Risking the Gunships

Gunships poised for battle, but risks may keep them grounded

By David Abel  |  The Boston Globe  | 5/22/1999

WASHINGTON - If used in Yugoslavia the way military planners envision,a team of Apache attack helicopters might fly into the wake of raining rockets and promptly pick off scattering tanks, troop carriers, and other enemy targets.

Or they might slip across the Albanian border on a moonless night to strafe arms depots or antiaircraft batteries.

The vaunted gunships also could be used as no-frills patrol cops, as they've been employed in Bosnia, hovering near hot spots of violence and intimately signaling to troublemakers on the ground that there is a higher authority.

But the 24 AH-64A Apaches poised for battle just across the border between Yugoslavia and Albania may not even test-fire their armor-piercing weapons, let alone cross into enemy territory, officials say.

The reason: The copters, which cost $14 million each, would be vulnerable to attack by the thousands of dispersed Serbian soldiers on the ground, hundreds of whom may be carrying shoulder-fired missiles. Before deploying them, a strategic calculation has to be made about whether the risks of use are worth the benefits.

"They are ready and capable to go," said Major Joseph Harrington, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. "But a political decision must be made before they are used. And we have not received such a decision."

President Clinton has acknowledged that the Apaches might not be used. Other aircraft, including the Air Force's more resilient A-10 Warthogs and special operations AC-130 Spectre gunships, could do the same work with less risk, he said.

Echoing statements from the Pentagon, Clinton told reporters that improving weather made it less necessary to utilize the Apaches, which fly below clouds and can operate in rain or snow.

The increasing doubt that political leaders will launch the Apaches, which together with at least 5,000 Army troops took more than a month to deploy to their makeshift muddy base in Albania, has prompted some military analysts to question whether the Pentagon ever planned to use them.

"One has to wonder if they weren't just intended . . . for psychological reasons," said Dan Goure, deputy director of political-military studies at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They may be the equivalent of the Marine brigade stationed off the Kuwaiti coast during the Gulf War, which threatened to tie down Iraqi troops in an amphibious assault."

Goure and other military analysts said that, given the amount of time it took the Apaches to prepare for combat, it seems odd that the Pentagon didn't transport the newer, more powerful version of the aircraft, the AH-64D Longbows, from the United States.

The next-generation Apaches improve on the agile and deadly helicopters, already considered the world's most capable. The older version, which began rolling off McDonnell Douglas assembly lines in 1984, carries 16 antitank Hellfire missiles, 76 folding antipersonnel rockets, and 1,200 rounds of 30mm armor-piercing ammunition.

Still, the Apaches in Albania, which flew in from bases in Germany, are anything but featherweights. They received nearly universal praise for their service in the Gulf War, having emerged virtually unscathed after destroying more than 500 Iraqi tanks, hundreds of armored troop carriers and military vehicles, and key early warning radar sites.

With two of the initial 24 Apaches having already crashed, in one case killing the helicopter's two-man crew, Pentagon officials have little appetite for further casualties.

Despite the millions of dollars required to move them and to set up Task Force Hawk in Albania, Pentagon officials and analysts now say the Apaches would be flying unorthodox missions by attacking Serbian forces.

They argue the Apaches weren't meant to fly solo missions deep into enemy territory, although they did during the Gulf War, having fired the first shots of the air campaign against Iraqi radar installations. They were designed to take out Soviet tanks rolling across central Germany, working closely with ground forces, Army officials say.

Analysts argue that the Apaches are highly versatile and are not limited to one mission. Nevertheless, they agree it is unwise to risk them at this point in the air war over Yugoslavia.

"We're in a war of attrition, just plinking targets until there's nothing left to plink," Goure said. "We can do this just as well from high up with jets."

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