Iraqis' new missile tactics worry U.S.

Posted in Iraq | 19-Jan-04 | Author: Eric Schmitt| Source: The New York Times

WASHINGTON - A classified U.S. Army study of the downings of military helicopters in Iraq found that guerrillas have used increasingly sophisticated tactics and weapons - including at least one advanced missile - to attack American aircraft, senior army officials in Iraq and the Gulf region say.

The insurgents have proved adept at using both rocket-propelled grenades, which are point-and-shoot weapons, and heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, which require greater maintenance and skill, according to army officials familiar with the study.

The team recommended specific changes to help pilots better evade ground fire, army officials said. Senior officers declined to elaborate, but changes in the past have included flying more missions at night with lights off to avoid detection.

The study was conducted before the three most recent downings this month, but those incidents in the restive area near Falluja, west of Baghdad, have only reinforced the team's findings and raised fears that insurgents are closely studying the flight patterns of helicopters and other aircraft, army officials said.

"The enemy has clearly seen the possibilities from earlier successes," said a senior army aviator in the Gulf. "The enemy enjoys a strategic success each time one of our aircraft is shot down. It becomes a major media event, and questions arise as to who is winning. So the enemy sees this as very useful."

It was concern about these attacks that prompted Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the senior American commander in Iraq, to go beyond the standard review after any crash and order last month a comprehensive study of all downings, army officials said.

The aim was to learn more about the tactics and weaponry of the insurgents, and possible weaknesses in American countermeasures.

One troubling finding, army officials said, is that on at least one occasion the insurgents used a SA-16 shoulder-fired missile. Those missiles have guidance systems that are harder to thwart than the SA-7 missiles and rocket-propelled grenades that insurgents have used in other attacks.

Since Oct. 25, nine military helicopters have been shot down or crash-landed after being hit by what the authorities say was hostile fire, killing a total of 49 soldiers.

On Jan. 2, the American military authorities say a rocket-propelled grenade or a surface-to-air missile downed an OH-58 Kiowa reconnaissance helicopter, killing the pilot.

Six days later, another missile, probably either an SA-7 or SA-16, struck a UH-60 Black Hawk medical evacuation helicopter, killing nine crew members and passengers. And last Tuesday, ground fire brought down an AH-64 Apache gunship, but the two crew members survived.

Senior military officials in Iraq emphasized that with the three latest incidents near Falluja still under investigation, it was premature to draw any conclusions about long-term trends.

"It's hard to say whether it's been a bad couple of weeks or it's something larger," said a senior officer in Baghdad. "But clearly, that area has us concerned."

The team conducting the review was headed by Colonel Stephen Dwyer, a brigade commander at the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and it included about a dozen forensic and weapons experts, crash analysts and helicopter specialists. The team spent about four weeks in Iraq visiting each crash site, taking soil samples for forensic analysis and talking to aviators.

"They went over to look at army aviation, make an assessment and make recommendations on how to improve it," said Lieutenant Colonel James Bullinger, a spokesman for the Army Aviation Center.

Bullinger said that even before the team started its work, the army was adopting lessons from Iraq, teaching Apache and Kiowa pilots to fire their weapons while "running and diving," instead of hovering, which makes a helicopter more vulnerable to an attack from the ground.

American intelligence analysts have said that during Saddam Hussein's rule, Iraq stockpiled at least 5,000 shoulder-fired missiles of all types, and that fewer than a third have been found.

The missiles are also easy to smuggle across Iraq's porous borders, as they weigh no more than 14 kilograms, or 30 pounds, and are about 185 centimeters, or six feet, long.

"No specific aircraft appears more susceptible than others," the senior army aviator in the Gulf said. The team found that rocket-propelled grenades and an SA-16 were used, the aviator said. "The RPG appears to be a fairly effective weapon in a skilled shooter's hands and given the right parameters," with the helicopter relatively close to the ground.

Army officials declined to specify which incidents might have involved an SA-16. A senior officer said the Black Hawk that crashed on Jan. 8 might have been shot down by an SA-16, but another senior officer disagreed, saying that parts of an SA-7 warhead had been found in the wreckage. Both missile systems were designed by the Soviet Union.

"It's unclear just how many SA-16's are in the theater," the senior army aviator said, "but it is a worrisome development, which both helicopter and fixed-wing forces will have to fully understand and counter."

Military officials in Iraq say they review pilots' tactics and procedures after every incident, but they never stop flying missions.