Small Wars Journal

Adapting Army Aviation for Irregular Warfare: Developing Leadership and Trust in a COIN Fight

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 8:10am

Adapting Army Aviation for Irregular Warfare: Developing Leadership and Trust in a COIN Fight

Robert T. Ault


If historical examples are any indicator irregular warfare will remain a part of current and future conflicts.  Conventional forces must be multifaceted and able to respond across the spectrum of operations and contingencies. While helicopter gunnery and field exercises will remain staples of aviation unit training plans, future conflicts will mandate that Army Aviation leaders and Soldiers be adaptive and responsive to the demands of irregular warfare. How can conventional forces, specifically Army aviation units, become adaptive, learning organizations capable of conducting irregular operations?  This is the story of one U.S. Army Aviation Battalion’s transformation as it learned to conduct counter-insurgency on the ground and from the air in Afghanistan.

The Air Assault Battalion of the Third Infantry Division returned from Iraq in 2008, it was the unit's third combat deployment to that country.  Manned and equipped with 30 UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and 350 Soldiers and Aviators, the assault battalion’s main job was providing tactical movement of troops and equipment in direct support of a ground Brigade Combat Team (BCT). Additionally, after multiple deployments to Iraq, the battalion was quite proficient at this conventional combat.

After returning from Iraq, the battalion received orders to deploy as part of the Third Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) to Afghanistan in 2010.  The unit had fourteen months, to transform into a multifunctional aviation task force tailored to meet its new mission requirements in Afghanistan.  Exchanging and cross-levelling helicopter companies across the CAB, the assault, attack, cavalry, and general support battalions transformed themselves into four distinct multifunctional task forces designed to operate semi-autonomously in a myriad of mission sets.

The physical re-organization of personnel and equipment was no easy task for the assault battalion, but the most challenging transformation would occur in the minds of the leaders, Soldiers and Aviators.  Now officially Task Force (TF) Brawler, the unit had to adapt its mind-set from a conventional, offensive, lethal approach to one of a very different nature - counterinsurgency operations (COIN) required in the operating environment of Afghanistan.  What amounted to a cultural shift in Army Aviation thinking brought exponential value to the coalition ground force. commanders and the Afghan population within TF Brawler’s area of responsibility

At home station and in Afghanistan, TF Brawler reinvented itself to fight COIN. Through a series of relationships and partnerships the Aviation task force found itself conducting COIN from the air, as well as, the ground.  TF Brawler came to accept and absorb the multi-polar nature of COIN: conducting kinetic operations by night and providing softer village engagement operations by day, while maintaining a blistering aviation operational support tempo.  Over time, TF Brawler embraced the multi-polarity of the COIN environment, moving beyond the conventional competencies of an aviation task force, and pushing limits of command guidance to achieve COIN effects. This article will examine the unique shift required to conduct COIN with a conventional aviation unit, consider lessons learned, and implications for the future of Army Aviation in irregular warfare.

Adaption #1: Pre-Deployment and Becoming a Multi-Functional Aviation Task Force

TF Brawler, a U.S. Army Aviation multifunctional task force, started out as a doctrinal UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter-equipped Assault Helicopter Battalion.  The unit task organized to meet command directives and expected mission demands.  The result was something new; the “Air-Ground Security Task Force”.  TF Brawler became a combat unit, capable of executing both the “hard” and “soft” components of COIN in Afghanistan 2010.

During the time between its 2008 deployment to Iraq and its 2010 deployment to Afghanistan, the battalion went through several evolutions.  First, the unit focused on the creation and training of strong capable leaders that could operate in environments of great uncertainty.  Second, the unit developed a low cost, “low overhead” training methodology that allowed multiple iterations of basic skills common to all leaders.  Once the basics were mastered the unit moved on the speciality skills such a high altitude flying or maintaining aircraft under combat conditions.

The Development of Leaders that Can Fight in COIN

From the beginning, Brawler chose to educate leaders to operate in the COIN environment versus train them how to conduct COIN.  This may seem counter-intuitive for an aviation unit adapting into ground operations but the philosophy flowed from the already established methodology for training aviation mission commanders.  Air or ground, the command viewed leadership as central to success. The intent was to create an organization that developed and prepared leaders at all levels to operate in environments of uncertainty.  There was never an attempt to establish control over leaders while conducting operations.  The Brawler Leadership's intent was to empower and inform leaders "in the fight" and provide prioritization with respect to other missions and needs.  It was the leader's job to fight his fight.

This seemingly hands-off approach was possible because of the way the unit went about training leaders and establishing trust.  The three step process began with selecting the right leader for the mission or unit to lead.  The task force never felt compelled by rank or privilege to "have to fill a position". Often the senior leadership choose to fill units with more junior leaders that exhibited the right characteristics versus a substandard but "authorized" individual.  Once selected, future leaders were trained personally by their leaders, until they demonstrated mastery over the basics of their job under high stress conditions.  This represented a major investment in time and effort for the leaders of the Task Force.  It was not enough to stop training at demonstrating right; the newly selected leaders had to be able to perform under pressure. For instance, an air mission commander had to demonstrate hands on skills ranging from stress shooting, leading a formation under demanding night vision mountain conditions, even having to pass a written test on the Task Force's command philosophy.  The senior leadership (both officer and enlisted) held themselves responsible for the training and validation of leaders. It was to the senior leaders that proficiency had to be demonstrated.  The process had the effect of allowing subordinate leaders to learn their own subordinate leaders’ standards and expectations.

It was this common understanding that moved the process to the third step of trust.  The shared experiences and demonstrated proficiency allowed the senior leadership to know what they "had" in their ground and air leaders, and vice versa. Once selected, trained, and trusted leaders were expected to operate with the overall mission and philosophy of the task force in mind as they accomplished their missions.  It was from this basis the Brawler leadership choose to educate leaders to operate in COIN.    

Training Methodology

Task Force Brawler began to train for combat with the methodology that training had to be realistic, low overhead and centered on repetition.  This thought process led the Task Force to train the basics over and over.  This was accomplished by empowering platoon and company level leadership to conduct and evaluate training.  The decentralization of crucial training events such as aerial and ground gunnery allowed the high repetitions necessary for the unit to shoot three times its allocation of small arms ammunition and over a brigade’s worth of first aid supplies in less than 12 months.  Repetition matters; Soldiers were trained to engage the enemy with their weapon, provide critical first responder medical care and they were expected to do it all under physically stressful conditions.  The expectation was that physical training, weapons training and medical training were the bedrock of combat and leader capability.  Once these capabilities were established the focus was on individual speciality skills such as aviation, maintenance or administration.  This focus on the basics developed a set of fundamental skills that were easily adaptable to changing conditions.  The intense focus on preparing to engage the enemy and survive fostered a warrior attitude that transcended beyond the small arms range or physical training field.  The unit began to embrace its new motto of “Here to Fight”.

Adaption # 2: Ground-Air Integration and an Approach to Combat

Upon redeployment from Iraq the Aviation Brigade Commander tasked each battalion to develop an emergency response force that could respond to a downed aircraft on short notice and provide an initial security capability.  As Task Force Brawler searched its formation the Forward Support Company became a natural starting point to develop this security element.  The company commander was a former non-commissioned officer and infantryman with decorated combat experience in Somalia as well as infantry leadership experience.  Slowly and iteratively Task Force Brawler began the process of selecting and training Soldiers for the Ground Combat Platoon (GCP).  The GCP’s platoon leader was a quartermaster lieutenant with little beyond ROTC for ground combat experience.  His Platoon Sergeant was a combat experienced maintenance NCO that had served in leadership positions up to and including platoon level.

The platoon began its training at Hunter Army Airfield 12 months before the deployment.  As they grew in capability, the original intent of developing a downed aircraft security team began to change.  Based on previous experiences of maneuvering Special Forces team in Afghanistan from the air to interdict vehicles and fleeing targets, the leadership began to expand the mission of the platoon.  Eventually the GCP was conducting simulated vehicle interdictions with the Task Force’s air assault companies acting as mission commanders.  Both units learned how to fight on the ground from the air.  The training was relatively “low tech” but easily reproducible.  This low cost training allowed the GCP to develop muscle memory from hundred of repetitions on the firing range, in the aircraft or in the field.  On several occasions the Forward Support Company Commander’s personal Jeep Wrangler became the “fleeing insurgent vehicle”.  The Soldiers of the GCP practiced stopping and removing their Commander and First Sergeant over and over several times a week.

The Task Force developed a “high intensity” or HIT cycle that rotated the GCP to every air assault company for three days a week of directed employment training exercises.  The Task Force and companies focused on integrating the GCP into operations.   Aviation company commanders were expected to maneuver the platoon over an objective, provide near instantaneous overhead fires and keep the platoon situationally aware.

The GCP focused on limited and very specific tasks such as establishing security, entering and clearing a room and conducting observation operations.  As they grew in capability, they were placed operationally under a UH-60 assault company for employment as an outer-cordon security force to interdict fleeing insurgents and suspects.  The intent was to develop a seamless air-ground capability for very limited and focused operations such a personnel and vehicle interdiction.

The idea was to create a rifle platoon not an infantry platoon.  The leadership realized up front it would be unrealistic to expect the platoon of refuelers, cooks and mechanics to change their military speciality and become infantrymen and form an infantry unit from nothing.  What was realistic, however, was to train the platoon to conduct basic riflemen skills.  The critical skills included entering and clearing a room, interdicting a fleeing target, observation operations and providing perimeter defense for temporary ground operations such as downed aircraft recovery.  The intent was to link the GCP closely to the UH-60 company commander.  The concept was that the aircraft would provide “over the shoulder” observation and protection to the GCP during operations.  Eventually they conducted several iterations of live shoot house training, convoy live fire training along with innumerable air assaults, and personnel interdictions. Returning from a training mission it was not uncommon to simulate a wounded Soldier scenario in the back of the helicopter.  Platoon members learned to provide life saving medical treatment under the most adverse conditions. 

Once in theatre, TF Brawler would partner the GCP with an Afghan National Army Reconnaissance (Recce) Company from the Fourth Support Kandak (Afghan Army battalion) and began ground operations in support of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Loghar and Wardak Provinces.      

Redefining Helicopter Gunnery

In order to provide fast responsive and deadly fire for the GCP the air assault companies had to reconsider how they trained their door gunners.  Normally UH-60 door gunnery is conducted at distances of up to a kilometre.  The machine guns mounted on both sides of the aircraft are used as an area suppression defensive weapon only.  Based on the flight profile of supporting the GCP during a vehicle or personnel interdiction Brawler had to train differently.  The unit established a training program to teach its gunners how to hit a human-sized target inside 200 meters, under 200 feet of altitude while moving less than 60 knots.  This envelope became known as “the dinner plate” and gunners trained to hit it with short accurate bursts.

The unit sought out ranges that facilitated this engagement envelope and designed urban type scenarios to the gunners and crew to train on.  Additionally the unit moved the authority to fire from the front seat aviators to the back seat gunners. Gunners were held to understanding the rules of engagement in just as much detail as were the pilots.  This is a shift from most utility helicopters where the use of the weapons systems is seen as a last resort and tightly controlled.  Task Force Brawler was training to gain and maintain contact with the enemy.  

Integrating Multiple Aircraft Cultures

As Task Force Brawler made the transition from a pure fleet battalion to a multi-functional aircraft task force the biggest challenge was integrating the different aircraft cultures.  Attack aviators, air assault aviators and general support aviators all come with their own unique and powerful set of shared experiences and culture. These cultural forces are amplified when units train, deploy and fight as pure aircraft battalions, as the 3rd ID Combat Aviation Brigade had for three deployments in Iraq. In a task force with multiple aircraft and missions the aircraft culture can become problematic.

It was through the leader development process that Brawler attempted to create a unifying Task Force Culture.  Air mission commanders from all aircraft types were deliberately placed in mixed crews during simulated unit level missions in the installation’s mission simulators.  The attempt was to find common ground and build a “gain and maintain contact with the enemy” culture.  This stretched both UH-60 and AH-64 crews to move beyond their view of the battlefield.  This was not an easy process; in fact it was by far the most arduous task the unit faced prior to and early on during the deployment.

In an effort to practice Task Force operations the aviation brigade commander ordered his task forces to rotate thru training at Fort Bliss’s Camp McGregor. Each unit was free to train as they thought necessary to be ready for Afghanistan. Task Force Brawler chose to train integrated AH-64 and UH-60 tactics to support GCP missions in addition to the basics of physical training, weapons and medical skills.

The unit ran simulated mission cycles with the Brawler staff practicing and refining what products and processes they would need to conduct GCP missions and integrated aircraft operations.  The result was a rough baseline for how the task force intended to fight downrange.  Even after the highly successful training it would take until well into the deployment for the Task Force to fully develop its unifying culture in place of competing aircraft cultures. 

Adaptation # 3: The Transition from Finding the Fight to Counter-Insurgency

The Task Force deployed to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank located in Loghar Province, in Regional Command East, Afghanistan.  The unit assumed conventional aviation mission sets such as on order close combat attack in support of troops in contact, cargo transport, 24 hour MEDEVAC and utility aviation support along with pre-planned attack and air assault missions, both day and night.  In the beginning the GCP was employed in over-watch and observation roles by the BCT’s ground force commanders to augment their own forces.

Early on Brawler and the Combat Aviation Brigade learned to measure the risk from both the enemy and terrain throughout the planning process. While these were regularly scheduled missions they were always managed by the leaders up and down the chain of command.

The pace was blistering and only sustainable because of the leadership and professionalism of not only the aircrews but of the Task Force maintenance company. The maintenance teams were able to not only keep up with the demand for aircraft but also get ahead of it.  This was possible because early on in the task force development the maintenance company successfully integrated its various aircraft members and their culture.  Early on the maintenance company adopted a unifying task force culture.

One of the responsibilities of the Task Force became the design and management of the airfield and its ongoing construction of a USAF C-17 capable runway and modern facilities. Previously the charge of a Task Force Commander, Brawler placed the Headquarters Company Commander as the airfield commander and in charge of the day to day as well as long term development of the facility.  It was a significant workload for the unit, daily management of the airfield to include the air traffic control operators became a company level operation.

The Task Force even found itself overseeing the quality control of the Brigade Combat Team’s Shadow, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platoon.  The BCT moved the UAV platoon onto the airfield and under the quality control of Brawler’s standardization and safety programs.  This redesign dramatically improved the UAV platoon’s effectiveness and increased safety in operations around the airfield as well.

As the normal mission cycles progressed, it was apparent that the aviation task force did not fully understand the application of COIN tactics or their justification.

There were several instances when members of the task force felt they were within the rules of engagement to fire but were denied by the ground force commander.  The unit's previously honed culture and pre-deployment training inadvertently created a gap when it came to understanding operations in counterinsurgency.  Brawler had come to Afghanistan looking for the fight.  Initially the two measures of effectiveness used by the Task Force were number of coalition and local lives saved and the number of enemy killed.  Initially these two metrics seemed to be the only two that mattered. Brawler was soon to discover these limited measurements missed the larger conflict, the bigger fight of creating effects on the ground.

The publication of the ISAF Commander’s, General Stanley McChrystal, COIN guidance and tactical directives provided tangible principles for waging the counterinsurgency fight.  The document served as a usable framework for conducting COIN operations in Afghanistan.  To remain relevant it soon became clear: TF Brawler needed to rethink its approach to the conflict.  Attack aviators could be well within the rules of engagement but still conduct an engagement that would be counter-productive.  UH-60 and CH-47 Aviators could not be content with merely flying their mission.  Seeking out the enemy and providing reconnaissance and assistance could not be neglected.  Put another way, the unit could conduct an engagement that was within the rules of engagement, but outside the commander's intent.

Adopting a Task Force COIN Culture

The Task Force leadership soon realized their culture needed to evolve if it was to bring exponential value to the BCT.  The leadership needed to make a change.  The culture had to adapt an aggressive warrior mentality that pursued the enemy ruthlessly and violently, into a culture that protected the population from the enemy. The leaders had to see their fight (either from the air or on the ground) in the bigger context of the struggle to connect the people to their government, to protect and serve the people of Loghar. This was not an easy evolution.

To begin the transformation Task Force Brawler established a “COIN Headstart” program with the intent to foster a collegiate level discussion of COIN principles and ideas in a non-attributional, open to all ranks forum.  The Leaders worked to bring in speakers from anyone with a perspective for their fight. The list included the BCT Commander to describe his vision for the province and his operational approach to the fight, the U.S. Department of State Provincial Advisor, the USAID representative, the Afghan battalion commander whose recce company the task force was partnered.  Even key Afghan local leaders from the villages under Task Force Brawler and the Afghan local interpreters were asked to speak.  

COIN Headstart hosted a mock Afghan shura (tribal meeting) complete with local food and discussion topics to expose members to the culture and give the leadership practice in Afghan customs and culture.  The unit even built a jirga-room or afghan style meeting room in anticipation of working with Afghans but also to make thier Jordanian partners feel more at ease when conducting business with Task Force Brawler. 

What seemed to be most effective at the user level were the techniques and tactics taken from the U.S. Marine operations in Marja.  The accompanying slide show of pictures and platitudes helped to simplify an increasingly complex environment.  For instance one slide showed an old Afghan man pushing a broken down wheel barrel full of dirt.  The caption below said, “This wheel barrel is the most expensive thing this man owns, treat it as such”.  These simple snap shots of daily COIN tips and practices helped not only the GCP, but also the aviators begin to understand the nature of the COIN fight.  

The lessons the leadership took away was that personal relationships and partnerships matter more than relationships stated in orders and directives.  The COIN Headstart program was essential because it created an open venue for the exchange of ideas.  It allowed the task force leaders and Soldiers to understand counter-insurgency beyond their battle space and see the environment from different perspectives.  COIN Headstart served as the driver in evolving the task force culture. 

Partnership Operations

The unit slowly began to understand that, in COIN, an engagement meant something had failed in the environment. The leaders had to comprehend that killing one insurgent meant creating ten more. The task force had to evolve their thinking to embrace the idea that protection of the population, not killing the enemy, was the path forward.

Once established and familiar with the standard aviation missions, TF Brawler worked to create a partnership arrangement with the BCT that was responsible for Loghar and Wardak provinces.  As a result the unit's GCP would be partnered with an Afghan recce company co-located on FOB Shank. Additionally, TF Brawler would be assigned actual battle space in Loghar Province.  The Task Force would be responsible for the counter-insurgency fight in three small, remote and nonessential village complexes.  The villages were located in the extreme east, west and south of the province.  The intent behind the assignment, initially was to partner with the Jordanian ground task force (TF Nashmi) in cooperation with their U.S. counterpart, the Brigade Special Troops Battalion (BSTB).  The aviation task force would provide mobility through aerial transport within the TF Nashmi AO.  TF Brawler would assume the primary responsibility of achieving the COIN objectives of protecting the population and connecting the people to their government in three remote specified village complexes.

The partnering of the GCP (now called LOCAL UNION after an electrical worker’s union from the platoon leader’s native Ohio) served as a laboratory to try out McChrystal’s new COIN guidance and test the task forces culture.  Since the GCP was formed from mechanics, cooks and refuelers they held no preconceived notions of how to partner with their Afghan teammates.  As a result, both partners benefitted from a blank slate and good intentions.

The Afghan recce company gradually grew into a capable helicopter assault force that TF Brawler employed in area mobile security missions and “face-to-face” population engagement roles.  With the assignment of the village complexes the Task Force began to conduct village assessments.  Armed with intelligence from the Brawler S2 (intelligence officer) the partnered GCP and their helicopter team began to conduct mobile traffic control points in search of targeted insurgents.  The combination of quality intelligence and aerial mobility allowed the GCP to peacefully capture, the number five priority target from the BCT’s target list.  This reinforced the platoon’s ability and the confidence from both the aviation and ground brigade commanders.

It became abundantly clear, the closer and more familiar the aviation task force became with ground operations, whether through its own ground force or in combined action with another, the better task force became in the air.  The mindset shift to creating effects in the community and previously established competence in the air were a mutual benefit to supported units.  The rules of engagement and the guidance to protect the population now had context.  Missions, both air and ground, became about protecting the population and coalition forces, not just attacking the enemy.  Brawler began to consider metrics that focused on protecting the population to measure its impact on the battlefield.

The Task Force successfully layered aviation operations over the ground scheme of maneuver better because they understood it, contextualized it, and believed in it.  Most aviation units are challenged to make that leap.  With context the unit fully understood that, “it was not about them” it wasn’t even really about the ground force commander anymore, it was about the population.

The mindset of the assault company commander changed as he learned to fight a ground force and his UH-60 element simultaneously from the air.  Shifting the command and control from the ground to the air was a deliberate decision based on the ability of the helicopters to remain oriented on the objective and in a position to protect the GCP at all times.

The attack company slowly began to see itself as more than a purely kinetic force, but as an integral enabler in a complex battlespace where a test fire in the wrong part of the district could result in a perceived lack of security in the district.  Additionally, the AH-64 air mission commanders learned to work with the GCP and direct them from the air.  This would become critical under zero illumination night missions when the UH-60s would have to depart to refuel, the GCP would be forced to remain on the ground.

Finally, the ground combat platoon grew to their expectations.  The small unit became one of the best led and most disciplined units in the task force.  Short duration, limited objective operations directly supported by at least a pair of armed helicopters. While limited, the platoon was employed as mobile traffic control points, a high altitude reconnaissance element, a security element for a downed aircraft (twice), a quick response force, a finishing/exploitation force for counter IED operations as well as countless village assessments and leader engagements.  Training to create a platoon of riflemen versus infantrymen allowed the GCP to fill a niche role but it also raised the professionalism all around in the unit.

The Importance of Personal Relationships

The personal relationship between the Brigade Special Troops Battalion (BSTB) Commander (partnered with the Jordanian battalion) and Task Force Brawler leadership allowed both units to get out into the battle space.  Brawler would facilitate the Jordanian and BSTB operations in exchange for access and responsibility for isolated areas of the province that were inaccessible by ground.  Eventually the brigade combat team formally assigned the aviation task force responsibility for three village complexes, each in the extreme east, west and south of the province. These were small, mostly isolated and non-essential locations that would allow the BCT to focus their efforts elsewhere.  With the newly partnered GCP Task Force Brawler began COIN in the villages of Hashnapur/Ak Bar Kel, Schorkab, and Shulak.  

Once the task force leadership decided to embrace COIN on the ground, it became evident the unit would need a civil affairs officer.  Initially an aviation captain in the operations shop was reassigned to the intelligence section of the staff and re-titled Task Force Civil Affairs Officer.  This bright energetic officer’s only guidance was to get the task force into the counterinsurgency business.  He defined his own role and how he would go about it.  He was intentionally given great leeway in accomplishing his mission.  Part of the reason for such a “hands off” approach to the Task Force Civil Affairs Officer was that the senior leaders of the Task Force still had to attend to the traditional aviation mission sets and growing GCP missions already being conducted.  If Brawler was going to get into the COIN business, the unit’s junior NCOs and Officers, such as the new Task Force Civil Affairs Officer, would have to provide the initiative and leg work.

