UPDATED: Air Force Official: Green-on-Blue Incidents a Big Setback for NATO Mission in Afghanistan
In the wake of five attacks on coalition forces by uniformed Afghan National Army and police personnel in the past two weeks, Wolters said it would likely be necessary to reevaluate the number of troops needed for security assistance.
“When you work with these guys day-in and day-out you develop a level of trust and you feel like that trust is for a lifetime,” Wolters said. “But it just takes one green-on-blue incident where some yo-yo goes off and does something stupid and now you start to levy some uncertainty on that trust.”
Despite the troubling turn of events, Wolters listed several areas where the Air Force and ISAF have achieved success to date in the 11-year war.
He said improved sensor technology has been key to monitor insurgents and support ground troops. Wolters called the period post-troop surge in 2011 the “first winning fighting season the coalition may have had in a heck of a long time, since we started recording statistics that allowed us to measure enemy initiated attacks.”
In the summer of 2011, the U.S. Air Force alone was flying up to 600 hours of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions per day. The Army, with its own ISR platforms added another 300 to 400 hours per day of ISR flying time. Non-U.S. coalition militaries added a further 300 hours of airborne surveillance, for a total of 1,200 hours per day of flying surveillance missions in support of ground operations.
“That’s pretty substantial,” Wolters said. “The commanders on the ground are satisfied with the amount of ISR they are receiving, but you have to assume they are always going to ask for more because this stuff doesn’t hurt.”
Almost all of the surveillance requested by ground commanders is full-motion video, Wolters said. Even with the ordered drawdown of troops progressing, there are even more FMV assets in available in Afghanistan currently than when Wolters was in command last year, he said.
“It’s pretty powerful stuff,” Wolters said of full-motion video and other ISR capabilities.
Most ISR platforms are unmanned aerial vehicles, many of which are remotely piloted from the United States. As the withdrawal continues, Wolters said the ratio of unmanned surveillance aircraft will likely increase.
The capability to gather and transmit full-motion video has dramatically enhanced the Air Force’s ability to provide close-air support, he said.
“Full-motion video has allowed for situational awareness that is better than any previous conflict ever,” he said.
Whenever a “troops-in-contact” incident occurs, airmen have 12 minutes to respond with attack aircraft, Wolters said. For the entire war, the Air Force has averaged 8 minutes from the time a unit command calls for support, to the time an aircraft with offensive capabilities is overhead. During Wolters’ tenure, the Air Force was averaging 100 hours per day of flying time in support of ground troops.
Wolters also cited casualty evacuation as an area where the Air Force has exceeded expectations. In Afghanistan, a country roughly the size of Texas, the required time to deliver a casualty from the field to a medical treatment facility is 60 minutes — termed the Golden Hour because chances of survival if treated within that time are highest. For the past decade, the airmen have consistently undershot that goal, averaging 45 minutes for the entire war, Wolters said.
“It’s a tough challenge as you can well imagine … but some fantastic assets exist in theater to make this happen, a fantastic approach to the care and feeding of our soldiers on the ground,” he said. “Unfortunately this one area where we will never be perfect because we are at war and there are casualties.”
A striking number of those casualties have recently been inflicted on U.S. and coalition forces by the very troops they are training to carry on counterinsurgency operations after the 2014 withdrawal. An Afghan policeman opened fire on NATO troops on Aug. 13 in the fifth such attack in two weeks. Six coalition troops, including three U.S. Marines, were killed Aug. 10 in southern Helmand province. Wolters called the spike in green-on-blue attacks “very, very troubling.”
Coalition forces often operate alongside troops in a ratio of about one to six. The escalating violence could force commanders to call for a greater proportion of NATO troops exactly when countries are working hard to draw down forces, Wolters said.
“That’s a big deal" because it forces NATO to reconsider the number of troops it would be willing to keep in Afghanistan, he said.
The incidents, along with the dismissal earlier this month of the Afghan ministers of defense and interior could lead to a loss of momentum gained since the summer of 2011. That could translate to increased disillusionment with the war and Karzai’s government, which in turn could boost local support for the Taliban, Wolters said.
Correction: The original blog post referred to recent incidents in which Afghan forces turned on NATO troops as "blue-on-green." The attacks are termed "green-on-blue" incidents.
Photo Credit: Army