For years, there has been one constant challenge for United States and coalition military operations in Afghanistan: insufficient rotary wing aircraft. Rotary assets ferry supplies, carry soldiers, and provide air support all over the country. Put bluntly, helicopters are the coin-of-the-realm: the more you have, the more you can do. And we do not have enough.

There has been numerous attempts to rectify the dearth of rotary assets, including some rather shady ones. However, helicopters still remain one of the most needed military resources in Afghanistan.

In response to the deadly flooding in Pakistan, the Pakistani military reassigned some helicopters from combat operations to disaster relief. For its part, the US military provided six helicopters to the relief efforts, however it kept the bulk of its rotary wing assets in Afghanistan:

“It’s a question of risk mitigation,” the official said. “Helicopter lift is critical to the mission” in Afghanistan, where road transport is difficult and dangerous, he said. “It’s not like we have a great surplus of helicopters in theater that are not engaging.”

This answer has satisfied neither the Pakistanis or some pundits:

It would also be absurd to say that we can’t afford to divert resources from the war to emergency flood relief, when much of the story told on behalf of the war is 1) all about “winning hearts and minds” and 2) all about Pakistan; and when the press is reporting that Islamist militants in Pakistan are cleaning our clocks in the battle for flood relief.

However, it looks like the Marines are coming to the rescue. Today it was announced that USS Peleliu is waiting in international waters off the coast of Karachi with 19 Marine helicopters available for disaster relief missions. These aircraft will allow the six US helicopters mentioned above to return to combat operations.

This week’s row over the allocation of helicopters highlights a greater and largely undiscussed issue. In a world of finite resources, when the needs of hard power and soft power conflict over an asset, which takes priority?

The answer is not as straightforward as you think. Department Of Defense Instruction 6000.16 states:

“It is DoD policy that: a. MSOs [editor: Medical Stability Operations] are a core U.S. military mission that the DoD Military Health System (MHS) shall be prepared to conduct throughout all phases of conflict and across the range of military operations, including in combat and non-combat environments. MSOs shall be given priority comparable to combat operations and be explicitly addressed and integrated across all MHS activities including doctrine, organization, training, education, exercises, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and planning in accordance with Reference (b).” [Emphasis: Mine] (Department Of Defense 6000.16, 1)

Thus, under 6000.16, in at least one part of the US military, soft power should be given the same access to resources as hard power operations. The reality is that the allocation of resources must be a compromise between soft and hard power roles, balancing the benefits of having a resource in one role with the costs of lacking a resource in another. That is the very essence of strategy.

Editor’s note: I published the wrong version of this post for a few minutes. All fixed now. Apologies from my end.

Posted by Christopher Albon in Navy

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  • At the height of fighting season in AFG – every available US, AFG, ISAF, and Jingle Air RW asset in needed in theater. Full stop.

    We have scoured the earth for the last two years looking for enough matting and Rhino Snot to get as much RW in place as possible. The SeaBee and Red Horse full employment act is still at full tilt.

    The wholesale failure of NATO to meet the modest RW requirements in ’07 was the tipping point in signaling NATO’s culmination and lack of resolve in AFG that led to USA taking back the keys starting in late ’08. We do not have the spare capacity – in August of all months – to divert RW from AFG.

    It reads though that CENTCOM is doing the right thing. To show the flag – a few token ones perhaps – like 6 – should be fine. Let PELELIU do what it can.

    As for what they can buy you – remember the earthquake relief?
    A NATO air bridge has flown more than 2899 tons of tents, blankets, stoves and food to Pakistan in more than 153 flights from Europe. These flights have carried in more than 14,400 tents, 182,000 blankets, nearly 3000 stoves, more than 17,000 beds/mattresses, tons of medical supplies, and more.

    NATO’s field hospital and mobile medical units located in the area of Bagh have treated more than 3000 patients and continue to send mobile medical teams into the mountains.

    NATO’s engineers are working on roads between Arja and Bagh and schools and medical facilities in the area. NATO’s engineers are also supporting the Pakistani army in Operation Winter Race. The aim of this operation is to set up all shelters above 5,000 feet by 30 November, all shelters between 4,000 and 5,000 feet by 15 December and all shelters below 4,000 feet by 31 December. NATO teams are working closely with the Pakistani army to carry out this work.

    NATO’s helicopters are flying daily up to 67 tons of relief goods to remote mountain villages and evacuating victims before the winter sets in. They have so far evacuated more than 1,200 disaster victims from mountainous areas.

    NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Relief Co-ordination Centre (EADRCC) has co-ordinated the delivery of donations from over 40 countries—NATO members as well as partner countries.

    How did that work for us?

    Priorities. Send more where you can from elsewhere – but don’t starve your own forces at the height of the battle.

  • Another factor is the lack of cargo capacity of the H-60 compared to the H-53 and the old H-3 helicopters.

    Less capacity means more sorties to carry the same cargo.

    According to Navy News, the Marines are flying CH-53Es. Payload: internal: 30,000 lb or 13,600 kg (external: 32,000 lb or 14,500 kg)

    CH-60s: Capacity: 5 passengers in cabin or slung load of 6,000 lb or internal load of 4,100 lb for B, F and H models and 11 passengers or slung load of 9,000 lb for S

  • Old Salt

    I’d suspect a Dodinst 6000 series instruction would take second seat to a Warplan when the going got tough – and when it does, we usually amend things to meet the tasks at hand, anyway. Yes, I know it was popular to equate medical stability ops with combat operations back a few years ago, but the plain simple fact is that reality always bites us, and bites us hard. Lets not lose sight of reality.

  • BJ Armstrong

    A couple things to consider from the RW perspective. 1) Eagle1 is right about the cargo limits, but the Pel’s Marines are bringing 53’s and 46’s. While the weight lift capacity of a 46 is only a little bit better than a 60S, you can fit up to 24 in the cabin which is double. The Marines have the right airframes for this…we are rapdily approaching the point that the Navy won’t as the Navy’s 53’s approach the end of their service life (est. 2016ish). 2)CDR Sal brings up an important point about the need for RW in AFG. If I remember right, the Soviet 40th Army invaded with somewhere around 400 aircraft, but never significantly increased that number during all their time in country. Demand grew but they just assigned their pilots 6 to 8 flights a day and burned the candle at both ends in terms of flight crews and maintenance. In 2002 the University of Kansas Press published Grau and Gress’s translation of the Soviet General Staff’s after action report on Afghanistan, interesting stuff on RW.

    As to soft power, we need to remember there are two “targets” for soft power: governments and populations. Frequently we like to indfluence governments with our use of Soft Power (see the dramatic increase in relationship with Indonesia following Tsunami relief), but maybe we need to consider populations as well.