Dump the Apache helicopter.

Military analysis.
April 23 2003 6:42 PM

Chop the Chopper

The Army's Apache attack-helicopter had a bad war.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is gearing up for his next war—not with the Syrians or the North Koreans but with the hidebound generals of the U.S. Army. These are the generals who criticized Rumsfeld's battle plan while Gulf War II was still raging and who beat back his efforts, over the past few years, to "transform" the Army into a lighter, lither fighting force. With Rumsfeld's star rising and the generals' tarnished, he can be expected to mount a new offensive on their bureaucratic turf at the first opportunity.

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He might want to start by junking the Army's attack helicopter. The current version, the AH-64D Apache Longbow, is in many ways a vast improvement over earlier models, but it is still too dangerous to the pilots who fly it and not dangerous enough to the enemy it's designed to attack.

The U.S. Army's only disastrous operation in Gulf War II (at least the only one we know about) took place on March 24, when 33 Apache helicopters were ordered to move out ahead of the 3rd Infantry Division and to attack an Iraqi Republican Guard regiment in the suburbs of Karbala. Meeting heavy fire from small arms and shoulder-mounted rocket-propelled grenades, the Apaches flew back to base, 30 of them shot up, several disablingly so. One helicopter was shot down in the encounter, and its two crewmen were taken prisoner.

After that incident, Apaches were used more cautiously—on reconnaissance missions or for firing at small groups of armored vehicles. Rarely if ever did they penetrate far beyond the front line of battle, out in front of U.S. ground troops or without the escort of fixed-wing aircraft flying far overhead.

Shortly afterward, when a speech by Saddam Hussein was broadcast over Iraqi television, some armchair commentators observed that the speech was probably live, or at least very recent, because he referred to the downing of an Apache. In fact, that proved nothing. If one thing could have been predicted before the war started, it was that an Apache would be shot down.

Last year, during the Afghanistan war, seven Apaches were flown in to attack Taliban fighters as part of Operation Anaconda. They all got shot up, again by RPGs and machine-gun fire. None crashed, but five were so damaged they were declared "non-mission-capable"—in other words, unable to go back into combat without extensive repair—after the first day.

In the 1999 air war over Kosovo, 24 Apache helicopters were transported to the allied base in Albania. Their arrival was anticipated by many officers and analysts as a turning point in the war. Yet, within days, two choppers crashed during training exercises. Commanders decided not to send any of them into battle; the risk of losing them to Serbian surface-to-air missiles was considered too great.

Attack helicopters have always been troublesome. The U.S. Army lost over 5,000 helicopters in the Vietnam War. (Nor is this a uniquely American problem: The Soviets lost hundreds of Hind helicopters to mujahideen firing shoulder-launched Stinger missiles during their Afghan venture.)

This sorry chronicle raises the question: Why did the Army build helicopters in the first place?

It all goes back to the end of World War II, when the Air Force became an independent service of the armed forces. (Before and during the war, air forces were a branch of the Army.) In its first few years of independence, the Air Force became involved in tumultuous budget battles with the other services. Finally, in April 1948, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal called a meeting with the service chiefs in Key West, Fla., where they divvied up "roles and missions." The emerging document was called the Key West Agreement. An informal understanding that grew out of the accord was that the Air Force (and, to an extent, the Navy) would have a monopoly on fixed-wing combat planes.