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Paul Buchanan: On Special Ops Military Investment

On Military Investment In Special Operations And Helicopter Trapping

Paul G. Buchanan

The downing of a US helicopter in Eastern Afghanistan with 16 Special Forces soldiers represents the single worst combat loss by the US in that country since the invasion of late 2001. The loss is made all the more grave when considering the investment that goes into the training and equipment of special forces troops—in this case 8 Navy SEALs and 8 Army Aviation special operators sent on a mission to rescue a four man SEAL reconnaissance squad lost after coming under fire in Kunar Province. Special forces troops take five times as long and ten times as much money to train in their specific skills as does the regular ground soldier, above and beyond their previous military training. They are selected mostly for their intelligence, psychological fortitude and physical endurance, spend more time in combat zones and on forward deployed status, and thereby represent the most battle-ready forces that the military can offer. Since several of the dead had over ten years of special operations experience, beyond the loss of equipment and lives, what was lost was a major investment in combat knowledge and capability.

Because of the large investment in these men, the loss of the chopper and its occupants raises some important questions about the tactics employed against the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters fighting along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Among them is the tactic of helicopter trapping, or more precisely, how to avoid it.

Since helicopters were introduced into combat in the Korean War, they have proved invaluable assets as troop carriers, supply ferries and weapons platforms. Their presence has conferred exponentially greater mobility to ground forces as well as a decisive counter to armoured threats. That has increased the pace, tempo and range of infantry operations, to the point that in the US, the phrase used for helicopter borne infantry assaults is “air cavalry.”

However, as with all forms of warfare, there is a dialectic between offense and defence (in which every offensive innovation finds its eventual defensive counter, to which new offensive tactics and weapons are developed), and it was not long before means were devised to blunt the effectiveness of helicopters in combat. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Vietnam conflicts.

In the fight against the French and later the Americans, the Viet Minh and Viet Cong devised a simple but effective counter to airborne infantry assaults and close air rotary platform ground support by opposing conventional forces. This tactic is known as helicopter trapping.

The Vietnamese at first waited in the jungle around clearings for French helicopters to arrive on scene in a conflict zone, and then began shooting as the choppers unloaded troops or supplies. They soon realized that it was far more practical, if a bit more difficult given the technology of the moment, to target the choppers while they were still airborne. Over time, this eventuated into a tactic in which helicopters, as opposed to the troops or supplies they held, became primary targets. The idea was that it would be better to engage helicopters before they could unload troops, and better to down choppers offering suppressive air cover in order to more symmetrically engage opposing ground forces.

When the Americans replaced the French in Vietnam, they introduced new aerial combat tactics, including staggered (fixed wing and rotary) close ground support as well as deep insertion drops. The Vietnamese, having initially been bloodied by the change in enemy tactics, quickly realized that there was a better way to confront this new aerial threat. It was by adding a sucker ploy to the helicopter trap.

The ploy is to lure helicopter gunships by targeting them with small arms fire from designated vantage points as they pass by in support of ground forces, on scouting missions or in hot pursuit of the enemy. When the gunships return to counter the initial fire, specifically designated teams stationed up range, often armed with portable missiles, zero in on the choppers as they close to the ground in order to bring their weapons into range and engage the initial source of fire. This tactic proved remarkably effective and resulted in the loss of dozens of US helicopters during the course of the war.

The knowledge gained from this experience was not lost on insurgents throughout the world. In an ironic twist it was used effectively by muhajadeen guerrillas in Afghanistan against Soviet forces in the 1980s and by US-backed Nicaraguan contras against Cuban-flown, Soviet-made Hind gunships working on behalf of the Sandinista regime during that decade. In both of these cases there were elements added to the ploy. The use of thermal and infrared targeting along with increased ranges improved the accuracy of portable surface to air missiles (SAMs). The presence of mountainous terrain introduced ridgelines along valleys, canyons, ravines and gorges in which the helicopter trappers could fire down upon, as opposed to up at, incoming choppers. Given that much of the defensive response to the introduction of helicopter trapping at the time was to upgrade the armoured plating of helicopter frames, the utilization of ridgeline fire took specific advantage of the vulnerabilities of engine heat signatures and rotor exposure on the upper surfaces of the aircraft.

Thus, a heavily armoured Hind helicopter, which essentially is an airborne tank, could be lured to engage by small arms fire coming from a village in a small valley in Afghanistan or Nicaragua. As it dipped to begin its strafing run secure in the knowledge that its armour would deflect most incoming ordinance from below, opposing gunners stationed on ridgelines up range and above the flight path could target the chopper from above, either focusing on the engine heat signature or on the moving superstructure itself. As any hunter knows, the high ground gives clearer lines of sight—especially through the viewfinder of a target sight.

It is not just a matter of visual sighting, since acoustic and heat signatures makes night trapping of helicopters quite feasible. Rotary aircraft have sound signatures that telegraph their arrival anywhere from five to twenty minutes in advance, depending on the terrain and atmospheric conditions. Beyond the obvious effects of head and tailwinds, the lay of the land confers specific advantages. The more cover and the flatter the terrain, the less of an acoustic warning. Conversely, the less cover and the more mountainous the terrain, the more the arrival notice is echoed in advance. With some variation this occurred in both Nicaragua and the Soviet-Afghan war, and such was the case in Kunar province last week.

The way in which to counter these disadvantages is to either fly very high or very low. Each has its problems: high-level flight with a steep drop to target zones tends to be less accurate in delivery of ordinance, materiel or personnel because of the haste in which it is carried out. Low flights are vulnerable to small arms flyer and physical obstacles. A compromise is to utilize highly maneuverable and fast rotary platforms, although at present that compromises payload capacity. An additional measure of protection is afforded by the dropping of diversionary flares to thwart heat-seeking SAMs, but these have no effect on other types of ground fire.

