Kym Bergmann reports from Kabul: Even as France starts a slow drawdown of troop numbers prior to a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, combat units have recently completed one of their most intense fighting seasons since 2001. Most of the 4,000 troops are deployed in two provinces – Kabul (especially the district of Surobi) and Kapisa - which have seen some of the heaviest fighting of the war. While the capital city of Kabul is considered relatively secure by the standards of Afghanistan, the same cannot be said of the surrounding countryside. French responsibilities. Kabul itself sits on a piece of flat land surrounded by mountains but the geography of the Surobi district and all of Kapisa is inhospitable – high barren ridges, bleak terrain, steep sided gorges with small green pockets of agriculture found on scattered and isolated river flats. The city sits at 1,800 meters above sea level with nearby peaks rising to 3,000 metres. Kapisa in general and the Tagab valley in particular are considered insurgent strongholds, with a mixture of suicide bomb cells, tribal militias, members of the Haqqani network, fighters belonging to Hezb-i-Islami and so on. The picture is very complex and even sorting out the motives of the various anti-Government groups is not easy, with a senior French officer telling APDR, “the more we find out, the more unclear it becomes.”
22nd Dec 2011
Byline: Kym Bergmann / Kabul
Even as France starts a slow drawdown of troop numbers prior to a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, combat units have recently completed one of their most intense fighting seasons since 2001. Most of the 4,000 troops are deployed in two provinces – Kabul (especially the district of Surobi) and Kapisa - which have seen some of the heaviest fighting of the war. While the capital city of Kabul is considered relatively secure by the standards of Afghanistan, the same cannot be said of the surrounding countryside.
Kabul itself sits on a piece of flat land surrounded by mountains but the geography of the Surobi district and all of Kapisa is inhospitable – high barren ridges, bleak terrain, steep sided gorges with small green pockets of agriculture found on scattered and isolated river flats. The city sits at 1,800 meters above sea level with nearby peaks rising to 3,000 metres. Kapisa in general and the Tagab valley in particular are considered insurgent strongholds, with a mixture of suicide bomb cells, tribal militias, members of the Haqqani network, fighters belonging to Hezb-i-Islami and so on. The picture is very complex and even sorting out the motives of the various anti-Government groups is not easy, with a senior French officer telling APDR, “the more we find out, the more unclear it becomes.”
Kapisa has been labeled the Taliban’s gateway to Kabul and is considered by the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to be an ongoing hotspot. France started moving forces into the area in July 2008 and only a month later ten soldiers were killed and two dozen injured in a major insurgent ambush in the neighbouring Surobi district. This incident, which could have been even worse, led to an increase in the country’s military commitment – especially on the hardware side - including the deployment of an initial three Tiger ground attack helicopters, which arrived in September 2009.
The last six months have seen French forces in the form of Brigade La Fayette engaged in “exceptionally kinetic” operations as they push further into areas previously left in the hands of the insurgents and have lost 17 soldiers during the recently concluded fighting season. As a measure of the intensity of combat, the Tigers have fired more than 8,000 rounds of 30mm ammunition during operations for this period, compared with 4,500 for the previous six months and 3,000 for the full year before that. The fighting has often been at close quarters, making the mission of the Tigers especially difficult.
In November, APDR had the opportunity to spend five days embedded with the French helicopter unit ‘Bataillon Mousquetaire 5’ located at the ISAF base at Kabul International Airport. The battalion – known in military shorthand as BATHELICO – was deployed in June and operates 14 helicopters: 4 Tigers, 4 Gazelles, 3 Caracals and 3 Cougars. The Tigers and Gazelles undertake ground attack, close combat air support, escort, reconnaissance and over watch functions, the Caracals and Cougars are used for a mixture of missions: Combat, Search & Rescue, airborne maneuver and assault, MEDEVAC and transport.
The visit was organised by Eurocopter, who manufacture all four helicopter types, but it did not subsequently involve them in any way, shape or form. All information was provided in an open and forthright way by French military personnel, who were available for discussions in informal as well as structured sessions.
The commander LCL Beutter explained that BATHELICO is a composite formation of 150 personnel drawn from a number of other French units, with 80% coming from the Army and the remainder from the Air Force. It is a self-contained organization, made up of flight crew, mission planning and support, maintenance, medical, administration, supply and also has 10 commandoes who accompany the transport helicopters to provide protection on the ground. More than 65% of the complement has had previous tours to Afghanistan, making for a very experienced and close-knit team. Under the command of the group are also members of French Special Forces.
BATHELICO personnel involved on active missions are rotated every three months, and with many of them making repeated deployments – though others such as headquarters staff remain for six-month postings. France has calculated that for helicopter operations it is a more efficient use of people to conduct short but frequent tours – a different philosophy from that practiced by several other countries, including the US. Four or five tours are not unusual; in December a member of the unit started his 10th deployment to Afghanistan, on a voluntary basis.
Role of the Tigers.
From an Australian perspective, of greatest interest was the performance of the Tigers. The Army has purchased 22 of them, with the final one handed over on December 1 at a ceremony in Brisbane, but for a variety of reasons has struggled to bring them to a state of full operational readiness. It is worth recording up front that the French Army have found their Tigers to be extremely reliable, robust, easy to maintain – and terrifyingly effective against insurgents. The battalion commander estimates that these few helicopters have been responsible for between 30% and 40% of all casualties and damage inflicted by French forces since their arrival a little more than two years ago.
The French Tigers are slightly less complicated than their Australian cousins and have the same crew layout with the pilot in the front seat and the crew commander – who also operates the weapons – sitting behind and above. While structurally and mechanically virtually identical, their armament is comprised of a powerful and accurate 30mm rapid firing cannon with 450 rounds of ammunition and 68mm free-flying rockets – though with the potential to also carry Mistral air-to-air missiles. Of the differences between the two variants, the most important is that the Australian Tigers additionally carry Hellfire laser-guided missiles, making them an even more potent system - and one that is admired by the French.
For the time being, France operates the original HAP (Hélicoptère d\'Appui Protection – Support and Escort) variant of the aircraft, which lacks a guided air-to-ground missile. However, operations in Afghanistan have shown that this capability is essential for certain operations and when this is required a Gazelle equipped with four HOT ((Haut subsonique Optiquement Téléguidé Tiré d\'un Tube - High Subsonic Optical Remote-Guided Fired From a Tube; sorry about the translation) missiles and a ‘Viviane’ thermal imaging sight operates along with the Tigers. Even though the Gazelle is a light utility helicopter, when HOT missiles are added this has proven to be a formidable anti-tank combination. Gazelles have been purchased by around 40 countries and are combat-proven in many conflicts, including: the Falklands War, the Iran-Iraq conflict, Lebanon, the Gulf War, the Balkans and now with French forces in Afghanistan, Libya and the Ivory Coast.
While the Taliban do not have tanks, HOTs are sometimes the most effective way of destroying high value targets such as suicide bomb vehicles because the missile initiates an almost guaranteed secondary explosion in a way that a 30mm cannon round might not. During the visit, APDR was given briefings by crew commanders and pilots about recent missions, backed up by gun camera vision of individual operations.
A good example of Tigers and Gazelles working together was a task to destroy two suspected suicide bomb vehicles, located in the Bedraou Valley around 80km from Kabul. Information provided by unspecified intelligence sources indicated that the cars were located in a slightly isolated and heavily walled compound – similar to many houses in Afghanistan. It was decided to use four helicopters for the task – a Tiger and Gazelle for the attack, a second Tiger flying high cover because there were several peaks in the area where insurgents could have been located and a transport helicopter nearby as a contingency. Other surveillance assets such as UAVs were probably available to the ground based mission commander but these were not disclosed in the briefing.
While there is a strong preference to conduct nighttime operations to take advantage of the capabilities of the helicopters with their infrared and thermal imaging systems – the insurgents are not yet using night vision equipment – this one took place in late afternoon. This was because the colour of the suspected vehicles had also been provided by the intelligence sources and these could only be verified in daylight (IR providing images in greens and black, TI in grays and black). Estimated mission time was 30 minutes, with the targets 20 kilometres from the Surobi forward operating base, where the helicopters had been pre-positioned.
