A soldier completes maintenance on an MH-47 Chinook belonging to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Special Forces soldiers say a lack of lift aircraft in Afghanistan has affected some ground operations. (Army)
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The sun was sinking low over Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, as the big rotors on the Chinook helicopters began to turn.
The Special Forces battalion commander sitting on the ramp of one of the helicopters checked his watch impatiently. A rare opportunity had presented itself: his task force had been able to locate one of the most senior Taliban leaders and he'd hastily assembled a "strike force" to capture or kill the "high-value target."
But before he could launch, he needed permission from the conventional Army leader who "owned" the helicopters required for the mission. That commander was about 330 miles away at Bagram Airfield, and was taking his time about deciding.
"Everybody wants to know what's going on and wants a brief, all the bells and whistles that go with a pre-planned operation, not an emerging opportunity," the battalion commander recalled a few years later.
Permission never came.
"I sat there as the blades turned and the sun went down, and I walked off the airplane and walked around the front [and] told them, ‘Shut it down, let's get all my guys off' ... and we just went back to our area," he said. "And the guy that we were after, I'm sure he got some rice and goat that night and slept pretty well."
The frustrating episode was far from an isolated incident, say members of the special ops community who argue that such missed opportunities underscore the need for the commander of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan to have his own sizable element of lift aircraft. Beyond a handful of helicopters, the commander of CJSOTF-A, which is composed largely of Special Forces and always led by a Special Forces colonel, has never had his own lift capability.
The shortage of organic lift aircraft in CJSOTF-A is no secret. It has been the subject of news articles and congressional hearings. But in the nine years that Special Forces have been operating in Afghanistan, little has been done to remedy the situation.
Col. Don Bolduc, the current CJSOTF-A boss, controls three UH-60 Black Hawks on loan from the 82nd Airborne Division and three MH-47 Chinooks from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) to support a force of about 3,000 stretched across Afghanistan. For any missions that requiring helicopter support beyond what that small force can accomplish, he must ask other units for help.
Efforts to fix the problem have failed due to a combination of Pentagon bureaucracy and senior military officials' opposition.
A senior military official in Afghanistan acknowledged that CJSOTF-A needs more lift aircraft, but said that the task force now has a higher priority call on conventional aviation units' aircraft than in the past. If the task force requests lift support, it takes more than a staff officer in one of those units to deny a CJSOTF-A request, the official said. In addition, the command has contracted for one small Beechcraft aircraft, he said. A second Beechcraft is due to arrive in a couple of weeks.
CJSOTF-A's two highest priorities — standing up neighborhood watch-style "Afghan Local Police" in remote villages and working with the Afghan National Army's elite Commandos — also demand the same reliable, predictable and flexible access to aircraft, said several members of the special operations community.
"When we convince these elders, and through them their tribal followers, to work with us and to fight the Taliban ... when they get on the cell phone and say, ‘The Taliban are now going to kill my family in retribution,' we need to be able to react instantly, not have to ask permission of other force providers," a Special Forces company commander said. "The quid pro quo for them to take a stand against the insurgency — even though we don't have an entire infantry brigade living in their village, we just have a couple of guys — is that we will be able to react, usually with Commandos and an SF team partnered with them."
When Special Forces teams go on missions with their partnered Commandos, whether to support Afghan Local Police or to attack insurgents elsewhere, they need helicopters, said a former SF team sergeant who has deployed to Afghanistan. He and other special operators noted that Afghanistan's vastness and poor road network makes achieving tactical surprise next to impossible when traveling overland to a target.
"The enemy has people out watching and when they see stuff coming, they either ambush you on the way in or they ambush you on the way out, and then you get to the target and there's nobody there," the former team sergeant said.
"It takes a while to train these guys up," he said of the Commandos, and the key was to instill confidence in them by conducting successful operations. "The way to do that is not get them out on the roads and blown up, because then they become scared."
But the senior military official said "you don't need no-notice air support" for village stability operations, "because most of it's done on the ground. ... You're not commuting to work."
During the past six months, there have been no incidents in which an attack on a village stability site could have been averted or rebuffed if only there had been "no-notice" aviation lift support available, he said. "There's just not been anything that indicates a big aircraft presence would have made a difference," he said.
As for missions with the Commandos, "those are almost exclusively air assaults," the senior military official said. "I can't remember the last time the Commandos have driven to a target."
But the senior military official did not deny that CJSOTF-A needed more air support. "Clearly, air is an issue for the guys," he said.
CJSOTF-A leaders would like to be able to fly key Afghan civilian leaders around: "Are you going to make a governor drive 20 hours to get to a location?" he said. "He's not going." The shortage of lift aircraft also means the task force must make "big logistics runs" with overland convoys "that, one, are time-consuming as hell because of the road networks and, just as important, are dangerous," he said. "You've got a couple of places that you're going to strike IEDs if you drive on those roads."
Despite the risk, more lift aircraft would not have saved any of the nine casualties taken by CJSOTF-A this year, said a spokesman for Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan, Bolduc's higher headquarters.
That has not always been the case, argue those in the special ops community agitating for more aviation support to the task force. "That missions were undertaken over land for lack of an ability to do it by air, and casualties were experienced as a result of that, is undeniably true," said a source who served in the special operations component of U.S. Central Command, or SOCCENT.
