WEB SPECIAL - Attack on America

WAR ON TERROR NEWS ANALYSIS SPECIAL
(using extracts from special features in our April/May and June/July editions)

REPORTS by:

  • Charles Strathdee (USA & CAN)
  • Iain Ballantyne & Peter Hore (UK)
  • Guy Toremans (Belgium)
  • Julien Mathonniere (France)
  • Yoshiharu Fukushima (Japan)
  • Mick Prendergast (Australia)

STEADY PROGRESS ON THE GROUND

Two of 3 Commando Brigade's Royal Marines during an exercise in Oman late last year prior to deploying into Afghanistan. Photo: Jonathan Eastland/AJAX.

Arms and the man: A close-up shot of the Royal Marines' basic infantry weapon in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban - the SA80 assault rifle. Photo: Jonathan Eastland/AJAX.

A Sober assessment of operations in Afghanistan, since the arrival of the Royal Marines’ battle group in late March, has revealed steady, but unspectacular, progress ( which is the norm in such campaigns).

The key area of operations has been the badlands along the Afghan-Pakistan border and in that arena Special Forces from Coalition countries have closed in on Al-Qaeda groups. Luckily they have been able to operate away from the attention of the media.

A member of the US Navy SEALS during operations in Afghanistan. Photo: US Navy.

Aside from backing up efforts by Pakistan’s security forces to close down the terrorist operating bases, members of the Special Boat Service (the Royal Marines’ equivalent of the SAS) were among those said to have engaged terrorists in firefights. UK Special Forces have been working closely with units from the USA’s Delta Force and SEALS as well as the Australian and New Zealand SAS. In eastern Afghanistan, an exchange of fire between the Australian SAS and suspected terrorists in mid-May led to the Royal Marines ordering 45 Commando into action to back them up, along with American Apache helicopter gun ships and A10 ground attack aircraft. There were unconfirmed reports that the aircraft bombarded a wedding party in a village where guests had been celebrating by firing guns into the air. Military spokesmen in both the USA and Australia dismissed this, claiming that only legitimate targets were hit. An Australian Ministry of Defence spokesman explained how the battle began: “The first SAS element was engaged by heavy machine gun fire from multiple positions in hilly terrain. The firefight occurred in the late afternoon and the Australian soldiers exchanged fire over a period of several hours and then disengaged. There were no Australian casualties, and it was believed that one suspected enemy was killed. A few hours later, a second ground force was deployed to the contact area to provide assistance. Separate enemy forces engaged them approximately seven kilometres from the first contact site. The two SAS elements were able to fight their way through and marry up before moving to a safe area. The marry-up was assisted by very effective close air support, which identified enemy fire being directed against the Australian forces and neutralised it. The SAS elements then provided integral ground support to the British follow-on forces. Again there were no Australian casualties, and we were unable to confirm any enemy casualties.”

Royal Marines board an RAF Chinook helicopter as they head out on Operation Ptarmigan in Afghanistan. Photo: Royal Navy.

Brigadier Lane did not hesitate to launch his troops, which were carried forward by Chinook heavy-lift helicopters of the RAF and US Army. In addition to all four companies of 45 Cdo, the 105mm light howitzers of 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery, were also taken forward. A Royal Marines’ road column of armed Land Rovers was ordered to the area as well. Meanwhile at Bagram Air Base, near Kabul, Brigadier Lane gave details of the mission, which was code-named Operation Condor. He explained that, in addition to seeking to close with and kill the enemy, any terrorist infrastructure - such as bunkers filled with arms - would be destroyed. That had been the mission on previous Royal Marines’ operations in Afghanistan - ‘Ptarmigan’ and ‘Snipe’. All three deployments served to send a powerful message, namely that some of the world’s toughest and most effective combat troops were ready to fight. The operations also achieved the destruction of large arms dumps (regardless of who owned them), and other examples of ‘terrorist’ infrastructure, that could be used at a future date to attack Coalition forces. Brigadier Lane stressed: “Our ability to respond rapidly to such attacks should serve as a reminder that the Coalition will not tolerate such activity, and we will hunt the terrorists relentlessly - and that is, wherever they may be. This is vital for the future security and prosperity of this country and all those who live here. Operation Condor, together with other Coalition operations, will enable the legitimate government of Afghanistan, in partnership with the international community, to build a brighter, secure and more prosperous future for all inhabitants of this country.”

