Tough lesson: The dumber the threat, the harder it is to defeat

Last month, you read here about the prospects for a new laser countermeasure that defense contractor ITT hopes could protect Army helicopters from missiles. Long story short, here’s how it works: A sensor detects a launch, slews a laser onto the vector of the incoming missile, and then blinds the sensors in the weapon’s nosecone in mid-flight, all in seconds or less. Problem is, this system and others like it depend on bad guys using relatively “smart,” guided missiles that have sensors for your laser countermeasure to defeat. As Saturday’s horrific helicopter crash in Afghanistan showed, sometimes the bad guys aren’t that advanced.

Pentagon officials said Monday their best guess is the Army CH-47 Chinook went down after being struck by a simple, unguided rocket propelled grenade — in all likelihood, the ubiquitous, shoulder-fired RPG-7. The flight path of its warhead is determined by simple physics, not complicated electronics: You aim, pull the trigger, and its round flies until it runs out of fuel or hits something. DoD officials acknowledged it’s one of the toughest weapons to guard against, along with simple small arms. If a helicopter is moving slow and low enough, and you’re a good enough shot, you’ve got a chance of at least damaging it, even with an RPG or a rifle.

So what can be done? In an ideal situation, you don’t want to get shot at in the first place. In Iraq and Afghanistan, transport helicopters often operate with escorts from gunships — Marine Corps AH-1 Cobras or Army AH-64 Apaches — which arrive bristling with missiles and their main guns to make sure landing zones are safe before troops go in. But they’re not always available. So would it be possible to adapt a laser countermeasure against an unguided rocket? Theoretically, yes, but your laser would have to be powerful enough to destroy the threat, and that probably means you have to add a lot more weight to your aircraft and draw a lot more energy — if your sensors can spot and track an incoming RPG well enough. It’s a daunting challenge, but in the aftermath of Saturday’s crash, don’t be surprised if there’s a renewed interest in exactly such a system.

  • Mike

    The IDF was working on an RPG countermeasure that would be mounted on armored vehicles. While I am unsure of the weight, I wonder if that could be a solution to these types of threats.

  • USSHelm

    I wonder how the Taliban hit a moving helicopter with an RPG at night. Maybe the RPG had a infrared guidance system or maybe it was a MANPADS.

  • brian

    Night vision googles, or maybe just BS. Who knows, the only way those insurgents could have been ready for an attack like this at night at a random target with relatively useless weapons was with advanced intel. We were sold out, and someone is going to have to pay for this murder.

    • Hunter78

      What murder? This was a genuine military strike. How about dropping a bomb on the wrong house killing women and children, or maybe on some allied Canadian soldiers?

      • brian

        the Taliban are cold blooded pakistani invaders. They do not have the right to invade Afghanistan and kill their people or the US troops helping restore a civil society to it. Yes its murder even by convention. they don’t wear uniforms, they use civilians as human shields, they represent no lawful government.

    • TMB

      The RPG isn’t useless. It has been in use mostly unchanged since the 1960s. Millions of them have been built and hundreds of thousands used in combat. We know NOTHING about what happened that night. For all we know they heard the helicopter, pointed 4 or 5 RPGs at the sound and got lucky. It’s happened before without a conspiracy occurring.

    • You don’t have to be a genius to sord things out. As a taliban commander you know: A. when there is a fight nearby and you can pin the enemy down for long enough,
      B. reinforcements will come,
      C. most helicopters are trust/altitude limited and can only use certain routes or,
      D. they send in a CH-47 that does has less weight (trust/altitude) limitations and,
      E. when the Ch-47 flies in to the LZ it will be heard and from miles away, and
      F. due to size and downwash cannot land everyware.
      A good commander will do the math.

  • Tee Rye

    What about active protection systems? You could do a low cost sense and defeat with a variety of kill mechanisms. Weight shouldn’t be an issue on a CH-47 or even a Blackhawk.

  • Larry

    The commanders over there should stop underestimating the enemy. That’s a start. To load 30 of the most elite troops on the planet in large, slow moving helo and then landing/taking off in a hotzone is insanity. Plan and simple. Someone needs to be help responsible for this disaster. They obviously didn’t learn from the last time this happened in almost the exact same circumstances and 15+ SEALs died.

    Btw, what the hell were we using SEALs to rescue an infantry force? These guy are way to valuable to use in that situation. Send in more Rangers or Airborne.

  • traindodger

    Weapons-grade lasers made with present-day technology are big, heavy and inefficient:

    It takes several seconds for the Boeing Laser Avenger (an AN/TWQ-1 with a solid-state laser in place of one of the Stinger launchers) to burn through the casing of an 80mm mortar. At the ranges that helicopters are engaged from the ground with RPG fire, there is not enough time to react. While a laser can easily be steered onto a target in a short amount of time, it still takes a bit for the threat to be neutralized. A hard-kill APS system mounted to a helicopter would need to engage and destroy the incoming warhead in a fraction of a second.

