Flight into ambush
Web Posted: 03/21/2004 12:00 AM CST
Express-News Military Writer
CAMP ANACONDA, Iraq ? Justin Taylor reflexively lifted the waffled
bottoms of his combat boots as bullets the size of fingers tapped at the Kevlar
underbelly of his Apache Longbow helicopter.
"Break left! Taylor yelled to his pilot-in- command, Chief Warrant Officer
They ran into rifle fire.
"Break right!" Taylor yelled.
They ran into anti-aircraft rounds.
The control panel went black.
A few minutes later, large-caliber rounds chewed into the left side of the
"We lost our engine! We lost our engine!" Wojasinski shouted.
Taylor reached for the button that releases all of the helicopter's
missiles with a single push and desperately punched it eight times as the
Longbow, 75 feet above earth, dipped to the left and began to fall.
A year ago this week, America's deadliest helicopters were roughed up
during an attempted deep-strike attack behind enemy lines east of Karbala
on the fifth night of the war, a mission that an investigative branch of
Congress later would characterize as a "near disaster."
The idea was to destroy the Republican Guard's Medina Division and clear a
path for U.S. ground troops through the famous Karbala Gap to Baghdad. But
the 30 Army Longbows, each carrying a command pilot and a co-pilot/gunner,
ran into an unlikely nemesis: Iraqis firing rifles and anti-aircraft
weapons. The Third World ambush turned back the world's mightiest military
and brought down pilot David Williams and his co-pilot/gunner, Ronald
Young, both of whom were taken captive and paraded on Iraqi TV.
It was the only retreat in the war for U.S. troops. The battle claimed no
lives and wasn't a pivotal event in the war, so what happened did not
capture America's attention like the ferocious 1993 firefight in
Mogadishu, Somalia, that started with the downing of a Black Hawk
helicopter and ended with 18 GIs dead.
But the specter of what might have been was haunting, and, behind the
scenes, a shaken U.S. military quietly reassessed the equipment and
tactics used in the ill-fated strike.
In a war of stunning successes, here was a setback that was chilling if
little remembered publicly.
What to make of it?
Critics said the era of attack helicopters had passed; the weapons were
too noisy and slow to surprise anyone in a modern, guerrilla-style battle.
Apache supporters said the failed raid near Karbala was a result of poor
planning, intelligence and support.
Pilots who flew into the trap felt they performed nobly against one of the
best counterattacks of the war.
"We stayed over that hellstorm for almost half an hour and continued to
fight and would not back off," said pilot Doug Sanders, 30, of Boynton
During a six-month investigation of the mission and its aftermath, the San
Antonio Express-News and Hearst Newspapers interviewed dozens of pilots,
Iraqi witnesses, commanders and critics. Reporters also obtained and
reviewed internal documents, investigative reports and gun-camera video
from the battle.
What emerged was a portrait of courageous Longbow crews who tried vainly
to overcome faulty intelligence, poor planning, questionable tactics and a
well-executed ambush reminiscent of Vietnam.
An odd battle plan
Waist-high stalks of wheat swirled around Lt. Joe Bruhl's Longbow as the
blades of several nearby Army helicopters whirled counterclockwise.
Faster and faster the blades spun. The helicopter would be ready to fly
when the wheat was pinned flat to the earth.
Bruhl's heart quickened as the Longbow's twin General Electric engines
roared, sending thunderous vibrations through the craft.
The tall and confident Bruhl, 25, of Cape Girardeau, Mo., was a co-pilot
gunner. He felt wound up, impatient, like a horse in the starting gate.
It was a little after midnight March 24. Bruhl watched 10 Longbows from
Fort Hood's 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment
take off ahead of him. They were attached to the 11th Aviation Regiment's
6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry based in Illesheim, Germany.
This was the first battle for all but a couple of the pilots. The crews,
which included co-pilot/gunners in the Longbow's front seat, were to fly
over an imaginary rectangular area of engagement known as a "kill box,"
destroying tanks, artillery, armored personnel vehicles and anti-aircraft
batteries of the elite Medina Division. Their objective: to remake the
battlefield, easing the way for the nearby 3rd Infantry on its drive to
The pilots fretted over the battle plan. It wasn't the blueprint mapped
out in Germany, the one that had them flying over a lake near Karbala with
the element of surprise as an ally. This plan called for the crews to
enter and exit the kill box along the same routes, sometimes near towns
and over farms.
