- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

It was America's only battlefield retreat in a land blitzkrieg that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 27 days.
On the night of March 24, U.S. Army commanders sent 34 of the Army's most advanced attack helicopters against the Medina Division of the Republican Guard near Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad.
It marked the first time an Army unit had attacked Saddam's best land troops in the drive to the capital. Gen. William S. Wallace, the top U.S. ground commander inside Iraq at the time, said he hoped the AH-64D Apache Longbows would demonstrate how Army aviation could devastate an armored unit.
They would hover and dance at 50 feet while unleashing furious volleys of Hellfire missiles, cannons and rockets.
Instead, Army commanders got the gritty taste of defeat. The 11th Aviation Regiment Apaches encountered intense ground fire that chewed up rotor blades and pierced airframes. The two-man gunships retreated to their desert base after doing minimal damage to the enemy formation.
Even before the war's official end, the Pentagon and the Army are studying the operation as an important chapter in the "lessons learned" from Operation Iraqi Freedom. The military traditionally focuses on its mistakes to ensure future successes. The failure of urban combat in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, for example, resulted in new training in urban-warfare tactics that paid off in the Iraq war.
Military officials say Pentagon testers are examining the Apache damage to check for any design flaws or potential enhancements. The Army is looking at its deep-penetration tactics.
But some military officials are pointing to the crucial mistake: The Army did not include the Air Force in the plan to provide air cover and take out antiaircraft fire.
Army Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command's top land commander, declined, at this time, to answer questions on the operation submitted by The Washington Times.
"Until the battle has been captured for after action, I am not convinced I can give you an accurate response," Col. Thomas said.
The 11th Aviation's operation was doomed perhaps before it encountered Medina.
Alerted to the Apache's arrival by lookouts along the route, Iraqi civilians armed with AK-47s and Medina soldiers fired guns and Russian-made artillery barrage-style in crude but effective self-defense.
When the regiment from Gen. Wallace's Germany-based 5th Corps took inventory after the failed raid, at least 27 of the 34 Apaches on the mission were not flyable. The 11th Aviation Regiment, the Army's most advanced Apache unit, was no longer combat-ready.
It also temporarily lost two aviators as prisoners of war. The men eventually were rescued by Marines north of Baghdad and returned to their Texas base on Saturday.
"The regiment was decimated at a critical time of war," said a military officer.
The Longbow comes with advanced radars and targeting that allow it to hover at a safe distance from its targets. But, like any helicopter, the Apache, no matter how advanced, is susceptible to small-arms fire beneath it. That was what happened on March 24.
The real problem, military sources said, was that in a war where "jointness" permeated nearly every strategic and tactical decision, on that one particular night the Army went in alone without Air Force or Navy air cover and no bombing prestrikes.
"I think it was a miscalculation of the effect of their capability to deal with antiaircraft and small-arms fire," said retired Air Force Gen. Thomas McInerney, a prominent advocate of air power.
The Army learned a cruel lesson. Even with its mighty arsenal and night-attack sensors, the Apache's desert-skimming tactics are vulnerable to men on the ground with guns.
Gen. Wallace quickly corrected his mistake. Senior allied officers said that the next time the Army went against the Republican Guard, Air Force A-10s, their underbellies molded in thick armor, went along.
Apaches in the 101st Airborne Division went against Medina, drew ground fire and pulled back. The A-10s then went into action, strafing the division to take out antiaircraft artillery and troops. The Apaches re-entered the battle and destroyed many tanks, military sources said.
"The A-10s pounded the guys on the ground and then the Apaches did an effective mission, killing a lot of tanks," said a senior allied officer.
Commanders also realized they needed to deplete the Republican Guard from the air before sending ground troops against it. From March 25 on, more strikes targeted Guard units, with devastating effect.
In the Pentagon, some Air Force officers privately are discussing the Apaches' mishaps, but only in a whisper, so as not to upset the "jointness" demanded by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Joint operations require the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines to plan and operate as a team, minus traditional service rivalries.
Officers say that, except for the 11th's ill-fated attack, jointness did rule in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
They consider that attack a near-disaster. But the next day, Gen. Tommy Franks, the allied commander, put a positive spin on the mission.
"We know that they were very effective in their mission," he told reporters at the March 25 Central Command briefing in Doha, Qatar.
The command's spokesman, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, noted the one downed Apache and said, "All the other helicopters involved in the mission did accomplish the mission and returned safely to base."


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