The Taliban Attack on Camp Bastion
Camp Bastion, known as the BLS (Camps Bastion-Leatherneck-Shorabak) Complex was the largest and most important coalition base in southwest Afghanistan, hosting the Regional Command Southwest headquarters, the main hub of U.S. Marine Corps and British forces in Afghanistan. An Army/Afghanistan National Army (ANA) training facility; a sizeable contingent of Afghanistan soldiers and other coalition forces; thousands of contractors; critical logistics functions; and the primary airfield to support U.S. Marine and coalition air operations across southwest Afghanistan also were present on the base. The BLS Complex covered approximately 40 square miles and could accommodate almost 30,000 personnel. The perimeter of the BLS Complex was composed of approximately 25 miles of fence line.
At approximately 2200 on Sept. 14, 2012, 15 heavily armed Taliban insurgents dressed in U.S. Army uniforms breached the eastern perimeter of Camp Bastion undetected, split into three teams of five men each and commenced a coordinated attack on Camp Bastion’s airfield. The resulting friendly casualties and damage included two Marines killed in action, eight U.S. personnel wounded, six AV-8B Harriers destroyed, and two Harriers and a C-130E severely damaged. Four more aircraft received minor damage, three fuel bladders were destroyed and several aircraft sun shades (hangars) were either destroyed or damaged. Fourteen attackers were killed, and one was captured.
Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Lightfoot, Commanding Officer, Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 469, was sitting at his desk when the first explosion shook the walls of his office. He thought it might be explosive ordnance disposal detonating unexploded munitions. “Sergeant Major Massi and I went outside,” Lightfoot said, “And within 15 seconds there was another explosion. That’s when we saw the flames on the Harrier flight line ... 50 to 100-foot flames billowing thick, black smoke ... there was an aircraft on fire and a couple other areas were on fire as well. We yelled out for everyone to get to the bunkers on our compound.” He initially thought it was an indirect fire attack by rockets or mortars.
Lightfoot ran back to the headquarters building and gave directions to the operations duty officer: notify the Tactical Air Control Center about the attack; sound the “Troops in Contact” alarm—the signal to launch the alert aircraft—and get alert aircraft airborne immediately. Lightfoot explained, “Usually we respond to other units. This time it was in response to our own troops in contact.” He then telephoned the 3d Marine Air Wing (Forward) commanding general, Major General Greg Sturdevant, and briefed him, “We’re under attack on the northeast side of the flight line. I just saw a Harrier explode.”
Captains Benjamin C. Nickell and Seth N. Jordan were in the Life Support Area-13 chow hall. Nickell “heard several booms ... and saw an explosion on the flight line and another explosion by the fuel pits and a huge fireball.” As he observed the fire, he saw “an exchange of machine-gun fire and tracers.” Jordan recalled, “A bus [came] screaming down the road ... with bullet holes in it and the back window shot out.” He remembered the explosions, “one approximately every 10 seconds for what I recall was at least 10 explosions.” The two captains hotfooted it back to their rooms to retrieve their flak jackets and helmets.
Nickell and Jordan retrieved their protective equipment and made their way to the flight line aid station where they found “fully armed VMM-361 [Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 361] Marines formed up shoulder to shoulder behind HESCO barriers … and more … between the buildings.” Inside the aid station, an injured corpsman was being treated for shrapnel wounds caused by a Taliban hand grenade. The two officers commandeered a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP) and drove to Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 211 to pick up an urgent category “A” casualty: “As we crossed in front of the cryogenics area, the MRAP was being engaged with machine-gun fire ... we could hear the crack of the rounds.”
Capt Adam Coker, a UH-1Y Venom Huey aircraft commander, was talking to a Marine in the quality assurance spaces on the HMLA-469 flight line when he heard an explosion. “Just after 2200, something exploded and rattled the whole building. We kind of looked at each other for a second, and then we heard another explosion.” The two ran to the end of the building just as another explosion went off. Thinking that it might be a mortar or rocket attack, Coker shouted for everyone to get in the protective bunker. However, within minutes, he heard the crackle of small-arms fire. Climbing on top of the bunker, he saw tracers and noticed, “A very large fire coming from the north side of our hangar where the Harrier squadron was located.”
The squadron’s summary of the enemy attack noted, “The HMLA-469 compound was surrounded by fires, and the VMA-211 flight line, only 100 meters to the north, had six AV-8B jets on fire. The cryogenics lab, 400 meters to the southeast, and the fuel pits, 300 meters to the south, were also on fire.”
