USMC and JHF(A) Unite in War on Taliban

By By Andrew Drwiega | August 1, 2010
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CAMP BASTION, Helmand Province, Afghanistan

During early summer the British Joint Helicopter Force—Afghanistan [JHF (A)] began its operational integration into the U.S. 3rd Marine Aviation Wing, part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based alongside British forces at Camp Bastion, Helmand Province. The decision is one that represents a logical and tactical step forward in the practical pooling of U.S. and UK rotary wing assets working alongside each other within the new region of RC South West (which covers Helmand). The old RC South is being divided along two provincial lines: RC South West (Helmand Province) and RC South East (Kandahar Province). It is not an integration of ground forces!

“The Joint Helicopter Command (Afghanistan) will conduct joint operations with the 3rd Marine Air Wing,” began Laird when we talked. “We are optimizing intelligent tasking at the coal face.” In its most simple terms, those within the ISAF/MEF command structure responsible for daily tasking will be expected to have the flexibility to match the right type of aircraft to the requirement tasking sought. This will ensure calls by ground troops for rotary wing support will be met quicker and with an appropriately sized aircraft. It is a step that is designed to maximise the light, medium and heavy lifting capability offered by aircraft from both nations. Clearly it is a waste of a good resources to send a British Chinook to lift four soldiers when an USMC Huey or Osprey may be better positioned and able to do the job. Likewise a British Apache Longbow might be closer than a USMC Cobra to Marines who suddenly make a Troops in Contact (TiC) call.


The command structure will see the commanding general of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills supported by Brigadier George Norton (UK) as his deputy commander. The overall commander or the rotary forces in RC South West will be USMC Brigadier General Andrew W. O’Donnell Jr., with Group Captain Nick Laird as his deputy commander. This integration does not apply to the UK’s fixed wing aircraft—fast jets, UAVs or transports—although the MAW’s similar assets will continue to be tasked by 3rd MAW.

Such a tactical realignment does seem to make good sense. The British have years of operational experience in the Helmand region and now have around 40 aircraft providing a wide range of capability across light (Lynx, Sea King), medium (AW101 Merlin) and heavy lift (CH-47 Chinooks), together with their attack helicopter force (WAH AH-64D Apaches).

Likewise, the 3rd MAW have a similar profile but with a much larger force of aircraft: the light attack squadron with its Cobra Whisky attack helicopters and Huey Yankees, the medium lift MV-22 Ospreys and the heavy lift CH-53D/E Super Stallions. The gathering in of the poppy harvest is complete and the traditional fighting season is now well under way, with the intensity of conflict escalating. There is still the factor of individual aircraft performance and different aircraft may be more able to respond at certain times of the day. “The level of sustainment we can offer by doing this is key to the ongoing campaign by providing more capacity for air maneuver,” said Laird. “It will bring a significant step change in deliberate operations.”

Into the Groove

Toward the end of May when I visited Camp Bastion, Wing Commander ‘Spats’ Paterson was the man in charge of JHF(A). Having been to a JHF(A) headquarters on my two previous trips to Afghanistan (2007 and 2008), what I immediately sensed was that the mission there is solidly understood and has matured into ordered professionalism. The British have been fighting in Helmand Province for years and the area of operations (AO) is well known to them. There is now a firm collective ‘institutional’ knowledge within the various U.S. squadrons of JHF(A) on which newcomers and allies can call upon. Crew tours of duty are manageable in length, being around 10 weeks for helicopter crews and longer for the maintainers, although they are likely to come out more frequently on the basis that their American counterparts who tend to do six- to seven-month tours.

The British Joint Helicopter Force—Afghanistan [JHF (A)] and the U.S. 3rd Marine Aviation Wing, part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, have been increasingly comparing notes on Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) with a mutually beneficial ebb and flow of information. Andrew Drwiega

Aside from the kinetic support and escort duties inherent in the attack helicopter squadrons, be they Apaches or U.S. Cobras, the main daily tasking for the rest of the rotary force revolves around the continuous need to supply the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) with food, water, daily essentials and the continual transportation of troops in and out, mixed in with some deliberate operations. While the role of support helicopters can border on the mundane at times, flying multiple missions to these FOBs day after day, they are an absolutely essential element to the way in which ISAF fights the war. The air bridge around the FOBs keeps so many troops out of harm’s way by flying them quickly above the threat. The ability to keep doing this is vital to the Counter-Insurgency (COIN) war that ISAF is pursuing. It means reduced casualties (especially to IEDs), timely resupply, rapid reaction to insurgent attacks and the ability to launch deliberate operations at virtually any given point on the map. Supporting regional heads of the Afghan government by flying them to Shuras around their provinces is also one of the pillars of expanding the governance out from the political center in Kabul.

One of the key differences between the ISAF mission to Afghanistan and the Russian invasion in the 1980s can be seen in the multiplicity of ISTAR assets being U.S.-led to provide overwatch and intelligence. From high-flying fast jets, to unmanned aerial systems, even down to the increasing U.S. use of ISR information that can be gleaned from sensor turrets installed on an increasing number of support helicopters. And having flown in the ‘jump seat’ on several occasions this visit and last, I can wholeheartedly attest to the contribution made by the curiosity of each helicopter crew using their ‘Mark 1 eyeball’. Pilots who fly continually in and out of FOBs all around the AO do observe differences on the ground, changes to patterns of activity, new tracks or things that just seem out of place. From the cockpit the pilots do scan the ground ahead at low level, watching for threats or avoiding terrain or features where danger could be concealed. UAS are valuable, but when helicopters vary their routine so as not to set patterns in their tactical behavior, that randomness also means that the insurgents cannot predict when they may be overflown.