Raising a few eyebrows, the Army hadn't asked the Air Force to fly over
the area first, bombing it and making it safer for the Longbows ? a common
practice known as close-air support. Standard procedure called for
assistance from Air Force, Marine, Navy or coalition aircraft. One
commander who declined to be identified said he couldn't recall "if (the
Army) said it was not much of a threat or if they just didn't bother to
Another leader said the Army never requested close-air support.
The Air Force tried to get involved.
"We were all kind of thinking, 'What a screwy way to do things,' when we
offered up the air to take out that target area," said Air Force Lt. Col.
Byron Risner, who led close-air support crews for the 3rd Infantry
Division's Task Force 3-69.
"Why would you put Longbows at risk when you're not sure what the threat
is? But it was clear they wanted to get into the game."
The complications didn't end there. Army rocket barrages, which normally
are fired moments before Longbows swoop down on their targets, were
launched before the helicopters took off; though the rockets were on time,
the Longbows were delayed waiting for fuel.
Worst of all was the lousy intelligence. A few nights earlier, analysts
with the task force's parent command, V Corps, had pinpointed much of the
Medina's armor. And they had provided the commander of one of the
Illesheim unit's three troops, Capt. Bryon "Doc" Mace, with recent
real-time video and satellite imagery of their targets: towed artillery
But now most of the artillery had scattered and its whereabouts unknown to
corps intelligence. So the Longbow pilots would have to fly slow and low
to the ground, hoping to get the jump on the Medina before its guns zeroed
in on them.
Misgivings faded when the go order came. Some pilots were afraid the war
might end before they saw action. A terrible sandstorm, the worst of the
war, was on the horizon. It would begin with a wisp of the wind on the
afternoon of March 25 and within an hour would drape a deep-orange veil
across the sky.
The shamal ? Arabic for north wind ? menaced the American advance.
Military leaders wondered aloud if the Iraqis, who hadn't yet put up much
resistance, might fold. No one came all this way to get into a war and
never fire a shot, one commander said.
Meanwhile pilots prepared for a mission, following their instincts and the
feeling in their gut.
Almost as an afterthought, Capt. Jason King put a large pressure bandage
in the top of the survival vest he wore. The tall, thin King had another
bandage like it inside his vest but knew it would be hard to reach in the
Chief Warrant Officer Cornell Chao, who had been in the infantry 10 of his
14 years, tucked an M-16 into the front seat of his Longbow.
The short, stocky Chao was more comfortable with the rifle than with the 9
mm handgun routinely given pilots. The comfort zone would turn out to be a
lifesaver ? stopping a bullet meant for him.
Altogether, 31 helicopters ? 18 from Fort Hood, the rest from Illesheim ?
lifted off from Tactical Assembly Area Vicksburg, a patch of desert
farmland a half-hour southwest of Najaf.
More Longbows should have been on the mission, but the support team hadn't
arrived yet and fuel was in short supply, idling more than two dozen
Further thinning the flock, one of the Illesheim helicopters, enveloped by
a sand cloud the troops called "moondust," crashed seconds after lifting
off; command pilot Tom Higgins and his gunner, Jeremy Herrera, had gotten
lost in the sand cloud.
Neither was hurt, but their crash was an ominous start to an uncertain
Moondust could be deadly. It had brought a tragic end to Delta Force's
1980 hostage rescue raid in the Iranian desert.
Working under a sky dotted with stars and close to the battle lines in
Najaf, the pilots used night-vision goggles and onboard forward-looking
Each battalion had a different part of the box to attack ? the Illesheim
unit and its three troops to the north, and three companies from Fort
Hood's 1-227 to the south.
A group of Fort Hood Longbows, Charlie Company, would break west along the
Euphrates River, taking out any Iraqi troops that rushed eastbound in
hopes of countering the attack helicopters.
Other Longbows flew east around Najaf, keeping a discreet distance from
the fighting before turning north. They stayed close to the ground, flying
at about 120 mph east and west of Hillah in areas that corps intelligence
had said were mainly rural and lightly populated.
