What should be made of the recent spate of helicopter losses in Iraq? Are they a series of unfortunate coincidences, an indication of poor practice in coalition activities or the result of enhanced insurgent operations?
Protecting the skies: minimizing helicopter losses in Iraq
The loss of ten US helicopters (eight military aircraft and two operated by private security firms) in Iraq so far this year (January to mid-March) is an obvious matter for concern. Helicopters are a very useful military asset, able to undertake a range of missions including observation tasks, in-country personnel transport, rapid insertion of forces on offensive operations, re-supplying isolated units, providing additional firepower to troops in combat and expediting (life-saving) casualty evacuation. They make a crucial contribution to modern military operations and their utility in Iraq is amplified by the substantial casualties US forces have suffered from Improvized Explosive Devices (IEDs) targeting ground vehicles. Such reliance on air capability means that should an increasing rate of helicopter loss place a limitation on any or all of these missions, what is already a very challenging operating environment will become even more difficult.
In extremis, such constraint might affect the outcome of the coalition campaign and if (as with the significant increase in sophistication and effectiveness that has marked the development of roadside Improvised Explosive Devices) the reason for the increased risk can be traced to one of Iraq’s immediate neighbours the losses would have political significance. For different reasons it is therefore important at the Tactical, Operational and Strategic levels to identify the reason(s) for the sudden increase in attrition.
Before jumping to conclusions with regard to the enemy’s capability to bring down coalition helicopters in Iraq, the first area for consideration is much closer to home. If the recent increase in aircraft losses is the bi-product of a substantial increase in coalition helicopter activity, with an attendant rise in sortie rates and combat missions then the losses could be explained as a regrettable but anticipated consequence of that surge in activity. This might have an impact on the conduct of operations at the Tactical and Operational levels but less implication at the Strategic. Should the sudden spike in losses be an unfortunate coincidence of unrelated factors such as technical malfunction, pilot error, poor weather or enemy action, then this may become apparent from the various incident investigations; similarly, there should also be a quick return to the irregular pattern of attrition that has characterised the previous four years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In this case, there is little consequence at any level of military activity. However, the possibility remains that the increased attrition could be ascribed to a cause that demands a response from coalition personnel. One such possibility rests with friendly forces, two more with the enemy.
Investigation into the cause(s) for the sudden increase in helicopter losses will naturally consider if friendly forces were at fault. On any lengthy campaign, it is possible that routines become ingrained and procedures (especially repetitive ones) become so habitual that complacency begins to affect the conduct of operations. One way that this may manifest itself is that helicopter activity assumes a predictability which an enemy is then able to exploit. Fortunately, if this is the case, it is a reasonably simple matter to identify and correct as the fault and onus lie with friendly forces (for example by varying flight paths). In this instance, the enemy has done nothing unusual, employing neither innovation nor additional capability, but has merely exploited a vulnerability that friendly forces have exposed through poor practice.
The two other possibilities are more serious. First, anti-government forces in Iraq may have developed new tactics or methods to employ existing capabilities. Empirically, this adjustment will elicit a negating response from coalition forces that will pose a different problem to the enemy and so an expected cycle of action and reaction goes on. This pattern is a common feature of conflict and should therefore not be used as an indicator of the progress (or not) of the campaign in Iraq.
However, of greater concern is the third possibility, which is that the spike in attrition is the result of the enemy employing a new capability, especially when that involves the introduction of a new weapon system. Such an enhancement can have grave consequences. For example, in the case of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, the Mujahadeen’s eventual employment of the US ‘Stinger’ man-portable shoulder-launched surface to air missile (SAM) was so successful in countering the threat posed by Soviet Air Force helicopters that it had a critical impact on the conduct of military operations and the subsequent outcome of the campaign.
With their vast resources and technical expertise, negating such an enhancement in enemy capability is not beyond the means of US forces, but overcoming such problems often requires time and, in the intervening period, helicopter attrition could remain high (or helicopter activity be necessarily curtailed to minimize vulnerability). Such an eventuality would have clear implications at the Tactical and Operational levels, but the introduction of externally sourced hi-tech weapons would also have potential consequences in the Strategic arena as the supplier of these weapons might well be a state actor. Shoulder-launched man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) have been in military service across the globe for over thirty years. Early generation MANPADS had limited capability (for example against fast-jets) and as subsequent generations were introduced into service obsolescent models were increasingly available on the black-market for use by guerrillas and other sub-state actors. This means that coalition forces would not routinely face the advanced capabilities of modern MANPADS which are more resilient to helicopter mounted counter-measures and tactics. Should the insurgents or terrorists in Iraq have acquired later versions of early MANPADS then while the coalition readjusts to the subsequent increase in surface-to-air threat, the initiative will rest briefly with the enemy. Fortunately, even modern MANPADS have technical and operational limitations and these will be exploited to ensure that the coalition regains the initiative.
The introduction of advanced MANPADS into Iraq might lead to the implication of an external state because the missile systems themselves may have been externally manufactured and/or smuggled into Iraq, or because the training missile operators require to employ enhanced MANPADs is provided in foreign locations or by foreign instructors. Either way, should the coalition/US be able to establish a compelling link between the anti-government forces’ use of such weapons in Iraq and the regimes in Damascus or Tehran, then calls for the US to respond accordingly against those governments would understandably increase. The sudden loss of ten helicopters would then have a deteriorating effect at the Strategic level.
It is important not to over-state the significance of the recent spike in helicopter attrition in Iraq, as there are a number of possible explanations. If they are caused by friendly factors, they may be quickly corrected, but if the enemy is responsible for the change in threat then countering the danger posed is more complex and will take longer to address. Each potential cause has implications at the Tactical and Operational levels, but aside from the obvious increase in risk to helicopter operators, an over-riding concern should be that if anti-government forces have obtained new weapons or technology from a foreign government that the subsequent deterioration in Strategic relations between coalition members and any Regional states is managed carefully and responded to in a measured fashion.