It appears that the world's premier attack helicopter, the Boeing AH-64 Apache, has entered into the fight against a resilient ISIS that continues to hold key cities throughout western and northern Iraq. Apache combat operations marks a significant escalation in both capability and risk by the US when it comes to its anti-ISIS air campaign.
Last July, a handful of Apaches were deployed to Baghdad International Airport, along with hundreds of military personnel aimed at reinforcing America's Embassy in the Iraqi capitol. These choppers were intended to be used in a defensive manner should the area begin to fall to ISIS forces, and would have provided over-watch and close air support for convoys and/or helicopter transports evacuating embassy staff to Baghdad International Airport.
When President Obama announced last month that the US would go on the offensive against ISIS, the Apaches' role in the region may have became two-fold. Yet no word of them being used offensively had surfaced until yesterday when it was said the attack choppers were used along with fixed-wing assets against a large ISIS contingent operating in northern Fallujah.
Fallujah has been under extremist control seemingly more than any other major city in Iraq over the last decade or so. Just last winter, the city that many US troops died and bled for, fell once again, this time to ISIS forces. Now, after ISIS has dug in for the majority of the year, Iraqi and coalition forces are beginning to put pressure on their positions around the city.
According to Central Command, air power struck two mortar teams, a large ISIS unit and two small ISIS units in the northern Fallujah area, and ABC is reporting that the Apaches were part of this attack, which was said to have also been in support of Iraqi ground forces on the ground.
The move to bring AH-64s into the fight over Iraq is relatively bold one (and some would say long overdue), and represents a risk much greater than ordering the employment of the A-10 Warthog at altitudes far below the ones that coalition fighters are operating at today.
Although the Apache is a very tough machine, able to take direct hits from small arms virtually all over the aircraft, and up to 23mm anti-aircraft cannon fire in certain areas, it is not impervious to ground-fire. Additionally, it has a robust defensive countermeasures suite including missile launch detectors, infrared suppressors on its engines and flare dispensers, although the aircraft's low operating altitude and slow speed leave it vulnerable to shoulder-fired, heat seeking missiles (MANPADS).
Some foreign Apache customers, such as the Dutch, are flying the attack chopper with a Direct Infa-Red CounterMeasure (DICM) pod system, that features laser turrets that blind incoming missile seekers. DIRCM systems greatly enhances an aircraft's survivability against more advanced shoulder-fired, heat-seeking MANPADS, but there are no reports of this system being deployed on US Apaches as of yet.
It is well known that ISIS is sitting on a large and diverse stockpile of MANPADS, including Russian designs looted from Syrian bases, as well as highly-capable US made FIM-92 "Stingers" looted from Iraqi bases. With these missiles in hand, ISIS has had a pretty solid record when it comes to bringing down Iraqi helicopters, with multiple Iraqi Mi-24/35 Hind attack choppers brought down over the last year, with one being shot down just last week.
All this would point to the fact that using attack helicopters that are operating forward of friendly lines in fight against ISIS as being a very dangerous affair. Yet the Apache is known for its fantastic ability to hunt and strike at night. Although most of Iraq's attack helicopter assets are outfitted for night operations as well, it appears they may lack night training, or are forced to operate in broad daylight due to other supporting assets inability to operate solely at night. Apache crews on the other hand train regularly for night operations, and the aircraft was literally designed to excel in this dark environment. As a result, targeting the nimble choppers with small arms fire, anti-aircraft guns and MANPADS, while they are operating blacked-out and under the cloak of darkness, is very challenging, thus enhancing the AH-64's survivability.
Strangely enough, the latest AH-64E Apaches may find themselves fighting alongside Russia's closest analogue to the notorious attack chopper, the Mi-28 'Havoc/Night Hunter,' of which three were recently delivered from Russia to the Iraqis as part of an 'urgent' order. Iraq was offered the Apache by the US, although they seem to have lost faith in America's slow-to-arrive, expensive, tightly export-controlled, and complex weaponry, as the option for selling the Apache to Iraq has now expired. Instead it seems the Iraqis will rely on simpler and cheaper Russian attack helicopters (and other arms as well).
It will be interesting to see if the U.S. is willing to deploy large quantities AH-64 Apaches, and A-10s Warthogs for that matter, to the fight against ISIS. It will also be interesting to see what rules of engagement and operating restrictions are put on these "down and dirty" flying assets as they engage ISIS.
These low-flying assets may be more vulnerable than their fast-jet cousins cruising up at 20,000+ feet, but these high-flying jets and their soda-straw like picture of the battlefield below are no substitute for the Apache's or the Warthog's "down in the weeds" situational awareness building, forward air controlling, detailed reconnoitering and rapid attacking capabilities. This low-altitude, high-definition combat capability will be absolutely essential for beating ISIS without putting "boots on the ground," even in the form of Forward Air Controllers (otherwise known as JTACS). The sooner we get them into the fight, the better our chances will be at actually making a dent in ISIS in Iraq. Syria on the other hand is an entirely different matter...
Pictures via DoD
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com