Combat Aviation Brigade / By COL Michael J. Musiol, MAJ John A. Morris, and MAJ Matthew D. Cox: Complexity is the buzz word that best describes the Afghanistan theater. As we draw down the force structure, while continuing to support our Afghan partners, the historical complexity that is Afghanistan is increasing. Changing enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), geo-political decisions and unique, unpredictable weather, all combine to present each rotation a different set of obstacles.
Three Black Hawks ready to be shipped back to the U.S. sit on the tarmac at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. / U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY ANDREW CRAFT
The 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade’s (CAB) most recent deployment was no exception. This rotation forced the CAB to operate at an extremely high level of efficiency, based on the drastic reduction in manpower and the high flying hour demand throughout the theater. The reduction in force manning levels (FML) required the CAB to organize and distribute the extremely limited resource of manpower in a unique manner in order to meet the rotary wing mission requirements, balancing efficiency, while still remaining highly effective.
Balancing Resources and Mission Load
Historically, theater planners allocated approximately 10% of the theater’s overall force structure to rotary wing aviation. This set the initial planning number for the theater aviation brigade as planners attempted to make the hard recommendation on where to assume risk. Based on our initial assessment, the task given to the CAB was to reduce the brigade’s deployed end strength by 66%, while only reducing the overall mission load by less than 30%. We quickly realized that daily crew and aircraft requirements did not reduce as substantially as initially assumed and would stretch the CAB’s ability to sustain operations long term.
Initial discussions with the theater level headquarters focused on how to get the CAB’s FML down to a given number with very little clarity in the capability required from rotary wing aviation. The challenge of producing a requirement that was personnel centric and not mission centric concerned multiple commands and, as expected, several planning cells began working this issue. Unfortunately, there was very little cross talk between planners and on several iterations of the plan, the CAB was over tasked. While still at Ft. Bragg, NC, the CAB lacked clarity on mission requirements, and we were unable to make solid manning decisions early in the deployment cycle.
A CH-47 Chinook is slowly pulled into the cargo hold of a C-17 Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan for shipment back to the U.S.
The Catalyst for Success
The one decision that stands out as the catalyst that facilitated success for the entire rotation was the decision to match the FML of the outgoing CAB instead of only deploying the Resolute Support (ORS) FML personnel. The initial guidance received from ISAF Joint Command (IJC) planners was to only deploy the 600 Troopers allocated under the RS FML. This was approximately a 60% reduction in the available organic manpower authorized for the previous CAB. After spending time working through the numbers of aircrews required versus support staff and enablers, it quickly became evident we did not have the information required to make these hard cuts. After discussions with senior leaders both in theater and at home station, we deployed as many personnel as possible, deploying over 1,700 Troopers from Ft. Bragg. This decision allowed the flexibility to bring OH-58D pilots, additional operational and support personnel, and two additional battalion task force headquarters (the cavalry squadron to retrograde the aviation foot print from Forward Operating Base Shank, and the aviation support battalion (ASB) to retrograde excess Class IX air from theater).
The decision to bring a larger than anticipated personnel package created additional friction points. Reducing personnel numbers to the mandated manning level was a theater priority, with the outflow managed by United States Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A). The initial guidance was for the CAB to slowly reduce numbers beginning within days of assuming the mission. Although an effective way to waterfall the theater, this quick manpower reduction would have drastically reduced the CAB’s ability to support the theater during the rapid transition to the Resolute Support mission. After multiple discussions with senior leaders, the CAB gained approval to redeploy non-Resolute Support personnel as late as possible. This allowed the CAB to maintain Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) level flight hours for an additional 2 months, increasing the available support to VIP movements, train, advise, assist (TAA) missions, and area security missions. It also allowed the conditions to be set in order to rapidly retrograde over $380 million worth of excess Class IX air parts, as well as closing a major Aviation TF footprint, while simultaneously building up facilities to support an adjusted Resolute Support aircraft positioning plan.
Mitigating Increasing Risk
As the number of Coalition forces began to reduce, the risk to aircraft and aircrews began to increase. The reduction in the number of enablers that commanders in Afghanistan typically used to mitigate tactical risk forced commanders at all levels to rethink their go / no go criteria. Helicopter landing zones (HLZs) that had once been low-risk would become high-risk based on the lack of security on the ground. At some levels, the pervasive thought was that with the cessation of combat operations the overall risk was reduced. The reality was that the reduced coalition presence created HLZ security concerns at some high-use landing areas. In order to conduct the TAA mission, daylight infiltrations to non-standard HLZs became the norm.
Reduction in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) assets limited pre-infiltration reconnaissance and increased the size of the insertion helicopter force required. The number of assets necessary to provide security and contingency response to some remote locations reduced the number of simultaneous operations the CAB was capable of conducting. Direct phone calls from the company level of supported organizations to the CAB planners were the first symptom of an issue. The rapid change from a divisional theater structure with regional commands to the Resolute Support Headquarters becoming a direct reporting headquarters caused added friction with the aviation mission request (AMR) structure. The RS aircraft allocations were designed to support a much smaller operational requirement. Theater level assets (CH-47s and additional AH-64s) were regularly required to execute missions and the request, approval and prioritization process needed refinement. After input from the TAA commands and other NATO forces, the RS headquarters G3 clearly defined the request structure and made decisions on asset allocations with recommendations from the CAB Commander.
Looking for Efficiencies
Because of the reduced manning levels, we constantly looked for efficiencies across all commodity areas. The first location was aviation maintenance. One of the major assumptions made during initial manning meetings with IJC was that contractors would conduct all aviation maintenance. Our initial plan called for a small maintenance cell capable of conducting limited maintenance as a surge capability, but this soon became untenable with the requirement for air crews. After verification of the contract and dialog on expectations underway, we looked at ways to expand the scope of the contract. The intent was to free up manpower by contracting as many routine, non-combat tasks as possible. This search was a team effort. The Support Operations Officer (SPO) and the ASB negotiated to expand the refuel contracts to include contractor armament personnel, which allowed our 15Ys to work on unscheduled aircraft faults. The Intel community resourced contract intelligence analysis and allowed the CAB to redeploy most of our green suit analysts. With assistance from the 82nd Airborne Division G2, we outsourced non-time sensitive intelligence work to the rear detachment at Ft. Bragg. All facets of the brigade sought smarter, more efficient ways to conduct business.
The Afghanistan theater transition is now complete and an overwhelming success. Hard work and mission focused leaders worked tirelessly to structure the theater to accomplish the mission within the given constraints and generated a unique solution to this complex problem. Developing a rotary wing aviation support package is complicated and the mission change in Afghanistan added one more layer of complexity. Reduced manning, coupled with robust aviation manpower requirements will force each deploying CAB to individually structure its team to be flexible and efficient.
COL Michael J. Musiol was the commander, MAJ John A. Morris was the operations officer, and MAJ Matthew D. Cox was the executive officer for the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC.