American helicopters in Iraq are facing a new threat from so-called “aerial” bombs that are fired from the ground and explode close to passing aircraft.
The home-made weapons, known to the Americans as “aerial improvised explosive devices,” have been used on numerous occasions.
“The enemy is adaptive. They make changes in the way they fight, they respond to new flying tactics,” Brig. Gen. Edward Sinclair, a U.S. Army aviation commander, told Defense News, which first revealed the new threat.
He refused to say whether they have brought aircraft down.
The devices are placed along known flight paths and are triggered when insurgents see a low-flying helicopter approaching.
They are then fired to a height of about 50 feet before a proximity fuse detonates the explosive, filling the air with thousands of metal shards.
Based on old anti-aircraft or artillery shells, the bombs would have a devastating effect if detonated close to a thin-skinned helicopter.
Any new threat to helicopters is of grave concern to coalition forces.
Rotary wing aircraft are widely used in Iraq. Although at least 25 American aircraft have crashed in the past three years, they are considered to be safer than road transportation.
Ambitious insurgents also know that helicopters are likely to carry more people than road vehicles and that a crash is likely to prove fatal.
In the past two weeks U.S. forces in Iraq have lost three helicopters. In the most recent incident, an Apache attack helicopter crashed on Monday, killing two pilots.
The earlier crashes of a reconnaissance helicopter and a Black Hawk, in which a total of 14 servicemen died, are still officially unexplained.
Gen. Sinclair, who leads a team working on helicopter anti-insurgency tactics, said the Army is altering flight paths and seeking new technology to counter the threat.
But another new insurgent technique is proving still harder to counter: Terrorists have begun targeting medical-evacuation helicopters.
The new ambush tactic exploits an already tested formula.
Insurgents first attack an American patrol with a roadside bomb. When troops summon helicopters to evacuate the wounded, insurgents detonate further devices pre-positioned on likely helicopter landing sites.
According to Defense News, the Americans say they have lost “more than one” aircraft to this tactic.