American Helicopter Gunships Attack Insurgents in Iraq
The low-flying helos could be at risk
On Oct. 4, American helicopter gunships swooped down on Sunni militants near Iraq’s capital city. The strikes near the cities of Fallujah and Hit—which also involved fighter jets and bombers—destroyed two captured Humvees and killed numerous enemy fighters, according to an official statement.
U.S. Central Command did not say what type of helicopters took part in the mission. However, the U.S. Army did send a contingent of AH-64 Apaches to Baghdad International Airport at the beginning of July.
This attack marks the the first time Washington has used gunships of any kind to hit at the insurgent group Islamic State. But the Pentagon’s decision to send these more vulnerable aircraft into combat could signal an increasingly dangerous situation in the country—and the potential for American casualties.
As far as we know, no American military personnel have been killed in Iraq since troops started returning to the embattled country this summer, although a Marine did apparently drown after leaping from a malfunctioning V-22 tiltrotor flying over the Persian Gulf.
At the moment, the Pentagon also insists that its people in Iraq do not represent “boots on the ground” and are not directly fighting Sunni extremists.
Since launching its first air strikes in August, the Pentagon has preferred sending fast planes to pound rebel positions from the relative safety of high altitude. The lower- and slower-flying Apaches were supposed to stay close to Baghdad and protect military advisers and diplomats as they made their rounds in the city.
The Oct. 4 operation brought troops closer to the shooting than ever before.
Given the stakes, the Apaches may well have been responding to a major—possibly imminent—threat when they attacked to the west. Islamic State had raised their flag in Hit’s city center last week.
The city occupies a strategic position along Iraq’s Highway 12, a major artery that runs all the way to the Syrian border. Hit would also be an important stepping stone for any offensive against Baghdad.
But the Islamists’ arsenal of heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft cannons and shoulder-fired missiles—some of which they stole from Iraqi military caches—poses a clear hazard to the Army’s AH-64s.
In fact, militants managed to shoot down an Iraqi Mi-35M Hind gunship the day before the American helos struck Fallujah and Hit. The insurgents had already picked off at least one government helicopter—possibly another Mi-35—back in June.
Despite the age of the design, the Hind remains a gold standard among gunships. These upgraded Russian helicopters may not be as advanced as the Apache, but they are at least as heavily armored.
Islamic State thankfully does not appear to possess any large surface-to-air missiles. The Army’s helicopters can generally fly farther up when enemy forces lack sophisticated defenses that work best at altitude.
The Apaches could use this advantage to “orbit higher and stay out of small arms range,” explains an Army aviator who spoke to War Is Boring on the condition of anonymity. But the AH-64s would still be vulnerable as they dove in to attack or if militants caught them while taking off or landing.
American commanders surely appreciate the vulnerability of their own gunships. During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, late Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s forces ambushed some 30 Apaches near Karbala using small arms, machine guns and RPGs. The ambushers shot down one of the AH-64s and captured the crew.
The Americans’ Karbala operation relied on dated Cold War tactics, including hovering closer to the ground, according to the anonymous soldier. The ground combat branch quickly changed its policies in the aftermath of the attack.
If a helicopter were to go down in the desert, the crash could result in more casualties as U.S. forces race to the rescue. In spite of the Pentagon’s assurances, any soldiers or Marines rushing to secure a downed gunship could easily find themselves in a firefight with Islamic State foot soldiers.