Because of its armour – both intrinsic and add-on – and greater maneuverability a Tiger with call sign ‘Spicy 22’ carried out an inspection of the suspected insurgent compound while the smaller and lighter Gazelle stayed well out of harm’s way. Circling at a distance of slightly more than 500 meters in case of small arms fire, it was immediately apparent that there were in fact two vehicles inside the compound, one in clear view and the second parked tightly in a corner. These are almost invariably Toyotas, apparently the preferred choice of suicide bombers. One person could be seen briefly within the enclosing walls, but they quickly disappeared into a building.
A strange sight was outside the thick walls – a dozen children, either individually or in pairs, dotted around the building at a distance of several tens of metres. Even more strangely, the children apparently showed no interest in the nearby helicopter. According to the Tiger crew commander this is a typical insurgent tactic, who often pay local people to provide underage human shields. After circling the area several more times and remaining in constant radio contact with the mission commander about the circumstances, ‘Spicy 22’ was authorized to fire some warning shots.
Choosing a section of land outside the compound furthest from any of the children, the Tiger fired a burst of five or six rounds. This had no visible effect and after a pause a second burst was fired, striking the outside of the wall. Even after that – when any normal person would be running - they still had not moved and after a further calculated delay the commander fired a third burst, this time aiming at an inner section of wall. At last this had the desired effect, with little people running off in the direction of the nearest village. At about the same time two men emerged from cover, initially heading towards the compound but then changing their minds and also walking away, while making defiant hand gestures towards the helicopter. Only after further surveillance when it had become clear that no one remained in the danger area was the Gazelle called in to use HOT missiles on the suspect vehicles.
Fired from several kilometers away the first HOT streaked at a low angle just over the compound gate and scored a direct hit on the more exposed of the two cars. The consequent immediate massive secondary explosion throwing debris over a wide area was confirmation – if any were needed – that the intelligence sources were correct. The second car was more difficult to target because of its tricky position and the next HOT missile was a near miss, causing it major damage. However, to make certain of the vehicle’s complete destruction, ‘Spicy 22’ was ordered via radio by the mission commander to complete the job with the 30mm cannon. This was done using two longer bursts than the initial shots and the car was shredded into barely recognizable pieces of metal. The fact that it did not also explode might have been due to the consequences of using inert 30mm rounds rather than an HOT warhead.
All four helicopters returned safely to base after the destruction of vehicles that could have been used to kill dozens of people.
Another Tiger mission described in detail and with accompanying gun camera imagery involved a risky nighttime extraction of French troops under attack. Two transport helicopters – a Caracal and a Cougar – were used to lift a large platoon of 50 soldiers from the top of a very steep ridge in dangerous conditions. The circling Tiger used both its gun and unguided rockets filled with 9mm tungsten darts to provide suppressing fire, allowing the extraction to be carried out successfully. A third example was the daytime destruction of an insurgent 122mm rocket launcher recently abandoned on a hilltop.
A constant concern of all helicopter crews is that the insurgents will attempt a helicopter ambush such as one in August that downed a US Chinook with the loss of 37 lives. While the unit is there mainly to support French forces, they are also part of the broader ISAF mission. As APDR witnessed on the second night of the visit, a Caracal powered up at 10pm to transport a seriously ill British soldier to Bagram air force base for urgent treatment.
Communication and navigation.
While the Tigers are equipped with data link capability these are not being used in Afghanistan. The main form of communication because of terrain limitation is VHF radio, though UHF can be used for example when there is line-of-sight to troops on the ground. According to pilots and crew commanders the system works well. Data from BATHELICO’s mission planning cell is transferred onto a card with a self-destruct mechanism and this is then inserted into the helicopter’s navigation computer.
