Afghanistan war: Why helicopters are critical to US and NATO forces

Helicopters are more important to the US and NATO counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan than they were in Iraq. By December, there will be nearly 10 times more choppers in the south than nine months ago.

By , McClatchy Newspapers

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    A military helicopter takes off from the military airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives on November 18.
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In one of the worst chapters of their casualty-marred deployment in Afghanistan, Canadian forces earlier this year lost 10 soldiers in 90 days to improvised bombs on one stretch of highway in Kandahar province.

Then a US Army helicopter crew stalking Taliban insurgents who plant bombs at night spotted a five-man team, watched the insurgents through sophisticated optical gear until it was certain that's what the men were doing and got permission to kill them.

After that, no bombs exploded on that section of road for two months, says Col. Paul W. Bricker, a Michigan native who commands the Fort Bragg, N.C., based 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, the Army helicopter unit for southern and western Afghanistan.

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"There are stretches of these roads we have almost shut down to bomb activity, but it requires constant pressure to do that because even though we have a lot of aircraft, we also have a lot of territory to cover," Bricker says.

Choppers are critical to the counterinsurgency campaign that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, is waging, but until spring there weren't enough of them, and even limited road surveillance gobbles time for choppers.

When Bricker's unit arrived in April, it had five times the number of helicopters of the unit it replaced. Now it's getting dozens more, some of them shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan.

By December, the US-led coalition will likely have nearly 10 times more choppers in the volatile south than it did nine months ago. That's still not nearly enough to patrol all the roads that US, Afghan and allied troops use, but it's a big improvement.

The 68,000 US and 42,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan are spread across vast distances. The terrain is some of the harshest on the planet, and insurgents are planting increasingly powerful bombs, some of them capable of disabling even the massive MRAP, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle.

More than Iraq or any other recent conflict, Afghanistan is a helicopter war, according to ground troops, whose reinforcements, ambulance service, air cover and in some cases even food and water, arrive by chopper.

The additional Army helicopters will be used mainly in the western provinces, where there've been few.

The Marine Corps, beginning in late spring, brought in more of its own choppers as it built up a force of 11,000 troops in Helmand, the most dangerous province for NATO troops. This month, it added a squadron – usually about 10 – of the new MV-22 Osprey tilt rotors, which take off like helicopters but fly like airplanes.

Last week, the first of six British Merlin helicopters, which can carry 20 troops, arrived in Helmand. There's been a public outcry in Britain because of a belief that troops have been killed and wounded because British units had only a handful of helicopters.

The 82nd CAB has been rapidly building hangars, landing zones and other facilities across the region to be used by the units that will replace it, and setting up new satellite bases to put medical evacuation helicopters closer to troops.

Choppers save lives

There's no question that the choppers are saving lives daily.

In six months, the 82nd CAB has flown nearly 2,100 wounded troops to a medical facility within an hour, missing its goal only a half dozen times out of 1,400 missions, mainly because of mechanical problems, says Lt. Col. Ed Brouse, of Pennsylvania, the deputy commander.

Until this year, no wounded double amputees had survived because there were so few helicopters in Afghanistan and that the average medevac flight took two hours, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said.

Bricker says that he's requested a few more crews to get more use out of his helicopters, but he said he has enough aircraft.

Well, maybe.

"If you ask any ground maneuver commander, they'll tell you we can never have enough helicopters in this environment," Bricker says.

In Iraq, roadside bombs also were the main threat, but distances were shorter, there were more roads and the terrain was flatter.

"In Iraq, helicopters were effective as well, but we had 150,000 troops there," Bricker says.

"This area is much more expansive, much more remote, and the conditions are austere, to say the least, in many areas, particularly where we work," he said. "The terrain here just swallows the infantry, and the aircraft enable us to cross all that ground rapidly, and with great agility and flexibility."

Crucial supply line

"Helicopters are an absolutely critical asset here," says Lt. Col. David Oclander, of Chicago, the commander of an 82nd Airborne Division infantry battalion that's spread across several small bases in southern Afghanistan.

He's standing on the dusty landing pad of a tiny Afghan Army post, Forward Operating Base Nawbahar, in Zabul province's high desert moonscape, where he has a small unit mentoring Afghan soldiers and police officers. The base was hours by ground from large US outposts, but minutes by air.

"Pretty much everything is brought here by helicopter," he says.

US and Afghan troops at the base get supplies via Chinooks and Black Hawks, and close air support from Apache and Kiowa attack helicopters. If they're wounded, they can expect to be airlifted by chopper to a medical facility within an hour. When it's time for R&R, they take choppers out.

It's not unusual for Black Hawks and Chinooks to fly half a million pounds of supplies and almost 2,000 people in a week, and when Special Operations troops need to be moved quickly to a fight, say when a high value target has been found, they need choppers, too.

Stalking roadside bombers

In population centers such as Kandahar, Apaches, with their sophisticated optical and weapons systems, and light, maneuverable Kiowa armed reconnaissance helicopters watch key roads at night, stalking insurgent bomb placement teams.

Their crews are trained to identify insurgents, and case studies and audio and video recordings are made from the helicopters as crews decide whether to attack suspected insurgents. They're also taught to speak as clearly as possible in the recordings about their thinking as they make decisions, in part so they can better defend their actions if insurgents later claim that a helicopter crew killed civilians.

Some of the 82nd Brigade's units are flying five times more than they do back at Fort Bragg.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Lucas Whittington, of Lillington, N.C., a Kiowa pilot, says his troop is flying 1,200 to 1,300 hours a month, versus 800 to 900 hours a year back home, escorting convoys, providing close air support for the infantry and scouting for people planting bombs.

Maintenance is going 24 hours a day, with maintenance crews working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

(Jay Price reports for the Raleigh News & Observer. Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article from Washington.)

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