Afghanistan - 14 Squadron TAGGs - Airfield Surveys

Courtesy of Alfredo Conetta

42 Engineer Regiment (Geographic) permanently has deployed around 40 soldiers, who provide specialist geographic support to operations from locations around theatre. Their main role is to produce both standard and bespoke mapping products, detailing anything from real time troop locations and IED finds to producing mission specific mapping and target packs for deliberate operations. In addition to our mapping role, many of you may not be aware the Regiment is also committed to providing a field surveying capability to HQ ISAF.

This task required a specialist team of 10 personnel from 14 Geographic Squadron to deploy to Afghanistan in June of this year with the task of carrying out detailed flight safety surveying for the American National Geospatial Agency. Put simply the job entailed using highly accurate GPS and theodolite equipment to record the heights and locations of obstacles in and around Airfields at FOB Fenty near Jalalabad in Nangahar Province RC(E) and Herat Airbase in RC(W).

Sgt Waters and I deployed as an advanced party two weeks ahead of the main body, and once the standard RSOI package at Bastion was completed, we wasted no time in trying to reach Herat and Jalalabad for recces. This involved breaking free from everybody's favourite theatre luxury airline and trusting our lives to a mixture of other nations' airframes. After taking nearly 25 in theatre flights I can assure you that it is not just the RAF who sometimes get things a little wrong.

Once the main body arrived we moved up en masse to the American run Jalalabad Airfield – FOB Fenty to begin work. The surveying within the perimeter of the FOB went smoothly (bar the odd rocket and ground attack) accurately recording the runway, airfield navigation aids, buildings and towers in X days. Work outside the perimeter was slightly more challenging though. All force protection for the area around the Airfield was provided from FOB Finley Shied located nearer to Jalalabad City centre- a short helo ride away. To reach obstructions such as communication towers, the survey team was attached to an American Military Police Platoon who were responsible for mentoring the Afghan National Police within the city. The MP and ANA were able to secure the necessary ground so that the survey team could go firm for enough time to set up their equipment and take the required measurements.

Being a survey for flight safety, any kind of vertical obstruction near the airfield is of interest. For those unaware, Jalalabad is located roughly 50Km from the Khyber pass, and being located roughly 50km form the Khyber Pass means that it is surrounded by big mountains. Lots of big mountains. To reach these points, the survey team was able to attach itself to “Buka” Platoon from 101 st Airborne Division, who worked the survey team into their patrol schedule. “The hardest day of my life” is how Spr Eades, one of the Regiment's fittest, described the patrol which caused two American and one British soldier to be medivaced due to heat exhaustion. After completing two thirds of the obstacles and with the hardest, most mountainous third still to go, the decision was made to halt the task, with the intention of returning to Nangahar Province on a future deployment not in the heat of an Afghan summer.

Herat, being a Spanish and Italian Airfield in a relatively low threat area experiences life at a slightly more relaxed pace to most of Afghanistan, with siestas not being confined to midday, a choice of pizza and steak restaurants for dinner and a loosely enforced two-can rule for our European friends.

Unfortunately, due to a number of security issues we were unable to deploy outside of the airfield perimeter under Italian and Spanish force protection and our time at Herat was short. We were able to successfully collect all the data required from around the airfield, building on the work done by a previous deployment by 13 Geographic Squadron.

Overall, the deployment was a success. The task proved that RE Geo soldiers were capable of performing their niche, but hugely important specialist role under many operational pressures. It also allowed soldiers to experience working alongside our coalition partners of other nationalities, and operate in areas rarely visited by British Soldiers.

Lt Knowles