How the Afghanistan invasion changed combat airlift
Shortly after 9 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2001, machine-gun fire erupted on the perimeter of Camp Rhino, Afghanistan. Capt. Mike Flatten, an Air Force officer from the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, lay in his one-man tent, too exhausted to move. The senior airfield authority, Flatten had been awake for nearly 24 hours, orchestrating hundreds of sorties through the landing zone (LZ), enabling Naval Task Force 58 (TF 58) to amass combat power to assault Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual center.
Spanning 350 miles from ship to objective, TF 58 was conducting the deepest amphibious assault in Marine Corps history. Its sustainment depended entirely on airlift; every piece of equipment and every drop of water had to be flown in. In the previous 10 days, Air Force C-17s and C-130s had moved more than 500 Marines and more than 1,500 tons of cargo across Rhino’s unimproved runway. Now the austere airfield was under attack.
In his bivy sack, Flatten listened to the firefight grow more intense. When he heard Marines open fire with 81mm mortars, he thought, “I should probably get up.”
As he emerged from his tent, dust enveloped a departing Marine UH-1N helicopter and the crew became disoriented. The helicopter crashed and burst into flames; tracers and flares arced from the wreckage. Flatten watched in awe as a lone firefighter took on the blaze with a single Halon bottle. Others soon arrived to help and try to extricate the aircrew.
Someone spotted fuel flowing toward the munitions arming and fueling area, so Flatten and some nearby Marines pushed the blivets toward the now-closed runway.
“The next time we do this, we should put on body armor and helmets,” Flatten grunted.
His senior noncommissioned officer responded, “If we don’t push harder, there won’t be a next time!”
But for the Air Force’s mobility assets, there is always a next time. Rhino reopened for cargo ops the following day, and the air bridge ultimately enabled TF 58 to capture the Taliban stronghold at Kandahar International Airport, which became the main coalition base in southern Afghanistan.
Rhino LZ tested the Marines’ capabilities, but also served as proving grounds for the Air Force’s mobility aircraft and airmen who picked up where the ship-to-shore phase of the Marines’ amphibious assault left off.
Rhino was an unimproved runway in a combat environment, not the typical LZ the Mobility Air Forces (MAF) routinely trained for. Initially, various threats meant missions into Rhino LZ were conducted only at night. That led to the adoption of standardized night-vision goggle (NVG) landings for the C-17 and C-130 fleets and marked a shift toward the full tactical employment of those aircraft.
TF 58 also relied upon the Air Force’s joint interoperability and showed the need for integrated planning and partnerships.
A review of initial operations at Rhino reveal lessons that remain relevant.
In the fall of 2001, air superiority permitted aircraft to arrive on the heels of ground forces and Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) aircrews at forward operating bases (FOBs) throughout Afghanistan. Rhino LZ was one.
Around Nov. 10, TF 58 commander Marine Brig. Gen. James N. Mattis, placed a call to Air Force Brig. Gen. Vern M. “Rusty” Findley, 437th Airlift Wing commander at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C.
Mattis had been ordered by Vice Adm. Charles W. Moore, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, to lead TF 58 to Afghanistan and conduct three to five raids in 30 days to “create chaos, denying the enemy their sense of security.” As the concept of operations for TF 58 matured, “three to five raids” developed into a mission to seize an FOB.
The primary objective was a hunting camp with a 6,400-foot dirt airstrip designated as J-211 — Rhino LZ. The LZ, previously an objective of special operations forces (SOF), now served as the epicenter for America’s first conventional presence in Afghanistan. Mattis needed airlift, which set the stage for the Air Force’s entry into the uncharted territory of amphibious assault.
The four Marine KC-130s initially assigned to TF 58 were likely sufficient to support heliborne raids in and out of southern Afghanistan. But Mattis wanted to better enable Army Maj. Gen. Dell L. Dailey’s SOF operations, dubbed TF Sword. That changed the operational scheme from raid-and-run to attack-and-hold, increasing the requirement for airlift support.
