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In Wake of SEAL Tragedy, We Ask: Are Chopper Shootdowns Preventable?

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The answer could be found in a laser.

CH-47 Chinook

As the U.S. mourns the tragic loss of 38 servicemen, including 22 Navy SEALs, due to a CH-47 Chinook being shot down, questions abound about how, if possible, the tragic loss could have been averted, and whether there are ways to better protect U.S. helicopters and the troops they carry from now on.

Air travel in a combat zone is inherently dangerous, but there are precedents for aerial campaigns with near zero losses. The U.S. enforced a no-fly zone over Iraq for a decade with near-impunity, despite the presence of SAM (Surface to Air Missile) sites and other anti-aircraft weaponry in Saddam's Iraq. And even the Soviets were able to use their MI-24 Hind helicopter gunships to great effect in Afghanistan until the U.S. changed the game with Stinger missiles.

But can we prevent nearly all helicopter shootdowns? Probably not. Helicopters will always be vulnerable because their core mission puts them in close, constant contact with the ground. They don't fly exclusively to and from secure aerial bases and stay at high altitudes like jets. In fact, enough rounds of small arms fire can bring down a multi-million dollar helicopter gunship, which is much more nimble than a huge, lumbering Chinook transport.

But could technology soon make catastrophic shootdowns less likely? That seems plausible given a little ingenuity and a sense of urgency in the military bureaucracy.

Wired magazine has come up with a creative approach. In an article on Tuesday, Wired asserted that if two existing Army systems were integrated into chopper defense, the combination could theoretically provide improved protection for all military helicopters- including the Boeing CH-47 Chinook.

Specifically, Wired suggests the military combine an "acoustic gunshot detector with a dazzling laser that will startle shooters who take aim at American helos."

The first technology- acoustic gunshot detection- is already in use by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan for land based vehicles. Essentially, it uses a form of sonar to determine when rounds are incoming, and the direction of their origin.

A few army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters have deployed in Afghanistan with prototypes of the acoustic detection system called HALTT (Helicopter Alert and Threat Termination) already. And as for the Chinook, Wired reports that:

"Back at home, Chinook helicopters  — like the kind that went down over Wardak province this weekend — are undergoing tests of the HALTT system. In one June 2010 trial HALTT detected 95 percent of the 2,400 shots fired at it (although it had troubles finding the direction of those shots when the helo was hovering)."

The second countermeasure approach- lasers - is also in current military usage, though there are two components to lasers in this context. Lasers can be infrared beams that disrupt targeting mechanisms. But that would not be useful against small arms fire since they rely on the human eye. That's where a 'dazzler' laser comes in.

A dazzler generally refers to a directed light beam intended to temporarily blind an opponent (think of someone in a dark room shining a light in your eyes). You can't shoot what you can't see, so this would be effective against any weapon that relies on human line of sight

What Wired has offered up, then, is a kind of combination acoustic-detector and light-emitter defense package for helicopters. A pilot could maneuver more effectively when the first shot is fired, and respond with blinding targeted laser countermeasures in that direction (or the nearest door-mounted M-240).

This video from defense company ITT gives a pretty good overview of its helicopter defense technologies:

ITT is one of four companies that will be competing for an army helicopter protection contract that will soon be announced, according to Wired's Noah Schactman. The current schedule would have the winner producing prototypes sometime around 2017.

Hopefully our men and women in uniform will be home much sooner than that, but the U.S. military needs to employ every available method to help protect our helicopter pilots and the troops they transport until that day comes.

And this could be the answer.

(h/t wired)

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