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RAF air power support for OMID HAFT

The planning for OMID HAFT began several weeks ago. Since then, elements of Task Force Helmand built around 3 Commando Brigade have been working…

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The planning for OMID HAFT began several weeks ago. Since then, elements of Task Force Helmand built around 3 Commando Brigade have been working closely with 6th Kandak (Battalion), 3rd Brigade, 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army (ANA), to co-ordinate an operation to rid the Kopak, Malgir and Loy Mandeh areas of Nahr-e Saraj of insurgent activity and extend the safe, protected community up to the Nahr-e Bughra canal.

To ensure this was possible, the full range of RAF assets in theatre were used to prepare the battlespace for the operation, with sorties being flown by 617 Squadron’s Tornado GR4s and 39 Squadron’s Reapers from Kandahar.

Several days before the operation began, RAF Lossiemouth-based 617 Squadron, known more famously as ‘The Dambusters’, launched sorties from Kandahar Airfield to conduct tactical reconnaissance missions over the Loy Mandeh area using the RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for TORnado) intelligence-gathering system - a canoe-sized digital camera pod which is capable of photographing an area the size of Cyprus in a single sortie.

Flying at around 20,000 feet [6,000 metres], the crew conducted a detailed survey of the area in order to check ground transit routes, potential helicopter landing sites, buildings and compounds for signs of insurgent activity and the presence of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Squadron Leader Ian Sharrocks, Officer Commanding Weapons Flight on 617 Squadron, said:

The RAPTOR is a really impressive piece of kit. It’s a niche capability that is in demand across ISAF, offering fantastically detailed imagery.

On the Tornado’s return to Kandahar, a team of imagery analysts from the RAF’s Tactical Imagery-Intelligence Wing (TIW) worked against the clock to turn the raw imagery into intelligence reports; indentifying threats, and indicating the type of terrain, lengths of roads, and size of habitation.

This information was vital to ground commanders, allowing them to determine how many troops were required, what equipment and weapons they needed, how they would enter and extract from the area and how to best utilise their resources in order to complete the mission.

The TIW Detachment Commander, Flight Sergeant Sara Catterall, said:

The information we provide is essential, and a real necessity in the planning stage of an operation, and the feedback that we get from the commanders is extremely positive.

In the early hours of Thursday 26 May, equipped with a multitude of key information provided by 617 Squadron and the TIW, nearly 300 ANA soldiers and riflemen from 1st Battalion The Rifles took part in one of the largest partnered air assaults in Afghanistan since operations began.

As the operation progressed, 39 Squadron’s remotely-piloted Reaper aircraft, and the 617 Squadron Tornado GR4s, carrying precision guided weapons, provided armed overwatch for the Afghan and British troops inserting into the Loy Mandeh area by support helicopter.

High above the helicopters, the Tornado and Reaper aircraft were constantly providing situational awareness and a level of reassurance to the troops on the ground below.

With the operation fully underway, Royal Marines from 42 Commando approached the insurgent-held village of Loy Mandeh. A once thriving centre of commerce, it had become a desolate and uninhabitable area due to insurgent intimidation and the numbers of IEDs lying in wait.

The Royal Marines’ mission was to enter, clear out the insurgents, and then prevent them from coming back by erecting checkpoints (CPs) in the newly-liberated village. The biggest challenge facing the men was the numbers of IEDs. Several devices were found which were safely disposed of by members of the Counter-IED Task Force and their Afghan counterparts.

RAF Police Corporal Michael McConnel is one of a number of dog handlers who took part in the operation:

During one patrol, one of the lads partly initiated an IED. After he was taken to hospital, Memphis and I carried on patrolling - we had to make sure the route from the new CP site was clear to get the essential stores needed to build it. It felt good to bring security to the people in the area.

On the Saturday, just two days after the Afghan and ISAF troops entered the contested areas, Afghan Major Rahim Ali visited ANA warriors who had just taken down a large Taliban propaganda flag from the outskirts of Loy Mandeh village. The flag was replaced with an Afghan flag to indicate to the local population the return of the Government of Afghanistan to the area.

Colonel Peter Eadie, the Commander of the UK Joint Aviation Group, responsible for co-ordinating the helicopters, said:

This was a complex operation involving large numbers of Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force personnel, as well as US Marine Corps troops. Between them, they co-ordinated 22 aircraft which inserted hundreds of troops and tonnes of stores into a high threat area, in poor weather, at night.

Days of detailed planning paid off as the mission was a resounding success and a textbook example of multinational co-operation.

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Published 29 June 2011