- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The U.S. military command in Iraq has confirmed that the Sea Knight helicopter that crashed last week was shot down by a missile. The growing losses of American helicopters in Iraq indicate that insurgents have obtained shoulder-launched portable missiles and improved their anti-aircraft tactics.

Development of anti-helicopter warfare capability is the logical step for insurgents after their improvised explosive devices turned Iraq’s roads into killing zones for American convoys and patrols. U.S. troops now depend heavily on helicopters for transportation, supply and support.

Soviet pilots faced the same challenge in Afghanistan. Having served 4 years in Afghanistan as a military linguist and area specialist, I had to fly many helicopter assault missions with the Spetsnaz special forces, and with Soviet and Afghan government troops.

I witnessed how mujahedeen fighters developed their anti-aircraft tactics, which allowed them to bring down 118 airplanes and 333 helicopters by the end of the conflict in 1989.

The mujahedeen’s anti-aircraft tactics and Soviet countermeasures could provide lessons to help reduce losses and save American lives in Iraq.

Stinger’s sting

During the first years of the Afghanistan war, the Soviet air force enjoyed unchallenged dominance of the skies. The main tactic of the mujahedeen was “dive and hide,” using caves to survive Soviet air strikes. Their anti-aircraft weapons consisted of Soviet-, Chinese- and Egyptian-made machine guns and a limited number of older Soviet- and Egyptian-made surface-to-air missiles.

All this changed with the introduction of Stinger missiles in 1986. The mujahedeen used Stingers to bring down Soviet planes and helicopters, and Soviet air losses climbed rapidly.

The mujahedeen developed sophisticated tactics for engaging Soviet aircraft and helicopters.

Teams usually consisted of one or two missile operators with two to four missiles and 10 to 15 fighters to protect the operators and capture or kill downed Soviet pilots.

Under cover of darkness, such teams approached an air base, took cover using terrain features or camouflage nets, and waited for aircraft or helicopters to take off or land. After firing their missiles, they would disappear into a green vegetation zone, foothills or a village.

Evidence links Iran with weapons supplies to insurgents in Iraq. Portable shoulder-fired missiles would be a logical addition to the supply list because of the death toll and press coverage for every helicopter downed.

Surface-to-air missiles stolen from loosely controlled stockpiles can bring a good price on the black market. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, weapons supplied by the United States to Afghan fighters found their way to black markets in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province.

The first Stinger missiles were captured by a Soviet special forces team south of Kandahar. Agents from KHAD, the Afghan communist government’s counterpart to the KGB, later bought “surplus” Stingers at a well-known weapons market in Helmand province.

During the war in Chechnya, multiple Russian helicopters were brought down by SA-18 GRAU and SA-16 Gimlet missiles stolen from Russian military units and sold to Chechen separatists.

Since 1994, these shoulder-launched missiles have been exported to nearly 30 countries, including Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, India, Malaysia, Poland, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Syria and Turkey.

Machine-gun tactics

Insurgents in Iraq also have improved their use of anti-aircraft machine guns.

Afghan warriors developed amazing skills in fighting helicopters with these low-tech weapons, which played a major role in defending mujahedeen bases from Soviet air raids. With an effective range of up to 6,000 feet, machine guns such as the 12.7 mm DShK and 14.5 mm ZGU caused up to 70 percent of helicopter losses, even after the introduction of Stinger missiles.

Anti-aircraft gunner crews were tough: When the gunner was killed, another crew member would replace him immediately.

Soviet pilots nicknamed these weapons “welding machines” because of how their flashes appeared from the air. Deployed in numbers, Afghan fighters concentrated fire on a single helicopter from different directions, making it hard for the Soviet pilot to escape.

Afghan snipers and machine gunners often would organize an ambush at the crash site during Soviet attempts to investigate and retrieve the bodies. Sometimes they moved the body and parachute of a slain pilot to a more visible site.

Soviet search-and-rescue teams developed their own tactics. While one helicopter was landing to investigate a crash site or pick up bodies, others fired at potential ambush sites.

Pilot tricks

Iraqi insurgents likely are using the same surveillance tactics as Afghans, keeping air force bases under constant observance and reporting the launch of every helicopter or aircraft, as well as their direction. Taking a deceptive course until the helicopter striking force is beyond observation distance from base would serve as a countermeasure.

Afghan fighters would warn of approaching helicopters using a net of observation posts with small radios three to six miles around their strongholds. U.S. pilots in Iraq should expect that the enemy has been warned about their arrival.

Soviet helicopter pilots developed tricks to counter the Afghan early-warning system. One of the most effective was flying low to avoid early detection and deny targeting time to the enemy.

One day during an operation in Paktia province, a pair of “crocodiles” — Soviet Hind Mi-24 aircraft so nicknamed for their reptilian appearance — seemed to come out of nowhere and flew directly over our unit, hitting us with rotor wash and sending our map airborne.

Low flight also keeps the noise of the helicopter from traveling. The roar is heard only a moment before the helicopters are overhead. Soviet attack helicopters were able to approach targets with short warning.

Such low-altitude flight requires superb training and puts enormous stress on the pilot and machine, raising attrition.

Soviet pilots also would attack from the direction of the sun to blind the enemy. After the attack, they would make a sharp turn while firing flares and engaging all anti-missile equipment.

Returning pilots used a tight, corkscrew descent to a protected air base. The so-called “dry leaf-in-the wind” maneuver, in which the helicopter wagged from side to side while keeping the same general flight direction, made it difficult for the enemy to target.

Two or four helicopters used as an air-defense suppression group can throw off enemy air defense before the main strike.

Starting in 1985, many Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan were fitted with a device called Lastochka (swallow), which dispersed exhaust gases to reduce the heat signature.

c Timothy Gusinov served 41/2 years in Afghanistan as a military linguist for the Soviet army. He retired in 1992, emigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. He currently works as a linguist in support of multinational exercises overseas organized by the U.S. military.

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