The fact that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan claimed Wednesday morning that the U.S. has killed those responsible for downing the CH-47 Chinook - killing 38, including 22 Navy SEALs - last weekend is good news, relatively speaking. "At approximately midnight on 8 August coalition forces killed the Taliban insurgents responsible for this attack against the helicopter, which we assess was an RPG round," Marine General John Allen told reporters at the Pentagon via a telephone hookup. "We tracked them, as we would in the aftermath of any operation, and we dealt with them with a kinetic strike."
Amid the grief and tears, there is even better news to know: the loss of U.S. military helicopters to the enemy is 15% of what it was in Vietnam (click on chart above to enlarge). There are hundreds of U.S. troops alive today who would have perished in downed helicopters if not for key improvements made in survivability since then.
Between 2001 and 2009, there were 496 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq aboard helicopters, 81% of them without enemy involvement, according to a recent Pentagon study. Nearly all of those were due to pilot error or mechanical breakdowns. Helicopters are complex machines that can be challenging to fly, and that has been a persistent problem since Igor Sikorsky's R-4 took off during World War II.
But focusing on the remaining 19% attributed to combat losses shows a marked improvement. "The total loss rate for all rotorcraft types is seven times lower and the fatality rate is five times lower than Vietnam," the study says. "At the beginning of the Vietnam conflict, helicopters were extremely vulnerable to small caliber weapons. Single-engine designs, lack of critical systems redundancy, and non-crashworthy fuel systems led to a large number of losses from 1965–1969."
An important part of the reduction is when the choppers are flying:
In Vietnam, helicopters were not equipped with night vision devices, and the percentage of night flights was small. Thus, nearly all of the Vietnam losses occurred in daylight or twilight hours when the enemy may have had an opportunity to visually acquire the aircraft before firing his weapon. In OEF/OIF, most helicopters were equipped with night vision devices, and night flights were routine. These more frequent night flights limited the enemy’s ability to visually acquire the helicopter before engaging it. Validation of this point is seen in the fact that 75% of the combat hostile action losses in OEF/OIF occurred during daylight or twilight hours, which shows that visual identification is one of the primary methods for the enemy to acquire rotary wing aircraft.
That plainly didn't help the SEALs and their comrades, flying deep in an Afghan valley shortly after midnight. The study noted that the best way to protect military helicopters is to keep them away from enemy forces with guns. But it added that there needs to be more done to protect those aboard ill-starred choppers - like last Saturday's CH-47 - when an RPG round gets lucky:
To reduce personnel injuries and fatalities for combat threat losses and mishaps, improve airframe crashworthiness and crash protection for passengers. DoD crashworthiness standards have not been updated since the 1970s and need to be expanded in scope to cover a wider set of aircraft and environmental conditions.