The wounding of two ADF personnel in another roadside bombing in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province yesterday has again raised the question of how much support Australian and other Coalition forces are providing for personnel conducting operations around Tarin Kowt.

Two weeks ago Crikey reported the concerns of sources at Tarin Kowt about the evacuation of SAS Signaller Sean McCarthy following a roadside explosion on 8 July.

It took two hours to evacuate McCarthy, who later died of his injuries, by an AME (Aero-Medical Evacuation) helicopter sent from Kandahar, over 100 kilometres to the south, even though, according to Crikey’s sources, an AME was available, along with escort helicopters, at Tarin Kowt.

A Dutch armed forces doctor based at Tarin Kowt was criticised for suggesting that the delay might have cost McCarthy his life.

The Department of Defence declined to respond to Crikey’s questions about the evacuation as we had not given it sufficient time to respond prior to publication. An investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Signaller McCarthy is underway.

Overnight, the Department released a media statement on the latest incident. Defence notes that the AME dispatched from Tarin Kowt to evacuate the injured personnel crashed (Defence parlance: “hard landing”) on arrival at the scene, but does not discuss the significant delay this led to, given the lack of a back-up AME at Tarin Kowt.

Crikey’s source in Tarin Kowt has offered a more detailed account of what happened.

According to the source, a Pavehawk AME operating from the US base at Tarin Kowt was asked to evacuate the ADF personnel and an injured Afghani from the site of the bomb attack six kilometres north of Tarin Kowt at approximately 1.30 AM. On arrival at the scene, the Pavehawk crashed as, according to the pilot, he became disoriented due to a “brown out” caused by dust. The Pavehawk lost all its rotors. This is the second time in less than 12 months that a helicopter has suffered a “hard landing” near Tarin Kowt.

In the absence of a back-up AME at Tarin Kowt, normally an AME would be dispatched from Kandahar. This takes at least an hour — more if, as in Signaller McCarthy’s case, the AME has to rendezvous with escort helicopters. However, Kandahar was itself suffering such poor visibility due to dust that an AME was unable to take off.

Eventually, an ADF Chinook was re-deployed from another mission to evacuate the injured personnel, one of whom was seriously but not critically injured. US personnel at Tarin Kowt say that the men did not reach the medical facilities at Tarin Kowt until 6.30am, more than five hours after the incident.

If the soldiers’ injuries had been life-threatening, the delay may well have led to another Australian death in Afghanistan.

These aren’t the only occasions when the lack of a back-up AME at Tarin Kowt has led to delays. On 4 August, an evacuation of an Afghani soldier was delayed because the Pavehawk AME at Tarin Kowt had mechanical problems, requiring an AME from Kandahar. There has also been another instance of mechanical failure preventing an evacuation of other non-Australian personnel.

Whatever risk assessment was done by the ADF or the International Security Assistance Forces about the availability of an AME helicopter in Tarin Kowt is being regularly exposed as inadequate.

Nor are mechanical problems or dust storms necessary to expose the lack of back-up — what happens if there is more than one incident among Australian, Dutch, US and Afghani personnel involved in operations around Tarin Kowt?

Following yesterday’s incident, there are now two AME helicopters in Tarin Kowt. It is not clear whether this will be a permanent arrangement. We have asked Defence whether the need for a back-up AME is now recognised or whether the lack of one will curtail ADF operations in the region.

Defence, which has to seek information from personnel in Afghanistan, was unable to respond by deadline. However, the repeated incidents of delay indicate that a back-up helicopter is necessary at Tarin Kowt if injured ADF personnel are to be given the best and fastest treatment. In its absence, it appears that only good luck prevented another Australian death yesterday.

Peter Fray

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