An Afghan Mi-17 helicopter begins a resupply mission to a remote Afghan base in eastern Afghanistan Aug. 5, 2013. The Afghan Air Force, with about 60 Mi-17 helicopters, took over the resupply mission of Afghan bases in the spring of 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dallas Russell)
NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Barg-e-Matal district lies isolated in the heavily-wooded highlands of the Hindu Kush Mountains in eastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. The few roads leading into the district, which borders Pakistan to its east and Kamdesh district to its south, are narrow and are in poor condition due to continuous landslides. Therefore, transporting supplies and personnel into the district comes extensively by air.
The Afghan Air Force, which has made steady gains in its operational capacity since 2007, took over resupply operations to Barg-e-Matal, and other remote bases in the area, from the International Security Assistance Force in early spring of 2013. While the AAF continues to expand its close air support capabilities, AH-64 Apache helicopters and crews from the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, provide aerial security for these missions.
U.S. Army Capt. Derek Forst, commander of Company A from the Missouri National Guard’s 1st Attack/Reconnaissance Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment, which is flying in support of Task Force Tigershark, 10th CAB, said that without the aerial resupply missions, many of the outposts would be dependent on supplies brought in by foot and pack mule.
“It would take weeks for a convoy to get to most of the OPs,” Forst explained. “These missions are keeping the OPs open. It’s their livelihood. If it weren’t for these resupply missions, the Afghan forces would not have food and water; those outposts would not be open.”
The OPs and forward operating bases in these remote areas are Afghanistan’s first line of defense against insurgents crossing into the country’s remote northeastern provinces. Barg-e-Matal district is a known Taliban transit area to and from the northern Pakistani district of Chitral and has been the sight of fierce battles between insurgents, and Afghan and ISAF forces. ISAF withdrew its forces from the area in 2009, as part of its counterinsurgency plan, which emphasizes securing major population centers. Afghan forces remain in the district, as well as throughout the province, to prevent the free passage of enemies of Afghanistan from crossing the border.
Afghan Air Force Mi-17 helicopter crews fly resupply missions nearly once a week to the remote Afghan OPs and bases. Although each aircraft is armed with two M-240H machine guns, AH-64 Apache helicopters provide security overwatch for them due to the higher level of threat in some areas of the resupply route. In addition to providing greater firepower against threats on the ground, the AH-64 Apache helicopter can alert other aircraft, as well as troops on the ground, of enemy activity in the area.
“We provide security and deterrence,” said U.S. Army Capt. Steven Lancianese, an AH-64 Apache pilot who also serves as the 10th CAB assistant operations officer. “In the areas they are flying, the tactical threat is significant.”
As agreed upon at the 2012 NATO Chicago Summit, Afghan National Security Forces took the lead for security throughout Afghanistan in June 2013, and ISAF moved to an increasingly train, advise and assist role. The AAF has achieved significant successes during the first half of the 2013. On April 12, on very short notice, the AAF was able to plan and execute an 11-sortie mission between six different bases, providing vital reinforcements, ammunition and supplies to retake a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan in the wake of an insurgent attack. In July, the AAF launched the largest Afghan-led joint, combined arms operation in more than 30 years.
“They are not junior pilots,” Forst said. “They are excellent pilots. They know what they are doing. They tell us that if we ever have to make an emergency landing, they will pick us up – and they will.”
A handful of experienced pilots from the 10th CAB have been advising Afghan pilots in air mission planning since the unit’s arrival May 2013, a mission they took over from the previous unit, the 101st CAB. The Kabul Air Wing partnership advisers recently completed training the fourth class of Afghan aviators. U.S. Army Capt. Brandt Anderson, the TF Falcon team leader for the Kabul Air Wing Partnership and a CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot, said the advisers will now be stepping back in order for the Afghans to begin taking over the training of their own pilots.
Anderson said the AAF has become very proficient at conducting resupply missions and supporting Afghan troops on the ground. Until the AAF develops its own close air support capabilities, the AH-64 Apaches give the Mi-17 crews an added sense of confidence.
“The [Mi-17] pilots can see the AH-64 over their shoulder,” Anderson said. “They know its capabilities and it gives them confidence when they’re flying into high threat areas. Its presence alone is a deterrent.”
Anderson said he believes the AAF will be able to conduct its own close air support within the next year or two. In the meantime, the partnership is an important mission and a unique experience for U.S. aviators.
“Our aviators are not used to partnered operations with Afghans, unlike the guys on the ground,” said Lancianese. “It’s rare for us to be paired up with Afghan aviation elements. It is a very satisfying mission.”