Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Unanswered Questions

The Special Operations community is still in shock over last week's loss of a SEAL platoon in Afghanistan. Eight of the dead were members of a Quick-Reaction Team (QRT), lost in the crash of an MH-47 helicopter that was attempting to reach members of a four-man SEAL reconnaissance element. The recce team called for support after being caught in an firefight with Taliban forces near the Afghan-Pakistan border. Two other SEALs from the recce element were also killed (their bodies have since been recovered); a third SEAL from the reconnaissance team was rescued, and the fourth remains unaccounted for, although Afghan government officials claim he is being cared for by local villagers.

Froggy Ruminations, a blog dedicated to the Naval Special Warfare Community, has excellent coverage of this tragedy, including a list of the SEALS who perished in the chopper crash, along with the eight-member Chinook crew, assigned to 3rd Btn, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, based at Hunter Army Airfield, GA. In the aftermath of this tragedy, there will be the inevitable second-guessing and finger-pointing, but as one of Froggy's contributors--a 17-year veteran of SEAL teams--notes:

I have learned many things in my years in the Teams, and I will share two with you. First, if you were not there, and I mean actually on site, you have no right to judge the actions of the troops in the field. The worst thing that can happen to a military man is to have his tactical decisions be questioned after the fact by people who simply were not there. When this takes place it will inevitably lead to finger pointing and remove any possibility of learning from what happened. And if we, as military men, do not learn from events both positive and negative, then we might as well draw swords and have us a good old fashioned knife fight.

Secondly, sometimes enough is enough. Even though I have no knowledge of what has taken place and what I assume is still taking place other than what I have read in the news, I can guarantee you that everything that can be done to effect a positive outcome is being done. It is still fashionable to mock the level of intelligence of military men and women, but this is simply not correct. We know our trade, we live our trade, and we damn sure look after our own.

Well said, Chief. I have no doubt that the hard lessons of this episode will be learned and internalized, to prevent this from happening again. I have the utmost respect for the SEALs and other SF operators who perform the supremely dangerous missions required to win the War on Terrorism. But, as a former Air Force aircrew member (with some experience supporting special ops) I believe there are a couple of questions worth asking now, specifically: (1) Where the hell was airpower when this was going down, and (2) Are some of our current close air support (CAS) platforms up to the task of supporting SOF operators in a high-threat environment.

Let's begin with the airpower issue. From what I understand, the MH-47, the special ops version of a Chinook transport helicopter, entered the firefight area on its own, attempting to insert the QRT to assist the beseigned recce element. That begs an immediate (and obvious) question: where were the Air Force A-10s, or Army AH-64 Apache gunships? Either platform might have proven useful in suppressing enemy fire, allowing the MH-47 to land and offload the QRT.

But here's where the waters get a little murky. From what I'm told, the AH-64 has not provided extensive support to SOF teams in Afghanistan, in part because of its vulnerability to ground fire. A retired SF senior NCO (with experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq) reports that eight AH-64s were grounded by hostile fire during Operation Annoconda--literally all of the Apaches apportioned to that battle--and have been used sparingly in support of SOF operations since that time. Additionally, he told me that AH-64s typically don't operate at night, the time of day when many SOF missions are conducted. That strikes me as highly ironic, since the "night-fighting" abilities of the Apache are supposedly one of its strong points.

Regarding the A-10, the U.S. entered combat in Afghanistan without any of its CAS aircraft in the neighborhood, relying instead on other aircraft--including B-52 and B-1 bombers--to provide support for SOF teams. When it became apparent the A-10 was needed, the Air Force began flying them on marathon, 6-8 hour missions from bases in the Persian Gulf. Later, A-10s were deployed in closer proximity to Afghan targets, but (to date) there has been no explanation as to why no A-10s were on station during last week's firefight.

I should note that there are plausible explanations for the apparent lack of aircover. SOF teams in the field that haven't been compromised don't want a lot of friendly aircraft buzzing overhead, to avoid giving away their position. Additionally, weather conditions can limit air support; poor visibility or other meterological factors may have prevented friendly CAS platforms from reaching the target area, or positively identifying enemy troops on the ground. And finally, the bad guys may have been in a close-quarters fight with the SEAL recce element, preventing our aircraft from engaging the enemy.

We may never know the full story of what transpired along the Afghan border last week. Given the nature of SF missions, that's appropriate. But our SF operators on the ground deserve timely, effective support from airpower elements . I am disturbed by reports that the AH-64 is too vulnerable to ground fire to provide that support in certain SF operational scenarios. I'd also like to know more about the status of A-10s at the time of the battle, and their ability to respond in a timely manner. From an outsider's perspective, it seems quite possible that timely effective air support could have made a difference in this engagement. Was it available? Was it enroute? Those questions remain unanswered.

I would like to hear from anyone with more detailed knowledge of this situation, in hopes of clarifying the issue. E-mail comments should be forwarded to formerspook@hotmail.com. A non-attribution policy will be applied to any observations and comments received.

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