Yankees Raise the Stakes in Helmand   

By By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor | July 1, 2010

Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, RC South, is a forward operating base for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Founded by the British when they first began operating in Helmand, it hugely cut the flying time into the Green Zone over flights from Kandahar Airfield (KAF), greatly improving the response times for Apache AH-64 attack helicopter support and for medical evacuation through the Immediate Response Team (IRT).

A Gunfighters Whisky Cobra is guided back after a mission.
Photos by Andrew Drwiega

At the end of last year, President Obama’s administration redrew its battle strategy for Afghanistan and decided that the ‘surge’ technique of pouring an overwhelming amount of troops into Iraq had worked so well there, that a similar tactic should be used in Afghanistan, particularly in the more volatile southern regions that border the Taliban’s infiltration routes from Pakistan.


USMC joined the British in Helmand and the expansion of Camp Bastion began. The camp has changed beyond all recognition from when this reporter was last here just over two years ago. Then, you could walk from one side of the camp to the other in around 15 minutes. Now, it is a three-mile car ride from my hooch in the Task Force Leatherneck (the U.S. Marines area) part of Camp Bastion to the main runway, which is located at the far end of the British area.

There has recently been a change in Marine units based at the camp. Marine Aircraft Group 40 has gone, to be replaced by the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW). Within the wing are several squadrons, each with their own particular capabilities. From the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors of VMM-261 (Raging Bulls), through the CH-53Ds of HMH 466 (Wolfpack) and the CH-53Es of HMH363 (Red Lions) to the core capability of any marine aviation unit, the Cobra/Huey light attack/utility squadron.

USMC aviators of HMLA 369 (callsign Gunfighters) officially took over from HMLA 367 (Scarface) at the beginning of May, falling in on all of the old unit’s equipment including the helicopters that remain in theater. But this force was a mix of old and new.

The old in HMLA 369 comprises 18 AH-1 Whisky Cobras (they are still waiting for the new and long-promised Zulu models from Bell Helicopter), but the new is represented by the UH-1Y Venom Hueys (also from Bell). And these new aircraft are making a big difference in terms of overall capability, especially relevant now that the squadron is operating in one of the harshest environments on earth.

Maj. Jaime ‘Wad’ (full name withheld for operational reasons) is a Gunfighter Huey pilot who went through flight school back in 1997. Like all combat units there is always a period of transition and handover between the two units. Jamie arrived in early May with the main elements of the Gunfighters, although lead elements had already gained a good knowledge of the area of operations (AO) from the departing Scarface pilots.

Basically the AO broadens out to the south and west of the main base at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, but they are no means restricted to this area. “We can be tasked anywhere we are needed,” says Jamie. The AO was recently increased to the north to include the towns of Now Zad and Musa Qaleh.

Safely home with the ground crew ready to begin a quick turn as soon as the Cobra lands.

HMLA 369 has arrived just at the right time to see an increase in insurgent activity now that the poppy harvesting season has come to an end. “TIC [Troops in Contact] calls are growing and activity has shot up,” says Jamie. “Even if you don’t hear it you will know one has been called—because maintainers, ground handlers and aircrew all run to get the aircraft off the ground instead of the usual purposeful walk.”

There is a pattern to the kinetic battles in Helmand, indeed in Afghanistan. During the harsh winters the Taliban are more focused on surviving and, as a good portion of their foot soldiers are locals (many of whom are coerced or paid to fight ISAF troops), they are helping their families to survive. It is only in the early summer during the poppy harvest that the Taliban’s recruitment drive begins to kick into high gear and insurgent activity grows.

But another cause of an increasing number of TICs is that the Marine Corps has now got a firm hand on its operational objectives in Helmand. Where the British had barely enough troops and support helicopters to perform a small number of holding actions (largely at the request of the Afghan Provincial Government leaders) and the occasional deliberate operation against a limited number of sites (largely around the Green Zone either side of the Helmand River), the Marines have brought numbers. The added soldiers and aircraft allow an aggressive push into areas that the Taliban previously took for granted as secure.

The Taliban’s main supply route (MSR) came up from the southern border of Helmand with Pakistan, where fresh insurgents would progress north towards the main congested battle zones around Musa Qaleh, Now Zad, Kajaki, Sangin and Lashkar Gah. When the Marines arrived this MSR was targeted and put under ever increasing pressure as the USMC developed its counter insurgency (COIN) operations—the main function of their deployment. Where other nationalities (and there are around 38 different nations operating under the ISAF banner) might be focusing more on nation building and supporting the civil population, the Marines are expressly here to attack the Taliban wherever they find them. A role they are uniquely qualified for—both in tradition and in equipment.

