Author Archives: Tony Skinner

Going the distance in Afghanistan

Despite his rhetoric on the campaign trail, President Donald Trump has reaffirmed the US commitment to Afghanistan, promising military commanders they will have the resources and support they need “to fight and to win”.

With few attractive strategic options on the table, there is little surprise that the man who loves winning so much has chosen to stay the course, rather than withdraw US troops and be the president that ceded Afghanistan to the Taliban.

As Gen John W. Nicholson, the Commander of US Forces – Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in February, neither the Taliban nor the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) is currently capable of “fundamentally altering the operational environment”.

This leaves a situation where the government in Kabul currently claims control over roughly two thirds of the population, the Taliban is in control of some ten percent of the country, and the rest remains contested.

As with all previous stages of the Afghan conflict since 2001, SOF remain a critical element of any successful strategy, particularly given that of the 98 US-designated terrorist organizations globally, 20 are located in the Afghanistan/ Pakistan region.

As part of its counter-terrorism (CT) mission, US SOF operators have become extremely efficient over the past decade at “kicking in doors” in the hunt for Al-Qaeda leaders, facilitators and key associates.

Trump’s comments suggest this effort will only widen under the new administration. The trap the Pentagon must now avoid is any renewed emphasis on the CT effort to the detriment of ANDSF capability development under the training, advising, and assistance (TAA) mission.

In his evidence to the SASC, Nicholson noted that the “professionalism and competence” of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command was one of the best examples of success of the TAA effort in 2016.

The 17,000 special operators conducted 70% of ANA offensive operations last year, and their proficiency is “directly attributable” to their long-standing partnerships with US and coalition advisors.

Capability gap

However, given Western reliance on close air support and aerial mobility, these areas remain a critical indigenous capability gap that needs attention.

The Afghan Special Mission Wing is fully night vision goggle-qualified, allowing it to conduct night-time operations anywhere in the country. But the larger Afghan Air Force (AAF) remains in “dire condition” due to an extremely high operational tempo and lack of aircraft.

In 2016, the AAF added 18 MD 530 attack/scout helicopters and eight A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft, with the first A-29 strike mission flown on April 14, 2016. Some 120 Afghan tactical air controllers had also been added to help improve the combat capability of the ANDSF.

However, the decision to purchase UH-60s to replace Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters was ill-advised and the Black Hawks will not be available until the 2019 campaign.

The poor quality of ANDSF leadership and the persistence of corruption within the ranks have shown the need for reforms to the appointment systems and effective leader development programs. Here, Afghan Special Forces have also led the way, demonstrating it is possible to shape effective leaders from the country’s sizable youth population.

Trump’s speech did hit the right notes in many areas, including highlighting the destabilizing role played by Pakistan and the fact that military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan, as well as heralding a shift from a time-based approach to one reflecting conditions on the ground.

But funding must now be properly allocated to reflect one truism of Trump’s address – the stronger the Afghan security forces become, the less the US will have to do there.


SOCOM seeks new technologies

Few events on the defence exhibition calendar provide as much direct engagement with the user community than the SOF Industry Conference (SOFIC) in Tampa every May.

As well as giving industry the invaluable opportunity of getting their kit directly into the hands of SOF operators, SOFIC provides a unique insight into those capabilities currently required by USSOCOM.

While yours truly was unable to attend the event due to the small matter of my wife giving birth (baby boy, chunky 9.5lbs, parents thrilled), Shephard Media was there in force interviewing key members of the command and representatives from industry.

As SOCOM Commander Gen Raymond A. Thomas III explains in our focus piece in the latest issue of Special Operations Forum magazine, the command at 30 remains an ‘unmatched capability to conduct counter-terrorism operations with our partners and execute a select set of niche missions in support of the joint force’.

Nevertheless, Thomas has cautioned that the command’s current expertise and equipment set is not necessarily tailored to compete with near-peer competitors.

Indeed, he argued that peer competitors were exploring ‘leap-ahead approaches’ that threatened to exceed the pace of the Pentagon’s own capability development, while less-capable foes were exploiting commercial technologies and new TTPs to gain an advantage.

Recently, Daesh insurgents in Iraq were able to literally fly under the radar of the Coalition’s air superiority with swarms of $2000 quadcopters, including at least one that had a ‘40mm weapons device’ attached to it.

While the problem was quickly overcome on that occasion, SOF operators will need access to effective counter-UAS technologies beyond simply small arms fire.

Elsewhere, SOCOM is investigating a range of new technologies to be able to operate in the potential denied battlefields of the future. Focus areas include submersibles, terrain following/avoidance and all-weather radar, advanced electronic attack capabilities, countermeasures and precision munitions.

