US and British forces, strongly supported by air power, invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 in response to the Al Qaida attacks on 9/11. What began as a small-scale operation of 2,500 troops with the limited objective of destroying Al Qaida became ever larger, growing to over 100,000 troops ten years later.
US and NATO air forces were deployed to support those troops. CH-47 Chinook and AH-64 Apache helicopters as well as F-15E, F-16, F/A-18, A-10, Mirage, Tornado and Harrier aircraft all saw action in the skies over Afghanistan.
Despite the crucial peacekeeping role played by the Harrier in Afghanistan, while deployed in the country the US Marine Corps (USMC) AV-8Bs suffered the worst loss of US 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 in September 2012.
As told by Michael Napier in the book Afghan Air Wars Soviet, US and NATO operations, 1979–2021, the AV-8B Harriers of VMA-211 redeployed from Kandahar to Camp Leatherneck (adjacent Camp Bastion the main British military base in Afghanistan) in July 2012, putting them at the same airfield as the USMC helicopter force.
However, despite the declaration by NATO that combat operations would shortly end, the Taliban remained very much engaged in hostilities towards US and ISAF forces. At around 22:00hrs on Sep. 14, a force of 15 heavily armed Taliban insurgents, dressed in US Army uniforms, cut through the perimeter wire at Camp Bastion and destroyed six USMC AV-8Bs from VMA-211 and severely damaged another two, along with a C-130E. During the attack, Lt Col Chris Raible, the commanding officer of VMA-211, was killed by the attackers. In the chaos of the attack, an AH-1W flown by Maj Robert Weingart of VMLAH-469 took off, accompanied by two UH-1Y Venom Hueys, with the aim of providing CAS to the airfield defenders. Four intruders had been cornered in the cryogenics facility, but in the smoke of the battle, Weingart could not positively identify the enemy.
Lt Col Stephen Lightfoot, the commanding officer of HMLA-469, explained:
‘Usually, we respond to TICs for other units. However, everyone acted instinctively, got to the aircraft and got the alert aircraft launched despite taking fire on the flightline … It was a very dark night. There was no moon. However, on the flightline there were multiple aircraft on fire and a couple other areas were on fire as well, so it was extremely bright. There were 50-to-100 feet-high flames and a lot of thick smoke … We knew we had a lot of friendly [forces] on the ground. We wanted to make sure we did no harm to them or to their positions … The pilots were danger-close to friendly positions but were able to use the information received to engage the enemy without endangering friendly forces; they used the information to engage the enemy from approximately 200 feet in the air and were able to eliminate the threat.’
Weingart later recalled:
‘I asked if [the Marines on the ground) could concentrate their automatic weapons’ fire on the point of origin, so I could [identify] it and get manoeuvred to where we could engage it for them. They saw where the friendly vehicle was engaging at the [enemy], and then they started opening up with the [M-240 machine gun] from the vicinity of our compound. The combination of seeing the rounds from the vehicles and seeing our marines from the northeast gave us a pretty good pinpoint location of where the bad guys were.’
With support from the helicopters, the insurgents were tracked down and killed, but they had delivered a hard blow to the Marines.
Afghan Air Wars Soviet, US and NATO operations, 1979–2021 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Sgt. Bobby Yarbrough and Sgt. Keonaona Paulo / U.S. Marine Corps
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