State Journal-Register

November 05, 2003

Durbin questions if copter properly equipped


WASHINGTON - Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Tuesday asked Pentagon officials to investigate whether the helicopter piloted by an Illinois National Guardsman that was shot down Sunday was equipped with an up-to-date missile defense system.

He also questioned whether all National Guard helicopters operating in Iraq have the system, which is installed in regular Army helicopters. Sixteen soldiers were killed in Sunday's attack. They included 1st Lt. Brian Slavenas, a pilot with the Bartonville-based F Company, 106th Aviation Battalion.

On the Senate floor, Durbin said "reliable military sources" with knowledge of the situation in Iraq told him that all of the helicopters in the 106th Aviation Battalion - seven from the Illinois National Guard and seven from the Iowa National Guard - lacked the necessary protective equipment.

"I find the reports that I have received about the lack of protective equipment to be alarming and unacceptable," Durbin said on the Senate floor.

"Many of the Illinois and Iowa National Guard helicopters have flown for almost six months in theater without the necessary aircraft survivability systems," Durbin told his Senate colleagues. "Some of them have received systems, some partial systems, but only in last week or two. And many of these systems have been scavenged from departing Guard units from other states that are leaving Iraq."

Illinois National Guard officials told reporters Monday that the downed helicopter was equipped with the missile detection system.

Guard spokesman Maj. Tim Franklin said Tuesday, "We stand by what was put out at our press conference."

In a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Durbin asked whether the downed Chinook helicopter had a fully operational ALQ-156 missile detector system with an automatic flare dispenser and seat armor to protect the pilot.

He also asked Rumsfeld to ensure that all Guard helicopters are provided the protective gear they need.

"If that equipment is not available, you should protect those units until they are properly equipped, or re-assess when and where they will fly," Durbin wrote in a letter also signed by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

There was no immediate comment from the Department of Defense.

It's not been determined conclusively what downed the helicopter. The missile defense system might not have protected the aircraft from some weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades.