The Apache helicopter was a maligned weapon system in early 1991 as low readiness rates, and worse than expected performance in small conflicts made people wonder if the aircraft’s huge costs were worth it. But the system excelled in the tough environment of the Persian Gulf War, chewing up Iraqi armor, bunkers, and ground troops.
In fact, one Apache crew even accepted the surrender of an Iraqi officer and his driver after the men decided they couldn’t escape the helicopter in their vehicle.
Soldiers receive an escort from AH-64 Apache helicopters in 2004.
(U.S. Army Sgt. Kimberly Snow)
Warrant Officer John Ely was one of the pilots on the attack helicopter, and he would later describe the Iraqis’ actions as a seemingly obvious decision. Ely had been part of a team hunting targets in the desert, and they had already erased a few enemy positions.
Ely had his eye on a Toyota when the driver suddenly stopped the vehicle and hopped out. He opened the door for “a fat Iraqi officer” who exited the vehicle with his hands up and a briefcase raised.
Now, even with the man attempting to surrender, this was a tricky situation. Typically, surrenders are given to “maneuver” forces like infantry or cavalry on the ground, but engineers, artillery, and plenty of other ground troops are quite capable of accepting an enemy surrender.
But Apache crews have a severe weakness in this area. While the helicopter’s lethality is a great reason for enemy troops to throw their hands in the air, how does a four-man team in two helicopters; a common battlefield deployment for the attack helicopters, take custody of prisoners?
How do they search them for intel and weapons? How do they transport them back to a base? Apaches have good armor and redundant systems, but they’re vulnerable if they land. And they have no real passenger space even if they landed.
Look, [if you`re an Iraqi and] you see a guy in this machine hovering 200 feet in front of you, with a gun turret that moves with the nodding and turn of my head . . . I point south, they move south. They`ve just seen their buddies blown away. What would you do?Enemy Surrenders to Apache
So, yeah, Ely just sent the dudes to some friendly forces so someone on the ground could search and secure them. In a similar situation, Apaches flying with OH-58s had a comparable experience on the “Highway of Death” where Iraqi tank crews surrendered as soon as they saw the helicopters coming in for an attack.
Another event took place in Iraq after Apaches took out artillery positions. The insurgents manning the weapons went to the middle of the field and held their hands up while the Apaches took out the large weapons, and then ground troops moved in to take possession of the prisoners.
But, tragically, that’s not always an option. The 227th Aviation Regiment’s 1st Battalion saw those flags of surrender from Iraqi tankers on the Highway of Death and didn’t engage them, allowing U.S. ground troops to accept the Iraqi surrender in 1991. But in 2007, two Iraqi men jumped out of their truck and attempted to surrender to a 1-227th Apache crew.
The crew held off on attacking, but wasn’t sure what to do. The Iraqis had been firing mortars from the truck, so the unit asked an undisclosed military lawyer for a legal review. His advice was that the Apache crew could not effectively receive the surrender, and so the mortar crew was still a legal target. (This advice has proved controversial since then.)
Meanwhile, the mortar crew jumped back into the truck and drove off with its mortar tube. So it was no longer clear whether they still wanted to surrender. The Apaches re-engaged, but failed to destroy the truck in the next attack. The men abandoned the truck and took shelter in a nearby shack, and the Apaches killed them there with a 30mm gun run.
So, if you ever find yourself trying to surrender to an Apache crew, maybe look around and see if you can find some ground troops to surrender to instead.