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It was just three months ago that the command was basking in SEAL Team 6’s successful mission to penetrate Pakistan’s airspace and kill bin Laden. Now it is grappling with the largest loss of SEALs ever in a single wartime mission.

Analysts say it is difficult to hit an aircraft, even one as large and slow as the twin-engined Chinook, with what amounts to an unguided warhead, unlike a missile that homes in on an engine’s heat source.

Helicopters are equipped with “countermeasures,” such as flares, to deflect a missile’s guidance system, but military sources said they know of no similar system to foil a rocket-propelled grenade fired at close range.

“Although the helicopters have countermeasures, I’m not aware of any countermeasure for an RPG,” said a congressional defense staffer. “An RGP’s range is so short. But it’s really hard to hit an aircraft with an RPG.”

Maj. Chris Kasker, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said the service has spent $2 billion over the past two years improving helicopter defenses, but he declined to be more specific.

“We don’t want bad guys to know all the details. We can’t comment on the specific defense systems and countermeasures we have on our helicopters right now,” Maj. Kasker said.

“But I can say we are dedicated to providing the best survivability equipment available. We want to protect our aircraft and crew members from all different threats that they encounter.”

The NATO command said the operation “began as a security search for a Taliban leader responsible for insurgent operations in the nearby Tangi Valley.”

“After commencing the search, the initial security force on the ground observed several insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47 assault rifles moving through the area. The security force and insurgents exchanged small-arms fire, resulting in several enemies killed,” NATO said.

“As the insurgents continued to fire, the combined force on the ground requested additional forces to assist the operation. Those additional personnel were inbound to the scene when the CH-47 carrying them crashed, killing all on board. …

“The helicopter was reportedly fired on by an insurgent rocket-propelled grenade while transporting the U.S. service members and commandos to the scene of an ongoing engagement between [International Security Assistance Forces] and insurgent forces.”

Another SEAL mission met a similar fate six years earlier.

In June 2005, four SEALs ordered to kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shad got pinned down by an overwhelming enemy force of perhaps 150 militants in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The team radioed a distress call. An MH-47 Chinook with eight SEALs and eight 160th Regiment personnel was dispatched to save them.

Like the Chinook on Saturday, the MH-47 was knocked down by a rocket-propelled grenade as it tried to enter the battle space. All 16 onboard were killed in the crash.

“Squad-sized automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) can ‘kill’ a helicopter if it comes with[in] range of the enemy,” military analyst Anthony Cordesman said in an Internet post Monday for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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