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Under Attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo

If you know the enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

 

Sun Tzu

United Nations helicopter in flight over the Congo

 

On August 30, 2013, the Uruguayan Air Force (FAU), while serving on a United Nations (UN) mission, was under the sights of anti-aircraft artillery from an armed group in African territory. The aircraft was not hit this time, either due to the expertise of the crew, the inexperience of the attackers, or just pure luck. This event taught important lessons, not only for the crew, but at the doctrinal level as well. The purpose of this article is to offer readers a recount of what took place, analyze possible lessons learned and to learn from them.

History

There is enough material to write hundreds of books regarding the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); not only limited “wars” (1996 to 1997 and 1998 to 2003), but also multiple internal conflicts with rebel groups of various origins, some of them supranational. In particular, a rebellion arose in 2012 where hundreds of Congolese Army soldiers (FARDC) rebelled when they found out that an agreement signed years earlier between the DRC government and the National Congress for Public Defense (CNDP) was not being complied with. From that point on, they called themselves M-23, in reference to the date the agreement was signed, March 23, 2009. There is proof, recorded in the reports from the UN Group of Experts1, that the group was being backed by bordering countries, both logistically and with human resources.

Its two leaders, ex-members of FARDC, were Bosco "The Terminator" Ntaganda and Sultani Makenga. The military capability of M-23 was demonstrated on the 20th of November, 2012, when they occupied the city of Goma (capital of the province of North Kivu), and neither the FARDC nor the UN was able to stop the invasion. However, on the 1st of December, this group left Goma to go to Kampala (Capital of Uganda), to sit at the negotiating table, without giving second thought that they would someday return; and much more aggressively.

Lieutenant Colonel Tajes observes the countryside from the the open door of his helicopter in flight

The FAU has participated in the UN for almost three decades. It was first integrated as part of the Uruguayan Army contingent, in countries such as Cambodia and Mozambique, as well as with MILOBS (Military Observers) in Georgia, the Sahara, East Timor and Sierra Leone, among others. At the beginning of this century, it formed contingents in Ethiopia-Eritrea (2003 to 2009) with its own helicopters, a contingent in Haiti between from 2008 to 2011 (also with FAU transport aircraft), and currently in the DRC. In the DRC, it has been part of the Stabilization Mission of the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) since 2003. Our country not only has two FAU contingents and helicopters, but we are also proudly serving with contingents from our National Army and Navy.

The units from the FAU are the following:

  • Uruguayan Airfield Support Unit (URUASU), whose mission is to provide support and services for passengers, cargo, and weather, as well as flight monitoring, among other tasks, for all UN aircraft in the Kavamu airport, province of South Kivu.

  • Uruguayan Aviation Unit (URUAVU), which operates three Bell 212 helicopters conducting air operations reconnaissance, search and rescue missions assigned by MONUSCO, to include CASEVAC/MEDEVAC, cargo and passenger transport, among others; and is based at the perimeter of the Kavumu airport. This unit is uniquely qualified to carry out night flights (with night vision devices, NVG), which allows it to carry out dozens of nighttime air evacuations.

Attack by M-23

On Congolese soil, the UN acts under Chapter VII of its Charter2, which establishes that military power is justified by international legal ordinances in articles 39 and 42, and in legitimate defense of International Law, Article 51. The decision authority on these matters fall under the responsibility of the Security Council (CS), which understood that these legal ordinances were being challenged by M-23 and other rebel groups, with clear intentions of increasing their operations and carrying out destabilization activities by means of violence, especially against civilians. Thus, the CS, in its 6943th session on March 28, 2013, ratified Resolution 20983, which energetically condemned the presence of M-23 around Goma and its attempts to establish an illegitimate parallel administration in the province of North Kivu. As a consequence, an Intervention Brigade (FIB) was created, within the framework of MONUSCO, with the responsibility to neutralize the armed groups, especially M-23. The FIB would be composed of three battalions of infantry, one of artillery, a reconnaissance company, and special forces, mainly some 3,000 troops who came from Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa. This unit was based in Goma in order to operate unilaterally or in conjunction with FARDC, always under strict compliance with international and human rights. From thereon, there was a fine line of interoperability, a gray area, where thousands of troops that did not belong to the FIB were also indirectly operating and supporting the same mandate.

