Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Afghan National Air Corps Spreads Its Wings

The Kandahar Air Wing of the Afghanistan National Air Corps has come on leaps and bounds since its arrival in October 2009.

Major General Abdul Raziq Sherzai is Officer Commanding of the Kandahar Air Wing. He said there are 572 personnel established on the wing, including experienced pilots,trainee pilots, engineers, logistics and admin. Wednesday and Sundays are official training days when taskings are concentrated on developing the combat ready capability of experienced pilots, although no operational tasking is ever turned down.

Picture: Maj Gen Sherzai (right), Brig Gen Yousuf (left) and Afghan Aeronautical Engineers (background)

Lt Colonel Amanullah had returned from a resupply mission but also told of how the Air Corps had assisted local people during a torrential flood last month. “The river and wadi’s had burst their banks and local people were trapped in their compounds and some were in the water. We landed our helicopters as close as possible, rescuing upto 30 people”. He explained how Kandahar Air Wing would also be military support to civil aid as well as conduct operational sorties.

Brigadier General Mohammed Yousuf, the deputy commander of the Kandahar air wing pointed to what looked like a building site in the distance. “We are increasing our footprint”, he said “more room is being created for us to house Mi-17 helicopters. We currently have four but there are planned to be 14 by 2011. Our numbers of Mi-35 helicopters will increase too. A patch of airfield space is also being developed for our training.

Whilst Kabul Air Wing is still the centre of gravity for the Air Corps with most fixed wing aircraft (including C-27’s, An-32’s and An-26’s) based there; there is a palpable excitement and buzz at Kandahar. Engineers are stripping down a Mi-17 helicopter for a 50 hour deep servicing.

There are challenges as most of the technical manuals are in Russian but many of the engineers know this aircraft inside out. Colonel Bernard Mater, USAF, who is the senior air advisor to the Kandahar Air Wing is genuinely impressed with the development of the whole team.

“You can either teach, coach, mentor or advise”, he said, “but with the Afghan Air Corps we advise where necessary. It would be wrong to impose other nations’ ways of doing business and to be honest the partnership works as we learn from each other”.

The Royal Air Force’s 903 Air Expeditionary Wing at Camp Bastion also contributed to the learning process when 2 Mi-17s came across to Helmand to support Op Moshtarak last month.

“We developed pilot’s awareness of landing and take-off procedures, translating the local air traffic orders into Pashtun and showing pilots our radio protocols”, said Wing Commander Craig Mason.

A third wing is expected to be ultimately co-located with the flying training academy planned to be set up at Shindad. It is exciting times as the fixed and rotary wings are rapidly expanding; and the whole squadron ethos at Kandahar is very much in evidence as aircrew and ground crew banter abounds…....just like any other squadron around the world.

Picture credit: Sargeant Daniel Burt, Royal Air Force

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

British soldier's miracle escape after Taliban grenade bounces off his HEAD

A soldier who dived for cover after a grenade bounced off his head escaped with just a few scratches, blurred vision, and a ringing in his ears.

At first when Lance Sergeant Richard French, 28, from Holsworthy in Devon, felt a thump on his helmet he thought his friends were playing a trick on him. But the Coldstream Guard, who was manning the radio at a new command post in Babaji, Helmand, suddenly realised what had happened and hit the dirt.

He said: 'I thought the blokes on stag were throwing stones at me as a joke, so I started to shout some friendly abuse at them.

'Then, in an instant, I realised what had happened.

'I shouted "grenade" and dived on the floor to my right.

'It was not clear where it had landed, I just dived right because that's what my instinct told me to do.'

A split second later the grenade detonated.

It was less than a metre away, on the other side of a 6-8cm mound of dirt, which may have helped protect the soldier from the blast.

L/Sgt French recovered three pieces of shrapnel from his newly issued Mark 7 combat helmet and Osprey assault body armour, saying: 'The new helmet and body armour probably saved my life.

'I could have been killed. We were all wearing our helmets and body armour because we had some IDF (indirect fire) earlier on. It was just as well.'

Despite the ringing in his ears, which lasted a few days, blurred vision and scratches, the military doctor said there was no lasting damage.