    An ideal hard-kill APS for a helicopter would be similar to Quick Kill, only side-launched instead of vertically-launched:

    There would be a small bulge in the fuselage to accommodate the peripheral radar and missile cells. The system would be capable of shooting down not only unguided rockets and MANPADS, but air-to-air missiles of both the close-range and BVR type.

    • Joe Schmoe

      Except for one major problem.

      Unlike in the movies, most SAM’s aren’t designed to hit the aircraft itself. Rather, it detonates several meters away sending a shotgun like blast at several times the speed of sound ripping through the aircraft. This is a completely different threat than the one tanks face.

  • Bead

    RPG warheads are set to explode automatically at a certain range. With practice a gunner can get proficient at bringing down a helo with either an indirect explosive blast or direct fire targeting a weak spot.

  • Need that sensor type that detects rifleshot, applied to RPG, then use Laser to smash RPG alone.
    Hear Noise, crack Laser to noise source.
    Or armor up US copters??

  • SJE

    Laser countermeasures could be used to target people targeting RPGs at you, blinding them, and can be coupled with directional microphones etc. This would not stop the first RPG, but would prevent the second RPG. This is relevant when multiple RPGs are fired.

    Riskier, you could link the directional microphones with a minigun. That RPG you fired would be your last. Of course, there is a risk of civilian deaths, limiting use in certain situations.

  • Oblat

    The problem is that the Taliban are just smarter and tougher than our troops. Anyone who believes that you can win an insurgency by flying around in helicopters is going to lose. Tourists always lose.

    • William C.

      Thank you Oblatski for proving everything I have ever said about you.

  • Andrew

    Homefield advantage does not equate to smarter or tougher.

  • Jr Birman

    I’m just speculating, but what would happen if you fired a thermobaric rpg warhead with a timed fuse above or below a helicopter? You wouldn’t need to be that accurate, would you?

  • mpower6428

    for 30 years we’ve spend a zillion dollars on bombers that are too expensive to use, stealth fighters that dont work, tilt-rotor ospreys more dangerous to their operators then the enemy, FCS that is consistantly outpaced by the latest I-phone apps…. etc etc.

    all we really needed was a family of simple, cheap but effective heavy lift helicopters.

  • OliSki

    It would also be a good idea to invent cheap helium balloons that can be fired and tether themselves to the ground strategically. They would have off the shelf cheap cameras and infrared and even wireless tech that way these ballons become the eyes and ears in battle to prevent something like this from happening.

  • jamesb

    s*#t happens…..

    you can’t stop EVERYTHING they throw at ya…..

  • Maxtrue

    If it wasn’t the cause, they are coming. I have serious questions regarding the persecution of this Afghanistan operation. Hundreds of manpads are in possession of those who fought us in Iraq and are now in Libya. Iran and China also involved in weapon trade to destabilize the ground situation for US forces, so nothing should be surprising.

  • STemplar

    How about launching a real offensive across the imaginary line in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan and fighting a war, instead of sitting across the imaginary line while the Taliban go back and forth resting and refitting every year. If we don’t want to fight a war, then maybe just come home.

  • sarcastic nerd

    Surround the helicopter by a swarm of robot mini-helos. When a rocket approaches, one of them will sacrifice itself by moving into the rocket’s path.

  • opto

    V-22 Osprey is much more silent and speedy, so it is much more dificult to aim a RPG to it.

  • Jonathan

    Osprey silent? I dont think so.

    Just look for the tornado of dirt, trees, and people flying into the air. Thats where the Osprey is landing.

    And have you seen how much those things cost? They are nothing but air show queens. If we use them for anything else, then we are being irresponsible with our money and resources.

    A better thing to invest in is sensors, optics to DETECT the enemy within the flight path with the RPG. 30+ Navy Seals and they didnt see one guy with an RPG. Not saying its their fault, its our fault for not having the technology to detect that person.

    Avoiding the RPG is better then trying to take on the RPG. Cheaper I would imagine then trying to outfit helicopters with defenses to shoot down/mitigate RPG blasts.

  • Bob

    1. The RPG is now responsible for the deaths of 30 SEALS in Afghanistan across two helicopter shoot downs. Not to mention the 160th SOAR aviators form the first incident, and the aircrew, and other US and Afghan military personnel on-board the CH-47 shot down on Friday.
    2. The RPG was also the weapon used to bring down Super Six Four (Micheal Durant) in Mogadishu, Somalia. This incident led to the deaths of, and subsequent award of the MOH to, two Delta operators (Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon).

