6 Harrier jets destroyed, 2 damaged in Taliban assault on Camp Bastion


AV-8B Harriers operating in Afghanistan. Image from the US Department of Defense.

Friday night’s “well-coordinated” suicide assault on Camp Bastion resulted in the destruction of six US Harrier strike aircraft and significant damage to two others. The members of the suicide assault team wore US Army uniforms and “appeared to be well equipped, trained and rehearsed,” the International Security Assistance Force said.

The nighttime attack, in which a suicide assault team penetrated the perimeter of Camp Bastion, a sprawling base in the Desert of Death in Helmand province, resulted in the death of two ISAF soldiers. Eight other ISAF troops and a civilian contractor were wounded in the attack. Fourteen members of the assault team were killed and one more was wounded and captured.

“The attack commenced just after 10 p.m. when approximately 15 insurgents executed a well-coordinated attack against the airfield on Camp Bastion,” ISAF said in a statement that provided additional details on the attack. “The insurgents, organized into three teams, penetrated at one point of the perimeter fence.”

The members of the jihadist assault team were “dressed in U.S. Army uniforms and armed with automatic rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers and suicide vests.”

Once inside the perimeter, the assault team “attacked coalition fixed and rotary wing aircraft parked on the flight line, aircraft hangars and other buildings.”

ISAF confirmed that six AV-8B Harrier strike aircraft “were destroyed” and two more “were significantly damaged.” Although ISAF did not state which country owned flew the aircraft, the US Marine Corps is the only military branch flying Harriers in Afghanistan. The aircraft cost an estimated $30 million each.

Additionally, “three coalition refueling stations were also destroyed. Six soft-skin aircraft hangars were damaged to some degree.”

ISAF said on the day of the attack that it “has determined that despite the damage, there will be no impact to ground or air operations from Camp Bastion.”

However, a US Marine aviation officer familiar with operations in southern Afghanistan disagreed. The Harriers are used to provide close air support for Coalition forces conducting combat and counterinsurgency operations in the south, and with eight of the aircraft taken offline, there will be less to support these missions.

“Our resources in the south — including aircraft — are already stretched,” the officer told The Long War Journal. “We couldn’t afford this loss, and our troops on the ground are going to feel this.”

Friday’s complex attack on Bastion is very similar to a host of other assaults on major bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have taken place over the years. An alliance of jihadist groups, that include the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda, Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and other terror groups have penetrated bases and targeted aircraft and other personnel. [See LWJ report, Jihadists launch complex assault on Camp Bastion in Helmand, for a list of the more significant attacks since 2009.]

Correction/update: the article was updated to note that the Harriers were from the US Marine Corps. The British military retired its Harriers two years ago. In the past, Harriers were stationed in Afghanistan.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • HMS Undaunted says:

    They had to USMC Harriers. All UK Harriers have been removed from service.

  • James says:

    Wow-this will definetley affect CAS operations. I could be wrong but didnt the US Marines buy Britans inventory of harriers?

  • James says:

    Wow-this will definetley affect CAS operations. I could be wrong but didnt the US Marines buy Britans inventory of harriers?

  • Rocha says:

    The base commander should be desmissed, as a consequence of that raid. What kind of security did they have at the place? Weren’t they capable to use sensors and other kind of stuff? Wow, that was an imense incompetence!

  • Bilal says:

    Its surprising that the US never comes up with the correct number of casualties or damage in the initial report and constantly changes the figures and story, as happened in the Camp Salerno attack. Yet, it is believed and not mocked. On the other hand, when Taliban lay tall claims, the initial reaction is disbelief and mockery. Too often, it seems the Taliban claims have not been farther from reality than the US’s. Plus, the US is able to hide the casualty figure by declaring the casualties over several days in separate incidents. So far, within 48 hours, 6 more coalition deaths have been attributed to green-on-blue. Also, those who are injured and die on the way or in Ramstein are not counted as war dead. In a couple of years, the nation will wonder if the actual number of dead soldiers lie between the 2000 officially recognized or the 20,000 claimed by the enemy.

  • Harry Houdini says:

    I agree, the loss of so many aircraft will hurt like hell. The Taliban have upped their game by leaps and bounds. Bastion is supposed to have ‘long-sight’ over the surrounding area which should mean that an approaching force can be seen well off in the distance. The fact they managed to get up close and into the base without detection and then take out so many aircraft says a lot.

