Michael's Dispatches

Decline of Dustoff: A Symptom

27 June 2013

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More people are waking up to smell the bitter tea.  Our Army helicopter medical evacuation system, called “Dustoff,” is broken. People are dying because of it.  I have written about this many times.

And now retired Dustoff pilot Brigadier General Patrick Brady has weighed in with his article “Decline of Dustoff: Medal of Honor Huey pilot bemoans today’s medical air-evacuation process.”

Among other Dustoff policy failures, the idea that Dustoff should remain unarmed while flying with red crosses is ridiculous. During the last sizable wars we have fought -- Vietnam, Iraq, Iraq again, Afghanistan -- we have always enjoyed air superiority and we had hospitals close to the action.

In Afghanistan, commanders made it mandatory that unarmed Dustoff have top cover, often in the form of Apache helicopters.  This policy has caused lethal delays and stretched our already straining assets.

By contrast, Air Force Pedro rescue uses organic machine guns and do not wait for cover.  In Afghanistan, there was a dirty little secret.  Pedro was sent on most of the most dangerous missions in RC-South.

I made the video above during a combat mission in Kandahar Province.  The wounded Soldier was Chazray Clark.  We shared a tent.  Chazray died after a long wait after stepping on a bomb.  The Apache top cover was slow and commanders would not release the unarmed Dustoff to come without top cover.  The excellent Dustoff people would have flown the mission alone, as they often did in Vietnam.

In fact, I learned that this crew asked to be released to come alone.  They were sitting on FOB Pasab, with rotors turning in the dark, just minutes away from the two patients.  At the same time, two Air Force Pedro crews down at Kandahar Airfield were sitting in their two birds begging for release.  Dustoff and Pedro were denied.

Dustoff would get the mission only when the Apache arrived.  I learned that the Pedro folks became quite angry that they were not released to pickup Chazray, and the Dustoff people were in a similar mood.

There was more to it than just the two casualties, including Chazray, now a triple amputee, bleeding, in great pain, waiting for the very late Dustoff – Pedro could have already taken him: Every minute we wasted on the landing zone, the enemy had time to dial in their mortars while we were without cover.  The Taliban in that area have very powerful recoilless rifles, and of course machine guns and RPGs.  And so every minute that Dustoff was delayed, not only could the enemy get us in the open, but he could get into position to hit the Dustoff.  Speed is crucial for every reason.  We were giving the Taliban time to set up ambushes.

We were lucky that the enemy did not react quickly enough.  But that was only luck.  There were just a few skirmishes later that day with no more casualties on our side.  The next day we lost another to a bomb, this one an Afghan Soldier.  He was dead on the spot, so his body was carried out with no need for Dustoff.

And so even in stone aged Afghanistan, Dustoff policy was costing us.  But now imagine a war with a real adversary, where the skies are contested, and where enemy on the ground has shoulder fired surface to air missiles.  Remember, we armed the Mujahidin in Afghanistan with SAMs, and they promptly began reducing the size of the Soviet helicopter fleet.

We have been fighting the Flintstones in Afghanistan.  When we go up against people with money and more sophistication, a high cover Apache will just get shot down.

Due to sequester, the US military is being gutted.  The Air Force has 33 squadrons sitting on the ground because they cannot afford to fly.  Seven more squadrons have severely cut their hours.  Most of the aircraft we have are getting old.

In the Army, helicopter pilots have had training curtailed and cancelled, such as high altitude training.  This is incredible.  The Marines are looking at cutting 8,000 troops next year.  The Army is looking at cutting 80,000, and some smart people believe that is not enough.

Likewise the Navy is taking hits.  We could go on for pages about what is being slashed.  Just recently, people would argue on my website that to say these things was to cry wolf, that sequester is not a big deal.  This is a huge deal.  The military is being crippled.

Meanwhile, the Army insists that it is smarter to burn money and watch troops die due to silly Dustoff policy that requires more helicopters to do a worse job.  The decline of Dustoff, and the silliness that surrounds this red cross and machine gun issue, is just a symptom of a larger cancer, and a sip of our bitter tea.

Red Air

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