U.S. forces are continuing their seach for that missing SEAL in eastern Afghanistan, more than a week after a firefight that killed two members of his reconnaissance element, left another wounded, and resulted in the downing of a MH-47 Chinook helicopter that killed 16 other SF personnel.
First, we're now getting a rough timeline of when these events began to unfold. The battle between the four-man recce team and Taliban fighters began around dusk, local time. That's important, because it may explain (in part) why airpower was unable to respond effectively. As noted in a previous post, the Army's AH-64 Apache gunships have been used sparingly in night operations; calculating flight time to the target area, U.S. commanders may have determined that it would be "too dark" for the Apaches by the time they arrived.
On the other hand, U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships operate almost exclusively at night, but they typically don't begin working targets until night has fallen. Despite an impressive self-protection suite, the lumbering AC-130s are more vulnerable to ground fire during daylight operations. During the first Gulf War, the Air Force lost a gunship that tarried in a target area after sunrise, exposing it to Iraqi gunners that downed the aircraft with an SA-16 shoulder-fired SAM. Fourteen USAF crew members died in that incident.
AC-130s have operated extensively over both Afghainstan and Iraq, but (so far) military officials haven't said if one of the aircraft was airborne--or even on ground alert--when the SEAL element ran into trouble. Ditto for USAF A-10s. The "Warthog" is also capable of night operations, but we haven't heard anything about their status on the night in question.
I've also heard some grumbling from Army SF types (current and former) that the SEALs aren't as capable as Green Berets in conducting certain types of "overland" missions. As one retired Army SF senior NCO told me, [SEALs] aren't nearly as high speed on land as they are on the water." He also suggested that SEAL teams need more training in specific areas--including foreign language skills--to be as effective as their Green Beret counterparts. Is this an example of inter-service rivalries within the SF community, or a reflection actual training shortfalls? I don't know, and I'll leave that determination up to the experts.
Additionally--as noted in a previous post--I won't attempt to judge the tactical decisions made in Kunar Province last week But questions regarding air support for MH-47 still deserve an answer, as do issues involving the AH-64 in high-threat or nighttime environments. If you'd like to weigh in confidentially, send me an e-mail at email@example.com.