Yesterday's loss of a USMC Sea Knight helicopter marks the fifth fatal U.S. helicopter loss in Iraq in the past month. Unlike most helicopter losses in Iraq, these seem to have been due to insurgent fire - specifically due to missile fire from Sunni militias. While there are a number of different theories as to what is causing the uptick in helicopter losses, the most likely explanation is availability of better shoulder launched antiaircraft missiles than whatever was left over from Saddam's army.
That in itself might not be a major cause for alarm. Combined with the increase in the U.S. casualty rate, though - from an average of 1-2 per day since 2003 to 5-10 per day over the last three months - it seems to indicate a significant increase in insurgent activity. The question is, why?
One possibility is that, with Saddam gone, someone else has taken over the Baathist movement. Saddam's original strategy - lying low and waging a guerrilla war until the U.S. gave up and withdrew - didn't work for Saddam, but it might well work for a successor who still has access to weapon stockpiles hidden when the U.S. invaded. Perhaps whoever it is feels that now is the time to encourage a U.S. withdrawal by inflicting extra casualties.
A more disturbing possibility seems more likely, though. Many in the Mideast seem to be concluding, given the recent U.S. elections, that U.S. withdrawal is inevitable within a couple of years. Given a rapid U.S. withdrawal, the battle for control of Iraq is likely to come down to an all out war between Iranian supported Shiite militias on one side and Sunni/Baathist militias on the other. Perhaps some wealthy princes in Sunni Saudi Arabia have concluded that they'd better start pumping money to their side now if they're going to prevent an "evil Persian" victory.
Further reading courtesy of Google blog search:
Discussion of nonfatal december helicopter losses with discussion of private Saudi funding of antiaircraft misiles
Article with Al Qaeda in Iraq videos of helicopter downings
It's hard to know what to think of it; there's a strong temptation to read a lot from this sort of metric without knowing enough. Maybe the enemy has better weapons; maybe they've adopted better tactics; maybe the effectiveness hasn't changed but the tempo of US operations has increased (which could be good, or bad); maybe the enemy has increased tempo of his operations to an unsustainable level because he believes one big push will get the US out.
All that said, I do buy into the scenario that a premature US withdrawal leads to Iraq becoming Lebanon writ large (a civil war as proxy war between Iran and the Sunni world); I'm not sure if we can prevent that, or just pick a winning subfaction if we move decisively now.
Actually, psychohist and I had a conversation about this in the car last night. I wanted to know how much we should read into the increased attacks, so I asked for clarification on just how difficult it is to shoot down a helicopter.
Initially I thought it was not so tough. What I knew going in was that if you just got enough shrapnel into the air around the helicopter you had a good chance of getting it to crash. As it turns out, though, if you're on the ground that's not so easy. You can't really shoot one of these helicopters down with an AK-47; they don't do enough damage. Now, if you have a shoulder-launched weapon you have a much better shot, but then there is the problem of targetting. These things are very hard to hit from the ground, they're usually pretty high up. In order to hit them what you need is some kind of missle with a targetting system, or an amazing amount of luck.
What it was sounding like after the "how do you shoot down these things" conversation is that one helicopter would have been some guy with an RPG (the things they've been using all along) getting very lucky. Five in one month means that someone got their hands on some more sophisticated weapons than they'd had before. This is the background to psychohist saying, "the most likely explanation is availability of better shoulder launched antiaircraft missiles."
That leaves up back at why. Where the missles came from is immaterial. If you have the money and the means to contact an arms dealer you can obtain such things. Where the money came from and why is more interesting.
I should clarify that the Baathist part of the insurgency has or at least had SA-7 antiaircraft missiles left over from Saddam's stockpiles; it's just that these missiles are very primitive, and have very narrow firing parameters. In particular, their sensors were easily distracted by the sun or the ground, so you really wanted to be shooting away from the sun and at a high angle upward. I've also heard that the target's turning towards the launch can defeat them because it hides the exhaust plume behind the helicopter or aircraft.
The SA-14's infrared homing system is much improved. The SA-18 has further minor improvements in the homing system, and has warhead improvements as well. I'm betting it's one of these two missiles that was used.
If you step through the Al Qaeda video, the missile is visible in flight in one of the frames, and has the very long, narrow aspect ratio of this series of missiles. The box it comes out of earlier in the video looks pretty new to be something that's been buried in a stockpile somewhere for years. There may also be some new tactics involved - the missile team has one person dresses in highly visible white, which may be intended to draw the helicopter closer to investigate.
I'm not sure if we can prevent that, or just pick a winning subfaction if we move decisively now.
I'm not sure either.
I do think there are some positive signs. A year ago, missions were performed by U.S. troops "with Iraqi troops participating"; now, they're usually performed "by Iraqi troops" with U.S. troops helping. Some of the articles that don't make the front page, like http://www.aina.org/news/2007029081
Still, the current casualty rate is not sustainable for periods measured in years. Hopefully it's not sustainable for the militias inflicting them, either.