month, he said.
“You get that kind of capability with our sensor all month long,” Ryan said.
J. David Stevenson, a marketing manager with ITT Industries night vision division, disagreed that night vision goggles will soon be obsolete.
“They’re still very complementary systems,” Stevenson said. Night vision goggles are still better in close combat, where they allow pilots to pick up flashes from machine guns, RPGs or shoulder-fired missiles, he said.
ITT has introduced a next-generation aviator’s night vision imaging system, the V3, which has boosted brightness levels and reduced the halo effect that creates a glare around bright light sources such as streetlights.
“The future is the fusion of both of them — FLIR and night vision,” Stevenson said.
Additional reporting by Sandra I. Erwin
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