I found myself with half an hour to kill while waiting for a flight from Forward Operating Base Lightning in Paktia Province, Afghanistan to FOB Shank in neighboring Logar Province. The airstrip at Lightning is actually within the large Afghan National Army base ‘Thunder’ next door. You don’t get to hang out the airstrip unless it is your duty station, or you are about to fly. “That’s for a variety of factors, including a “blue on green attack” — when Afghan police or Army members attack coalition forces — and a move toward a gradual healthy separation of the two countries’ militaries. While I waited, I took the opportunity to sketch what the troops here call “Pride Rock.”
As always, the helicopter travel is a bit troubling to me, but I knew this was only a 15-minute flight. So I settled in to doing a sketch of Staff Sgt. Kelly gazing out the Blackhawk side window down at the ragged razor-edged peaks rattling by below. A half hour later, and I was done sketching. Fifteen minutes after that we touched down somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. “Uh-oh,” I thought. A half hour after that and we finally hit my destination, and all was well. I apparently had caught the round-robin route, what passes for a commuter line for soldiers. There are horrifying tales of six-hour flights to make a jump of 30 miles when you get on the round-robin going in the wrong direction. So I counted myself lucky. I was so excited to be off the copter when we touched down at Shank that I neglected to check if Sgt. Kelly was with me. He wasn’t. I am afraid I left with a sketch but no email address to send it to. Sorry Sarge. Maybe someone will recognize you. Anyone?
FOB Shank has been the target of constant rocket attacks by the Taliban since 2008, when it became home to Coalition soldiers actively supporting the Afghan National Security Forces and training the Afghan Police. I sat down with Capt. Richard Mina of the 3d Cavalry Regiment outside of the tactical operations center. Beside us was a large sand pit terrain map filled with blocks of wood to signify buildings and streamers for roads. Sitting on a bench nearby was a sad-looking Spc. Jeremy Marburger, sorting through a box of a couple of hundred screwdrivers with a list in one hand and a pen in the other, his own personal drawdown.
“Our primary mission is the security of U.S. forces here on Shank,” said Capt. Mina. “We have several types of operations that we conduct. The biggest one is to counter indirect fire. Preventing that threat against the FOB is our number one line of effort.”
I asked him why Shank is, literally, ground zero for rocket attacks.
“There are three major reasons we get so many rockets. First the terrain: The Logar Province is a very large bowl between mountain ranges. With very little in the way of American presence out there, so they can shoot ten or more km (7 mile) out and there are plenty of places for them to hide. Second: This is a very large base with a very large footprint – easy to hit. Third: The number of rockets are a sign of how hard the Taliban have tried to disrupt our relationship with the Afghan National Army — by intimidation, or by having lethal effect — over the last five or six years. And yet we have seen a sixty percent reduction in rockets from last year to this year. And that is largely due to operations the ANA themselves have done. They are out there very significantly in the battle space.”
We were interrupted by the shrill “incoming, incoming” alarm, and we both moved to duck behind the nearest concrete barrier. Capt. Mina knew which side of the barrier to be, whereas I had no clue which direction the rocket might be coming from. Someone quickly put me straight. There was a good solid boom when it landed; it had come down outside the wire.
“Not good for the Taliban’s public relations,” said Capt. Mina. “It hit a village, but I don’t know if it is inhabited or not.”
Many of the villages close to the base are abandoned. It is not difficult to understand why. After the all-clear we sat back down again.
Our conversation drifted comfortably off the mission, to his wounding by a piece of shrapnel during a firefight, to his life back in the world, to him being married to a Canadian. He then even proved his Canadian indoctrination was complete by admitting to being a Tragically Hip fan. We were swapping memorized lyrics like true hipsters do when …
… the “incoming, incoming” alarm went off, and we were back behind the concrete barrier. This time though, rather than a concussive impact, the noise was like someone tearing a hole in reality, and the sky directly overhead filled with hundreds of puffs of smoke, followed by a sound like a car crash. Then we could see what had to be pieces of rocket raining down. This one had been quite close and had therefore been taken out by one of Shank’s six Land-based Phalanx Weapon System machine guns.
What always amazes me about FOB life in Afghanistan is how everyone is so relaxed about the periodic rocketings. Spc. Marburger was back scratching his head again over his screwdrivers as if nothing had happened.
“That came from the same place,” said Capt. Mina. “That is where you’ll be going tomorrow.”
I wanted to know more about the anti-rocket system, so I stopped by to have a look at the LPWS, this miracle weapon that can swat an incoming rocket — traveling head-on at over a 1,000 mph — out of the sky. Originally designed to shoot down anti-ship missiles at sea, the LPWS is a partially-autonomous, rapid-fire, computer-controlled, radar-guided Gatling gun that has been retooled to form a land-based defensive shield over the entirety of FOB Shank. Each gun can fire 75 high-explosive rounds per second. It looks a little like R2D2 with something on his mind.
I spoke to 2nd Lt. Amy Bailey about (Storm), the LWPS under her charge. And the rockets that I had seen come in.
“If it is not landing on the FOB, we are not really too concerned about it,” she said. “So none of the guns even looked towards it.”
When on duty, Bailey’s job is to make sure there are no aircraft in the area that the gun needs to fire on and to give the system clearance to shoot — all in a timeline often well under 30 seconds.
“The second one that came in obviously came onto the FOB … and the gun in that sector (Iron-Man) knew ‘I am going to get this,’ ” she said. “We hit it. Detonated the warhead. It exploded.
“That was a big rocket,” she added.”
Which is good. The 122-millimeter rockets can be fired from up to 13 miles away from a target and explode in a burst of shrapnel up to 80 feet wide. It is not hard to imagine the consequences should one strike a target inside the base.
I asked about the challenge of drawing down the weapons systems on the base. “As the base has shrunk so much there is a lot of overlapping coverage, so we’ll pull some of those guns out but still have coverage over the entire FOB. They can be packed up and moved relatively quickly and easily,” she said. Those massive M777 Howitzers over at FOB Lightning.
While I was sketching, the whole system kicked into life, tipped on its side and tracked a C-130 cargo aircraft coming in to land, which must have strayed into the LPWS (Storm’s) area of coverage. It obviously considered the target and then returned to its resting position having rejected it as a threat. I continued the sketch as nothing had changed. Much better than most life-drawing models I have known.
“I think the system is incredibly cool. I love the noise it makes when it fires,” said Bailey.
Next up – road trip down memory lane.
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Got a question for me while I am in Afghanistan? Ask me at firstname.lastname@example.org.