In preparations for my visit to RAF Lossiemouth I wanted to read up on how RAF conduct operations on the modern battlefield, and started looking for a book that would provide an account of some of the many tours the force has made to Afghanistan and the Middle East. However, the genre was surprisingly thin, and in the end what ended up on my Kindle was the next best thing: an account of the Fleet Air Arm in Afghanistan.
Commander Adrian ‘Ade’ Orchard was the officer in command when the 800 Naval Air Squadron was recommissioned in 2006 as a part of the Joint Force Harrier, the program which saw the FAA operate ground attack Harriers jointly with the RAF. This was partly seen as a stop-gap measure to maintain a fixed-wing force within the Navy following the withdrawal of the Sea Harrier in 2004, but a similar(ish) program is also envisioned for the F-35B in British service. Orchard had in fact flown the Harrier GR7 with RAF as part of the JFH already in Iraq in 2003, and as such was a natural choice to command the recommissioned naval squadron.
But 2006 was a busy year for the British armed forces, and it was clear that if the Navy wanted to get in on to the Harrier, it would also be tasked with supporting the British forces operating in Afghanistan. And the tempo was indeed hectic. Immediately following the recommissioning, the squadron deployed to the HMS Illustrious for a tour to the Mediterranean and the bombing ranges of Oman to work up their proficiency in ground attack and close air support, before heading out to Kandahar less than six months after standing up.
Writing a book that portrays a war from the viewpoint of a pilot is hard. While being strapped to cockpit over a war zone undoubtedly is a tense experience, the similarities of one sortie compared to the next one lends itself poorly to the writing of a compelling story. Another common pitfall is how to balance the need to explain technical details and jargon with the need to keep the story flowing without skipping over important aspects of how the missions are flown. The book is attributed to ‘commander Ade Orchard RN with James Barrington’, where Orchard naturally contributed the first-hand experience and the story, with Barrington being the professional writer. I don’t know how their writing process looked, but it worked!
The book mixes missions with accounts of the daily life of a detachment where no-one is allowed to leave the airfield during the whole stay. The challenges that inter-service rivalry create in a joint force are discussed, both when it comes to good-natured bantering and more severe conflicts. Here the fact that the author was the squadron commander provides added interest, as he not only retell what has happened, but also has to try and work out any issues before they start to threaten unit morale. Importantly, the reader also gets insight into how it is to fly the Harrier and the weapons and sensors used, without getting the feeling that you’re reading a technical manual.
Over all I must say this is a highly enjoyable book. The strange life enjoyed by the squadron on their airfield was an eyeopener to me, as was the challenges the aircrews faced when trying to figure out if the gathering of people in a village was the preparations for an ambush or the market day. On the whole, it offers valuable insight into close air support operations in today’s small wars, and although some predictions on the future of Afghanistan has been overtaken by the events, on the whole it feels contemporary and up to date. The book also feature a nice collection of black and white photographs.