Camp Bastion, the lynchpin of British, and increasingly American, operations in Helmand, is a desert metropolis, complete with airport, that is expanding at a remarkable pace. Report by Sharon Kean.
Bastion exists for one reason: to be the logistics hub for operations in Helmand. Supply convoys and armoured patrols regularly leave its heavily-defended gates. They support the military forward operating bases, patrol bases and checkpoints spread across Helmand province.
Colonel Angus Mathie is the officer in charge of the British-owned and run camp. His main role is to ensure the base is secure. He also keeps a hand on the tiller of development, deciding where people are going to live, and if someone wants to move a unit somewhere it’s the Colonel who gives them the OK.
It is also Colonel Mathie’s office that provides all the administrative support to all the units in Bastion, everything from cashing cheques to organising leave.
Speaking about the area where Camp Bastion has been built, Colonel Mathie says:
Whoever picked this bit of ground really got it right. It’s right in the middle of the desert and the Russians were never here, so there is no legacy of unexploded ordnance.
The UK’s largest military base and centre of operations in Afghanistan needs that desert. The camp has doubled in size during the past year. Following the surge of 12,000 US troops who share it, Bastion now accommodates 21,000 people:
It’s one thing looking at Bastion on a map,” says Colonel Mathie, “it’s another thing driving around it. People returning who were here a year ago are absolutely amazed because it is so much bigger.
Leatherneck, the American camp-within-a-camp, was built to accommodate the surge troops. Now, this mega-base spreads across 35 square kilometres:
There was an argument that it should be in Lashkar Gah, among the people,” Colonel Mathie says. “But we could never have put this there.
The wide open spaces around the camp are largely empty terrain. Within the perimeter, graded roads with ditches on either side divide prefab buildings and tents erected to a strict grid system.
Bastion’s airfield handles around 600 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft movements every day:
It’s a remarkable place,” says the Colonel, “busier than Luton or Stansted, and it’s twice as busy now as it was three months ago. Most movements are helicopters, but they are just as demanding as fixed-wing aircraft.
Providing protection to every British aircraft arriving or leaving Bastion is the RAF Regiment who patrol out on the ground to make sure nobody can take a shot.
Bastion is home to around 5,000 UK military personnel from more than 60 Navy, Army and RAF units. There are also some 2,000 contractors providing a multitude of services, from building maintenance to catering. The Americans, in the fully incorporated Camp Leatherneck, number around 14,000.
The waste created by so many people is disposed of in eight incinerators and a burn pit. There is also a water bottling plant, providing drinking water sourced from the Hindu Kush.
Colonel Mathie explains how he keeps his finger on the pulse from day-to-day:
Every morning at 8.30 I meet with representatives from every unit in Bastion, including the Americans, Danes and Estonians. We give them an intelligence update, an operations update and the weather. Then we get an update on what they’re doing.
The sheer size and importance of the base means that security is the thought preoccupying Colonel Mathie and many of his staff, from the moment they wake until their eyes close at the end of the long days.
The perimeter fence winds its way over many kilometres, traversing guard towers, weapons pits and sangars. Sensitive long-range cameras and radars scan the surrounding area for suspicious movements that might presage attacks, and seemingly these precautions have been effective:
Attacks on Bastion happen very rarely,” Colonel Mathie says. “The main threat here is from IEDs and we’ve had a number in the nearby wadi over the last few months. During Operation MOSHTARAK there was a half-hearted attempt to throw some rockets at us, but none of them hit the camp. We have force protection teams and a patrol base to the south of here, which is manned 24-hours-a-day.
Commander Bastion, as the Colonel is known, likens the sprawling military base to a medieval fort:
People outside have moved towards the edges of the base because of the security afforded by it, in the same way that settlements would develop around castles.
He points to a patch of greenery a short distance outside the wire belonging to a local farmer, who has cultivated melons on ground irrigated by water flowing from Bastion.
The melons are sold to the drivers of the vehicles delivering stores to the camp, but official trade with such farmers is out of the question says Colonel Mathie:
We have to be very careful about any local produce - the security implications of buying our food locally are just too many.
But there has to be interaction with local people. The main entry point to Bastion processes around 250 vehicles every day, including about 50 tankers bringing in the fuel needed to run generators, kitchens and vehicles. All must be searched by soldiers and military search dogs before they are allowed onto the base.
In a bid to loosen the log jam without compromising security, a 3.5m gallon fuel depot is being built just outside the camp. A pipeline will run from there to Bastion’s diesel and petrol pumps, removing the need for tankers to drive onto the base:
The fewer vehicles we have to bring in here the better,” says the Colonel.
There are also hundreds of local people employed to work within the wire:
We run checks through the intelligence services, and RAF Police and Royal Military Police also vet people regularly,” he explains.
Locally-employed civilians live in a camp within the camp:
They are not allowed to be roaming the streets of Bastion after 1900hrs. There’s a curfew and we keep a tight grip on it,” says Colonel Mathie.
Colonel Mathie says that if anyone tries to fire a rocket at Camp Bastion from outside the wire, radar will detect where it’s going to land, and if that’s within 800m of the perimeter, the warning alarm automatically sounds so everyone can take cover.
There are though also threats to personnel inside the wire and road traffic accidents are a concern to the Colonel:
This is a very dangerous environment, if only because we’re expanding and we’ve got lots of construction traffic. Visibility can be less than 50 metres.
The camp, its airfield and the surrounding 670-kilometre area of operations are regularly patrolled by the RAF Regiment, RAF Police and US Marines. Co-operation with the Americans is complete, but there are differences:
They are slightly more expeditionary over in Leatherneck,” says Colonel Mathie. “It’s the only place I’ve been to in my military career where we are more comfortable than the Americans.
Compared to a patrol base, it’s luxury. The facilities are good, considering we’re stuck in the middle of the Afghan desert. It’s a good place to come to get a bit of rest if you have been at one of the patrol bases. However, I wouldn’t want it to be so comfortable that it had an adverse effect on operational efficiency.
This is an amalgamation of two articles first published in Defence Focus magazine.
Visit the MOD website tomorrow to read about how a Royal Engineer is helping to prepare new facilities at Camp Bastion.