Second-Guessing the Doomed Chinook Mission

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Pentagon corridors, and military blogs, are already aflame with whispered second-guessing following Saturday’s shoot down of the CH-47 in Afghanistan that killed 38, including 22 members of the elite SEAL Team 6 and their support element. No one likes to discuss publicly what — if anything — went wrong, but with five or more special-ops helicopter raids taking place every night in Afghanistan, such what-iffing is already triggering recalibrated plans at U.S. military headquarters in Kabul. It may not be fair, whatever that means, but then again, neither is war.

Listening in to the debate on Long War Journal and elsewhere yields the following theories, which your Battlelander is going to score for merit:

— Why was such a slow and fat chopper used for this important mission? “If one were transporting a very valuable object of art or a critically important one-of-a-kind document or an irreplaceable statue, would one do it in a Chinook Helicopter?” one blogger asks. “These machines are loud, create swirls of dust, have wide freeboard, are cumbersome and ungainly with little in the way of countermeasure capability.”

Fair point. But because the SEALs were part of a Quick Reaction Force — they were coming to the aid of pinned-down Rangers — there had to be enough on hand to deal with the mission. UH-60 Black Hawks can only carry about 10, a third the passenger load of a Chinook. Two or three Black Hawks would have generated more, albeit smaller, targets, but would have complicated coordination and communication. Plus, the Chinook’s tandem-rotor design gives it more lift in and around Afghanistan’s mountains than the UH-60.

— If you’re going to fly prized SEALs into a hot landing zone in a Chinook, why not cram them into an special-ops MH-47 with a seasoned crew from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment from Fort Campbell, Ky., instead of putting them on a vanilla CH-47 with a standard Army crew?

This has raised eyebrows since it first became clear that the nation’s best combat aviators were not flying this mission. But there’s no chance a souped-up MH-47 could have dodged a rocket-propelled grenade, if that is, in fact, what brought the Chinook down. There will be questions on whether the pilots should have aborted the mission, but so far there have been no suggestion they did anything wrong.

— How come the lumbering CH-47 didn’t have gunship escorts. “If the Chinook had been escorted by a Huey Cobra gunship like the U.S. Marines fly, would the RPG team have been spotted before the shoot down?” a blogger asks.

Nope. These steep valleys offer a myriad of hiding places that surely would have concealed the suspected RPG triggerman.

— How come the Chinook — which has “fat target” written all over it (99 feet long, up to 20 tons, cruises at a relatively slow 140 knots — and slower when flying nap-of-the-earth over and through mountainous terrain) — didn’t have some fancy electronic gizmo on board to bamboozle whatever it was that brought it down?

U.S. military choppers have a host of countermeasures that work, ironically, only against fairly modern weapons — like missiles that target the helicopter’s heat (from its engines) or radar signature. Close-in combat involving helicopters is like a knife fight — ugly, brutish and short. An RPG is an unguided rocket once it leaves its launcher, and the only thing that can protect a helicopter from it is armor — which would make the chopper too heavy to take off (that’s why heavily-armored helicopter gunships like the Cobra or AH-64 Apache carry only two crew members — every additional pound of armor means one less pound of crew, passengers or cargo). There’s been discussion of various Tom Swiftian defensive systems, but there’s nothing on the horizon in the near term.

— Did the Chinook fly into a trap set for it by the Taliban? Was it concocted by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency as a payback to Seal Team 6 for humiliating the ISI by its May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan territory? “It looks exactly like the ISI taking revenge for the killing of OBL, the only thing missing being them actually taking credit for it,” a blogger argues. “I have no way of knowing anything of course, but the odds are hugely against it being a simple lucky shot.”

Actually, the odds aren’t that long. You fill the sky with enough lead, and choppers are going to fall from it like a pheasant hunt.

— Why were there so many of the nation’s best-trained special operators on a single mission to rescue Rangers — no slouches, them — who themselves had been dispatched to kill or capture a mid-level Taliban commander? “First of all why was an entire DEVGRU [U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group, aka as Seal Team 6] platoon conducting a generic nightraid against Taliban/Haqqani foot soldiers???” another blogger wonders. “The risk vs. reward just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. These guys are our BEST trained assets in the military so why would they be exposed to such a `low-yield’ operation where there was no HVT [High Value Target] present?…it’s mind boggling that a special missions unit such as DEVGRU would be doing run-of-the-mill raids that are normally carried out [by] `green’ Special Operations forces. i.e. Rangers, Green Berets, and `standard’ SEALs.”

Also a fair point, but misleading. SEAL Team 6 can’t be placed on a shelf, awaiting another once-in-a-decade mission to take out the next Osama bin Laden. These guys are the nation’s best because they practice their skills relentlessly, including regular assignments as a Quick Reaction Force. To be primed to get OBL, they need to train at a high level — ideally by repeatedly performing real-world assignments in the theater where they may be called on to carry out such missions.

— Did the helicopter explode from the inside out? “It is not inconceivable that this was, literally, an inside job by one or more members of the Afghan Commando Section that accompanied the SEALS. A double-agent could have detonated a charge of some kind or simply fired on the air crew,” a blogger suggests. “The ability of our special ops to insert is matched by our enemy’s ability to infiltrate. Only a thorough post-crash forensic analysis is going to determine what brought the Chinook down.”

An unlikely cause. But one that, unfortunately, cannot be ruled out.