About that "pretty lucky shot"


Lt. Gen. James Conway thinks the Chinook that went down in Afghanistan was somehow a bad luck deal.

Lucky shot, my ass general. Look at the details of the mission and what happened is better explained as a purposeful ambush than some one-in-million shot by an RPG jockey. It smacks of stubborn denial otherwise.

Turns out that the MH-47 was responding to a call for help from a four-man SEAL team on the ground. That observation team, which remains unaccounted for at this moment, came under heavy fire from Taliban and possibly al Qaida elements. Eight more members of SEAL Team 10 were rushed to the contact point.

When the Chinook tried to set down it was hit by RPG fire. It is not clear if it was, in fact, a single shot or one of several fired.

These events sound very similar to what happened back in March 2002 during Operation Anaconda when another Chinook was lost and several more shot up. Afghanistan's extremely rugged terrain, marked by steep and narrow ravines gives what are essentially slow-moving, flying buses very little room to maneuver. An experienced enemy could deduce likely approach paths and landing zones and sit on them. That's tactics, not luck.

Further, there is an ugly attrition calculus at work that must be acknowledged. The loss of perhaps a dozen highly-trained SEALs represents the loss of decades of skills and experience which simply cannot be quickly or easily replaced. Such men are rare and will be sorely missed.


NEXT: O'Connor Retiring

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  1. Smacks of stubborn denial? Um, how about purposeful media downplay? While failure to make behind the scenes adjustments for this loss would indeed be foolish, not throwing out props to their foe at an international press conference in this case seems, well, no big deal.

  2. At this stage, with the few and possibly inaccurate details of the mission that have been made public, to call this either an ambush or a lucky shot is highly speculative.

    In other words, Jeff, you could be right. But I don’t think we have enough info either way just yet.

  3. I thought Afghanistan was one of the US’s success stories… or was that Haiti?

  4. there is an ugly attrition calculus at work that must be acknowledged.

    i think it’s becoming understood that we are now facing an insurgency in afghanistan as well.

  5. If you paid closer attention Ruthless, and maybe grabbed a map, you’d see that the Konar region where this incidenet and the associated fighting took place are along the Pakistani border. You’d also pick up the fact that Operation Red Wing, which is ongoing there, is in part focused on capture of OBL, who is widely believed to be in the mountains in and around the Waziristan region of Pakistan near the Afghani border.

    Understanding all of this may diminish your ability to make glib one-liners about the state of affairs in Afghanistan, but would also help you understand the regional aspects of the ongoing war. While the US/coalition forces are politically limited in their ability to go into Pakistan in any large numbers, they are engaging a rather heavy resistance along the A/P border. It’s complicated and hard to follow with only the small amount of info available open source, but you’re a smart boy, try to keep up.

  6. chthus,
    I thought Pakistan was another US success story.

  7. A success in the sense that it hasn’t been completely overrun by Islamists who now hold the Pakistani nukes? Yes. A success in the sense that Musharaf is playing ball with us to a certain degree since the two attempts on his life by aQ in late 2003? Yes. But keep in mind that the ISI and regular military are littered with Wahhabiist who’ve been there for more than two decades. Extraction of these folks is difficult for Musharaf and politically expedient extraction is currently near impossible. Remember that Waziristan is a largely autonomous region that happens to reside in the borders of Pakistan. When they sent the army in for the first time last year they got waxed by aQ and the local militias, losing more than 700 troops in less than a week while only killing/capturing a few hundred (the captured would later be released by the Pakistani court system).

    Again, I know it’s easier to think of the world like a Risk board, but the world a bit more nuanced than that. Put down the coloring book occasionally.

  8. As a side note, I hope one of the major lessons tacticians finally learn from all this is that helos deployed ahead of areas known to be secure are frikin’ vulnerable. Helos are very expensive to buy, very expensive to maintain, and very easy to bring down. Use with caution.

  9. Lucky shot??

    I think some people tend to forget, these Afghanis successfully fought off the Soviets, many were trained by the CIA.

    The Soviets were so intent on defeating the Afghanis that they built special helicopters just to be able to survive ambushes like these (HIND-D for example) and still ended up having to pull out.

    Its not like those guys forgot how to fight in thier own back yard….

    Athough I dont think i can hold anyones feet to the fire for downplaying the enemy to the media…

  10. In re your criticism of Ruthless, chthus, if you paid attention you’d notice that the rate of American casualties in Afghanistan has risen rather dramatically:

    2005 – 55 (through June 30; not counting the missing team)
    2004 – 52
    2003 – 47
    2002 – 43
    2001 – 12

    That’s not a positive trendline and is certainly inconsistent with the “Life Just Keep Getting Better” view of the administration.

