The US Army’s Task Force 160 (Special Operations Aviation Regiment/the ‘Night Stalkers’) came into being as a result of the problems and failure of Desert One in 1980 in Iran as the United States tried to rescue the American hostages. What do you think the military has learned since that operation that helped the helicopter assault succeed with the bin Laden raid in Pakistan last week?
I’ve never served in the 160th, but I’m relatively familiar with the organization. The senior leadership of the military determined that we needed some special capabilities, some niche capabilities, and one of those capabilities we need is with rotary link aircraft, helicopters. We needed to invest in a small organization, because it’s going to be expensive; helicopters are expensive. We were going to specially recruit and select warrant officers, commissioned officers, and sergeants that are in Army aviation, put them into operational units and, for the most part, not take them out. We developed a bench of incredibly skilled aviators, especially, that can operate at night. That’s why they’re called the ‘Night Stalkers.’ All the forces operate at night.
They come out (of those units) occasionally, but to a large degree, because we’re investing in them, because we want them to have the kind of skills that you saw the other night in that operation, you have to keep those folks in an organization like the 160th so that they can maintain those skill sets.
One of the other things the Army has done is that they’ve invested in special helicopters that have special equipment on them—and I’m not talking about the ‘low observable’ aircraft. Since I came into Army aviation in 1985, they’ve always had the leading-edge technologies, whether it be in the cockpit, in the airframe, with regard to capabilities. That has benefited the rest of the Army as well, because some of those technologies then cascade into the rest of the army. But their aircraft have always been a little flashier with regard to the capabilities that they bring. They had GPS before anybody had GPS. They had specially mounted weapons systems. They had rescue hoists. They had special armour on the inside of the aircraft. They had forward-looking infrared radar, avoidance radar, air-to-air refuelling probes.
This all gave us this great capability that has been called upon on various occasions to put special folks into special places and pull them out. But you can always trace that back to Desert One, where we had, if I’m not mistaken, Marine Corps pilots flying Army helicopters operating off of Navy ships, rallying in the desert with an Air Force aircraft. So when you peel the onion back, we needed these capabilities resident, we needed a certain select unit. So there are Navy units. There are Army units and there are Air Force units. And to a large degree, they all have their own training and selection programme.
As an aviation commander, I had 155 helicopters in Southern Afghanistan last year, and about 3,200 folks. Some of my warrant officer aviators and NCOs were assessed and were selected to go fly in the 160th, and they’re flying in the 160th today. It doesn’t surprise me that they (the Night Stalkers) were able to do what they did in the raid. They do a lot of things every single night in Afghanistan and Iraq that people never hear about.
Are you worried that we’re here hearing too much too often about what should be, or used to be, secret operations? The bin Laden operation opened up a lot of press coverage and speculation, especially with the tail rotor of a helicopter left behind.
This is kind of the trade-off when you live in a society where you have freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and you’ve got so many people that want to share in good news. I think it would have been much more convenient had that component of the aircraft not been left there because that makes it really complicated. We invest a lot of money in technology. It’s one of the game-changing aspects of the United States military. It’s because of our investment in research and development, and those things aren’t cheap. Unfortunately, there others who want to exploit what we’ve invested in. We have the greatest scientists in the world that are teaming with smart folks in our military to help develop technologies that give our troops the advantage.
The helicopters used in the raid weren’t the first US military helicopters with stealth capability. Didn’t the Comanche helicopter have it?
It was a desirable aspect of the Comanche. Of course, there was so much we expected of Comanche. It was an aircraft ahead of its time, and technology couldn’t keep up. But there were some spinoffs with regard to technology that we’ve gone ahead and, I think, added into current day Army aircraft and other aircraft. The Blackhawk, for example—the Blackhawk is in the Navy, it’s in the Air Force, it’s in the Army. And it’s in other nations around the world. It’s a tremendously capable aircraft.
Do you think the fact that the rotor section got left behind and Pakistan now has it – is there a realistic possibility they’re going to share technology with China?