L/Sgt French, who has spent 10 years in the Army, is a veteran of Northern Ireland and Iraq and is on his third tour of Afghanistan

Monday, March 29, 2010

Barack Obama rallies forces on visit to Afghanistan

Barack Obama has told US forces on his first visit to Afghanistan as US president that they are there to help Afghans to forge a "hard-won peace".

Addressing soldiers and civilians at Bagram air base near Kabul, he thanked them for their service and said they would prevail against their enemies.

They were there, he said, to "keep America safe and secure".

On a trip lasting just a few hours, he met Afghan President Hamid Karzai and stressed the need to tackle corruption.

Mr Obama said he wanted to see progress continue on Afghan efforts to fight against drug-trafficking.

Mr Karzai will visit the US in May for talks, it was announced.

In December, Barack Obama ordered the deployment of an extra 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan.

Only a few thousand of the extra forces have arrived so far, with most expected to be in place by the summer.

Shortly after his speech to the troops, the US president, who is travelling on his Air Force One jet, left the country.

'Thank you'

US troops make up the majority of the Nato-led coalition force in Afghanistan.

Speaking to the large indoors gathering at Bagram, Mr Obama said: "There is no visit that I consider more important than this visit I am making now.

"My main job here today is to say thank you on behalf of the entire American people."

He added: "The Afghans have suffered for decades, decades of war, but we are here to help Afghans forge a hard-won peace... and we want to build a lasting partnership founded upon mutual interest and mutual respect."

Mr Obama said America had not chosen the war, and had not sought to meddle in Afghan affairs or expand its influence.

It had, he said, been "attacked viciously on 9/11", and al-Qaeda leaders and their Taliban allies were still in the region and had to be defeated.

The US aimed to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven and reverse the Taliban's momentum, he said.

He promised troops that they were being "backed up by a clear mission and the right strategy" and that they would have "the support to get the job done".

"I'm confident all of you here are going to get the job done in Afghanistan," he said to applause and cheers.

Rifleman Daniel Holkham killed in Afghanistan

It is with regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm the death of Rifleman Daniel Holkham, from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, serving with 3 RIFLES Battle Group, who was killed in Afghanistan on Saturday 27 March 2010.

Rfn Holkham, aged 19, died in an explosion that was caused by a suicide bomber, who detonated a device near to the Sangin Bazaar.

Rifleman Daniel Holkham

Rifleman Daniel 'Danny' Holkham was born in Chatham on 2 August 1990. He attended Minster College in Sheerness achieving an NVQ in engineering before enlisting to join the Army at the age of sixteen.

Rifleman Holkham gained a place at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate where he completed his phase one training prior to going to the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick for his Infantry specific education.

On completion in April 2008 he joined 3 RIFLES in Edinburgh and was posted to 4 Platoon, B Company.

He took part in the Battalion exercise in Kenya later that year and then the pre-deployment build up training for operations in Afghanistan throughout 2009.

Rifleman Holkham deployed to Afghanistan in September 2009 and was working with his Platoon from a patrol base in central Sangin to provide security and development to the local people.

He was killed on 27 March 2010 when he stopped a suicide bomber who then detonated a device just outside the Sangin Bazaar.

Rifleman Holkham leaves behind his parents Rodney and Tracy, his girlfriend Nikki, and his two brothers Andrew and Matthew who are both serving with 3 RIFLES.

Rifleman Holkham's family said:

"The loss of our son Danny has left a huge hole in our lives and that of his brothers and friends that can never again be filled. He served his country faithfully and with great pride."

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson, Commanding Officer, 3 RIFLES Battle Group said:

"Daniel Holkham was a model Rifleman; robust, bright and dedicated, he was everything a commander could hope for and more. Joining us a year before our build up training for this deployment, he had ample opportunity to show that he had both quality and potential in abundance.

"There is no doubt that a bright future lay ahead of this young man and it is a tragedy that he has been robbed of the opportunity to fulfil it.

"Rifleman Holkham was well established as the lead man in his patrol, responsible for searching the ground for buried explosive devices to allow his patrol to pass safely.

"The selflessness and professionalism required to carry out this task, day after day, in the most challenging of environments, is one of the most humbling things to witness.

"Rifleman Holkham carried out this task diligently, willingly and with plenty of professional pride, such was his dedication to his fellow Riflemen. He died at the head of his patrol, another unquestioningly courageous Rifleman intercepting a crazed suicide bomber before he could cause havoc in the Sangin bazaar.

"The loss of a Rifleman so full of promise is a devastating blow to the Battle Group but we will draw inspiration from his example and continue undeterred in carrying out the valuable work for which he laid down his life.

"The thoughts and prayers of this whole Battle Group are very much with his family at this most difficult time. We know that they remember him, as we do, with happiness and pride. We all and draw comfort and inspiration from his honoured memory."

Nato commanders to put Afghan troops in front line for new southern push

Tom Coghlan, Jerome Starkey in Kabul, and Deborah Haynes

Nato commanders are to change their tactics in the battle for Kandahar, putting Afghan forces at the forefront of the operation to drive the Taleban from their spiritual heartland.

Operation Omid — the Pashto word for hope — is the next stage of a year-long campaign to retake southern Afghanistan. It will target the southern city and surrounding areas with a “gradual squeeze” different from Operation Moshtarak, the airborne assault on the Marjah district of Helmand province last month.

A key aspect will be putting large numbers of new Afghan troops into chains of “firebases” — offering artillery support to infantry — to be built on the approaches to the city, according to Western and Afghan officials. A political drive will parallel the military operation to try to heal tribal fissures that the Taleban have exploited.

The Kandahar mission will be followed by operations to stabilise the provinces of Zabul and Ghazni. Khalid Pashtun, an MP for Kandahar, said that 24 firebases will be built in the district of Zarai. They will be used to control the movement of insurgents and weapons as part of Nato commander General Stanley McChrystal’s plan to secure the population from Taleban influence.

Kandahar holds symbolic value: it was the first capital of Afghanistan, and became the birthplace of the Taleban in 1994. The performance of Afghan forces will be critical if militants are to be convinced that they cannot succeed even after a planned reduction in Western forces in the next three to five years. In this respect, the operation will bear comparison with the Charge of the Knights operation in Basra in 2008, in which the Iraqi Army emerged as a credible force.

For the full article click here for the TimesOnline

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hunting the Taliban

By Paul McNamara, Defence Correspondent,

THE News of the World has been on patrol with our boys in the badlands of Afghanistan. Our mission: To bring you up close to the harsh realities of a war claiming British lives week after week, year after year.

REPORTER Paul McNamara and photographer Louis Wood spent four days with the fearless troops of 1st Battalion The Coldstream Guards for a dramatic first-hand look into new tactics being used to beat the Taliban.

Bullets flew, grenades exploded and Britsh blood was spilled as they were dropped into one of Helmand's most dangerous regions in a dawn helicopter swoop.

Picking their way through poppy fields and ditches as they dodged the gunsights of snipers, our team saw at first hand the torturous and often treacherous task our soldiers face in this Helmand hell.

They found that they are fighting not just the Taliban, but also a tense and dangerous battle for the hearts and minds of local Afghans in a bid to sow the seeds of peace.

We sit cross-legged in a circle in the dust of an Afghan village, drinking tea... but tasting only fear.

Between sips, soldiers with tense smiles chat cautiously face-to-face with "friendly" elders at this bizarre little rendezvous deep in Taliban country, trying to open up pathways to some far-off peace in Afghanistan.

But there are dark forces at work in the silence between the words in a land where you're never more than a cup of tea away from a fight.

And where the man who just poured it may be the one who pulls the trigger.

As you sip, over the rim you learn to search the eyes deep in the burnished faces, looking for the tiniest flicker... of betrayal.

BANG! Suddenly we are scrambling for cover amid screamed commands as we leave the meeting. RAT-A-TAT! RAT-A-TAT! Taliban gunfire coming from 50 metres away. Get down! Bullets zing only feet over our heads.

"They're just spraying and praying." Coldstream Guardsman Mike Stacey, 21, from Sheffield, tries to reassure us amid the mayhem. Then we move. Fast.

For the full article click here for the News of the World

Lance Corporal of Horse Jonathan Woodgate killed in Afghanistan

It is with regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Lance Corporal of Horse Jonathan Woodgate, from the Household Cavalry Regiment, serving as part of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force, was killed in Afghanistan on the afternoon of 26 March 2010.

