The weapon that killed thirty American Special Operators and regular Army troops, along with eight Afghan commandos aboard an CH-47 Chinook helicopter on August 6 in Wardak, Afghanistan was hardly the pinnacle of military technology. It was a simple, shoulder-fired, rocket propelled grenade (RPG), a weapon used for decades by militants around the globe, though usually not to such devastating effect.
While the Pentagon continues to investigate the incident, it’s worth nothing that even though there were twenty-five Special Forces (SOF) operators aboard the bird, the Chinook came from the regular Army—meaning it wasn’t a Special Forces-modified MH-47G. Just this past March, Boeing delivered the 61st and final refitted MH-47G to the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), as part of a multi-year service life extension program that updated the 50 year old aircraft from its “D” and “E” models. SOAR is scheduled to receive eight more “new build” G’s by fiscal 2015, according to current plans. Boeing says that the upgrades increase the platform’s life through the 2030’s—by which time the birds would be about 70 years old.
While there are no indications that even a SOF-modified Chinook would have been able to survive the hit that the helo took on Friday, the incident does beg the question of why so many SOF are riding around in helicopters they don’t own. At a SOF technology conference in Tampa, Fla., this summer, commanders from the U.S. Special Forces Command (USSOCOM) said that they were looking for more money from the services to invest in new rotary-wing aircraft. “We’re going to hopefully guide the services into giving us something that is useful for us,” said Army Col. Doug Rombough, program executive officer for rotary wing at USSOCOM. “We certainly don’t have the budget or funding to guide a whole new generation of aircraft,” he added.
Vice Admiral William McRaven, the incoming USSOCOM honcho, wrote in testimony to Senate Armed Services Committee in June that USSOCOM’s “current operations will pressure development and limit required modernization and recapitalization efforts” of its rotary fleets, and that the “lack of vertical lift capability to train SOF ground forces and aircrew proficiency” was hurting the overall health and readiness of the SOF force.
The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review said that the Pentagon is seeking to continue growing the SOF force structure, in particular rotary and fixed-wing aircraft. With budget cuts coming, and with all indications being that we’re going to rely on Special Forces more than ever in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and Iraq for years to come, watching the slice of the budget that SOF receives will show just how serious those recommendations were.