  11. I never mentioned the administration but you might be one of those people who are obseessed by the executive branch of our govt, owing to it all agony and/or glory. You mustn’t forget Langley, K street or the Pentagon when it comes to foreign policy.

    But to your statisics, it be a lot easier to glean info out of those statistics if they were normalized for average annual troop strentgh throughout the year. But aside from that, stepping away from the Risk board and coloring book simplistic view, you’d also have to ask what was going on with both friend and foe at the time. What sorts of operations where going down. Who was coming over the border? From where? Why?

    Is the CIA working with trusted parts of the Pakistani govt to win over some of the local tribes in Waziristan to act against aQ forcing them to move, in some cases back into Afghanistan? I don’t know. Has the aQ plan to leave Afghanistan and return after seven years been fast forwarded to try and upset the second round of national elections later this year? I don’t know.

    But neither do you, and while I can understand disagreement, it would seem just beating a drum and yelling “blood for oilpipeline” would be as complex and effective as the gotcha tricks you and Ruthless seem so fond of.

    I’ve asked others who act/discuss in such overly simplistic fashion, so I’m curious about your reasons as well. Are you just having some fun and not really interested in indepth discussion, more in just playing the gotcha game; or do you actually have such a black and white, unnuanced view of the world?

  12. What Mike H said.

    Flying a helicopter in thin air among high altitude mountains in the summer represents the outer performence edge of the engines/xmissions and blades to effectively create lift. Throw in up drafts, down drafts and windshear all common features of mountain conditions.

    This aircraft could have gone down for a number of reasons, and it is likely that a combination of events were responsible. It takes quite a while and lots of inspection and testing of the wreckage to know what happened. The lack of survivors makes this task more difficult.

  13. my ass general

    Is that like an ass bandit? Or an ass pirate?

  14. chthus, you seem to be using good evidence to back up your assertion – is there any reason you feel it necessary to be an asshole?

    And I guess this is an open question: Do you people talk to those that disagree with you face-to-face as you do here? For a group who are so adamant that people can take care of themselves, you certainly are rude to eachother.

    (Disclosure – I seem to recall having told Feminazi to “go intercourse” herself a couple of weeks ago.)


  15. Couple of observations:

    The CH-47 has the highest ceiling, is the fastest, most stable (because its tandem rotor), and is most durable in the Army inventory. This aircraft was no where near its max gross weight even for the conditions based on the amount of passengers on board.

    If this MH-47 was hit by an RPG it was a lucky shot. Given the accuracy an even timing of RPG’s a person is probably more likely to hit an aircraft with a well thrown rock.

    It could have been one or more RPG’s that brought the aircraft down… More likely though it was pilot error or pilot error in combination with a surface to air weapon. We were very happy to give the Taliban an ample supply of stinger missles back in the 80’s. Those worked very well at bringing down Hinds.

    Some pictures of the wreckage, if there are any available to the public, would make it easier to tell.

  16. chthus, troop strength in Afghanistan may have increased but it hasn’t doubled in the last year.

    From July 9, 2004: “In point of fact, right at the moment we have about 17,900 U.S. troops in Afghanistan,” ( http://www.globalsecurity.org/org/news/2004/040709-afghan-presence.htm)

    From May 23, 2005: “There are about 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan” (http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/military/20050523-1510-us-afghanistan.html)

    It’s a bad sign if the per capita fatality rate is steadliy going up after you’ve declared victory, which, hey what do you know, Bush did last summer (June 15, 2004): “‘Coalition forces, including many brave Afghans, have brought America, Afghanistan and the world its first victory in the war on terror,’ the president said.” http://www.cnn.com/2004/US/06/15/karzai/

    And as for me being “obsessed” with the excutive branch and telling me that I should look at “Langley, K street or the Pentagon”, last I checked, the CIA and DOD are under the direct control of the White House, so if they are giving the public misleading information about the situation in Afghanistan then the President would seem to have, at minimum, the responsibility to tell them to stop doing that. And what lobbyist from K Street has been wandering around declaring victory in Afghanistan?

  17. Going from my earlier observation:

    “The details for the Chinook’s crash suggest that either a surface-to-air missile such as a U.S.-made Stinger or Russian SAM-7 or a rocket-propelled grenade — the most common type in use in Afghanistan is the Russian RPG-7, which was originally an anti-tank weapon — was used to bring down the aircraft.”

    Read the whole article:

    Now the question is why does the General want to lie about how this aircraft was shot down? My best guess is perhaps there is a bit of a story if the Taliban is using weapons we gave them to kill our Service Members.

