KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – In a war fought against a shadowy enemy on what can be profoundly hostile terrain, having eyes in the sky is a huge benefit.
Over Kandahar province, the eyes belong to the Canadian Helicopter Force Afghanistan – a small fleet of Griffon helicopters and their larger cousins, the Chinooks.
Their main mission is to ferry troops and equipment to and from the battlefields of Kandahar.
The Griffons, however, also keep watch over the Chinooks, as well as over convoys and troops on the ground – always on the lookout for insurgents the soldiers below might not be able to see, said Lt.-Col. Marc Bigaouette, the commanding officer.
“We are a kind of safety valve for the troops,” he said of the helicopter force that’s been in operation for little more than six months.
On a recent mission, for example, a pair of Griffons was called in to examine the site of an artillery strike in the dangerous Panjwaii district and report back on what it saw.
The flash and billowing smoke from the target – part of a compound – was clearly visible from the Griffon.
Several passes over and around confirmed the target had been hit, no damage to surrounding buildings, and no sign of insurgents.
Essentially utility choppers, the Griffons have been decked out with machine-guns, powerful and precise.
“You don’t need a bomb necessarily to address a threat,” Bigaouette said. “It is very well suited to address a threat posed by personnel on the ground.”
The weaponry, along with strict rules about when the gunners can open fire, means the Canadians are far less likely than other air forces flying in Afghanistan to cause “collateral damage” – innocent civilian casualties.
That’s vital in a war where insurgents and non-insurgents usually look the same and winning the confidence of Afghan citizens essential.
“We pay a lot of attention to having the right weight of fire,” the commander said.
To avoid any enemy fire, Griffon crews seldom fly in a straight line or at the same height. At times, the choppers skim the ground. At other times, they soar over jagged peaks. It makes for a wild, doors-open ride – unlike anything an amusement park might have to offer.
It also offers a breathtaking view of the southern Afghan landscape, at once mountainous, barren desert, and fertile valleys. Between the pilots and gunners, the crew has a panoramic view of the terrain below.
The perspective allows chopper crews to relay information about both friendly and enemy positions to infantry on the ground who may be pushing through grape fields or have their view obscured by walls.
“We are not here to fight for a military victory,” Bigaouette said.
“We are here to fight for a political victory.”