Afghanistan Air Wing Stands Up

March 21, 2009 by Adam Day

Finally, helicopters with Canadian flags are flying above Kandahar province.

For the past few years, Canadians deployed in Afghanistan have relied on allied aircraft—American, British, Dutch, even independent contractors—to move around the dangerous countryside or to fly resupply missions into small and distant outposts.

But on Dec. 6, the Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing stood up with a parade and ceremony at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan.

The official task of the air wing is to provide the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Regional Command South with transportation, surveillance and reconnaissance assets that contribute to mission success in Afghanistan.

Currently, the Air Wing comprises four units: the Canadian Helicopter Force (Afghanistan), operating CH-147 Chinook D heavy lift helicopters and CH-146 Griffon tactical support helicopters; the Theatre Support Element operating CC-130 Hercules tactical transport aircraft; the Canadian Heron UAV Detachment, operating the Heron unmanned aerial vehicle and the Tactical UAV Flight, operating the equipped Sperwer tactical unmanned aerial vehicle.

In addition to the four Canadian components, the wing commander also supervises the Canadian Contracted Air Transport Unit with its complement of six leased MI-8 medium lift helicopters.

At full strength, the wing will comprise about 450 personnel, most of whom were expected in theatre by the end of February.

“We are very proud to be standing up this new air wing and to be participating in Canada’s effort in Afghanistan,” said Colonel Christopher Coates, the wing commander. “Our air and ground crews are experienced, skilled and enthusiastic about being members of this new unit. They have trained hard to deploy here, and will continue to build and refine their skills in theatre so as to provide important, enhanced support to our fellow Canadians and our Afghan and ISAF partners on the ground.”

The critical need for Canadian air assets to be deployed to Afghanistan was addressed by the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future in Afghanistan, a five-person panel headed by John Manley that in 2008 produced some strong recommendations for how Canada should proceed in the war.

“The panel has also heard that the safety and effectiveness of Canadian Forces in Kandahar would be markedly increased by the acquisition and deployment of new equipment. In particular, added helicopter airlift capacity and advanced unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles are needed now. No equipment can perfectly protect Canadian soldiers against improvised explosive devices. But helicopters can save lives by reducing reliance on transporting troops by road, and aerial surveillance can more effectively track insurgent movements.”

At the time of its release, the report was considered very influential, and now, it’s clear how closely Canadian policy and procurement has stuck to the report’s recommendations in the time since.

“To better ensure the safety and effectiveness of the Canadian contingent, the government should also secure medium helicopter lift capacity and high-performance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance before February 2009.”

And while the CF accomplished the mission of getting air assets into the field on such relatively short notice—considering they didn’t own most of the required assets when the report came out—it was no easy task.

The flurry of activity resulted in the purchase of six CH-147 Chinook D helicopters from the U.S. Army, and the award of contracts for the MI-8 heavy lift helicopter services and Heron unmanned aerial vehicles. To form the JTF-Afg Air Wing, these new capabilities joined eight CH-146 Griffon helicopters to be moved from Canada, the Sperwer tactical UAVs already deployed in Kandahar, and the three CC-130 Hercules tactical transports that have been operating between the Persian Gulf region and Afghanistan since 2002.

On the ground in Kandahar, the preparations for the new air wing started in June, not long after the Manley report appeared, when the Air Capability Activation Team (ACAT) arrived on the ground. The ACAT’s job was simple, if extremely hard: prepare for the arrival of 450 personnel and all their equipment, including helicopters.

The team of 29 had to arrange for the airlift of more than 400 metric tons of equipment from Canada, build 32 hard-sided structures for offices and facilities, a deployable hangar, numerous Weatherhaven shelters for living quarters and office space, lay cables in 52 offices, wire 88 telephones and set up and configure 225 computers.

In the end, they got it all done on time.

“This new air wing will enhance my ability to conduct operations in Kandahar Province by providing safe and rapid transport of soldiers and enhanced surveillance assets that will help us isolate insurgents from the civilian population,” said Brigadier-General Denis Thompson, previous commander of Task Force Kandahar. “By enhancing security, we will also accelerate Canada’s ability to work with the Afghan government and our international partners.”

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