I hope not. But I think anything’s possible when you’re dealing in this environment. I would hope that that the component would be turned back to the United States so that we could safeguard it.
When you first heard about the bin Laden raid, what were the biggest things that you thought could go wrong from a pilot’s point of view?
Well, when I looked at the distances. I’m somewhat familiar with that portion of Afghanistan, having spent quite a bit of time there. I figure they probably had to refuel and launch from one of these bases that’s right on the border. When you look at the distance to Islamabad, and then based on the reporting, it was about 30 miles north of that. Well, that’s about 150 to 170 nautical miles. If we just do a planning factor of 120 knots or 110 knots, it’s going to tell you, ‘wow, that was like a five-hour operation.’ So when you start thinking about a five-hour operation, in somebody else’s backyard, you don’t want anything to go wrong, because if anything goes wrong, it’s above the fold stuff in the Washington Post. So you’ve got to have second and third order of contingencies addressed, and we’re not even talking about taking enemy fire and getting shot down—we’re talking about penetrating the airspace, flying the mission profile, an airplane that runs into problems. So the contingency, if you have an aircraft go down, then you’ve always got to think back to Somalia. What happens when an aircraft goes down? It’s like a magnet for jihadists. And how quickly can I get a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) in there to secure it and get the folks out? And then what happens if somebody gets hurt?
Is there a higher rate of helicopter failure in the military than you would expect at this point? It seems that more helicopters go down than you might think.
When you look at the literally millions of hours we fly, it’s a miracle we don’t have more accidents or more aircraft go down. So we’re flying in an incredibly hazardous environment. We’re flying a lot at night. We’re flying with people shooting at you, and we’re doing pretty well. These crews, we’ve got the best-trained crews that I’ve ever seen in my entire career, I think since Vietnam.
They are flying their trails off. Most of these warrant officer aviators and commissioned officers have three times the amount of flight time I did when I was their age. It’s because they’ve got repetitive, two, three, four tours down range where they’re getting hundreds and hundreds of hours. I had some guys who came back last year with 1,000 hours in one year, which is almost unheard of. When I was growing up, there were some officers would go their whole career and get 1,000 hours. Now we’ve got majors and captains that are at 1,500, 2,000 hours because of all the flying that they’ve done down range.
When you get that kind of flight time, the quality of your force goes up. I think accidents have gone down relatively speaking from the beginning of the war to where we are now. We’ve incorporated our lessons learned, our tactics, techniques and procedures. We’ve put modifications on the aircraft to help deal with the environment. For example, with the new Chinooks that we’re putting in now, we’ve got the capability to shoot an approach into a complete ‘zero-zero’—basically you can’t see in front of your aircraft, but you’ve got a capability now where you can do an approach to a hover and then mechanically bring it down to the ground because we’ve got sensors that are helping the crew by providing information. When we first started the war, we didn’t have that in our aircraft.
We’ve lost a lot of aircraft in dust landing conditions. So, the Army has invested heavily in this ‘reset programme.’ Reset is when we bring aircraft back from the theatre. We rip them down to the frame, and we replace components. We clean out all the dirt, and we do a comprehensive ‘depot level’ evaluation of all our aircraft. That’s helping extend not only the life, but it’s also identifying problems before they happen. In addition, the crews are more experienced—that helps, but it’s still dangerous.
I don’t know what caused that aircraft to go down in bin Laden’s compound. There’s a lot of speculation over what caused that aircraft to go down. It could have been enemy fire. Of course, nobody wants to believe that.
What do you think ensured it was successful getting out of Pakistani airspace undetected?
When you look at the terrain over there, it’s very challenging to be able to see ‘electronically’ the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. So if you pick some valleys, you can probably beat it. We go through pre-mission planning, and if we’re trying to evade something, you can put up receivers, and you understand at what altitude that radar is going to be effective. So if you fly below that radar, then that would be a way in which you could conceal your ingress and egress. Also, we would have airborne command and control aircraft in Afghanistan on big operations.
