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Apache operations

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  • Apache operations

    Originally posted by Robert Hewson

    Apache operations over Karbala

    A force of around 32 AH-64D 'Longbow' Apache attack helicopters were sent on a deep strike mission in the vicinity of Karbala on the night of 23-24 March.

    The Apaches entered the so-called 'Red Zone', in advance of ground units of the 3rd Infantry Division, where Centcom planners believed that between eight and 10 Iraqi divisions were formed up in a defensive ring around Baghdad. Karbala is about 113km southwest of Baghdad and the attack occurred around the nearby village of Abu Mustafe, north of Hillah.
    The Apaches were on a textbook mission: a co-ordinated strike during the hours of darkness to sweep away Iraqi mechanised forces and prepare the ground for the US advance. The intention would have been to engage vehicle and infrastructure targets at a safe stand-off distance, relying chiefly on the Apache's long-range Hellfire missiles. Instead the Apache force became engaged in a dangerous melee during which the helicopters were checked by unprecedented (and certainly unexpected) ground fire. The unit was unable to undertake a speedy withdrawal from that fire and suffered heavy damage without making a serious impact on the Iraqi armour.

    While no crews were seriously injured, 31 of the 32 Apaches sustained combat damage, some of it serious. A crash on landing destroyed one of the aircraft after it had returned to base. Another AH-64D came down in enemy territory and its crew was captured and held until the end of the conflict.

    Even though commanders in the field knew exactly where the lost aircraft was, it was not destroyed to keep it out of enemy hands as it should have been.

    The good performance of Apache units in the deep strike role during Operation 'Desert Storm' in 1991 must have been in the minds of those who planned the Karbala mission. However, the successes of 'Desert Storm' have not been repeated. The 24 AH-64A Apaches sent to Albania in preparation for operations over Kosovo during Operation 'Allied Force' in 1999 were not deployed because of fears of their vulnerability. During fighting in Afghanistan in 2001, eight Apaches that were launched on a mission in support of Operation 'Anaconda' sustained serious damage from enemy ground fire.

    Official US reports of the Karbala action emphasise a significant level of Iraqi preparedness. Reportedly, Iraqi agents were monitoring the Apaches at their forward aircraft refuelling point and called warnings of their departure on cellular phones.

    Another issue for Army Apaches is their tendency to come to the hover and stop before shooting. This is largely a function of the laser-guided Hellfire which needs an uninterrupted line-of-sight between the designator and the target.

    The experience of the Apache crews at Karbala stands in contrast to the US Marine Corps AH-1W SuperCobras. The Marine Cobras were used intensively in the close support role in what was always a high-risk environment. None were lost to enemy action and they were highly praised by the US and British Commanders who tasked them. The Cobras, armed with Hellfires as well as TOW missiles, never stayed still over Iraq - in fact they speeded up.

    The US Army's OH-58D Kiowa Warriors had a similar approach. As one experienced pilot said: "It is all about training and adapting to your environment. You'll never catch me hovering. If you want to stay alive, you've got to keep moving."
    There is a little more to this story than this, although Robert has most of the basic facts correct. It was two squadrons of Apaches, not one. There would have been a third squadron as well, but the last unit was pulled from the mission for other reasons.

    As for the Apache not being intentionally destroyed, I still have some questions about that myself. I was part of TF11 and I spoke to Col Wolf on several occasions. The whole subject of what happened on that night was a touchy subject and still under review, thus I didn't bring it up. 7-159Avn recovered the Apache that was shot down during the mission.

    How will this mission effect the Army's thinking on deep strike theory? It's too eary to tell just yet. There are multiple points of view and opinions as to what should have happened and how things could have been done differently. Hindsight is always 20/20. I do think we did make some errors that night, however, no one just expected the Republican Guard to simply allow us to waltz into Baghdad unopposed. I have already read the opinions of some senior Air Force officers on the matter. It is obvious that they don't approve of what the Army is trying to accomplish with deep strike.

    No system on the battlefield is immune from damage. If it can be seen, it can be killed.

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