In the Illesheim unit, command pilot Bob Duffney and co-pilot/gunner Bill
Neal led Bravo Troop's six Longbows. Their first job was to check out
Shaykh Mazar Airfield just west of the Tigris River and east of
They would then "find and fix" Iraqis in the box, setting the stage for
Alpha and Charlie troops to destroy the targets.
A quick look revealed an abandoned airfield, but there were hints of
trouble even as they buzzed over. Orange tracer rounds from AK-47s
streaked toward a helicopter south of them.
"I saw someone take a shot at you," pilot Jeffrey Crownover radioed to his
fellow white team crewmen, Todd O'Donnell and Joe Hutchison.
Hutchison guided their Longbow behind a line of palm trees.
A second later, the town of Iskandariyah went black.
"They know we're here," O'Donnell, a 35-year-old Pensacola, Fla., native,
"Hey, did you see the lights to your left?" command pilot Mike Tomblin
"No," replied Neal, whose call sign was Palerider One-Nine.
"All the lights in that town went off and then went back on," Tomblin
Many pilots throughout the box saw the brownout. Others, such as Neal, and
Tomblin's gunner, King, were too preoccupied to notice or ponder its
Later, looking back on this night, everyone would agree the flashing light
must have been a signal, one urging all combatants to do battle.
Within minutes, the horizon lit up with anti-aircraft rounds, tracers and
Back in the southwestern corner of the box, Capt. J.B. Worley III and his
pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Paul Dean, were braking to the left when
whitish-yellow sparks flew in front of the windshield.
A bullet had struck the Longbow's nose.
Worley lost the turret-mounted Target Acquisition Designation Sight that
enables co-pilot/gunners to fire accurately. He also lost the 30 mm
cannon, a powerful machine gun under the Longbow's belly.
Though Worley still had Hellfire missiles and rockets, there was no way he
could fire them without the sight. It would be up to Dean, the pilot, to
do the shooting, too.
Over the next 55 minutes, Worley kept track of radio traffic. From his
front-row seat, he warned Dean as tracers arced toward their aircraft.
A half-mile ahead of them, Bruhl stared at a monitor as his helicopter
banked to the left.
The Bravo Company team was racing 100 feet above the ground when Bruhl
spotted something curious below.
A family! he later recalled thinking.
On top of a square little house were three or four people, some of them
small like children.
The one on the far right had his hands raised and was holding a weapon.
Parents were fighting the Americans alongside their kids, and they were
The Iraqis had sprung a trap.
Later, the Americans would learn the Iraqi defense network was neatly
synchronized. Crownover, a 33-year-old a Denison native with Texas roots
that date to the Republic, was among a number of 11th Regiment and Fort
Hood pilots who said dozens of phone calls made by an Iraqi military
officer near Najaf were intercepted that night.
Maj. Kevin Christensen, one of the regiment's top officers, declined to
release details. But the 11th Regiment's commander then, Col. William T.
Wolf, said calls were made from a single phone to as many as 40 locations.
The firing began as soon as the lights of the town went out. (In some
areas, the lights came on; the Iraqis were trying to blind U.S. pilots
wearing night-vision goggles while simultaneously illuminating their
helicopters for Iraqi gunners.)
Bravo Troop's white team took rifle and anti-aircraft fire.
Radios crackled with battle reports. The shooting became so intense that
white team crews fell back to a rally point to regroup. King stared into
the night and saw that Fort Hood's 1-227 was taking fire far to the
Somehow, Neal and Duffney had avoided detection. But tracers started
coming at them as they approached a tall set of high-tension power lines,
and Duffney quickly banked to the right as tracers passed to the left.
After rolling the Longbow north, Duffney hooked back so Neal might kill
Five or six bullets pinged the underbelly of Palerider One-Nine. More
small-arms bullets and anti-aircraft rounds flew over the top of the
Longbow and past each side.
"As soon as we climbed these wires, it was like they were underneath the
wires waiting for us," Neal would recall later
It was Vietnam all over again, but only one pilot in the sky that night
Lance McElhiney, at 57 the Army's senior Longbow pilot, had been tested in
combat as a 21-year-old Cobra co-pilot/gunner. He fits easily in his
flight suit, walks with a swagger and speaks his mind.