“At that point,” Mattis recounted, “I recalled an advertisement in a military journal or defense industry magazine that showed a drawing of a C-17 on a dirt strip with a tank driving out the back of it. I had asked [my staff] to find out how to get C-17s to land on a dirt strip if we seized Rhino. We began making calls stateside, and I ended up getting a phone call … from an Air Force brigadier [Findley]. He’d heard we were inquiring and wanted to clarify what I wanted. He ended by reassuring me that, yes, he had crews trained to land C-17s at night on dry lake beds and could make it happen.”
Satisfied that he would have the necessary airlift, Mattis and his staff continued planning a 350-nautical-mile inland strike. At this point, however, various staffs and planning cells struggled to align the myriad moving pieces required for a large-scale operation.
Three days from D-Day, no word of TF 58’s plans and Mattis’ airlift requirement had come to Brig. Gen. Richard A. Mentemeyer, who directed mobility forces at the combined air operations center (CAOC) in Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia.
“I first got wind of the operation,” Mentemeyer recalled, “on the 20th of November from [Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley], the Combined Forces Air Component commander at the time. I went down to the two MARLOs [Marine liaison officers] and asked about TF 58, and they just stared at me.”
By the end of the day, Lt. Col. Eric “Ripper” Fippinger, one of the MARLOs, forwarded the TF 58 concept of operations briefing with a brief note: “This is the CONOPS presented by Naval Forces Central Command [to Gen. Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander] for TF-58. D-Day is 23 November until further notice. Please forward as required if I left someone out.”
Mentemeyer’s recollections reveal that many of the key stakeholders in the CAOC had been unintentionally left out.
The briefing provided by Fippinger began to reveal just how much heavy airlift would be needed to support TF 58’s plan to seize Rhino, conduct raids on the lines of communications to Kandahar, and, ultimately, seize Kandahar Airfield. One of the briefing’s early assumptions was that “intratheater airlift (C-17/C-130) [would be] available and able to land at FOB Rhino.” The briefing indicated that eight C-17s would supply most of TF 58’s lightly armored vehicles, Humvees, personnel and resupply pallets, beginning on Nov. 26. In point of fact, the entire Air Force, had just seven C-17 crews who could conduct NVG operations to dirt LZs. At the moment, they were at Charleston, assigned to the special operations division of Findley’s 437th Operations Group.
In essence, only 72 hours before the mission began, senior leaders in the nerve center for all air operations in the theater had just learned they were to support the deepest combat insertion in Marine Corps history while the necessary airlift assets were on the other side of the world.
On Nov. 25 — two days behind schedule — TF 58 launched its initial assault. Marine helicopters and KC-130s supported by Air Force special operations personnel inserted lightly armed forces into Rhino. Flatten arrived and within minutes established the necessary lighting on the airfield to receive the first fixed-wing aircraft. The first Marine KC-130 arrived less than an hour later with more personnel, fuel and water. Over the first five nights, KC-130s would fly more than 200 sorties.
Air Force mobility aircraft arrived on the second night, when two C-130s touched down on the dirt runway. Immediately, one of the aircraft commanders, Lt. Col. Mark Hunter, realized the airfield had exceeded its maximum capacity. Moreover, Flatten informed Hunter’s crew, the airfield’s only forklift was broken, necessitating a combat offload, a maneuver that uses the aircraft’s forward motion to drop pallets off its loading ramp. Hunter requested permission to offload the cargo at the end of the runway, but Flatten did not want to risk shutting down the LZ and denied the crew’s request. Hunter inspected the ramp and realized that he could safely conduct a combat offload if he downloaded safety observers and used the width of the runway to achieve the necessary taxi distance. Flatten concurred, and Hunter briefed his crew on his intentions. His airmen were resolute; this was their chance to support the fight against al-Qaida — an attitude that would pervade many of the crews flying into Afghanistan throughout the winter months.
Hunter later recalled, “We knew what we were about to do was risky … [but] we did not want to fly back to Seeb [Oman] with our cargo on board.”
The maneuver worked precisely as envisioned, and the crew offloaded its cargo and departed Rhino without incident.
Two days later, Charleston’s NVG-qualified C-17 crews arrived in theater, allowing TF 58 to begin its push toward Rhino LZ in earnest. In the twilight hours of Nov. 28, the first two C-17s supporting TF 58 departed Thumrait, Oman.
