Black Hawks Down

In less than four weeks the US lost six helicopters in Iraq – most of them to enemy fire:
1. On October 23 a US Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter crashed shortly after take-off from a base in Kirkuk.
2. A US Army UH-60A combat assault helicopter (3-158th Avn. Reg., 12th Avn. Brgd.) was shot down on October 25 in the area of Falluja.
3. On November 2 a US Army CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter was downed near Tikrit.
4. A UH-60A combat assault helicopter (5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Airborne Division) was lost over Tikrit.
5. On November 15 two UH-60A combat assault helicopters were brought down over Mosul.

The November 2 Chinook incident resulted in 16 US troops killed and 20 seriously injured making this the deadliest single coalition aircraft loss of the war (36 people is the maximum capacity for this type of helicopter). The previous deadliest coalition aircraft loss in Iraq reported by Pentagon was the crash of the UH-60A helicopter (US Army, B Company/ 2-3 AVN) on April 2 killing all 6 troops onboard.

The total number of US troops killed in Iraq on November 2 was 19 making this the second deadliest day of the Iraqi war for the Americans. The loss of the two Black Hawks over Mosul on November 15 resulted in 17 US soldiers killed and another 5 seriously injured. The US military officials have so far confirmed that at least one of the two Black Hawks was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. US officials originally claimed that the cause of the loss of the two Black Hawks was mid-air collision between the two helicopters.

This brings to 27 the number of coalition helicopters destroyed in the operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’. Another 45 coalition helicopters were damaged in Iraq. Other coalition aircraft losses include 26 lost UAVs, 10 destroyed and 2 damaged planes – a total of 110 aircraft officially reported as lost or damaged.

What makes the latest helicopter losses stand out is the weapon used to bring them down: the RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launcher first introduced into service more than forty years ago. The same weapon was used to shoot down the two Black Hawks over Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993

The RPG-7 ‘Knut’ (‘Knout’) originally manufactured by Russia’s Kovrov Mechanical Plant entered service with the Warsaw Pact armies in 1962 and to this day remains the most effective and popular weapon in its class. It is still in production. The RPG-7 is a 40-mm-diameter tube about a meter long with the PGO-7 rangefinder optical sight. The entire assembly without the rocket-propelled grenade weighs just over 6 kg.

Various types of ammo are available for the RPG-7. The original PG-7 grenade uses a VP-7M Point-Initiating, Base-Detonating piezoelectric fuse connected at the base of a shaped charge. The PG-7 round and its derivative weigh between 4-5 kg and have a maximum effective range of under 200 meters. The round can penetrate 1.5 m of reinforced concrete, 2 m of bricks, 750 mm of armored steel protected by reactive armor. A helicopter stands no chance when hit by PG-7 round.

Later models of RPG-7 may come with night vision or IR targeting sights. The RPG-7 copies and derivative are currently manufactured in Russia, China, Bulgaria, Egypt, Georgia, Iran, Pakistan, and Romania. Until recently RPG-7 was also manufactured by Iraqi state arsenal near Al-Nassiria. Tens of thousands RPG-7s and PG-7 rounds were purchased and produced by Iraq. So far the US troops in Iraq located just a few hundred such weapons.

To fire an RPG-7 the operator would attach the cardboard cylinder with propellant to the missile and insert the grenade into the launcher tube following the notch in the muzzle to align the ignition cap with the percussion hammer. The nose cap of the missile would then be removed to extract the safety pin. The missile is fired by pulling the trigger which releases the cocked hammer.

The RPG-7 is used primarily to defeat armored vehicles and reinforced firing positions. The weapon has rudimentary targeting capabilities and limited accuracy. Weeks of proper training is needed to use RPG-7 effectively against moving vehicles or against distant targets. The RPG-7 was never intended as an anti-aircraft weapon. Shooting down a helicopter with RPG-7 requires a direct hit and calls for considerable skill and experience.

Why do you need to know these boring details? If you never fired RPG-7 or if you used it once or twice you’d be lucky to hit a stationary tank from 50 yards, provided you have ample time to load the propellant, insert the missile into the launcher, remove the safety pin and get the targeting right, while remaining undetected.

