Airborne with the RAF in Afghanistan – don’t forget your body armour!

“Please make sure that your seat back is in the upright position, your tray table is stowed away, and that you are wearing your combat body armour and helmet.” Maybe this rather eerie advice could be something for the low-cost airlines to trial during the World Cup in Germany this June, but for now, it is the final announcement given to British troops and visitors before landing in the Afghan capital Kabul.


I recently had my first experience as a deployed “war correspondent”, spending three days in Afghanistan as part of a Ministry of Defence and Royal Air Force-managed visit to Kabul and Kandahar airfield.


I spent most of my time within the relatively safe confines of Kandahar airfield, which at the peak of its activity has housed up to 9,000 coalition personnel. However, arriving troops are warned about the threat of rocket attacks, the dangers of straying from paths near its perimeter due to the presence of landmines and, bizarrely, on the presence of rats “the size of dogs”. So that’s no pets or mascots then…


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Visitors to Kandahar are confronted with many signs of past bloodshed. Also referred to as the Taliban Last Stand building, the base’s passenger terminal is a bullet and bomb-scarred single-storey affair. The hangar next door has much of its roof missing, and that which remains is peppered from cannon fire and the past impact of precision-guided bombs. The airfield also houses the remnants of previous Afghan transport aircraft which probably met with a similar fate.


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It doesn’t do to stare in Kandahar – the hangar in question now houses a mysterious fleet of UH-1 helicopter gunships painted in an exotic camouflage scheme and without national markings. As one RAF source notes, there is an awful lot of ‘black’ activity going on out here. Those US Air Force Predator unmanned air vehicles aren’t really there either, if you see what I mean.


While we were there to visit the RAF’s Chinook and Harrier detachments at Kandahar, the base’s flight line is dominated by dozens of US attack, transport and combat search and rescue helicopters, with a few more Australian and Dutch Chinooks also making up the numbers. Perhaps underlining their national reputation for being just a little bit “crazshy”, the Dutch have a sign which subtly highlights its air force’s delight at being away from home: “Different tour, same ***”.


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Rockets and rodents aside, and also considering its powder-fine dust and more than occasional whiff of raw sewage, life in Kandahar doesn’t seem all that bad. The base has three US-run dining facilities which offer something for every taste: from burgers to breaded shrimp to the nutritional and gung-ho-inspiration of the Hooah! bar: “the energy bar created by the US Military”. Its Board Walk also has a Burger King, Pizza Hut and Subway, and the Green Beans Coffee shop serves a mean vanilla chai. The base PX meanwhile sells everything from TVs and electric fans to understated “Taliban Hunter” and “Sniper squad” T-Shirts. Its $1 jigsaws are also proving unhealthily popular with the Romanian soldiers, if you ask me.


The base has something of a Mad Max feel about it, with a peculiar mix of armoured vehicles, Toyota Land Cruisers, German tourist coaches and thousands of ISO containers which line the “streets”. These provide security and also act as noise barriers between the accommodation areas and the airfield, but they aren’t much use when – as on our first night on base – the US Army seems to be rehearsing the massed helicopter formation from Apocalypse Now. But at least they spared us the Wagner…


The national characteristics of other coalition troops were beautifully underlined during a day spent flying in an RAF C-130J Hercules supporting International Security Assistance Force activities. The Swedish medics were forthcoming and friendly, the Norwegian soldiers young, macho and electronically sophisticated with their I-Pods and even a PSP, while ISAF’s Italian army commander strutted his way onto the aircraft’s flight deck for a transfer to Herat.


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Coalition aircraft rarely come under ground fire in Afghanistan, but there is no doubt that it feels like a dangerous place to fly – regardless of countermeasures and cockpit armour. The land-based dangers of the region were also graphically illustrated during our visit, with suicide bombings staged in Helmand’s capital Lashkar Gar and Herat. And on returning to Kabul for a night in the UK’s Camp Souter base around 1km from the airport perimeter the risks were again underlined when we were transferred in vintage Saxon armoured vehicles with roof-mounted machine guns.


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Souter felt a bit more like home, with the Grand National on TV, the base bar providing up to two cans of beer per person per night, a tent with no air conditioning and persistent rain. And judging by the muddy paw prints left on my wash bag in the morning we also had a visitor in the night. He probably wasn’t the size of a dog, but Osama the rat remains an elusive enemy.

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