The new factor is the shared tasking with the U.S. Marines. 3rd MAW has come with its own ‘can do’ attitude and determination which has impressed their British counterparts. However, representatives from both groups have been increasingly comparing notes on Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) with a mutually beneficial ebb and flow of information occurring.

A Life Saving Combo

One specific combination of resources that paid dividends ‘right out of the box’ was the tasking of the dedicated medical assets. Squadron Leader Charlie Thompson, who is a nurse on one of the Medical Emergency Response Teams (MERTs) described to me how responding to the early morning suicide bombing at a local Afghan market rapidly escalated into a situation so serious that it would involve both of the British MERTs, two British Chinook Immediate Response Team (IRT) helicopters and the two U. S. Army HH-60 Pedro Black Hawk ‘dust offs.’

It was early morning on March 31, 2010, and the local market in a town relatively close to Camp Bastion and near the Green Zone was getting busy as shoppers flocked in to buy essential supplies. The majority of people were women with children and the elderly—a typical profile of an Afghan market of this type. Around 9:00 a.m. a bomb hidden in a barrow exploded with such force that those closest to it were killed immediately, but many others close to the blast area suffered horrific injuries. Local emergency services are virtually non-existent.

The MERT received a call that there had been an explosion just as the two teams were exchanging duties. Little was known about who was involved only that it was serious and there were likely to be many casualties.

The British IRT Chinook was ‘quick started’ (which means it had be ready to fly in around seven minutes instead of the more usual 15 minutes). The IRT aircraft is capable of taking up to five stretcher cases in addition to the ground security team of four soldiers (who double as stretcher bearers), the medical team of one doctor, one RAF nurse (in this case Charlie) and two paramedics, as well as the crew of four. The interior of the Chinook is set up so that part of it can be turned into a crude operating theater in a ‘life or death’ situation. Bottles of fluids can also be suspended from internal rails to help stabilize patients in transit back to a main hospital.

The two U.S. Army Pedros with their trained ‘Para Jumper’ crewmen were on the scene first and began triage to assess the order in which the casualties needed to be evacuated. Such decisions must also take into account which cases can be taken to the Camp Bastion hospital and which would go to the civilian hospital in Lashkar Gar. The British hospital not only tends British and American troops, it will also accept Afghan civilians who warrant the level of specialist treatment it can offer, and perhaps surprisingly, even a small number of enemy combatants as there is a secure unit where injured Taliban can be kept.

The call of 28 casualties, a bad enough figure in itself was soon raised to a figure of more than 40. A quick decision was made to send another IRT aircraft with the second MERT team who had just come on duty—a fairly unprecedented move but one that was absolutely necessary given the number and seriousness of the injuries. The second helicopter would usually be an AW101 Merlin but again, given the numbers involved, a second Chinook was scrambled.

The British medical teams were now working on the most seriously injured around the marketplace. As Charlie described it, “there were so many everyone who could help was involved and it had become obvious that many were ‘Golden Hour’ type casualties—who needed attention fast.” The decision to send the two Chinooks was justified as between them they took 39 of the 43 casualties, with the other four going with the U.S. Army Black Hawks.

With a flying time of only 15 minutes each way, only 90 minutes passed between the bomb blast and the first casualties arriving into hospital—a remarkable achievement. Although nine of the casualties died at the scene, and three others were so badly injured that they later died of their injuries, many other seriously injured received first-class treatment in record time and survived wounds that, under normal circumstances, they would have succumbed to.

The U.S. Army Pedros and the British MERT teams had proved that this was a teaming that worked and had been tested by the most severe of incidents. As an incidental, it had also demonstrated to a distraught, watching civilian populous that ISAF forces were not just there to look after their own, and would compassionately deal with those in distress whoever they were.

As a follow on, several days later a Danish Forward Operating Base (FOB) was attacked by the Taliban who, under cover of a severe dust storm, closed to its perimeter and threw grenades over the compound wall. Sixteen Danish soldiers were injured, nine of whom were classified category A (the most serious condition). As Group Captain Laird summarized, “in appalling weather and in red illume conditions, the seriousness of the casualties resulted in the decision to launch the IRT aircraft in an attempt to extract them. What is usually around a 10-minute flight took nearly an hour. But the aircraft did get it and lifted all of the injured back to Camp Bastion.”

It hardly needs saying that the morale of those soldiers, of all nationalities, who are serving in isolated and dangerous parts of Afghanistan would not be as high without the knowledge that there are a few small teams who are ready to respond in the most testing of conditions to come to their aide, should they need it.

Churchill’s famous Battle of Britain address which talks of ‘so much being owed by so many, to so few’ has parallels in the context of the contribution made by this small, highly skilled collection of professionals to the morale and welfare of soldiers conducting operations in Helmand Province.

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