And that, surely, has been the point of the Royal Marines’ deployment and that of military units from other Allied nations. Building a safe Afghanistan, within secure borders, will be the definition of victory in the War on Terrorism. Body counts, as Americans learned to their cost in Vietnam, mean nothing on their own. Whether Operation Condor would lead to the Royal Marines engaging in fierce firefights with their enemy was unclear as this magazine went to press. Two companies of 45 Cdo were sweeping up through a pair of valleys while the remaining two acted as a blocking force.

BAHRAIN PULLS ITS WEIGHT

Continuing Arab reluctance to provide military muscle can be gauged by the fact that only one Middle East navy had by March contributed a major warship.

In addition to a frigate participating in air-defence and surveillance missions, Bahrain has also attached a naval liaison officer to US Naval Forces Central Command. The tiny state, just off the coast of Saudi Arabia, has seen no point in masking its support for the USA and the Coalition. In fact Bahrain has just one frigate in its fleet - the ex-US Navy Perry Class warship Sabha. She is the only major surface combatant in any Gulf navy to have an area air-defence capability, via her Standard Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system.

NOTHING WORKS LIKE SUCCESS

The apparent success of the US-led action in Afghanistan emboldened some European nations that were previously less than forthright with supplying active military support.

Even Germany, a country that always experiences political turmoil whenever it contemplates sending troops abroad, has contributed Special Operations troops in Afghanistan and sent three frigates and a fast patrol craft group. The German naval vessels have been operating out of the French enclave of Djibouti since January. Together with naval vessels from other Allied navies, they have been keeping an eye on attempts by Al-Qaeda terrorists to escape across the Arabian Sea to establish new operating bases in the Horn of Africa.

The Italian Navy carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi in company with the French carrier Charles de Gaulle in the Arabian Sea. Photo: US Navy.

The French continue to provide the Charles de Gaulle (R91) Carrier Battle Group. The nuclear-powered carrier’s Super Etendard strike jets have participated in strikes against Taliban and Al-Qaeda concentrations. The Italian Navy carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi (C551) has also committed her AV8B Harriers to Coalition air operations, while Holland has sent a pair of frigates, including the Kortenaer Class Philips Van Almonde (F 823). Last month Greece sent a warship into the North Arabian Sea, while Spain is sending two frigates.

IRAQ’S COLLISION COURSE

The newest frigate in the Royal Navy, HMS Portland (F79), has joined the multi-national Maritime Interdiction Force (MIF) enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq. The Portland, which replaced sister ship HMS Kent (F78), is working alongside American, Australian and Canadian ships, to ensure the Iraqis are prevented from smuggling out oil to fund weapons programmes.

HMCS Vancouver (331) has been credited with the apprehension of a merchant vessel suspected of coordinating oil smuggling operations out of Iraq.

The M/V Zakat was herself carrying smuggled oil and the four-day operation took place in international waters off the coast of Pakistan.

Vancouver’s boarding party took control of the ship while the ship’s CH-124 Sea King helicopter and the frigate kept guard. The Zakat’s crew did not resist the boarding party and the Canadian warship took her in tow. The Zakat was turned over to another Coalition vessel for further investigation.

In mid-February the USN Ticonderoga Class cruiser USS Vella Gulf (CG72) stopped, boarded and seized the Lina, a vessel “of undetermined Registry” which has eluded previous efforts to prove she is involved in Iraqi oil smuggling.

The Vella Gulf stopped her in the Gulf of Oman and a boarding party succeeded where previous efforts to find the evidence had failed. In the past a complex system of reinforced locking measures prevented boarding parties from seizing control before the Lina re-entered territorial waters.

A US Navy spokesman revealed how the Lina then took an unwise course of action: “The boarding teams encountered the usual reinforced and welded entrances, as well as aggressive ship manoeuvring designed to hamper and delay the team’s ability to board the ship. At one point during the operation, the Lina manoeuvred threateningly and appeared intent on ramming Vella Gulf, closing to within 150 yards. Swift manoeuvring by Vella Gulf’s bridge watch team quickly defused the threat of collision.”

