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Why are U.S. helicopters getting shot down in Iraq?

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

One of the great things about being based in Washington is access to great resources.  I just came back from an informal presentation down the street by a couple of students at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced and International Studies on their experiences as U.S. Marines in Iraq. One of the speakers, now a full-time student and no longer in the military, flew Cobra attack helicopters in Iraq's dangerous al-Anbar province. I asked him what is behind the growing worrisome string of U.S. helicopters being shot down in Iraq. His answer:

I can only speculate, but I have a couple observations.

First of all, it's R.I.P. season over there, or relief in place, meaning everyone who's there is getting ready to come home and they're all being replaced by the new units. It happens twice a year. Once you've been there for six months or a year, you get very complacent, you do the same thing every day, you start flying the same pattern every day, and you become predictable. And when you become predictable, you become very easy to shoot down.

The other thing is, the command has made the decision that small arms are the big threat: AK47s and RPGs. Those hit you when you fly down low. They've pushed all the altitudes they want helicopters flying up to 1,500 feet. Well now you're in the surface-to-missile envelope. So, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't as a helicopter pilot.

Me, personally, I would never go up above 300 feet or 200 feet, unless I was out over open desert. If i'm over an urban area, I'm as low and as fast and as unpredictable as I can possibly be.

Once they moved those altitudes up, a friend of mine ... took an SA-16 up the tailpipe and was killed in Ramadi, like two weeks later. But they're still flying those altitudes now, like that [CH]-46 [Sea Knight helicopter] that got shot down ... All of the aircraft that have been shot down have been shot down with surface-to-air missiles, which we never saw because it's very difficult to hit a low-flying helicopter with a surface-to-air missile.

That being said, I ended up with a few extra air-conditioning vents on my helicopter on more than one occasion because of the small arms threat. So, I think complacency and flying at higher altitudes is what's driving it. That's my opinion.

Note that he's not currently a helicopter pilot and doesn't have access to any special data, though he does have friends who've seen the new attacks first-hand. I do find it interesting that his explanation is different than that offered by U.S. military leaders, who say that new insurgent tactics are primarily to blame. Another possible explanation mooted in the IHT article is that "an Iraqi Sunni group had recently bought a batch of SA-7 missiles on the black market with money it received through private donations from Saudi Arabia."

UPDATE: See also DefenseTech.org's two earlier posts on this topic. 

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Bullet-proof wall in a box

That giant sucking sound you heard this weekend was defense contractors from all over the world heading to Abu Dhabi to ply their wares at IDEX, one of the largest shows of its kind in the world. The International Defense Exhibition is bigger than ever now that oil-producing Arab regimes are flush with cash and feeling a bit threatened by Iran.

There are usually cool new technologies and products at these hardware shows, but this one is the most interesting at IDEX: a giant wall in a box. Actually, it fits in a shipping container, but it's still pretty neat. All you need is something to fill the sandbags and a backhoe, and in no time flat you've got your very own fortification. The British are using these in Afghanistan.