Some in the special operations community are privately criticizing the wisdom of Saturday’s failed rescue mission in Afghanistan, saying commanders should have sent more than the one Chinook helicopter that was shot down, killing 30 American troops, including 23 elite Navy SEALs.
They also questioned whether the quickly assembled mission was necessary to rescue a band of Army Rangers reportedly under fire from Taliban militants.
“I squarely blame whoever planned and authorized the mission for the deaths,” said a Special Forces soldier who served in Afghanistan.
“It was simply uncalled for unless Rangers were being overrun and the ground situation required this much operational risk.”
Special operations sources also told The Washington Times that it would have been better to send two helicopters instead of one to reduce risks.
“The SEALs do seem to like stuffing a lot of valuable guys in one [helicopter],” said a second special operations officer who also served in Afghanistan.
“There may have been an operational reason not to spread them out over two, [but] I just don’t know what that would be.”
They also questioned the type of aircraft dispatched for the mission. The NATO command in Kabul identified the downed helicopter as a Boeing CH-47 Chinook, not the modified version, the MH-47.
The MH-47 Chinook is configured for nighttime missions by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, based at Fort Campbell, Ky.
The Army Times said the Chinook was piloted by a regular Army crew, not aviators from the specially trained 160th.
“This was a regular Army crew and bird, so the crew would have less experience, training and countermeasures compared to a 160th,” the second special operations source told The Times.
The NATO command said the CH-47 was felled by a rocket-propelled grenade as it approached a landing spot to disengage the SEALs, some of whom belonged to the special counterterrorism squad known as SEAL Team 6, which killed Osama bin Laden.
A retired officer who served with SEALs in Afghanistan said the best practice is to land the Chinook away from the point of battle, but choice spots are not always available in rugged terrain.
“I would be hard-pressed to challenge the commanders’ decision on the ground,” the ex-officer said. “My guess is that the Taliban got a lucky shot off. It happens in war. Unfortunately, when you have 30 guys in one thin-skinned [helicopter] the repercussions can be deadly.”
The U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., declined to respond to the mission’s critics.
It was just three months ago that the command was basking in SEAL Team 6’s successful mission to penetrate Pakistan’s airspace and kill bin Laden. Now it is grappling with the largest loss of SEALs ever in a single wartime mission.
Analysts say it is difficult to hit an aircraft, even one as large and slow as the twin-engined Chinook, with what amounts to an unguided warhead, unlike a missile that homes in on an engine’s heat source.
Helicopters are equipped with “countermeasures,” such as flares, to deflect a missile’s guidance system, but military sources said they know of no similar system to foil a rocket-propelled grenade fired at close range.
“Although the helicopters have countermeasures, I’m not aware of any countermeasure for an RPG,” said a congressional defense staffer. “An RGP’s range is so short. But it’s really hard to hit an aircraft with an RPG.”
Maj. Chris Kasker, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said the service has spent $2 billion over the past two years improving helicopter defenses, but he declined to be more specific.
“We don’t want bad guys to know all the details. We can’t comment on the specific defense systems and countermeasures we have on our helicopters right now,” Maj. Kasker said.
“But I can say we are dedicated to providing the best survivability equipment available. We want to protect our aircraft and crew members from all different threats that they encounter.”
The NATO command said the operation “began as a security search for a Taliban leader responsible for insurgent operations in the nearby Tangi Valley.”
“After commencing the search, the initial security force on the ground observed several insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47 assault rifles moving through the area. The security force and insurgents exchanged small-arms fire, resulting in several enemies killed,” NATO said.
“As the insurgents continued to fire, the combined force on the ground requested additional forces to assist the operation. Those additional personnel were inbound to the scene when the CH-47 carrying them crashed, killing all on board. …
“The helicopter was reportedly fired on by an insurgent rocket-propelled grenade while transporting the U.S. service members and commandos to the scene of an ongoing engagement between [International Security Assistance Forces] and insurgent forces.”
Another SEAL mission met a similar fate six years earlier.
In June 2005, four SEALs ordered to kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shad got pinned down by an overwhelming enemy force of perhaps 150 militants in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The team radioed a distress call. An MH-47 Chinook with eight SEALs and eight 160th Regiment personnel was dispatched to save them.
Like the Chinook on Saturday, the MH-47 was knocked down by a rocket-propelled grenade as it tried to enter the battle space. All 16 onboard were killed in the crash.
“Squad-sized automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) can ‘kill’ a helicopter if it comes with[in] range of the enemy,” military analyst Anthony Cordesman said in an Internet post Monday for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There are no countermeasures to direct fire. The enemy is often not visible to the best night-vision systems, and sheer chance can make up for the lack of tactical experience and advanced guided weapons.
“What some in the military call a ‘magic bullet’ - one that finds a critical vulnerability out of sheer chance - is a constant risk of war.”