Afghanistan was a helicopter graveyard back in the '80s, when the Soviet Union occupied the country.
Members of the insurgent Mujahideen, supplied with American-made Stinger missiles, systematically shot down Soviet helicopters.
Without crucial air supremacy, the modern Red Army was paralyzed. Forced to her knees, Moscow withdrew in defeat.
Decades later, as the United States escalates its war against Al Qaeda and Taliban extremists in Afghanistan, the helicopter remains an essential military workhorse in remote areas where goats are more suited for travel than cars.
But this time, while noisy, low-altitude helicopter flights remain dangerous above hostile territory, today's military is using advanced design and stealth technology to keep American choppers in the air and out of harm's way.
“Nobody has enough helicopters,” said war correspondent Michael Yon, author of “Moment of Truth in Iraq” and a very frequent visitor to Afghanistan.
“Our troops are spread as thin as an eggshell in extremely rough territory. Some bases are hours or even days from the nearest paved roads, and those areas typically are filled with countless 'perfect' ambush spots.”
Yon, an early critic of the Iraq war and a strong proponent of the troop surge that turned the war around, says he sees the war in Afghanistan as touch and go, and he says helicopters will be vital to American success.
And helicopter technology is the key to avoiding the fate of the Soviet choppers a quarter of a century ago.
The Marine Corps has recently given the UH-1Y -- nicknamed Venom -- the green light to deploy overseas. This utility transport helicopter and its attack chopper brother, the AH-1Z Super Cobra, have been designed to go faster, push harder and protect the troops they transport.
Among their hi-tech features:
-- An electro-optic missile warning and laser system to protect the Super Cobra from the shoulder-mounted, surface-to-air Stinger missiles that defeated Soviet helicopters.
-- Infrared flare dispenser systems to confuse passive infrared missile scanners trying to lock onto the Super Cobra.
-- Improved stealth technology to suppress the heat signatures of the engines, and an active infrared jamming system. Even the aircraft paint is designed to be low IR-reflective.
-- “Smart” sensors scanning across several spectrums to identify trouble from a farther distance.
And the trouble is out there; it is estimated that there still are 2,000 Stinger missiles in Afghanistan.
The portable, 35-pound shoulder-held Stinger quickly became the Afghan guerrilla's solution to a helicopter problem when the Soviets invaded. The simply designed Stinger could take a chopper out of the sky, and even a child could learn how fire it within minutes. More than two decades later, parts of old Soviet helicopters brought down by the Stingers remain scattered throughout the Afghan countryside.
While military authorities are reluctant to comment on enemy weaponry, the pro-American Afghan government has instituted a buyback program for some of the Stingers still in the country.
But flying objects are not the only threat in an environment where temperatures vary from below zero in high altitudes, to extreme heat in the dusty, blistering desert.
“All rotary craft have to consider the [4 H's] -- heat, humidity, height, heavy (how much load),” Maj. Eric Dent, a Marine Corps spokesman, said from the Pentagon.
Both the Super Cobra and the utility helicopters have switched from a two-blade to a four-blade rotary. The new hinge-less and bearing-less rotor system has 75 percent fewer parts than the older four-bladed articulated systems. A special composite gives the blades a higher ballistic survivability, and each blade is electroformed and capped with nickel to preserve against sand and dust.
The four-blade system provides increased speed, power and maneuverability -- and a very important reduction in vibration. This feat in engineering will give the Super Cobra greater maneuverability throughout Afghanistan’s maze of mountains.
Besides the whirling blades, the Super Cobra attack helicopter and the UH-1Y utility helicopter look nothing alike. But the choppers have 84 percent “inter-operability” to facilitate repairs and make parts exchangeable, which is crucial in a war zone when waiting for spare parts can waste crucial time. Also, helicopter repair crews can be trained more quickly to work on both platforms.
Despite powerful 20 mm turret guns, Sidewinder and Hellfire laser designated “fire and forget” missiles, engineers still had to consider the “worse case scenario”. If either aircraft goes down, the fuel cells have a built-in fire suppression system, and the bullet-resistant tanks can seal internally in the event of a crash landing.
With Marines mobilizing to head back into Afghanistan, it’s not entirely clear when the new choppers will arrive in theater, but “if there is a requirement in the fall … we would be in a position to deploy them then, if required.” Dent emphasized.
With Afghanistan at a crucial stage, every technological advantage will make a major difference, but some facts still remain.
“We need more helicopters in Afghanistan.” Yon warned.