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Strike on Iraq: Helicopter Down in Kuwait

Aired March 20, 2003 - 22:00   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: There we go, Connie. Thank you, and good evening again, everyone.
A good reminder today as a battle plan unfolded that certainly did not follow the contours that we expected. The defense secretary this afternoon was asked why we hadn't yet seen that shock and awe, and it brought out his usual bite. He said, "I don't believe you have the war plan." A fact, he added, which does not make me unhappy.

Indeed, we don't have the war plan or know where this is all going. All we can do is keep up with the facts on the ground as best as we can. And they are moving quite quickly.

Tonight, in your screen now, in the large picture, that is Baghdad as the sun rises. It is dawn now, 6:00, 6:01 on Friday morning in Baghdad. Five million residents there, and what must they be thinking? Also, you can see Kuwait City over on the top of your screen to the left. A city that is also quite nervous because it knows full well that it could be attacked, it might be attacked. And, in fact, throughout much of the day the air raid sirens in Kuwait City went off for fear that the Iraqis would throw missiles their way.

Down in the middle, another shot of Baghdad. And down at the bottom of the screen, -- and I'm not sure if we can take that into the larger box or not -- but that is a picture, a live picture of the 7th Cavalry as it moves through the Kuwaiti -- correct me --as it moves through the Iraqi desert. They have crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq. They had a bit of resistance. It took about two hours to manage the resistance.

Again, these are live pictures. Think about the significance, the technology and all the rest of these young cavalry men moving their tanks and heavy armor through the Iraqi desert. Ultimately, their destination: the outskirts of Baghdad. How long it'll take them to get there, they are the forward edge, the tip of the spear, as they say.

Behind them, a large infantry will ultimately come closer, but they will lead the way. They don't want to get too far in front of that. But they are making their way. And as we go along, we'll talk with Walt Rodgers, we hope. Walt is one of the embedded reporters, and Walt is with that group.

We begin our coverage, however, in this hour with the worst of news. The first casualties on the American side we can now report. Jamie McIntyre is at the Pentagon. Jamie, we have some detail now on this helicopter accident. Correct?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Right. And the first casualties come not from combat but from an accident. Sometimes one of the deadliest parts of the U.S. military operation is simply the training and the logistics and all the things they have to deal with.

What happened was about 7:40 PM our time, a Marine helicopter, a CH-46E carrying 16 -- with 16 people on board, crashed about nine miles south of the Iraq-Kuwaiti border. There was a mix of American and British troops on board. Sixteen people altogether, no survivors.

No indication that this was a result of hostile fire. It appears to be some kind of mechanical malfunction or other problem. Of course, at this point they're still unsure what caused the crash. But there are no survivors. Reuters is saying that of the 12 on board -- of the 16 on board, 12 are U.S. and four were British.

There's been some confusion about that. So we're trying to sort those numbers out to make sure they're correct. But nevertheless, 16 people, including American and British troops, killed in the crash of this CH-46 helicopter.

BROWN: Jamie, go ahead and clear your throat or cough, what you need to do here. Tell me if my memory is right. My recollection of the first casualties in Afghanistan is that it was an accident as well. This is difficult and dangerous work, even before they get into combat.

MCINTYRE: Yes. I don't recall exactly, but I do know that more people died in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan as a result of accidents than died as a result of hostile fire. Of course, that was a very different kind of operation here. And how many casualties actually result from war depends really on how much the Iraqi troops put up resistance. And that's really one of the big questions at the moment.

BROWN: And there was another accident, it was a week or so ago, where four Americans died in a similar sort of situation. It was a helicopter accident. Just again, to underscore that, even before you get into combat there are plenty of risks out there. The sand, the dirt, all of it makes this very tough going for these young men and women who are out there as well.

MCINTYRE: In fact, there were two other helicopter accidents today. There was an MH-53 special operations helicopter that had a hard landing. It had to be destroyed on the ground after the crew and the soldiers on board were rescued, were taken out of there. And then later in the day today there was an Apache attack helicopter that also had to put down, had a hard landing. They were able to take off again and return to their base safely.

BROWN: Jamie, thanks. Again, we're not precisely sure of the nationalities of everyone. We believe mostly Americans, that would stand to reason. A Marine helicopter has gone down in an accident on the Kuwaiti side of the Iraq-Kuwaiti border. And we'll work out the number of Americans and the number of British soldiers and Marines who died in the accident. And as next of kin are notified -- and that's a process that can take some time -- then we will be able to tell you who they are and honor them in a more appropriate way than simply to say that 16 people died in an accident in the desert this morning in Kuwait, at least.

Again, down in the corner of your screen, what you are seeing is the 7th Cavalry on its way to Baghdad. How quickly and what it will encounter as it gets there, we do not know. But we know what has happened so far because CNN's Walt Rodgers has been riding with them. Walt, tell us -- you don't need to tell us location. But tell us what you can about what you have encountered to date.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The pictures you're seeing are absolutely phenomenal. These are live pictures of the 7th Cavalry racing across the deserts in southern Iraq. They will -- it will be days before they get to Baghdad, but you've never seen battlefield pictures like these before.

Immediately in front of our cameras, an M1-A1 Abrams tank. We're sitting about 30 meters, now about 40 meters off the back of that tank. You can see that they've got water bottles stacked on board. That's how close we are.

The orange cover on the back is called a VF-17. That's a visual identification marker for allied aircraft in the air to let them know this is the 7th Cavalry, these are friendly units, we are rolling through the desert. Speed here, probably 40 to 50 kilometers an hour. That's been our speed most of the time.

A short while ago, perhaps 30 minutes ago, this unit took some incoming fire. It never came within more than half a kilometer of the 7th Cavalry. But there you can see these tanks rolling along. The Army says these are the most lethal killing machines on the earth. And when you see those 120-millimeter guns go off, there's no doubt about it.

There he's swinging the turret. That constant swinging of the turret is to maintain a state of alertness. As you look at the soldiers atop the tank, the one nearest us on the left side of the tank is the loader. He is responsible for loading the 120-millimeter shells, gun shells into the tank when it engages in hostile combat. That has not occurred. That is, the tanks have not fired, to the best of our knowledge, so far today.

The other soldier on the right side of the turret, his head sticking up too, is the commander of the tank. You have to realize, they've been riding along, bouncing along in these tanks for probably six or more hours now. Those two on top are standing. The driver is -- if you can look on the left front side, the driver is in a reclining position by that slash (ph) 91 figure. He's in a two-thirds reclined position.

And then deeper inside the tank, and if you ride inside that tank, it is like riding in the bowels of a dragon. They roar. They screech. You can see them slowing now. We've got to be careful not to get in front of them. But what you're watching here...

BROWN: Wow, look at that shot.

RODGERS: ... is truly historic television and journalism. This is live pictures of the 7th U.S. Cavalry headed for Iraq. This is actual time. What you are witnessing now is what is happening here in the Iraqi desert as the 7th Cavalry, part of the 3rd Infantry Division, is moving northward through the Iraqi desert.

We should tell you that some of the squadron is now completely fanned out. This is the Apache troop. Earlier in the evening, when we crossed the border with Kuwait, we were in a single column. The reason being we stayed in a single column because there was concern about minefields. But now we are well past the danger of mine fields.

The entire Apache troop of the U.S. Army 7th Infantry -- 7th Cavalry is spread out in this giant fan across this desert plain. There are two other troops in the 7th Cavalry. B Troop is Bone Crusher. And C Troop is the Crazy Horse Troop. But we've been riding with the Apache Troop. Back to you.

BROWN: Don't go away. Let me ask you, how long have they been on the move? At what point did they cross the border? How long ago?

RODGERS: Let me check my watch. My guess is we crossed the border three and a half to four hours ago. Again, speeds vary. We go -- sometimes we're going as fast as 40 kilometers an hour, maybe even faster. And remember, these tanks can go 84 kilometers an hour. But the -- they can't get out too far in front of the support vehicles, the tankers, which are following behind them. Back to you.

BROWN: And while there was -- I know from your earlier reporting, when they first crossed the border, or shortly after they first crossed the border, at least, there was some resistance that slowed things down. Can you describe that for us?

RODGERS: Actually, that was just before they crossed the border. They were about to cross the border and there was some hostile action, is what one officer told me, from the Iraqi side of the border. We're not exactly sure how the engagement unfolded. It is possible that the Kiowa helicopters, which fly out in front ahead of us, they have been the first to engage the hostile Iraqi unit, or it may have been the Bradley fighting vehicles, or it may have been these tanks.

But we were told, and this is unofficial, and it might be somewhat inaccurate, but we were told that six Iraqi trucks were taken out. We just passed an old Iraqi T-54 tank that was here from a previous war. Earlier this evening, also, we think an unknown number of tanks were hit, no more than three or four. But that was really little more than a skirmish.

It held the 7th Cavalry up at the border briefly until the lane of passage through the border berm could be cleared. Once that border berm was cleared, they moved through very, very quickly. If you can stay with us just a little longer, we're coming up on another skeleton of another war, another old Soviet vintage tank that the Iraqis would have used probably during the Gulf War.

You can see it. You're just about it see it on the ground there. The turret, it would have been knocked out by allied forces in the 1991 Gulf War. And look at that old Soviet tank, and then pan over and look at the M1-A1 Abrams, if you want to see how the history of mechanized warfare has (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the last 15 years. Back to you.

BROWN: It's amazing. You know General Wesley Clark is with us. There are so many things, when you look at those pictures, to talk about. For one thing, the vastness of the desert.

The only thing we see in looking at those pictures is this old tank. There's nothing out there. You said to me, they're going too fast, slow down. Explain -- there's a military concern here, having to do with not getting too far ahead of the pack.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, that's right. I wouldn't want to see the formation break up. But that's up to the commanders on the ground. That's just my instinct.

I spent a lot of time out at the national training center, and I've watched this adrenaline surge that people get, even in simulated combat. And I mean, they're into something, and they want to go, and they want to get the mission done. And so the trick is to get them in control, get the energy harnessed and constructive and ready to go, and really have their formation in the best balance when they do get contact.

BROWN: All right. This is a cavalry unit. Tell me what a cavalry unit does.

CLARK: This is probably given a mission as an advanced guard for the division. It's out there conducting an operation to locate enemy forces in front and to defeat those forces in order to prepare the way for the rest of the division's movement. It wants to be an hour, maybe two hours in front of the division.

So the distance is less important than the time, really. Because you want the rest of the division to be able to react if they hit any significant enemy contact. Their job is to find obstacles, find a way around it, find enemy resistance. Either take it out or fix it and let the rest of the force react to it.

BROWN: What protects them? Who protects the cavalry?

CLARK: Well, in a sense, they aren't protected. I mean they are the first element. But, of course, they've got overhead infantry. They know where they are through the global positioning system. And they're talking to the Kiowa warrior helicopters that should be up flying on their flanks and maybe in front.

BROWN: Just hang on one second. These are live pictures, and what you're seeing here is a cameraman trying to orient himself or find a shot through what's going on there. And I think there are moments like this where the only thing to say to you is bear with us.

These men who are shooting the pictures are doing the best they can. This thing's going about 40 miles an hour or so, or kilometers. I did (ph) that already. Forty miles an hour or so.

It's rocky, it's loud, it's difficult. And they're trying to get -- excuse me -- some of the most extraordinary pictures in many ways, when you think of the moment they are in, that you'll ever see. When you look at this, are you dazzled by what you're seeing in a sense?

CLARK: Well I'm really proud of the men that are out there.

BROWN: Yes, well we all are.

CLARK: I think they're fantastic. They've been through the best training program. They've got great equipment. They're great young men, in this case, and probably a few women in the helicopters and back in the rear here. And they're doing a great job.