  18. Most of those 80’s era Stingers’ radar units have pretty much deteriorated by now. And you would think that a modern military helicopter would have countermeasures for 25 year old technology. It’s somewhat ironic that RPG are probably greater threats than smart weapons, since countermeasures like chaff and ecm jamming don’t work on them. Keep in mind that it was RPGs which brought down two Blackhawks in Mogadishu.

    Considering we’re talking about Central Asia here, I doubt that getting arms is really much of a chore.

  19. Remind me again why the “central front” in the War on Terror isn’t the country that hosted the planners and training camps for the 9/11 attacks? Even if one has no objections to the war in Iraq, shouldn’t the “central front” be the place where the 9/11 attacks were planned?

    And, to beat a dead horse, if we want to make Afghanistan a more manageable place, we should bankrupt the warlords by legalizing heroin. Dry up their money supply and they’ll be much easier to deal with.

  20. thoreau,
    In spite of agent orange, I’m able to recall a thing or two about military aircraft… VN era.
    It is beside the point.
    Many posters above can’t see the forest for the trees. What else is new?
    The US is having the same success in Afghanistan it’s having in Colombia; difference being media have reporters in Afghanistan now.
    By “central front,” do you mean Arabia?

    Wherever the “enemy” is, the older I get, the surer I am war is stupid. It’s the slackers’ conflict resolution.

  21. Can you say “Black Hawk Down?” Expanding on Deus ex’s comment: for me, the tactical take-away from the Bowden book was that our guys in Somalia, in going after Aidid, had successfully done the same thing the same way four times: helo in, get extracted by a light convoy.

    Who knew the other side was smart enough to see that and, the fifth time around, arrange (1) numerous RPGs for the helicopters and (2) roadblocks & ambushes for the convoy..? Most of the US losses came because the local commander didn’t have a Plan B in place for a heavier extraction convoy, so it took eight hours to assemble.

    We don’t have comparable detail here, but neither do we have any reason to think Afghans are stupider than Somalis.

  22. Below is the eeriest parallel I’ve seen to date between Iraq-Nam and VN.
    Back in “my” war, we called it “county fair.” Same stratagery is now called “cordon and talk.” (At least we were better at euphemisms back in the “old days”?)

    “Why victory not a matter of troops
    U.S. military seen as unlikely to create a lasting solution

    Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer
    Friday, July 1, 2005

    Samarra, Iraq — It’s called “cordon and talk,” and it epitomizes everything that works and does not work about the American military presence in Iraq.

    When it happens on a street in Samarra, six U.S. soldiers get out of their armored vehicles, point their M-16 rifles to the ground, hand out toys and play soccer with Iraqi children.

    The rest of the platoon goes about sterner business.

    Six men watch the scene, guns at the ready. Four more climb onto the rooftops, warily eyeing passers-by, approaching cars — any signs of threat. Two Bradley fighting vehicles guard each side of the street, their fearsome 50- caliber machine guns trained on anything and anyone that approaches.

    But the effect of the cordon and the talk on this street in downtown Samarra, and on almost any street in Iraq, disappears virtually the moment the soldiers depart. Insurgents can walk the very same street as if the Americans have never been there. And an hour later, someone lobs mortars from the neighborhood at a U.S. base.”

  23. Stinger missiles don’t use radar guidance – they are heat-seekers, much like the old Redeye system they replaced in the early 1980’s. While the real-time guidance systems of the US-supplied Stingers have undoubtably deteriorated, the IR targeting mechanism is probably quite functional. The Russians also manufactured a Stinger knock-off as well as their own SAM-7, so there are lots of ways the Taliban could get their hands on surface-to-air missiles. There really aren’t too many ways to stop them from hitting helicopters, either – since helicopters operate so often at low altitudes and loiter speeds, they are uniquely vulnerable to AA gun- and missile-fire attacks. A heavily armored gunship like the Apache can handle this type of fire, and the Blackhawk is pretty tough as well, but as we saw in Somalia, the Blackhawk can be shot down even with RPGs, and the older Chinook is certainly a larger, more fragile target.

  24. I agree with Jason Ligon. Helocopters are extremely vulnerable – that shootout between the Apaches and the guys with RPGs might have been the only significant fight we lost in Iraq.

    IMHO, the stupid no-fixed-wing-aircraft rule is obsolete, and is reducing the Army’s effectiveness, wasting our money, and costing our soldiers’ lives. It should be replaced with a “No Super-Sonic Aircraft Rule.”

    A little OT, but what the hell.

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