That confidence was born in a rookie mistake. Back in 1970, along a slice
of land bordering the tri-border area of Laos, North and South Vietnam, he
sat in the front seat of a Cobra flying with command pilot Rick Freeman, a
grizzled veteran making his second consecutive combat tour.
It was McElhiney's first mission. They were flying past a Chinese-made
"dual-51" caliber anti-aircraft battery that had been hit the day before
by B-52s. As they hovered over the site, a bombed-out jungle area,
McElhiney saw three North Vietnamese soldiers in khaki fatigues.
"What's that up there at our two o'clock with the green camouflage net
over it?" he asked.
"It's a dual 51!" Freeman yelled. "Fire! Fire! Dammit, shoot!"
A mesmerized McElhiney trained his gun on the enemy troops but didn't
"Are these tracers really coming at me?" he thought.
Perhaps 20 seconds passed before McElhiney fired his .30-caliber
"mini-gun" on the Cobra's nose, cutting one of the enemy soldiers in half
at his waist.
The bodies were taken to McElhiney's Cobra base camp near the DMZ, along
with the North Vietnamese weapons. Freeman grabbed McElhiney by his shirt
collar and turned him toward three bloody, mangled corpses sprawled on the
"This guy is trying to kill you," Freeman said. "The next time I tell you
to shoot, I mean pull the trigger, fire. Don't hesitate."
Voice of experience
The thrice-married McElhiney went to Iraq with more than 10,000 hours in
the cockpit, 35 years in uniform and a habit of shooting first and asking
questions later. He had hundreds of helicopter battles under his belt, and
had flown a highly successful deep strike in Gulf War I.
It was a different war, however, fought against Iraqi tanks in the open
desert. His last battle was the "Highway of Death," where Apaches shot up
Iraqis fleeing northbound on a highway leading to Basra.
That war was a one-shot deal for the Americans. The Iraqis, McElhiney
knew, wouldn't make the same mistake twice. Well before this conflict, he
talked of the need to use Vietnam-era "high-energy" maneuvers in Iraq. The
maneuvers, such as running fire ? where the Longbow shoots rockets and
bullets while it skims the treetops ? make it less likely to be shot down
by barrages of small-arms fire.
Army aviation had long forgotten how Vietnamese guerrillas fought. Modern
tactics focused instead on the Longbow's role as a tank killer with rotor
blades. Pilots were taught to hover behind hills, buildings and other
objects and use the Longbow's radar to fire missiles at distant targets.
Cold War stuff, meant for the big Soviet tank invasion of Europe that
McElhiney's rules flew in the face of Army doctrine, but he pressed on,
certain of what was to come.
McElhiney voluntarily transferred from the Army's Longbow training center
at Fort Hood to 1-227, and began schooling instructor pilots and
pilots-in-command on the fundamentals. His informal tactics course
continued in Kuwait.
As the war loomed, McElhiney said he told 11th Regiment chief Wolf and his
staff that the Iraqis would fight from concealed areas.
He favored high-energy maneuvers in the big deep-strike attack, but no one
acted on his recommendations.
Wolf does not recall the conversation.
McElhiney is convinced that everyone from the president on down
underestimated the Iraqis. He was sure they'd learned from Operation
Desert Storm, when coalition tanks and aircraft carved up enemy forces in
He'd seen the Iraqis use schools, mosques and hospitals for protection at
the end of that conflict, and predicted it would happen again.
"I told them it was going to be a knife fight and fix bayonets," McElhiney
Dreams of failure
Justin Taylor was stupefied.
God, he thought, these guys are actually shooting.
At a muscular 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, Taylor is the most incongruous of
Marines, a bear of a man with the heart of Mister Rogers. He's come a long
way since his days as a hard-nosed Marine drill instructor, a job he'd
held six years when his second daughter came along and prompted concerns
about his family's future.
