Shortage of helicopters hampers troops in Afghanistan, observers say

Some call for more Chinooks to move troops and equipment in mountainous regions.

When President Bush travels to the NATO summit this week he is expected to push member nations to commit additional ground forces to Afghanistan to battle a resurgent Taliban force. While additional troops will help, some say the need for more helicopters to ferry soldiers and equipment on the battlefield is just as critical.

Afghanistan's vast and mountainous terrain places a premium on helicopters to moving soldiers and material, not unlike during the Vietnam War when troops were dependent on the aircraft for mobility. Afghanistan has a limited road network that is easily monitored by insurgents who often have advance warning of approaching American patrols and set up roadside bombs or ambushes.

NATO operations have been hobbled by the lack of heavy-lift helicopters. The alliance even chartered commercial aircraft to aid resupply efforts, but they cannot be used in combat operations. "There are certainly thousands of helicopters available to the alliance, but very few have made their way to support the European allies, and it's a major problem and a major failing of the NATO alliance," said Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of State for political affairs, speaking at a Washington event on Feb. 27.

In the violent Kandahar area of southern Afghanistan, under British command, NATO draws on 11 CH-47 Chinooks -- eight British and three Dutch -- the workhorse helicopter of this war. The enormous twin-rotor Chinooks are essential because they have a "high and hot" capability: the power to carry heavy loads at high altitudes, such as in Afghanistan's arid mountains, during the hot summer months.

The Army has deployed to Afghanistan two combat aviation brigades with 24 CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, from its inventory of 450 Chinooks. The aircraft has room for approximately 30 troops or can carry 10 tons of equipment. One heavy-lift battalion of 12 Chinooks deployed to the Kandahar area extended its tour in 2007 to help alleviate the NATO shortfall. But that unit is due to leave Afghanistan early this year. The other Army aviation brigade supports troops in eastern Afghanistan.

The helicopter shortfall is critical because Afghanistan's nascent security forces, spread out in isolated security posts, cannot depend on U.S. and European military firepower if they run into sizable Taliban groups. The Afghan security forces "need to know that they can be saved when they are being attacked," said Rick Barton, director of the Post Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"That 15-minute response or 30-minute response, at the very least the one-hour response, has to be provided for them because they are not capable of hanging out there much longer than that. They either have to run or they will be overrun in that period of time," Barton said. Between 70 and 100 additional heavy-lift helicopters are needed in southern Afghanistan, he said.

NATO has tried to transform itself from a defensive alliance to one that can respond to overseas conflicts, but most European militaries remain oriented to defending their own borders. They lack the strategic and tactical airlift found in the U.S. inventory to operate in distant lands.

Bush recently authorized sending an additional 3,200 Marines to Kandahar for seven months to aid British, Canadian and Dutch forces fighting there. The Marines' heavy-lift helicopter, the CH-53E Super Stallion, operates from ships and in maritime environments, and is not as capable in high-hot areas as the Army's Chinook.

There are 55,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, including about 30,000 U.S. soldiers, counting the Marine reinforcements. France announced it will send an additional 1,000 troops, and Britain is expected to send a similar number sometime this spring.

NATO is stuck in a "vicious, paradoxical circle," in which the alliance uses attack jets to compensate for the lack of boots on the ground, said Julianne Smith, director of the Europe Program at CSIS, and Michael Williams, head of the Transatlantic Program at the Royal United Services Institute, in a March 31 commentary. Aerial bombing against insurgents increases the risk to civilians, prompting outrage among the European electorate, which then puts pressure on its leaders to further limit troop deployments.

Convincing European nations to contribute more troops is unlikely, but NATO would do well to buy more helicopters, said Smith and Williams. They advocate establishment of a NATO common operations fund for such purchases.