SCRAMBLE THE COBRAS!
The shriek of the air horn breaks the silence of the day, the peaceful calm of the flight line violently interrupted. In seconds, papers fly, chairs are knocked out of the way, and shouts fill the air as maintainers and aircrew sprint to the aircraft. To the casual observer, it seems nothing more than chaos erupting. But for Marine Light/Attack Helicopter Squadron 269, Detachment B, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force–Afghanistan, this is an intricate and rehearsed reaction, as each member moves with the rapid precision reminiscent of a NASCAR pit stop.
One hundred meters and thirty seconds later, pilots are already donning their flight gear. Just minutes later, the aircraft are already started and armed, and pilots are grabbing last-minute details for the troops in contact from the battalion air officer. As the pilots pull in collective, the aircraft, clawing into the air, momentarily shudder as every single ounce of lift is allocated to getting a full load of fuel, rockets, rounds and missiles airborne. The Cobras disappear on the horizon and silence again fills the air, along with nervous anticipation among the mix of airframers, avionics technicians and ordnance men. They turn-to in preparation for hot reloading, troubleshooting and battle damage assessment, as the next evolution of managed chaos is about to begin.
FROM IRAQ TO AFGHANISTAN
The Marine Corps’ 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, originally scheduled to deploy to Iraq, was redirected a month prior to deployment and by April found itself operating in Helmand Province of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Tasked with the mission of training and mentoring the Afghan National Police (ANP), 2/7 was baptized under the full assault of Taliban insurgent forces.
They faced rocket and mortar indirect fire—IDF attacks, direct-fire engagements from small arms, shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket launchers (RPGs), and heavy machine guns, as well as a vast network of improvised explosive device (IED) manufacturers and emplacers. The mission of 2/7 was to establish, train and mentor local ANP units in order to build confidence in their ability to deter and interdict the insurgency. Reinforcements assigned to assist 2/7 with its mission included a combat engineer platoon, a shock trauma platoon, a radio battalion detachment, reconnaissance Marines, DynCorp civilian contractors and personnel specializing in civil military operations.
MR. MURPHY COMPLETES THE DEPLOYMENT
No deployment is complete, however, without the presence of “Mr. Murphy.” The Marines of 2/7 rapidly found themselves deeply engaged in combat operations and quickly realized that their training and mentoring mission would have to be complimented by significant counterinsurgency and combat operations.
The mission for 2/7 formally changed and the wheels at Headquarters Marine Corps were set in motion to reconfigure the Marines in Afghanistan for full combat support. Among the shortfalls identified immediately were rotary-wing close air support assets.
“Be prepared to leave for Afghanistan as early as this weekend.” Those were the words of our executive officer, as he spoke to us on a Tuesday morning in early August, in our ready room aboard Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River, Jacksonville, N.C. Even though the squadron had spent the previous months preparing for its fifth deployment to Iraq, rumors had been swirling around about an alternate tasking to provide a detachment in support of 2/7.
In the end, the decision was made to deploy HML/A-269, Det. B, to Afghanistan to support Task Force 2/7. The detachment, comprised of four AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters, ten pilots, and approximately forty aircraft maintainers, ordnance men and support Marines, arrived at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, in mid-August of 2008.
IT STARTS WITH BRIEFINGS
Upon its arrival to Kandahar, HML/A-269, Det. B, was initially placed under operational control to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s air combat element formed from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365, also stationed out of MCAS New River.
That first week in-country was filled with a variety of briefs on topics ranging from rules of engagement (ROE) to first aid. In addition to theater in-briefs and acclimatization, pilots began their orientation flights while the maintainers quickly got acquainted with the aircraft. Frequent IDF attacks reminded everyone that even though Kandahar Airfield was a sprawling multinational base hosting thousands of service members and civilian contractors, with a steady flow of U.S. and international heavy-lift aircraft, foreign attack jets, and a wide array of both civilian contractor and military transport helicopters, it was located in the middle of a dangerous combat zone.
The advantages of Marine Corps rotary-wing close air support became readily apparent to the operational forces in Regional Command–South. HML/A-269, Det. B, was comprised of experienced pilots and maintainers, most with two previous combat deployments under their belts.
