In his penultimate blog from Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel David Eastman – Spokesman for Task Force Helmand – looks at the range of helicopters in use on Operation HERRICK and considers their worth.
Last week I talked about getting around Helmand on the ground. However, with the number of areas that we operate in, the distances that we need to travel, and the support to operations that we undertake, the true workhorse of Task Force Helmand is, of course, the helicopter. Without these wonderful, gravity-defying machines, the fight against the insurgency would be even tougher and it would be extremely difficult to sustain our operations. I must admit from the outset that I am a helicopter engineer by trade, so my apologies if I seem a little biased on this particular topic!
We are very lucky to have a number of different types of aircraft flown by the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, as well as a huge number from the US Marines supporting us. The mainstay of our heavy lift aircraft is the amazing Chinook with its instantly recognisable twin rotor blades and immense lift capacity. The Chinook is supported by the Navy’s new Merlin and the venerable Sea King aircraft, as well as US Army Blackhawks, US Marine Corps’ Sea Stallions and the utterly amazing Osprey V-22.
The Osprey is a helicopter that turns into an aeroplane once it has taken off, allowing it to combine the flexibility of the helicopter with the speed of the aeroplane. It truly looks like something from a Science Fiction movie, especially as you watch the engines and rotor-blades tilt forward mid-air morphing from helicopter to aeroplane; in fact anyone who has seen the film “Avatar” will have seen aircraft not dissimilar to the Osprey in use by the bad guys on Pandora!
The combat end of our aircraft is very well catered for with the UK Apache and US Super-Cobra Attack Helicopters. These beasts are feared by insurgents, carry devastating payloads, but with very sensitive surveillance systems that enable them to operate with extreme precision. I’m not sure that I could count the number of British and Afghan lives that these aircraft have saved over the years that we have been in Helmand. When engaging, the pilots are required to ascertain without doubt that no innocent civilians will be caught in the blast, and that the target has been positively identified as an insurgent.
Perhaps the most important helicopter asset that we operate is the Medical Emergency Response Team or MERT. This is essentially an operating theatre inside a Chinook aircraft with its own integral force protection to protect the aircraft when it deploys forward. When a soldier is seriously injured the MERT can be called out and deployed straight to wherever the casualty is. As soon as the casualty is loaded onto the aircraft surgeons can start work on the way to the hospital in Camp Bastion. The lives, both Afghan and coalition forces, that have been saved by the amazing technology and the medical skills of these brave teams are innumerable, and the confidence engendered in our troops, knowing that such support exists should the worst happen, is incalculable.
The up-rated Army Lynx and the Navy’s Sea King surveillance aircraft also provide a specialist capability for us, allowing us to understand what is happening across our area of operations.
As I said, as a helicopter engineer I am a huge fan of these machines, but given the lives that they have saved, the logistic support that they deliver, the firepower that they bring, the surveillance and intelligence that they provide and the confidence that they engender in our soldiers, who can really blame me!