Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Choppers, the Achilles’ heel in the Afghan war
Back in 2002 during a reporting assignment in Afghanistan, a U.S. helicopter pilot told me that it was important to send a message early on that “we own the skies, night or day”. So at any given point of time if you were at the Bagram air base, north of Kabul, you could see aircraft, mostly choppers taking off, landing or simply idling in the skies above in what became the region’s busiest airfield.
Seven years on, the U.S. military is holding on to the skies ever more tightly as the ground below slips away to a Taliban insurgency at its fiercest level. And because they fly more and because the terrain and weather are difficult, the chances of things going wrong increase, as happened earlier this week when 14 Americans, including 11 soldiers, were killed in two separate chopper crashes.
U.S. soldiers were twice as likely to die in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan than in Iraq, Time magazine reported. It quoted Michael O’ Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who is keeping a rolling count of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, as saying that it wasn’t hostile fire that was bringing down the choppers. “The main issues have to do with terrain, weather and of course frequency of use,” he says.
Afghanistan, roughly the size of Texas, has few major roads, and they are being increasingly monitored and mined, forcing the U.S. to rely more on aircraft to move troops and supplies. Indeed many of the U.S. outposts in the country can only be reached by helicopters.
Noah Schachtman writes in Danger Room, a blog on national security, that helicopters are the “irreplaceable connective tissue of the Afghanistan war effort — and its potential Achilles’ heel.” When the U.S. military wants to haul gear, supply outposts, reposition forces, or evacuate wounded troops, the first, best and only option is to do so by helicopter.
Which means that demand for the aircraft at most U.S. bases far outstrips the supply, and the helicopters that do fly operate under unforgiving and often dangerous conditions.
Earlier this year, Popular Mechanics reporter Joe Pappalardo spent some time with the support crew in Bagram who keep the helicopters flying in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan,” he concluded, “is hell on helicopters.” Here’s a list of just a few of the things he noted that the military was up against: temperature swings that can ruin seals and gaskets; towering mountains with low air density which sap power from spinning rotor blades and engines; dusty deserts that gum up hydraulics; and enemy combatants who pepper the machines with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire.
At another time it was the former Soviet Union’s helicopter fleet which played a pivotal role in its war in Afghanistan and which the U.S. zeroed in on, famously equipping the mujahideen with the Stinger missiles. That drove up the cost of operating and contributed to the eventual defeat of the Red Army.
America isn’t facing Stinger missiles, yet, but the enemy on the ground seems just as hardened.