Magazine article National Defense

Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Future of the Helicopter

Magazine article National Defense

Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Future of the Helicopter

Article excerpt

There is a push in the Defense Department and the broader national security community to identify the lessons of Operation Iraqi Freedom rapidly in order to influence near-term programmatic, budgetary and even political decisions. Joint Forces Command, which had some 30 analysts in the field during the campaign, already is going around Washington with a lengthy briefing of lessons learned.

The rush to draw conclusions about the war creates a danger to arrive at conclusions the wrong lessons will be learned.

For example, as the result of a single incident early in the conflict, many experts came to believe that the day of the armed helicopter had ended. The incident in question was a raid by 34 Apache AH-64D Longbow helicopters of the 11th Aviation Regiment on elements of the Iraqi Republican Guard's Medina Division on the night of March 24. The unit ran into an ambush, and 27 of the Apaches were so severely damaged that they could no longer operate. The Iraqis defeated the 11th not with sophisticated weapons and tactics, but with a few well placed scouts to warn them of the Apaches' approach and a fusillade of small arms fire from hundreds of individual weapons.

This single event sent shockwaves through the Army's aviation community and the halls of the Pentagon. Confronted by insufficient resources to transform all parts of the force structure equally, the Pentagon's leadership was looking for discriminators that would suggest where scarce acquisition dollars should be spent.

The obvious question raised by the events of March 24 was this: If aircraft flying well outside the range of enemy anti-aircraft fire can provide highly accurate close air support, is there still a role for vulnerable armed helicopters?

The answer is yes. The full story of the Apache's performance is much more positive than the events of March 24th suggest.

Other Apache units performed admirably and without significant losses in conjunction with tactical aircraft and Army indirect fire systems to shape the battlefield.

The enormous firepower of the Apaches and their ability to maneuver close to the ground enabled them to serve as a major ground force multiplier.

The real lesson from Iraq (this is the same lesson first experienced during the conflict in Afghanistan) is that the role for armed helicopters in this new kind of war is to help shape the close-in battlefield and to provide on-call fire support for ground forces.

The U.S. military has lots of ways of killing armored formations. …

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