Despite drones and blimps, rocket attacks in Afghanistan prove hard to stop

NATO officials say Afghan militants fired rockets on Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, damaging a plane used by American Gen. Martin Dempsey.

D. Myles Cullen/Department of Defense/AP
In this image released by the US Department of Defense and taken Monday, Aug. 20, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, prepares to board a CH-47 at Kabul International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The attack on Bagram Air Field, which damaged Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey’s plane, is a common phenomenon on most military bases across Afghanistan.

The sprawling Bagram base, or the equally large Kandahar Air Field, are attractively large targets for militants who might not have the stomach to launch a frontal assault on foreign or Afghan troops. 

NATO officials today said they were unsure of the exact type of weapon fired at Bagram, which immobilized General Dempsey’s C-17 transport plane and slightly injured two American maintenance crew, but Chinese-made 107mm rockets are one of the most common used in such attacks.

The rockets can be easily set up on a rock or another firm surface and crudely aimed in the direction of its target, sometimes up to three miles away. Accuracy is mostly guesswork, which probably explains why there are comparatively few casualties despite them being a common occurrence.

Ensuring militants aren’t detected by the plethora of technology held by the US – and other foreign – militaries has become a game of cat-and-mouse.

Getting the trigger on a delay mechanism has become the most important part to avoid being caught. The omnipresent surveillance blimps, early-warning rocket detectors and, most worrying for militants, pilot-less drones circling nearby, mean that once a rocket is launched, coalition forces will usually know pretty quickly exactly where it came from.

Whoever set up the rocket would want to have already fled the area or be prepared for almost immediate retaliation by NATO forces.

But militants have started to adapt.

At a US base in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan in 2010, the base was regularly getting hit by rockets and mortars. Every time one hit, coalition forces would scramble to the launch site, sometimes less than two miles from the base’s perimeter. Each time, they found nothing.

It led to theories on how the (presumed) man whom US soldiers dubbed “Rocket Man” and, slightly more creatively, “Elton John,” was managing to fire the rockets on delay. Perhaps he had set up a mobile phone trigger system or just a simple clock-based timer. Yet the best theory was even cheaper, and simpler: He was using a block of ice. 

The block would be set up to so after it melted, the change in weight on the contraption would make two trigger wires connect and the rocket would be launched. 

Whatever it was, it worked: A year later on the base, rockets were still being fired and no suspect had been caught. 

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