The Army's senior aviation officer in Iraq said yesterday that Sunni fighters probably used a sophisticated SA-14 or SA-16 shoulder-fired missile to shoot down a Marine helicopter on Feb. 7, killing all seven people on board.
If confirmed by an ongoing Marine Corps investigation, it would mark the first time since last summer that insurgents in Iraq struck U.S. aircraft with such an anti-aircraft missile, and it would provide fresh evidence of a new strategy of targeting helicopters, according to Maj. Gen. James E. Simmons, deputy U.S. commander in Iraq.
Simmons said that, upon reviewing a videotape of the attack on the Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight transport helicopter, it appeared that the missile used was not the Vietnam-era SA-7, which insurgents and militias are known to have, but more likely an SA-14 or SA-16. Those pose a bigger threat because they have greater range, size and ability to overcome aircraft defensive systems. The helicopter's defensive system did not appear to deploy properly, the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James T. Conway, testified before the Senate last week.
The Russian-manufactured SA-14 or SA-16 probably would have been brought into the country from abroad relatively recently, Simmons said in an interview.
The attack in Anbar province was the latest in a string of seven U.S. military and civilian helicopter downings in Iraq since last month. U.S. commanders say that Sunni and Shiite extremist groups have begun to use deadly strikes in a new and carefully planned effort to rally support for their causes.
"The extremists on both ends of the spectrum, Sunni and Shia, recognized that whenever you have an aircraft shot down that belongs to the U.S. government, that is a spectacular international press event" and sends the message that "they are a capable adversary," Simmons said.
The strategy of stepping up the targeting of U.S. helicopters, revealed in recently captured insurgent documents, was devised specifically to counter the U.S. and Iraqi military push to quell violence in Baghdad, he said.
In addition to confronting missiles, the U.S. military is seeing an intensification of ground fire from automatic weapons against its helicopters. On Monday, for example, three U.S. military helicopters were struck by ground fire as they helped repel an unusually bold insurgent attack on an American outpost in the town of Tarmiyah, north of Baghdad. The pilots were able to fly the helicopters back to their bases, where the aircraft are undergoing repair.
Army and Marine Corps helicopters in Iraq carry out hundreds of missions each day. On average, they are shot at about 100 times a month, with 17 of them hit.
Simmons said some recent attacks exhibited unusual coordination, planning and patience. These include a Jan. 20 assault, when an Army Black Hawk helicopter was shot down northeast of Baghdad, killing 12, and one on Feb. 2, when an Apache attack helicopter was downed north of the capital, killing its crew of two.
In both cases, Simmons said, insurgents in heavily Sunni regions used multiple weapons systems, including heavy machine guns, "clearly emplaced to attack the aircraft" from several different directions. It was the first time in months that such a concerted effort had been made using multiple weapons systems to attack aircraft, he said.
Insurgents apparently readied for the attacks by watching U.S. flight patterns over several days.
"These are patient fighters," Simmons said, adding he believes the attacks were linked and involved fighters from the same Sunni extremist group.
All of the recent helicopter downings occurred during daylight hours. The U.S. military flies extensively at night, but it cannot limit operations to nighttime.
Instead, Simmons said the military is responding by giving pilots detailed updates on threats and terrain, directing them to the least risky routes, and then allowing them to modify their altitude, speed and course to evade attack.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces are aggressively going after groups believed to be responsible for the recent helicopter downings, Simmons said. "We're not being passive about this."