  • Rick Yerby says:

    This is what happens when you fight HALF WAR. Either kill the Bastards or come home. This is because of politically correct crap.

  • Tim Cheney says:

    The British armed forces has not operated the Harrier since 2010.
    Therefore the only Harrier based at Camp Bastion is the USMC AV-8B.

  • Port Blair says:

    Okay 6+ aircraft is lost , however Harriers are important to hunt down terrorists and fly short missions. But the intelligence gathering will likely be less impacted as it is mostly carried out by drones and micro-satellites.
    The loss of personnel is more disconcerting.

  • foxmuldar says:

    Since the assault took place at night, I wonder if someone was asleep on watch. As for the infiltrators wearing US Army uniforms, that shouldn’t matter if they had been spotted outside the compound. Again I wonder if someone didn’t fall asleep on watch. The US has night vision goggles so this many infiltrators should have been spotted. And if they were spotted certainly a code or something to identify them as real US Military had to be used before they would be allowed to enter inside the perimeter. Hopefully we will find out more later. Lucky for the compound, only two were killed.
    I’m also going to bet that whomever was in charge at this base will be replaced shortly if he or she hasn’t been by now. JMOP

  • JJAK says:

    The Brits retired their Harriers two years ago. They sold the remaining aircraft and equipment to the US for use as spares hulks for the Marine Harriers.

  • Paul D says:

    How long before we find Pakistans fingerprints on this attack?

  • Apr says:

    The British stopped using the Harrier a long time ago.

  • Martin says:

    If we assume that each aircraft is still worth 50% of its original price and add up the 6 destroyed machines + the 2 damaged ones + damage to hangars/other base structures, this adds up to > $100 million in material damage.
    @LongWarJourmal Editors: I think this might be the highest material losses in a single day in the entire Afghanistan War. What is your take on this?

  • Maaz Siddiqui says:

    I really don’t understand the presence of ISAF in Afghanistan .I mean it has been 11 years and they have not understood a fact that these people will never change. They will continue to fight and kill someone till the end.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    This attack is remarkably similar to ones made by the LTTE during the Sri Lankan Civil War. It played out almost exactly like the July 24th 2001 LTTE attack on Bandaranaike air base where 14 LTTE suicide commandos destroyed a number of Sri Lankan Air force and civilian aircraft. Another similar attack was that on Anuradhapura Air Force Base in 2007, where 21 LTTE suicide commandos destroyed at least 9 Sri Lankan aircraft. These attacks were made in an effort to eliminate the Sri Lankan government’s advantage of air supremacy by destroying aircraft on the ground since they had no effective means of destroying them in the air.
    While these operations destroyed a significant portion of the small Sri Lankan air force, the airforce was generally able to cope with each attack and did not see any major interruption of air combat operations. I expect the result of the Afghan attack will have even less effect on Coalition operations, as coalition aircraft inventories are large. Any effect the attack has on air operations will likely last only a few days until replacement aircraft can be flown in .

  • An Afghan says:

    To whom it may concern:
    I know that you know where Mullah Omar, Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar live in Pakistan. Look, if you really want to finish this war and win then kill these 3 people by any means possible! If you do that the enemy will lose moral and the war will be finished, easy!!! PLEASE TRY THAT!!!

  • Charu says:

    “The members of the suicide assault team wore US Army uniforms and “appeared to be well equipped, trained and rehearsed,””
    Where is the money behind this coming from? It smacks of state-sponsorship, just as how the LeT Mumbai assault team was trained by naval frogmen and commandos. Clearly a breakdown in security at Camp Bastion.

  • Luc LEONARD says:

    I’m astonished how easily the fences of such an important base can be penetrated. Even if the attackers wore american uniforms, aren’t their any ID checks around the base ?
    Aren’t their any cameras around the fence to watch over the ground outside the camp?
    What a shame for the guards of the camp.
    They sure can be blamed for this historic success of the taliban.
    I can’t remember in NATO history any attack from an ennemy that resulted in the destruction of eight occidental planes…

  • JT says:

    !@#$ or get off the pot. I hate that phrase, but it seems to apply with the US in the middle east. I prefer to go on the offensive with those who view most westerners as infidels. If we retreat, history will look like 1979 on steroids.
    However, this in-between crap does nobody any good. Here is hoping that, either the current administration looks at the problem with wide open eyes, or there is a new admin come January.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I have corrected the article to note they were USMC Harriers. Thanks for the assist, everyone, as always you are some of my best editors.

