By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 19, 2007 - Air cavalry helicopter pilots have had to change their tactics to adapt to newer and higher-tech surface-to-air missile systems that officials believe are coming in from Iran, a senior official in Iraq said today. Crews from 1st Air Cavalry Brigade out of Camp Taji, Iraq, have flown support for operations in and around Baghdad for more than a year. Since their arrival, there has been an increase in the sophistication of attacks and types of weapons, Army Col. Daniel J. Shanahan said in a conference call with military analysts.
"In the last several months, we have had an increased threat from systems that we had not seen in the first part of the year," Shanahan said. Some of them originated in "places like Iran," he said, causing considerable change in tactics, techniques and procedures.
"It's a real concern, and it's something that we're dealing with," he said. "Right now we've got the best systems in the world, and we've got technology behind us."
Shanahan said additional sensors and diffusers, which decrease an aircraft's infrared signature, have been added, and crews' flying tactics have changed.
Shanahan's crews have logged 80,000 hours of flight time in the past 13 months, he said. The helicopters spend about 10 hours in the air for every one on the ground, Shanahan estimated. But even though the enemy's weapons systems are more advanced than before, overall attacks on aircraft are down in the area, he said.
Crews are fired upon about 200 times monthly, he said. Attacks are from weapons types ranging from small arms to rockets known in military parlance as "man-portable air-defense systems," or MANPADs, which are shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles that typically use infrared guidance.
MANPADs make up only about 5 percent of the attacks, "but if you ask the pilots, they would say that MANPADS is the biggest threat," Shanahan said.
It takes about 3,000 troops to fly, fuel, arm and maintain the H-64 Apache, UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters operating around the clock at the base. The aircraft are used for attack reconnaissance, air assault, air transport and medical evacuation missions.
In addition, crews partner with Iraqi air force units for training and some missions. The Iraqi air force has progressed sufficiently that it routinely provides reconnaissance missions, patrolling pipelines, power lines and other infrastructure. It also provides in-country transportation for Iraqi government officials.
Iraqi air force pilots fly three types of helicopters: Mi-17s and Bell JetRangers in training programs and UH-1 Hueys mounted with defensive systems, which are workhorses for reconnaissance and transport, Shanahan said. This frees his crews from these types of missions and is a critical step toward the Iraqi government assuming its own security mission, he said.