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US Army Opened Way for Air War

Apache helicopters were first to strike Iraq; performance rebuts charges of poor reliability

F-15 Eagles, F-117 Stealth fighters, and other strike planes may have received most of the attention. But the very first blow of the air war against Iraq was carried out by the US Army, not the Air Force. Eight Apache attack helicopters, swooping low across the desert, destroyed two early-warning radar sites in western Iraq at 2:38 a.m. on Jan. 17. An Army videotape of the first shot of Desert Storm shows eight laser-guided Hellfire missiles, launched at a range of four miles, hitting a power supply simultaneously. "This one's for you, Saddam," says one of the pilots on the tape.

The precisely timed raid occurred as dozens of allied aircraft were gathering in "orbits" over northern Saudi Arabia, just out of range of Iraqi radar. Destruction of the radars opened the attack corridors into Iraq these planes used to reach Baghdad and other targets.

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Use of helicopters, instead of fixed-wing aircraft, allowed a more accurate immediate assessment of the battle damage caused by this crucial raid. Central Command planners "wanted to ensure they had eyeballs on the target," said an Army aviation official at a Pentagon after-action briefing.

All eight Apaches returned unscathed from the war's first mission.

The Apache is a relatively new weapon which has been dogged by reports of poor reliability. Army officials claim the performance of the 270-odd Apaches sent to the Gulf rebuts these charges. Readiness rates were far in excess of 75 percent, according to the Army.

Civilian technicians were hired to augment the Army's own Apache maintenance force. Some civilians were even stationed in the Saudi desert with Apache units. "We knew going in that the force structure we had in peacetime was not able to support a wartime tempo," said the Army official.

If the Apache had an Achilles heel, it was refueling. The high number of missions flown, coupled with the rapid advance of Army units across the desert once the ground war was launched, taxed the Army aviation refueling system to the limit.

To guard against any such problems in the future the Army is already looking at new equipment for forward refueling dumps, including faster pumps and larger capacity fuel dump bladders.

Some Army aviation lessons were learned the hard way. Before the war began, four helicopters were lost in succession in training accidents - all within a few kilometers of each other in an area of dunes near the Dhahran airport. Investigation of the accidents revealed that radar altimeters hadn't been mounted in all helicopters, and that crews needed more training in operating during the night and bad weather in the sand.

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Laser aiming penlights from M-16 rifles proved to be one quick fix. Mounted on helicopter skids, the battery-operated aiming lights shot a beam out 300 meters. Pilots wearing night vision goggles could easily see if the beam was hitting something solid - telling them a dangerous dune was probably dead ahead.

In all, the US lost five helicopters in Desert Storm combat, as opposed to 27 fixed-wing aircraft.

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