Iraq war: Tank-killing Apache copters found new task after early setbacks
Stars and Stripes May 27, 2003
Up until the first bombs hit Baghdad, the soldiers of the 11th Aviation Regiment dreamed of wartime glory.
They’d fly fast and low far behind enemy lines. Three squadrons of AH-64A Apache and AH-64D Longbow attack helicopters would weave around Iraqi anti-aircraft guns. They would wipe out the tanks and weapons of two army divisions in the war’s first three nights.
Then the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division troops would race through southern Iraq almost unopposed, silently thanking their airborne brethren for battering the would-be enemy. Friend and foe alike would stand in awe of the world’s most advanced attack helicopters.
Things didn’t quite work out that way.
Bad weather and unexpectedly fierce Iraqi resistance during the war’s first week sidelined the attack squadrons while ground forces gamely bulled into the cities — unfriendly turf for Apaches, which are vulnerable to ground fire.
“The Apache is not traditionally employed against the foot soldier,” said Maj. Steve Wilson, the operations and plans officer for the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, one of two Illesheim, Germany-based attack units under 11th Aviation’s command. “It was built as a Cold War armor killer. Its job is to kill tanks.”
After its early setbacks, V Corps planners scrambled to find a new role for the Apache and its modern high-tech cousin, the Longbow, while the units chafed to get back into the fight.
They returned as infantry escorts, flying into battle with tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, destroying enemy trucks and guns at the call of commanders on the ground. It’s important work, but nowhere near as sexy as the battle-shaping deep strikes for which the Apache crews had trained.
Plenty of critics have added the Iraq war to the list of Apache failures. It has been grounded several times for safety reasons, and it was kept out of the Kosovo battle in 1999 for a combination of logistical and political reasons.
While the Apache didn’t play the starring role its boosters had hoped for this time, it performed well once it found its niche with the infantry.
“There’s always surprises, it’s just a matter of what shape and size they’ll be,” said Maj. John Lindsay, 11th Aviation’s operations officer. “We adjusted as required to accomplish the mission.”
V Corps surprised few observers when it sent an attack squadron to the Middle East in October, in the earliest stage of preparation for war with Iraq.
What raised eyebrows was its choice of the 2-6 Cavalry, an Apache unit, over the other Illesheim-based unit, the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, which features the Longbow.
Although the 6-6 Cavalry returned to Europe with its new aircraft only in July, the two squadrons quickly built up a strong brotherly rivalry. Members of each squadron thought the other to be the favorite of higher-ups at 11th Regiment and V Corps and fought for their share of the limelight.
The two squadrons jockeyed for limelight in the first attack March 20. Regimental planners came up with a Solomonlike solution: The 6-6 Cavalry would make the initial strike against the Iraqi 11th Division near Nasiriyah, but the 2-6 Cavalry would deliver the main blow within an hour.
Dust hung thick over the airfield that night, shrouding the lights in a gloomy fog. The 6-6 Cavalry took to the air along with two Black Hawk command helicopters. Barely half an hour into the flight, the 6-6 Cavalry commander, Lt. Col. Mike Barbee, called off the attack because the Black Hawk pilots couldn’t see through the curtain of sand with their night-vision goggles.
Many 2-6 Cavalry pilots complained that they could have completed the mission because of their longer desert training using the forward-looking infrared radar goggles, which work better than night-vision goggles in dust storms.
But Wilson said that most of them didn’t know at the time that enemy forces were believed to have moved close to the forward position where their refuelers would have been working that night.
“Two-six [Cavalry pilots] would have wanted to go on that mission, but I totally understand, militarily, why it had to be canceled,” Wilson said. “You try to make these calls for the betterment of the unit.”
Only a few hours after that mission was scrubbed, all the soldiers from Task Force 11th Aviation except the pilots and a few officers jammed into their packed Humvees and trucks for a 300-mile convoy to their new base camp at an abandoned desert airstrip 70 miles south of Baghdad.
They joined tens of thousands of other military vehicles for a sleepless three-day ordeal of stopping and starting, waiting and watching as they jostled for position with other convoys. Soldiers watched warily as trucks loaded with young Iraqi men passed by, unaware that similar trucks had fired at other convoys.
The convoy didn’t make it to the new camp until dawn on Monday, March 24, hours after 11th Aviation’s second scheduled attack on the Medina Division of the Iraqi Republican Guard northeast of Al-Hillah.
The Medina attack had taken on new importance to the pilots after the scrubbed first mission, but it went badly from the start. Only part of the refueling convoy had arrived from Camp Udairi. In confusion on a moonless night, there was time and fuel to gas up only 30 helicopters, barely half of the number scheduled to fly that night against the Medina.
The 2-6 Cavalry’s mission was postponed until the following night, and only 12 of the 6-6 Cavalry’s 18 aircraft flew, along with all of the Longbows from the Texas-based 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment.
Takeoff generated heavy clouds of dust that caused one aircraft to crash, and many others barely escaped. Within minutes of leaving the base, the aircraft met sporadic gunfire, which would turn into what pilots described as a “wall of steel” once they got deep into the suburbs south of Baghdad.
All of the aircraft took heavy fire. Only two succeeded in bombing their targets; one was forced down and its two pilots taken prisoner. Luck and pluck helped the rest limp home, with only one pilot slightly wounded. Some of the Longbows had been hit by as many as 15 automatic-rifle rounds.
“We saw a degree of damage that would probably cripple an ordinary aircraft,” Lindsay said.
The mauling shook up both pilots and planners. The 11th Aviation helicopters would not fly again for days, and from then on they would fly only on reconnaissance or tied closely to infantry units. The command deep-sixed deep attacks for the rest of the short war, perhaps — Wilson said — for good.
“It changed the face of how they’re going to use attack aviation,” he said. “We don’t really see any big, open fights in the future. We’re going to have to adjust our direction.”
Used for the final two weeks of the war as infantry support, the Apaches and Longbows nevertheless racked up a respectable record. The 2-6 Cavalry, unscathed in the March 23 battle, knocked out dozens of enemy armored vehicles in the Battle of Baghdad, Wilson said, and killed 64 enemy soldiers. The 6-6 Cavalry and the 1-227th Aviation also repaired many of their aircraft and supported mop-up actions in Al-Hillah and As-Samawah.
“I think we proved our worth,” Wilson said. “I heard nothing but accolades from the ground-pounders we were working with.”
When the war moved to the cities, it ensured that the infantry would take center stage and push helicopters into the shadows.
“[Apaches] are built for the battlefield, not the urban fight,” Wilson said.
“The weapon that won this war,” he added, “was the U.S. fighting soldier.”
Steve Liewer was embedded with the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment.