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The terrible tragedy in Afghanistan early on Saturday morning August 6th has electrified the nation. It was the greatest single loss in Afghanistan and it took some of our finest fighting men. It is a national tragedy.
The Defense Department has launched an investigation. Not too many details are known. The best we can say is that a Chinook was dispatched with crack Seal Team forces to carry out a rescue mission. Either while landing or taking off (the details vary), the Chinook was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, crashed, and all on board were lost.
The RPG-7 as it is known is a simple weapon that terrorists have used effectively against American forces. Originally from Russia, RPG’s are made around the world, from China, to Iran, to Syria. The RPG is relatively simple but lethal: it consists of a primary charge that launches a rocket and a warhead/grenade from a tube that is made up of metal and wood, or metal and cheap composite material. Once out of the tube the rocket ignites and propels the grenade. The device is aimed manually and the rocket travels in more or less the same direction as it was launched (subject to wind conditions where it has a tendency to turn toward the prevailing wind). There are different type fuse arrangements, but the simplest is to detonate on contact. Recently, RPG’s have been equipped with a passive infra-red site so that targets can be identified at night. It is not known with any certainty if the RPG that struck the Chinook was aimed with such a night vision device, but some suspect that is what happened.
Currently helicopters flying such missions have limited warning systems to help them against RPG’s. The best is a RWR or radar warning receiver, but it was designed against heat seeking missiles and is reportedly not too good at identifying RPG’s. Also it cannot get a read on a missile until it is pretty far along on its trajectory, which limits the utility of an RWR against a short range RPG fired from the ground, often in a highly radar-cluttered environment.
Safety Dynamics, a sensor company in Tucson Arizona, may have a solution to help pilots react quickly to an RPG threat, or even the threat of a high powered sniper rifle or anti-aircraft gun.
Safety Dynamics designs and builds acoustic sensors based on neural network technology. The company is headed by Sally Fernandez and is privately held. Her technology has had Army and Navy sponsorship and most recently was featured on National Geographic.
The sensor works inside the range envelope of the RPG and can react to an RPG launch in less than a second. Since the travel time of an RPG can be a mere 5 seconds, an alarm in the cockpit alerts the pilot to take a drastic evasive action.
Because the RPG does not have a sensor and must follow its launch course to completion, a rapid, severe and immediate reaction in the cockpit may be enough to avert an RPG hit.
A key element of the technology is its virtual immunity to other sounds, such as rotor whop, jet engine whining, and wind and vibration noises. Helicopters are very noisy machines, so being able to immediately hear an RPG launch is non-trivial, but in the case of the Safety Dynamics technology, workable.
No one can replace what was lost in the Chinook crash. Tactics need to be changed. But there is technology to help solve the problem -in short, there is a warning sensor for the Chinook.