As the US and British have found out, even these counter-measures have not prevented helicopter losses in Iraq. Moreover, although coalition pilots have been fortunate that the terrain favours the chopper over its ground-based foe, urban areas in Iraq have the potential to become another Mogadishu-type scenario where directed fire from rooftops and windows poses lethal threats to rotary aircraft close to the ground.

Then there is the question as to why a MK-47 Chinook helicopter was used to attempt the extraction of the lost SEAL squad. On board were two SEAL squads from SEAL Team Ten, plus eight aircraft operators. Perhaps the justification for the use of a large, relatively slow, less maneuverable, lightly armed Chinook was that the firepower would be needed on the ground to cover the extraction of potentially wounded personnel, so a bigger vehicle could best deliver the two extraction teams with supporting fire in one package. This would apparently diminish the risk to the mission compared to a multi-vehicle rescue attempt. In the latter case, the mission would have to be aborted in the event that a chopper carrying one of the two extraction teams was lost for reasons of weather, mechanical failure or enemy fire. Two choppers double the acoustic warning available to the enemy.

Yet reports claim that there was a second Chinook on scene, which means that there were two slow moving targets in the air above that ravine and that once one was hit, the other retreated. If that was the case, then the second aircraft was a spare in case the first one was disabled but the crew and extraction teams survived. Otherwise, had it carried backup extraction squads and fire support along the lines of the first one, the second Chinook would have stayed on scene and attempted the rescue unless ordered to disengage.

Chinooks are very large and cumbersome, particularly in closed and steep terrain such as that of Kunar’s mountain ranges. Two SEAL squads could fit in the more agile Blackhawk or Seahawk helicopters that SEALs normally deploy in, but there would be no room for anything but the (3 man) aircrew, much less the rescued SEAL squad. In addition, space constraints in the landing zone might have prohibited the simultaneous insertion of separately-borne extraction squads, which meant that the loitering times over the area would lengthen, thereby increasing vulnerability to attack. Even if accompanied by the suppressive fire of attack helicopters such as the Apache and Cobra gunships in the US arsenal (and one wonders why there were none on scene given the circumstances), time would still be on the side of the enemy (as fuel ran low) and the air above the extraction site would be, to borrow a phrase, target-rich for patient gunners. Having a second Chinook on scene only made the helicopter trapper’s target choices easier.

A solution to the problem might have been found in dropping the two extraction teams further down the ravine from their besieged counterparts, then have them fight their way up to the rendezvous point while the two Chinooks loitered out of range of enemy fire until the landing zone was secure. But the number of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters that had ambushed the reconnaissance squad was unknown, and it might not have been feasible, even with all of their skills, for eight or sixteen SEALs to successfully fight their way uphill in narrow confines in order to clear a landing zone for the extraction of their mates. In previous battles in and around Tora Bora during the first year of the Afghan war other SEALs and Army personnel on rescue or relief missions had been killed after arrival by entrenched enemy forces much larger than anticipated, and this may have weighed on the minds of the commanders confronted with the task of extracting the lost reconnaissance squad.

Thus the mission apparently required the two Chinooks (one with the extraction team, the other with fire support or as a spare) to fly straight and low to the site where the lost squad’s last call came from. That put them squarely in the target sights of an enemy that was fully aware that, given American military ethics, a rescue attempt would be made. The helicopter trap was thus set, and was successful.

Although they would have preferred to rescue their buddies or die fighting, the men on the ill-fated Chinook give us reason to ponder the lessons of helicopter trapping history. In that measure, their sacrifice is noted. But not quite in the way currently being portrayed.

In claiming that a “lucky shot” from a rocket-propelled grenade downed the Chinook, a US military spokesman downplayed the skill and acumen of the enemy and thereby disrespected his countrymen who died. It is possible, though, that his colleagues shared his views, and that those planning the mission assumed that the anti-American fighters would flee rather than fight, or would not have the combat experience to militarily capitalise on the plight of the trapped US soldiers. As the saying goes, assumptions that downplay the skills of the opponent can get people killed. If the commanders of the rescue mission held such views, they did.

The Taliban-al Qaeda gunners were anything but lucky. Be it by RPG, SAM or small arms fire, the helicopter trappers had the advantage. They knew what was coming, they had time to prepare, and they had the advantage of cover. They used the terrain and their enemy’s tactical error to inflict a serious blow that simultaneously increased their own morale while hurting that of the Americans. It is doubtful that the slow ground-based follow-up scouring of the combat zone will locate the gunners, who undoubtedly have retreated back to safe havens using routes unfamiliar to the US pursuers with the connivance of agencies and individuals ostensibly allied with the Americans. Using air strikes against suspected militant hideouts in the region that result in civilian casualties will only increase the difficulties of the pursuit.

There are several lessons to be learned from this episode. After-action reports and command assessment will tell the full story, and the US military will undoubtedly revise its procedures based upon the complete evaluation of the event. But what remains to be seen is whether the larger historical lessons will have been learned. Technology may be wonderful at solving immediate tactical problems, but it is only as good as the combat knowledge that employs it. In the historical record of helicopter trapping, it appears that there is still much left for the US to learn, as is its need to give more respect to enemies not gifted with the technological advances of the US military, but who are very determined and very well versed in irregular warfare. Given the investment it makes in troops and equipment and the inevitability of future conflicts, perhaps a re-read of the historical record of helicopter trapping and US success in irregular conflict is in order. Should it be done, the men on that doomed Chinook will not have died in vain.


Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland. He previously worked as a analyst and consultant for several US security agencies and with irregular forces in Latin America.

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