My second and third SOTG rotations saw a dramatic increase in our task group’s access to air assets. We heavily utilized U.S. aircraft, based permanently in Tarin Kot, which included the 101st Aviation Regiment’s Task Force Eagle Attack as well as 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment’s Task Force Wolfpack. These assets allowed for us to plan for and execute operations that previous rotations did not.
These joint operations became prevalent between our two nations and dominated the way in which our task group operated. Extended vehicle patrols started to give way to time-sensitive targeting and deliberate actions utilizing air assets. The reach of our FE also began to extend beyond the Uruzgan border into neighboring Zabol, Kandahar, and Helmand provinces.
The SOTG was pushing farther into Taliban and insurgent sanctuaries where, in some cases, the last coalition forces to enter had done so during the initial invasion. These areas were heavily armed and well organized, which meant for busy days and sleepless nights.
One operation that we conducted in 2009 had our entire task group inserted about 10km (6.2 miles) outside of the Kajaki Sofla Bazaar. We then approached the bazaar by foot in order to maintain the element of surprise. The intelligence picture of Kajaki Sofla looked like one big void of inactivity; there were no colorful dots indicating IED strikes, IEDs found, IEDs rendered safe, ineffective IED attacks, contact reports, nothing.
In fact, there appeared to be a perfectly defined border surrounding the area which was essentially considered a no-go zone for a large period of time. None of the traditional reporting existed because the Afghan government and coalition forces generally stayed out of there altogether. We knew that this could be played to our advantage, as the IED threat was considered quite low—they were not dealing with a constant government or coalition presence.
After much deliberation, our planners decided that the best way to insert was to be dropped outside of the CH-47’s audible range for a pre-dawn foot infil into the bazaar. Once there, the company placed teams in strategic locations in and around the bazaar, with snipers on overwatch, and waited for the fireworks to begin. The entire day went as predicted, and from first to last light, what seemed like the entire Sofla decided to come out and play. We found a large amount of drugs, weapons, IED-making equipment, and other paraphernalia which had been openly stashed throughout the bazaar. We even found a British UAV, which we diligently confiscated and is now hanging on our company wall at our unit in Australia. After last light, we withdrew back into the dasht for extraction by the same U.S. CH-47s that brought us in.
My third SOTG rotation to Afghanistan was in 2011, and with it came yet another evolution in our partnered operations and the air assets that were made available to our FE. One of the most influential officers from the 2nd Commando Regiment—for the purposes of this article he will be referred to as Major ‘Y’—led a group of planners from both the DEA and ODA to present a concept of operations (CONOPS) to the United States Marine Corps head shed at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province.
The meeting got off to a great start, with the Mötley Crüe of SOF and DEA planners, complete with beards, ponytails, and devil-may-care attitudes, giving a CONOPS brief to around 20 high-and-tight USMC career officers. The uneasy and slightly apprehensive feeling in the room soon lifted, however, after the planners discussed in detail our intention to focus our combined efforts and operate in the worst parts of Helmand province. Another ace card also lay in the fact that one of the DEA planners piloted a Bell AH-1 Cobra in Operation Desert Shield with the one-star general who was in charge of the Marine Air Wing. Both were captains during the Gulf War, and the general basically said, “Whatever you guys need, you’ve got it.”
From this point, the Marine Air Wing made their fleet of Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters available to us for unimpeded utilization. In addition to this, they also facilitated our entire FE in traveling to Camp Bastion from Tarin Kot by chartering one of their C-130 Hercules aircraft. This level of generosity was unlike anything I had witnessed on previous rotations, and enough praise cannot be given to our U.S. counterparts for such a magnanimous effort.
The sheer size of the CH-53Es allowed for our entire FE to be lifted in four helicopters, with the inclusion of two UH-1Y Huey helicopters that inserted our sniper teams and provided overwatch. Our entire commando company group (CCG) and supporting assets, our partner force, as well as the DEA FAST, their partner force the National Interdiction Unit, and elements from SEAL Team 10—with whom we were also operating—could be airlifted into the deepest parts of Helmand Province to drop a real-life nightmare onto the Taliban’s doorstep.
One operation which did not go to plan was based around another foray into Kajaki Sofla in mid-2011. As was becoming customary, we were picked up by a USMC C-130 from Tarin Kot, and our entire CCG, with attachments from SEAL Team 10, were transported down to Camp Bastion. We disembarked and waited around the airfield watching an assortment of V-22 Ospreys, C-5 Galaxies, UH-1Y Hueys, CH-53E Super Stallions, and a number of other aircraft come and go from the busy runway.
After one too many coffees and having eaten the makeshift snack tent dry, we loaded up into the helicopters shortly after midnight and prepared for the long flight in. I was on the second CH-53E in a formation of four, with chalks one and two flying as a pair, and chalks three and four flying as another pair in trail. Based on the nature of the threat, our overwatch was an AC-130 Spectre gunship, which was ordered to come on station an hour before our intended wheels-down timing. This was deliberately planned in order to minimize the chance of a noise compromise. Insurgents were very cognizant of our training, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), and a circling aircraft was one the clearest indications that a follow-on force was likely to be arriving in the vicinity at some point in the immediate future.