At the root of CJSOTF-A's problem is that it is mainly a Special Forces organization, the former SF battalion commander said. "Special Forces is the son of two fathers, and the favored son of neither one, when you're talking about the relationship to the big Army on one hand and to [U.S. Special Operations Command] on the other," he said.
Each Special Forces group used to have its own flight platoon of helicopters. But in the 1987-88 timeframe, they were "sacrificed" as bill-payers when the Army and SOCOM created the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment's 3rd Battalion, said a retired general officer who used to command the 160th. "Part of the pledge [to Special Forces] was, we're going to build this 3/160, and it's going to be there to help support the ‘white' [unclassified] SOF, specifically Special Forces," he said.
But that pledge was broken as JSOC insisted on having the entire 160th at its disposal, the retired general said. "The voracious appetite of JSOC and the inability of USSOCOM to control that appetite just meant that all that special operations aviation rotary wing forces as they would go into theater got absorbed into JSOC," he said. "So I do agree with the SF guys — it was very difficult for them to get 160th support."
As JSOC commander between 2003 and 2008, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal "a few times" opposed SOCCENT's efforts to gain more access to the 160th's MH-47s for CJSOTF-A, said the SOCCENT source. "He would quite quickly argue that his requirement was far more important than ours," the SOCCENT source said. By contrast, McChrystal's successor at JSOC, Vice Adm. William McRaven, "sought to help us," the SOCCENT source said.
As the CJSOTF-A casualties mounted and tactical opportunities went begging for want of aircraft, the cries for help from the "white" or unclassified side of the special operations community (as opposed to the "black" or JSOC side, which is much more highly resourced with air assets), got louder.
"There was a great deal of resentment, a great deal of disdain and a great deal of befuddlement," said the SOCCENT source.
The former SF team sergeant who closely tracks the issue of aviation support to CJSOTF-A related a meeting he attended with "a senior Special Forces general officer." "He about lost his mind over this," the former team sergeant said.
A body of opinion formed in Afghanistan, SOCCENT and the Defense Department's Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office that a partial solution to the problem might be found by giving CJSOTF-A a small number combination of short-takeoff and landing fixed-wing aircraft and civilian-style helicopters.
SOCCENT tried to gain access to the National Guard's Caribou STOL aircraft, but were rebuffed by CENTCOM and the Guard, said the SOCCENT source. Instead, CTTSO and SOCCENT examined the potential of leasing or buying commercial aircraft.
A "proof of concept" was developed that would involve deploying one Caribou fixed-wing aircraft, one Otter (a smaller fixed-wing aircraft) and two Bell 412 helicopters. The deployment would act as a test for a larger "Counterinsurgency Air Wing," which would include 12 Caribou, 12 Otters and 12 Bell 412s, divided into six packages containing two of each aircraft, said an aviation officer. The idea was to give each theater special operations command — i.e., SOCCENT and its counterparts in the other geographic combatant commands —one six-aircraft package, with one package left for training, he said.
In Afghanistan, the aircraft, which would be unarmed, would be painted in civilian-style color schemes to hide them "in plain sight," said the aviation officer. "The idea is to make them seem very unobtrusive, so they'd be in civilian colors. They wouldn't be gray, they'd be white, like a U.N. aircraft. … It's almost like camouflage. You could actually put a … number on the side and a little-bitty star and bar, and you'd have a military platform. But what we're trying to do is avoid getting shot at."
The SOCCENT source said he did not recall disguising the aircraft's military function by painting them white as ever being "part of the intent."
"To us it was an available resource that would provide some lift capability to the CJSOTF ... without the CJSOTF having to compete with other organizations for the first use of whatever assets could have been made available," he said.
But the initiative ran into trouble from the start. A November 2004 crash of a Blackwater plane in Afghanistan that caused the death of three soldiers meant any proposal to fly troops in contracted aircraft would face stiff opposition in Congress and the Pentagon, said Congressional and Defense Department sources.
To get around this, CTTSO suggested using naval aviators to fly and maintain the aircraft. (The Navy was deemed to have the most available, or least busy, aviators.) The planners even designed a notional unit for the task, calling it a Naval Aviation Remote Area Support Squadron, or NARAS. But despite a series of requests from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, Central Command and SOCCENT for this and similar capabilities for CJSOTF-A (even McChrystal endorsed the proposal, after becoming the senior coalition commander in Afghanistan), the proposal could not fight its way through the thickets of Pentagon bureaucracy, said several sources who tracked the issue closely. The Navy, in particular, was opposed to the issue, the sources said.
"It always seemed to find deaf [ears] in Navy circles for having violated proper portfolios of the different naval aviation communities," the SOCCENT source said.
"NARAS is not a validated Navy requirement and is not currently endorsed," said Navy spokeswoman Lt. Callie Ferrari.
CENTCOM spokesman Navy Lt. Cdr. Bill Speaks declined to discuss the issue in any detail. "All I can tell you is that requirement is classified," he said.
"There's a trail of tears that's six years long of failure to get a contracted solution in place," the SOCCENT source said. By this summer, he added, the NARAS proposal was "alive [but] on life support."