Impact on special forces of Navy Seals helicopter loss

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Placing the Seals team in a Chinook was a reversal of normal practice

The destruction of a US forces helicopter with 38 people on board demonstrates the degree to which the Coalition campaign in Afghanistan has become dependent on special operations raids.

It also effectively marks the loss of an entire squadron of Seal Team 6, the "Tier 1" commando unit that killed Osama Bin Laden in May.

Many people involved in the secretive world of special ops were surprised that such a major setback had not taken place before. After all, during 2010, highly trained operators are believed to have mounted between 3,000 and 4,000 raids, almost all of them at night, many against heavy resistance, in terrain than can be extremely dangerous to fly in.

During a recent interview the outgoing commander of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), General David Petraeus, sang the praises of such troops but also suggested that the special ops campaign might be getting too much press attention. But quite apart from the interest generated by the Bin Laden raid, it is evident that these operations play an important part in Nato's drawdown strategy - one could even say a central part.

The raids have been important in empowering negotiations - Gen Petraeus noting, for example that hundreds of insurgents in Badghis Province recently changed to the government side after two "Taliban shadow governors" were hit in quick succession.

Small squadrons

In places like Wardak Province, where the Chinook came down at the weekend, these operations are also designed to maintain military pressure on the insurgents while transition to Afghan security forces goes ahead and visible Coalition presence declines.

As for the setback represented by the death of 22 members of Seal team 6, it is a small part of the Coalition total, it is true, but represents a significant loss of capability. Seal Team 6, along with Delta Force, the British SBS, and various SAS contingents (Australia and New Zealand have their operators in Afghanistan as well as the UK) are the most highly trained and practised raiding forces available. Few appreciate how small these squadrons are on operations.

Seal Team 6 (also known as DevGru, short for Naval Special Warfare Development Group) for example has an overall strength of around 300, but its four operational squadrons usually deploy with only around 35 operators each. The SBS, which operates closely with them, operates with similar sized squadrons.

Each squadron has back up staff so that the 23 men sent into Pakistan in May to kill Bin Laden, is actually typical of the special operations contingent used in a night raid. These numbers will often be bolstered by a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) who can cordon off the target buildings or intervene if fighting escalates.

High risk

The usual American practice in Iraq and Afghanistan is for the QRF to be made up of US Army Rangers (less highly trained than the Tier 1 units) and for them to ride in one or two Chinooks, while the team carrying out the assault normally flies in a pair of Blackhawks.

This way the Tier 1 men ride in two well protected helicopters, and the more vulnerable (and noisy) Chinooks are kept a little further from the target. On Saturday, for some operational reason, this usual practice was reversed and the Seals ended up flying into action as QRF to back up some Rangers carrying out a raid who had got into a heavy fire fight.

British Special Forces commanders have long been dubious about sending an entire squadron into action in a single large helicopter like the Chinook. One SAS man told me that a raid he was on in Baghdad was cancelled because their commander did not want to take the risk of putting dozens of highly trained operators in one such aircraft.

The SAS reluctance results in part from an incident during the 1982 Falklands war when a Sea King helicopter ditched, with the loss of 18 SAS men. In Iraq they switched to medium-sized Puma helicopters, two of which were lost on operations.

Experienced operators

Given that some of those involved in orchestrating these operations jokingly refer to the operators carrying out the raids as "door kickers", why is the loss of these 22 Seals such a blow to the US special ops community? It is after all the intelligence used to find and fix the targets of these raids - notably through the tracking of people through mobile phones and other devices - that represents the really critical aspect of these missions.

When I have asked Special Forces commanders about why regular army or marine platoons could not carry out the raids just as well, much of it depends, they say, on the tight time scale and imprecision of the intelligence involved.

A Tier 1 operator, perhaps in his early 30s with several years experience of such missions, can be briefed, get on the helicopter with everything he needs, deal with the fact that the location and shape of the target might change more than once while they are flying to it, and then burst into a room where men in suicide vests might be waiting and still carry out successful missions night after night after night.

We are all too aware when something goes wrong, as it did in the attempt to rescue British captive Linda Norgrove, or Afghans report civilians being killed. But given that these raids are happening something like 12-15 times each night in Afghanistan at the moment, it gives some idea of the skills involved in making it happen, and the gravity of loss that the Seals have just sustained.