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Monday, August 1, 2011

More Helos the Answer in Libya?

By Andrew Drwiega

Following the French government’s premature announcement in late May that its Gazelle and Tiger helicopters, together with British Apaches, would begin operations against Col. Gaddafi’s military regime in Libya in support of Operation Unified Protector, the British government had no recourse but to confirm the fact soon after. The Apaches’ first mission occurred on June 5/6, with the UK’s MoD announcing the following day that, “the Apaches were tasked with precision strikes against a regime radar installation and a military checkpoint... Hellfire missiles and 30mm cannon were used to destroy the targets; the helicopters then returned safely to HMS Ocean.”

At a recent Air Power conference in London, the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, Dr. Liam Fox, stated that the Apaches were providing “tactical flexibility to NATO commanders.” While fast air has dominated news coverage (as usual), with the MoD almost beside itself trying to emphasize what a wonderful aircraft the Typhoon is (all potential customers please take note), the Apache keeps up the kinetic attack at a tactical level. And in the type of fighting that is going on, scarcely organized militia on one side verses more regular organized forces, then attack helos must be a large part of the answer to the needs of the militia. Time and again since the invasion of Iraq, when there are ‘troops in contact’ it is rotary wing that delivers 30mm fire, unguided and guided rockets into an enemy that is dangerously close.

Tactical fast air has an important role to play in attacking command and communication points, and the larger targets, but we have learned the value of lower, slow-flying helicopters when it comes to forcing back an enemy, position by position. If Apaches and French helicopters are making a difference on a daily basis, then why not increase the number of NATO attack helicopters in this role.

But does NATO have any to deploy? The Netherlands has Apaches but the force is being reconstituted after its longstanding commitment in Afghanistan. Italy too has its Mangusta A129s with Afghanistan experience, but can they be operated ‘over the beach’. The European Tiger still fights without a guided rocket using only unguided rockets and its gun. If the U.S. Marine Corps was at hand with its littoral capability there is more than a suspicion that a more persistent, consistent and tactical effect would be being brought to bear against Libyan regular forces on a daily basis. Meanwhile the focus in Europe remains transfixed on the perceived utopia that fast jets can deliver.

Pilots Cleared of Negligence

On July 13, the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox, issued an official apology to the families of two Chinook pilots, Flight Lts. Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook, for having been found negligent of a Chinook crash in 1994.

The story goes back to June 2, 1994, when a Royal Air Force (RAF) Chinook Mk 2 (ZD576) crashed into a hillside on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, killing 25 passengers and four crew. While the loss of life was staggering enough, it was soon revealed that the majority of those on board were the cream of the United Kingdom’s senior intelligence personnel in Northern Ireland.

In 1995, the official RAF board of inquiry, chaired by two Air Marshals, ruled that both of the Chinook’s pilots were guilty of gross negligence in causing the crash by flying too fast and too low in foggy weather. However, following a new independent review by Lord Alexander Philip, a former Scottish judge, that original charge of negligence has officially been overturned.

Fox, in addressing the UK’s Parliament, stated: “The official conclusion that the accident was caused by the negligence … had been criticized almost since the day it was reached. Doubt had been cast on the findings in different ways by the fatal accident review held in 1995, by the Defence Committee and the Public Accounts Committee of the House in 1998 and 2000, and by the Select Committee appointed in another place in 2002.” The recommendations coming out of the latest review conclude that the gross negligence charge should be ‘set aside’ and that the MoD should consider an apology to the pilot’s families.

So where did the fault lie? Fox stated: “The report does not purport to tell us exactly why Chinook ZD576 crashed, he wrote, “but those who allege that there has been a long-running conspiracy to cover up technical shortcomings in the aircraft will find no support here. The Chinook has had an excellent safety record since the disaster on the Mull. However, the report reveals that on this occasion the pilot expressed concerns that he felt unprepared to fly the aircraft.”

Since this incident, one improvement has been the establishment of the Military Aviation Authority that regulates, audits and assures all aspects of military aviation. While the full explanation behind the crash of Chinook ZD576 is unlikely ever to be known, perhaps there are systems in place now to stop such a mistake in official judgment happening again.

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