Tuesday, February 06, 2007

An Apache AH-64D gunship was shot down by a man-portable SAM last Friday (February 2nd, 2007) near Taji. But it was hit by something else first, a single shot from some type of large-caliber weapon. It must be something new, as the insurgents have claimed. The raw footage was packaged in jihadist propaganda, so I won't embed it here, having heard enough cries of Allahuh Akhbar for a while. If you wish to view it, it's searchable on Live Leak via the terms "helicopter, iraq, downing." I viewed it very closely to try and analyze what happened. While the incidence of helicopter crashes is still very low, the threats posed by weapons must be respected. There are probably not many SA-18 SAMs in Iraq, and the existence of a super-rifle is unconfirmed, but pilots will probably be directed to maintain much higher altitudes while traveling, to stand off from positions offering obvious ground cover, to avoid travel routines, and to not be as aggressive in investigating fire sources in the absence of ground support. They need to give themselves more time to detect and evade.

The insurgents in the video, of whom there were at least 4, deployed themselves line abreast in a ditch. Of the three visible, one was wearing a light robe and turban, and sat upright. Odd behavior, given the optics and firepower of the gunships--he stuck out like a sore thumb. The others wore dark green fatigues and black ski masks, and lay prone. They appear to have set up at dusk to ambush the helicopters, and one began to remove parts for assembly from a long green box which was new or very well-preserved. Another prepared the ground in front of him, clearing it for some kind of attachment. I have not seen these shipping crates before, but the color and shape of the main rectangular body of the device protruding from it was consistent with pictures and video of other SA-series missiles.

Two Apaches on patrol crossed left-to-right in front of these insurgents approximately 2 kilometers away, after heading north-west. (If it was at dawn, their bearing would've been approximately 135 degrees, or south-east.) Because of the way the video sequence was edited, the light conditions, and withdrawal vectors taken by the pilots, I assume the incident occurred at dusk. As the Apaches drew out of range, they suddenly circled over each other's flight path, and the trail helicopter apparently, but by no means certainly, withdrew.

After its turn, the lead helicopter bore directly toward the insurgent position, but turned to its left after drawing fairly close. It flew roughly parallel to powerlines at low altitude; the insurgents waited until it passed directly in front, less than a hundred meters above ground and probably no more than 400 meters away. There is the report of a single shot at 1:24 into the video, and an impact flash on the right side of the helicopter's fuselage on or near the engine nacelle, at 1:25. This hit is followed by cheers.

Shortly thereafter, automatic small arms fire opens up, and the helicopter withdraws north. It's impossible to tell it's the same helicopter all the way through because there seems to be an edit cut in the video, and visual contact is broken because of trees, but it seems likely. At 1:38-1:39 there is a glimpse of a man holding a tube on his shoulder and pointing in its general direction. At 1:52 there's the distinctive sound of a SAM launch, and at 1:54 there's the sound of an impact and a large flash which half-fills the screen. The Apache immediately begins to retrace its route north-west, on fire and trailing a line of smoke. At 1:59 there is a secondary explosion, and it loses power suddenly and crashes not far from where the two aircraft originally broke formation.

Pilots in Iraq were generally not concerned about missiles until recently. Their use there is still rare, but military spokesmen were quoted as saying that tactics will change appropriately. The Russian SA-18 would appear to be a prime suspect here in defeating formerly effective countermeasures, and Russia has licensed its production of to a number of countries including Venezuela, Iran, and China. But what's really puzzling is the single shot which hit the helicopter prior to the SAM. No weapon I know could do that, unless it was an extremely lucky hit with an anti-tank rifle or a .50-cal sniper rifle. Neither weapon seems capable of hitting a helicopter
mid-ship in its engine bay while moving obliquely at close to 100 mph. Not with a single shot. The pilot of the Apache which was shot down broke formation and headed directly for the insurgents, so may have received fire from that area or was lured there by other means. If they had not gotten so close, the crew probably would have made it back.

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