“We were comfortable with the mission,” said Capt. Gregg Johnson, co-pilot on the first Globemaster into Rhino, “but we weren’t familiar with the environment.”
The profile was challenging, to say the least, and included NVG landings on a semiprepared dirt surface that quickly turned into the consistency of chalk dust once heavy aircraft started landing on it. According to the plan, three Charleston C-17s would rotate among a forward operating location, Rhino, and their airborne air refueling support at different times, preventing airfield congestion at Rhino and allowing each aircraft to deliver two loads of cargo per night. If flown as planned, the entire mission would take 16 hours.
Tensions rose as the airlifters approached Rhino, but in the end, Johnson said, “Everyone just did what they were trained to do.”
For the next seven nights, Charleston C-17s repeated the procedure until TF 58’s deployment requirements were met. In total, the C-17 detachment moved 451 passengers and more than 450 tons of cargo.
“The C-17s unleashed a lot of combat power to us,” Mattis said. “They were magnificent.”
Looking back on the effort, Capt. Joseph Szucs, the jump seat pilot on Johnson’s aircraft, mused, “Our entire team, weather, intelligence, maintenance, cell planning, leadership, crews were operating at the highest levels of performance.”
The C-17’s tactical repertoire, including dirt landing and rapid combat offloads, was developed long before operations at Rhino LZ began. In the summer and fall of 2001, Charleston C-17 crews participated in a series of exercises, culminating in September’s “Large Package Week,” a quarterly Joint Forcible Entry Exercise conducted by the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. During this exercise, eight Charleston crews conducted their first landings on a semi-prepared dirt surface carrying outsized cargo. One month later, Capt. Rick Williamson successfully merged the C-17’s growing NVG and dirt landing capabilities by conducting the first NVG assault landings at Mud Lake in the Tonopah Test Range.
As Findley put it, these were capabilities “that somewhat serendipitously preceded 9/11.”
But others had to be developed on the fly. By early December, the airfield environment had changed. For one thing, it was a constant struggle to keep the LZ illuminated.
“Marines would ‘borrow’ the runway lights and move them into their fighting positions, and the ones that remained were frequently run over by vehicles or aircraft or obscured by dust,” Flatten said.
Another danger was the brownouts that endangered helicopter crews. Navy Seabees imported a spray-on soil stabilizer that came to be known as “Rhino snot.”
But a larger problem was the dirt runway, whose surface was being ground into powder by the constant pounding of heavy-lift tires. This demanded innovation, and the Seabees responded. Dredging up a claylike soil, they wetted it with nonpotable water flown in for the purpose, then compacted and graded it to create a temporarily hard surface. This inventive method kept the runway operational for nearly two months.
Yet visibility at Rhino continued to pose challenges. Unlike the Charleston C-17 NVG-qualified crews, C-130 crews were not trained for NVG landings on semiprepared surfaces. Nevertheless, C-130s were sent to the desert airstrip, where they made their night landings unaided by NVGs, using the naked eye and whatever light Flatten managed to keep focused on the runway. One of the first Air Force C-130 pilots to arrive at Rhino, Capt. Ken Gjone, tried out a tactic that was eventually enshrined in training and doctrine.
On the night of Dec. 2, Gjone’s aircraft was still some distance from the runway when he and his crew, following standard procedure, removed their NVGs to allow their eyes to adjust. In the black Afghan night, they lost sight of the field, and Gjone decided to re-don his NVGs. Stealing glances at the runway with the naked eye, the pilot finally decided it was safer to land with goggles on.
On short final, “there was nothing to see without NVGs.”
Nearly 10 years later, he reaffirmed his decision: “We weren’t trying to be cowboys. We were just trying to land the safest way possible.”
C-130 crews frequently shared notes on their experiences into Rhino and other FOBs in Afghanistan, and by mid-December, many of the Hercules crews were using NVGs to land on high-risk fields equipped with substandard, covert or no lighting at all.
