The announcement by the Department of Defense on Monday that U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters are being sent to Iraq means one thing: the war against ISIS is about to get more personal. A “senior” defense official (that means he/she should have known better) not authorized to discuss the deployment helpfully told ABC News anyway that 8 Apaches – roughly a company sized element – will end up in Iraq.
The fearsome attack helicopter’s arrival in the war torn country signals a shift in the United States’ approach to dealing with ISIS. Unlike the warplanes and drones the U.S. and its allies currently use to drop bombs on the radical governors of a would-be caliphate, the Apache is a comparably close range weapon. F-16s, F/A-18s, F-22s and F-15s (and more recently, venerable B-52s are poised to jump into the fight as well) all fly high above the fight delivering their payload from well beyond the range of any weapons that ISIS could use against air threats. Even drones loiter above the battlefield, albeit at a slower pace, and deliver their punch from a distance.
Not so with the Apache. It can top out at 182 miles per hour under some configurations (compare that with over 1,100 miles per hour for an F/A-18 Super Hornet – cruise speeds are slower than that) and to engage the enemy it flies hundreds (not thousands) of feet above the ground.
In a little noticed move last summer, the Army began conducting artillery rocket strikes against ISIS targets. With a longer range than gun artillery, rocket artillery nevertheless needs to be based much closer to the action than an airplane that can fly in and out every mission.
How the slow escalation will end is absolutely unpredictable. It started with carrier based fighter jets, then included Air Force planes and drones, expanded to rocket artillery based in Iraq and Jordan, and will now include helicopters flying much, much closer to the enemy.
A notable facet of the Apache presence is how they will be used. According to the same unnamed defense official who leaked the number of helicopters:
[The] Apache helicopters will be authorized to help the Iraqi forces when Iraq leaders determine they need them.
Giving the Iraqis involvement with the decision-making process for when and how the Apaches will be used requires close coordination between the growing presence of U.S. forces and advisors and the resurgent Iraqi military, which managed to retake Ramadi from ISIS last December.
Just what the next escalation in Iraq will involve is hard to predict, but the arrival of the Apaches is a pretty significant development.