Late on Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, a Taliban insurgent force of sappers carried out an attack on Camp Bastion, the NATO ISAF base in Afghanistan, resulting in the worst loss of U.S. airpower in a single incident since the Vietnam War. Two Marines, including VMA-211’s commanding officer, were killed in the attack, and nine other personnel (eight military and one contractor, reportedly) were wounded. By the time the base was secured roughly five hours later, six U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) AV-8B+ Harrier “jump jets” had been destroyed, and two more “significantly” damaged. In addition, three refueling points were destroyed, and six “soft-skinned” aircraft hangers were damaged to some degree. As a result of this attack, the air strength of Marine Attack Squadron 211 (VMA-211 – “The Avengers”) presumably 10 aircraft, was almost completely destroyed.
Camp Bastion is a British-run ISAF base in Helmand Providence northwest of Lashkar Gah, built adjacent to Camp Leatherneck (the primary USMC base in the area) and Camp Shorabak (run by the Afghan National Army). Equipped with a 3,500-meter (11,482 foot) runway and servicing up to 28,000 personnel, it is the largest British base in Afghanistan. One of them, on Sept. 14, was an AH-64 Apache crewman named Capt.“Wales,” otherwise known as Harry, Prince of Wales. Along with the British Apaches and other U.K. aircraft, Camp Bastion also provides basing for USMC aviation units, including VMA-211, the only Harrier squadron then in Afghanistan.
The attack on Camp Bastion began at around 10:00 PM local time, when about 20 Taliban fighters approached the perimeter, disguised in U.S. battle dress uniforms. One of the Taliban used his explosive suicide vest to blow a hole in the perimeter fence, which reportedly allowed three five-man sapper squads into the secured areas of the base. Armed with AK-47s, RPG-7s and explosive suicide vests, the Taliban fighters flooded into the U.S. area known as Camp Barber.
As they began to attack the flightline areas, however, the RAF security force began to react within just 12 minutes, when they established an MQ-9 Reaper UAV orbit over the camp. This was followed by the launch of a British Apache helicopter that immediately engaged the insurgents, killing several. In addition, the British ground security force began to fight its way toward Camp Barber over the main runway, reportedly expending around 10,000 rounds of ammunition in the process. It took five hours to secure the base and police up the insurgents.
When the sun rose the next day, the deadly cost of the Taliban raid began to be seen. Fourteen of the 15 insurgent sappers were killed, along with two of their support force outside the fence. One insurgent was wounded and captured, and is providing useful information on this latest “Green on Blue” Taliban attack. The Allied casualties, however, are proving heartbreaking. Killed during the attack were Lt. Col. Christopher “Otis” K. Raible, USMC (the commander of VMA-211) and Sgt. Bradley W. Atwell (from Marine Air Logistics Squadron 13), both based at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma, Ariz.
Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevant, USMC, commander of Marine Aircraft Wing Three (Forward), has announced that replacements for the lost aircraft and personnel will be “brought forward,” suggesting VMA-211 will be reconstituted in place. While VMA-211’s executive officer, Maj. John “Strut” Havener, USMC, has been named the interim squadron commander, it is possible another Harrier squadron will be deployed and the Avengers returned to their home base at MCAS Yuma. The only “good” news about the attack was that Prince Harry was unharmed. He appears to have been one of the targets of the Taliban attack (his birthday was Sept. 15), and was taken to a “safe area” of the base and given extra security.
Whatever the organizational outcome, the Sept. 14, 2012 attack on Camp Bastion is arguably the worst day in USMC aviation history since the Tet Offensive of 1968. The last time VMA-211 was combat ineffective was in December 1941, when the squadron was wiped out during the 13-day defense of Wake Island against the Japanese. Eight irreplaceable aircraft (the AV-8B has been out of production since 1999) have been destroyed or put out of action – approximately 7 percent of the total flying USMC Harrier fleet. Worse yet, the aircraft involved were the AV-B+ variant equipped with the APG-65 radar and AAQ-28 Litening II targeting pods – the most capable in the force. Given the current funding situation, it’s likely that the two damaged AV-8Bs will become spare parts “hangar queens” and never fly again. A Harrier squadron commander is dead, along with another Marine. Another nine personnel have been wounded, and the nearby Marines at Camp Freedom are now without effective fixed-wing air support. The USMC’s response to this disaster will be a telling report card on its leadership and organizational agility.