When word reached Air Mobility Command (AMC), standardization and evaluations representatives put a stop to assisted landings. But the realities of operating C-130s into FOBs in Afghanistan, coupled with aircrews’ staunch advocacy for training to meet those realities, forced AMC to reconsider, then stand up a formal training program. C-130 NVG landing operations resumed in theater in March 2002, when the first AMC-approved NVG crews arrived from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. That was two months after Air Force Rhino missions wrapped up.
Within 18 months of the initial operations at Camp Rhino, air mobility assets performed several missions that many observers, even within the MAF, argued would never be accomplished by conventional forces in combat: NVG landings to austere airfields, high-altitude airdrops, airborne brigade airdrop, and continuous operations in a medium-threat environment at night. In hindsight, all of these mission sets aligned with elements of the ground component’s scheme of maneuver.
Looking back, this operation reveals lessons for today’s security environment. Responsiveness, flexibility and adaptability are key to success in joint planning and operations. So is the ability to rapidly transfer selected SOF capabilities to conventional forces.
As early adopters of new technology, SOF are often charged with developing cutting-edge tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) for use in combat and humanitarian crises. Once developed to an acceptable level of risk, certain TTPs are picked up by conventional forces.
The disparate experiences of the C-17 and C-130 crews at Rhino show the importance of exploring certain SOF capabilities and rapidly implementing them across the conventional forces before they are required in a combat or humanitarian crisis.
A year before 9/11, MAF held a group commanders conference to discuss various tactics. Many commanders argued the MAF should implement training for conventional aircrews to use NVGs for landing. Indeed, during the fall and summer 2001, the C-17 community accelerated its nascent NVG capabilities.
But the C-130 community reacted differently. At the time, the schoolhouse pilot production rate was behind schedule, and the transition to NVG operations would have forced the school to suspend student flying for several weeks while the instructors underwent training for NVG landings. That would have exacerbated the scheduling problem, and given that many AFSOC C-130 crews had already trained to accomplish this mission, the idea of closing the C-130 schoolhouse for several weeks to develop this capability seemed impractical.
But when wartime operations at Rhino demanded new skill sets, it became clear that the NVG capability had not been transferred quickly enough to the C-130 community. So C-130 aircrews leaned forward, assumed an acceptable level of risk, and completed the mission despite their lack of formal training. By doing so, they helped urge leadership to formalize the capability.
Rhino LZ also revealed the importance of joint collaboration and managing uncertainty by quickly adapting doctrine and plans based on emerging mission requirements.
Operations at the desert airstrip were a collaborative effort, but not always a happy marriage. More than one Marine questioned Flatten’s role as the senior airfield authority. When Mattis became aware of the controversy, he asked the offending Marines, “How many desert airfields have you run?”
Mattis’ support for Flatten and his team solidified their hold on airfield operations and ensured that the right people with the right skills were in place to accomplish the mission, regardless of service. Mattis was keenly aware of the seams in TF 58’s capabilities and understood his reliance on Air Force assets.
But the Marine Corps’ proverbial outstretched hand was only half of the equation. In order to seize the initiative against the enemy, it was critical that the MAF respond quickly to the Marines’ emerging airlift requirements. As the plan came together, however, the CAOC’s director of mobility forces was largely unaware of TF 58’s request for airlift support until late in the planning process. This may be attributed to an oversight or the challenges of moving to a dynamic combat environment in Afghanistan.
A large portion of the success at Rhino LZ is ultimately attributable to the Marines and airmen on the ground who adapted and overcame the shortfalls that resulted from the rapid planning.
“The warriors that sacrificed and went into harm’s way got a little credit here and there, but they didn’t ask for credit. They just went in and did their job. It was the captains and sergeants that actually made things happen at Rhino, and the same is still true today,” Findley said.
During Rhino operations, mobility assets were operating for extended periods in austere locations in a combat environment at night for the first time in decades. In several instances, the regulations and procedures lagged behind the operational requirements of the combat environment. Within months, however, the MAF institutionalized and fielded capabilities that made operating in environments similar to Rhino commonplace today.
In many ways, the timing of Rhino LZ unexpectedly aligned with the development of emerging tactical capabilities in the C-17, and the success of the operation was attributable in part to tactical leaders leaning forward to make the mission happen. As we look to the future, will we rely on luck or will we heed the lessons from Rhino LZ? AFJ