WASHINGTON – The Army is overhauling its helicopter corps after high-profile setbacks in Iraq (search). A battle lost, several crashes and the cancellation of the new Comanche (search) stealth helicopter have led critics to suggest the aircraft is too fragile, vulnerable and ineffective for the modern battlefield.
Army officials point to a plan to take the $14.6 billion intended for the Comanche program and use that money to deal with problems in the helicopter service. A new scout helicopter is planned. Upgrades are in the works for aging Black Hawk (search) and Chinook transports and Apache gunships. Pilots will get more cockpit training before joining combat units.
Army officials insist combat helicopters can fight in unmatched ways.
"You can't get one commander in Iraq to let one helicopter come home," said Brig. Gen. E. J. Sinclair, commandant of the U.S. Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., in an interview.
"Fixed-wings (jets) are great, ... but can they get down and do the rooting in a low level in the cities? Can they see down the alleyways? Right now they can't," he said.
During the invasion of Iraq, in the early morning of March 24, 2003, Iraqi forces ambushed 30 Apaches from the 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment (search), shot down one and forced the others to retreat.
The Apaches (search) were conducting a deep strike against the tanks and artillery of the Medina Division of the Iraqi Republican Guard. Due to a delay in refueling some of the helicopters, the mission started more than two hours later than planned. This gave the Iraqis time to recover from preattack strikes by artillery missiles and Air Force jets.
Still, the mission went forward, at the direction of confident officers who believed they could repeat the Apache's successes of the Persian Gulf War (search).
Someone blinked the lights on and off in the town below to signal the helicopters' approach. Iraqi gunners targeted their weapons just above the tops of electrical power poles, knowing that American pilots are trained to fly directly over poles to avoid hitting hard-to-spot wires.
Every Apache was hit by either small arms or anti-aircraft fire. One went down; its pilots were captured and later rescued. The rest withdrew, many with 20 bullet holes or more. It took a month of repairs before the regiment could bring its full firepower to bear.
"We got hit. That's the bad news. The good news is we had some great heroics that night and some tremendous flying," said Gen. Richard Cody, vice chief of staff of the Army and a former Apache pilot, in a recent interview. "They shot the heck out of those airplanes, and the aircraft just kept flying."
The mission was a proper use of the Apaches, but it was poorly executed, Army officials say, and should have been scrubbed when the problems arose.
"I disagree with people saying the attack helicopter's role has been diminished by that mission. I think we gave the attack helicopters a mission that wasn't quite suited for them at the time," Cody said.
But to critics such as retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff, helicopters are too slow and easy to detect. He says they should stay close to the front lines or work in tandem with Air Force strike jets.
"You start operating helicopters over hostile territory, I think you've got very serious problems," McPeak said.
Other missions also met with problems in Iraq.
One was scrubbed because of sandstorms and poor visibility. In a second, helicopters conducted a successful attack against the Republican Guards' Medina division, but two helicopters crashed during a dust storm at takeoff.
During the postwar occupation, Iraqi insurgents have shot down several helicopters, including troop-filled transports, which has led to heavy loss of life.
Sinclair said commanders studied each enemy shooting and altered their tactics. A helicopter has not gone down to enemy fire since April 11.
In combat, pilots have learned to race and strafe and dive at their targets, leaving themselves exposed to enemy fire for only a short time.
"We went through every aircraft that was shot down and confirmed what shot it down, how it was shot down, where it was shot down," Sinclair said. "We changed the way we fight. We're being shot at every day, but our soldiers are adapting to it."
In addition, commanders emphasize the helicopter's ability to support troops in urban warfare, lingering overhead to hit concealed targets that jets and artillery are unable to target precisely.
The Army is planning to build almost 800 new helicopters, including a new scout to replace the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, and a new utility helicopter. Attack helicopter companies are expanding from six Apaches to eight.
"At any time if you have six, two of them are going to be in maintenance, so you really have four aircraft for a mission. That really doesn't give you enough combat capability," said Sinclair, an Apache pilot who was an assistant division commander for the 101st Airborne during the Iraq invasion.
Other changes are in line with the Army's efforts to make smaller combat units more self-sufficient. For example, divisions will get more Black Hawk and Chinook transports to ferry troops and equipment.
The money for all the changes was intended for the construction of 121 RAH-66 Comanches, which the Army canceled in February.
Sinclair said the helicopter was built to evade radar defenses. But the chief threat to helicopters in Iraq and other recent conflicts has been portable heat-seeking missiles, something the Comanche was not well-protected against.