Monday, March 10, 2008

Guitar Heroes

Army aviators are doing far more than anyone knows in the GWOT...Michal Yon tells the story of some aviators belonging to 4-6 CAV...

Guitar Heroes
Michael Yon
Mosul, Iraq
10 March 2008

Men crept in darkness to plant a bomb. They moved in an area where last year I was helping to collect fallen American soldiers from the battlefield.

Terrorists. The ones who murder children in front of their parents. The ones who take drugs and rape women and boys. The ones who blow up schools. The ones who have been forcibly evicted from places like Anbar Province, Baghdad and Baqubah by American and Iraqi forces. Terrorists are here now in Mosul. They call themselves al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI cannot win without Baghdad, and cannot survive without Mosul. The Battle for Mosul is evolving into AQI’s last great stand.

And there were the men planting the bomb. It is unknown if the men with the explosives were al Qaeda, but they were planting a bomb and that was enough. Many terrorists murder only for money. Like hit men. They might have nothing against the victim. It’s just business. Although understanding enemy motivations is key to winning a war, out on the battlefield, such considerations can become secondary, as divining the motives of a would-be killer is less important than stopping him.

The bombers were being watched. Invisible to them, prowling far overhead, was a Predator.

The Predator is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) whose eye sees through the darkness. The night sky is the jungle where it hides. The Predator strikes with more suddenness and force than any tiger. I often watch the live feed streaming down into the Tactical Operations Centers (TOC) around Iraq, while crosshairs track the enemy, and the screen lists data such as altitude, azimuth, ground speed, and the precise grid coordinates of the target. The Predator carries a deadly Hellfire missile, but also has other weapons, like the crosshairs on its eye, which links down to soldiers watching the video and data feed. The soldiers have radios to other soldiers with massive arrays of weapons. With that combination, every weapon the US arsenal can be brought into action. Unarmed spy planes, like the Shadow, often allow enemies to escape—the difference between success and failure is often measured in seconds. The Predator can launch an attack with its Hellfire, but the most devastating attacks are usually the result of closely-coordinated teamwork between soldiers on the ground and in the air, using information provided by the Predator above. Combat at this level is an elegant dance under a burning roof.

The Predator peered down on the terrorists planting the bomb. There were too many targets for one Hellfire missile, and it’s better to conserve the weapon when possible, since the Predator must fly far to reload.

A group of four Kiowa Warrior pilots were only a few minutes away from the enemy, but their helicopters were on the ground and the engines were cold, while the pilots were waiting in a building near the runway, playing Guitar Hero to pass the time.

A soldier interrupted the Guitar Hero session, telling the pilots to get in the air. Orders would come over the radio. The pilots abandoned Guitar Hero and raced out the door into the cold night to their OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, economy-sized helicopters that would make a Ford Pinto seem spacious. The pilots crammed two each into the two helicopters, strapping in, cranking engines, while radio chatter had already started. The pilots learned that the Predator had identified a target, which it would laser-designate for a Hellfire shot from a Kiowa.

Minutes after the first alert, rotors were chopping the cold air, the instrument readings looked good. The pilots changed the pitch of their rotors to bite the air and lifted slightly off the ground, backing out of their parking spaces like cars. After backing out, they stopped in a hover, and began to move forward, pulling away from the other helicopters. The Kiowa Warriors lifted into the sky over the runway, heading south, then east toward the lights of the city of Mosul only a minute away. They didn’t get far...

...Pilots are not supposed to fly under one hundred fifty feet but are often at more like twenty or thirty feet, though I have seen some fly much lower. In 2005, I photographed a Kiowa and could read the time on the pilot’s watch (without telephoto). I asked an infantry commander if he thought the pilot would get into trouble if that photo were published, and he suggested not to publish it, so I canned it. LTC Jamison leaves the altitude to the discretion of the pilot in charge, but generally they have to be either very high, or very low.

The quick and the dead: Truly

During the Jihad Shift, the pilots’ only real defense is to swoop low and fast, point their rockets or .50-caliber straight at the enemy and squeeze the trigger, while often the left-seater is leaning out the door shooting their M-4 rifle. This is “Red Baron” stuff. The machine gun and rockets are locked rigidly on Kiowas, unlike an Apache where the pilot can fly a safe distance and practically just look at a target and think bad thoughts and the target bursts into flames. For the Kiowas to draw blood during the Jihad Shift, they have to take the same chances that mosquitoes take when they land on the back of your neck. In fact, the codeword the insurgents use for Kiowas is “mosquitoes.”

The Jihad Shift often results in shootout where two people in a tiny helicopter fight an enemy who is often better armed and waiting in ambush. The enemy actively tries to draw the Kiowas into ground-based ambushes. At least sixteen Red Catcher helicopters have been hit by enemy fire in the first eight months, often causing severe damage. But for serious luck and fancy flying, it’s a wonder that Red Catchers haven’t been shot down all over Mosul...

For the rest of the story go HERE.

Just to set the record straight, Apache crews can't always sit back and kill the bad guys from a distance, I know it seems that way to those that only see it through the gun camera tapes. But I have lost friends and have seen too many aircraft come back shot up after missions...I know better.

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