Thursday, February 08, 2007

The war is over but the spin never ceases

On Monday, February 5, 2007, the Associated Press reported that 4 U.S. helicopters had been shot down in Iraq in the last two weeks and that it appears that the insurgents have new anti-aircraft missiles. From the article:
"The U.S. command has ordered changes in flight operations after four helicopters were shot down in the last two weeks, the chief military spokesman said Sunday, acknowledging for the first time that the aircraft were lost to hostile fire.

The crashes, which began Jan. 20, follow insurgent claims they have received new stocks of anti-aircraft weapons - and a recent boast by Sunni militants that "God has granted new ways" to threaten U.S. aircraft...

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters that the investigations into the crashes of three Army and one private helicopters were incomplete but "it does appear they were all the result of some kind of anti-Iraqi ground fire that did bring those helicopters down."

It was the first time a senior figure in the U.S. Iraq command has said publicly that all four helicopters were shot down...

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 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and "we are going to surprise them," meaning U.S. forces."

If the insurgents in Iraq now have effective anti-aircraft missiles--this war is likely over. Given the effectiveness of IEDs in disrupting our transportation routes and hurting our troops on the ground our air superiority is the only thing we have left. But if new missiles make it difficult or impossible to provide air support to our ground troops then fatalities will continue to rise and squirrelly Senate Republicans (and Joseph Lieberman) will have no place left to hide. If you recall, the Soviets were forced to pull out of Afghanistan after the CIA provided Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the mujahideen.

By today, 6 U.S. helicopters had been shot down! From the New York Times:

"BAGHDAD, Feb. 7 — With two more helicopter crashes near Baghdad, including a Marine transport crash on Wednesday that killed seven people, the number of helicopters that have gone down in Iraq over the past three weeks rose to six. American officials say the streak strongly suggests that insurgents have adapted their tactics and are now putting more effort into shooting down the aircraft."
But the military has a new spin on what's happening:
"Details about the Marine helicopter, a CH-46 Sea Knight transport that crashed into an open field in an insurgent-heavy region northwest of Baghdad, were still sketchy Wednesday night. Witnesses said the aircraft appeared to have been shot down, but some military officials suggested that the crash might have been caused by a mechanical failure...

There have been four other fatal downings of American helicopters since mid-January that killed at least 20 people and that military officials have suggested were all caused by small-arms fire. In some cases, however, witnesses indicated that missiles had been fired from the ground.

American officials emphasize that a new sense of coordinated aggressiveness on the part of insurgents toward attacking aircraft, or even luck, may be playing as large a role in the high pace of crashes as improved skill and tactics among insurgents.

“I do not know whether or not it is the law of averages that caught up with us,” said Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during Senate testimony on Tuesday. Another possibility, he said, was that there had “been a change in tactics, techniques and procedures on the part of the enemy.”...

One Air Force commander in Baghdad said the recent crashes appeared largely to be a result of old weapons long available in Iraq and not an influx of new hardware or technology. “I haven’t seen anything like that,” the American commander said."
So that's it--just a little more elbow grease on the part of the Iraqis. Just a little luck. Small arms fire--nothing to be worried about. Law of averages. No anti-aircraft missiles to worry about here.

Only problem is, the official U.S. account of why more helicopters are being shot down appears to be untrue. Again from the New York Times:
"In some cases, however, witnesses indicated that missiles had been fired from the ground...

On Jan. 20, in the deadliest recent crash, attackers appear to have fired from a pickup truck near Baghdad. The first of two Black Hawk helicopters passed over the truck and saw nothing amiss. But a witness said that the second helicopter fired the flares that were used to confuse heat-seeking missiles before bursting into flames and then crashing.

An Apache gunship in the area then pursued the truck and destroyed it. The American military later said that the debris from the truck contained tubes consistent with missile launchers."

Why? Why would Gen. Pace and military spokespeople contend that it was mechanical failure or chance or small arms fire rather than new anti-aircraft missiles even when evidence on the ground from witness and even our own troops suggests otherwise? Because he knows that if the insurgents have new air-aircraft missiles we're screwed.

In a bit of understatement, the reporter for the Times wrote, "Historically, improved tactics in shooting down helicopters have proved to be important factors in conflicts in which guerrillas have achieved victories against major powers, including battles in Somalia, Afghanistan and Vietnam."

If you can't provide effective air cover then several things happen, all of them bad:
  • you lose massive overhead firepower which can destroy enemies at a distance;
  • our ground troops are fighting their ground troops and they know the territory better;
  • you can't get additional troops moved quickly into battle which means if our guys get into a firefight it's harder to get reinforcements to them;
  • you can't get injured troops or outgunned troops away from a firefight as easily.
  • you have a tougher time moving supplies quickly to where they are needed.

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