Attrition: Disaster Strikes Twice


September 25, 2012: On September 14th, at Camp Bastion in Helmand province Afghanistan fifteen Taliban, wearing American uniforms, got into the airbase area and destroyed six American AV-8 aircraft and damaged two others. The base is shared by British and U.S. Marine Corps forces. One of the marine units was Marine Attack Squadron 211 (VMA 211), which normally has ten AV-8s. It's been over 70 years since a marine aviation squadron has suffered such heavy losses in so short a period. That was an earlier version of the same squadron (VMF-211) that was defending Wake Island against Japanese attack. In two weeks VMF-211 lost all twelve of its F4F Wildcat fighters during two weeks of fighting the Japanese (who eventually conquered Wake). Eleven of the other twelve F4Fs of VMF-211 were lost defending Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. VMF-211 had aircraft and personnel replaced and served throughout World War II and after, becoming VMA-211 in 1952. The squadron flew A-4Ms for 30 years and received AV-8s in 2000.

During the recent attack in Afghanistan all but one of the fifteen attackers were killed, as well as two marines (including the commander of VMA-211). Some of the attackers wore suicide bomb vests and none apparently expected to survive the operation. The one attacker who survived spoke freely to his captors, providing information that quickly led to the killing or capture of local Taliban who had planned and supported the attack.

The Camp Bastion attack was one of the most spectacular Taliban victories in over a decade. It is being studied in detail to discover what went wrong with American security and fix the defects. Britain controlled most of Camp Bastion and immediately (within 15 minutes) provided ground troops and an armed Reaper UAV to help deal with the attackers. Because the attackers were not detected before they breached the last line of defense the Taliban did not encounter any resistance until they were on the airfield, wearing American uniforms. It helped that they did not move like U.S. troops or look like them close up (or through binoculars). The attackers were also carrying AK-47s and RPGs, another giveaway. But the U.S. uniforms did cause some confusion and delay and that gave the enemy an opportunity to attack the aircraft.

The last time marine aviation units suffered such heavy losses was during the Vietnam War Tet Offensive of 1968. But there the losses were spread over several months. The 211th has the misfortune of twice (2012 and 1941) suffering catastrophic losses in a very short period of time.  



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