Coker, along with Corporal Benjamin L. Hebert and Staff Sergeant Robert C. Wise sprinted to the flight line shop and passed out rifles and magazines to anyone without a weapon. According to Coker, he “placed several Marines on the walkway between ‘T-walls,’ [13-foot steel reinforced concrete blast walls] and assigned them sectors of fire. We all spread out to assume a defensive posture and to find out what was going on.” LtCol Lightfoot remarked, “Pretty much every Marine grabbed a rifle and took a spot on post.”
SSgt Wise worked his way to the squadron’s entry control point (ECP) “to check on our Marines and ensure that the position was fortified. When I reached the ECP, it was completely unmanned.” He checked the area to see if any Marines were hurt. “At that point I took effective small-arms fire from the direction of the cryogenics facility. I returned fire.” A Huey crew chief, SSgt Steven B. Seay, manned an M240 machine gun and fired 150 to 200 rounds in an attempt to suppress the enemy fire.
Coker low-crawled toward the Harrier flight line to see what was going on. “The fires were so bright that I couldn’t see anything through the ACOG [Advanced Combat Optical Gunsights] on my rifle.” He crawled back to the T-walls where he met the squadron commander, who told him to launch. Coker handed his rifle to a Marine and ran for the flight line with his crewmen—SSgt Wise, Cpl Hebert and Lance Corporal Seamus Clarke. Halfway there, the TIC alarm sounded. “As we were running,” Hebert said, “I heard shots cracking overhead close by.” Coker and his copilot, Capt James Gianelloni, started the aircraft and waited for permission to lift off.
Maj Robert J. Weingart, section lead for the squadron’s general support section on strip alert, spotted the squadron commander coming out of the headquarters building and heard him shout, “We need to get aircraft in the air.” Lightfoot said, “Once I realized that we were under attack, my priority was to get our aircraft airborne so that we became the hunter vice the hunted.”
Weingart sprinted for his aircraft just as the squadron’s TIC alarm sounded. “Running across the [flight] line, I observed a large fire on the AV-8B parking ramp ... and heard the Auxiliary Power Unit on Capt Coker’s aircraft start. When I reached [my] aircraft ... other Marines were already removing the tie-down gear getting it ready to launch.”
Weingart requested clearance to take off. The tower responded with, “The airfield’s yours,” and the section lifted off. SSgt Wise recalled, “I observed the ordnance and flight line Marines taking defensive positions as we taxied out and providing suppressive cover fire for our aircraft.”
Cpl Hebert said, “I noticed that the Harrier flight line was burning; five out of the six visible aircraft were on fire and burning the sunshades (hangars) they were positioned under.” Coker remembered “ordnance cooking off ... it was a really, really bright flash.” The section was forced to fly between 300 to 500 feet off the ground because of the thick smoke from the burning aircraft and a fire in the fuel pits.
Shortly after Weingart’s section was airborne, Lightfoot lifted off with a section—an AH-1W and a UH-1Y. The Huey had only one pilot, Capt Brian Jordan, but Lightfoot authorized him to launch with an experienced crew chief (Cpl Lorena Castillo) in the left seat. The squadron’s summary noted, “Having a crew chief act as a copilot during a Low Light Level night, with multiple other aircraft in a very small piece of sky, is a less than an ideal situation at best.” In addition, Lightfoot’s Cobra had an engine malfunction on takeoff, which forced him to continuously manipulate fuel control in flight; the normal emergency procedure is to land the aircraft.
Lightfoot’s section launched to provide additional close air support (CAS) and to reduce the total number of targets of opportunity on the flight line. Once airborne, Lightfoot coordinated with Weingart and immediately searched for enemy attackers around the flight line and indirect fire positions along the outer perimeter of Camp Bastion since it was still believed that mortar fire had destroyed the first AV-8B Harriers. They also flew “lights on” to attract enemy fire in order to locate enemy attackers. Fifteen minutes into the flight, Lightfoot’s section grew to a light division as another AH-1W joined his flight. Ultimately, Lightfoot and Weingart’s flights would “yo-yo,” providing continuous CAS and overwatch of the Bastion flight line for the next eight hours.
“We got a call from base defense saying they were taking rounds from the cryogenics facility,” Coker recalled. “Our section then pushed overhead to gain positive identification of the insurgents. This was difficult due to the fires blooming out our night vision goggles, and the smoke associated with the fuel burning. It was extremely difficult to differentiate between the friendly forces and the insurgents even using our forward looking infrared sensors. [Maj Weingart] relayed this issue to the joint terminal attack coordinator (JTAC) and requested the friendlies to open fire toward the enemy position.”
