The Sea King Airborne Surveillance and Control helicopters of 854 Naval Air Squadron act as ‘eyes in the sky’, and have guided forces on the ground in making a series of busts in a summer and autumn of successful operations.
The Sea King crews’ success can be attributed to the helicopter’s cutting-edge radar which tracks insurgents so the crews can inform ground troops where to pounce.
The helicopters, based at Camp Bastion, are flying up to 50 hours a week, using the specialist radar in a large grey ‘bag’ on the side of the aircraft - which gives them their ‘Bagger’ nickname - to follow the movements of insurgents thousands of feet below on the ground.
In the past fortnight alone 854 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) - which comprises fewer than 50 personnel in Helmand - has directed troops to three men travelling in a truck which was carrying 570kg of opium, while a large amount of heroin was found on another vehicle.
The Sea Kings, known as ‘cloudwalkers’ by Afghans, have also this summer helped with the seizure of 7.2 tonnes of explosives - enough to produce more than 1,500 ten-pound (4.5kg) small improvised explosive devices which are then used to kill and maim British, Allied and Afghan troops, and Afghan civilians.
In addition to these successes, the past two weeks have also seen the helicopters pass on 70 intelligence tip-offs for ground troops to follow up.
Commander Pat Douglas, Commander Maritime Sea King Force, said:
Individually, these ‘busts’ are quite small, but, collectively, our small force is making a very big difference.
We may be only operating over Helmand and environs but the impact of what we do spreads across the entire country.
Every single time a vehicle we’ve tracked is stopped and drugs or explosives are found by ground forces, we are making things a percentage safer for Afghan civilians and the forces there who are protecting them.
The Baggers have been in Afghanistan since May 2009, with 854 NAS and her sister squadron from Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, 857 NAS, taking it in turns to constantly monitor insurgent activity.
Although their missions are hundreds or thousands of feet above Helmand and the helicopters are based many miles from the scene of the various interdiction operations, Allied troops are very quick to pass on their gratitude for the intelligence the Baggers provide. Commander Douglas added:
We’re told quite quickly the outcome of our actions and the feedback we get is that we’re making a difference, which has a big effect on morale - really satisfying.
Crews initially used their sorties over Helmand to build up their knowledge and experience of each area and to understand life on the ground, day-to-day traffic and seasonal movements (such as harvest-gathering).
With two-and-a-half years’ experience under their belts, Commander Douglas said his men and women are well-attuned and familiar with their operating areas, making it easier for them to spot the unusual:
Operations now are more focused, more targeted and much more effective because we know the ground - there’s a lot of knowledge in the squadrons,” Commander Douglas added.
We are on a campaign footing. We will continue to do the job out there as long as we are needed - we stay until our job is done.