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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The New York Times March 24, 2003

Loss of Apache in Iraq Is Evidence of Vulnerability of Copters to Ground Fire

By Christopher Marquis and Nicholas Wade

The loss of an Apache helicopter and the damage sustained by others yesterday near Karbala, Iraq, underscores the vulnerability of helicopters to ground fire. But it is too early to judge whether the Apache itself is at fault, experts say.

The Apache, a $22 million helicopter that the Army prizes for its ability to identify and destroy tanks miles away, appears to have run into trouble from small-arms fire, technical problems or both.

The problems raised questions about whether the helicopter, for all its sophisticated electronics and lethal Hellfire missiles, is correct for a war that planners hope to move soon from the desert to cities.

The Pentagon defended the Apache as officials acknowledged that they did not know what forced the helicopter to land, apparently intact, in enemy hands.

The vice director for operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, said the Apache, with its ability to sweep down on targets in the dark, had proved highly successful in the drive to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Apaches "made a huge difference in Operation Anaconda," General McChrystal said. "They took a lot of fire. But they kept flying and, in fact, they were very effective. So the aircraft is a tough aircraft."

In Iraq, the Army is making its first extensive use of the Apache Longbow, a version of the helicopter from 1997 that is designed to avoid some habitual battlefield dangers. The Longbow has radar mounted atop its main rotor hub to identify and lock onto targets from a safe distance. It has missiles with a range of five to seven miles and the ability to fire and flee before a missile has struck its target.

The helicopters are being used to scout the terrain as the Third Infantry Division of the Army apparently rolls toward Baghdad. They are also helping protect the left flank of the division.

General McChrystal said the Apaches were part of a broader drive that involved fixed-wing aircraft to reach deep into territory controlled by the Republican Guard and soften the enemy formations.

The Apaches, he said, "can swarm on an opponent, and they do it very lethally, in the dark." When the time comes for a direct firefight, the enemy is debilitated, the general said. "We don't want it to be a fair fight."

The counterattack yesterday showed how vulnerable even well-equipped helicopters can be.

"They fly low, they fly slow, and people shoot at them," said Christopher Hellman, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a group in Washington that researches global security.

The combat speed for the Apache, introduced in 1984, is 167 miles an hour, making it an easy target for antiaircraft fire and small arms.

The Army lost nearly 5,000 helicopters in Vietnam, mostly to small arms and machine guns. In 1993, Somalis used rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns to down two American Black Hawk helicopters.

The Apache has better armor than Vietnam-era helicopters, including Kevlar-lined seats for its two-member crew, and is designed to withstand small arms.

"The Apache is probably as durable as any helicopter you'll find," Mr. Hellman said.

Robert Work, a former Marine colonel who is a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a research institute in Washington, said the fact that 30 helicopters returned to their bases after such heavy fire was evidence of their resilience.

"If all took hits and only one went down," Mr. Work said, "that shows how well they sustain fire."

The helicopters will face a real test if and when they move into more urban areas, where small-arms fire could be a greater factor.

Since its introduction, the Apache, built by Boeing, has raised concerns that it requires an inordinate degree of maintenance. It has been formally grounded five times while the Army has adjusted its systems.

The helicopter was praised for its performance in the Persian Gulf war, in which it was credited for destroying hundreds of Iraqi tanks.

But the Apache was sidelined in Kosovo. In 1999, the Pentagon ordered 24 Apache Alphas grounded in Albania after a training accident. The action infuriated Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the NATO commander, who was trying to intensify the air war over Kosovo. But the Clinton administration worried that the Apaches would be too vulnerable to Serbian fire.

In the Afghan campaign, the copter was generally seen as effective and well adapted to strafing the mountain ridges that Al Qaeda favors. Even then, the helicopters were popular targets. On their first day in eastern Afghanistan, all eight sent on missions returned with gunfire damage.

"They got shot up and they kept going," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Web site based in Washington.

The fight for Baghdad is a chance for the Apache and the Apache Longbow to prove themselves against a rival, the A-10 Thunderbolt, affectionately known as the Warthog, in the role of close air support. The A-10 has the agility of a fixed-wing plane and is superbly armored, protecting its pilot with a titanium cocoon. But it flies quite high and fast, and it may not be as good at acquiring targets as the ground-hugging Apache.

GRAPHIC: Chart: "Confronting the Republican Guard"

An American Apache attack helicopter was lost yesterday, and its two-man crew was listed as missing in action. Apaches destroyed 10 to 15 Iraqi tanks, though nearly all of the more than 30 helicopters sent to attack Republican Guard divisions around Baghdad were struck by small-arms fire.

Longbow Apache
The Longbow variant of the Apache, the Army's primary attack helicopter, has a new radar and target acquisition system. It can track as many as 128 separate targets, identify the 16 most dangerous and share targeting information with other Apache helicopters, with fighterbombers and E-8C Joint Stars ground surveillance planes or with forces on the ground.

The A-10 is the first Air Force plane designed specifically for close air support missions. It can carry a broad variety of precision-guided bombs and missiles.

Considered one of the Army's most devastating weapons, the Atacms is a surface-to-surface missile that can attack targets outside the range of existing artillery.

(Sources: Army; Periscope; GlobalSecurity.org; Air Force)

Illustrations (Mika Grondahl and Hugh K. Truslow/The New York Times; Cutaway drawing 2003 Mike Badrocke)

Copyright 2003, The New York Times Company