BROWN: Now I don't know how many people know that, but in fact women do fly these helicopters.

CLARK: Absolutely.

BROWN: And we met some of them when we were in Kuwait. And they train and do all -- they all do the same thing, and they're all treated the same way.

CLARK: They are.

BROWN: And they're all taking the same risks. As you look at these pictures as they make their way from Kuwait, from the northern border of Kuwait across the border now, I think Walt said they'd been at it a little more than three hours. They make their way across the Iraqi desert.

They went to a berm, which is -- essentially it's like a big sand block or dam. And how do they get through? The tank just rolls over it?

CLARK: It depends on how big it is. The tank could roll over it. They could put a bulldozer with the engineers up in front and sort of cut it. It depends on how hard it is and so forth. Someone would have looked at it and made a decision.

BROWN: And they had some resistance as well reported. It didn't last terribly long. And no casualties on the American side. This is an American unit. Do you know where the 7th Cavalry is based?

CLARK: This is a unit from Fort Stewart, Georgia.

BROWN: Fort Stewart, Georgia, so not far from where we are sitting right now. And they are making their way ultimately to Baghdad. And one of the great questions, and at some point in a few days or a few weeks, who knows, we will know if what this comes down to is a very ugly, a difficult battle for Baghdad. Will this sort of unit have any role in that sort of battle?

CLARK: Absolutely.

BROWN: What kind of role?

CLARK: Well, they're going to go right up to the -- they're going to make contact with the enemy. This is the first unit you want to have to make contact with the enemy, Aaron, because this is a unit that's got firepower, it's got mobility, it's got great communications, it's got air and ground capability. And you want it out there to be the first to figure out where the enemy is, how he's disposed, what's his strength, what's his intention, and then you use that information and you use the rest of the force against the enemy. So this guy's going to be -- this team's going to be up front.

BROWN: So -- I hope I'm not wording this badly. But look at that shot, how clear that shot is. It looks to me like -- is that an American flag on the side? Or am I just imagining that on the side?

CLARK: Can't quite see. It's probably an identification number. Most of these vehicles should be numbered, because one of the tricky things when you look at this is they all look alike.

BROWN: Yes, they do.

CLARK: And even when you're close to it and everybody's got a helmet on, you can't see which vehicle it is. And it's one of the little points of friction. So we've learned to number the vehicles and put colored panels on the back.

BROWN: You could see in that shot just before all the antennas on that particular vehicle. It is not overstated to say the commanders and planners sitting at laptop computers are like air traffic controllers trying to keep track of almost literally every piece of machinery out there, right?

CLARK: Right. And there's thousands of pieces of machinery out there. It's a very complicated battlefield when you're looking at the ground battlefield.

BROWN: Back several weeks ago, months ago maybe, I remember when we went and did a story in Qatar, as the central command had moved to Qatar and they had had exercise, this command and control planning exercise, and there was -- of course, there was nothing to see. It was a bunch of guys, men and women, sitting in front of laptop computers. But this is what they were doing right?

CLARK: Exactly.

BROWN: They were keeping track of the battlefield. And we were talking -- you and I were talking the other day about one of the concerns in this sort of military plan was -- which was described as a kind of simultaneous ground and air plan, is that it does increase the danger of friendly fire accidents and therefore this air traffic control function is hugely important. CLARK: It is. But you know, what we've got now is modern technology that does two things for us. Number one, we've got the global positioning system. So in the past, even in some of the units in the Gulf War, they didn't know where they were. They might go like this for 20 miles, or 20 minutes, at a high rate of speed.

They'd look up and say, well, exactly where am I right now? They might be off by two or three miles, which is huge. Now they know where they are.

And the other thing is, for most of these units we've got some degree of automatic reporting of that position location. So someone up above them knows, and somebody could say, whoops, call off the air strike headed for this location, change the artillery, or they may tell them slow down because our artillery's not keeping up. So we've got a lot better management and control of this force than we've ever had in the past.

