By Nick Simeone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 27, 2014 – Two and a half years after 30 Americans were killed in what stands as the deadliest day for U.S. forces in the Afghanistan war, a top Defense Department official told Congress today no evasive action could have been taken that would have prevented Taliban insurgents from being able to fire at close range on an Army transport helicopter, an attack that killed everyone on board.
Garry Reid, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee to provide answers to relatives of the deceased, some of whom attended the hearing, who say they still don’t have clear answers about events on the night of Aug. 6, 2011, in Afghanistan’s Wardak province.
Among those killed in the attack were 17 Navy SEALs, as well as eight Afghans who also were aboard the helicopter. One U.S. military working dog also was killed.
The SEALS and an Army aviation battalion had spent weeks conducting night operations hunting Taliban fighters in Wardak’s Tangi Valley. On that night, intelligence indicated that a high-profile Taliban commander had been spotted near the SEALs’ base camp.
With Army Rangers searching on the ground, the SEAL team, along with Navy combat support specialists, airmen and an Army flight crew, were aboard the Chinook when it attempted to land and surprise the retreating enemy commander. Instead, the aircraft was fired upon by an undetected Taliban insurgent using a rocket-propelled grenade, sending it crashing in a ball of flame.
Reid told the House committee that a U.S. Central Command investigation determined the Taliban were hiding in a nearby building undetected by other U.S assets in the area, and they likely were tipped off by the sound of the approaching Chinook.
“They were able to hear and see the Chinook as it entered the valley, shooting at it from nearly head-on at a distance of less than 250 yards, leaving the pilot no chance to perform evasive maneuvers,” he said.
The Chinook was not equipped to carry a flight recorder, and during today’s hearing, questions were raised about why it was also not equipped to counter rocket-propelled grenade fire. Reid said such technology isn’t yet available for this type of aircraft.
“Sadly, there is no technological solution that will guarantee the safety of those thrust into battle, particularly when helicopters are involved,” he said, adding that he still believes the Chinook was appropriate for the mission.
“The fact remains we will always have to balance the tactical requirement to move troops quickly across the battlefield with the dangers of incurring lethal enemy fire and flying in extreme terrain,” he added.
Reid told lawmakers that immediately after the loss, the Defense Department assigned the Helicopter Survivability Task Force, which was stood up two years before the incident, to examine potential ways to counter rocket-propelled grenade attacks.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “the findings of this assessment were that technologies to enable the development of active protection systems for helicopters are immature and unproven.”
The investigation found the crew that flew the ill-fated helicopter was experienced operating in the mountainous region, and that there was no indication that the enemy had any advance knowledge of its flight route and landing zone location, Reid said. In addition, the partnered Afghan forces operating with the Americans had been trained, vetted and with them since 2009.
“We believe the SEAL task force employed sound tactics in planning and executing their fateful mission, including the decision to load the entire element on a single aircraft,” Reid said. He added that officials continue to look for ways to protect U.S. forces.
“We recognize that more needs to be done to help protect our forces, especially when they are so vulnerable in the air,” he said.