“We then observed continuous tracers ... oriented on the southern wall of the cryogenics facility,” Weingart said. “Based on the concentration of fire, I directed our flight to engage the point where the friendly tracers converged.” After ensuring that the friendlies in the area were clear, Capt Jeremy Elliot, Weingart’s co-pilot, engaged the infiltrators with 20 mm cannon fire. As the Cobra pulled off, the UH-1Y rolled in. Hebert, manning the port side machine gun, “shot 300 rounds of .50-caliber down the southern wall, walking it from west to east multiple times. SSgt Wise engaged with roughly 600 rounds of 7.62 mm [GAU-17/A weapons system] towards the south wall of the cryogenics.” Immediately after the aerial attacks, a British Quick Reaction Force engaged the infiltrators with a 40 mm grenade launcher and eliminated the threat.
After refueling and rearming, the section returned on station and made contact with Maj Robert McDonald, VMA-211 executive officer and a qualified JTAC, who said that he had “eyes on” four insurgents. “He talked me on to the insurgents, which we could see through our sensors,” Coker said. “They were hiding between the cutouts of the T-walls. They were dressed in digital uniforms but wearing tennis shoes, and they had beards.”
Weingart determined that, because of the proximity to friendlies, none of the weapons on his aircraft were appropriate for the situation. “I asked if the Marines on the ground could concentrate their automatic weapons’ fire on the point of origin, so I could identify it and get maneuvered to where we could engage it for them,” he said. “They saw where the friendly vehicle was engaging the enemy, and then they started opening up with the M240 machine gun from the vicinity of our compound,” explained Weingart. “The combination of seeing the rounds from the vehicles and seeing our Marines from the northeast gave us a pretty good pinpoint location of where the bad guys were.” Weingart knew that he had to be sure before he could take any shots. “It’s one thing to shoot the bad guys and miss; another thing entirely to shoot at the bad guys, miss and hit the Marines you’re trying to help,” said Weingart. “That’s the absolute worst outcome.”
SSgt Seay left the ECP and “maneuvered along the dirt berm outside the HMLA compound ... and engaged the entrance to a bunker that I saw an enemy fighter run into. As I was shooting, I looked over my right shoulder and saw an AH-1W Cobra attack helicopter [Weingart] come out of the smoke and flames of the fuel pits.”
Weingart passed the lead to Coker who made several low-level passes waiting for clearance to engage. “Every time we came around we could see them [insurgents] track us with their weapons. We could see brass come out of their weapons.” Suddenly, a crewman shouted, “Break left, break left!” An RPG passed behind Coker’s helicopter. “I don’t know how we didn’t get hit,” Coker said.
Coker confirmed the target with McDonald, who cleared him hot. Cpl Hebert explained, “Capt Coker pulled us into a hover around 150-200 feet ... within 150 meters of the target. I engaged with 200 rounds of .50-caliber on the T-wall. I stopped firing, and, as we pulled away, we determined that all four insurgents had been hit.” But a few minutes later Coker was informed that one of the insurgents was still moving. “We came around again and I re-engaged, focusing another 100 rounds on the southwestern side of the T-wall,” Hebert said. It appeared that all the insurgents had been killed.
Meanwhile, an unmanned aerial system—a drone—that was flying overwatch spotted an insurgent apparently attempting to conceal a hand grenade under his arm. Coker was cleared to engage again. With the .50-cal. low on ammunition, Wise was tagged to shoot with his GAU-17. “I directed all my rounds on the blast wall working my fires north to south along the wall to saturate it with as dense fire as possible,” Coker commented, “This attack had excellent effects, and all insurgents in that position were confirmed dead.”
Lightfoot praised the HMLA-469 Marines. “Every Marine is a rifleman,” he said. “Marines of every military occupational specialty in the squadron, to include AH-1W and UH-1Y aircraft mechanics, dropped their wrenches and grabbed their rifles to defend the HMLA-469 compound from a well-armed enemy. Through the coordinated use of ground and aerial delivered fires, in danger-close proximity to friendly forces, all enemy insurgents were killed or captured. I am extremely proud to serve with such high-caliber men and women.”
Author’s bio: Dick Camp, a retired Marine colonel, is the former director of operations for the National Museum of the Marine Corps, former deputy director and director (acting) of the Marine Corps History Division and a prolific author. His most recent nonfiction books, “Shadow Warriors” and “Assault From the Sky,” are available from The MARINE Shop. He is a frequent contributor to Leatherneck.