The Lina was successfully seized, 21 crew detained and she was towed to a holding area in the Arabian Gulf for full investigation.

CANADA LEADS HUNT FOR FUGITIVES

A Canadian Naval Task Group is spearheading the interdiction of fleeing Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists in the Arabian Sea.

The Canadian presence in Middle East waters has been boosted by the arrival of the frigate HMCS Ottawa (341) which sailed from Canada’s Esquimalt Naval Base in mid-February.

The Canadian frigate HMCS Ottawa leaves to join the Coalition armada in the Middle East. Photo: Canadian Navy.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is still providing key support, with the Adelaide Class frigate HMAS Newcastle (06) and assault ship HMAS Manoora (L52) leaving Sydney in late January to be joined by HMAS Canberra (02) in the Arabian Sea. They relieved Kanimbla (L51), Sydney (03) and Adelaide (01).

In the Arabian Sea a Royal Australian Navy frigate comes up fast astern of the RAN assault ship HMAS Kanimbla. Photo: RAN.

JAPAN'S PRESENCE CONTINUES

The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) has sent the destroyers JDS Haruna (DDH141), JDS Sawakaze (DDG170) and the fleet oiler JDS Tokiwa (AOE423) to relieve the destroyers Kurama (DDH144) and Kirisame (DD104) and oiler Hanama (AOE 424) on station in the Arabian Sea. Also playing its part was the Republic of Korea, which ordered one of its naval vessels to transport in excess of 500 tons of “critical construction material” from Singapore to Diego Garcia. The British island military base, situated deep in the Indian Ocean, has been the hub of many important operations and its military facilities have consequently been expanded.

SUSPECT VESSELS TRACKED

NATO’S two principal standing naval forces have kept up the pressure in the Eastern Mediterranean. They have mounted an operation called ‘Direct Endeavour’ under the command of Commander Naval Forces South (COMNAVSOUTH), Vice Admiral Luigi Lillo, of the Italian Navy. The main mission of Task Force Endeavour’ (TFE), made up of the ships of either Standing Naval Force Atlantic (SNFL) or Standing Naval Force Mediterranean (SNFM), is to conduct surveillance operations of all seaborne and air traffic in three areas: Shipping routes to the Aegean Sea; the approaches to the Suez Canal; an area in international waters off Israel, Syria and Cyprus. If necessary TFE will protect ships with hazardous cargos and control choke points, shipping routes, oil fields and Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCS). The TFE is able to mount a prolonged operation through rotation of SNFL and SNFM, plus the use of facilities made available by member states in the region: Suda Bay (Greece) and Aksaz (Turkey). The TFE ships receive a list, from NATO’s AFSOUTH HQ in Naples, of possible suspected merchant vessels - called ‘Contacts Of Interest’ (COIs) - that are alleged to be carrying suspicious cargos intended for, or providing support to, international terrorism. The list is based on intelligence information received from several sources. The COIs are shadowed, and TFE warships in adjacent zones are informed and take action if required.

UK CONTINUES WITH PIVOTAL ROLE

The British naval contribution to the ‘War on Terrorism’ remains second only to the USA’s in terms of war-fighting capability. A sign of the importance the USA places on UK involvement is the fact that a British officer is second-in-command of the Coalition naval force.

Rear Admiral James Burnell-Nugent initially fulfiled that role, having journeyed to the Middle East last September as Commander UK Maritime Forces (COMUKMARFOR) in charge of the Saif Sareea II task force. The Rear Admiral has now handed over to Major General Robert Fry, a Royal Marine.

Having been replaced on station by Ocean, the carrier HMS Illustrious (R06), which had been out in the Middle East since last autumn, returned home in March. She sailed back into Portsmouth not long after the veteran assault ship HMS Fearless (L10), which is to be retired from service earlier than originally planned.

HMS Ocean on station in the Gulf region to support the forward deployment of Royal Marines in Afghanistan. Photo: Royal Navy.

Her extended deployment to the Middle East has exhausted her. Therefore, the UK Ministry of Defence does not think it worthwhile spending a lot of money returning Fearless to operational capability. The brand new assault ship HMS Albion is entering service at the beginning of next year.

HMS Ocean had by mid-May headed home, having concluded her mission of supporting the initial phase of the Royal Marines' deployment inn Afghanistann.