Given apparent difficulties with supporting Tigers in Australia, this was a topic of considerable interest for APDR. The operating environment in Afghanistan for helicopters is very harsh. In summer it is dry, hot, windy and dusty; in winter it is wet, cold, windy and still dusty – with very fine particles of 10 microns or less. France has lost both a Tiger and a Gazelle – the latter with the death of the pilot – during night operations in extremely bad weather. Experienced French officers consider these to be the toughest conditions in which they have ever flown. US pilots, including those who have previously flown in Iraq, share this view. Summertime conditions are especially demanding with temperatures often around 45 degrees, meaning that the Tigers cannot always fly with a full combat load – especially at higher altitudes.
Maintenance and support.
The 14 helicopters are maintained and repaired by a team of 50 BATHELICO personnel, working 24 hours a day. Tiger support is undertaken by a subset of 20 specialists, who work in two 10-man teams.
The mission statement is very demanding. As explained by Captain S (the French do not give out names, except that of the CO) at least two out of the four Tigers have to be available 100% of the time – and this is being achieved. When operations are planned in advance, the Tigers are deployed to forward operating bases, otherwise they remain on the ground in Kabul in a condition of permanent alert, able to be airborne within 30 minutes for daytime operations and one hour at night. The mechanics and support staff work like hell – they are entitled to have one morning off every week and rarely take even that. The overall Tiger availability rate is now around 93%. The average sortie rate is 300 hours per year per machine, with a maximum of 400 hours.
Of the four helicopter types, the Tiger is the easiest to support because it is a modern design with modular electronics and mechanically is very reliable. The environment causes most of the maintenance problems – though during the visit APDR was shown a Turbomecca engine with a bullet hole in it that had recently been removed and replaced in the field. However it is also a more complex machine than the others because of its advanced electronics and weaponry. The reason for the recent deployment of a fourth Tiger is to make it easier for BATHELICO to meet availability requirements.
The Tiger support team is divided into three areas of specialty: propulsion, avionics and structures. Spares are stored in two standard ISO shipping containers, with larger items such as helicopter blades located nearby. The deployable hangars can accommodate two Tigers end-to-end and there is an overhead gantry crane with a capacity of 800kg. Additional spare parts arrive weekly on a scheduled resupply flight from France – though this is for all units, not just BATHELICO. There are two sources of spares: Eurocopter and also the French military system that – in turn – is linked to OCCAR, the European armaments supply and support agency.
The Australian situation.
Pondering the issue of why Australian Tigers appear to be more difficult to support, APDR has formed the speculative view that there seem to be four main reasons:
1. Operational. The French Tigers are deployed in combat and so receive priority for spares. No one, least of all the Australians, begrudge them that. It also means that when on operations, the tempo of support and maintenance is very rapid. As a senior Australian put it: “if you are on base rather than in the field and the kids need to be picked up from school, you stop work for the day”. When Australia supports Tigers in exercises without these types of distractions, their availability also improves dramatically. France has noticed the same pattern;
2. Cultural. In the French system, support is undertaken by highly trained subject matter experts who know their roles, who have a great deal of experience and who are trusted to use their personal judgment. In the Australian – and broader Anglo-Saxon – system, a premium is placed on documentation, process and traceability, making it inherently slower. Both systems have their pros and cons.
3. Contractual. As mentioned above, France is part of OCCAR and so BATHELICO has two sources of supply. In Australia, the Tigers are supported by Eurocopter and its subsidiary Australian Aerospace in an arrangement that has been described as “contractually complex”.
4. Political. At a time when Australia is seeking to reduce its presence in Afghanistan – not increase it – it probably suits a number of agendas for the Tigers to remain unavailable for combat operations. If circumstances change – such as if we received a direct request from the US to deploy them – then Defence sources say they could be made ready very quickly. In the meantime there is no pressure to speed up the process. This is quite different from the situation for France, when combat losses in 2008 prompted the urgent deployment of their Tigers.
BATHELICO is a lean and efficient organization and is a product of considerable French experience with overseas deployments – especially to remote and inhospitable parts of Africa. There are many points of interest for Australians beyond how the Tiger helicopters are supported. France is able to conduct independent distant military operations from within its own resources for extended periods of time, while Australian thinking seems much more oriented to joint operations with the US. It goes to show that you don’t have to be a superpower to project force – but you do need the willingness to do so.