In military history, any conflict can stand out as a perfect example of mission success or a heartfelt reminder of how dangerous and complex the operational environment can be. In March of 2002, there was one of the finest displays of Bravery, Gallantry, Cunning, and sheer will to survive by any human being, a remarkable feat considering the small number of personnel involved. It was a strategic mission by the United States and other Coalition Forces, in order to gain key terrain that would influence the enemy and ultimately lead to their defeat.
This is the Historical Case Study of the Battle of Takur Ghar in Afghanistan. It was later dubbed Roberts Ridge, in order to pay homage to the battle that ensued from the attempt to rescue Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts. History Everyone alive in America that is older than infancy and elementary school age is well aware of the events that took place on September 11, 2001. For those out there that may, for no fault of their own be ignorant of the fact, it is the day that Al-Qaeda insurgents, under the ultimate command of Osama Bin Laden, conducted a coordinated attack on United States Soil.
Two commercial jets carrying traveling passengers were taken hostage and flown directly into the World Trade Center in New York, killing everyone on board and many more in the buildings that later collapsed. Other coordinated attack efforts resulted in damage to the Pentagon, and more lives lost in the crash of Flight 93 which allegedly was retaken by its passengers and crashed into an open field in Pennsylvania. This action resulted in the declaration of the War on Terror by the United States Government, who later launched a joint multi forces military campaign across multiple countries.
The battle of Takur Ghar ultimately costed the United States 7 Americans Killed in Action, and a total loss of two MH-47 Chinook helicopters. Planning and Preparation The plan was an integral part of Operation Anaconda, which was a combined military effort to force the Al-Qaeda insurgents from the Shah-i-Kot Valley in Afghanistan. It is there, where Chechens and Uzbeks as well as other battle-hardened terrorists would conjure up in the winter months and prepare for the fighting season ahead.
Operation Anaconda was originally planned to use American and Afghani soldiers to assault the Al-Qaeda forces and block them, using the terrain as a bowl to surround the insurgents. Coalition forces would then flank and destroy the enemy that was routed into the valley. What was never realized is that the enemy forces built and occupied dug in fighting positions on the steep valley slopes, and had massed a force of nearly 200 fighters, which was ultimately a gross miscalculation, due to the enemies’ capabilities to augment hundreds more.
In total, there was an estimated 1000 AL-Qaeda fighters encountered by US and Coalition Forces that day. In order to facilitate the intelligence and observations required to conduct such a shaping engagement, a mission was planned to insert a six-man Navy SEAL team onto an LZ that was near the peak of Takur Ghar. Takur Ghar, which translates to “Tall Mountain” in Pushto, was the highest mountain overlooking the valley of Shah-i-Kot. This would prove to be an advantageous piece of terrain where Coalition Forces could over watch and influence the enemy, while maneuvering blocking forces and conducting counter attacks.
Execution/Action Issues arose early on, which caused the H hour for the insertion of the SEAL team onto the LP/OP site on to slide to the right. The first two MH-47G Chinook helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) that were slated to conduct this mission encountered maintenance problems. There were additional aircraft allocated to take the place of the first flight of Chinooks, but the delay from the execution of the bump plan to the spare aircraft only pushed the timeline further to the right.
The flight takes off, some four hours late, resulting in a change to the original planned LZ. Originally, the SEAL team was to infiltrate an LZ on the southeast side of Takur Ghar, and make the remaining hike to the summit on foot under the cover of darkness. Due to the delays, the plan was changed to insert the US Forces onto the peak of Takur Ghar, that they may set up and establish their observation point prior to day light hours. On short final to the peak of Takur Ghar, Razor 03 was caught in the center of a coordinated ambush from multiple heavy machine gun fighting positions.
Sheer pandemonium breaks out as the aircraft tries to take off and is bombarded with enemy small arms fire. As a result of the damage and loss of aircraft control, Navy Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts fell out of the MH-47G Chinook as it lifted off from the peak. The aircrew flew about four miles away where is set down, assessed the damage to the aircraft and casualties to the customers, at which point they realized they were a man short. It is at this time that they decide to go right back and get Roberts, a true testament to the character of these men.