The US got bin Laden in what has to be considered a phenomenally successful counterterrorism operation. You’ve had years of experience in Afghanistan. What do you think of continuing a counterinsurgency operation with the big success of counterterrorism at this point?
Bin Laden was the head of al-Qaeda. Our counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan is really focused on winning the people. So they’re separate and distinct. Now, if I was a mid- or a high- level insurgent, I would be aware that they just nailed bin Laden. Most of those folks who are operating in Afghanistan are already running tired and scared because similar forces have been hunting those guys down for the last few years. If you can separate the head from the body, it enables the conventional as well as the other forces that are operating on the ground to really protect the people.
As for the counterinsurgency campaign—this summer is going to be a critical period. I was in Afghanistan (in 2009 and 2010) in Kandahar and this is where we’re going to understand the success we’ve had with providing the security for the Afghan people.
Do you think there is a wedge now between the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of this?
I would think that this would perhaps create an opportunity for the Karzai government to be a little bit more appealing to the Taliban. So some reconciliation or reintegration. I think it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who stated in February that it was US policy now to support the reconciliation process with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. These are venues, opportunities for the Taliban to reintegrate into Afghan society. I believe that as long as they are willing to operate peacefully and within the boundaries of Afghan civil society, that they would be welcome at the table.
For a soldier, that is somewhat frustrating, because we’ve lost a lot of men and women in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban. But at the end of the day, it’s their country. This counterinsurgency campaign is created to win the people. If the people elect Karzai, and they have a political process that’s peaceful, and it includes this party called the Taliban, maybe it will be the Taliban in name only. I don’t think that they’re going to tolerate the kind of violence that the Taliban have inflicted on their people as the ‘new normal.’ The Afghans we ran into, they hated the Taliban; they feared the Taliban. And that repressive justice does nothing for their children. Just like we do, they want what’s best for their kids. They want for the next generation better than what they had.
You’ve had a long career in the military. From your experience and viewpoint, does it make sense for the head of the CIA to now be a military general, and for the new head of the Defence Department to come from heading up the civilian CIA?
I think both their records are incredible, and Gen. David Petraeus is, I think, the closest thing that our generation has seen of a ‘George Marshall’ type leader. Gen. Petraeus has given so much to this nation. He understands Afghanistan, he understands Iraq. He can continue to serve our nation at a time when there aren’t a lot of folks that have the kind of background that he has. He’s a statesman.
How do you think he’ll fit in with the mission and culture of the CIA, where it’s an intelligence-gathering, civilian, secretive agency, not a military organization?
He’s going to do great. He’s the kind of leader who wants you to kind of check your rank at the door when he has his sessions. He expects his people to speak the truth to him. He has the ability to get the best out of his people. When you have a session with him, you think he’s really interested in how you think, what you think. I was sitting next to him in a meeting in Afghanistan in 2009. He was genuinely interested in the way in which we were working with the Canadians in an area west of Kandahar City. Petraeus probably knew the answers to the questions before he asked them. But this gives him an opportunity to confirm or deny what he thinks. He asked very probing questions and was constantly taking notes.
We’ve been much closer involved with the intelligence agencies in the battlefield today because tactical intelligence is critical to our soldiers. And so we get information when we’re deployed. Sometimes we don’t know where it comes from, but I’ve got to believe that there’s a much greater consensus and much better ability for folks who work at certain levels to ensure that the folks who need the information are getting it. He understands what the war fighters need, and I think he’ll just increase that focus as the director of Central Intelligence.
Col. Paul Bricker has just completed a year at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center as Harvard's Senior US Army Fellow. Prior to this posting, he commanded the 82nd Airborne Division's Combat Aviation Brigade, and recently completed a 12-month deployment in Kandahar Afghanistan in support of the International Security and Assistance Force. Col. Bricker has served in a variety of command and staff positions in the US, South Korea, Afghanistan twice, and Iraq.This interview was conducted by US-based reporter Cynthia Iris.