Tim Ripley reports from Afghanistan on NATO air operations in southern Afghanistan, aimed at ousting Taliban insurgents.
AIR STRIKES recounted give some idea of the scale and complexity of NATO air support at the height of fighting between alliance ground troops and Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan over the summer. Air operations reached a peak in September as Canadian-led NATO troops swept into a Taliban stronghold west of the city of Kandahar and British Paratroopers battled to hold a series of isolated so-called ‘Platoon Houses’ in the north of neighbouring Helmand Province. According to US Central Command Air Forces, which was responsible for orchestrating the expanded air campaign in Afghanistan, in September alone allied aircraft flew 1,441 close air support sortie, 183 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties and dropped 706 air weapons. This data excluded weapons fired by US, British and Dutch attack helicopters.
Unlike the air campaigns during the Kosovo conflict in 1999 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which saw the employment of strategic air power against large fixed targets, this summer’s air offensive against the Taliban saw alliance aircraft intervening in battlefield situations, either helping NATO troops under attack or striking at groups of insurgents massing to attack towns controlled by pro-Kabul government forces. NATO air commanders here told AFM that this was a highly challenging scenario that severely tested their air-land integration command structures and put enormous responsibility on alliance pilots to Find, identify and then attack fleeting targets in confusing battle conditions.
During AFM’s visit to the RAF’s IV Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, a Harrier GR.7A pilot who had just returned from a mission to help Afghan army troops had been frustrated that he could not find a good target to strike. Apparently, the Taliban had dressed up in Afghan police uniforms and infiltrated army positions in the south of Helmand Province. In the confused close quarters, with both sides wearing similar uniforms, it was impossible to work out who was who, so the Harriers had to return to base with their weapons still on board.
«There was nothing I could do,» said the pilot, who was dripping with sweat after several hours in the baking hot cockpit of his jet.
NATO Moves In
Several NATO countries began deploying troops into the five provinces of southern Afghanistan during the spring of this year as part of a strategy to gradually take over responsibility for security of the region from US forces. This is the heartland of the former Taliban regime and its tribal allies, which meant the influence of the pro-western Kabul government was limited to a few large towns. Out in the countryside the Taliban was in control and was re-forming its guerrilla army with the help and financial support of local heroin producers. NATO intelligence estimated that across southern Afghanistan the Taliban could draw on the services of up to 10,000 heavily armed fighters.
NATO’s plan saw some 2,200 Canadian troops securing Kandahar province and more than 3,300 British troops operating in Helmand Province, while a 1,600-strong Dutch and Australian force was responsible for Uruzgan province and 2,200 US Army troops remained in control of Zabol province. A multi-national NATO brigade, led by a Canadian brigadier general, was to control alliance operations with Afghan government forces, across what was dubbed Regional Command South (RC South).
The sheer size of RC South’s area of responsibility, its mountainous and desert terrain and poor state of road links meant NATO commanders were expecting to rely on fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to move the troops around and keep them supplied, as well as provide rapid reaction fire power to intervene if isolated contingents of troops came under attack.
The heart of its air support effort was the huge US-controlled airbase some 25 miles (40km) to the south of the regional capital Kandahar. Known as Kandahar Airfield, or KAF, it was home to some 8,000 US and NATO personnel in April , though this has since increased to nearly 12,000. As well as being the gateway for air transport flights bringing in troops and supplies, US, British and Dutch attack and transport helicopters are based there. US Air Force RQ/MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles are also based at KAF and next to their small compound is the flightline of the RAF’s Harrier detachment. The poor condition of KAF’s Soviet-era runway has significantly influenced air operations over the past year. It meant plans to establish a forward operating base for Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16A/B Fighting Falcons could not take place, forcing the RAF to keep its short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) capable Harriers in place. The six (later seven) Harriers played a crucial role in the summer’s battles as the only forward based offensive strike aircraft not dependent on tanker support.
The transition of RC South from US to NATO command was a complex procedure not formally achieved until the end of July, even though the majority of the NATO troops were in place by early June. For the NATO air forces this meant a subtle important change in the way they coordinated their support for ground forces in Afghanistan. Up to the transition of authority, the US-run Air Support Coordination Centre (ASOC) at Bagram Airbase in eastern Afghanistan was responsible for generating a daily request for air support to the US Central Command Air Force (CENTAF) at the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) at Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar. Air planners at the CAOC turned these requests, along with a similar one from US commanders in Iraq, into the daily Air Tasking Order (ATO). Staff at the CAOC said this was necessary to allow scarce strategic enabling assets, such as airlift, air-to-air refuelling tanks and ISR platforms, to be allocated to each theatre in a coherent manner. Once the transfer of authority from the US to NATO had taken place, air planners in the alliance’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul took over responsibility for requesting air support from the CAOC. The ISAF commander, Lieutenant General David Richards, issued his staff with broad outlines and they made detailed daily air plans with their counterparts in the CAOC.
While air support was centrally planned, the fluid nature of the battlefield meant NATO pilots never flew against pre-selected targets. All targets were identified by troops on the ground during fighting with the Taliban, and then Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) or forward air controllers were responsible for ‘clearing’ jets to attack. The JTACs were NATO’s key battle-winning asset, according to alliance commanders. Each team was four to five strong, equipped with a range of targeting systems and communications devices. British, Canadian, Danish and Dutch JTACs all had laser range finder and night vision equipment, as well as UHF/VHF and satellite radios. US Army and Special Forces JTACs had the added benefit of laptops that could send data messages with target coordinates direct to US aircraft. They also had Rover receivers that allow the downloading of imagery from Predators. This capability had the added benefit of allowing ground troops to use air assets as their own ‘eye in the sky’, to search behind hills or villages for groups of Taliban.
Summer of War
NATO’s move into southern Afghanistan was expected by the Taliban, which began massing in the north of Helmand Province to head off the arrival of British Paratroopers of 16 Air Assault Brigade. More than 3,000 Taliban fighters, backed by tribal militias and drugs producers, besieged Afghan police and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops in a series of ‘district compounds’ in Now Zad, Musah Qalah, Kajaki and Sangin. Unable to hold out in Kakjaki, a small detachment of US and French Special Forces retreated south, only to be ambushed by hundreds of Taliban, and two Frenchmen were killed, along with dozens of ANA troops.
With the Taliban on the verge of winning a major victory, the US military, which at this point still was responsible for RC South, decided to launch Operation Mountain Thrust to drive them back.
British troops from 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, who had just arrived at their newly-built base at Camp Bastion in Helmand, were alerted to counter-attack, backed by a battalion-sized task force from the US 10th Mountain Division.
In early June, RAF Chinooks of 27 Squadron, supported by Apache AH.Is from 9 Regiment Army Air Corps (AAC), flew company-sized groups northwards to reinforce the district compounds, which were soon fortified and became popularly known as ‘Platoon Houses’. Each Paratrooper garrison was supplemented by an RAF Regiment JTAC team, which were soon called into action as the Paras found themselves fighting desperate battles for survival. The US Army battalion set up its own base in Musha Qalah, backed up by CH-47D Chinook and AH-64A Apache helicopters of Task Force Nighthawk.
These bases soon became magnets for hundreds of Taliban fighters mounting daily attacks. Taliban snipers, machine gunners, and mortar and rocket teams took aim on an hourly basis, with occasional human wave charges thrown in for added discomfort. Re-supply flights by Chinooks attracted particular attention from the Taliban, who had most landing zones swept by fire.
British army commanders now turned to airpower to provide a ring of fire around the Platoon Houses. Day after day, A-10s, Harriers, B-lBs and Apaches were called upon by the JTACs to hit Taliban positions. Some air strikes were so ‘close to the wire’ that Paratroopers had to dive for cover. During August, British and NATO JTACs called down 160 air strikes on Helmand Province, with 100 conducted around Musa Qalah alone. One Army Air Corps pilot told AFM that these confused battles often resulted in Apaches escorting Chinooks into hostile territory, while fast jets and artillery were in action in the same piece of airspace, requiring very high quality coordination to prevent accidents.
The battles for the Platoon Houses came to a climax towards the end of August when senior British commanders were considering pulling their troops out of them as their supplies were getting dangerously low and the risk of a Chinook being shot down was becoming too high.
The Paratroopers’ determination to hold on proved successful and the tribal elders in the town of Musa Qalah demanded to talk to the British to ask for a truce. After suffering hundreds of casualties, the local village militia, which was fighting the Taliban in the town, had apparently had enough. By the middle of September, the number of contacts or engagements had dropped from an average of 12 daily to less than half that number. Throughout the province the British claimed to have killed more than 1,000 Taliban fighters.
In neighbouring Kandahar province a very different battle was unfolding between Canadian troops and a force of more than 3,000 Taliban fighters, who were gathering in the Panjwali district, about 20 miles (32km) west of Kandahar city. NATO intelligence thought the Taliban was poised to launch a direct attack on the provincial capital and plans were put in place to trap and then kill the bulk of its fighters. The Canadians had already launched four sweeps through Panjwali but the Taliban had always melted away into the countryside. This time the aim was to seal the ring tight around them. US and British Special Forces teams were inserted around the Taliban stronghold. The RAF deployed its Nimrod MR.2 surveillance aircraft to supplement the USAF’s Predators to monitor all potential Taliban escape routes. The importance of this ISR effort can be gauged by how fast the RAF deployed a dedicated Tristar tanker aircraft to the Gulf airbase used by the Nimrod force to ensure one was always on station over the battlefield. The USAF also called up an extra squadron of half-a-dozen B-1Bs to an airbase in the Gulf to supplement the six already — as well as B-52s — deployed on the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The USS Enterprise was moved to the North Arabian Sea to bring it within range of southern Afghanistan.
It took most of the latter half of August for NATO to mass all the troops and airpower it needed to seal off Panjwali province. The RAF and Task Force Nighthawk Chinooks played a vital role in moving the troops and their support equipment into place in time for Operation Medusa to begin on September 2. The opening hours of the operation were far from auspicious, with a Nimrod crashing after an apparent technical problem with the loss of 14 crew. As Canadian troops moved forward towards the Taliban positions they were ambushed, air support from US A-10s was called up, and, in a tragic error, one of the Warthogs strafed the lead Canadian company, killed one soldier and injured more than 30. This rendered the lead company inoperative as the rest of the soldiers moved in to deal with a mass casualty event. USAF HH-60 Rescue Hawks from Kandahar were scrambled to pick up the wounded.
With Canadian troops now bogged down in close quarter fighting in a series of walled compounds, it was time for the JTACs to come into play. They coordinated a constant stream of air strikes against Taliban positions. The daily airpower summary quoted at the beginning of this article gives a feel of the level of airborne fire power employed by USAF A-10s, B-1Bs and B-52s, US Navy Hornets and Super Hornets, Dutch F-16s, French Mirage 2000Ms and RAF Harriers. This air power was used in combination with Dutch and Canadian 155mm artillery and US HIMARS multiple rocket launchers. The latter weapons were fired from the end of the runway at KAF, which brought home to NATO airmen just how close the battle was.
For almost three weeks NATO aircraft pounded away at the Taliban in Panjwali until it started to crack. As in Helmand, the village militia were soon fleeing the battlefield, where NATO said that more than 1,000 fighters had been killed. Only about 200 of these were claimed by Canadian troops, illustrating NATO’s tactics of relying on air power to blast through Taliban lines.
NATO’s General Richards claimed Operation Medusa was a major defeat for the Taliban, which opened a window for the delivery of reconstruction aid to southern Afghanistan. Taliban activity might have been dramatically reduced by NATO successes but the insurgent group was far from defeated. A large group of Taliban fighters remained active in southern Helmand Province, and were battling with ANA troops into October, supported by US and British Special Forces, for control of the town of Garmister. Again NATO air forces provided strong support for their comrades on the ground, inflicting heavy casualties on the Taliban.
Although NATO air power hit the Taliban hard during the summer and autumn, alliance airmen expect to remain on duty in Afghanistan into 2007 to continue the struggle to secure the central Asian country.
During a visit to Kandahar Airfield in September to review the progress of the air campaign, the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshall Sir Glen Torpy, told AFM that historically, the Afghans had respected fixed-wing airpower.
«The experience of the Russians in the 1980s and Americans in 2001 is that airpower has a psychological impact, both on the enemy and pro-government Afghan forces. Afghan National Army units are more inclined to advance when coalition aircraft are overhead,» he said.