Gunfighters Arrive

The arrival of the Gunfighters will build on the achievements of Scarface. One of the keys to a significant increase in capability, says Jamie, is the arrival of the Huey ‘Yankee’ helicopters. Although HMLA 369 had a doubly challenging pre-deployment training period—not only did they have to train for operations in the notoriously difficult ‘hot and high’ environment in which they would be operating in Afghanistan (Yuma in Arizona then with the Marine troops at Twentyninepalms in California), they also had to learn the qualities and techniques of the new Yankee Hueys, leaving their old UH-1N ships behind for good. But that was a good thing. “The man-machine interface and stick and rudder seat-of-the-pants feel is still there,” he says.

Now that the helicopters are operational, “we make them do as much as they can with everything they have,” Jamie adds. “Currently our mission profiles are one-third assault support and two-thirds non-traditional ISR, TIC missions and offensive support.”

There is no set number of flight hours per aircraft that should not be exceeded on a monthly basis, but crews tend to average around 50 hours per month, some going up to 80 hours during more intense periods of activity. Risk mitigation plays a part in who is sent.

Safely home with the ground crew ready to begin a quick turn as soon as the Cobra lands.

“With the imbalance between the numbers of aircraft on the squadron, the Hueys still average around 37 percent of the flight hours per month.” Although there are double the numbers of Cobras to Hueys, the majority of missions usually pair one of each (a tradition that can trace its way back to the old Hunter-Killer teams of the Vietnam era). “This balance usually means we always have a weapons-to-target match, and the team is equipped to meet virtually any situation that develops,” states Jamie.

Without doubt the Yankee Hueys come with a host of very significant improvements over the November aircraft. The new engines and four-bladed rotor increases lift capacity from 10,500 to 18,500 lbs.—allowing between six and 10 fully equipped troops to be carried (depending on air density). The old UH-1Ns could often lift little more than their own fully equipped crew—and needed to be stripped down for anything more ambitious.

New equipment includes a BRITE Star II CCDTV digital color sensor from FLIR, the inclusion of a laser designator and IR laser pointer. Described by Jamie as the difference between ‘night and day’, this transforms the aircraft into a true sensor platform that can work aggressively with the Cobras and fast jets in identifying, then illuminating the target for the heavily armed aircraft to strike with Hellfire missiles or bombs. The Huey does have a sting of its own with two door guns and either one or two pods of dumb 2.75-inch rockets for area suppression, and has been used in ground support although often with a Cobra in the background.

The digital cockpit also represents a big stride forward in terms of crew resource management (CRM). “You can now do everything from either side of the cockpit,” says Jamie. While tasks still tend to be allocated to individuals, should a complicated situation develop then either pilot can work through the digital screen to manage any of the systems.

When the Cobra AH-1Zs are introduced they will share a common tail boom, engines, rotor system, drive train, avionics architecture, software and avionics—around 84 percent identical and interchangeable components with the UH-1Ys (a maintainer’s dream).

No pilot in Afghanistan can escape from the demanding challenge of brownout landings, but Jamie says that the way in which the new Hueys blades are designed, they create less lift at the blade route and the area immediately around the cockpit tends to remain relatively clear of dust in a standard approach landing during the last 50 feet. Combined with this is the information being delivered to the pilots via the hover box, which when coupled with the radar altimeter (radalt), gives good positional information into each pilot’s helmet visual system.

“Now add in the information that the crew chiefs are providing as they visually guide us down by watching either side of the cargo doors, and we have a good all-round picture of our descent,” summarizes Jamie.

When the Cobra AH-1Zs arrive onto the flight line, the updating of the light attack squadron will be complete. With TV data link being incorporated into the attack helicopters, which will allow real-time visual images to be shared, not only between the Marine aircraft, but also to ground troops. Images from UAS flying in support of the ground troops will also be added into the ISR picture, increasing the squadron’s potency even further.

It seems that southern Helmand Province is only going to get more dangerous for the Taliban. If they can be pushed further and further onto the defensive—a classic COIN strategy—then maybe enough ti me can be bought for the Afghan infrastructure and government to improve allowing future negotiations with the Taliban (for they will come) to be conducted from a position of strength rather than weakness.

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