Afghan Conflict Losing Air Power As U.S. Pulls Out By C. J. Chivers

Blogger’s Note:  Interesting to ponder…although it would seem airpower will be in the theater for a long, long time…after all we have been there since 1990…what’s a few more decades?

New York Times
July 7, 2012
Pg. 1

Death stopped Abdul Qayum, a Taliban commander in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province, in a fiery flash and roar.

It was an evening in October last year, and Mr. Qayum was meeting several Afghans in a field. Though he did not know it, a Navy F/A-18 strike fighter was circling high overhead more than five miles away, summoned by an American Special Operations team. Its engines were out of earshot, the pilot said, “so we didn’t burn the target.”

Mr. Qayum led a platoon-size Taliban group and was plotting to bomb an Afghan government office, an American intelligence officer said. Under Western rules guiding the use of deadly force, the pilot was barred from trying to kill him while he stood in a group of unidentified men.

Then came a chance. The meeting ended, and Mr. Qayum approached a man who had pulled up on a motorcycle, the pilot and the intelligence officer said. Soon the two men were riding together on a dirt road, illuminated on the screen of the aircraft’s targeting sensor.

The pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Brian Kesselring, released an AGM-65E laser-guided missile. Visible on a video recording declassified and released to The New York Times, the missile struck the pair head-on, exploding with such energy that only fragments of Mr. Qayum’s remains were found.

The killing of Mr. Qayum and his driver, confirmed by the Taliban and reviewed by The New York Times as part of an examination of operations in Afghanistan by 44 F/A-18s from the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, was a demonstration of the extraordinary technical and tactical abilities of American air power. For both better and worse, that power has become a defining facet of the Afghan conflict and the American way of waging war.

But the tight integration and expense of air missions, which in Navy crews’ case can cost up to $20,000 an hour, also raise questions about the prospects for the continuing fight against the Taliban.

Weary of the costs of a long war, Western military forces have already begun withdrawing and handing greater security responsibility to Afghan forces. One worry, several officers said, is that these air operations have become essential, necessary for ground units that are operating in contested areas of Afghanistan and hoping to maintain influence, or even survive. And the Afghan government has nothing to match the role they play.

Drawing from the experiences of more than a decade of fighting, and after repeatedly refining training and rules of engagement to address concerns about civilian casualties, aircrews work in close coordination with ground controllers more fully, and usually more precisely, than ever before.

In carefully choreographed killings of tactical commanders like Mr. Qayum, use of heavier ordnance to beat back Taliban attacks, and efforts to keep roads clear of improvised fertilizer bombs, conventional American warplanes are integrated into the finest details of ground war. These missions, distinct from the C.I.A.-run drone program, have allowed a relatively small Western combat force, with just tens of thousands of troops actually patrolling each day, to wage war across a sprawling nation of 30 million people.

The tactics for air-to-ground war have greatly evolved since the war’s start in 2001. One pilot, saying that he dropped just a single 1,000-pound bomb during a six-month deployment, recalled that at the war’s outset, planes would take off with more bombs than they were allowed to return with for landings. “When this kicked off, they were launching aircraft with unrecoverable loads,” said the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Peter Morgan. “Basically, you had to drop. That’s all changed.”

A Sophisticated Balance

F/A-18 strike fighters are among the world’s most advanced military aircraft, with a price of roughly $100 million each and operating costs estimated at $18,000 to $20,000 per flight hour. Their sorties from the Stennis, each often lasting eight hours round-trip, almost always passed without violence.

Part of this was the nature of an experienced foe. The Taliban have spent years learning to mask their movements and intentions from aircraft, making themselves hard to spot.

Another part was the nature of the rules. Even when Taliban fighters were visible, Western military restrictions devised to prevent harm to civilians and minimize damage to infrastructure, codified after prominent and deadly mistakes that fueled Afghan public outrage, sometimes limited a pilot’s options. Just last month, commanders again tightened the rules for use of air power in civilian areas, after Afghans said a NATO airstrike killed 18 civilians in an eastern village.