Lance Corporal of Horse Woodgate, aged 27, was on a Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) foot patrol operating about three kilometres to the south of Sangin District Centre when he was fatally wounded by a grenade thrown from behind a wall.

Lance Corporal of Horse Jonathan Woodgate

Lance Corporal of Horse Jonathan Woodgate was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. He attended Great Cornard Upper School before joining the Army Foundation College in 2001.

After completing his training, he moved to Windsor and joined D Squadron, Household Cavalry Regiment, and deployed on Op FRESCO and on Op TELIC 1 as a driver in 2 Troop. These tours were followed shortly by Op HERRICK 4 as a gunner for the 1Troop, Corporal of Horse.

After returning home from HERRICK 4, he immediately moved across to B Squadron and started training to deploy again to Iraq on TELIC 10 with the Brigade Reconnaissance Force. He completed Close Observation Training Advisory Course as a team commander and deployed in May 2007.

Recently Lance Corporal of Horse Woodgate completed a Formation Recce Crew Commanders' Course finishing in the top three of the course.

Shortly after completing the course, Lance Corporal of Horse Woodgate went to Canada to take part in two MEDMAN exercises in the OPFOR Recce Company, to gain experience as a vehicle commander. On returning to Windsor he was sent to Command Troop for a few months before rejoining B Squadron shortly before Easter 2009 to prepare for Op HERRICK 11.

He completed the Surveillance Reconnaissance Wing course as a Section Commander with a high pass, and also took part in the testing pre-deployment training needed to be part of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force.

Lance Corporal of Horse Woodgate was killed by an insurgent’s grenade on 26 March 2010 whilst on foot patrol with 4 Troop, BRF, near Sangin.

It was to be his last patrol of the tour. He leaves behind his parents and three sisters.

Lance Corporal of Horse Woodgate's family said:

"The family are immensely proud to have had a son, brother and friend who was so brave and dedicated to his career. We feel so very, very lucky to have had Jo in our lives.

"He was more than just a professional soldier…he was a friendly young man with immense charisma, humour and artistic flair whose laid back manner belied a great strength of character, Jo was self-disciplined, focused and carried out his duty to the very best of his abilities."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bucket Protection: A Novel Way to Avoid IEDs

A four man RAF Firefighting team were commissioned by Fire Support Company, 1 Royal Welch to relieve flooding on Route Dorset, a major road near Loy Doreh, that intersects the Nad-Ali area of Central Helmand. The Royal Welch had been trying to clear the road for 23 days so that local Afghans could have freedom to move to schools and bazaars in the area.

However, farmers had dammed up wadi’s (drainage ditches) to irrigate fields but had caused flooding of the road too. Additionally, craters had been created in the road caused by an IED, triggered by a US Thor vehicle which had killed one US soldier. This had left large pools of stagnant water one metre deep in places.

Not sure if IEDs were lurking beneath the water, 28 Engineering Support Group and RAF Firefighters cobbled a plan to use a reinforced digger to use as a platform for a fireman to stand in whilst they gingerly placed their hoses into the pool to suck away excess water. This was treacherous work, given that a wrongly placed hose might detonate a pressure plate.

It was also unpleasant work given firefighters Corporal Mike Broadley and Corporal Jim McInally were working all day in 35 degree heat in full body armour breathing in generator fumes in the bucket.

At one point Mike came under fire whilst in the bucket, luckily with rounds hitting the digger windscreen and not him.

“It was a bit hairy”, said Mike, “given that the bucket was not armoured”.

However, the firemen resolutely carried on, draining 100,000 litres of water in total. This then allowed the Counter IED team to check the muddied road and they found 2 IEDs lurking in the sludge.

It was a real team effort between the Royal Welch Fire Support Team who provided outstanding Force Protection....

The engineers who tested and adjusted the digger in line with the generator, hose and fireman. They kept the dodgy generator going (even stripping it to back to basics at one point)....

The brave C-IED team who searched in squelching, difficult conditions....

And of course the firemen who could have sucked up an IED at any time. However, it was the 4 firemen who after 7 days working with the Army were left with the most lasting impression.

