US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has approved the deployment of a combat aviation brigade to Afghanistan early next year, as the military begins a substantial buildup of forces there.
The decision will send close to 3,000 additional US forces into the country and would begin to meet an urgent need for combat and transport helicopters, senior defense officials said on Friday.
They said that further announcements about the deployment of more ground troops, including US Army or Marine Corps combat units, are expected early next year. Officials would not identify the combat aviation brigade because family members are only now being notified of the deployment.
General David McKiernan, commander of US and NATO forces, has asked for at least 20,000 more troops to combat the escalating violence, particularly in eastern and southern Afghanistan.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the deployment has not yet been announced.
Gates signed the order on Thursday, just days after he returned from a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq, where he met his top military leaders. During the stop in Afghanistan, Gates reaffirmed his commitment to meet McKiernan’s request for more troops.
Officials acknowledge it would take time to get the four combat brigades and thousands of support troops to Afghanistan, as requested by McKiernan. The combat aviation brigade is expected to deploy in early spring, the official said.
En route to Afghanistan last week, Gates said the Pentagon is moving to get three of the four combat brigades into Afghanistan by late spring or early summer. The combat aviation brigade, which includes Apache attack helicopters, as well as Black Hawk and Chinook aircraft, is considered support forces and does not fill the need for four combat brigades.
A crucial need in Afghanistan is medical evacuation aircraft and these helicopters would help deal with that.
Currently 31,000 US troops are in Afghanistan, including 14,000 with the NATO-led coalition and 17,000 fighting insurgents and training Afghan forces.
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