Saturday, February 10, 2007

Denial Of Sunni SAM Offensive: SA-18s In Iraq

The Islamic State of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda (Saudi Arabian) connected Sunni group, has posted video of the Marine version of a US Chinook helicopter crashing. It's the fourth time they've posted a helicopter going down from a SAM hit in a week. I've been following these developments closely for a few reasons, two of which this latest video confirms. As usual, it is up on Live Leak.

First, the footage shows the Sunnis to the northwest of Baghdad almost certainly have the latest Russian-designed SA-18 "Grouse" anti-aircraft missiles. The missiles may originate from China, Iran, Venezuela, or Russia itself, but do not necessarily indicate state involvement; generals and arms dealers in any of these places could supply missiles for cash, a wink, and a nod. While state involvement from those above isn't precluded, the real suspect here is Saudi Arabia, Al-Qaeda's primary supporter.

I am not an expert in current SAMs or counter-measures against them, but on the video, it is remarkable that no flares (to confuse the missile's heat-seeking cone) come from the Chinook before it is hit, and the pilot apparently does not take evasive action until the missile was very close. The pilot and crew must have known they were flying through a "hot" area, so were probably vigilant and employing what protections they had. Their lack of reaction strongly indicates electronic counter-measures either malfunctioned or were almost completely defeated. Collectively, the Law of Averages previously quoted by the top US command in these crashes is no longer an adequate explanation for cause. We get it. So should they. Sunni militants possess highly lethal shoulder-fired missiles.

Second, the attacks on the helicopters and the videos from the "Islamic State of Iraq" seem to be part of a carefully branded and well thought-out propaganda campaign which indicates the partitioning of Iraq is quickening, with a new Sunni battle plan. The videos are definitely intended as "viral" messaging which supports strategic insurgency aims, and are likely connected to offers yesterday by Sunni Baathist leadership to negotiate directly with the US government for peace. I don't speak Arabic, but would guess the messaging in the videos is consistent with a "Don't Tread On Us" theme. This is a new level of propaganda sophistication, and combined with the ability to control local airspace, it's going to be difficult to ignore. The primary US strategy for isolating and quelling Sunni insurgency has officially switched to using the Iraqi (Shiite) Army as on-the-ground muscle and backing it with tactical firepower, usually from helicopter gunships. The Sunni SAM offensive amply demonstrates that strategy has a readily exploitable Achilles Heel. Drive off the firepower, and the muscles will flee.

The US, of course, will not officially respond to these videos or peace demands, but there's a David vs. Goliath element to them which undoubtedly plays well across the entire Mid-East, and effectively promotes the Sunni cause. Many analysts have dismissed the ability of the Baathist Sunnis to influence or dictate events, but their good organization, experience, and weapons can compensate for much. With their SAM campaign, they have already achieved stunning tactical victories and have begun to translate them into broader strategic momentum. With funding coming from external sources for the most advanced weapons, their insurgency may be morphing into an irregular army.

The operational ceiling of the SAM-18 is thought to be 6,980 feet. No army in the world can afford to lose a helicopter every two days flying over a hundred-square mile area, and it seems like many families lost loved ones through the sheer denial of their commanders. If the pilot carrying these 7 Marines was ordered to fly at least 8,000 feet over the SAM-infested area, they'd probably all still be alive. Why was that precaution too much to take?

Update: An hour later, there's a General commentingsomething like this:
"I think people are making too much about this," Cody said, while stressing that he personally and the Army as an institution take each loss seriously and are constantly looking for ways to avoid combat losses.
The Army's vice chief of staff went on to say, "I see no change in trends," and, "I see no credibility gaps," regarding the rash of helicopter losses. Are you kidding me? "Making too much of this?" Tell the families of the dead they're making too much of this. Nonsense. Denial. Dereliction of duty. This general is knowingly spouting politically motivated damage control, or is an icompetent. Three of these incidents occurred in a very small area of Iraq last week, with video taken of each. Also, CNN story concurrently linked to by Yahoo says there's no way to verify the claim a Chinook was shot down by insurgents. Then who launched the missile which hit it?

This is outrageous. It's telling the enemy they should invest in a lot more missiles, because they'll reap bloody returns. General Cody and the US command are begging to get these weapons sucked into the Sunni heartland: Anbar Province. But then, maybe I'm making too much of these incidents, and mere civilians like me can't grasp military matters.

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