Afghan conditions require adaptive soldiers, aviators 


The high operating tempo, the vast distances, changing weather and mountainous terrain in Afghanistan is causing aviators and soldiers in their units to become "very adaptive, " the commander of the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade told attendees at a special Association of the United States Army symposium and exposition in suburban Washington.

Col. Ronald Lewis said, "He’s not just a scout. … They’re truly multifunctional." Speaking Jan. 7, he said that when he deployed he had 170 manned and unmanned aircraft, 4,000 soldiers and civilian contractors operating in seven battalions from four widely dispersed locations.

The dispersed operations also required the aviation brigade be task organized even before deployment. Also in pre-deployment training there was increased emphasis on the differences between Iraqi society and culture and Afghan society and culture.

He said his goal was to provide the division commander an aviation brigade that he could call his own, even operating as a quick reaction force.

Lewis said that it was crucial for the aviators to establish strong relationships with brigade combat team commanders. In executing counterinsurgency "at altitude," those relationship can avoid incidents where attack helicopters could "undo what ground commanders are doing in protecting a border, protecting the people. It’s a mindset."

"Technology matters" in Afghan operations. Lewis said that he was fortunate to have the latest CH-47s and UH-60s and the time to train with the improved aircraft before deploying.

 Crew chief
Army Spc. Gustavo Soto, UH-60 Black Hawk crew chief, keeps his eyes on the terrain over Zabul Province, Afghanistan.

Unlike Lewis, Col. Jesse Farrington, now assistant G-3 for operations and aviation at Forces Command, "took command two months before it deployed to Iraq" to operate in "an area about the size of Pennsylvania."

He too operated from a number of different locations, and that has its good points and not so good points. "One thing [the combat aviation brigade] allows the division commander to do is to look bigger than he was," particularly in air assaults.

Farrington also saw the benefits of technology – precision weapons, sensors, etc. – in counterinsurgency. "We started out in a very kinetic fight – going against IED emplacers," but over time "we adapted our organization to be less kinetic."

Col. Erik Peterson, transitioning to his new position as chief of staff of the 10th Mountain Division, succeeded Farrington’s brigade in Iraq. Although the training regimen that was established before the deployment included two rotations at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., and two more at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., "unfortunately, we did not train with any brigade combat team we were going to be working with."

Because of the close cooperation with Farrington, the aviation training exercise was very productive. "The scenarios were relevant and current," he said.

Adding, "I wanted to hit the ground running."

"In a relatively short period of time ... the role of the brigade commander, whether it's a BCT (brigade combat team) commander or an aviation brigade commander or other, has become incredibly more complex," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schlosser, director of Army aviation, said.

"We are asking them (brigade commanders) to have skills sets that, to be truthful, I don't believe we are training them to get to at this point in time."

Adding, "We talk about being able to put the iron on the tire, etc. ... but we have to be a part of the counterinsurgency efforts and not just part of the enabling efforts," he said. "So the challenge of the brigade commander is to figure out ‘how can I help in counterinsurgency, how can I do both."