The Black Hawk downed on October 25 was hit at least 20 miles from the nearest US base. This means that the helicopter was not taking-off or landing but flying at around 150-190 knots and a few hundred feet. Reloading the RPG-7 takes about a minute during which a helicopter would travel around 5 kilometers. This means that you would have only one shot.

One helicopter lost to an RPG-7 can be attributed to bad luck. However, three or four helicopters downed by this weapon in such a short period of time are a work of skillful marksmen. Skillful means experienced and the only country to regularly lose helicopters to RPG-7 ironically is the country that built this weapon. Since the outbreak of the first Chechen war Russia lost numerous aircraft to RPG-7s among other types of weapons. “Chechen rebels” is an oxymoron for most of the fighters opposing Russian troops in Chechnya are not rebels and even are not Chechen. Most of them come from Afghanistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

This time of year it’s getting cold in Chechnya. Long gone are the days when fighting the Russians in Chechnya was a profitable business. Since the terrorist attacks of 9-11 the generous flow of Middle Eastern and Western financing for the cause of ‘independent’ Chechnya slowed down to a trickle when after decades of opposing Russia in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and former Soviet Asian republics the US finally discovered that Kremlin and Washington might be going after the same people after all. During the past two years a seasonal slowdown in Chechnya always coincided with increased fighting in Afghanistan and now in Iraq.

Some 19 US soldiers were killed by hostile fire in Iraq on November 2. Donald Rumsfeld called this “tragic” and Lieutenant General Richard Sanchez called these dead Americans “statistically and operationally insignificant”. This sums up the official attitude toward the losses in Iraq: unfortunate but nobody cares.

Many Americans were surprised to learn that already more US soldiers died in Iraq than during the first three years of the Vietnam War. Some supporters of the war in Iraq continue to say that losses are minimal and acceptable. Some of the same people were saying same exact things in the early sixties about the war in Vietnam.

The total number of US casualties in Iraq, including killed, wounded and sick exceeds 9,000 according to the official figures released by the Department of Defense.

Latest US helicopter losses in Iraq point to a high skill level of the Iraqi resistance. In addition to the popular resistance to the US-British occupation of Iraq, the war attracted thousands of mercenaries and religious fanatics. The naïve US strategy of “winning hearts and minds” did not work and this was obvious from the start to everyone except for the US occupation administration in Baghdad. Now this nonsense is over and the real war begins.

Coalition forces encountered a strong and well-organized resistance. These are not just villagers with pitchforks and shovels but trained professionals with experience of fighting in the Iran-Iraq war, Afghanistan and Chechnya. The helicopter losses and numerous successful attacks against coalition troops in the recent weeks illustrate this point.

Pentagon’s attempt to present it opposition in Iraq as a bunch of “Saddam loyalists” is being met with growing skepticism back home. It becomes increasingly obvious that the US troops in Iraq are fighting the Iraqi people and this is the kind of war that cannot be won.

More often we see the war in Iraq being compared to Vietnam War. Critics of this analogy point out the numerous differences between the two wars: everything from the geographic difference to political backgrounds of the two conflicts. But there is one thing that made the Vietnam War has in common with Iraq that made it a bloodbath and a sore point in the US history and popular culture: lack of exit strategy.

In the end the US troops left Vietnam. This wasn’t a graceful withdrawal as Pentagon tried to present it but a disorganized retreat with the enemy following right behind the retreating US troops. The US could have made the decision to withdraw from Vietnam years earlier and save countless lives, but a choice was made to escalate the war.

The same will happen in Iraq independent of who wins the next presidential election. The war in Iraq will intensify over the coming years. Bush declared that by next June the US will transfer power to the Iraqis. He didn’t say which Iraqis. Saddam is an Iraqi. In any case, this plan, if implemented, would be equivalent to a retreat a la Vietnam War. There are no forces in Iraq that can stabilize and control the country. There will be no such forces in Iraq by next June. As usual, Bush is lying but it’s not clear to whom: to the Iraqis, to the American public or to himself.