Jewish World Review Feb. 24, 2004 / 2 Adar, 5764

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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Defeat | Operation Iraqi Freedom was an overwhelming — but not a complete — demonstration of the superiority of American arms and tactics. We did suffer one defeat at the hands of the Iraqis, a defeat about which we should be more concerned than it appears we are.

On the night of March 23rd, 2003, the 32 Apache Longbow helicopters of the 11th Aviation Regiment launched an attack on a brigade of the Medina Republican Guard division, which was dug in near the Karbala Gap.

The defenders were alerted that the Apaches were coming by an Iraqi general in the town of Najaf, which the Apaches overflew on their way to Karbala. That general used his cell phone to speed dial Medina division commanders to let them know the Apaches were on their way. They were greeted by a hail of fire.

Only one Apache was shot down. (It's pilots were captured, and later rescued.) But nearly all the other helicopters suffered sufficient damage to render the Apaches "not mission capable" for days, in some cases weeks. The Iraqis had night vision goggles (supplied by our friends, the Russians, on the eve of the war), but for the most part their anti-aircraft weapons were unsophisticated — machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and AK-47 automatic rifles.

The debacle the night of March 23rd produced an immediate change in tactics. Thereafter, Apaches were not used until after Iraqi air defenses had been suppressed by fixed wing Air Force aircraft, chiefly the A-10 Thunderbolt II.

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But the Army has yet to come to grips with the inherent vulnerabilities of attack helicopters. The A-10, like the Apache, was designed chiefly to kill Russian tanks. But the A-10 is cheaper to buy and cheaper to maintain than the Apache, and much less vulnerable to small arms fire.

Though we spend more on defense than the next seven nations combined, our troops often go without stuff they really need because so much money is poured down expensive rat holes. A grotesque portion of the Army's budget is devoted to Army aviation. We would be better served with fewer attack helicopters, and a more nimble successor to the A-10.

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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