U.S. commanders cleared in helicopter downing that killed Navy SEALs
A U.S. military investigation into the August downing of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan concluded that Taliban fighters “on a heightened state of alert” shot it down, but it cleared U.S. commanders of tactical mistakes.
Contrary to some initial reports, the helicopter carrying 38 U.S. and Afghan troops, including 17 Navy SEALs, was not on a rescue mission. Instead, it was dispatched to kill or capture a Taliban leader.
As the CH-47 helicopter descended toward a landing zone in Wardak province, it was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, which sheared off a rear rotor blade and caused the craft to plummet 150 feet into a dry creek bed, where it exploded, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey N. Colt found in his investigation. Everyone aboard was killed.
The crash in the predawn hours of Aug. 6 was U.S. troops’ single largest loss of life in the decade-old war. It took an especially heavy toll on Navy SEALs, the close-knit elite unit that only months earlier had killed Osama bin Laden during a clandestine raid into Pakistan.
Days after the helicopter crash, U.S. forces hunted down and killed the Taliban fighters who fired the grenades, senior officers have said.
Colt dismissed initial speculation that the helicopter might have been lured into a trap, but did note that the Taliban knew coalition forces and aircraft were in the area. “The shoot-down was not the result of a baited ambush but rather the result of the enemy being at a heightened state of alert due to 31/2 hours of ongoing coalition air operations,” he said.
The investigation cleared the U.S. special operation task force that conducted the mission of wrongdoing. However, he criticized the commander for not repositioning surveillance aircraft — a failure he attributed to the “compressed planning process.”
Colt also concluded that the sound of the surveillance aircraft probably alerted the Taliban that more forces could be on the way. Using such aircraft before sending in a helicopter should be better synchronized to minimize warning the enemy of imminent ground operations, he said.
A senior Pentagon official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said no military personnel would be disciplined for the incident.
The U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., released a summary of Colt’s investigation after briefing the families of those killed. The command oversees the Afghanistan war.
The original goal of the operation was to kill or capture Qari Tahir, the senior Taliban leader in Wardak province’s Tangi Valley. A platoon of U.S. Army Rangers, joined by Afghan troops, had flown in on two other CH-47s shortly before midnight after receiving intelligence on Tahir’s location. Several fighters were captured, but Tahir was not among them, the report said.
Surveillance aircraft observed another group of nine or 10 suspected Taliban fighters about a mile and half away, the report said. Believing that Tahir might be among them, the U.S. special operation commanders ordered the Navy SEAL team that had been on standby to get on a single helicopter and head for the valley in hopes of finding him.
Along with the 17 SEALs, this so-called “immediate reaction force” included eight other U.S. Air Force and Navy personnel, seven Afghan soldiers, an interpreter, a military working dog and a five-member helicopter crew.
Colt said that the two pilots were highly experienced and that they flew into the valley without lights by a different route than the first two CH-47s to confuse the enemy. As the helicopter descended to 100 to 150 feet above the ground, “a previously undetected group of suspected Taliban fighters fired two or three RPGs in rapid succession from the tower of a two-story mud-brick building,” Colt said.
The second explosive struck the helicopter’s aft rotor. “Within a matter of seconds, while the aircraft spun violently, the aft, then forward, rotor blade systems separate[d] from the aircraft,” and the fuselage dropped into the creek bed. The crash was over in less than five seconds and all of the victims were killed almost instantaneously, Colt said, but the wreckage burned for hours.
He called the decision to load the entire unit onto a single helicopter a “tactically sound” move to minimize aircraft exposure to ground fire.
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