On August 22nd, UN troops initiated deliberate attacks on rebel positions and it became readily apparent that MONUSCO starting enforcing Resolution 2098. However, the situation in Kavumu seemed to remain mostly normal, like another world, with the only peculiarity being seeing the MI-24 Hind attack helicopters of the FARDC leave every now and then, totally armed, and return hours later, empty. On August 23rd, we received information that the UN’s Ukrainian MI-24s had begun to “engage” rebel targets and had taken on fire. On the 28th was the first incidence of a blue helmet casualty, when a FIB (South African) soldier was wounded. In the early hours, the brunt of the casualties were suffered by members of the FARDC, with dozens of wounded among their troops. But that same day, an Officer from Tanzania was shot, becoming the first death in combat within the FIB. Hours later, M-23 began indiscriminately firing on the city and its civilian population using 73mm SPG type recoilless guns. The escalation of violence increased dramatically, and with it the wounded and dead, not only military but also civilian.

On the 29th of August, in the morning, UN Headquarters in Kinshasa required, via issuance of an Operations Order, the immediate deployment of a Uruguayan Bell 212 helicopter with NVG capability to position itself in Goma (mainly to carry out nocturnal observation tasks), at the same time that a second URUAVU Bell 212 was needed to maintain “Stand-By” status at its southern base for SAR missions.

The crews quickly carried out a detailed briefing while technical personnel prepared the machine. Additionally, the Intelligence Officer (A-2) briefed that rebels were some 15 km from Goma, in the general area of Kibati. There was even information from open sources from this zone that M-23 had fired on a Rwandan village called Mudu Vudu de Gisenyi, causing at least two fatalities and UN MI-24 helicopters counterattacked by firing rockets and 12.7mm rounds on rebel positions.

A Uruguayan UN member stands at the ready with his helicopter in the background.

In the meantime, the cohesion existing in the URUAVU was reflected in each of our members, who voluntarily and committedly carried out their own tasks so that, only one hour after the arrival of the deployment order, the Bell 212 UN-852 took off toward Goma. The helicopter arrived at the Goma airport at 1330 hours where, once on the ground, explosions could be heard in the distance. Operations carried out by the military contingents at the airport were arduous while at that the same moment AC-III Lama helicopters from India were seen departing for reconnaissance flights.

Without a doubt, Airpower in this type of conflict is of great importance, although since the beginning it was known that MONUSCO was short on helicopters for its mandate in the DRC. Perhaps this lack of means, in terms of quantity, could make it very difficult to achieve a sweeping effect on the enemy's system. In my mind, I was questioning if a detailed study had been performed to determine at least one decisive center of gravity, and if everything had been planned in detail. I was also certain that my task did not involve not direct involvement in these battles, as per our LOA (Letter of Assist), and that in this “war” some of the actors were not nation states. However, I also could not stop thinking of that fine line, that grey area ... in which we were all blue helmets, with white helicopters, and defending the civilian population. This thought, which I hadn’t had before, ran through my mind as I walked from the flight line to Operations, perhaps 500 meters, where it remained a recurrent thought.

We were in an air-conditioned container used as a crew room, and while there were no orders we decided to research among the main news agencies the latest about what was happening in this zone. Also, in the best HUMINT (human intelligence) style, we cordially made inquiries of the civilian cleaning crew, in order to know firsthand what they were thinking. Incredibly (like what took place in a later deployment a later) not all thought that the rebels were totally wrong, rather, they supported the philosophy of M-23. Without a doubt, this irregular conflict was winning hearts and minds among the weaker and almost illiterate population, who did not feel represented by their government and thus even supported the atrocities of M-23. Lamentably, they didn’t follow the most logical sequence that, if M-23 hypothetically won, the UN would leave and they would lose their jobs, with the consequential modification of social order, and who knows what else…

The local news talked about how opposing forces were very numerous and aggressive, with sophisticated armaments and well equipped. They moved in small groups, which made identifying them difficult, and wore the same uniforms (those that did) of the FARDC.

Reconnaissance Mission

As part of the contract with the UN, the FAU, in its LOA, required a day and then a night time training run be accomplished in order to maintain a specific nighttime (with NVG) route operational. Thus, facing the eventuality of having to get to one of the FIB operations bases, called SAKE, a flight was prepared at the end of the day so that the 212 could carry out the daytime flight, and then with the onset of darkness, take advantage to be operationally ready that same day. The “briefing” for the mission began after 1600 hours with a U.S. Air Force Officer who had on his uniform a distinctive badged composed of a globe, with branches on each side, and a key: the unmistakable sign that he belonged to the intelligence community. In addition there were Ukrainian “Hind” pilots present who had already experienced combat. They briefed us on the updated locations (or that was what we thought) of the M-23 positions. At the end of the meeting, I mentioned that according to our LOA, at least one of them must fly with us, since that was what our standards stipulated: at least one Observer for a reconnaissance flight. After requesting orders from his command, the American officer joined the crew. We headed to our machine and adopted the required security measures, among which were to put on the personal bulletproof vests under our seats since the Bell, being a civilian helicopter structure, was not armored.