The newly minted “Civil Affairs” Officer began to make contacts with local merchants, learning what was for sale and at what quantities.  He circulated between the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) on the FOB until the Czech Republic PRT befriended him.  This would prove to be an especially powerful friendship since the Czech PRT consisted of a unique combination of civilian engineers and military forces along with a healthy funding stream.  When it came time for the young captain to take a flying company (3 months into the rotation) the task force found a replacement in a newly assigned second lieutenant fresh out of the military intelligence basic course.  The guidance remained the same, “get the task force into the counterinsurgency fight.”  The new lieutenant picked up where his predecessor left off and the unit’s ground operations picked up even more steam.

The importance of personal relationships and emotional intelligence cannot be overstated for success in COIN.  In order for the aviation task force to fill a small niche role in fighting counter-insurgency on the ground it had to work along the seams and under laps.  Geographically the unit deliberately sought out villages in hard to reach locations.  The Task Force Intelligence Officer worked to find the intersection of remote village location intersected with access to and from Kabul.  This led to a relatively well defined and admittedly non-essential ground mission set for the task force. The value the task force brought to the brigade combat team was access, presence and what would become personal relationships with Afghan leaders. In setting realistic expectations and clearly defining the scope and intent of the aviation task force's ground mission the aviation task force was able to focus on both aviation and ground operations simultaneously.

Village Assessments; Task Force Brawler Goes to the Ground

Through a series of meetings the Task Force Brawler Commander developed a relationship with a village elder from Sorkhab village.  The elder was actually a former detainee in connection with the deaths of three U.S. Soldiers and a Taliban facilitator.  Via a BCT-led public reconciliation ceremony he agreed to support the government of Afghanistan and work with the coalition against the Taliban.  Based on TF Brawler’s relationship with the elder, the TF’s own intelligence assessments and battlefield geometry Brawler decided to push for the inclusion of his remote village of Sorkhab to become part of the task force responsibility.  The decision by the brigade combat team commander to allow the aviation task force to operate in that village allowed the BCT to focus forces in other more critical areas of Loghar province.  Task Force Brawler's mission in Sorkhab was to deny the insurgents freedom of movement to and from the capital city of Kabul by using the remote trails that Sorkhab sat astride.  Additionally Brawler determined the purpose of their engagements was also to eliminate IED facilitators and their networks in Sorhkab. 

During the first village assessment the elder brought out key leaders of the community for an impromptu shura (meeting) just outside the village proper to sit on the ground and talk about Sorkhab.  At first the Afghan leaders were stilted and even forced but by the end of the meeting, both the coalition and Afghan villagers were good-natured, or at least they were both curious about each other’s intentions.  It became apparent to the task force leadership that they must build trust with these local leaders before the TF could operate effectively in the village.   

During the next visit to the village the Task Force Commander was given a tour by the elder and they met the village mullah.  The mullah had been on a watch list for being an improved explosive device (IED) facilitator and acting as a Taliban supporter.  After a tense initial meeting with the elder he introduced the Brawler commander to the Mullah.  Brawler decided the best way to develop trust was to host a shura at their headquarters with the key leaders from Sorkhab in order to jointly plan their way ahead in the village.

Utilizing the newly completed "shura" room the aviation task force in conjunction with their Jordanian partners, invited the leaders to the FOB and into Brawler’s headquarters.  The coalition members listened as the village elders talked about their lives and what was needed in Afghanistan.  The conversation was a bit forced at first but after noon prayers and a traditional Afghan meal served in the task force chapel the shura continued, this time the conversation was flowing and much more lively.

A kernel of trust had been sewn.  There was even joking as the elders discussed how the coalition could help in Sorkhab.  In the end the elders decided the entry point for both help and their relationship with the Task Force was mosque refurbishment for the three mosques in the village area.  The task force “civil affairs” officer brought in the local vendor, and soon paint colors, carpet patterns and Korans were decided upon.  Within days, Brawler would begin a regular and persistent rotation to the villages as both their reconstruction efforts and relationship with local leaders exponentially grew.  The result was that both the Mullah and the village elder refused to allow the Taliban to use their village as a safe haven. In effect the Taliban and IED facilitation network in Sorkhab had been neutralized without a shot.   

A Cooperative Take-Over

The Aviation Task Force discovered it had to actively work at partnership. There was an initial tendency to write off partners as incompetent when they were really just different.  From day one of the partnership with the Afghans, Jordanians and Czechs they had access and full privileges to the unit's headquarters and operations.  There was rarely a piece of information they could not ask for or view in the name of partnered operations.  Task Force Brawler even went to far as to hang a picture of President Karzai and King Abdullah of Jordan in their unit conference room alongside their own chain of command. The Afghan and Jordanian flags also were on display as well.

