During the Autumn of 1993 U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni now the Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command returned to the war-torn city of Mogadishu, Somalia to negotiate the release of an American soldier who had been taken prisoner during a failed attempt to capture Somali warlord Mohammed Aidid. Aidid had been the most successful general in the vicious 1991 civil war that had torn Somalia apart and caused a biblical-scale famine. Prompted by images of starving Somalis, the United States and a coalition of nations began restoring hope and the rule of law to the Horn of Africa in December 1992. But after successfully feeding Somalia during the first-half of 1993, the U.S. military became embroiled in a campaign to remove Aidid (who had come to resent and then challenge his country’s foreign benefactors) from the political landscape.
America’s involvement in Somalia climaxed on the afternoon of October 3rd 1993, when U.S. Army Rangers during a helicopter-borne assault on Aidid’s headquarters were ambushed and forced to endure a 17 hour battle with a Somali militia of men, woman and children. During what history now calls the “Battle of Mogadishu,” two U.S. Army helicopters were shot down, 18 Rangers were killed, 84 more were wounded, and one helicopter pilot became Aidid’s prisoner. Shortly after the battle, the body of an American soldier was dragged through Mogadishu’s streets by a vengeful but victorious mob before television cameras that soon broadcast the spectacle around the world.
During the negotiations to achieve the captured soldier’s release, Zinni had the opportunity to ask Aidid about his perceptions of the battle. Almost five years later, Zinni recounted for PBS’ Frontline his conversation with Aidid:
“He said, ‘We had watched those…dangerous men at the airfield [the Rangers]’ and how they operated, and he made the determination that the helicopters were the vulnerability, or the center of gravity.”
Based on that determination, Aidid then made what Zinni calls “some pretty astute tactical decisions” by placing Somali militiamen on the city’s roofs with orders to concentrate their machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades on the Rangers’ helicopters. According to Zinni, Aidid believed that if he could shoot down a helicopter, then his forces would be able to “fix…and pin” the Rangers when they rushed to the helicopter’s aid in other words, ambush and kill the American soldiers.
The Battle of Mogadishu proved to U.S. policymakers and military planners that such “asymmetrical warfare” (where the combatants are not equally matched) would be the norm in the post-Cold War world, and that perceived strengths such as combat helicopters could become real weaknesses if proper steps are not taken to ensure their survivability and capacity to dominate 21st century foes. This article does two things: (1) it describes the man-portable air defense missiles the U.S. Army’s combat aviation assets will face during the early decades of the next century; and (2) it explains how Comanche is uniquely suited to counter those threats, accomplish its missions, and assure U.S. dominance of the battlespace.
The Origins of Surface-to-Air Missiles
During the first several decades of military aviation the only way to shoot down an airplane was with either another airplane or a ground-based anti-aircraft gun. But since their introduction in the 1960s, man-portable surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) have become as important to air defense as interceptor aircraft, and have all but replaced anti-aircraft guns. Ironically, SAM technology had been available but not fully recognized starting in the 1940s. During World War II in fact, Nazi Germany had developed a first-generation infrared-homing (or heat-seeking) SAM that, while rudimentary, is believed to have been capable of shooting-down up to ten percent of Allied aircraft during bombing missions over the Continent. Such losses even in the context of World War II would likely have been considered too costly by the Allies, probably have ended daylight strategic bombing, and may even have changed the United States’ appreciation for the value of airpower.
Luckily for both the 8th Air Force of World War II and the U.S. Air Force of today, Adolf Hitler chose not to invest the Third Reich’s diminishing resources into air-defense missiles but decided instead to rely on interceptor aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, and to develop Germany’s “vengeance weapons”: the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 ballistic missile. As a result, it was not until after the war, and due to the speed and maneuverability of jet-powered combat aircraft, that the United States and Russia both realized the importance of air-defense missiles.
The Proliferation of Sophisticated Air Defense Systems
During the past few decades, tremendous progress has been made in the design, reliability and performance of man-portable air defense systems (or MANPADS). MANPADS first debuted in the 1960s with the U.S. Army’s Redeye and Russia’s SA-7 Grail, and today remain typically lightweight yet robust enough to seriously threaten helicopters and low flying or inattentive fixed-wing aircraft. In addition to being carried by foot-soldiers, MANPADS are frequently mounted on light vehicles, helicopters, and have been used to defend small warships.
The American-made Stinger is perhaps the most famous MANPADS due to its successful use by Afghani rebels against Soviet air operations during the last years of the Afghanistan war. Rugged, lightweight and equipped with a sophisticated, wide-angle cooled infrared sensor, the Stinger is credited by many observers with turning the tide of that war, thus forcing the Soviets to withdraw their military forces from Afghanistan (and, ultimately, Eastern Europe). Before the rebels began using Stinger, the Soviets virtually controlled all of Afghanistan through a massive helicopter force and air-assault tactics similar to those used by the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Again, as Aidid later determined in Somalia, the helicopters the Soviets viewed as their greatest strength became a huge liability once their adversaries learned to overcome the tremendous advantages helicopters offer.
There is, however, a downside to the American government’s decision to make a nearly unlimited supply of Stingers available to the Afghani rebels: once the Soviets left, Islamic radicals took over Afghanistan and made the country into a haven for anti-Western terrorists including America’s currently-most wanted enemy of the state, Osama bin Laden. In addition, a number of unused Stingers were never returned to America and are now believed to be in the arsenals of those terrorist groups, husbanded away for the day when they might be used against Western targets or even the military forces of the United States.
While the United States focused on developing a few world-class MANPADS designs, Russia (as is typical of that country’s weapons programs) developed a wide array of MANPADS, each slightly better than the last. Crowning Russia’s long-line of MANPADS is the SA-16 Gimlet, a third-generation infrared-homing system considered by experts to be as good as the Stinger; during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, 12 of the 29 American aircraft lost during combat perations (including one U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter) are believed to have been shot down by Iraqi SA-16 despite the fact that those aircraft were . . .
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