On Friday 5th August, a NATO helicopter was shot down in the Wardak province of Afghanistan, killing all thirty-eight of the passengers and crew. This is the single largest loss of life since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom which is the United States’ name for military operations within Afghanistan.
The 38 men were flying onboard a US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter, when it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, causing it to crash land killing all of those on board. Chinook helicopters are used because of their ability to deal with extremely heavy loads compared with most helicopters, able to carry in excess of twelve metric tons or 35 battle ready troops. However, this phenomenal carrying capacity restricts the agility of the aircraft, serving to make the Chinook an easier target than other helicopters currently in use.
The downing of the aircraft has been attributed to a Taliban fired RPG-7, which is a soviet era shoulder fired anti-armour rocket. Along with the AK-47 and the PKM, the RPG-7 is one of the staple weapons of the Taliban fighting against the ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Originally designed as an anti tank weapon, it has now passed into the role of anti-personnel and anti-air as the majority of modern military vehicles are too well armoured to be penetrated by the warhead of the rocket. However, to this day they are still claiming the lives of dismounted infantry on a regular basis in Afghanistan.
While British troops are predominantly occupied in Helmand province, (which is the largest of the 34 provinces that make up Afghanistan) this action took place in Wardak province towards the east of the country. Helmand in southern Afghanistan has been the bloodiest, seeing over one-quarter of all fatalities from the Afghan conflict.
Details of the actual event are limited as operations involving Special Forces are often highly classified. The details that have been released by the Department of Defence tell the story of a Taliban ambush as they expected helicopter support to aid US army rangers who were in a contact nearby. They were slowing down to approach the landing site to deploy the navy SEALs, when a hidden Taliban fighter fired his RPG at a range of 150 metres causing the aircraft to crash. Defence department officials have described it as a “lucky shot” that resulted in the deaths of thirty Americans.
However, we should not forget the growing role that Afghan forces are playing in their own national security, as this tragic event has highlighted as eight Afghan commandos were killed alongside the fifteen Navy SEAL’s, seven Navy sailors, the US army flight crew of five and finally a team of three medics from the US air force.