After approximately an hour’s flight time, we received a 10-minute courtesy call; we were to be wheels down on our designated HLZ shortly. I was about the fourth man in from the tail ramp, and I began my routine of getting ready to disembark—checking equipment, tightening straps, moving my legs, checking my night vision, etc. I was going over the actions-on in my head when we received the 30-second call. I knew just how bad Kajaki Sofla was, as we had been to this exact area only two years prior, except this time there was one critical difference: We were landing in the green zone rather than 10 km off target.
The CH-53E Super Stallions were unable to land us in the dasht due to the threat of helicopter brownout. This ultimately meant that, rather than taking the bazaar by stealth and surprise like we did in 2009, we were landing four of the biggest and not-so-agile helicopters right in the middle of a hornet nest.
Another grouping and task of this operation involved a USMC recon element, which was to stage about eight km (five miles) outside of Kajaki Sofla. They were to provide a blocking element to the south, as well as to serve as a quick-reaction force in extremis. The recon element departed about half a day prior in order to reach their designated staging location, which they did without incident. What we ended up finding out later, however, was that their movement triggered reporting up through the valley as part of the insurgent network’s early warning.
Even though the recon element stopped short of our intended target area, it put the entire valley on notice due to the coalition movement. Some of the communications intercept that I was privy to in the days after the operation indicated that the insurgents in our target area were standing by and actually waiting for coalition soldiers to arrive. They were running pickets, complete with scheduled change-outs—essentially standing by for our impending arrival. They may not have known how we were going to get there or where exactly we were going to be, but they were obviously—and rightly—convinced that we were going to be in the general vicinity at some point in the immediate future.
Around 10 seconds had passed since the 30-second call was given, and by this stage, we were all on a knee facing the CH-53E’s tail ramp. It was dark, cramped, hot, and the helicopter had a bad habit of spitting hydraulic fluid over a handful of lucky guys throughout the entire flight in. We were looking out the rear of the bird and focused on getting off and getting on with our job when the horizon erupted with two very bright and very distinctive vertical blasts of gunfire.
Under NVGs, the two parallel trails of gunfire went well above the opening that we could see out of, and for those of us lucky enough to see the fireworks, we immediately knew that it was an anti-aircraft weapon—most probably a ZU-23-2. The AA gun first took aim at us, then the trailing birds, and then—believe it or not—at the AC-130 Spectre. Later, during the AAR, we were made aware that the Spectre had reported “baseball-size explosions” a thousand or so feet higher than what they were flying as overwatch. The gunship was subsequently pushed off station at our most critical point—the landing—which almost ended in absolute disaster.
We were nine feet off the ground when things really took an interesting turn. Without warning, the left, right, and rear sides of the helo erupted with incoming gunfire. All three door and tail gunners opened up simultaneously, returning fire while the CH-53E pilots took immediate evasive action. We were thrown from our knees into the side of the helo as it banked hard left in a way that I didn’t think possible from ‘ye ol’ crash pony’.
Both helicopters in the first packet found themselves on the receiving end of a well-orchestrated U-shaped ambush, with the insurgents’ only fault being their premature initiation. Had they applied some tactical patience and waited another 30 seconds for us to be on the ground, disembarking, then the proverbial shit would have really hit the fan. Our alternate HLZ was also compromised, which made landing impossible, and the pilot in command eventually gave the order to abort the mission. We flew back to Bastion where we regrouped, modified our mission, got some rest, and redeployed the following night.
What these examples serve to highlight is how the utilization of air assets opened up an entirely new spectrum of operational possibilities and environments for us to exploit. These particular operations and countless others would not have happened without the availability of airframes for us to utilize. Our limitations as a FE were undoubtedly linked to the inability of our own government to have provided us with the aircraft that we so desperately needed.
William McRaven’s theory of special operations (SO) discusses how relative superiority is achieved through the application of six interdependent principles: simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed, and purpose. Surprise is achieved by catching the enemy off guard through deception, timing, and exploitation of his vulnerabilities. Speed enables a force element to reach its target area or objective as quickly as possible so as to limit vulnerability and enhance the opportunity to achieve relative superiority.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, our utilization of air assets is inextricably linked to the realization of these principles. In Afghanistan, it allowed us to operate in the way that we as a special operations force are trained to operate. It enabled us to plan for and achieve a far greater effect than relying solely on ground-based options. As our rotations progressed, the ground-based and helicopter-based operations continuum started to lean in favor of the latter, which fully enabled the Special Operations Task Group’s Force Element Bravo (SOTG FE – B, or the 2nd Commando Regiment) to realize its full potential. We still had to compete for the U.S. aircraft to use on our operations, however, our competitors were far fewer and any conflicts could generally be worked around fairly easily.
(All images courtesy of the Australian Defence Force unless otherwise stated)