Canada's lack of choppers in AFGHANISTAN heightens peril for troops

As a result, frontline combat troops with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry fighting in the neighbouring province of Kandahar have been re-supplied mostly by convoys that run a daily gauntlet of landmines, improvised explosives and suicide bombers.


FORWARD OPERATING BASE WOLVERINE, Zabul Province, Afghanistan - Every suicide bomber and every improvised bomb that the Taliban has aimed at a Canadian re-supply convoy underscores the point. Canada's Achilles heel in Afghanistan has been its lack of a robust helicopter to move supplies and troops by air.
The U.S. army has a dozen bus-sized twin-rotor Chinook choppers in Kandahar. Every day, the air crew of the Kansas-based 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment the Spartans moves more than 10 tons of cargo and hundreds of troops to and between austere U.S. forward operating bases such as FOB Wolverine, a dusty patch of nothing about an hour's flight north of Kandahar.
The Spartans' commander, Lt.-Col. Walt Bradley, was unequivocal. His Chinooks save lives.
"By flying re-supply for our troops, we are staying off the roads, avoiding ambushes and suicide bombers, not having breakdowns or hitting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices)," said the 55-year-old reservist, in civilian life President George W. Bush's appointee as the U.S. marshal for the District of Kansas. "By virtue of taking everyone out of harm's way, we save lives. It removes danger from the equation."
Canada has no rotor aircraft capable of flying in the extreme heat and mountains of Afghanistan after years of questionable helicopter decisions in Ottawa, such as when the Chretien government aborted the purchase of the EH-101, which cost half a billion dollars in penalties the price of about 40 Chinooks.
As a result, frontline combat troops with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry fighting in the neighbouring province of Kandahar have been re-supplied mostly by convoys that run a daily gauntlet of landmines, improvised explosives and suicide bombers.
That shortcoming may begin to be resolved with a government announcement, expected this week, of the purchase of more than a dozen Chinook CH-47 refurbished D or new F models. However, to get the choppers online will take time. Aside from jostling for priority places for aircraft in the Boeing assembly line, it will take pilots a few months and avionics specialists up to a year to be fully trained on the aircraft.
Getting water, food and ammunition overland to combat troops can be a grim business. Four Canadian soldiers have died while on convoy duty here this year.
Canada's helicopter problems were brought into sharp focus again last week when two convoys struck roadside bombs left by the Taliban and another patrol was targeted by a suicide bomber.
The U.S. army has more than 400 Chinooks, which are based on a Vietnam-era airframe. With demand for them high here and in Iraq, it also has more than 400 modernized or new Chinooks on order.
That Canada has no helicopters in Afghanistan is a fact that its main allies in southeastern Afghanistan the U.S., British, Dutch and Australians, who all have Chinooks here find odd. A senior coalition officer said earlier this week that he was astonished that a country of Canada's wealth and size had not bought any military transport helicopters for its domestic needs, let alone for when its troops went to war.
Bradley, the U.S. Chinook boss at Kandahar Airfield, expressed similar amazement.
"For the size of your country, with a geography that is similar to ours, with the same mountains and prairies, the Chinook is ideal," Bradley said. "It's a great machine for long distance, high altitudes and heavy loads. You run out of space before you run into the weight-carrying capability."
Canadian officers and senior NCOs in Afghanistan have been vexed by the helicopter problem for some time.
"It is quite possible it has cost limbs, if not more, because we have had to sustain on the ground," Lt.-Col. Ian Hope, commander of the Canadian battle group, said in a recent interview. "That has produced a risk that would be reduced if we could take helicopter flights.
"It does not take a military tactician to know this. We have mitigated the risks. Losses have been reduced, but you can't get to zero."
A warrant officer with the Canadian battle group said that nothing would make the troops "outside the wire" happier than to know that Ottawa was finally going to purchase a small fleet of transport helicopters for duty in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Even given the strict weight limitations imposed by the searing climate and the altitudes that have to be flown at in Afghanistan, Warrant Officer Bart McPeak of Kansas City and Warrant Officer Robert Shrader of Dallas, their two door gunners and another armed airman on the back ramp can fly 30 fully kitted combat troops or five tons of cargo on every one of the many trips that they make every day.
During a typical work day this week, McPeak and Shrader danced their awkward-looking camouflage green Chinook over mountain tops and dove into narrow valleys to avoid getting shot at. Zigzagging about 600 kilometres, they dropped off and picked up supplies and men at four remote bases deep in Taliban country a bleak, parched landscape that gives new meaning to the word hardscrabble.
The loads that were ferried to U.S. troops fighting the Taliban in Zabul Province consisted of tons of drinking water, food, ammunition and medical supplies. They also moved dozens of soldiers and civilian workers from the U.S. who keep the electricity, plumbing and kitchens running.

To have achieved the same by land would have taken at least several convoys between five and 12 hours in each direction, barring breakdowns, ambushes, IEDs, landmines or other mishaps.
"If you use the roads, it is high risk. If you have to get stuff from point A to point B, this definitely saves lives," McPeak said at the end of an unusually short six-hour day flown in temperatures that were in the low 40s Celcius.
Immediately upon arrival in Afghanistan last fall, the unit from Kansas was re-deployed to the Himalayas for two months to deliver humanitarian aid to victims of an earthquake in Pakistan. For the past seven months, the Spartans have been based at the airfield in Kandahar where the Canadian battle group has its headquarters.
While the Chinooks and their big twin-turbine engines are the lifeline for U.S. troops here, McPeak and Shrader said that nearly half of the time that they took off from Kandahar on round-the-clock missions they were helping Canadian, French, Czech, Australian and British troops, but there are never enough helicopters to answer all the demands for them.
"Any helicopters that Canada can contribute would be most welcome," McPeak said.

Von: 26.06.2006, by Matthew Fisher, CanWest News Service,

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