East Anglians protect Afghan frontline

MARK NICHOLLS Attacks on a military air base critical to the NATO operation Afghanistan have fallen dramatically after personnel from East Anglia were drafted in to beef up protection.

MARK NICHOLLS

Attacks on a military air base critical to the NATO operation Afghanistan have fallen dramatically after personnel from East Anglia were drafted in to beef up protection.

Kandahar Air Base suffered sustained rocket attacks virtually on a nightly basis from the Taliban until troops from 2 Squadron of the RAF Regiment from Honington and 3 Force Protection (FP) Wing from Marham moved in during the middle of last year.

Wing Commander Andy Knowles, who commands 3FP Wing, said: "Since June 2006, the airbase has suffered no casualties and no significant damage. And last week a number of very senior Taliban leaders were captured by my men."

But his troops do much more than merely guard the perimeter wire: in the past the base has regularly been targeted by mortars and rockets which can be fired from over five miles away so the FP Wing aims to "sanitise" the area around the outside of the huge air base, which hosts 12,000 personnel from UK, Canada, USA, Netherlands, Estonia, Denmark and Romania.

In total, Wing Cdr Knowles maintains the security of an area of some 400 square kilometres with about 700 troops under his command.

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"The Force Protection operation at Kandahar is probably the biggest and most sophisticated of any air base in the world," he said.

The base is a key air hub for NATO with RAF Harriers, Hercules and Chinooks operating from it as well as US fast jets, helicopters and supply planes.

When the RAF Regiment arrived last May it was usual for the base to come under rocket attack two or three times every night. Once the Squadron arrived and started to patrol outside the wire, the number of rocket attacks dropped to two or three per week and has now fallen to a couple each month.

The troops also interact with local villagers and were involved in a Civil Military Co-operation project building six wells and a 'karez' deep-trench irrigation scheme for the village of Kalantar Kalay, about four miles from the airfield.

Honington's 2 Squadron has been accompanied to Kandahar by 16 members of 2620 Squadron of Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment based at Marham.

Senior Aircraftsman Stuart Goodwin, 37, from Norwich, who has been an auxiliary for eight years, said: "I was called up during the first Iraq war and our squadron went to Kuwait but there, we only operated inside the wire. This is very different - we are working outside the wire which has its dangers but we're well trained and well prepared to take on anything that happens."

Squadron Leader Steve Carter, 40, from Wisbech, is second-in-command of 3FP Wing after 19 years in the RAF Regiment. "Seeing the work that we've done here, it makes me proud to be a member of the RAF Regiment," he said.