November 11, 2003
Choppers lack defense system - Six Bartonville-based Illinois
National Guard helicopters lack anti-missile equipment
By DORI MEINERT
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Pentagon officials acknowledged Monday that six of 14 National Guard helicopters from the 106 Aviation Battalion in Bartonville were flying missions in Iraq from June to August even though they lacked basic anti-missile defense systems that regular Army helicopters have.
But they suggested in a private briefing with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that the Guard unit was at fault for reporting the helicopters had the necessary equipment for the assignment, Durbin said.
And, they said the problem was an unusual situation limited to that unit and not a widespread problem with Guard helicopters from units nationwide.
"They (the unit) had been told to put it on in the states," said Durbin, referring to the missile defense equipment, after a 50-minute briefing with three colonels and a congressional liaison from the Pentagon.
The unit included seven helicopters from the Illinois National Guard and seven from the Iowa National Guard. One of the Iowa helicopters was shot down Nov. 2, killing 15 soldiers including the pilot, 1st Lt. Brian D. Slavenas of Genoa.
It was that incident that prompted Guard members in Iraq to e-mail Durbin's staff last week complaining about inadequate equipment. In response, Durbin requested the briefing.
Since August, all but one helicopter from the unit have received the anti-missile system, ALQ-156, which detects the path of a missile and attempts to counter it with flares, aimed at drawing heat-seeking missiles away, or with metallic chaff, to try to throw off radar-guided missiles, Durbin said Pentagon officials told him.
The helicopter that was shot down was equipped with such a system, Pentagon officials said last week.
But many of the 106th Chinook helicopters didn't have the ALQ-156 before they were sent to Iraq. Asked why, Durbin said Army Col. William Crosby, program manager for cargo helicopters, replied:
"I can't answer that. They were told to get it. They were told to be prepared for this. It is possible they didn't have the
budget to do it. But whatever the case, when these 14 helicopters were sent out from the United States, they weren't ready."
Durbin related the discussion to reporters immediately after the
Crosby's statements to Durbin are at odds with the limited information that has come from the Illinois National Guard to date. Lt. Col. Alicia Tate-Nadeau said Guard units typically are brought to readiness level in the theater after they are mobilized for active duty. Brig. Gen. Randal CQ Thomas, adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, told Durbin
last week that the unit's helicopters left the United States without the equipment.
On Monday, however, Crosby told Durbin that the helicopters were represented as fully equipped. Crosby said it wasn't until the 14 helicopters arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, for shipment, that he learned only three had the ALQ-156 missile defense systems. The Army obtained more systems, but six were damaged when they arrived in Kuwait.
"Based on what they told me and communications we've had, it appears that this unit that came out of Illinois and Iowa was a special situation," Durbin said. "We heard from a Virginia unit which raised similar questions.
"But what the Army tells us is that this 106th was a special situation. The Army believed they were fully operational and they weren't. They tried to put the equipment on board as quickly as they could, but they used them for missions while they were installing the equipment," Durbin said.
The unit scavenged some systems from California National Guard units, as they returned to the United States.
Complicating the issue is that the unit was called up for active duty with just seven days notice, Durbin said.
In another instance where the 106th Aviation Battalion fell through the cracks, Durbin said, its helicopters are among 130 that haven't received the more advanced missile defense system, the ALE-47, because they were slated to be mothballed and replaced with a newer joint service helicopter. But that helicopter project was killed. He said he didn't know when the helicopters would be upgraded.
Durbin said the Pentagon officials' briefing still leaves many questions unanswered.
"How did they get activated? How did they get deployed if their
equipment wasn't on board? There are a lot of unanswered questions about seven days notice and up and you're off and the equipment's not on board the helicopters," Durbin said.