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Wed, Oct 19, 2005

Medieval Weapon Destroys Jet Age Jets

Brits Lose One Harrier Destroyed, One Damaged

By Aero-News Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien

Friday morning at 0400 local, the medieval Taliban, using that most medieval weapon -- an unguided rocket -- destroyed one Harrier GR.7A jet and damaged another as they sat on the ground at Kandahar Air Field. No personnel were hurt.

Until now, aircraft losses in the GWOT have been mostly restricted to drones, helicopters and special ops aircraft. The fixed wing aircraft lost have been predominantly lost to CFIT, mechanical failure, or other accidents. Although the RAF lost a Tornado to US friendly fire in Iraq in 2003, and a special-ops Hercules to the enemy there, no fixed-wing aircraft has previously been destroyed by enemy action in Afghanistan. 

Even helicopter crews have found the Afghan terrain and climate to be deadlier enemies than the actual enemy.

The RAF detachment commander said, "This was an indiscriminate attack and we are fortunate that none of our people has been hurt. This will have no impact on our operational capability." The UK MOD statement did not identify this individual, but British sources have previously said that the commander is Wing Commander "Arnie" Palmer, normally the Officer Commanding the Operations Wing at RAF Cottesmore.

The original British MOD statement did not mention the destruction of the airplane, and opposition politicians in Britain have been critical of that; but the operational impact of the attack does seem slight (the destroyed plane has already been replaced).

Guerillas, insurgents and terrorists have found the unguided rocket a cruel, indiscriminate and very occasionally lucky weapon. It is typically the kind fired from "Katyusha" type multiple rocket launchers, or from helicopter-mounted pods. These rockets were scattered in great profusion in caches all over Afghanistan, often under the control of local militia commanders or sub-warlords, and while Coalition forces have captured and destroyed tens of thousands of them, numbers remain, and hostile forces regularly try to smuggle more in.

Taking the rocket from its multiple launcher or firing container, they prop it up with rocks or sticks, aimed in the general direction of the target (preferably something really big, as accuracy is wanting in this system). The enemy bands usually set up several rockets at once. They use a slow-burning time fuze to set the rockets off so that they can be long gone when the launch draws Allied attention. The fuze burns to the end, and the rocket wobbles into the air, flying more or less ballistically to land... somewhere in the general direction it was aimed.

This technique was used by the Viet Cong and was presented in a guerilla-warfare text attributed to the unsuccessful Communist guerilla Che Guevara. Afghans used it against the Russians (photo) and in the last couple of years, the Taliban and Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin fighters have actually tried paying Afghan children to set these random rocket attacks up.

Even if an agent has to be paid to do the dirty work and most of the rockets are never fired, and most of the ones that are fired never hit anything but dirt, the economics of the exchange are attratictive for the low-tech side. The going price for a leftover 1980s rocket is about 150 Afghanis, or $3 (new ones smuggled from China are worth more). The Harriers cost 20 million pounds apiece, or

As noted above, occasionally they get lucky.  Friday morning's attack was one of those occasions. No one was hurt by the attack, except for those Britons who pay taxes.

The British RAF contingent from No 3 (Fighter) Squadron is keeping a stiff upper lip. One jet is repairable, and repairs have already begun; for the other, a replacement has already self-deployed from No. 3's home station, RAF Cottesmore.

In Afghanistan, the six-plane detachment from No. 3 Squadron mostly flies armed reconnaissance missions and reacts to Coalition special operations forces in contact. The Harriers can cover the large distances faster than helicopters, and talk directly to tactical air control party personnel or combat controllers on the ground, which ensures accurate placement of munitions.

No. 3 Squadron is quite venerable, having received its first heavier-than-air flying machines as "No. 3 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps," when the Flying Corps was formed in 1912. It was the first British squadron to get airplanes, hence its motto, "Tertius primus erit," which is Latin for "Third shall be First." Over the years it has operated many of the most significant RAF fighters. Next year, it will be the first again -- first squadron to reform as a Eurofighter Typhoon Squadron. It will be operational with the new jet in 2007.

FMI: www.raf.mod.uk

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