U.S. officials’ recent statements that sophisticated weapons and tactics played a role in a series of helicopter downings have cast a spotlight on insurgent claims of new, deadly ways to attack Americans.
It remains unclear, however, if the insurgents have managed to get their hands on new weapons, or if they are merely using a combination of previous weapons in new and effective ways.
Either way, the U.S. military has said it is working to adjust tactics to fight off any more such attacks. The U.S. military relies heavily on helicopters to avoid the threat of ambushes and roadside bombs — the deadliest weapon in the militants’ arsenal. Any new dangers to aviation would be a serious challenge, especially as the Americans boost their forces in the Baghdad area as part of a new offensive.
At least seven U.S. helicopters have crashed or been forced down by hostile fire since Jan. 20, killing 28 troops and civilians.
At first, U.S. military officials said they believed luck and coincidence were mostly responsible for the string of attacks. But in recent days, three top U.S. officers have said there are signs that insurgents used a range of clever weapons and tactics in at least some cases.
On Wednesday, chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said insurgents had used “sophisticated” weapons to shoot down a U.S. Marine transport helicopter on Feb. 7, killing all seven service members aboard.
'Multiple weapons systems'
Caldwell would not specify the weapons. But Maj. Gen. James E. Simmons, a deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters later that “multiple weapons systems,” fired at the same time, appeared to have been used in some of the helicopter downings — a sign of what Simmons called “a thinking enemy.”
In other cases, insurgents appear to have simply gotten lucky and hit helicopters with automatic-weapons fire as the helicopters chanced by, Simmons said.
The New York Times reported Sunday that in several of the downings, the multiple weapons systems had included shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and unguided rockets that can’t be diverted by American helicopters’ anti-heat-seeking flares.
Presumably, by firing such a range of weapons at the same time, insurgents could confuse pilots and leave them more vulnerable to getting hit.
At a congressional hearing in Washington, Gen. James Conway, the head of the Marines Corps, said the Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter that went down Feb. 7 had not properly released its anti-missile defensive measures. There could be several reasons for that, including defective machinery. But it could also indicate that insurgents used a type of missile the aircraft’s defenses were not primed for.
The series of downings occurred at a time when insurgents have repeatedly boasted they have increased their abilities, finding new ways to attack Americans. An al-Qaida-affiliated group has claimed credit for three of the downings and posted a video showing the Feb. 7 crash that U.S. officials said appeared to be genuine.
The boasts have raised questions about whether the insurgents have new weapons.
Boast from Sunni insurgents
In December, a spokesman for Saddam Hussein’s ousted Baath Party, Khudair al-Murshidi, told The Associated Press in Damascus, Syria, that Sunni insurgents had received new shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and “we are going to surprise them” — meaning U.S. forces in Iraq.
Al-Murshidi did not say when or how the missiles were obtained or what they were.
But earlier this month, the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper reported that Iraqi insurgents had received “a new generation” of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air Strela or SA-7 missiles.
During Saddam’s rule, the Iraqi army had stockpiles of SA-7 rockets, and many fell into insurgents’ hands after his overthrow.
Two Arab government intelligence officials, meanwhile, told the AP that an Iraqi Sunni group had recently bought some SA-7s on the black market with money it received through private donations from Saudi Arabia. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, said the batch, obtained through Romanian dealers in Cairo, went into Iraq through Syria.
The two officials also said some more-advanced types of missiles, such as SA-16s and SA-18s, might have been obtained in the deal.
More reliance on helicopters
Meanwhile, the military is relying more and more on helicopters here. In 2005, Army aircraft flew 240,000 hours. This year, that figure is expected to rise to 400,000 hours, according to the military.
Whether the insurgents have new weapons or not, their ability to bring down the U.S. helicopters shows “resilience and efficiency,” and poses a new challenge, said Mohammad Kadri Said, a retired general now at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies.
“If they (the U.S. military) cannot use their helicopters to pinpoint the pockets of resistance, their strategy to defeat the insurgency is in real trouble,” he said.