After giving short “briefing” in the cabin, I shared my plan with the crew in detail. The most important factor to take into account was that M-23 had RPG (rocket propelled grenades) and that those had an effective range of nearly 1,000 m. The turning radius of the Bell at 90 knots was 0.5 nautical miles (NM), and I took an extra margin beginning the turn 2 NM from the position on the map, almost rounding on the southeast side the Nyragongo volcano, a mountain of more than 11,000 ft and active, with its characteristic sulfur plume.

We took off around 1700 hours and began to ascend in a vertical spiral above the airport and cruising 4,000 ft above the ground, we headed to Kibati. The copilot and I together identified the triple tower (a place where M-23 was located, but without heavy arms), and began, according to the plan, to turn at 2 NM from the spot. Meanwhile we continued to ascend to about 8,000 ft. When we were on a general easterly path, totally away from the hostile zone and at more than 9,200 ft and in constant ascent, the unthinkable happened. It should be indicated that my crew, aside from my copilot, consisted of 2 flight engineers, called “Pato” and “Gomito” respectively. Each monitored their side, with Gomito on my right and Pato on my left. When I began to turn left, without knowing it, Pato momentarily moved to the right side to take a quick photo from the right window. At that moment, just when he was about to depress the button on the camera, he began to see tracers rising to our position. This made him shout through the intercom: “they are shooting at us!!!”. Since I do not have eyes in the back of my head, my first reaction was to turn to the right and abruptly stop the ascent. At that time the copilot, who had a clearer view of the situation, told me to turn left, and a fraction of a second later I looked back fleetingly saw the two engineers on the right side, immediately assuming that we were turning toward the antiaircraft artillery. Everything was rapid and unpleasant. At that moment we began to see the projectiles coming to us on both sides, rising rapidly and surpassing our flight level, which was a little over 9,200 ft. Frankly, I just turned left and pushed the nose downward …as the sound of the helicopter began to indicate that it was gaining velocity. Together with the copilot we did not lose situational awareness, as we rapidly remembered the calculations made and knew that for the weight and altitude of the mission, we should never exceed 105 knots, so I corrected to a milder rate of descent, and at the same time began to veer in a gentle zigzag. Flight response was sloppy, as the joystick had to be pushed far in order to obtain a response, the result of the altitude and heat. What I had practiced so many times in one of my old units, such as Advanced Flight Squadron, and which consisted of evasive maneuvers in face of attack, was now a reality, with the important difference that this time it wasn’t the maneuverable Pilatus PC-7U, and much slower speeds than 200 knots. Now it was a helicopter and in a real predicament. My copilot scanned his side and by means of internal radio called our base 90 km away, which we knew was within range at that altitude. The cabin was almost silent. “Olimpo, Olimpo, this is 852, we are being attacked by enemy artillery…” In reality, I do not recall what the response was to the report, but there surely was one, since later they told us they found out what happened via this way. We continued to descend and found ourselves already nearly above Goma, the tracers had ceased, and we finished with another turn toward the airport. There was adrenaline in the air, I sensed the taste of metal oxide in my mouth and we were not sure how much time had passed between the shots and the landing. I think it was no more than 4 or 5 minutes. We landed, shut down and got out when the blades were stopped by the manual braking system. We all looked in the direction of where they had shot at us. There was the majestic Nyragongo and on the east of it, we could tracers still being spat, but this time completely horizontal against a ground position. I got the cellphone out and recorded the situation, which I still save as a memento. When I turned, I spoke with the extra observer, and it was then that I was surprised when he said to me: “lucky that we were armored”.

Lessons

The Resolution was being complied with, and although we were not directly involved, we reaffirm that for the rebels and in their disadvantageous situation, any blue helmet and white vehicle was surely their enemy. Therefore, all planning had to be taken seriously and without leaving holes or subjects untouched. Since the incident and from then on, continuing for more than six months in the role of Operations Chief and together with directives issued by the Contingent Commander, procedures regarding acceptance of operational risks and missions were reinforced. One of these steps was to demand detailed and actualized situational intelligence information. Taking into account that even though this was already being done, it was lack of information that resulted in a bad experience for an entire crew. For anything less than this, there would be sufficient cause to not accept the mission. The ROE (rules of engagement) were broken down even further, exhausting every possible scenario, involving all crew members, to include non-flying contingent members. Away from the African continent, the planning perspective for our fellow compatriot helicopter crews reinforced the training done in Uruguay, to account for eventualities such as those that occurred. A second important aspect was the start of an extraofficial channel to the UN chain of command, with a retired Senior Officer from the National Army and member of the JMAC (Joint Mission Analysis Centre). This allowed for, minutes before any flight, making a call in Spanish and obtain the intelligence situation from an analyst, knowledgeable of our operations, capabilities and idiosyncrasies. Thus leaving aside poor and outdated information that perhaps serves an administrative purpose, but not an air unit like ours. No less importantly, we were an active source of data collection, thus used this same channel to provide them with information for further processing. Without a doubt unintentionally, at times the bureaucratic system of the UN, with its procedural steps passing through desks and civilian and military channels, ends up with nothing taking less than several hours or days. Thus, this resulted in excellent information for our A-2 cell, helping us to form ideas and take much more precise decisions. We could feel a little more familiar with the operation cycles that our doctrine emphasizes so much, taking advantage of a familiar structure even though not being able to rely on a Joint Air Operations Center (JAOC) at that moment, either because it didn’t exist or because we were simply at a very tactical level.v.

Officers’ trust in their technical personnel was reinforced, especially in making decisions, involving them much more and listening, as good leaders, to suggestions and concerns they may have had in facing the situation they were experiencing those days on Congolese soil, although never forgetting that it is always the commanding pilot who makes the final decision. It was not easy for us to be in a theater of operations with operational levels that did not know the details of aerial tactical capabilities, at least not for our unit. This change in our deployed unit’s way of thinking allowed us to demand certain guidelines be followed, not taking for things for granted, and personally I think served to renew our efforts, always with the ulterior motive of not putting the crews in danger.

There were several more deployments, with nuances of the prior mission, making very clear that professionalism and will are two characteristics that go hand in hand and that should never be separated. M-23 was defeated, a while later after they had obtained better armaments, better uniforms and resources, but were literally crushed by the superiority of the blue helmets and the decided action of the FARDC.

The 29th of August also imparted important doctrinal lessons for the FAU. In several subsequent missions where there were doubts regarding knowledge of our units’ capabilities, including requests for the Bell to serve as a giant UAV, these missions were dismissed, always counting with the support of our county’s FAU General Staff. More than once our Command had to give explanations through our diplomatic channel in New York regarding the refusal to undertake an assigned mission, prioritizing common sense and understanding of the planning error that led to the request. This is perhaps what is most important, that the international community (the UN) understand that a mission prepared by someone behind a desk and without aerial knowledge could make for a one way mission, leaving but without return. The decision of the Aircraft Commander was endorsed, not only by the chain of command of the flight unit, but also by the Uruguayan Air Force 9,000 km away and in addition to the FAU, the country’s foreign policy.


 

When someone decides to wear the military uniform, with the Uruguayan flag on the arm, they should understand that personal and religious beliefs are set aside, and that they are obligated to respect a common set of values and beliefs; first and foremost that their “Bible” is now the UN Constitution and Charter. This is how the presence of Uruguayan troops, allied in international cooperation, are elemental for our country to continue to fulfill its strategy. Part of this is reflected in our standards, in which some of strategic objectives are contributing to maintaining international peacekeeping and security, by contributing to the strengthening of the UN, according to Uruguayan foreign policy and in accordance with the terms of the Law for National Defense Frameworkvi.