Western SOF forces can no longer rely on the current generation of night vision technologies to provide a tactical advantage, given the advances and availability of Chinese and Russian equipment.

A recent solicitation revealed the command is considering upgrades in the area of optics, lasers, sensors and radar technology capable of enhancing ground-to-ground and air-to-ground targeting.

Consideration is being given to man-portable equipment as well as long-range enemy identification based on laser vibrometry technology.

SOCOM is seeking a next-generation capability in regards to fragmentation weapons as well as future technologies in the area of personal protective equipment, including ballistic body armour, combat helmets and eye protection.

Specifically, SOCOM is looking for lighter weight solutions with improved protection levels – the command is seeking protection against small arms ammunition up to 7.62x51mm in calibre with a ballistic insert plate measuring no more than a single inch in thickness.

As well as continuing to refine both tactics and technological developments to enhance its manhunting and network defeat capabilities, SOCOM is investigating ‘machine learning‘ to shift through vast amounts of ISR data.

The command has also published requirements for next-generation human performance technology, designed to improve physiological, physical, psychological and intellectual performance.

As our online coverage of SOFIC demonstrated, SOCOM’s leadership and industry are largely in unison about the areas needing investment in order to maintain technological superiority – but equally aware on the challenges ahead.

The case for the tiltrotor

As the US Army aviation community gathers in Nashville for the annual Mission Solutions Summit – where industry will be provided updates on various army upgrade programmes – our cover story in the latest issue of Defence Helicopter features one platform the service doesn’t fly.

While there are far fewer USAF CV-22B Ospreys in service than those flown by their Marine Corps brethren, the use of the tiltrotor for special operations missions over the past decade has equally changed the way the USAF does business.

We recently gained a valuable insight in what it takes to prepare crews to fly the CV-22, with intrepid reporter Barry Smith spending several days with the training unit, the 71st Special Operations Squadron (SOS), at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico.

The Osprey is tailor-made for the vast distances encountered in many of the regions the US finds itself operating in, thanks to such features as an aerial refuelling capability, allowing the USAF and USMC to ‘collapse speed and distance’, in the words of one marine commander.

However, despite a decade of intense and relatively incident-free operations, the fatal accidents that dogged the V-22’s development continues to cast a long shadow. One obvious manifestation of this has been the public reaction in Okinawa to MV-22 operations there, particularly after an accident on 13 December that temporarily grounded the fleet. Given Japan itself is purchasing the V-22, it will be interesting to watch how that shapes public perception there in the years to come.

The suitability of the tiltrotor in meeting the gamut of demanding military missions will also be placed further under the spotlight by the US Army, as it works through the Future Vertical Lift programme in the years ahead.

And that question takes us back to Kirtland AFB, where the 71st SOS has a training syllabus that is finely honed to the unique challenges of flying the V-22.

The training focuses on the importance of CV-22 pilots and special mission aviators (SMAs) – essentially a combination of the flight engineer and loadmaster career fields with many other duties – working together, particularly given the famous rotor downwash of the Osprey, which requires close crew coordination to land in an unimproved landing zone.

Collective dyslexia

One of the biggest personal challenges transitioning from helicopters to the V-22 is the added control input of changing the angle of the engine nacelles, something the commanding officer of the unit said resulted in ‘collective dyslexia’. While this does require some getting used to, ‘everyone figures it out just fine’.

The danger of entering a ring vortex state, which was a serious problem in early USMC tiltrotor operations, is also now well understood and students are taught how to avoid it. They are also shown how to stay out of the rotor wash of other V-22s with very specific techniques and parameters.

This is not unique to the V-22 and, as the commander correctly pointed out, all aircraft have parts of the flight envelope to avoid.

Operating the V-22 will remain within the reach of very few militaries around the world, given the aircraft’s procurement and sustainment costs. While the speed and range of the platform are clearly unmatched by any other VTOL aircraft, the smaller proprotors limits the V-22’s ability to go into a hot, high-altitude landing zone at a high gross weight. In such conditions, a helicopter such as the CH-47 Chinook may well be the better choice.

Nevertheless, the story of the 71st SOS and the effectiveness of the CV-22 training programme is a provocative one in the context of the US Army’s current examination of tiltrotor versus compound coaxial for its future rotorcraft fleet.

Bell Helicopter is developing its V-280 tiltrotor as part of the army’s Joint Multirole – Technology Demonstrator effort, while Sikorsky-Boeing is advancing the SB>1 Defiant co-axial compound helicopter for the requirement – the latter recently announcing the maiden flight of the Defiant will be delayed to the first half of next year.

Despite facing off against the two industry giants in the sector, Bell will be no doubt hoping that established operations with the V-22 across three of the services will help tilt the race in its favour.

For more on the operations of the 71st SOS, see the May-June issue of Defence Helicopter

Staying peerless on the battlefield

Shephard Media has suddenly become a lot more acquainted with the world of military special forces following our acquisition of Special Operations Forces (SOF) magazine.

As if the critical role that SOF operators play in current campaigns was not obvious enough, opening the recent AFCEA West exhibition, a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe was clear about the need for ‘peerless special forces’.

ADM James G. Stavridis, US Navy (retired), placed an unrivalled SOF capability alongside advances in cyber and unmanned systems as essential for US forces to meet current and emerging threats.

‘You are going to see some changes to that traditional force, which I would argue for the navy, for example, ought to be around 340 ships. But you are going to need better cyber capability; we are going to need bet­ter unmanned platforms, including those operating in the maritime space and the overhead; and we are going to need peerless Special Forces,’ ADM Stavridis told the gathered delegates.

He cited the example of US Navy SEAL Michael Murphy who lost his life in Afghanistan in 2005 and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during Operation Red Wings.

‘Today he is memorialised in the destroyer USS Michael Murphy. We need peerless special forces like Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL, but also he represents in my mind all of the wonderful volunteers in the services who stand on the wall at night and protect us.’

One crucial element in the Pentagon’s security strategy is the role SOF units are playing in building partner nations SF capacity, which is a central theme to our second issue of 2017.

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In a comprehensive commentary, Lt Gen Ken Tovo and Lt Col Duane Mosier outline the ways in which members of US SOF continue to develop effective partner forces in countries around the world, helping them to win against determined enemies.

Providing examples from Afghanistan, Colombia and Iraq, the US Army Special Operations Com­mand (USASOC) leadership outlines how US SOF has ‘built, trained and developed effective partner forces through persistent and deliberate engagement’.

Elsewhere in the issue, we speak to the head of Special Operations Command in Spain about the new command’s success in coordinating the country’s Army, Air Force and Navy SOF.

Brig Gen Jaime Íñiguez Andrade explains that, in line with the creation of joint commands in other Western countries, the development of the new command and increased resources Madrid has allocated to SOF activities is a recognition of the importance of SF in light of current threats.

We also look at the development of SOF units across Latin America, frequently in partnership with the US, as well as the introduction of new technologies to make working within an interna­tional coalition easier and more effective.

Current operations are demanding more and more from the SOF community, forcing operators to seek new force-multiplying technologies across a widening spectrum of mission sets.

This is most prevalent across the Middle East – particularly the partnering missions with Iraqi and Kurdish forces against Daesh – and Eastern Europe, where coalitions of SOF units are central to ongoing counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns.

U.S. Army Soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group prepare to fast-rope out of a UH-60 Blackhawk during Fast Rope Insertion and Extraction training as part of Emerald Warrior at Hurlburt Field, Fla., April 22, 2015. Emerald Warrior is the Department of Defense's only irregular warfare exercise, allowing joint and combined partners to train together and prepare for real world contingency operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenneth W. Norman/Released)

US Army Soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group prepare to fast-rope out of a UH-60 Blackhawk.

From Russia’s electronic warfare capability to the (increasingly armed) airborne ISR assets developed by Daesh, emerging new threats will require SOF units to work ever harder to remain ‘peerless’ on the battlefield.

Dear Poland – you’ve changed

Okay Poland, now you’re just being silly. I understand you’ve fallen out with Airbus Helicopters, I really do – but your actions since reneging on your deal to purchase those brand-new Caracals are starting to look a little erratic.

I know things got a little heated when you cancelled the $3.5 billion deal to buy 50 H225Ms after a year of complex negotiations, an agreement which would have given Poland the capacity to produce aircraft of its own for the export market.

But that’s no reason to post mean comments online about why the break-up was not your fault and was completely down to the action of your former partner. Telling the world that “they did not meet the criteria of economic interest” was not very classy and should have been left as a private matter.

As for your deputy defence minister’s claim that Paris’ reaction to the slight could be explained by the fact that Poland taught the French how to use forks ‘a couple of centuries ago’, that’s really raking through old coals.

In fact, we had to turn to the AFP to learn that this may have been a reference to France’s King Henry III, who had previously been elected king of Poland and introduced the fork to France in the 16th Century.

This was also picked up by social media, so you should reflect on that fact that when you’ve become a meme, you’ve definitely lost the moral high ground.

And any break-up is hard but did you have to rush so quickly into the arms of another?

What you loved about the Caracal was its ability to cover a range of missions, with all the benefits of commonality that brings.

But according to your recent public statements, you now plan to not only reopen the competition but also buy Black Hawks for your special forces, purchase additional helicopters from PZL Świdnik, and in the middle of all this develop your own indigenous helicopter design.

