As the US and NATO lose control of surface roads in Afghanistan they are more and more dependent upon air transport and air cargo delivery.
According to USA Today:
Afghanistan’s roads have grown more dangerous. The number of roadside bombs and suicide attacks has increased to 1,041 this year from 224 in 2005, according to the NATO command in Afghanistan. This year, more than 1,400 bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices, were discovered before they were detonated.
U.S. forces have sharply increased the number of airdrop supply missions in Afghanistan in the past three years, as roads have become more dangerous and allied troops have established remote outposts.
The number of airdrops has increased to 800 this year from 99 in 2005, according to Central Command’s air operations center. Planes dropped 15 million pounds of cargo this year, nearly double last year’s load of 8.2 million pounds.
Canadian forces have even resorted to leasing Russian helicopters:
Canada’s battle group moved into southern Afghanistan in 2006 without any helicopters, unlike the British, U.S., and Dutch forces. The lack of air assets forced the Canadians to rely more heavily on road convoys, which the Canadian commanders described at the time as an advantage because it would give the troops more familiarity with the Afghan people and terrain. But regular traffic of military vehicles on Afghan roads has proven deadly for Canadian soldiers as the rising insurgency targets supply convoys.
Many Forward Operating Bases (FOB) are outposts in the Afghan back country that are normally reached only by weekly helicopter supply flights.
Air transport seems like the answer to loss of ground control. But is it? Soviet forces had a similar experience in 1978-1988. One of their downfalls was the supply of MANPADS by the CIA to Afghan partisan forces resulting in the downing of many Soviet aircraft.
MANPADS are “Man-portable air-defense systems” — think bazookas that can be aimed at airplanes and fire missiles which target hot engine exhaust pipes. They are particularly effective against low-flying, slow-flying targets that are big heat-emitters, like the helicopters that serve as the principal means of people and cargo transport in a land of rough terrain where the enemy owns most of the roads. MANPADS also work against faster and higher aircraft.
There have been no reports of the usage of MANPADS in Afghanistan against US and other NATO forces. But the potential is there, and the use of MANPADS would change everything, as it did for the Soviets. The movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” covered it quite well.
David Wood, a Maryland blogger, poses the following question:
- “Given the critical role of air power in this conflict, I wonder if there isn’t an Islamic Charlie Wilson out there somewhere, ready to climb out of the hot tub and dispatch some high-powered manpads (man-portable air defense weapons) to the insurgents?”
What’s available? A sampling:
* Stinger FM-92, US, the weapons furnished to the Afghans twenty years ago, is used in a dozen countries.
* Mistral, French, also in a dozen countries
* Grouse, SA-18, Russian (h/t Frank in Eire), Range 5200 meters, altitude (m) 10-3500, guidance passive IR homing, emplace/displace time 13 seconds , now manufactured in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, China, Pakistan and possibly other countries. In 2003 a British national was intercepted attempting to bring a Grouse procured from a Russian dealer into the USA. He is said to have intended the missile to be used in an attack on Air Force One, the American presidential plane, or on a commercial US airliner, and is understood to have planned to buy 50 more of these weapons.
* HongYing-6, FN-6, China, recently provided to Sudan. These aren’t the shoulder fired SAMs of old that could be thrown off by some defensive flares. They are good. Real good. Enough to put into question the ability of any aircraft’s self-protection ability short of the incredibly expensive laser systems that blind the sensor of the missile. If you are flying under 10,000 ft. you are at risk. The FN-6 is equipped with an all-digital infrared seeker. It has a maximum range of 5 kilometers (just over 3 miles), maximum firing latitude of 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), and a response time of 10 seconds. The total weight of the system is 16 kilograms (35 pounds), its flight speed is 600 meters per second (1,342 miles per hour) and maximum maneuverability is 18G.
Would China supply missiles to Afghan partisans? They already have. From a 2002 news report:
In a joint operation with Afghan police, peacekeepers seized a cache of 151 Chinese-made rockets, the same kind fired at the international security force over the weekend, a peacekeeping spokesman said Thursday.
In another sweep, also on Wednesday, police killed one man and arrested two others while seizing a large number of weapons, including two American-made Stinger antiaircraft missiles, the government’s Bakhtar news agency said.
And another from 2007:
Is there a China connection with Iraq and Afghanistan? Yes, according to a departing senior Pentagon official, who says that the Chinese-origin armor-piercing bullets — of particular concern to U.S. and coalition troops – have showed up in the two countries.
Is there an Islamic Charlie Wilson?