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Low • Fast • Dark: Canada’s Special Ops Aviators

A 427 pilot hovers his Griffon as members of the Special Operations Regiment fast-rope out. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

A 427 pilot hovers his Griffon as members of the Special Operations Regiment fast-rope out.

The single point of failure.

This short phrase hides an idea powerful enough to make a special operations aviator professionally uncomfortable. The phrase makes them tense. It makes them speak of dangerous things.

Up in the sky, there are few places to hide. And while commanders do their best to make plans resilient enough to avoid any single point of failure, it’s a rare plan that survives first contact with the enemy and recent military history shows that occasionally even the most elite forces can become undone.

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It takes just a single piece of bad luck—a dust storm that blinds and disorients, a lucky rocket-propelled grenade shot that no helicopter could survive, or even one copper-plated, steel-jacketed 7.62×39-mm bullet sizzling out of an enemy weapon and into a perilously critical part of your standard Canadian CH-146 Griffon helicopter and things begin to spiral down towards doom.

The crew, the passengers, the bird itself could all go swirling out of the sky and, in the very worst case scenario, the assault goes with them and with the assault goes the mission and with the mission goes who knows what else. While in all likelihood it will take a lot more than a single bullet to stop a Canadian joint special ops task force, there remains the possibility of calamity in a single point of failure.

The pilots of the Canadian Forces 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron are well-practiced in the many ways to think about this phrase. And they are well-trained in ways to avoid it.

This handful of specially trained and chosen fliers is tasked with doing a quietly formidable job: they carry the men and women of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) into battle. In blacked-out helicopters often flying in total dark, these are the pilots trained to deliver Canada’s most elite soldiers—Joint Task Force 2, Canadian Special Operations Regiment, Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit—onto embassy rooftops or mountain peaks against threats and risks of nearly unlimited severity. They have a no-fail mission where the possibility of failure lurks literally everywhere.

Officially, the unit motto is not We Will Find a Way, even though the phrase is plastered all over the walls of 427 Headquarters at CFB Petawawa, Ont. For now, the official motto is still Strike With a Sure Hand, the same as it was when 427 was the Lion Squadron flying Lancaster bombers against the Germans in the Second World War.

But that historical role is long over and the old motto doesn’t really make sense anymore. Now, 427 is itself under the control of Special Operations Forces Command and has been since 2006.

Indeed, elements of the unit have been operationally involved with JTF2 since 1996 when the counterterrorism role was in the final stages of transitioning from the RCMP to the Canadian Forces, a process which began in 1993.

Lieutenant-Colonel Kevin Whale. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Lieutenant-Colonel Kevin Whale.

As with all of Canada’s special operations forces, the unit’s specific size, strength, capabilities and the identities of its operators are closely guarded secrets. Still, there is much that can be said. The unit, for now at least, only flies the standard Griffon. While the choppers don’t differ enormously from their regular force counterparts, they do have different radios, some dangling wires meant to discharge static before operators land on rooftops and a specially designed fast-roping system.

Small things inside the unit are different than in a standard helicopter squadron as well. While the pilots once carried C7 assault rifles as personal protection, now they are switching weapons to be compatible with those carried by an assaulter. In addition, they receive a basic level of special weapons training so they can take care of themselves in a fight.

The squadron is broken down into two flights, each with a largely distinct focus. B Flight is focused on domestic counter­terrorism, and has been since 1996. A Flight, meanwhile, spends much of its time thinking about, and training for, expeditionary special operations of the sort being carried out in, say, Afghanistan.

According to 427’s amiable commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Kevin Whale, the unit has three main roles: “Mobility, reconnaissance, and firepower…we move things, find things, and shoot things.” The unit also has a secondary role to provide support to Canada Command in the event of a large-scale domestic mission.

In many ways, 427’s most demanding role is their involvement with Canada’s Immediate Response Task Force (IRTF), a joint special operations group led by SOFCOM elements. In the event of any kind of domestic counterterrorism event, this joint unit must spring instantly to action and 427 is quite likely the spring. Thus, within the unit exists the IRTF HEL DET, or helicopter detachment, which is a high-readiness sub-unit of B Flight pilots and their maintainers and logistics teams, all linked in via pager and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

If the pagers go off and if the pilots are needed, they’ll race away to pick up JTF2 or members of the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit (The Dragon Hunters, September/October) or whomever is needed to complete the mission, whether it’s a hostage-taking, a hijacking or a nuclear attack.