Two of the team were held in reserve, Senior Aircraftsmen Lee Stevens and Mark Consterdine; but used for sentry duties to guard the patrol base and compounds.

“Working so closely with the Army has been great. These boys are the ones that risk their lives day in, day out and live out in basic conditions. It has been a real eye-opener.

“1 Royal Welch shook our hands to thank us, but we felt very humbled, especially given what these fellas do”, said Jim, “I’m just really pleased we played our part”.

Friday, March 26, 2010

PICTURE of the day: Helmand from the air

The patchwork of the green zone on the visor of a Chinook loadmaster

Coming in low and fast to Lashkar Gah

Looking north over Lashkar Gah

Flying low level at high speed over the desert

The green zone following the Helmand River

A dry Wadi

Up in the north of Helmand the green zone is starting to flower

A USMC Osprey landing at Musa Qala

A USMC Sea Stallion moment before landing

Looking south over the green zone near Musa Qala

Pictures: Maj Paul Smyth

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Prince of Wales makes surprise visit to British troops in Afghanistan

Talking to soldiers at Task Force Helmand HQ who were preparing their kit before heading out on patrol.

HRH Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales, has made a surprise visit to British troops in Afghanistan. He is the most senior member of the royal family to visit Afghanistan and the only one in living memory to visit Kabul.

After spending the night at Camp Bastion, today the Prince visited Patrol Base Pimon, a forward Patrol Base in the Nad- e Ali district area of Helmand Province, operated by the Right Flank, The Scots Guards. The Nad-e Ali area was the focus of much of the UK effort as part of Operation Moshtarak.

He also visited Task Force Helmand Headquarters at Lashkar Gah to meet the troops and receive a brief from Brigadier James Cowan before meeting with Afghan District Governor Mangal and, together with British commander, took part in a shura with local elders.

He flew into the Afghan National Army brigade camp of Shorabak in an RAF Chinook, close to Camp Bastion, where he was greeted by an Afghan guard of honour before speaking with Afghan troops and their British mentors from 2nd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment. The Afghan and British soldiers gave a demonstration of instructional and training techniques, including identification of IEDs.

He later flew to Camp Bastion where he spoke with soldiers of the Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan), the UK Joint Force Medical Group, and the Joint Force EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams.

The Prince laid a wreath at the Camp Bastion memorial, in memory of those British soldiers killed during the campaign.

The Prince’s visit to troops was part of a two day programme, which also included meeting with the Commander of ISAF, General McChrystal, diplomatic representatives and senior Afghan Government officials. He also visited the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul.

Brig James Cowan briefing the Prince of Wales on Operation Mostarak and the work of the Provincial Reconstruction Team.

HRH Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales, talking to Governor Mangal and the Chief of Police, Colonel Sherzad

A shura with Governor Mangal and local elders.

Making the most of the shade in the flower garden while talking to guardsmen at Task Force Helmand, Lashkar Gah

Walking from the RAF Chinook to Patrol Base Pimmon to visit the Right Flank, The Scots Guards.

Guardsman Paul Jackson on duty in one of the patrol base sangars talks to The Prince of Wales about life in Patrol Base Pimon.

HRH Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales at a briefing at Patrol Base Pimon

One of the guardsman makes some fresh home made bread for the Prince of Wales.

An RAF Chinook ready to take the Prince of Wales from PB Pimon to Camp Shorabak

Prince of Wales boarding an RAF Chinook outside PB Pimon

Prince of Wales at Camp Shorabak meeting Afghan Commanders and US Marines

HRH Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales talking to Afghan and British soldier while visiting Camp Shorabak

Counter IED training is vitail to all UK and Afghan soldiers. The prince tries the equipment at Camp Shorabak, home of the Afghan National Army in Helmand

The Prince of Wales in an RAF Chinook

Back at Camp Bastion

GSM Gary Lester from Bristol presents the wreath the The Prince of Wales at the Camp Bastion Memorial

The Prince of Wales laid a wreath at the Camp Bastion Memorial

Brigadier Fay (left) the Prince of Wales and Colonel Angus Mathie at the memorial

Pictures by Major Paul Smyth

For more pictures from the visit clcik here for Flickr