U.S. Plans Expansion of Afghan Airfield To House Special Army Aviation Unit

By Walter Pincus
Monday, November 10, 2008

The Bush administration's plans to increase the U.S. military role in Afghanistan include a $100 million expansion next year of the Kandahar airfield, to accommodate aircraft working for Task Force ODIN, the once-secret Army fighting units that have been successful in Iraq.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to a notice issued Thursday, has set Wednesday as the "tentative" date for putting out the contract to design and build a secure area for the aircraft. It will have facilities, hangars, ramps and taxiways "for up to twenty-six (26) generic Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft with shelters at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan."

Task Force ODIN -- the acronym derives from "observe, detect, identify and neutralize" -- is named for the chief Norse god of art, culture, war and the dead. The Army put the ODIN concept together last year to tackle the problem of roadside explosions, which had become the main method of attacking military and truck convoys. In September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Congress that he wanted to replicate the ODIN units in Afghanistan as soon as possible.

ODIN began with a small, sensor-carrying civilian aircraft, the Beech C-12, and a variety of unmanned surveillance vehicles equipped with night-vision, infrared and full-motion video. The entire team was linked to infantry units and Apache attack helicopters armed with missiles and machine guns.

Newer ODIN units involve as many as 400 personnel. The C-12 aircraft carry analysts with monitors and other equipment that allows them to supply real-time video and data to troops on the ground and Apache helicopters in the air. One system can provide data that show changes over time in the roadways over which the aircraft fly, which could indicate the presence of buried explosives. Another provides a critical link between sensors and shooters in the air or on the ground.

On Oct. 29, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters, "You're going to see a whole Task Force ODIN set up in Afghanistan." Its basic mission, Morrell said, was "to better help the commanders on the ground particularly protect the Ring Road, which is such a vital lifeline in Afghanistan for commerce and transport and governance."

The reconstruction of the Ring Road, the 2,000-mile highway linking all the major cities in Afghanistan, is nearly complete. From Kandahar airfield in the south, Task Force ODIN will be able to protect roads from Pakistan that extend into central Afghanistan, over which increasing numbers of truck convoys will travel.

Because Afghanistan is landlocked, bringing food, military supplies, equipment and ammunition to the growing U.S. military force has become a major problem. In July, the Army advertised for private contractors to provide armed security to convoys coming from seaports in Pakistan.

Until then, according to the Army notice, the U.S. military had provided "armed escort security for the delivery of strategic unit cargo." The "hostile combat environments" in Pakistan and Afghanistan were cited as a reason for the armed security. The military is turning to contracting security convoy guards because it needs the soldiers who have been protecting shipments to fight the Taliban.

Supply line difficulties continue to grow as the Pentagon plans to send in more troops. Last month, the Army put out another notice, this one seeking ideas for transportation of cargo to Afghanistan from northern Europe or the continental United States through the Caucasus, Asia or Central Asia. The proposal even included "other possible innovative routing . . . which may include air transportation."

It is against that backdrop that the Kandahar expansion will be expedited. The winning contractor is expected to complete the job in 270 days, according to the notice. Release of the proposal is tentative, and so are the dates for submitting bids and for announcing the winner, Dec. 12 and Jan. 15, respectively.

The tentativeness is because funds for the project "are not yet available," according to the notice.

"It's money being reprogrammed from other projects and will have to be approved by the House and Senate armed services and appropriations committees," a congressional aide said.

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them tofineprint@washpost.com.

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