By Tom Squitieri
WASHINGTON — No one at the Pentagon wants to harken back to Vietnam regarding anything to do with Afghanistan but actions speak louder than silence at the Kabul airport.
To avoid being downed by hostile fire at the airport — Gen. Stephen Lyons, head of U.S. Transportation Command said “The threat is significant” — pilots are using last-minute nose dive landings to make targeting difficult.
The tactic is known as “Khe Sanh-ing,” named after the 1968 siege of U.S. Marines in Khe Sanh during the Vietnam war. Because the Marines were surrounded, the nose-dive landings and nose-up take offs were developed to reduce the chances of a plane being downed.
The maneuver was later used extensively to resupply residents of Sarajevo during the four-year Bosnian conflict.
Lyons told Pentagon reporters that US is watching “all threats closely” He said “defense measures and tactics” are being used “going in and out.”
A French A400 M cargo plane leaving Kabul airport used decoy flares as it lifted off. Likewise, US Apache helicopter gunships have been dropping the flares, used to counter infrared homing or so-dubbed “heat-seeking” missiles.
Hundreds of decades-old heat-seeking missiles remain unaccounted for in Afghanistan, including those supplied by the U.S. to Afghan militias battling the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Adding to the danger is there is no buffer perimeter at the Kabul airport between the airport and hostile territory, bringing in the potential threat almost to the runways.
Lyons said that more than 200 aircraft are committed to the Kabul airlift, with roughly 450 passengers per C-17, and said he was “very, very confident” the U.S. military would sustain and improve that effort.
To manage the intense schedule, Lyons said the military is using twice as many aircrews, keeping the turnaround time to under a hour and making sure no plane leaves Kabul empty or barely occupied.
“The idea is to keep those planes moving all the time, either by extending the crew day or preferably by swapping crews,” he said.
A 2005 RAND study conducted after the 9-11 attacks noted, in part, that “airport perimeter security is insufficient as a stand-alone defense against MANPADS but could serve as one of a number of layers in an overall suite of protection measures. In this context, it has the potential to blend in nicely with countermeasure-based solutions. Airport perimeter security also offers protection against other threats (e.g., the possibility of attacks on the airport itself).”
There have been at least ive incidents where large jet-powered airliners were believed to have been attacked by MANPADS, including an attack on the Israeli jet in Kenya. Of these, two of the five resulted in catastrophic losses. In November 2003, a DHL Airlines Airbus 300 was damaged by a MANPADS while flying near Baghdad International Airport, but managed to return safely without loss. No attempts have been recorded against a U.S. commercial airliner, according to the RAND study.
Typical arrival procedures rely on gradual descents a that place airplanes within range of shoulder-fired SAMs as far away as 50 miles from the airport. Similarly, departing aircraft with heavy fuel loads operating at high engine power, often along predefined departure routes, may be particularly vulnerable and can be targeted up to 30 miles away from the airport before they climb above the effective range of shoulder-fired SAMs.
Military aircraft often use spiral descents from altitude above the airfield when operating in hostile areas. Doing so can limit approach and descent patterns to a smaller perimeter around the airfield where security patrols can more effectively deter terrorist attacks, something not possible in Kabul. This technique would not mitigate the risk to departing aircraft, which are generally considered to be the most vulnerable to missile attacks.
Another technique used by military aircraft, particularly fighter jets, to reduce vulnerability on departure is to make steep, rapid climb outs above the effective range of surface to air missiles over a short distance.
A study by the South Korean military, also in 2005, put the threat distance at about 80 km, with take off being 32 km and landing 48 km., at a height of 3 to 4.5 km. That report also calls foe expanding airport perimeter security.