PARIS — Under British military procedures, the bodies of soldiers killed overseas are flown back to the Royal Air Force base at Brize Norton and, thanks to the peculiarities of English law, civilian coroners must hold inquests on these deaths.
The Oxford coroner, who has jurisdiction over RAF Brize Norton, has demonstrated in past inquests an unwavering thirst for facts, and a healthy disregard for government "spin." These inquests thus provide valuable insights into military operations and the performance of equipment.
That again proved to be the case when Oxford coroner Andrew Walker delivered his conclusions on the September 6 death in southern Afghanistan of Cpl Mark Wright, of 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.
Wright, who was posthumously awarded the George Cross for his actions, was trying to rescue a comrade who had lost a leg after walking into an unmarked minefield. The incident, recounted by the coroner’s narrative verdict, reads as a catalogue of errors and holds valuable lessons.
The first and most obvious is that the CH-47 Chinook is unsuited for the combat search and rescue mission as its rotor downwash is too strong. In this instance, the downwash from an RAF Chinook attempting to land dislodged rocks which, in turn, detonated other mines. One of them killed Cpl Wright.
The second failing is that the Chinook had to land because it was not fitted with a rescue hoist, and so could not pull out the injured soldiers while hovering.
The third failing is that no other available British helicopter was fitted with a rescue hoist. The British forces’ shortfall in helicopter support is well-documented, but it is in instances such as this that the full consequences of that shortfall are felt.
A fourth failing, left unsaid, is that no contingency plan existed to medevac injured British troops by helicopter.
Not to worry, one would think: Other nations of the International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan operate quantities of suitable helicopters that can be called in. But the inquest found that when Col Stuart Tootal, Wright’s battalion commander, called for winch-equipped U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters, he discovered that NATO clearances would take hours to obtain.
At the inquest, Col Tootal recalled that his men had been left to bleed in the minefield as he went through the "frustrating" process of having people question the urgent need for a Black Hawk as his request worked its way through the NATO chain of command.
The lesson here is that even with burden-sharing "coalition" forces and international operations, each nation must have basic assets of its own: counting on Allies, as history shows, is always risky because combat circumstances invariably foil peacetime planning assumptions, and because bureaucracy will always spring up when least expected.
Finally, four hours after they were first called in, two U.S. Army Black Hawks arrived, winched the injured soldiers out, and flew them to hospital. Cpl Wright died during the flight. (There is no suggestion that U.S. Army crews are to blame for the delay; indeed, the coroner said that "the actions of the U.S. personnel who flew into the minefield is without doubt heroism of the highest order.")
At the end of his two-week inquest, the coroner thus summed up his findings. "Three factors caused Cpl Mark Wright’s death: The first, a lack of appropriate U.K. helicopters in Afghanistan fitted with a winch; the second was the downwash from the Chinook helicopter sent to land in the minefield; and the third was the administrative delay in sending a suitable helicopter with a winch."
"That a brave soldier is lost in battle is always a matter of deep sadness," the coroner added. "But when that life is lost where it need not have been because of a lack of equipment and assets, those responsible should hang their heads in shame." He also criticized Britain’s "lamentable failure" to pay for suitable helicopters.
But British commanders showed no such shame. With the insufferable complacency and disregard for reality all too often displayed by British bureaucrats, Rear Adm Tony Johnstone-Burt, commander of the U.K. Joint Helicopter Command, said in a statement "I am confident that our current resources enable our forces to meet the tasks that they face. In the spirit of our shared efforts in Afghanistan, resources are pooled across the countries fighting there. In addition to U.K. Chinook, Apache, Sea King and Lynx helicopters, our forces can also access significant numbers of other types of helicopters provided by our allies." Indeed.
Among the lessons to be learned from this incident, the main one is that heavy helicopters generating strong downwash are not well suited for rescue missions. As the coroner duly noted, "What was needed was a medium-frame helicopter with a winch."
Cpl Wright was mortally injured by a Chinook, and later rescued by a Black Hawk. But the U.S. Air Force instead proposes to replace its rescue Pave Hawks with HH-47 Chinooks. This is not progress, in any sense of the word when other credible candidates are available.
The circumstances of Cpl Wright’s death are a lesson that U.S. officials must not ignore when attempting, for the second time, to select their future combat SAR helicopter.