It was not unusual to find the Afghan Battalion commander waiting to talk to the Brawler commander over breakfast or to go to the unit operations officer to work an issue directly.  Another example was the regular fri night a command performance for the senior leaders and select officers at the Jordanian HQs to discuss operations followed by eating and dancing.  While not key from the U.S. perspective the events were important to the Jordanian partners and they built trust between the units.

It was the trust that the leaders of each unit developed in each other that set the example for the staff and subordinate commanders to follow.  In coalition COIN operations partnerships must not be assumed due to directives or orders, they must be worked at the individual level with great care wand effort.  When issues did crop of between the various coalition units it was the friendships that allowed work-arounds. The Jordanians were especially insightful when it came to COIN operations in fellow Muslims nations such as Afghanistan.  The seemingly casual Friday night parties led to intellectually deep discussions over COIN theory and models.  As a direct result of these discussions Task Force Brawler actually found itself acting within the Jordanian strategy of moderating Islam through education and exposure.  This was completely unexpected but extremely powerful as the Jordanians worked to seek out influential extremists and invite them back to Jordan to meet Jordanian society (and moderate Islam) in person.  The Jordanians even provided transportation to these “insurgents” to attend the Hag with key Jordanian leaders. The effect in Loghar among regional leaders was powerful.  

Adaptation #4: Balancing Lethal and Nonlethal Aspects of COIN

Approximately halfway through the deployment, Task Force Brawler was sustaining a steady operations tempo of conventional combat and combat support aviation operations in addition to a weekly schedule of several village engagements in the three village complexes assigned to the Task Force.  By night, aviation operations continued under night vision goggle conditions.  Night time air assault operations to capture targeted insurgents became the consistent major mission set at night.


By the beginning of the summer the IED and insurgent operations in Ghazni Province had all but closed the major supply route (MSR) through the province key in connecting Kabul to Kandahar.  Task Force Brawler received the mission of opening the main MSR in order to allow the freedom of movement for coalition forces throughout Ghazni.  To do so Brawler had to come to terms with how to defeat the enemy IEDs that not only denied movement but killed civilians indiscriminately along the MSR. The mission was known as FALCON STRIKE.

After conducting mission analysis the task force determined the best way to open the road and allow freedom of movement was to disrupt the IED networks responsible for emplacing and using the IEDs against both coalition forces and the local population.  The unit developed a form of aerial ambush utilizing the AH-64's long range vision capability and a specially outfitted UH-60 that was capable of listening and acting as the mission commander.  Together this 3 aircraft team would conduct high altitude night time patrols to identify and then engage the IED emplacement teams.  The air assault company commander and half of the attached partnered ground combat platoon were used as a finishing and sensitive site exploitation (SSE) force after the initial aerial engagement.

The FALCON STRIKE methodology was extremely successful and in a matter of weeks the MSRs began to be drivable again.  LOCAL UNION quickly became the subject matter experts on IED teams from their SSE experience. Many times the physical intelligence gained from the engagements was delivered directly to the Joint Task Force Headquarters.  The job of the Brawler intelligence section non-commissioned officer in charge became analyzing pattern analysis from previous days and seasons, focusing the task force operations for the night and then understanding and processing the physical intelligence brought back from the operations.

The Task force fought 24 hours a day 7 days a week on this cycle for the remainder of the deployment.  It was not uncommon to for the "night shift" to be coming back from an ambush mission and pass the "day shift" going out with the full contingent of Afghan Army and Jordanian partners going out to conduct an education shura in one of the Task Force's villages.  This was the nature of Task Force Brawler's counter-insurgency fight: soft, humanistic and development focused by day, hard, technology dependent and kinetic by night.  Both aspects of the unit's fight were possible because of the select, train and trust model used to train the task force leaders to operate in conditions of uncertainty.  Both aspects relied heavily on relationships and trust.  The truly powerful aspect of the FALCON STRIKE missions was that it finally created a unifying Task Force culture.  When AH-64 Attack pilots eventually praised the UH-60 Assault pilots for their prowess and the assault pilots returned the honor to the gun pilots the task force finally achieved its unifying culture.  Separate aircraft culture disappeared and in its place a Task Force counter-insurgency culture arose.

Operationalizing the Afghan National Army Air Corps

The Task Force was ordered by the Combat Aviation Brigade to partner with the Afghan Nation Army Aviation Corps, a Soviet-bloc equipped helicopter force inside the Afghan Air Force.  While the ANAAC already had U.S. Air Force trainers the role of Brawler would be to “operationalize” the ANAAC.  The goal was to get the ANAAC to fly tactical missions in support of Afghan soldiers. Brawler immediately partnered the ANAAC with the Task Force’s air assault company and began a series of key leader engagements along with the Combat Aviation Brigade leadership to develop relationships between not only Brawler and the ANAAC leadership but also the Afghan battalion commander partnered with Brawler. The efforts paid off when the ANAAC conducted a series of air assault operations in Loghar for the Afghan battalion.

