The tens of thousands of foreign mercenaries fighting alongside coalition soldiers in Iraq aren’t just tooling around in up-armored SUVs sporting submachine guns. These guys have got helicopters too that they use to escort convoys — and one of them has just been shot down over Baghdad, according to the Associated Press:
Five civilians died in the Baghdad crash of a helicopter owned by the private security company Blackwater USA, according to a U.S. military official. The helicopter was shot down Tuesday over a predominantly Sunni neighborhood, a senior Iraqi defense official said. The crash came three days after a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter crashed northeast of Baghdad, killing all 12 soldiers aboard.
Blackwater should have seen this coming. Unlike U.S. military helicopters, which are armored and equipped with countermeasures to defeat shoulder-fired missiles, Blackwater’s McDonnell Douglas MD-369FF Loaches are essentially defenseless, unless you count the two mercs hanging out the cabin doors with their rifles.
Note that Blackwater’s choppers — which fly from the same Green Zone helipad used by the U.S. Army and Marines — are just civil versions of the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse that the Army began phasing out after the Vietnam War due to their vulnerability. U.S. Special Forces fly updated H-6s, but only at night, when it’s safer. It’s not clear what time of the day the Blackwater bird was shot down, but I’ve witnessed these choppers buzzing around in broad daylight.
It’s too early to tell what this shoot-down means for Blackwater and for merc ops in Iraq. But one thing’s for sure: with the military struggling to scare up another 20,000 troops for its so-called “surge,” the demand for private soldiers isn’t going away.
UPDATE 1/24/07: Four of the dead Blackwater men were apparently killed execution-style, perhaps after surviving the chopper crash, while the fifth was a member of a second chopper crew also at the site of the crash. All this according to the Associated Press:
In Washington, a U.S. defense official said four of the five killed were shot in the back of the head but did not know whether they were still alive when they were shot. The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. …
Another American official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said three Blackwater helicopters were involved. One had landed for an unknown reason and one of the Blackwater employees was shot at that point, he said. That helicopter apparently was able to take off but a second one then crashed in the same area, he added without explaining the involvement of the third helicopter.
The New York Times, citing unnamed American officials, reported that the helicopter’s four-man crew was killed along with a gunner on a second Blackwater helicopter.
—David Axe, crossposted at War Is Boring
UPDATE 01/24/07 11:01 AM: Who do ya trust?
Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, an industry group that includes security contractors, said the type of helicopter downed, known as a “little bird,” is among the safest modes of transportation in war zones.
“Their crews are the best — they really know their stuff,” he said in an e-mail. “They are very good at avoiding fire, flying low and fast — and the tiny helicopters are very hard to hit.”
Doug is a nice guy. But I’ll put my money on Axe as the more objective observer.
UPDATE 01/24/07 11:07 AM: Robert Young Pelton has details on the incident — and recent footage of Blackwater choppers in action.