A typical day will see him wrestling on the carpet with Kirsten, 6, and
helping his 4-year-old hydrocephalic daughter, Autumn, walk and ride her
tricycle. He watches "SpongeBob" videos with their third child,
20-month-old Katie Lynn, who is obsessed with the Nickelodeon cartoon
The Marines' hallowed globe and anchor had been at the heart of his life,
but when caught in the crossfire of the corps and his family there could
be but one outcome. Determined to make better money and have more time
with his growing family, Taylor joined the Army, became a warrant officer
and learned to fly helicopters.
He pored over textbooks during long nights at Fort Rucker, Ala., home of
the Army's helicopter training center, preferring the quieter confines of
his office to studying amid myriad distractions at home. Taylor consulted
index cards with questions about how to handle in-flight emergencies. Like
any novice pilot, he agonized before exams.
There is just one test Taylor, 28, of Lodi, Calif., who is back in Iraq
and could be flying tonight, figures he has failed. It is the exam he
takes again and again, in a classroom full of shadowy figures wearing
robes and carrying AK-47s.
"He dreams of the battle," Amber Taylor said. "He dreams of the RPGs and
the moves (the pilots) did, and when Dave and Ron went down, things that
could have been done differently."
A narrow escape
It had been a quiet flight to the box north of Hillah for Taylor and
command pilot Sean Wojasinski. Taylor checked ship systems aboard the
helicopter. He also kept an eye on the ground.
Taylor and Wojasinski suddenly shot past a Longbow flown by Carl Fox and
Ralph Brown, the lead Apache in their four-ship attack team. Fox sharply
reduced his ship's speed and broke left.
Up ahead was a set of 400-foot high power lines. Just as Wojasinski
leapfrogged the wires, the world around them exploded. Red and orange
AK-47 tracers zipped past. Large anti-aircraft rounds began detonating,
their basketball-size white blasts flashing like strobes.
The fire was so thick Wojasinski couldn't maneuver around it.
The scene 75 feet below was as mesmerizing as the flashes. Men fired
rifles and RPGs at their helicopter. Large-caliber rounds sliced into the
left engine. Oil spewed. Smoke wafted into the cockpit.
"Our engine's on fire!" Wojasinski cried. "Our engine's on fire!"
Before them was a pair of buildings flanking a courtyard. Taylor hit the
button that released his ammo but still the Longbow fell toward the
At just 12 feet above ground, Wojasinski leveled the helicopter and pulled
it back up, cutting past trees and the buildings like a football clearing
The Iraqis continued to drill the flaming Longbow, but Wojasinski gained
speed and altitude. Putting the fire out was the next order of business.
Though the fuel line was shut off, the fire extinguishing system didn't
work. He'd have to accelerate to snuff out the blaze.
"Oh, ****!" Wojasinski said, alarmed.
"What?" asked Taylor.
The helicopter was miles away from its intended battle position.
Wojasinski and Taylor would now have to run through the gantlet of fire
they had just escaped ? on one engine.
Karbala retreat raises questions about choppers
Web Posted: 03/23/2004 02:06 PM CST
Hearst Washington Bureau
Last of three parts
WASHINGTON ? The only retreat by U.S. forces in their stunningly
successful invasion of Iraq last year has sparked a re-examination of the
battlefield role of Apache helicopters in the face of fierce criticism
that the aircraft is ill-equipped for future wars.
The retreat near Karbala last March 24 ended a strike deep behind enemy
lines by 30 Apache Longbow helicopters, part of the Army's 11th Aviation
Regiment based in Illesheim, Germany, and Fort Hood's 1st Battalion, 227th
The Boeing helicopters, the most advanced in the U.S. inventory, bristled
with high-tech missiles and enemy detection devices, but they were turned
back by a barrage of low-tech ground fire.
The failed raid led the Army to change the way Apaches will be used in
Instead of training for strikes deep behind enemy lines, Apache pilots now
get drilled more for close-air support of ground troops, and for fighting
in urban settings.
New training also stresses more coordination with Air Force, Navy and
Marine Corps fighter jets and aerial drones. Such coordination was lacking
in the Karbala raid.
Army aviators are now being taught speed and maneuverability, lessons
dusted off from the Vietnam era, when choppers also faced a substantial
threat from small-arms fire.
