Chinook Down

                     Military helicopters have created history by going ‘down.’ Remember the botched attempt to rescue the hostages held at the American embassy in Tehran in April 1980. As the attack force was flown in by C130s assembled at Desert One in Dasht-e- Kavir, a squadron of eight RH-53D Sea Stallions took off from the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, located in the Gulf of Oman. En route to the Assembly Area one helicopter lost rotor blade pressure and was forced to land.  Soon thereafter the helicopters flew straight into a dust storm and another lost its gyroscope and had to turn back.  The remaining six reached Desert One two hours behind schedule.  There it was discovered that one of the choppers had lost its hydraulic pump and could not take off.  That left five – one less helicopter than the minimum needed to carry out the rescue.  The team leader decided to abort the mission.  As the Sea Stallions and C130s began to depart, a helicopter collided with one of the transport planes and exploded into flames.  Eight men lost their lives and President Jimmy Carter chances to win a second term at the White House went up in smoke. In 1993 the incident of Blackhawk Down took place of in Mogadishu. Despite the glamorous Hollywood sheen put on it, it fundamentally altered the American policy in Somalia. The humiliating CNN coverage of Somali insurgents gleefully dragging the Rangers’ bodies in downtown Bakara market, forced Clinton to completely reverse the course. He announced it had been a mistake to “personalize the conflict.” He sent in more firepower, but only to cover a US withdrawal and opened negotiations with Farah Aideed, the leading Somali warlord.

                    During the 1980s the Soviets aggressively used Mi8, Mi17 and Mi24 helicopter gunships to take out Mujahideen hiding in remote valleys and mountaintops of Afghanistan. To stop this worrisome trend, in September 1986 the US decided to arm the Afghans with shoulder fired Stinger surface to air missiles (SAM’s). About 300 SAM’s were supplied to Mujahideen groups. The heat-seeking Stinger had a range of nearly five miles and could hit aircraft at altitudes of up to 12,500 feet, significantly reducing the Soviets’ ability to flush out Afghan fighters. An American army study in 1989 concluded that the Stinger had brought down 269 aircraft with a “kill ratio” of 79 percent. Many believe that the SAM played a decisive role in turning the tide in Afghanistan. After the war, dozens of Stingers were abandoned as a messy jetsam of the conflict. Once the US invaded Afghanistan after the attacks of 9/11, the CIA initiated a $55m buyback programme, offering warlords 150,000 to 200,000 dollars per missile. Not all of them could still be retrieved, but it was assumed that by the mid-1990s battery failure would have left none of these operable. The possibility that the Taliban could recharge the batteries of the Stingers was probably not considered.

                  The worst American nightmare became a reality in the early hours of Saturday August 6, when a crashed CH-47 Chinook helicopter of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) after taking a lethal rocket hit. 38 people including US Navy SEALs from unit 6, which had taken part in the operation against Osama bin Laden on May 2, were killed. Also killed were seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter. This was highest number of ISAF casualties in a single day in ten years of war. The Americans claim that the helicopter was a hit by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG), during a search operation in the Tangi Valley, in the troubled

                     Maidan Wardak province about 80 km southwest of Kabul. According to an ISAF statement: “Those additional personnel were in-bound to the scene when the CH-47 carrying them crashed, killing all on board.” As the NATO troops recovered the wreckage of the downed helicopter on Monday, another helicopter crashed in Paktia province. There were apparently no casualties but Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid took credit for shooting the Chinook and killing 33 soldiers on board. About the earlier crash, an Afghan government official speaking on conditions of anonymity confirmed that the Taliban had laid out a trap to lure US forces into the area to attack a purported Taliban meeting. “That night the Americans wanted to attack our mujahideen, and we targeted the helicopter with a weapon that is similar to an RPG,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said. “And we are trying to get more of this weapon.” These weapons could be possibly some functional Stingers or perhaps the Taliban have tapped a new source of SAM’s.

            Foreign troops, 140,000 of them are already set to depart from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Could the incident of Chinook Down be a game changer? Could it force a quicker withdrawal? Would it inhibit the dreaded night time raids? Would the Americans exercise caution inserting troops by helicopters? For now the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta vows that the US would “stay the course” in Afghanistan despite the latest loss. Only time will tell if there is a change in tactics or strategy.


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