Within one week of arrival, HML/A-269, Det. B, repositioned from Kandahar to its present home at Camp Bastion and began conducting flight operations in support of 2/7. The mission was simple: provide around-the-clock close air support in direct support of 2/7. With no end date established, the Marines of HML/A-269, Det. B, were ready to get to work.
FIGHTING ON A REGULAR BASIS
On several early flights in 2/7’s area of operations, surface-to-air fire was encountered and dealt with appropriately and effectively. The mission of forward air control (airborne) was also frequently executed to control aviation and surface fires at the outposts. Much like 2/7, HML/A-269, Det. B, quickly found itself immersed in a lethal fight on a regular basis.
The move to Camp Bastion was a step back in time to the days of the Corps’ combined arms exercises at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms. A single airstrip, with a small contingent of general-purpose medium tents, represented the entire Marine Air-Ground Task Force footprint.
Looking off to the north, Hildago was replaced by Kuh’e Khvajeh Ultat Baba, and at about the same distance to Gay’s Pass was Forward Operating Base Cafferetta, on the edge of a town called Now Zad, a war-torn village that conjures images of no-man’s land from WWI. Thankfully, the offensive smell of the waste-water treatment pond, also know as Lake Bandini, was left back at Kandahar. Built in early 2006, Camp Bastion is the largest British overseas military camp built since World War II and the main British military base in Afghanistan. It is situated northwest of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province. Originally quartering only British forces and a small number of U.S. Special Forces and civilian contractors, Camp Bastion became the home of 2/7 and, after a brief stay in Kandahar, home to HML/A-269, Det. B.
In spite of its small size, Camp Bastion revealed itself to be a busy place. HML/A-269, Det. B, shared the air field with British Apaches, CH-47s, H3s, and Lynx. U.S. Army Black Hawks flew out of Camp Bastion, filling the medevac role for the area of operations. In addition to these aircraft that called Camp Bastion home, the airspace was continuously transited by Marine CH-53s and C-130s, Air Force C-17s, coalition unmanned aerial systems, and a wide variety of coalition and civilian cargo aircraft.
35,000 SQUARE KILOMETERS OF BATTLE SPACE
Task Force 2/7’s area of operations (AO) was greater than 35,000 square kilometers (more than twice the size of Connecticut), with terrain that varied from flat, open desert to rugged 9,000-foot mountain peaks. Population centers ranged in size from small groups of tents, erected by sheep herders, to cities with populations in the thousands.
Nowhere in their AO was there a safe haven for the Marines free from the constant threat of enemy attack. Such attacks were, at times, as simple as pressure-plate IEDs, or as complex as coordinated small-arms and mortar attacks complete with support-by-fire positions and maneuver elements.
Using the theater call sign “Abusive,” HML/A-269, Det. B, immediately got to work for 2/7 by focusing on a core mission set that centered around close air support, surface and rotary-wing escort, and armed reconnaissance. Previous training and experience allowed HML/A-269, Det. B, to quickly get the birds in the air and support the ground troops needing the firepower they had to offer. The detachment quickly established a battle rhythm. In addition to preplanned missions, HML/A-269, Det. B, was ready at a moment’s notice to respond to missions supporting troops in contact. Within the first week after their arrival, the pilots on both shifts became intimately familiar with the various towns and widely varying terrain as a result of supporting taskings and responding to missions throughout all 35,000 square kilometers of 2/7’s AO.
Word of HML/A-269, Det. B’s arrival at Camp Bastion spread quickly throughout the AO and support requests from a wide array of Combined Joint Special Operation Task Force units, Estonian forces and British ground forces started flooding in. The task for the HML/A-269, Det. B, operations officer was to liaise with the MEU operations section in order to balance all of the various requests. HML/A-269, Det. B’s primary mission was to support 2/7; however, great effort was put forth to provide support to other units as asset allocation would allow.
“SKINNY GRAY HELICOPTERS” KILL TALIBAN SHOOTERS
The months of September and October found the Marines of HML/A-269, Det. B, heavily engaged with the Taliban insurgents. Little by little however, the insurgent fighters learned that shooting while “the skinny gray helicopters” (Taliban description of the AH-1W) were overhead was not a bright idea. Soon, the distinctive sound of the AH-1Ws flying overhead was enough to quell attacks on friendly forces. The detachment’s pilots were faced with the feeling, familiar to any attack helicopter pilot, that the “bad guys” were getting away. However, the security that the presence of AH-1Ws overhead provided was often enough for mission accomplishment, even if a round was never fired.