As for the international missions, well, that’s still mostly in development. According to Whale, 427 is working on the creation of an expeditionary helicopter detachment modelled on the IRTF HEL DET, but employing the pilots of A Flight instead. “Domestic counter­terrorism is the bread and butter role,” said Whale. “If the Canadian Special Forces Operations Command can’t do anything else, they have to do that. It’s Canada first. We can’t fail. We have to put these guys where they need to be. And nothing we do for the international piece can break that.”

The pilot’s-eye view during a low-altitude, high-speed approach. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

The pilot’s-eye view during a low-altitude, high-speed approach.

While unit members were tight-lipped on the subject of Afghanistan, they did mention there are 427 members in theatre and while some may be gathering operational flying experience in Kandahar, others were acting as air liaison officers because, as Whale said, CANSOFCOM “elements that are deployed need the liaison officers to make sure the command gets the air support it needs.”

No matter what the mission, how­ever, the fliers of 427 Sqdn. face some unique tactical and technical challenges, not the least of which is the idea of ‘the single point of failure.’

Now, the single point of failure is not merely a troublesome concept, but is instead amply illustrated by recent military history.

In 1993, a combined U.S. special operations force assaulted a building in Mogadishu, Somalia, in an attempt to capture the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. As the Blackhawk helicopters and other aircraft from the United States 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment circled over the city in broad daylight, first one helicopter was shot down, then a second. Chaos ensued as the ground force became trapped in an effort to recover the helicopter crews. In the end, 18 of America’s most elite soldiers died and 73 were wounded in events which became immortalized in the book and movie, Blackhawk Down.

Not only was the assault a failure however, but the naked and dead bodies of the U.S. soldiers, abandoned by the retreating forces, were dragged through the streets on international television. In the ensuing outrage, the U.S. announced it was withdrawing from Somalia and soon there were no Western forces left on the ground at all and anarchy has reigned in the country ever since. Blackhawk Down is a case study of what not to do. “Your single point of failure is [the destruction of] your tail rotor,” said a 427 pilot. “And that was the reason why [the U.S.] pulled out of Somalia. It was a strategic failure.”

Then the pilot added a very interesting aside. “And Osama bin Laden cited that specifically as a reason to attack the West.”

And sure enough, it’s true. In a 1998 interview with ABC journalist John Miller, bin Laden said of Somalia: “Our people realize[d] more than before that the American soldier is a paper tiger that run[s] in defeat after a few blows. America forgot all about the hoopla and media propaganda and left dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.”

Not only is it now incredible to imagine that bin Laden once sat down for interviews with American network television, but it’s also incredible that even in this highly circumspect way it is possible to trace the symbolic cause-and-effect of the current war on terror back to a helicopter being shot down over Mogadishu in 1993 which led to a cascade of second-order effects. That is a very serious single point of failure.

Meanwhile, the special operations aviation community has come a long way in the lessons learned process since Somalia. The Canadian pilots, for example, scoff at the idea of a daylight raid over a hostile city, noting that while they do still fly daylight missions, night vision capabilities have now increased significantly.

The formal creation of the modern, integrated special operations aviation community owes its existence, in fact, to another high-level mishap with the single point of failure concept.

In 1980, the U.S. military attempted to rescue 52 Americans taken hostage in Tehran after the American embassy was overrun by Islamic radicals. Unfortunately, the rescue mission imploded in a fireball in the Iranian desert during a refuelling accident that killed eight American servicemen and resulted in some degree of international disgrace. Shortly after this failure, the U.S. military concluded that while several factors contributed to the failure, there was now a clear need for an integrated special operations aviation capability that would focus on these types of missions. And so, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment was born.

Not incidentally, the 160th is the unit you’ll hear most often mentioned around 427’s headquarters whenever a pilot is talking about the current state of special operations aviation. “Our special ops aviation expertise has been built in-house, with air force assistance and oversight, but obviously there were best practices taken from allied special operations forces, and we’re now expanding that,” said Whale before outlining the unit’s similarities and differences with the 160th.

While differences between the two units abound, the most obvious is that the 160th is equipped with a wide range of helicopters with a wide range of armour and weaponry, everything from rocket-pod equipped and highly agile AH6 Little Birds to rough-and-tough Blackhawks with Hellfire missiles and 30-mm chain guns to heavy variants of the Chinook transport helicopter.

Indeed, 427 is in the peculiar position of being tasked with high-risk, no-fail special operations but not yet having the ideal equipment for the job. While no single helicopter is invincible or perfectly capable of flying any mission, the Griffons as they are now fielded are not exactly what you’d expect to find in a unit as important as this. “If you were going to start from zero, you’d build it differently,” said Whale. “You’d want a mix of platforms, I don’t think it’s any secret.” He did add, however, that the Griffon is proving to be ideal for the domestic role and effective in some specific international missions.

Like many units in the CF, 427 and its members are moving gamely onward with what they have. “What was handed over [to CANSOFCOM] wasn’t working and we’re slowly trying to transform that, but you can’t do that overnight,” said Whale. “I would say we’re a few years along in what’s at least a decade-long process.”

Underlying Whale’s comments is the need for what may be called diplomatic courtesy. It is perhaps no surprise that the air force is a bit sensitive about losing operational command of a whole air squadron. “To transfer us, it’s an enormous contribution on the part of the air force,” said Whale, before adding with a smile. “The transfer was ‘a significant emotional event,’ as we’d refer to it.”

“Everybody’s always competing for resources,” said Whale, “and there’s a natural tendency to envy, but it’s down to the nature of the operations. It takes a tremendous amount of professional understanding to not question why an entire unit was given to CANSOFCOM, especially if you don’t understand the strategic impacts of the organization.”

And it seems clear the relationship between the air force, 427 and CANSOFCOM is, well, kind of unusual. Or at least it’s unusual in a budgetary sense, as the air force is responsible for “building” the squadron—allocating helicopters, personnel and cash from their budget—but has no real control over what the unit does or how it is deployed. “We have a bit of an identity crisis between special operations and air force,” said Whale. “We are partway through the process of transitioning.”

Meanwhile, the air force also has a considerable amount of lingering oversight on the unit’s doctrine, manoeuvres and safety, for which it gives final approval. “The air force says what we can do, but [Canadian Special Operations Forces Command Commander] Colonel Mike Day tells us what to do,” said Whale. “We do nothing in this unit that is not approved by the air force, period.”

But what the aviators do is already pretty spectacular. When they approach a target, they routinely fly about 10 feet off the ground at speeds up to 260km/h. If you’ve never tried this, it’s kind of hard to explain just how fast and dangerous it feels to fly slightly below treetop level up a river at what seems like warp speed. There is, to put it mildly, no room for error and the evident skill of the pilots is literally breathtaking. “Our meat-and-potatoes task is a kinetic, dynamic approach to a structure of some kind,” said one of the pilots. “Our mission is no fail, so we cannot afford to have a lack of proficiency on that assault. You must complete the mission at all costs. And that pushes everyone’s proficiency to the next level, you must get it done and you must find a way.”

The pilots, who seem like as much of a fun-loving crew of adrenaline addicts as you could ever want to meet, have invented their own vocabulary to deal with the rigours of their work. “You’re thinking ‘this has got to go right and I don’t want to be the guy who makes it not go right,’” said another pilot. “You have to think, ‘I will not be the LIMFAC (limiting factor) in this.’”

The unit’s favourite technical term, however, is not LIMFAC, but is rather something they use casually to describe a really challenging situation. “Whatever the situation is, you just have to do it,” said a pilot. “It doesn’t matter how spicy the meatball is, you have to eat it.”

The pilots like to recount stories of the spicy meatballs they’ve eaten in the past, kind of like a badge of honour.

One issue that all this hard flying brings up is a spicy meatball of another sort. The intense flying is extremely hard on the helicopters and since the unit doesn’t have very many of them, maintenance becomes a real issue. “We routinely go to the limits of the platform,” said a pilot. “Our issue is that we have to be able to do it all the time, every time.”

The Griffons need a total overhaul every 300-600 hours of flight. And that takes as long as six weeks, which means pilots and crews can have a hard time logging the hours they need to stay proficient. Requests for replacement parts and even the authority to make certain repairs all must be routed through air force headquarters, which sometimes responds more slowly than 427’s leadership might have hoped. “We have to make arguments for our priority,” said Whale, before adding an afterthought that speaks volumes about the state of play within the national defence world. “But we have to be selective about where we launch those pressures.”

Now though, the unit, with the aid of CANSOFCOM’s relatively greater resources, is trying to find new ways around the flying limits imposed by constant maintenance. To do this, a second heavy maintenance line is being introduced, and it will be staffed by contractors, not soldiers. CANSOFCOM is itself mostly paying for this line. “CANSOFCOM is just helping out where it can in order to get the most possible from the unit,” said Whale.

For Whale, keeping the whole unit up and running in a resource-scarce and operationally challenging environment has seemingly been an exercise in advanced plate spinning, but run it does.

Avoiding the single points of failure is no doubt an even harder task.

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