Camp Bastion, the British headquarters in Helmand province in the south of Afghanistan, is built in the middle of the desert for a reason. There are no villages nearby. An enemy would have to walk through miles of open and flat desert to attack.
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It’s a tent city, four miles long and two miles wide, with a field hospital and an airstrip. The runway is short, barely long enough to handle the C-17 cargo aircraft that roar in and out of the base each day. The camp sits adjacent to Camp Leatherneck, headquarters of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
Helicopters crowd Bastion’s airfield: CH-53D Sea Stallions, CH-53E Super Stallions, Bell UH-1Y Venoms, and AH-1W Super Cobras. In the rough terrain and roadless expanses of Afghanistan—and over roads hiding improvised explosive devices—helicopters are often the only practical means of transportation for U.S. Marines. Until last November, that is. That’s when Camp Bastion became home to the tiltrotor MV-22 Osprey and Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (VMM-261), the first Osprey squadron deployed to Afghanistan.
Just four weeks after arriving, the Ospreys went on the offensive. On December 4, 2009, the MV-22s inserted an 80-person reconnaissance force near the town of Now Zad in northern Helmand. Operation Cobra’s Anger was meant to shut down the Taliban’s line of communications, and the routes through which their fighters and weapons move.
The Osprey’s primary role in Cobra’s Anger was insertion: carrying 24 Marines like a bat out of hell to combat. Although it did the job in Now Zad and, more recently, Marja, the MV-22’s main work in Afghanistan so far has been assault support, transporting personnel and supplies of all types—from mail to bullets to diesel-engine parts—to a series of austere combat outposts throughout Helmand. That mission had been the task of the CH-53 helicopter. (The Marine Corps is replacing the venerable CH-46 Sea Knight, which doesn’t do well in Afghanistan’s high elevations, with the MV-22.)
The Osprey is not just a newly fielded aircraft but an entirely new type of aircraft, the first transport in operation that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter, but that offers the speed and range of many fixed-wing aircraft. “When you’re going to a place without a runway, you need a rotorcraft. When you’re going a long way to a place without a runway, you need a tiltrotor,” says Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Bianca, VMM-261’s commanding officer.
This is only the fifth combat deployment for the Osprey (including three tours in Iraq, and a shipboard deployment), a platform that was certified operational just four years prior to its arrival in Afghanistan. The Osprey is enduring more scrutiny than most new aircraft types, because during its development, four Ospreys had high-profile crashes, including one during an operational evaluation in 2000 in which all four crew members and 15 passengers were killed. Major Timothy Miller, -261’s operations officer, says, “For a lot of people, the V-22 is an unknown. There are misconceptions, so you have to do some education up front, and attempt to allay people’s concerns.”
From his tent office on the flightline at Bastion’s airfield, Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Thomas, executive officer of VMM-261, summarizes the Osprey’s advantages. It’s twice as fast as a CH-46 and can carry double the payload. The Osprey can fly above the ground threats posed by the enemy in Afghanistan, including small-arms fire and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles.
For additional protection, the Osprey’s powerful engines allow pilots to launch the aircraft vertically and “corkscrew” to altitude directly above the safety of a base.
The launch is unlike anything else. “It felt like getting shot to the moon,” recalls Gunnery Sergeant Steve Morris, who was on the original reconnaissance team inserted into Now Zad. “Your stomach goes to your ankles; it’s a really heavy feeling.”