Lessons Learned

None of the broad spectrum of TF Brawler’s mission sets would have been possible without a solid underpinning from the Task Force’s maintenance and logistics Soldiers and leaders.  These professionals were able to create a unified maintenance plan from the many disparate airfames and sustain the operational tempo without fail.  From the beginning Brawler understood their first no-fail mission had to be to provide uncompromising aviation support to the ground forces.  This would not have been possible without the mechanics, refuelers, crew chiefs and logistics professionals that largely acted behind the scenes.  Fully trained and trusted these key members of the Task Force allowed Brawler to leapt over the rather significant hurdle of providing consistent combat power to keep up with mission demands.  Amid the back drop of COIN and FALCON STRIKE operations the refuel platoon expanded the FOB’s forward arming and refuelling point (FARP) to become the largest and busiest in Afghanistan.  The motor pool Soldiers quietly provided vehicle maintenance support to coalition partners in addition to maintaining a fleet of mine resistance vehicles never envisioned for the Task Force.

MEDEVAC missions flew around the clock in almost any kind of weather or condition.  It was not uncommon for the MEDEVAC crews to land under fire in order to evacuate a wounded Soldier.  In one instance the crew conducted hoist mission in the middle of a sustained ground fight because the landing zone was engulfed in flames.  This mission was especially stressful because of the surrounding mountain thunderstorm that forced the crew to hover against a backdrop of lightning, rain and buffeting winds.

Brawler was assigned a National Guard platoon of CH-47 Chinooks from originally Georgia then Oregon.  Two Chinooks from this unit (along with two AH-64s) would provide mission support every night to special mission unit raids in Loghar and Wardak Provinces. Regardless of the visibility or terrain the missions would be flown flawlessly by these professional aviators.  This dangerous and risky operation was the backbone of Regional Command- East’s counter-terrorism operations.  

An important point about aviation operations is that battalion sized task forces such as Task Force Brawler in Afghanistan were operating directly under a parent aviation brigade. They work in support of ground combat brigade teams (BCTs) but they are not assigned to them.  Mission risk levels are approved ultimately through the aviation chain of command.  This means that while the BCT commander may well want additional ground forces or more aviation assets it is up to the Combat Aviation brigade (CAB) commander to balance accomplishing the current mission with sustainability of the larger set of missions.  

The success of Task Force Brawler's foray into the realm of ground combat and COIN operations was made possible because the CAB commander was willing to assume the additional risk.  There was no way to "control" operations from distant HQs.  The senior commander chose to follow the same, select, train and trust model with is commanders.  The ability to understand a unit’s leadership and its capabilities proved far more effective when operating in dispersed locations across such varied mission types and Task Force Brawler.

Trust was built from a base level of demonstrated competence but it was sustained via transparency both up and down the chain of command.  Transparency carries with it the need for tolerance to the unclear or imperfect. Higher commanders must learn to resist the desire for control and instead offer help and priority setting in order to allow subordinate commanders the freedom to fight their fight.

The development of leaders became the central focus of the unit.  It was from a trust-based relationship that underpinned the wide range of missions conducted by Task Force Brawler.  The unit deliberately chose to fill a niche role in both Loghar province with the partnered ground combat platoon COIN operations but also in Ghazni Province as it attacked IED networks.  In defining the mission sets narrowly and being given the trust and confidence to operate within a high commanders philosophy Army aviation forces were able to impact simultaneously both sides of the COIN paradigm.  


The process of selecting, training and trusting leaders that can operate in environments of great uncertainty is critical for all military units.  This is even more so for conventional units attempting to adapt and learn in counter-insurgency. Training and preparation for combat will always fall short, the goal is to be able to adapt units and missions to better solutions once they gain an understanding of the environment and its challenges.  Task Force Brawler was able to adapt because of a shared common culture.  They believed their unit’s role in combat was to bring exponential value to the ground force commander.  Brawler entered RC-East looking for these opportunities to make a difference.  They firmly saw themselves as a full partner in the ground fight not simply an aerial component above it.  It was this driving force to bring exponential value that contextualized the unit’s experience as it adapted in order to bring value. Once Brawler built the “better mouse trap” they were continually on the prowl for ways to improve and build an even better one. 

About the Author(s)

Colonel Robert T. Ault was Commissioned in 1989 as an Army Aviation Officer. He is currently serving as the commander of the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade in Fort Carson Colorado. He has served in various air and ground assignments to include The Chief of Plans for CJTF76 in Afghanistan 2004, a Military Transition Team Chief in Baqubah Iraq 20062007 and most recently as the Task Force Brawler Commander in Afghanistan 2010. He is a graduate of the National War College and a Master Army Aviator.