    The SEALS lost on 5 August, just like the ones lost in 2005, were the QRF. They responded to the sound of the bugles and mounted up to assist their comrades-in-arms.

    Luck, and Bad Luck in the form of one Mr. Murphy, is always a player on the battlefield. The terrain in Afghanistan, high mountain tops and valleys, favor an opponent who can secure the high ground.

    The Taliban/Al Queda fighters have become very adept at utilizing this weapon over the years. We, the US, shipped hundreds of thousands of rounds to the Mujaheddin during the Afghan war. The warhead, kept in its shipping crates, is pretty robust. As long as the cap on the nose is not crimped and the guide rod that slides into the wooden and stamped sheet metal launcher is not damaged it is a viable round for a long time. The launcher is very simple and shares some of the same parts as the trigger assembly on AK.

    In 1998 you could get a round for approximately $70 ea if bought in quantity.

    It is difficult, if nigh on impossible, to defend against the RPG. The two best defenses:
    armor plating or an active system like the Israeli Trophy system are impractical on a helicopter.
    1. Armor is too heavy, even loads of Kevlar. Especially in a hot and high environment like Afghanistan.
    2. Trophy would at best work only in limited envelopes around the airframe due to the rotor disc and would have to have a separate design for each airframe driving up the unit costs

    The only current effective counter is tactics. More assets in the air support role and perhaps larger initial insertions. I have no idea of the size of the Ranger element initially deployed.

  • Riceball

    I wonder how much it would take to disrupt the flight path of an incoming RPG enough to throw it off target.flying back to the ground? I was thinking that a good solution would some kind of launcher that shoots out bolos or weighted nets to simply knock the incoming RPG out of the sky either simply away from the helo or cause it to tip nose down and fly back down to the ground. Of course for such a system to work it would require a combination of detection gear and a small radar to track the incoming RPG which, combined with the launcher, would probably amount to a lot of weight; but it’s an idea I suppose.

    • blight

      Then the issue might be how big a net do you want to capture a RPG rocket? A high density weave to ensure the rocket doesn’t pass through? A fire control computer that compensates for ambient wind and turbulence, etc to lob a net into a RPG?

      I imagine developing defenses are feasible, but that weight is still the great killer. A Chinook can carry a fair amount, and perhaps cutting into weight to carry countermeasures and weapons in addition to troops could be an option.

    • Bob

      See the Trophy system.

  • Lance

    No way a RPG shot it down I bet it was a MANPADS like a SA-7 or SA-14 left over from the old Soviet days.

  • Foreign.Guy

    Instead of destroying the warhead, could there be a way to disrupt its aerodynamics?

    We’re all speculating though. We don’t know at what point the helicopter was struck. Even if they did have a laser that could take it down, if the shooter was close enough and good position (or cover) they could deliver a killer blow no matter the case.

    Especial with things that fly. Part of the problem is that they impacted the ground. Maybe if there was some sort of ‘crash foam’ that could have saved their lives. Granted in a combat situation (and a fire situation) foam isn’t the answer.

  • sic

    Soviets lost a lot of choppers to RPGs in the ‘stan – locals would position themsleves in the chopper’s path nd shoot from a tree or a ridge either as the helicopter was apporaching or after it made a pass, greatly increasing hit probability. Because of how fast the rocket gets to targer your only option is for escorts to spot a gunner and send some rounds his way.

  • Sad Sheepdog

    However interesing these discussions about helicopter defense technologies is, we should keep in mind that any technological solution is going to be risky, expensive, and have drawbacks. Meanwhile.. we already have the capabilities that could and should have prevented this and can reduce the possibility in the future. We could have had more CAS assets to suppress the enemy, more ISR to find and target them. We could invest in more human intelligence. We could invest more in weapon buy back programs to get these RPG’s off the street to begin with.

  • Anlushac11

    Seems like the low/high tech approach would be to have sensors to ID incoming round, target it, and then fire something like a shotgun shell at the round to blow it apart.

  • amauyong

    I wonder is it possible or feasible to add the following:

    1) Reflectors that blind people looking or even glancing at the craft temporarily x seconds in the vicinity prior to taking off or landing in “hot” zones…

    2) Laser emitters that blind people looking at the craft for more than x seconds temporarily too in the “hot” zones.

    3) Smoke created temporily around similar “hot” zones prior to landing/taking off since we have infrared to help land or take off (if it is feasible by the pilot of the craft).

    4) A blanket of chemical “rain” that creates noxious fumes for a few minutes prior to landing/take-off from confirmed hot zones.

    Unsure if the above are feasible…just some ideas…sorry.

