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Aviation Crashes in Afghanistan

21 luglio 2009
Da: STRATFOR, 20 Luglio 2009
Summary

The crash of a British Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 fighter jet is the latest in a series of aircraft crashes in Afghanistan. Helicopters in particular are especially key for operations there, and the loss of two civilian-operated helicopters and significant losses of life in the last week raises questions about the status and availability of rotary-wing fleets in the country.

Analysis

A British Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 fighter jet crashed during takeoff in Kandahar on July 20. Though both crewmembers were able to eject and survived the crash, the loss of the Tornado comes during a deadly month — and particularly a deadly week — of fixed- and rotary-wing crashes in Afghanistan. While it is too early to reflect conclusively on this spate of incidents, aircraft operations are critical for the ongoing mission in Afghanistan.

The incidents include:

  • July 6: Two Canadian troops and a British engineer were killed in the crash of a CH-146 “Griffon” helicopter during takeoff at an airfield in Zabul province.
  • July 14: Six Ukrainian crew members, as well as an Afghan child on the ground, were killed in the crash of a Moldovan Mi-26 “Halo” heavy lift helicopter (the design holds several payload-to-height records). Reports suggest that a rocket-propelled grenade brought down the helicopter, which went down in Helmand Province — the only one of these crashes apparently due to hostile fire. It was operating under contract by Pecotox Air to deliver humanitarian aid.
  • July 18: Two U.S. crewmembers were killed in the crash of an American F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet in eastern Afghanistan. The Pentagon has reported that the crash was not due to hostile fire.
  • July 19: Sixteen civilians were killed when an Mi-8 “Hip” helicopter crashed during takeoff at Kandahar International Airport. NATO has ruled out hostile fire. Russian news agency RIA Novosti has reported that the helicopter was owned by Russian company Vertical-T Air, though the operating contractor has not been released. The Canadian company Skylink reportedly contracts Afghan work out to Eastern European companies.
  • July 20: No one was killed in the crash during takeoff of the Tornado GR4 at Kandahar International Airport. Hostile fire has been ruled out.

The rugged terrain and particularly poor infrastructure of Afghanistan makes supply and movement by air — particularly by helicopter — essential to effective operations around the country. In addition, helicopters help remove soldiers and personnel from the dangers of improvised explosive devices (IED) along the roads (the single biggest danger to U.S. and NATO forces at the moment) as well as old Soviet ordnance and mines. Because of the dispersed nature of operations and the abysmal road infrastructure, helicopters are also essential to the rapid movement of troops and supplies across greater distances.

This utility has put helicopters in high demand and U.S. and NATO helicopter fleets are already stretched thin. Earlier this year, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made getting additional helicopter crews and maintenance personnel into the theater a top priority. NATO allies, with much smaller helicopter fleets to begin with, are facing even more challenges in providing sufficient airframes, crews and maintenance personnel for operational needs. The environment compounds these needs; hot temperatures and high altitudes (“hot and high”) exacerbate the problem because helicopters are only able to fly with a fraction of their normal payload and the strain can increase maintenance requirements.

The difficulties associated with helicopter operations in Afghanistan were present before the surge of American and NATO forces into Afghanistan this spring and summer. More troops, a new offensive and further dispersed operations are only compounding the challenges for rotary-wing aviation, even as part of the surge has included additional helicopter assets.

If the Taliban finds a way to begin engaging and bringing down helicopters in alarming numbers, that problem will warrant considerable attention from U.S. and NATO forces. But, despite the July 14 incident, they have not yet demonstrated such a capability on a broad scale. Overall, the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps are all currently reporting better than average years in terms of aviation safety, with fewer Class A accidents.

Ultimately, this shortage may already be having an impact all on its own. Support and auxiliary needs for rotary wing aircraft — not just for work like humanitarian assistance, but also helping supply established outposts — requires supplementary support that the military cannot provide. Civilian contractors help relieve the burden of a higher operational tempo and increased maintenance.
Contractors often operate helicopters without the sophisticated (and expensive) launch detection equipment and countermeasures that allow military aircraft to have a real chance against surface-to-air missiles. But more importantly, there are increasing reports about firms like Pecotox Air (operator of the Mi-26) and Valan International Cargo Charter (operator of a plane carrying American drug enforcement personnel that crashed in 2006) that have been banned from operating in European airspace due to safety infractions.

Helicopter crashes can never be completely avoided, especially in a place like Afghanistan, where the stresses of combat operations and the stresses of operational demands are particularly high. But in addition to monitoring for changes in Taliban tactics, techniques and practices in engaging U.S., NATO and contractor helicopters, it will be important to watch if this recent pair of deadly crashes by contractor operators was a simply a particularly unfortunate week or whether they are symptomatic of deeper underlying problems with the way contracted helicopter transport is provided in Afghanistan.

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