  • Tony Buzan says:

    Let’s all be thankful the Saudis are not arming and training these jihadis to kill Americans?
    Is that the correct response here?

  • Tony Buzan says:

    JT, I don’t think it’s a matter of whether we are in the “in between mode” or not, but rather a fact that we have a strategic breach in our midst from an evolving enemy.
    Our systems for evaluting whether or not any Afghan citizen, chosen at random, poses an imminent AND grave security risk are profoundly flawed.
    Those massive biometric databases ai’nt worth a hill of beans. What a waste of taxpayer dollars?

  • James says:

    To An Afghan:
    I absolutely agree with what you are saying.
    It’s going to take a real “Hail Mary” play to turn this thing around.
    The fewer troops there are on the ground, the more they are going to have to rely on airstrikes. Hence, even more civilian casualties.
    Why don’t they just increase substantially the number of troops on the ground and just pull them out sooner.

  • BobbyD says:

    Maybe you can shed some light on how many of your brother Taliban have been killed….

  • dr burke says:

    Why has CBS news taken over your website?

  • sundoesntrise says:

    Hello once again, Bilal,
    “Its surprising that the US never comes up with the correct number of casualties or damage in the initial report and constantly changes the figures and story, as happened in the Camp Salerno attack.”
    Alright, well as for changing the casualty figures, that’s bound to happen when you have such a fluid, rapidly changing situation on the ground, where things can change so quickly. And in this case, I have yet to see the U.S. change the casualty figures at all, the only time the casualty figures changed was when nobody knew about the damage to the base, and then ISAF themselves divulged info to the media about the damaged hangers and aircraft. So you’re lying about that, and I suggest you stop because it only makes you look more foolish.
    “Yet, it is believed and not mocked. On the other hand, when Taliban lay tall claims, the initial reaction is disbelief and mockery. Too often, it seems the Taliban claims have not been farther from reality than the US’s. Plus, the US is able to hide the casualty figure by declaring the casualties over several days in separate incidents.”
    That’s because ISAF still has more credibility as an institution than the Taliban ever will, and that’s because the Taliban’s claims are just too wild to believe Bilal. Maybe if the Taliban didn’t mix up their casualty figures (ie. claim 29 are dead on Twitter and then say they killed 129 on their website…), and if their posts weren’t full of broken English emotional laden propaganda, then they would be taken more seriously. And as for hiding the casualty figures over several days, that’s another lie of yours. If you were to believe the Taliban propaganda reports, anywhere between 80-200 ISAF soldiers die a day, so how on Earth are they going to “cover that up” by issuing *that many* press statements about so many soldier’s deaths? Trust me, I look at all the ISAF official press statements on casualty reports, they do not do that, it’s not practical. Nice try though.
    “So far, within 48 hours, 6 more coalition deaths have been attributed to green-on-blue. Also, those who are injured and die on the way or in Ramstein are not counted as war dead. In a couple of years, the nation will wonder if the actual number of dead soldiers lie between the 2000 officially recognized or the 20,000 claimed by the enemy.”
    Like I said before Bilal, 6 does not match up to the number you are claiming, 6 is not enough to cover all the deaths the Taliban claim they inflict! And yes Bilal, they count those who are injured and die on the way, as well as those who died in the European military hospitals. ISAF has issued many statements announcing the deaths of their members from ^insert cause here^ while in Europe, you just don’t bother to look for such material.
    This site will enable you to view the exact location of the death of service members, wherever they may be, as long as they served in Afghanistan they are counted on the list http://icasualties.org/OEF/index.aspx
    “In a couple of years, the nation will wonder if the actual number of dead soldiers lie between the 2000 officially recognized or the 20,000 claimed by the enemy.”
    To be honest, the Western public is not really concerned with the war to begin with, so I doubt they’ll ever wonder about that at all, but that’s not the point. If I read your post properly, you claim 20,000 is the real number of soldiers dead. Now go on the Taliban website, and look at the DAILY casualty figures they claim, do you think it would equal 20,000?? Come on Bilal, you’re better at math than that. The “Islamic Emirate Of Afghanistan” releases annual “statistics” for their “operations”, and I remember in the year 2010 alone they claimed they killed something like 27,000 ISAF soldiers. Their numbers are all over the place Bilal, because since they are lying about the number, they have trouble keeping track of the real number because it never existed in the first place. Anyway, I suggest you look up their annual statistics figures, and stop being so gullible. This is 2012, we’re in a time where, for the most part, we can get free information on the web. Medieval Islamists rely on people like you to keep yourself in the dark and uninformed while they reap all the power and benefits of your activism.

  • dr burke says:

    This could have been a diversionary tactic, to sneak in other terrorist dressed in military uniforms. My guess is they will probably take over a barracks, kill the troops and assume their identity, then wait to mount an assault. From INSIDE.
    When their ranks are more than a few hundred. Major damage and they will probably just line up our troops and kill them. By the thousands.

  • bear says:

    Bilal, it seems that you celebrate when there is a NATO death… at least that’s how it looks on your twitter account…

  • Neonmeat says:

    I have seen it asked a few times already but seriously does anyone know how they breached the fence?
    In prior attacks we have seen them use VBIEDs but there is no mention of this. Considering the size of this base I find it baffling they could get close enough to the fence without being challenged at all, don’t bases have outposts anyway? Perhaps it is complacency.

  • tam says:

    What happens when you fight HALF WAR?

  • Polish Patriot says:

    It is hard to believe that a Red Team approach to base security did not come up with this operational plan employed by the enemy. This is not 20/20 hindsight but prudent intell analysis if you are doing your job. This attack was preventable!!

  • george says:

    Assumptions are just that. Normally security on the “outside” perimeter is manned by local nationals…….USMC has no say in that unfortunately its all political. As you move towards the base then you have contractors from other countries……..then Americans. I can only assume…….this was an inside job through the perimeter then they used suicide vests to get close to the contractors and break through that perimeter …………then they and the Marines had it out…….but the Marines cant fire unless they KNOW who these guys are. TOO LATE…….they’re in. For any pundits out there just check our politically tied hands regarding ROE in AFG…….especially at the FOB’s. I am sure Marines will be shooting instead of idenfiying next time.

  • JRP says:

    Of course it was an inside job. There could be no other logical explanation. I gather our aircraft are in the open and not brought into hangers when parked. I too am amazed that, regardless of uniform, and regardless of it being nighttime, how does some kind of eye-in-the-sky surveillance not catch these approaches? BTW, the uniforms, undoubtedly stolen off of hijacked trucks making the run into Afghanistan from Karachi. Make no mistake about it. Our enemy is extraordinarily talented and as adept at low tech warfare as we are at high tech warfare.

  • Captain K Chatto says:

    Before the NATO leaves Afganistan The Pakistani ISI and its SSG has shown it capability to infiltrate the historically unreliable afghan ANA recruits and launch of snide attacks and damage material assets enemy and Harry would have been a trophy, But the US Admin and British PMO will remain silent

  • Craig says:

    I’m sure this was an Iranian planned operation… they’ve done it before. At this point, I say we should just get out of there….. nothing good will come of it. We will be in a major shooting war with Iran within months. I hope we exact out revenge on their regime for the countless Americans they have killed and neuter them once and for all. Obama is clueless, naive to such a degree that it’s painful. Our future in the Middle East will be determined post the next Iran conflict.

  • Render says:

    Not that it’s needed but – Confirming that all Harrier’s lost in this attack belonged to USMC.
    Prince Harry (and the British contingent of Camp Bastion) was/were not the primary target. The British contingent is not located on that side of Camp Bastion. The aircraft, and their support equipment, were the primary target
    The uniforms were likely stolen from hijacked cargo shipments, that travel through Pakistan (via the port of Karachi).
    No matter how well fortified any defenses are, the advantage (in modern combat) always lies with the attackers. If any commander is to be removed, it should be the commander-in-chief who ordered the defensive posture in Afghanistan, and who also announced the surrender date at West Point. The very same C-in-C who thought that the death of UBL would mean the end of a world wide war…
    This isn’t going to get any better, or any easier. The draw down of US and allied forces continues unabated.
    The is zero chance that the ANA/ANP will be able to stand on their own without those US and allied forces. But I’ve been saying that since 2006…
    There remain two USN carrier battle groups in the North Arabian Sea but heightened tensions with Iran will likely absorb their attention, sooner, rather then later. This will reduce still further the available air support for Coalition ground forces in Afghanistan.
    Maybe a decade plus world wide war really is a bad time to reduce the military budget?