In all, Navy pilots released missiles or bombs, or fired their aircrafts’ 20-millimeter cannon, on 41 of the 892 F/A-18 sorties from the Stennis to Afghanistan in late 2011 and early 2012, the carrier air group’s data shows.

This roughly aligns with the use of air power in the recent war. In 2011, for example, the data shows that NATO fixed-wing aircraft dropped ordnance or strafed on 5.8 percent of 34,286 combat sorties flown.

None of the air-to-ground attacks from the carrier stirred up allegations of causing civilian or friendly casualties, which, statistically, have been rare over all.

For the pilots, who live far from the infantry soldier’s daily physical grind and away from the dread of hidden improvised bombs, these strikes and strafing runs hit a personally satisfying chord. They know they are protecting fellow service members and punishing those trying to kill them.

Lieutenant Commander Kesselring said as much after killing the men on the motorbike. That flight was a welcome contrast to the bad days on job, he said, because often “you arrive to a smoking hole and guys calling for a medevac, and you feel pretty helpless.”

Still, the current practices and sophisticated equipment were not flawless. On a few occasions the strikes missed. On another, a 500-pound bomb appeared to break apart upon hitting the ground and failed to explode.

Once a suspected Afghan bomb maker heard the approaching aircraft and sprinted madly for a dirt wall, narrowly eluding a strafe as the rounds struck nearby. The blast wave from a heavier bomb most surely would have killed him, officers said, though it would have put other villagers and their homes at greater risk.

On other days the pilots and the controllers on the ground were not entirely sure of what was happening in a fast-moving firefight. In these cases officers held fire in favor of restraint or nonlethal displays of presence and power.

Although these were the sorts of decisions that some American ground troops have generally resented, American officers say caution and proportionality are essential to maintain support both in Afghanistan and the United States.

A senior Marine officer with command experience in Afghanistan said troops on the ground needed to be wary of impulses to “swat flies with hammers” and risk having airstrikes create more problems then they solve.

Then there were days when all of the elements for a strike or gun run came together, and the nature of the campaign’s air-to-ground violence emerged. Often these were made when ground troops were imperiled, a few times when the situation was grave.

Pushing the Taliban Back

One use of force was on Nov. 10, not long after nightfall in Kandahar Province. Two F/A-18s patrolling over the steppe were told by a ground controller that a combat outpost crowded with Afghan National Army soldiers was under attack.

From the air, the pilots in each aircraft, Lt. Travis Hartman and Lt. Paul Oyler, could see the gunfight on the infrared targeting sensors in their cockpits. They could also sense the confusion. Three Afghan outposts were soon under simultaneous fire, and a sole American ground controller, who was at a fourth post, was trying to gather information by radio and relay instructions to the fighter jets.

“It was the biggest firefight I had ever seen,” Lieutenant Oyler said. “For the next two and a half hours we were overhead and doing our best to track it.”

The Taliban, the pilots said, were under trees and in gullies. The Afghan soldiers could not fight back effectively, and seemed to fire sporadically and erratically. At one point, Taliban fighters had almost reached the walls of one outpost, which was in danger of being breached. “They were in an east-west running tree line, and were basically using that as cover and concealment to move close,” Lieutenant Hartman said. “I’d say they were within 50 meters.”

Two more F/A-18s showed up from the Stennis. Under older rules, the pilots would probably have been cleared to drop a series of bombs, at least several hundred pounds of weaponry. But with the situation not fully clear, the pilots said, and without a ground controller on scene to direct it with care, the aircraft held back their heavy weapons. “A bomb?” Lieutenant Oyler said. “We wouldn’t know where to put it.”

Instead, the pilots were cleared to strafe near the most imperiled outpost with their cannons — each F/A-18 has a large, electrically powered Gatling-style gun in its nose that shoots 20-millimeter rounds.

