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Thursday, September 1, 2011

An Inevitable Casualty of War

By Andrew Drwiega

Military commanders, not to mention their political masters, dread any operational loss that results in a high number of military personnel being killed and/or injured, especially in a single incident. Such an event can turn a nation’s public commitment to the ongoing war and thus erode the will of the politicians to prosecute it further.

The loss of the U.S. National Guard Chinook CH-47D (not a special forces MH-47G of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment as first anticipated) with 38 personnel onboard was the biggest single loss of life to U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) since U.S. troops first began fighting in Afghanistan in 2001. The Chinook was shot down after receiving ground fire and a suspected fatal hit from a ground launched rocket propelled grenade (RPG), according to a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) statement. As the government’s stated intent is to ‘draw down’ U.S. forces in Afghanistan with the aim of withdrawing the majority of troops by 2015, this incident has had less of an impact on public opinion than it might otherwise have done. Although shocked, the public has been hardened by years of accepting losses from Iraq at first and then Afghanistan.

But what was especially significant of the tragedy was that 22 of those onboard were U.S. Navy SEALs from the Naval Special Warfare Group, the same formation that had so recently participated in the successful raid to ‘take out’ Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Government sources said that none of the personnel who died onboard the Chinook actually took part in the earlier raid, but the deaths of so many highly trained, elite professionals can have a lasting effect far beyond what the numbers alone would suggest.

Elite soldiers such as the Navy SEALs, the Combat Applications Group (Delta Force), the UK’s Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Squadron (SBS), among others, not only have exceptional fighting skills but they also have an invaluable ‘collective memory’ of expertise earned through a variety of campaigns and conflicts worldwide. Once lost, these cannot be replaced except for the slow build-up of experience with new members gained over time.

It is strange how warfare and fate seem to intertwine, often at the same moment. On a slightly smaller scale, but with the same effect, the British experienced tragedy and success with their special forces during the Falklands war in 1982. While using a technique called cross-decking, where a helicopter is loaded with stores or troops and transferred from one ship to another while at sea, during the night of May 18, 1982, an S-61 Sea King of No. 846 Naval Air Squadron with 30 people onboard crashed into the icy sea while cross-decking. It has been stated that a bird-strike caused the accident, but only nine of the 30 people onboard managed to struggle clear of the rapidly sinking helicopter.

Of the 21 who died, 18 were members of the British Special Air Service (SAS) from D and G Squadrons. Again, this terrible loss came only days after a successful raid on an airfield situated on Pebble Island, part of West Falkland. During the night of May 14/15, a force of 48 SAS troopers and one gunfire support expert had attacked a newly activated airfield. As a result of the raid, during which no troops were lost, a total of 11 Argentine aircraft were destroyed: six Pucaras, four Turbo Mentors and the Short Skyvan, as well as a radar installation, and fuel and ammunition dumps. This was vitally important, as the slow-moving ground attack aircraft could have caused havoc during the British landings to retake the Falklands that occurred shortly after. Unfortunately a number of those who died on the Sea King had been part of the Pebble Island raiding party only days before. Due to the small size in terms of numbers of the SAS, this accident led to an urgent need to quickly replace the numbers of men lost. Many replacements were recruited from the Parachute Regiment, itself an elite fighting unit but without the high level of individuality found in special force soldiers.

Looking at this incident’s effect on the public and their continued support for the Falkland’s campaign, there was still a large groundswell of public opinion behind the government to recover what was widely perceived at the time as British territory, so although a serious loss, it did not perceivably damage the continuation of the fight.


Members of the U.S. Army National Guard and Afghan
National Army carry wounded personnel to a Boeing CH-47
Chinook near Afghanistan's Helmand Province in this
December 2008 file photo.

In our modern culture, we have been accustomed to the need to attach blame to large incidents and to ultimately find someone responsible. There are some cases where this process needs to be carried out, as in the case of RAF Nimrod MR2 reconnaissance aircraft No XV230 which, while on a standard reconnaissance mission over Afghanistan in September 2006, suffered what the official report called a catastrophic mid-air fire which quickly led to the crash of the aircraft, killing all 12 of the crewmen onboard. The difference here is that the aircraft was on a regular operational sortie; it had not been attacked but yet had crashed with a heavy loss of life. A Board of Inquiry was established which, when published in December 2007, had concluded there was a substantial shortcomings surrounding the safe operational regime laid down for this type of aircraft. As one of the direct results of the subsequent Haddon-Cave review into the inquiry, the Ministry of Defence established a new Military Aviation Authority with direct responsibility for issues such as the airworthiness of every aircraft in the MoD’s inventory.

But the loss of the CH-47 Chinook with the invaluable number of SEALs onboard seems to have been an operational casualty of war. It appears that none of the usual questions that surround such an incident can be legitimately asked. Was it necessary to have so many SEALs onboard one aircraft? Yes, if the time and situation demanded a quick response and that was the best option available at the time. Could more aircraft have been used? Perhaps, but then more aircraft would complicate the mission and call for extra planning, cutting down the reaction time. And were more aircraft available at the specific time they were needed? Why weren’t special force operatives being flown by special forces helicopter crews, such as those belonging to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment? Well, as U.S. Army commanders have repeated over the last few years, over 50 percent of regular U.S. Army operations in Afghanistan are conducted in part or in whole to support special force operations. A sharing of resources would be standard practice on the battlefield, apart from pre-planned deliberate special force operations where it would be more usual for a specialist team to be put together.

Sadly then, it very much appears that the loss of the SEALs, aircrew, Afghan National Army soldiers and others in Tangi Valley, Wardak Province, was the result of a fortunate hit by a rocket propelled grenade fired by a Taliban insurgent. While ISAF have since revealed that coalition forces later tracked down and killed the leader of the Taliban group (Mullah Mohibullah), and the shooter, that was the focus of the action, it underlines the fact that the threat is everywhere during an asymmetric battle. Although Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt—the deputy commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division and an experienced pilot who also served with the 160th SOAR—is conducting an investigation, it is doubtful whether he will find anything other than an incident resulting from warfare.

Ground fire remains the single biggest threat to helicopters operating close to the ground, especially in the moments during landing and take-off when they are low and slow. Apache attack helicopters often escort troop carrying aircraft but they can’t be everywhere, all of the time given the frequency of CH-47 flights—the troop carrying workhorse of this conflict—in any given day during the war.


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