“We heard the first explosion, then a second and then a third. The Taleban was on base and we were under attack. Believe me there was not a rifle in the rack one minute later, which left me looking for one,” Willie Walker, Boeing airframe specialist and former Marine who witnessed raid on Camp Bastion
Purchased from the U.K. in the 1970s by the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) because of its unique vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) capabilities, the Harrier has served in the close air support (CAS) role for more than four decades. In AV-8B Harrier II form, it was in the vanguard of the USMC air assault on the Taleban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001 as part of the “War on Terror.”
From the early phase of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) to the drawdown of NATO forces, Harrier II squadrons maintained a near-constant presence in-theatre until their mission came to an end in September 2013.
Nevertheless despite the crucial peacekeeping role played by the aircraft in Afghanistan, while deployed in the country the USMC Harrier IIs suffered the worst loss of U.S. airpower in a single incident since the Vietnam War, when eight AV-8Bs were destroyed or severely damaged by a Taliban raid on Camp Bastion in Helmand province on the night of Sep. 14, 2012.
As explained by Lon Nordeen in his book AV-8B Harrier II Units of Operation Enduring Freedom, on that night, Marine Attack Squadron 211 (VMA-211) CO, Lt. Col. Chris Raible, and Capt. Kevin Smalley had just completed a routine mission and parked their jets when Camp Bastion came under attack from a force of 15 Taleban insurgents dressed in U.S. Army uniforms. Having penetrated the outer perimeter of the base, the insurgents split into three groups of five and attacked the AV-8Bs in their temporary hangars on Lima Ramp, aircraft refuelling stations and VMA-211 personnel in tented areas near the flightline.
Hearing the noise of gunfire and explosions, Lt. Col. Raible and his aircraft maintenance officer (AMO), Maj. Greer Chambliss, drove back to the flightline from the operations hut and organised a counter attack. Personnel from VMA-211, regular troops and 15-strong quick reaction force of Royal Air Force (RAF) Regiment gunners in their Jackal patrol vehicles, with air support (from a British Army Air Corps Apache and a USMC aviation attack team of an AH-1W and UH-1Y) engaged the Taleban and eventually killed all bar one of them – the sole survivor was captured. During the fighting Lt. Col. Raible and technician Sgt. Bradley Atwell of Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 16 (MALS-16) were killed, several other Marines and a civilian technician wounded and six AV-8Bs destroyed and two more badly damaged.
Boeing airframe specialist and former Marine Willie Walker (who was part of a small team of civilian ‘tech reps’ that helped VMA-211’s personnel keep their Harrier IIs in the air in 2012) witnessed the attack:
“We had just come off maintenance, and all the jets for the next missions were refuelled, loaded and ready to go. I was in the airframes workshop, as part we had one jet in phase inspection having its blast shield repaired. We heard the first explosion, then a second and then a third, which I thought were RPGs. At about the same time two guys ran into the hangar shouting that they weren’t rockets [they were actually F-1 anti-personnel grenades], the Taleban was on base and we were under attack. Believe me there was not a rifle in the rack one minute later, which left me looking for one.
“As the Marines covered the doors, there were rounds coming in through the side of the hangar and then flying out the opposite wall. We were in a metal-covered workshop, with dividers for work stations and no protection. The CO, AMO, and other Marines raced up to the workshop in a vehicle, and Lt. Col. Raible came in and ordered the Marines out into the ditches surrounding the Lima Ramp in an attempt to fight back. It was at this point he got hit. Then an RPG came in our side of the hangar and detonated when it hit a door, wounding a few of the Marines who worked in the powerline [engine] shop. We just hunkered down while the guys outside fought back, and the guys inside passed their ammunition to those firing from the ditches. Eventually, several helicopter gunships appeared overhead and they contained the enemy threat.
“In the days following the attack we helped with battle damage assessment on the two jets that had survived, and worked with the Marines to get them prepared for shipment back to Cherry Point. The two VMA-211 jets that had been on detachment in Qatar [the Squadron received orders to reduce its det commitment to eight AV-8Bs and 140 personnel for the final six weeks of the deployment] at the time of the attack came back to Camp Bastion, and VMA-231 sent six jets over from Cherry Point [ahead of the unit’s OEF deployment scheduled for October 2012]. We worked hard to clean up the mess and extend the flightline so that it was ready for the replacement aircraft.”
The eight destroyed or damaged aircraft constituted six percent of the USMC’s inventory of Harrier II attack jets. Normal attrition of the USMC’s Harrier jets is around two airframes a year.
The Taleban claimed that the raid was in response to the film Innocence of Muslims, and have also stated that Prince Harry, who was stationed at the base at the time, was the target of the attack.
The BBC claimed that the attack “bore all the hallmarks of the Haqqani network.” The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) claimed a week later that it had captured one of the raid’s planners.
Photo credit: Sgt. Keonaona Paulo / U.S. Marine Corps