Technology so far has proven to be of little use in protecting Army helicopters from the ravages of small arms and rocket propelled grenades, military and civilian experts contend.
The Army has spent nearly $2 billion outfitting helicopters with high-tech sensors and flares that help foil shoulder-launched missiles, but none of these devices can prevent choppers from getting shot out of the sky by rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles, which are among the preferred weapons of Iraq's insurgency.
"The longer we stay in this conflict, the greater the ability of the insurgents to counter our countermeasures with their technology," says Steve Greer, a retired Army command sergeant major, and professor of unconventional warfare at American Military University.
Of the last three helicopters downed in Iraq, one, a Kiowa Warrior reconnaissance aircraft, was shot down by small-arms fire.
The latest war-emergency funding request by the Defense Department includes funds to replace at least 100 helicopters that were lost to crashes, enemy fire and training mishaps last year.
More than 400 helicopters operate in Iraq today, according to unofficial accounts.
While a number of technologies have been proven successful in deflecting shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, none exists today that can protect from RPGs or standard rifle rounds, Greer says. "There's no way to defend from small-arms fire other than visual recognition and maneuvering away from the line of fire."
RPGs and small-arms rounds fall under the category of "dumb munitions," which are unguided and far more difficult to counter with technical solutions, says Kernan Chaisson, senior electronics analyst at Forecast International, a market intelligence firm.
"You have high-tech protective equipment, but sometimes it doesn't do you any good," he says. "It's a real predicament for aviation. The threat they face, it's hard to do anything about."
In environments such as Iraq, the best protection an aviator has is his own dexterity, says Lou Hennies, a retired major general who commanded the U.S. Army Safety Center. "You have to use pure skill and cunning when you are dealing with this."
Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Mundt, director of Army aviation, notes that the service revamped its pilot training program and is emphasizing skills to circumvent enemy fire. Tactics such as "running gunfire" and "diving fire" used to be standard practice in Vietnam, but faded from the flight-school curriculum in...