Thirty Americans died in Afghanistan Aug. 6, 2011, according to a DoD news release issued five days later. All had been aboard a U.S. military helicopter, call sign “Extortion 17.” Among those on board were 25 Special Operations Forces personnel, including 17 U.S. Navy SEALs. Though it became the most-deadly incident in the history of Naval Special Warfare, it has received scant public attention.
As a former Air Force public affairs officer, I have virtually no first-hand familiarity with SOF, though I have had many opportunities to speak with SOF members and even wrote a book, Three Days In August, about one of them.
Today, I count as friends many veterans boasting decades of SOF experience under their belts. In an email message yesterday, one of those friends, a former Army Green Beret, shared his expert observations and raised some serious questions about the extremely-controversial Extortion 17 mission. The text of his sometimes-graphic message appears below:
What makes Special Operations Forces (SOF) great is the attention to detail — every detail.
All SOF missions require isolation prior to missions. In my community, we isolated all parties involved until wheels up. Our host-nation military guys never knew where we were going or who was going until we got off the aircraft, vehicle, boat, etc. No need to tell them, because you train for many different types of missions (i.e., raid, ambush, hostage rescue, etc.). The person or place doesn’t matter.
On a typical mission, the team conducts mission planning down to infiltration and exfiltration. We, the team, decide how it will be done. We, the team, submit our plan to our group commander who, depending on risk assessment and who it is we are going after, contacts the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF). Every theater has one. The CJSOTF person makes direct contact with the Secretary of Defense. Once the “green light” is given for the plan, it is the responsibility of CJSOTF to arrange the assets needed to conduct the mission. Once the team is notified of the green light, “dry runs” are conducted — if, that is, it isn’t a time-sensitive mission. The dry runs involve everyone on the team.
Half the team conducts infiltration, actions on the objective and exfiltration with host-nation personnel. At no time are the host-nation personnel told the mission’s five W’s — who, what, where, when and why. Meanwhile, the other half of the team gets current intelligence reports and works to coordinate needed assets (i.e., air, MEDEVAC, artillery, fast movers, etc.).
Generally, two to three team members go to the aviation unit and conduct an “air brief” with the commander of the aviation unit as well as their intelligence, weather and flight operations personnel. There, they are briefed on the five W’s and instructed by team members about where and how they will fly, where they will land, the location of pick-up points and about contingencies. They are given Rules of Engagement for the escort gun ships on “gun runs,” and the communication frequency for all is shared at this time.
Once the air brief is completed, those personnel link back up with the whole team for a mission brief. After final checks are done, movement to the flight line takes place. Weapons are placed in “red” status (i.e., has a round in the chamber and the safety is on), communication is checked, accountability is checked, and away you go.
Now, there is a large distinction between a Green Beret mission and a Navy SEALs mission. Green Berets primarily train and conduct various missions with host-nation soldiers. SEALs and Delta primarily do not. Delta uses Ranger Regiment, and SEALs use more of their own — or Green Beret or some host-nation personnel. In all of my time with SOF, I never saw a SEAL team conduct a mission with host-nation personnel UNLESS the SEALs were assigned to us.
I have worked with, through, and by SEALs, and I’m sure every SEAL has done the same with Green Berets. My point: The SEALs were directed by someone to take these host-nation troops with them. Now, that same person allowed those personnel to change out. This violates the Mission Decision-Making Process, the Bible for all military operations.
Now I know the family is upset about the age of the aircraft and the fact it was a “D” model versus an “H” model. The ONLY unit with the MH-47H is the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), a group known as the Night Stalkers. While every SOF unit (i.e., Green Beret, SEAL, Delta) team requests them for their missions, there are not enough of those aircraft to meet all of the requests.
When the team says they are doing a air infiltration, they request the air assets required. Prior to the air brief, they will know what platforms are available. For instance, they will be told, “You asked for 10 helicopters and you only get 3,” or “You asked for fast movers at 0330 hrs, but they can’t get on station until 0415 hrs,” and so on. By the end of the briefing, team members know who is available to cover their asses all the way down to the drone in the sky.
The MH-47H is a SOF-only aircraft built specifically for night operations. It emits a small radar signature and carries formidable countermeasures, including — but not limited to — two mini-guns and one .50-caliber machine gun. All crew members, including the flight crew, are assigned and trained by SOF.
Conversely, crew members aboard the CH-47D come from the ranks of the conventional forces and are not trained in the MH-47H capabilities. The CH-47D is equipped with basic countermeasures, including two 5.56mm M249 SAW machine guns. That’s it!
To be in the 160th, everyone — pilots included — must pass the same rigorous selection process as everyone else in SOF. Pilots, who go through Survival, Escape, Resistance, Evasion (SERE) School, must have been a regular aviation brigade member for at least four years before applying. In most cases, and depending upon the risk assessment, non-SOF aircraft would not be allowed to go on missions involving high-value targets in hostile areas. Long and short, the CJSOTF air commander would be the one coordinating this, responsible to locate and coordinate all air assets to include Quick-Reaction Force (QRF) air frames as well as fast movers, drones, etc.
By now, you’re asking, “What does all of this mean?” The items below explain things in a nutshell while raising important questions:
1) No aircraft goes out without escorts or layers of escorts.
2) The team commander had to be ordered to take host-nation personnel with him and to change out those personnel. Who gave that order?
3) Someone in the aviation unit would also have to approve the manifest change and would have the name of the person who authorized the change on the manifest. Who changed the manifest?
4) When, until now, was there ever a funeral with U.S. and host-nation personnel together. In all of my time in combat, I never saw it happen. Why did it happen in this case?
5) How many personnel since this war started has the government cremated? Again, I personally worked a crash with four U.S. personnel and one host-nation soldier that burned. I personally pulled three torsos out of the wreckage — there were no legs, arms or skull above the jaws — and I placed them into three separate body bags. I waited for the the forensic doctor who would perform the autopsy to arrive and, for four hours, we sifted through the wreckage for the remaining body parts and personnel effects. We had a sixth bag that we put the pieces in for DNA testing. I went to the funeral for the four U.S. personnel. The host nation held a funeral at a mosque on the installation. I tell you this to let you know great care is given to the dead, no matter how the person dies or how gruesome it is. Every Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman deserves to rest on American soil, and deserves to come home.
6) What assets were deployed to recover the personnel and what was the time line for those efforts?
7) The operations order would have listed a QRF assigned to the mission. Who were they and from what base/location did they come?
These are but a few of the questions that remain about Extortion 17.
During a May 9 news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., several family members of the fallen warriors raised similar questions and were joined by a number of high-ranking, now-retired SOF members who did the same. The news conference is captured in its entirety in the 3-hour video below. Worth every minute of time you spend watching it, I hope you will watch it, share it and demand your elected officials in Washington obtain answers from the Pentagon and the Obama Administration to the questions raised about Extortion 17.
Our men and women in uniform deserve nothing less.