online.wsj.com/U.S. Apache Helicopters Join Battle Against Islamic State

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SHAFAQNA –  U.S. military officials on Sunday introduced Apache helicopters into the campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq’s embattled Anbar province, marking the closest air support the U.S. has provided since it began airstrikes in early August.

The use of Apache AH-64 helicopters provided new capabilities in the U.S. fight against Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The attack helicopters come equipped with a wider array of sensors and targeting devices than other aircraft used in the military operation. The helicopters also are armed with hellfire missiles, which can be fired at targets several miles away.

As the U.S. prepares to add Apache helicopters in the battle against ISIS, what other military options does the U.S. have? Col. Cedric Leighton and Simon Constable discuss. Photo: Getty

“The bottom line is it brings incredible capabilities for viewing what ISIS is doing,” said Rick Brennan, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp. “This is one way to bring close air support to friendly forces without having troops on the ground.”

Iraqi security forces requested the Apaches to bolster their efforts on the ground in Fallujah, said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Central Command. Fallujah is in Anbar province, where militants are waging a fierce fight to control several towns.

The Apache helicopters flew on Sunday and returned on Monday. U.S. Central Command said sites targeted by the helicopters and other aircraft included Islamic State mortar positions, several units of fighters and a bunker. Belgium and the U.K. participated in Monday’s strikes, officials said.

Most flights over Iraq and Syria are being flown by F-15, F-16 and F-18 fighters, said Christopher Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. These planes are better for targeting buildings, bridges and other structures.

Human rights groups have voiced concern about civilian casualties from the strikes in Syria, while U.S. officials have countered that the military goes to great lengths to avoid them. Because the helicopters can fly closer to the ground, they allow pilots to be more precise when identifying and striking targets and to better avoid injuring civilians, Mr. Brennan said.

But the helicopters also are more vulnerable than fighter jets to ground fire, experts said. In Afghanistan from 2001 through July 2014, helicopter casualties accounted for 9% of U.S. troop deaths, according to a Brookings Institution report, while winged aircraft incidents accounted for 1.2% of deaths.

Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com

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