On the night of the failed Karbala raid, the Apache crews intended to
destroy one of Saddam Hussein's best units, the Republican Guard Medina
Division, and to clear a path for the Army's lead ground unit ? the 3rd
Saddam's forces were positioned near the city of Iskandariyah, 250 miles
inside Iraq, just north of Karbala and some 30 miles south of Baghdad.
The 3rd Infantry was pushing north on Day 5 of the war, already in central
Iraq and heading toward the Karbala Gap, named for a narrow passage
between the city of Karbala and Lake Razzaza.
Shortly after leaving their base, the Apaches, flying at up to 120 mph
close to the ground, were ambushed in a blizzard of gunfire and
anti-aircraft flak. The pilots of the two-person helicopters halted their
advance and pulled into a hover to return fire.
After all 30 Apaches had been raked by Iraqi fire, they broke off the
fight and limped back to their desert base. One chopper was forced down,
and its pilots ? David Williams and Ronald Young ? were held captive for
Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a retired commander from Gulf War I, said the
failed attack "was nearly a modern day 'Charge of the Light Brigade,'"
referring to a Crimean War battle in 1854 in which an English brigade of
600 men suffered devastating losses when charging the Russian army.
The Congressional Research Service, an investigative branch of Congress
that conducted an assessment of last year's U.S. invasion, concluded
Apache forces that night had come perilously close to "a near disaster."
After the failed raid, Army officials junked plans for most Apache
deep-attack missions and instead emphasized armed reconnaissance and
close-air support for ground troops.
It was an abrupt shift in strategy. Lt. Gen. William Wallace, who
commanded Army operations in Iraq during Gulf War II, said the helicopters
"didn't perform the same role that I had envisioned for attack aviation."
The Longbow has a sophisticated fire-control radar system that can track
up to 256 targets simultaneously and shoot up to 16 tank-killing Hellfire
missiles. The missiles can be fired several miles away from a target so
the aircraft doesn't have to fly too close to danger.
In the Karbala raid, commanders ordered pilots to obtain visual
identification before attacking enemy positions, reducing some of their
In their counterattack, the Iraqis used rifles and low-tech anti-aircraft
weapons, but in a highly organized, sophisticated way.
According to the 3rd Infantry's report on the conduct of the war, the
Iraqis had employed "ambush experts" to defeat the Apaches.
Col. William Wolf, the 11th Regiment's commander, said in an interview
that enemy forces had hidden anti-aircraft guns in the tree lines and in
urban areas. The Iraqis had dramatically improved their ability to target
Apaches since Gulf War I, when the choppers earned a reputation as a war
horse, destroying hundreds of Iraqi pieces of armor in the open desert.
The new tactics were on full display the night of the raid when the
ambushers focused their fire at the exposed flanks and rear of the
aircraft, forcing them to pull into a hover so they could find their
attackers on the ground and return fire. But the hover mode made the
Apaches potentially more vulnerable.
It's this technological disparity between a low-tech enemy and the U.S.
Apache force that has critics, even some in the Army, questioning what
sort of role the aircraft should play in future conflicts. Enemies are
likely to behave as the Iraqis did last spring and exploit the $24 million
Longbow's vulnerabilities with swarms of $50 rocket-propelled grenades.
The experience of the Karbala raid loomed large last month when Army
leaders terminated the $38 billion Comanche helicopter project. The
Comanche was supposed to function alongside the Apache as a deep-strike
In announcing the termination, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army deputy chief of
staff, alluded to Longbow experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that he said
negated the need for the Comanche.
"What we're seeing on the battlefield is (anti-aircraft) weapons systems,
and where they're being employed is much more sophisticated in terms of
target acquisition," Cody said.
Loren Thompson, director of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank
in Arlington, Va., is skeptical about the future role of the Apache.
The Longbow "is the most capable attack helicopter ever built, so if it
can't operate safely in a place like Iraq, that has to raise questions
about the whole concept of attack helicopters," he said.
For all the Apache fleet's technological superiority, it has stark
limitations against an enemy that dispersed its troops and hid them among
farmhouses, date groves and palm trees and urban areas.
Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, chief of the 101st Airborne Division, candidly
conceded the limitations of the assault helicopter.
"The Iraqis dispersed very early. ... They weren't massed in the way we
want usually for Apache operations," he lamented.
Retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff,
is perhaps the fiercest Apache critic.