Conclusions

Lessons learned at the professional level, studied and worked through a correct environment, such as the Air Command and Staff (ECEMA) school in Uruguay, can be very useful. This is one of the Educational Institutions for doctrine in our country, which teaches us at the senior level, as officers, the essence in which we must believe. The Basic Aerospace doctrine of the FAU established the framework in which the Institution must act, as a component of Nation’s Military Power. In this aspect the doctrine serves as a definitive guide and is accepted by all, both in peace as well as war. They express guidelines to carry out different aerospace operations, and the most important being that doctrine is not static. Our doctrine evolves in response to experience, new technologies and a multitude of other factors. In this way, doctrine must be continually revalidated and never be considered as dogma. As an inspirational element, it is nourished on sources such as history, theory, strategy and experience. The FAU enjoys a rich history supported by 105 years of existence. As far as theory goes, our most valuable resource, Personnel, continually gains skills, not only at the national level but also in international exercises through the System of Cooperation of American Air Forces (SICOFAA), which exercises the employment of means and personnel to provide humanitarian aid, or Cruzex, under a doctrine identical to that of NATO. Concepts of the Joint Force Air Component Command (JFACC), among others, are taught to young officers as they are promoted through their first ranks. Just in those two mentioned exercises, the FAU has participated and continues to participate beyond borders with aircraft and personnel with countries qualified as first class. Centralized control and decentralized execution are key principles of Command and Control, written in stone and which we practice by example, providing airmen with the capacity to take advantage of the principles of Aerospace Power such as speed, flexibility and versatility. There is no doubt that these men must be proactive in learning. And this is part of the strategy that Command seeks, in order to be an example and reference at the American level, small and in accordance with the capabilities of our country, without ceasing to be professional. The importance of the use of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) has been demonstrated. Even though its the concept employed in Uruguay, through Aerospace Remote Sensors, reinvigorated lately by the aerial reconnaissance unit being created, the UN has implemented it years after the incident described, acquiring UAVs against other rebel elements such as ADF/NALU, yielding excellent results, allowing us today to study the routes and patterns of behaviors of the rebel groups, being an excellent source of reconnaissance and surveillance for the production of intelligence, introducing MONUSCO to a new era of situational awareness (SA).

As for the experience … the question has rolled around my head several times: what would have happened if they had shot us down? I am more than fortunate in my work, but I do not deny the consequences and dangers that exist in my profession. For that reason, I am a loyal proponent that more women and men are needed in the Air Force who evaluate situations clearly, who analyze the situation, and obtain what they need to hear.

In our country we carry out continuous (CSAR) training via our Operations and Rescue Training (SOER) section. Rescuing personnel (PR) is an intrinsic reality in our philosophy. Incidents such as those above only reaffirm the concept that something can happen at any time just by the simple act of taking off from the ground. Maybe we visualize that when our superiors are from other components, it can be that they do not immediately understand the importance of a CSAR mission, as we, air personnel, do. But it is true that throughout the world, the Air Force will do everything possible to save its crews. We don’t know if something had happened that 30th of August, if either URUAVU Command or its subordinate commands had the authority to send any rescue (but that is another topic).

URUAVU has changed certain procedures. Today, even the lateral gunners know in detail the use of GPS map navigation and they attend the briefing for the mission. No one knows when they may be the only ones trained to take on the leadership role of evasion in hostile territory. This was only theory before…now, it is a reality, a practice undertaken on a daily basis. A true leader has to promote communication among crew members, create a comfortable environment, and listen to those lower in rank. Perhaps before, this didn’t happen … times change. The conflict taking place in the Congo will ultimately be a victory when the Congolese achieve it. Thus, it is the main function of the international community and that of the UN not to win the fight, but rather guide and empower Congolese society so that it obtains the ability to succeed on its own.

Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.

General George S. Patton

Lt Col Gerardo Tajes

Lieutenat Colonel Tajes, Uruguayan Air Force, is director of public relations for the Uruguayan Air Force (FAU). He is currently commanding pilot assigned to Air Squadron No. 5 (helicopters), with more than 2,200 flight hours in fixed and rotary wings. Currently, he is a pilot instructor for UH-1H, educated in the Argentinian Army Air Force, and principal pilot of the Bell 212. He participated in four deployments in Africa under the flag of the United Nations accumulating more than 1,000 hours in the UNMEE operations in Ethiopia and, with MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo, completing 44 months in the mission area. He graduated from the Military Aeronautic School, the Higher Command Course, and the Air Force Joint Staff Course of the FAU.

 

 

This article was originally published in Air University Press's Journal of the Americas 1, no. 1 (2019): https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/JOTA/Journals/Volume%201%20Issue%201/05-Tajes_eng.pdf

 

 

Notes

 

1 Final report of the Group of Experts regarding the Democratic Republic of Congo, 2014, https://undocs.org/es/S/2014/42.

2 Charter of the United Nations, 26 June 1945, https://www.un.org/en/charter-united-nations/index.html.

3 Security Council of the UN, Resolution 2098, 28 March 2013, http://www.undocs.org/s/res/2098(2013).

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