Defense Update - News Analysis by David Eshel

Sunday, July 30, 2006

IAF Investigates Cause of Israeli AH-64 Helicopter Losses

Updated Aug. 10, 2006:

An Israel AIr Force (IAF) AH-64D Longbow (IDF designation: Saraf) helicopter was lost on July 24, 2006 close to the Israeli-Lebanese border while on a combat mission. Immediately after the event the IAF ruled out the possibility that the helicopter was hit by Hezbollah surface-to-air missiles. If it was not suffered due to hostile action, what was the cause of this event?

The helicopter was on a combat mission, was Number 2 of a two ship team, supporting IDF ground operations in Lebanon. The helicopter was flown by Lt. Tom Farkash and Col. Zvi Loft. When hit the helicopter was loitering at an altitude of 8,000 feet, observing the targets engaged by the team leader. The Israel Air Force (IAF) is considering one of two possibilities which could have caused the accident.

1. The possibility of technical failure in a critical component of the rotor hub:
In a rare video record of the crash, the rotor can clearly be seen separated from the fuselage, while still in the air. The helicopter recently went through repairs, implementing manufacturer's mandated technical fixes. Accordingto Israel Channel 2 news, Boeing sent a a technical team to Israel to assist in the investigation. It is unclear why such a failure occured (if indeed this was the reason for the loss) since these AH-64D have logged only few hundred flight hours. Following this event, the IAF grounded all its AH-64s, and after replacing the suspected faulty component, returned them to operational status.

2. Mid-air collision with a rocket:
Few days after the event, the IAF published its preliminary findings, according to which the accident was caused by mid-air collision with an M-28 rocket, fired by a nearby Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) unit (IDF Designation: Menatez).

Sources at the IDF Artillery corps rebuffed these findings claiming that MLRS doesn't reach these altitudes, but the ballistic algorithms calculations clearly indicate that M-26 rockets can reach an altitude of 1 - 2 km when fired at lower trajectory to ranges of about 20 km and further. However, it is unclear if the rockets actualy reach this height at the location where the accident occured.

This leads us to a discussion of a different topic.

The management of low level airspace is recognized as a problematic issue by modern forces which employed high intensity warfare in recent years. The airspace at these altitudes is filled with activity, not only by helicopters and UAVs but also by air defense missiles, gun, rockets and artillery. The US Army operates a Divisional Airspace Management Element (DAME), supervising all relevant activity (helicopters, UAVs, air defense, rockets and artillery), allocating safe areas for the operations of manned assets, including aircraft and helicopters and de-conflicting airspace usage. Even these were not sufficient; in 2005 the US Army began to operate smaller six-men teams attached to brigade combat teams, to manage the brigade's airspace, after mini UAVs collided with helicopters. Similar events were experienced in Afghanistan as well.

In Israel, the IAF has total control of all non-civilian airspace, including all relevant assets, such as aircraft, helicopters, UAVs and air defense systems. However, the IAF does not control the IDF's artillery and rockets, neither the Navy's shipborn air defense systems (Phalanx and Barak). Since both services did not employ their systems extensively to realize the need to change control authority, erroneous procedures seeped into their routines. One such procedure nearly caused the loss of the Israeli Naval Ship Hanit to the Chinese made C-802 missile, as the Israeli didn't activate its air defense weapons and active EW, to avoid potential risk of fratricide. The Israeli Navy considered the ship's position, some 16 km off the Lebanese coast as "safe" from coastal threats. They were not prepared for the long range missile in the theater. Both events could be avoided, have the IAF, Israel Navy and Ground Forces Command establish better "joint" operations framework, which will enable these forces not only to fight for a common cause, but also to safely and effectively operate together.

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