Experiences of a Forward Air Controller
TACTICAL AIR CONTROL PARTY (FORWARD AIR CONTROLLER) EXPERIENCES OF OPERATION HERRICK 4
When the Tactical Air Control Party deployed to Afghanistan with 3 PARA Battle Group on Operation HERRICK 4 none of us expected the brutal realities of combat that we were to face. Each of the men from the RAF Regiment Tactical Air Control Party found themselves in contact on a number of occasions and experienced high intensity war fighting over a sustained period of several months. We fought in close quarters with the Taliban, exchanging small arms fire day and night, in the lush green rural environment along the Helmand River, in the harsh desert that covers the majority of the region, and in urban environments fighting from building to building in the numerous towns that are dotted around the North of Helmand. We called in Close Air Support from fast air and attack helicopter, managed the Airspace and integrating indirect fires whilst jumping over walls and diving in ditches fighting alongside fellow Paratroopers and Royal Horse Artillery Gunners.
The first members of the 16 Air Assault Brigade Tactical Air Control Party arrived in Kandahar Airfield (KAF) on 11 April 06 and had the challenge of setting up the 3 Para Battlegroup Joint Fires Cell and Air Cell within it. This included setting up all the air links and writing the Battlespace Management Plan for the Battlegroup, an unenviable task even at the best of times. Flight Lieutenant Matt Carter and Sergeant Si Scholes managed to get all the Forward Air Controllers’ needs catered for and after completing the in-theatre accreditation briefs (mandatory to control aircraft in theatre) concentrated on networking with the Canadians, (Brigade Headquarters) and anyone else who could assist us with the Helmand Battlegroup’s inception. Kandahar Airfield was an interim home to allow Bastion to be built to a habitable level. During the stay, liaison was made to establish the airspace management links, meet Ground Liaison Officers from the myriad of Close Air Support airframes (UK Harriers, French Mirage 2000, Dutch F16, US A10) and befriend the all important Air Liaison Officer at Canadian Headquarters. On arrival to Camp Bastion, they found out just how austere their new home and operating base really was. There were just a few tents surrounded by a sand berm and razor wire. Even the Tactical Landing Zone was outside the wire! For the first three months it was bottled water showers and washing clothes in the sink. Bastion was in its embryonic stage and grew daily; on leaving for the UK in Oct the Tactical Landing Zone was inside the wire. Life at Bastion during our time was not too bad after the laundry facility was set up and the 10 man tents were fitted with air conditioning. The week we left there was even one permanent building (the NAFFI shop)! Bastion offered respite for those passing through between operating at the outstations, but too long at Bastion proved sole destroying, especially for those slaving away in 55C in the tented Joint Operations Centre without air conditioning! The outstations were a different story…..
Soon after the initial deployment and with only A Company, 3 PARA, in theatre we began patrolling in the town of Gereshk. On the second patrol we encountered our first contact. Flight Lieutenant Matt Carter was at the heart of the action and called in a GR7 Harrier for a low show of force to warn off the enemy. Commanding Officer 3 PARA was present on the patrol and quickly realised the importance of Air Power in such a large and hostile place.
Once the core elements of the Battlegroup had deployed we quickly found ourselves holding the District Centres in a number of small towns in the North of Helmand; Sangin, Musa Qaleh, Now Zad, Kajaki and Gereshk. Each location had a Fire Support Team to call in fire support including a Forward Air Controller to control Close Air Support and Attack Helicopter. The Taliban went on the offensive to test our resolve leading to months of heavy fighting. We responded robustly to each attack and took the fight to the enemy. Flight Lieutenant Chris Jordan spent 3 weeks on the roof of the District Centre in Sangin calling in air strikes from an AC130 Gunship, Harrier GR7s and Wart Hog A10s literally defending themselves from waves of attacks by the Taliban. The same pattern of life continued for the next 4 months, with contacts occurring almost hourly at one stage, it was a matter of when, not if the contact would happen. Sergeant Si Scholes and Sergeant Nick Garner did their time on the roof at Sangin, calling in Close Air Support and dropping large quantities of ordnance to defend themselves and their colleagues. The Signallers were also in the thick of the fighting with SAC Abe Williams being mortared daily in Musa Qaleh, SAC Warren ‘Sausage’ Lucas exchanging rounds day and night in Now Zad, SAC ‘Goode’ Good avoiding the legacy mines and fighting with the Gun Group, and SAC Paul ‘Rusty’ Whitehouse controlling emergency CAS in Kajaki. The contacts would come in the form of small arms, RPG, 107mm rockets and mortar attacks or typically all 4 with the improvised explosive devices and mine threat always a real and present danger. Life in the outstations was incredibly mentally and physically demanding; dealing with contacts day and night with very little sleep for weeks at a time takes its toll, especially when friends and colleagues are being killed and wounded around you.
A number of deliberate Battlegroup Operations were planned and executed. During Operation MUTAY Flight Lieutenant Carter and SAC Whitehouse were providing Close Air Support to Patrols Platoon and controlling the Airspace for an operation in the town of Now Zad. SAC Lucas was the Forward Air Controller’s signaller for a Gurka Platoon. The operation rapidly descended into numerous contacts. SAC Lucas found himself in the centre of an ambush and risked his life to recover a vehicle so that his commander could regain control of the situation. Meanwhile Flight Lieutenant Carter and SAC Whitehouse were fighting the Taliban in close country for 6 hours and called in Apache Attack Helicopter cannon fire to within 30m from their own friendly position. The first time UK Apache was used in contact with the Enemy.
On another deliberate operation Flight Lieutenant Carter and SAC Lucas deployed as part of the Battlegroup Tactical Group to control the Airspace and provide Close Air Support. The insertion at night was, unwittingly, onto a hot helicopter landing site and the 3 CH47 Chinooks that were inserting the first wave of troops took rounds through the cabin wounding troops inside. Once on the ground, after a heavy landing, chaos ensued due to the intensity of the fighting in the pitch black of night and a section of Afghan National Army troops adding to the confusion. Having spent too long on the ground, and before everyone could deplane, the Chinook took off. “We saw the 2 in front of us fall off the tailgate and we were left with the decision of do we stay or jump? We looked at each other and jumped hoping it was not too high” Flight Lieutenant Matt Carter. Once on the ground SAC Lucas covered Flight Lieutenant Carter while he established communications with the AC130 Spectre Gunship overhead and called in 105mm and 40mm fire onto the numerous Taliban positions that surrounded us.
“The Afghan experience was shared with 3 PARA soldiers and troops from supporting units (engineers, medics, signallers, etc) but in particular was made very special by commanding the tight knit team of 9 men that made up the RAF Regiment Tactical Air Control Party. Manpower was limited due to the number of tasks the Battlegroup were committed to. This affected our ability to conduct operations into the town centres; however, hearts and minds campaigns were our initial and enduring intent throughout the tour. Unfortunately the Taliban would not let us improve the lives of the local people and we found ourselves responding to Taliban offensives robustly in an attempt to create security at each of the towns we occupied. Certainly during the months of July, August and September all civilians had left the towns of Sangin, Now Zad and Musa Qaleh. Limited and very dangerous urban foot patrols and talks with the local elders made us certain that the only people left in the towns were Taliban. Towards the end of our tour our hope of providing security was becoming a reality. A ceasefire was brokered in Musa Qaleh and the fighting began to die down. We handed over to 3 Commando Brigade feeling that we had achieved our aim of forging UK forces way in Helmand and creating the foundations for continued operations.” Flight Lieutenant Matt Carter.
All Tactical Air Control Party personnel are now safely home, and are preparing to deploy on Op HERRICK 8 in April 2008!