BROWN: Is your worst nightmare as the general in a moment like this that you lose contact with or communications with these units that are out there? Is that what makes you nervous?

CLARK: That's one of the things. The other thing, of course, is that they would get into contact and they themselves would lose internal command and control, not knowing where the other units are in their own team and be picked off individually by the enemy.

BROWN: If this is an inappropriate question, just walk away from it. Can you talk about how many -- do you have a sense of how many tanks or how many people are involved in this, how much material is moving for people to keep track of?

CLARK: Well, in this team, Apache here, you've probably got 20 vehicles that are moving there. And they're reporting to a squadron that's controlling maybe 60 vehicles plus helicopters out front, plus a lot of stuff behind it. But that's complicated.

BROWN: And it's obviously not the only thing that's going on.

CLARK: That's right.

BROWN: It is the only thing that we see at this moment. And some of these vehicles we see -- that's an incredible shot, that one you see, several vehicles moving across the desert. We ought not ever lose sight of the fact that what we're talking about is war. And it's -- war is not just dangerous business, it's horrible business.

It sometimes has to be done, but it's never fun. And whatever excitement there is in seeing a picture needs to be tempered by the reality of what war is. And we don't -- and I know that General Clark doesn't, because we've had these conversations, we never lose sight of that.

But it's remarkable to see this unit make its way across the desert in real-time live TV, and to know that this is the tip of the spear, as they say. This is the beginning. This is the unit that will draw the first contact. And when that happens, as General Clark said, that will give positions away and allow others to come in and do their work.

Jamie McIntyre, you've heard about all of this. You've talked to all the planners over time. You know how it's supposed to go. I can't imagine that -- there's nothing like seeing it, is there?

MCINTYRE: I'm sorry, Aaron. Are you talking to me at this point?

BROWN: I was talking to you, yes, sir.

MCINTYRE: I'm sorry. Someone else was talking in my ear just before you. It's really remarkable to see this because of course this is the beginning of the race to Baghdad, the march to Baghdad. Behind this scout unit is essentially the 3rd Infantry Division with all of their armor and equipment.

And you know it looks like they're going to basically take this trek across the desert and show up at the outskirts of Baghdad at the rate they're going here. We can't, of course, tell exactly where they are. And it is remarkable that we're able to see this as it -- as it's taking place live with that videophone right on the back of a vehicle there. It's pretty impressive.

BROWN: It is pretty impressive. Just tell me again, General Clark, how many men are in those units?

CLARK: In each one of these vehicles you've got, of course, a four-man crew.

BROWN: Four-man crew.

CLARK: This is a troop, a cavalry troop. It's Alpha Troop, they call it Apache Troop. Probably got 100, 120 people in it. They're all responsible for vehicles. They're all working on those vehicles when they're stopped. And now they're moving together.

They've probably got helicopters out in front, Aaron. And I would assume that they believe that they're relatively secure there, and that's why they're moving at that kind of speed. If you really were about to make contact with the enemy, you wouldn't want to move faster than you could acquire and engage targets. And so for the tanks, they've got a stabilized gun and a stabilized sighting system.

BROWN: They don't shoot on the run?

CLARK: They do shoot on the run.

BROWN: They do shoot on the run.

CLARK: The tanks do. But there's an ideal speed you shoot at. It's 15 to 18 miles an hour, depending on the terrain. But, of course, it's only the gunner and the commander who can at that point actually see the targets. Where you're moving at that speed, you don't have binoculars up. So the loader's up, he's looking. He would see the flash on the horizon if the enemy engaged, but he's not able to hang on to the tank any more than we can here, bouncing along like this and with 70 tons of steel wrapped around him and see tiny objects on the horizon. So my guess is the helicopters have already cleared a lot of that route.

BROWN: And it is the helicopters that provide them with their intelligence?

CLARK: Right.

BROWN: And these are very low-flying helicopters, aren't they? Really skimming. And are these enlisted men or are they officers? In this four-man crew, are they enlisted men by and large?

