This is an article by William Pfaff. The whole article is available here.
The article points out how important the helicopter is to the US and how its vulnerability may impact on operations.
Paris, February 8, 2007 – The Royal Navy’s Vice Admiral David Beatty provided a since-celebrated instance of British aplomb, saying to his flag officer, “Chatfield, there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,” when in the opening minutes of the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, the German fleet sank two of his battle-cruisers and severely damaged four more.
Much the same sentiment might be expressed today, without the same aplomb, at the Pentagon and in the Baghdad Green Zone concerning the six American helicopters that have been shot down in the last three weeks. Military spokesmen in Baghdad now have conceded, under pressure, that the “mechanical problems” all suffered were consequent to being hit by enemy fire. What kind of fire is unreported, and possibly unknown.
The immediate military reaction was that tactics “may need changing.” This no doubt is so, but it is possible that there may be no tactical answer. It is possible that something much more important has happened.
This might signal an end to the utility of the helicopter as a weapons-platform in modern warfare. As a factor in combat, the helicopter may be on its way to the same place the machine-gun sent the horse cavalry.
For years advanced armies have operated mainly against guerrillas and third world forces possessing no serious defense against attack from helicopters. They have revamped military doctrine on the unspoken assumption that the helicopter’s relative invulnerability would continue, or could be countered only by the weapons of another modern army.
The only practical challenge to this belief came early in the Iraq invasion, when U.S. attack helicopters massed for a nighttime assault on what was thought the Revolutionary Guard’s main line of resistance. Only Wagnerian music and Francis Ford Coppola were lacking.
But to reach their objective, the helicopter force had to overfly positions held by the lackluster Iraq regular army. The latter’s soldiers, with such an armada passing low overhead, instinctively reacted by firing their rifles and other light weapons at it, as did farmers and villagers. The assault had to be called off in disarray before reaching its objective because nearly every helicopter had been damaged by this improvised resistance.
The latest helicopter losses in Iraq suggest that some of the Iraqi insurgents now have missiles against which standard U.S. countermeasures (usually flares fired to distract conventional heat-seeking missiles) don’t work. Possible they have missiles with new guidance systems, or large-caliber machine-guns or automatic cannon light enough to be quickly transported and deployed. The U.S. has complained that Iran has supplied the Iraqi insurgents with shaped-charge munitions to use in roadside bombs. What else may have been furnished the Iraqis?
Israel’s ground offensive in south Lebanon last summer was supposed to sweep all before it up to the Litani River. Hezbollah guerillas were expected to have no real defense against Israeli armor and infantry. Instead, the Israeli offensive stalled just inside Lebanon.
The reason was that the well-prepared and thoroughly dug-in Hezbollah forces had wire-directed anti-tank missiles able to pierce Israeli armor, turning the tanks from assets into obstacles to the Israeli offensive. Tanks were hit and immobilized on roads into Lebanon where the guerrillas controlled the overlooking heights, able to interfere with rescue of the tank crews and block removal of the derelict tanks and passage by other military vehicles.
If the insurrection in Iraq is acquiring the means to counter U.S. helicopter operations this is a matter of potentially large strategic importance. U.S. forces throughout Iraq depend for an overwhelming part of their supplies, gasoline and ammunition on road convoys from Kuwait made up of civilian trucks and tankers.
Those convoys have military escorts but rely on helicopters to scout the route for ambushes and roadside bombs, and to defend them when attacked.
If these convoys were seriously disrupted, it would have disastrous consequences for American troops spread across the country. There are few usable airstrips at American bases, and the Air Force is reported now able to supply something like a quarter of the needed supplies, and to estimate that in an emergency it could increase that to around a third.
However cargo planes are also vulnerable to attack. They mainly have to be defended by ground forces patrolling or controlling all the territory around airfields from which missiles could be launched (including Baghdad airport). But if an isolated base is not supplied with fuel and ammunition, it can’t make its air approaches safe.