After an initial honeymoon period of relatively little surface-to-air fire as the insurgents reacted to the presence of AH-1Ws in the AO, the situation gradually evolved, and surface-to-air fires became more frequent. Along with radio intercepts discussing their attempts to hide from the helicopters, enemy fighters’ discussions turned frequently to shooting at those same helos, with airburst anti-tank rockets being the weapon of choice. [These rockets burst on a timed self-destruct fuse, not an altitude fuse.] As the threat evolved, the pilots of HML/A-269, Det. B, continually re-examined their tactics so as to best accomplish the mission while reducing the enemy’s effectiveness.
Cowardly one moment, brazen the next, the insurgent fighters proved to be a resilient and ever-present threat. They were knowledgeable on the alliance forces’ rules of engagement and were quick to adapt and change their own tactics, techniques and procedures to exploit the limits of the alliance’s ROE. They gave little or no thought to using innocent civilians as human shields. One of the obvious advantages they had was an intimate knowledge of the terrain and population centers. They used this familiarity to mask their movements and to blend in with the local populace.
NEW FACES, SAME MISSIONS
During the early part of November, the squadron detachment gained a new headquarters element. The 24th MEU departed and was replaced by Special Marine Air/Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF)-A. Headquartered out of Kandahar, SPMAGTF-A picked up where the 24th MEU left off, taking over command of HML/A-269, Det. B, as well as 2/7.
In late November, after eight intense months of daily combat operations, 2/7 was replaced by 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (Reinforced). Since HML/A-269 and 3/8 are both stationed in Jacksonville, N.C., the arrival of 3/8 brought a number of familiar faces to Camp Bastion, to include two Cobra pilots from HML/A-269 who were on one-year forward air controller (FAC) tours. With their relief-in-place with 2/7 complete, 3/8 rapidly got to work, picking up where their predecessors left off.
In addition to a change in higher headquarters and supported units, November brought another undeniable change–cold weather. With Camp Bastion sitting at roughly 3,000 feet mean sea level, its temperature regularly dropped below freezing at night and struggled to break the mid-40s during the day. This presented increasing challenges to the maintenance Marines. With no hangar facilities, all maintenance—from the routine “daily and turnarounds” to in-depth phase inspections—was conducted while exposed to the deteriorating weather. Mid-December also marked the official beginning of the Afghan rainy season, which complicated the situation even further. Camp Bastion’s dirt roads, combined with the influx of rain and heavy vehicle traffic, became a quagmire.
MARINES BEAT THE WEATHER AND THE TALIBAN
In spite of the worsening weather, the mission and operational tempo did not change. The expected slow down in insurgent activity that normally arrives with the Afghanistan winter never materialized. In fact, through the first half of December, the squadron detachment flew nearly as many hours at it had in any previous full month. HML/A-269, Det. B, found itself being requested by external agencies and multinational forces even more than usual during periods of degraded weather, when fixed-wing aircraft couldn’t fly. The detachment’s capabilities and training allowed it to operate in conditions considered unworkable for any other rotary-wing asset in theater.
The AH-1W Super Cobra’s all weather capabilities make it absolutely vital to the fight in Afghanistan, especially during the winter months when the weather traditionally takes a turn for the worse. The pilots of HML/A-269, Det. B, realized that their enemies were bound and determined to hold onto any and all tactical and geographical advantages they had secured throughout the recent months.
Looking back on the time that HML/A-269, Det. B, spent in Afghanistan, it is impossible to ignore the improvements made by U.S. and alliance ground forces. Their efforts have assisted the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in weakening the grip of terror to which Taliban and insurgent fighters had been subjecting the people of Afghanistan. The combination of kinetic operations and civil military interactions, to include the training of local forces and in-depth counterinsurgency operations, has made significant strides toward pacifying the strongholds of the insurgents. The balanced use of the full range of mission capabilities of the MAGTF once again demonstrated why the Marine Corps is the force of choice when combating an insurgency.