    My condolences for the loss and sincere regards to loved ones.

    • traindodger

      1) Only works during bright sunlight. Could blind friendlies too.

      2) That might work, but you would need to know where the enemies are. Acoustic, radar-based or infrared gunfire locators would help the dazzler zero in on the source. Also, there’s a very high likelihood that the salvos will come from multiple directions, so you might have trouble focusing the laser dazzler on all of them unless you chain multiple independently-targetable dazzlers together.

      3) If you create enough smoke to conceal the aircraft, you must also necessarily blind the pilot. Obscured vision and helicopters do not mix.

      4) In order to protect the aircraft within a 400-meter radius, you would need to spray about 125 acres with the stuff. That’s a lot of terrain to cover. Also, depending on which way the wind is blowing, you might end up gassing yourself.

    • blight

      In brainstorm mode, I would wonder if Yehudi lights on helicopters might help.

      Phosphorus based smoke tends to rise in columns rather than spread, so it might not help helicopters much. It’ll also likely disperse quickly because of the rotors. And smoke works best on slow targets, so if you slow down enough to use smoke effectively, you are /more/ vulnerable to RPGs.

      I wonder if gliders might be the way forward. Or parachuting in. There’s vulnerability on the descent and landing, but helicopters are detected by noise, and as we know they remain quite capable of taking them out.

  • MTSX – Metal Storm, Australian company. lock onto the rpg and fire a half dozen proximity detonation 40mm grenades in a fraction of a second.

    Their Redback or whatever its called has already been tested against RPG’s…problem is they are a relatively cheap and easy to install, but we Cut all funding to their United States based research facility in favor of more expensive waste of time earmark spending.

    It will take a generation for all the old losers in charge of what weapon systems get used and which dont get any funding to die off or retire…then we can finally start shooting down rpgs.

    the technology is out there. we just dont want to use it unless Lockheed charges us 1000x what it actually costs, and congressman’s family and friends get paid 150k a year to work on it (dont forget a year or two of delays to keep the paychecks flowing!)

    p.s. u would think as the 10th anniversary of sept 11 comes up, our Afghanistan based troops would be using a replacement for the M4…something as strong as our WW2 savior the Garand…since engagements are almost always out of effective range for the tiny 5.56…just a thought. It is sad SEALs are still losing their lives in this wretched country after so long. Maybe someday we will put a hold on all of our $10 Million Dollar “smartbombs” and go back to what wins wars…pummeling our opposing country into a parking lot. Keep fighting for Afghans who hate us while our country goes broke and our middle class disappears into 99% poor and the 1% super rich. Come on America!

  • Jamie

    In a rare article about Canada’s JTF2 one of the operators stated in essence that he prayed not going into combat but when he went in a helicopter because he couldn’t fight back from a helicopter. On the ground he was fine, in the air he felt vulnerable and helpless.

  • demophilus

    Some of the commenters above (Bead, blight) refer to the RPG’s self-destruct fuzing, which may have some applications against aircraft — ranged and/or volley fire, etc. Let’s not go into the details on an open board. IIRC, there have been rumors that the mujahideen were taught such tactics by Western SOF when fighting the Russians back in the 80s.

    Also, at least some RPG fuzes can be swapped out. IIRC, there have been rumors that various proximity fuzes have been designed for RPGs. Again, let’s not go into details on an open board.

    So the RPG may not be a great anti-helicopter weapon, but with certain upgrades and/or tactics, in certain environments, it might not be too bad either.

    Apart from responding to the threat with tactics (CAS, varying infil and exfil routes, etc.), other countermeasures may work. A laser dazzling system might actually work against a optical proximity fuse. A low power pulsed laser directed energy system might touch off whatever fuze the RPG uses. It doesn’t have to destroy the rocket grenade body; all it has to do is an EMP kill on the fuse.

    IIRC, some of our aerospace contractors are working on upgrading laser IRCM systems to provide such capability. For example, they’re building in the capability to upgrade to more powerful laser emitters.

    That may take years. Until then, it looks like the only fix is better tactics. Turboprop (or UAV) CAS is interesting, but we lost a lot of CAS and FAC assets in Viet Nam to direct fire. Sad to say, but until better machinery comes on line, the best fix is better TTP, and you generally learn that by studying mistakes.

    RIP, SEALs, pilots, and friendly Afghan forces. May your loss not be in vain.

  • SteveR

    why cant the israeli trophy system be adapted to be used on choopers instead of investing money in creating something new
    use an existing system and invest in miniaturizing it to allow for less weight
    taking something that has been proven in combat (by the israeli army) against rockets of all kinds including but not limited to RPG’s,AT3 SAGGER, and other guided missiles as well
    why go and waste money AGAIN