CLARK: Well, now this is a platoon here that you're looking at these tanks. These are enlisted men. And you're going to have a sergeant who's been in the Army maybe five, six, seven years as a tank commander. And you're going to have three other people in that crew who may have been in the Army a year, two years, maybe three years.

BROWN: Eighteen, 19, 20-year-olds?

CLARK: These are young men. This is their first taste of battle.

BROWN: Now, Walt, feel free to join the conversation here as you, Walt Rodgers, that is, make your way across the Iraqi desert and we watch it.

RODGERS: Hi, Aaron. We are putting our cameraman, Charlie Miller (ph), back on the bonnet, the hood of this hummer, and now you're getting an even better picture. The dust clouds you see in front of you are being kicked up by the M1-A1 Abrams tank. Actually, the dust cloud on the left is coming from the Apache Troop commander, Captain Clay Lyle of -- originally of Tampa, Texas.

Out in front of them, just over the horizon, we've been watching two of the Kiowa warrior helicopters doing what's called zone reconnaissance. They're hovering no more than 50 feet above the deck, flying at probably 80 knots, and they are very lightly armed vehicles. But what they are doing is flying a survey out in front of the tanks which you see immediately in front of us.

They may go as far as six miles out. But usually they're closer. And they are there to alert the oncoming tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles to any possible hostile forces ahead of them. Again, so far we haven't seen any hostile forces for probably half or three-quarters of an hour. And these tanks are racing to Baghdad.

If I may correct something one of your guests was saying a few minutes ago, I was talking to the tank commanders, and they say that the guns actually become more accurate the higher the speed. That is to say, there's a suspension which kicks in on those M1-A1 Abrams tanks, so that at higher speeds, like 40 miles an hour, they may fire more accurately than 20 miles an hour. And of course they can fire on the run.

I should tell you a little bit about the ammunition they're carrying. The amount of shells they carry is classified, but let's say clearly it's over three dozen. And it's about a two-thirds, one- third ratio. Two thirds of them are what are called sabo (ph) shells. Those are hard, armor-piercing shells that just punch through a concrete bunker or punch through another tank.

The others are high explosives, also very lethal weapons. We have not seen the 7th Cavalry's tanks firing here because any engagements which might have taken place would have been far forward of us when we crossed the border. But now we are riding with the 7th Cavalry, the Apache Troop. And I'm not sure, I think off to our left is the C Troop, which is Crazy Horse Troop, and off to the right is the Bone Crusher Troop.

So this is a very large formation. In the distance, perhaps through a dust cloud up there, I just saw another one of the Kiowa helicopters pop up. They're flying like fish hooks, fish hook formations. Again, flying reconnaissance for these oncoming tanks. There's -- oh, there are the Kiowas there. You can see them. We ought to have a good picture of them now.


BROWN: Just above the horizon line.

RODGERS: The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) system is that little bulb on top of the helicopters. By the way, in the 7th Cavalry there are two women officers who fly those helicopters, pilots. I didn't meet one. I know she's a West Point graduate.

The one I met and worked with is Lieutenant Sarah Fritz (ph) of Portland, Oregon. And she says it's a real hoot flying those, she says, because when she flies those Kiowa helicopters, she told me, she knows she's the first to see the -- what she called the enemy out there. And it is a real adrenaline rush.

You asked earlier about the ranks of those -- those helicopters are flown by junior officers. Lieutenants as a rule, and warrant officers. The units are led by lieutenants, but it's often the warrant officers who are flying them as well.

As for the tanks in the platoon, it's usually a lieutenant, a second lieutenant or a first lieutenant who commands a platoon of tanks and then every one commanding -- every one else driving the tanks are staff sergeants and they are exceptionally professional soldiers, fine -- fine young men.

The women do not travel in the -- in the -- in the tanks or the gravely fighting vehicles. Female soldiers are, however, out there flying those helicopters in advance of the tanks. They -- and they say it's a real hoot to be out there leading this troop of tanks and leading these men towards Baghdad.

Back to you, Aaron. BROWN: Thank you.


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