Sunday, January 22, 2006

Anti-Air Missiles, Syrian Training Menace U.S. Copters

By Greg Grant
Defense News
January 23, 2006

Iraqi insurgents trained by Syrians in the use of sophisticated, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles pose a grave new threat to American helicopters, U.S. intelligence sources say.

An AH-64 Apache downed Jan. 16, one of three helicopters lost over a 10-day span, was hit by a Russian-made SA-7 Grail surface-to-air missile, according to ABC News. The military has not said what downed the other two.

According to U.S. military sources, intelligence reports began emerging last year of an insurgent group operating in the North Babil area, south of Baghdad, that was armed with more than a dozen SA-7 missiles. What’s more, the American intelligence sources believe the group, known by the name of their leader, Abu Ayman, is being trained by Syrians. The training on the SA-7s takes place near a former Iraqi Army air defense artillery training center, according to U.S. military intelligence sources.

U.S. military sources said insurgents have focused renewed attention on attacking American helicopters because they believe the helicopters were key to breaking up large-scale, coordinated insurgent attacks, including the April attack against the Abu Ghraib prison compound and the June attack on an Iraqi police commando compound in southern Baghdad. Iraqi insurgents view American attack helicopters as a long-term threat they will continue to face after the bulk of American ground forces are withdrawn, and are searching for ways to defeat them.

Abu Ayman, a former Iraqi Intelligence Services officer, is considered “the most high-value target of the Baghdad area,” said Army Capt. Ben Crombe, an intelligence officer with the 3rd Infantry Division. The Sunni insurgent group, made up of former Republican Guard and Iraqi intelligence officers, has emerged as one of the most dangerous threats in Iraq.

It is uncertain whether the SA-7s were brought in from outside Iraq or are leftovers found in a weapons cache. The Abu Ayman Group is reported to have ties to Syrian intelligence, and Syrian fighters have been found in their ranks, said Lt. Col. Ross Brown, squadron commander in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment that has battled the group in the North Babil area over the past year. Weapons and fighters flow into Iraq across the Syrian border, and the American military has launched a series of offensives over the last year in an effort to stem that flow.

The Bush administration has accused Syria of turning a blind eye to insurgents crossing the border. Military sources in Iraq go further, and see the active involvement of Syrian intelligence agents directly aiding the Iraqi insurgency.

“The Syrian regime has decided to resort to unconventional methods to confront what it believes is a U.S. design to topple it,” one Syrian source, who asked not to be named, said.

Return of Shoulder-Fired Arms

The discovery of SA-7s concerned the military sources, who had thought that shoulder-fired missiles had all but disappeared as a threat in central Iraq. They thought the threat had dissipated because surface-to-air missiles such as the SA-7 are precision instruments whose components degrade without maintenance or replacement parts.

Three Apaches were shot down by shoulder-fired missiles during the invasion of Iraq, said Brig. Gen. Edward Sinclair, commander of the Army’s Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., at a Jan. 12 conference on Army aviation.

A U.S. Air Force C-130 was hit by a shoulder-fired missile in November 2003, and at least two other fixed-wing aircraft were struck by missiles after taking off from Baghdad. The downing of a British Royal Air Force C-130 north of Baghdad in late January 2004 had raised renewed concerns about the threat posed by surface-to-air missiles. The British government has withheld details about the attack, but according to military sources, the lumbering aircraft was brought down by a wire-guided Russian made Sagger anti-tank missile.

The SA-7 is perhaps the world’s most common shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile. Introduced in the late 1960s, it was successfully employed against American helicopters in Vietnam and Israeli aircraft in 1973. The missile is designed for use against low-altitude targets and uses a passive infrared homing guidance system.

The intelligence sources said insurgents also have mounted Russian-made 14.5mm anti-aircraft cannons in the back of pick-up trucks as anti-helicopter guns. Still, small-arms fire remains the primary threat faced by low-flying helicopters. It has forced U.S. pilots to operate near American soldiers on the ground who can root out enemy fighters aiming to shoot the aircraft down.

Since May 2003, enemy fire has brought down 26 of the 46 American helicopters lost in Iraq, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution. The rest were lost to accidents.

Early in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, 33 Apaches from the 11th Aviation Regiment were sent to attack Republican Guard divisions entrenched around Baghdad. The operation was considered a disaster. Every airframe was hit by small arms fire, and one Apache was shot down and its pilots captured.

Sinclair said the Army has since spent $1.5 billion equipping its helicopters with cockpit missile warning systems and advanced countermeasures. He said the primary threat faced by Army aviators remains small arms and rocket-propelled-grenade fire.

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