Aug 20 , 2021
Night Stalker Special Ops Helicopters Now In Kabul Could Be Critical To Evacuation
The elite unit provides multiple capabilities for this operation, but its ability to supply unrivaled surgical close air support may be most valuable.
The application of American airpower was an absolutely decisive factor in American forces and their Northern Alliance allies sacking the Taliban from power in 2001. It remained so throughout the 20-year conflict until the United States pulled its aerial assets from supporting the Afghan National Army. The rest is history. But the highly precarious situation the U.S. military is in now in as a result of the rickety evacuation operation centered entirely at Kabul's international airport, which is now totally surrounded by the Taliban, makes traditional airpower provided by fighters, drones, and bomber aircraft, a far less effective tactical option to lean on in a pinch. One very unique, highly-trained, and specially-equipped group is capable of overcoming these limitations, if they are called upon to do so, and they are now in Kabul in force—the 160th Special Operations Airborne Regiment (SOAR), better known as the Night Stalkers.
Based on publically available images on the ground and from satellites, the 160th SOAR had a small presence of a couple of transport helicopters in Kabul when the city fell to the Taliban on August 15th, but since then, their numbers have been significantly bolstered, most notably by a contingent of at least eight AH/MH-6 Little Birds, as well as specially modified MH-60 Black Hawks and MH-47 Chinooks. These two larger types are capable of in-flight refueling and can deploy directly without having to be broken down to be flown in on a transport aircraft, which are currently highly taxed bringing in standard forces to protect the airport in Kabul and flying out Americans and Afghan allies.
The Little Birds, on the other hand, are designed to be stuffed in transport planes as small as a C-130 and can be ready to be flown in a matter of minutes, not hours, once they are rolled off the aircraft. As such, the 160th is especially capable of quickly deploying to an area without taxing logistical aircraft and can leave just as fast as they arrived, unlike their conventional force counterparts. This could be especially important for the high-risk proposition of having U.S. forces actually exit from Afghanistan, once and for all. The simple fact is that someone has to be the last to leave once the mission comes to a close.
One can reasonably predict that it will be the 160th SOAR and the special operators they carry that will be the last Americans to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport. The U.S. force protection contingent currently there, which numbers in the thousands of troops, will have to draw down and depart at the end of the evacuation mission. This will demand a shrinking perimeter and whoever is last to leave will have to be capable of doing so very fast, and potentially fight their way out. There will not be time to break down complex helicopters and slowly load them onto lumbering transports. As such, it is very possible that the 160th SOAR will be the force tasked with this ultra risky endcap to America's two-decade-long mission in the war-torn country.
This is somewhat fitting as it is also the 160th SOAR and the SEAL operators they often carry that went into Pakistan and killed Osama Bin Laden a decade ago. The Al Qaeda mastermind was the predominant figure that set the events in motion that led to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
Still, getting out last in a lightning-quick manner isn't the only thing this force could be extremely useful for. The unprecedented situation U.S. forces and are in right now of trying to get people out of the country while being totally surrounded by enemy fighters and civilians, in a dense urban area, makes executing close air support of any kind in an emergency very tricky and extremely volatile both tactically and politically. Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs are nearly impossible to use under such conditions, leaving drones, fighters, and bombers largely unemployable. Extreme precision is required and with this comes the necessity of close proximity.
Outside of their special operations transport duties, this is where the 160th SOAR really shines. Their AH-6 Little Birds and MH-60 Black Hawk derivatives in the Direct Action Penetrator (DAP) configuration are all about the intimate application of airpower against enemy forces in very challenging terrain. They use 7.62mm and .50 caliber machine guns to make pinpoint strafing runs, even flying down streets at below building-top level to accomplish the desired effect. They can also sling standard and laser-guided rockets capable of killing a single fighter in a doorway, as well as Hellfire missiles, if need be, but the whole idea is that they can fight from the air without causing mass collateral damage in situations in which almost anything else cannot, and especially when supporting special operations forces on the ground.