Monday, February 26, 2007

Video Of Blackhawk Downed North Of Baghdad

A Blackhawk crash which fits the description of the 8th chopper lost in a one-month period in Iraq was put up on Live Leak today. It was released by Jaish al-Mujahedin, a salafist insurgency group. The group which previously released videos of shooting helicopters down with SAMs was the Islamic State of Iraq, so this is different set of characters. This Blackhawk was forced down by massed machine-gun fire, not by a lucky RPG hit as Spokes-General Caldwell claimed in a press conference last week.

Warning, there is annoying propaganda music throughout the 11-minute video and and many, many Allaaah-hoo Akhbars, but most of the video time is helpfully devoted to showing the insurgents' tactical set-up. Also, no US troops are said to have been injured in the crash, so this footage is much easier to watch than the others.

The insurgents positioned at least five heavy machine-guns distributed along a skirmish line for a prepared ambush. They did so in broad daylight, with not much attention to concealment, in an unpopulated area not far from a well-traveled highway. Two Blackhawk helicopters fly at very low altitude in front of their positions. The range is difficult to estimate because of frequent use of the camera's zoom lens, but if forced to guess, the choppers probably pass within 300 meters of the insurgents, who open fire. One helicopter slows over a field, nearly completes a half-circle, and seems to lose power while hovering at a height of about 20 feet. The second Blackhawk circles above the site. In footage taken later, the Blackhawk has crashed sunny-side up, but the force of the impact has broken off all its rotors. The cameraman doesn't dare approach closer than 200 meters from the fuselage, and once again makes full use of his zoom function.

The striking features of this engagement are that the insurgents possess large, anti-aircraft grade machine guns, felt bold enough to transport them to a remote area to set up an ambush, and felt confident US helicopters would fly close enough to hit. Some of their gun positions are devoid of any cover, and one is set up in the back of a truck. This would indicate complete confidence in freedom to transport and set up the guns, to not be reported if observed, and to have enough time to withdraw undetected. They must have known the air route was in regular use and decided it was vulnerable. Remarkably, they didn't fear close coordination and rapid retaliation from covering air assets, and thought they had time to disassemble large, cumbersome weapons and safely withdraw. Footage was later taken of the downed helicopter at close range, which tends to confirm those assumptions. Sometime between the crash and now, the area was left unsecured.

The video illustrates the CENTCOM tactical advisory to its helicopter pilots to fly low to avoid missile fire has a bad weakness--it places crews and occupants at risk of lower-tech ambushes with machine guns. Responsible commanders would tell their pilots to get up beyond the range of ground fire and SAMs in unsecured Sunni-held areas. While it would burn more fuel and be hated for its inconvenience, flying at high altitudes would deny the Sunni insurgency its most vulnerable US targets, and save lives.

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