The war against the Taliban is set to escalate once again. Roughly 800 aviation troops from the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade will deploy to Afghanistan by the end of the summer. The Brigade is equipped with logistical aircraft like the Chinook and the Black Hawk, along with gunships like the Apache. While the Army was characteristically tight lipped about whether the Apaches would be deployed for combat missions, all signs point to a renewed assault.
In recent months the United States has begun to restart active operations against the Islamist insurgents. First, the leader of the Afghan Taliban was assassinated in a drone strike across the border in Pakistan. Second, President Obama loosened restrictions on commanders, allowing them to target the Taliban directly even if American troops had not been attacked first and were not under direct threat.
This deployment appears to be yet another step in Obama’s escalating war against the Taliban. It is a move typical of Obama, who prefers a light footprint used in concert with local forces and backed by overwhelming air power. Apache helicopters are uniquely suited for this kind of role. They feature an organic 30mm cannons and can be fitted with both rockets and Hellfire missiles.
Helicopters are also much cheaper to operate than jets and have also have the ability hover over a target; hunting and destroying Taliban formations and providing close air support.
But such a deployment also comes with risks. While American helicopter gunships are great as modern cavalry they have weaknesses. Apaches are limited in altitude and speed compared to fixed wing fighters. They are also more vulnerable to ground fire.
Clearly the Afghan army is in need of this assistance. As of summer 2016 districts are still changing hands between the ANA and the Taliban. At the end of July Helmand’s Khanashin district fell to the Taliban. The Afghans still cannot support themselves financially and are having major problems maintaining their vehicles. This along with high casualties and desertion have crippled the ANA’s ability to fight.
Along with the Apaches, sending in UH-60 Black Hawks and Chinooks also may have an important function. With the Afghans, a utility helicopter will also be a useful for helping with their transport problems. The deployment of Black Hawks could help should the president decide to deploy special forces to combat the Taliban, allowing soldiers to reach targets more quickly and conduct raids more effectively.
While the addition of attack and transport helicopter may not be able to fully rebalance the situation in Afghanistan, it is a step in the right direction. The question now is how Obama plans to support the Afghan army further. With his term running out Obama is hoping to keep the Taliban from making more gains and leave his successor with a somewhat decent position in Afghanistan.