  • sundoesntrise says:

    Hey Render, glad to have you back.
    Just a quick question, a friend of mine that served in the Canadian armed forces believes that the U.S. is still such a superior fighting force that even without air support, they still have artillery, tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, snipers, spec ops (who are already on the ground…) that even without fighter jets or drones, they could still conquer Afghanistan if the restrictive RoE were lifted on the troops.
    Do you agree with that? What is your take on that? Thanks.

  • mike merlo says:

    so has ‘it’ been determined ‘yet’ whether or not this assault rec’d inside assistance?

  • Render says:

    Sundoesntrise (do I know you under a different nic?)(and good questions):
    There are a ton of variables that could change the answer to your friends belief.
    But ultimately the answer right now is…nope, no chance.
    Not with the troops that are currently in country. The vast majority of those troops are not front line rifleman types, but support elements.
    The number of real tanks in country is slightly under a single battalion in number, and that a mixed bag of primarily Canadian and Dutch Leopard 1’s and 2’s, (I’m not altogether certain those are even still in country at this point). USMC had five of the Breacher CEV’s and the Germans had about a company of Weasel tanketts in country, (but again I’m uncertain if any of those remain at this point). The Strykers and other light armored vehicles remain as vulnerable to IED’s, RPG’s, and ATGM weapons as they always have been.
    Even assuming that all of that armor is still in country, it, and all of the ground based artillery requires a tremendous amount of logistical support. Logistical support that is still at the mercy of our Pakistani “allies”, including the primary air routes.
    Regarding the snipers and other SpecOps types…
    The “Commando Olympics” of 2002-2006 were successful because there a number of tribes and clans that were willing to support us against the Taliban. Almost all of those factions have now been alienated by the policies and strategies from 2006 to the present day. Hence the rapidly rising number of Blue on Green events we’re watching right now. The number of those events will very likely rise in line with the number of Coalition troops withdrawn from the theater. As I’ve mentioned before, switching sides to the winning side is something of a very long tradition in that region.
    Obama’s West Point speech really was the end game. The 2009 “surge”, although kind of pointless tactically, could have served as a good starting point for the “Hail Mary” play mentioned by another commenter above, but was a failure strategically, because, like all of the other strategies before it, it never truly addressed the enemies safe havens and primary source of support…In Pakistan.

  • Jack Williams says:

    The lack of imagination is the cause of numerous debacles, going back to Vietnam. Why the heck were these aircraft “parked on a flight line,” and not in individual revetments?
    That thinking cost us our entire far eastern air force in the Phillipines early in WWII. Even Vietnam we FINALLY (after numerous multi-plane losses on the ground to terror and indirect fire attacks) learned to use revetments for individual planes … and the NVA didn’t have an air force either.
    Result of the failure to heed 70 year old lessons? … loss of 8 percent of entire USMC harrier assests.

  • Kent Gatewood says:

    Why aren’t our bases surrounded by mine fields?

  • Mr T says:

    One attacker wounded and captured. This could be interesting.

  • Barry Larking says:

    Much will have been done already to answer the many points raised here.
    Yet, how many medium level commanders and foreign fighters have been ‘removed from the battlefield’ since this attack on I.S.A.F.? The Taliban have always been willing to trade enormous losses for a few minutes air time on western, particularly American television. They hear they are winning from our side of the fence.

  • mike merlo says:

    I’m curious to know how you arrived at the following: “Hence the rapidly rising number of Blue On Green events.” Just because you cite an alienation on the part of clans & tribes because of politics what facts do you have that support/connect “rising number,” & alienation of “clans & tribes?”

  • B Daneker says:

    Why isn’t this all over the news? Is it because it might affect a reelection?

  • Tauseef says:

    Well these attacks are similar like happen on Pakistan bases. People in Pakistan raises question what these terrorist has to do with PAK airbase and planes. There were some big involvement and motive behind those attacks. This attacks show’s the Tit for Tat policy. I believe there is a covert war on between ISI vs CIA RAW MOSSAD in this region.

  • lorenztl says:

    Appears to be very insignificant assault by the Taliban,..peanuts! Not a word in the AP, local paper or radio.


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