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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 Jay PriceMcClatchy Newspapers / November 25, 2009

A military helicopter takes off from the military airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives on November 18.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP


Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan

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.

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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.

"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.