Heavy pilot workload and aircraft instability caused the Chinook to crash about seven miles away as the aircrew attempted to return to the peak and retrieve the fallen SEAL. Razor 04, the sister MH-47G Chinook also returned to the peak to try to rescue Roberts, offloading a SEAL team and Air Force combat controllers, call sign MAKO30. An intense gun battle erupted as the six man SEAL team tries to assault forward and find Roberts, ultimately losing one Air Force combat controller and one SEAL and two more severely injured. Heavily fortified machine gun positions posed an emense threat to the US Forces.
They manuevered down the east side of the mountain as they radioed back for a quick reaction force of a platoon of Rangers from Bagram. Razor 01 and Razor 02, loaded with a platoon of Army Rangers, due to poor communications, flew right to the summit of Takur Ghar. On short final, Razor01 takes a rocket propelled grenade to the left side of the helicopter, damaging the rotor system and causing the aircraft to crash on the peak. Bullets riddled the thin skin of the helicopter as all enemy fire was directed towards the fuselage.
The Rangers were all scrambling to get out of the aircraft and take up fighting positions while under extreme enemy fire. US Army Sergeant Phillip Svitak, a Nightstalker, with duties as the right side door gunner of the MH-47G, began to lay suppressive fire from his minigun, allowing the Rangers to disembark the aircraft and return fire on the enemy. His selfless service drew all enemy fire to him, ultimately costing his life and the life of a Specialist who was next to him, as the enemy struck them with RPG’s and machinegun fire.
Without the selfless act, the Rangers may have sustained more casualties. Next, the left side door gunner was wounded and the Chinook was left defenseless to the barrage of RPG’s and small arms fire. Two more Rangers were killed while exiting the helicopter. The remaining Rangers began to engage and prosecute targets as they set up a hasty rally point. Captain Nathan Self, the Ranger Commander, began setting up fields of fire and establishing priorities of work. He set up communications, allowing access to close air support, a casualty collection point and ordered for calls for medevac.
Simultaneously, Razor02 drops off the rest of the Ranger platoon at a hasty LZ approximately 800 meters and 2000 feet below the summit. They proceeded to hike the four hour journey, each man carrying 100 pounds of equipment or more, up the 45-70 degree slope in order to assist in the battle above them. They met heavy enemy resistance along the way, but made it to the top and began the assault on the fortified machine gun positions. Two F-15 fighter jets to provide gun runs on the heavily fortified machine gun positions while a small group of Rangers flank the HMG nest.
Meanwhile, as the Rangers are making their assault, an enemy mortar position started lobbing mortars dangerously close to the casualty collection point. The casualties were moved into the downed aircraft for cover in order to preserve the life of the casualties. At this time, the communications Soldier establishes communications with another combat controller who assists in bringing in close air support. After multiple gun runs and bomb drops in a danger close situation, a Coalition Forces Predator drone drops a HELLFIRE missile on the bunker to extinguish the enemy.
With the enemy dead or suppressed, the focus was then reverted to the casualties. Both pilots were severely hurt, as well as multiple gunshot victims. Air Force Para Rescue Soldiers were tending to the wounded when another engagement breaks out from multiple enemy insurgents that have massed on their position. As Senior Airman Jason Cunningham was treating one of the casualties, he was shot in the torso under his body armor. The medevac sense of urgency increased, but despite the requests for immediate medevac, key leaders would not authorize any more air movements until dark.
The final rescue attempt was not authorized until sunset. Unfortunately, that delay resulted in the loss of three more casualties, including Senior Airman Cunningham. Lessons Learned The most paramount of mistakes in this mission, was the lack of communication established between the assaulting forces and the Tactical Operations Center. The delay in gaining communications with any available close air asset made for the enemies ease of producing casualties. The fog of war can be blamed for some of this, as many radios were bullet laden or had dropped their frequencies.
Another issue is the willingness to accept risk by key leadership. At the end of the day, we have Americans fighting for their lives, some dying for their Country. You would think that from the plush armchair in the Headquarters building, someone would do whatever it took to preserve those lives. Instead, this group of Patriots were left out there until the cover of darkness before they were exfiltrated. This risk adverse mentality contributed to the loss of the lives of three more Americans.
It saddens me to hear about the complete lack of value to the war effort put on by this small group of Americans. That key leaders given the authority to effect change sit idle while lives are lost. But then, as I stomach that blow, I focus on their true grit, their courage, their resolve, their valor, the bravery, their fearlessness, their dedication, the sheer tenacity of these Hero’s, and I am reminded of why our country is so great. God bless those that lost their lives in this battle, and the families that they left behind. Night Stalkers Don’t Quit!!