What next – the creation of Poland’s first Death Star? Oh wait, someone has already beaten me to it…


Presenting, the Mosquito Killer Robot (!!)

The Laser Movable Mosquito Killer Robot

Among the glistening military hardware at the MSPO arms fair in Kielce, Poland, what was the most impressive thing on display? I give you six words: ‘the Laser Movable Mosquito Killer Robot’.

Hidden among the vast array of armoured vehicles, air defence systems and air-launched weapons was this display by Chinese company LeiShen Intelligent, which literally screamed about its ‘Mosquito Killer Robot!!’

After a tip-off from a trusted contact, I went to hunt out the Shenzhen-based company, who were more than happy to chat about their product.

They’ve essentially taken their 2D LIDAR technology, commonly seen on home cleaning robots, integrated it on a small UGV and stuck a mosquito killing laser on the top.

A LeiShen Intelligent representative said while they had yet to make a sale, the company was pitching the idea to hospitals, schools or other public buildings in areas blighted by diseases such as malaria or zika.

In addition to the movable version, the system is available as a fixed installation.

Through an object recognition and tracking algorithm, the killer robot recognises a mosquito and ‘instantly’ lasers it. The company claims the laser is capable of killing an impressive ’30 to 40 mosquitoes in one second’, a fact I double-checked had not been mistranslated.

While the spokesperson was not able to name the actual laser used as part of the system, the company’s website lists several eye-safe laser products and the Mosquito Killer Robot apparently has ‘multi-protection for human beings’.

As well as being an impressive integration of several technologies, the aim of getting the systems in the hands of institutions such as hospitals is clearly an admirable one.

But as company literature reveals, in humanity’s fight against the mosquito, the Chinese have been playing the long game:

‘In the past thousands of years that are written in history, human’s [sic] fight against mosquitoes have never ended with our victory. But with the invention and later-application of these laser mosquito killer products, history is there to be changed. Diseases like malaria, dengue fever and zika that [are] caused by mosquito bites will get controlled a great deal.’

Poor blighter didn’t stand a chance

Book review: Apache Over Libya

Apache Over Libya by Will Laidlaw

With US Marine Corps AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters currently striking targets around the Libyan city of Sirte, the pilots involved will be keenly aware of the British experience of five years ago.

The sophistication of the air defence threat that faced coalition forces in Libya in 2011 – and just how close pro-Gaddafi forces came to shooting down a UK Apache helicopter – has been laid bare in a new memoir.

In his story of the involvement of Apaches from 656 Squadron, Army Air Corps (AAC), Will Laidlaw has produced a remarkably detailed and yet gripping account, outlining how the Apache was rerolled for ship-borne operations and thrown into the Libyan conflict.

Apache 2

While the involvement of HMS Ocean and her embarked Apache attack helicopter crews was widely covered by the general media at the time, the story soon moved on with the fall of Gaddafi forces.

Five years later, it is certainly worth revisiting the wider story of the Apache’s involvement and how the crews training in the Mediterranean were pulled into the Libyan civil war.

To illustrate how key 656 Squadron was to operations, throughout the campaign crews fired 99 Apaches, 4800 rounds of 30mm and 16 rockets across 48 sorties and striking 116 targets.

Nevertheless, Libya’s air defence threat was vastly more sophisticated that what AAC Apache crews had become accustomed to facing in Afghanistan – the campaign that had become the sole focus of many within the command structure (and outlined by former 656 WO1 Ed Macy in his much more two dimensional books Apache and Hellfire).

While the number of chaff and flares fired in self-defence against incoming missiles remains classified, Laidlaw’s account of taking evasive action against radar lock-ons is unnerving.

As well as being an at-times intensely personal account – he soberly explains such aspects as the ever-present strain on the families back home, the comradery of operations, the inevitable banter in times of extreme stress, the boredom – Apache Over Libya is also a story of organisational change.

While many within the Ministry of Defence were highly sceptical of allowing the integration of the Apache for ship-borne operations, the aircraft’s sudden availability to coalition planners when they needed an asset with the ability to strike targets that had previously been able to evade attack from fast jets was ultimately too persuasive.

In many ways it is surprising the MoD has allowed the account to be published. As well as the operational details the book reveals, Laidlaw does not hide his contempt for an organisation that initially stood in the way of ship-borne processes being developed, and then later became too risk adverse to allow further operations to be launched from HMS Ocean.

But given the huge contribution the book makes in our understanding of 656’s role in the defeat of pro-Gaddafi forces in 2011, it would have been a travesty if publication had been stymied in any way.

All proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to SSAFA and Combat Stress.

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