Thursday, August 07, 2008

Nothing secret about Chinook training

Here's a screaming headline in the Ottawa Citizen along with the first paragraph of the story:
Copter pilots secretly train in U.S.
Chinooks will take 'enormous burden' off troops in Afghanistan

Matthew Fisher, Canwest News Service
Published: Thursday, August 07, 2008

FORT RUCKER, Alabama - The first Canadians slated to fly helicopter combat missions in Afghanistan have been secretly training since last March at a U.S. army base in Alabama...
One really expects better of a winner of the Ross Munro Media Award--and of the Citizen's editorial staff. Indeed on April 14 the Citizen's own David Pugliese wrote a story that started:
Canadian pilots are now receiving training on Chinook helicopters...
And this appeared in an earlier story quoted in a Torch post April 10 (near end of post, link no longer works):
Canadian pilots are already training on the Chinooks at Fort Ruker, Alabama, the U.S. Army's main aviation school.
Such sensational and inaccurate journalism merely encourages readers to take a suspicious view of the Canadian Forces--a view that is thoroughly undeserved.

Meanwhile the rest of Mr Fisher's story has some interesting material:
"We are going to save a lot of lives and directly affect combat operations," said Lt.-Col. Roger Gagnon of Hawkesbury, Ont., who leads a group of pilots and flight engineers in training, who spoke for the first time this week about their pending deployment to Kandahar where they are to fly six CH-47D Chinooks leased from the U.S. military [oh dear, another goof--the aircraft are not being leased, they are a: "... $375 million purchase...", more here].

...a dramatic buildup...will at least double Canada's current combat capability in Kandahar by next spring. Other elements to meet growing threats in Afghanistan's hotly contested southeastern province are expected to include armed Canadian Griffon escort helicopters, which, according to sources in Ottawa, could be flying in Afghanistan as soon as this fall, and a U.S. infantry battalion, which is expected to be placed under Canadian command there by next spring at the latest.

These forces are to be led by Edmonton-based Brig-Gen. Jon Vance [see p. 3 at this link]. He is to take command next March of Canada's joint task force in Kandahar as it suddenly grows to about 4,000 troops from about 2,500 and increases the ground fighting element to 2,000 troops from 1,000.
Next spring would be quite a wait for the American battalion, especially as the U.S. Marines now in Regional Command South will be leaving in mid-November. Maybe people are just hoping a winter lull in fighting will buy time until the U.S. army unit can be sent. It's interesting moreover that the story suggests the American battalion will be part of the Canadian task force.

But it should have been made clear that the vast majority of the increased strength ("double Canada's current combat capability"), especially the "ground fighting element", will be accounted for by the new U.S. troops. Few readers know the strength of a battalion and many will likely assume there is going to be a large increase in the Canadian Army's commitment, which is not the case. The great part of our relatively small overall increase will come from the Air Force--more here.

The story continues:
Nearly 100 Canadian pilots and flight engineers [emphasis added] drawn from bases in New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and Alberta are to be trained by early next year at the U.S. army's main helicopter training facility at Fort Rucker, which is in southern Alabama, near the Florida Panhandle.

The initial cadre of pilots and flight engineers, who also spent five weeks studying in Pennsylvania, have already finished or are close to finishing their Chinook training. After that, many of the pilots will do specialized, high-altitude training in Colorado.

"We don't have firm dates yet, but the projected timeframe is to begin bringing crews over by the end of the year for in-theatre seasoning and to become operational early in the new year," said Lt.-Col. Gagnon, who is to command the first Canadian Chinook detachment in Kandahar.

"The plan is for us to be there for six months at a time and to marry our rotations with our army rotations."

The helicopters that Canada is to fly in Afghanistan are already there and are currently being flown by U.S. forces from a base near Kabul. They will receive Canadian markings sometime early in the New Year.

"Since we have no Chinook capability at home and all the Chinooks will be in Afghanistan, everybody being trained is going to end up over there," said Capt. Fred Guenette of Buckingham, Que. "What we're getting here is exactly what the U.S. army pilots get."

One of the greatest benefits of training at Fort Rucker has been that all of the U.S. instructors have already done combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As there are not nearly enough helicopters in Afghanistan, they are a pooled resource. Canada's Chinooks are to be a Sector South or NATO asset rather than a Canadian asset, but they are expected to do a lot of their flying in direct support of Canadian operations [emphasis added].

Canada's Chinooks will fly with two pilots, two flight engineers and a door gunner, who will be from the army. As each Chinook has two heavy machine-guns [emphasis added] one of the flight engineers doubles as a door gunner.

Aside from leasing CH-47D Chinooks for Afghanistan, Canada is finalizing plans to purchase as many as 16 CH-47-F models for delivery by 2013.

"It is currently the most capable battlefield transport helicopter in the world because of how fast it can go and how much it can lift," said Lt.-Col. Gagnon. "It is the only helicopter that can do all of this in heat or cold at high altitude."

Capt. Guenette, said there were other benefits to having the helicopters.

"Just for working in the Arctic, this helicopter is going to make a huge difference for Canada," he said. "The range and fuel capacity means we can go places where we have not gone and with a speed and flexibility we don't have now."

Lt.-Col. Gagnon, who commands 408 Squadron in Edmonton, said that "having tactical helicopters in Afghanistan is essential and we have not been part of it."
This significant effort to crew the Chinooks must be putting quite a personnel strain on the Air Force's helicopter community. And it looks like we'll be relying on the U.S. Army for most maintenance in-theatre.

Update: The government says the cost of buying the Delta Chinooks "will not exceed $292 million"--not the $375 million figure in the story.


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