The prime lesson from the failed raid, McPeak asserts, is that attack
helicopters are highly vulnerable to enemy ground fire. Compared with
fixed-wing aircraft, Apaches are slow, low-flying and loud, easily spotted
by the enemy, he said in an interview.
McPeak argues the Army should have abandoned using choppers for anything
other than ferrying troops after Vietnam, where the Army lost about 5,000
helicopters and scores of crews. Most of those choppers were dual-use
Hueys that could both move troops and attack.
"If evidence were enough to decide an issue, this would have been decided
long ago," McPeak said of the use of helicopters for attacking targets.
The Karbala ambush "is further confirmation of a track record that is
The former Air Force chief's comments reflect at least in part a
decades-long rivalry between the Air Force and the Army, with the Air
Force maintaining destruction of targets behind enemy lines should be its
domain, leaving Army helicopters the role of supporting ground troops.
Air Force Secretary James Roche sounded the same theme last week, telling
reporters a major result of Gulf War II is that the Air Force likely will
take over greater responsibility for deep attack missions like the
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Pete Schoomaker has "done away with his
(Comanche) deep penetrating helicopter and is saying, 'You guys go do
that,'" referring to the Air Force, Roche said.
Nevertheless, Army officials assert that criticisms of the Apache are off
Col. Michael Riley, who assessed the Apache Longbow performance in Iraq
for the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, points to numerous
successful Apache missions in Iraq after the failed raid.
Within two days of the U.S. retreat, for example, Apache forces had
regrouped and changed tactics, he said. An Apache strike by the Army's
101st Airborne Division was successful because the attack included close
coordination with artillery strikes and fixed-wing Air Force aircraft that
bombed the enemy.
"Pundits look at the failed raid and say, 'Look, Apaches don't work'" on
the modern battlefield, Riley said. "But it was an anomaly."
That's also the view of McCaffrey, the retired general, who has studied
the Karbala raid.
McCaffrey, who teaches at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said
the assault was doomed from the outset because of poor planning and
execution ? and not because of any inherent flaw in the chopper's mission
The Apache pilots, McCaffrey wrote in the Armed Forces Journal, a military
trade magazine, "lifted off exhausted, at maximum load conditions, in a
single column, to fly at low level over major urban concentrations, under
enormous ground fire, to attack deep objectives almost completely
unsupported by the joint battle team."
The Army's own post-mortem of the attack revealed Wolf, the 11th Regiment
commander, had deviated dramatically from Army doctrine in carrying out
the attack by launching his mission without a joint battle team.
That doctrine says attack helicopters should be used alongside other
weapons ? primarily artillery and Air Force or Navy fighter/bomber
aircraft ? that will soften up and tie down the enemy before the
But Wolf's Apaches mounted a strike virtually on their own, with no help
from those other elements.
"We can't fight as an independent force out there, and that I think was
one of the issues with (the raid)," Riley said.
The Apache was designed to counter the Soviet Union's formidable Red Army
threat against Western Europe. When the helicopter was conceived in the
early 1970s, the Apache's main mission was to go up against a Soviet
onslaught into West Germany, swoop low under radar, pop up, hover and
shoot missiles at enemy tanks.
Gulf War I gave the Apache its first opportunity to show its potential as
an attack weapon. The Pentagon says the 274 Apaches deployed made an
impressive showing in that war, knocking out an estimated 500 tanks along
with scores of other vehicles.
Army officials are fiercely protective of the Apache and assert it always
will have a role, even if the aircraft drops the deep-strike missions it
was designed for.
"Recommend re-addressing attack aviation doctrine," the 3rd Infantry
report on Gulf War II concluded, so pilots are better trained for other
types of operations "as opposed to deep attack operations."
Brig. Gen. E.J. Sinclair, commander of the Army's aviation center at Fort
Rucker, said in an interview that major Apache training changes began
immediately after the war.
"To say we are never going to do a deep attack with the Apache is wrong,"
Sinclair said. "There may be instances where we have to."
On a fast moving battlefield, an Apache squadron may be needed to rapidly
confront enemy concentrations 30 to 45 miles behind the front lines.
"Call it whatever you want. But to me that is still deep maneuver," he