Lieutenant Oyler and Lieutenant Hartman strafed; then two other F/A-18s strafed, too. Each strafe was roughly 150 to 200 rounds. “We basically worked it in sections, from west to east, and cleared the whole thing,” Lieutenant Hartman said. As the F/A-18s ran low on fuel, a pair of A-10 ground-attack jets arrived to take over, and the Navy pilots headed for a tanker.

The attacks subsided. The outposts held — without the risks of dropping heavier ordnance into the confusion and darkness.

Split-Second Calibration

Similar confusion greeted Lt. Cmdr. Thomas E. Hoyt when Marines called him for help in Helmand Province last October. A Navy medical corpsman had been shot through the left arm in a complex ambush, and Taliban gunmen were still firing from several directions, preventing most of the patrol from reaching the wounded man.

“He and two other Marines were cut off from the others,” said Capt. Michael J. Van Wyk, a Marine pilot serving on the ground as a forward air controller and who was pinned down by a Taliban sniper in another part of the patrol.

Upon arriving overhead, Lieutenant Commander Hoyt did not like what he heard and saw. Captain Van Wyk, he said, asked him to drop a 500-pound bomb on one of the buildings that the Marines were taking fire from. The situation was what was known as “danger close,” with Marines right beside the area to be hit.

The Marines said that the nearest friendly forces were 100 yards away. Lieutenant Commander Hoyt’s view told him the distance was shorter — the two sides were almost intermingled.

He offered his targeting sensor’s infrared video feed to Captain Van Wyk, accessible via a laptoplike device known as a Rover. This would allow the Marines to see what Lieutenant Commander Hoyt saw, to be certain he was looking at the right place before he strafed or released a bomb.

The patrol had been out already 12 hours; Captain Van Wyk’s Rover battery had just died.

To buy time and to get oriented, Lieutenant Commander Hoyt descended for a pass 500 feet over the firefight at about 550 miles per hour, a maneuver known as a “show of force” intended to intimidate Taliban fighters. As he roared by, he released a flare over the building to mark it. Captain Van Wyk confirmed he was looking at the right place.

Lieutenant Commander Hoyt made two more shows of force. But the Taliban fighters stayed put and kept firing. Marines on the ground fired a purple, a green and a yellow smoke grenade to mark where the Taliban fighters were hidden. The pilot’s confidence rose. “As soon as we confirmed where we can and can’t hit, then we could start shooting,” he said. “There were friendlies all over the place.”

Lieutenant Commander Hoyt suggested strafing instead of releasing a 500-pound bomb, and the controller agreed. The F/A-18 then made two passes, firing 460 rounds — one long burst into a canal, the other into a courtyard next to the building where the Marines had first asked for a bomb.

Part of the firefight started to subside, allowing Captain Van Wyk and the Marines to plan a landing zone for a helicopter to evacuate the wounded medic. A pair of Super Cobra attack helicopters showed up, freeing the F/A-18 to climb back to elevation.

The fight lasted perhaps another hour, and the corpsman was evacuated before its end. “Air power kept Marines from having to die that day,” Captain Van Wyk said. “They were willing to run across that open field to get Doc, and shed their blood. But air power made it so they didn’t have to.”

In the quiet after the gunfire died down, Captain Van Wyk watched as Afghan civilians stepped from hiding and began to survey the village. Then a sequence unfolded that filled him with alarm, then relief. As many as 20 of them, including women and children, came from the house he had initially wanted struck with a 500-pound bomb. Marines had been taking fire from there.

Watching the villagers who would have also been killed, he realized that Lieutenant Commander Hoyt had made the better decision. Everyone involved had been spared what might have been years of doubt and regret.

“I talked to him after and said, ‘Thank you for talking me out of that 500-pounder,’ ” he said. “I don’t have to think about that the rest of my life.”

A Complex Network

A few weeks later, another pair of F/A-18s was flying at night over the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. One of the planes was watching over a five-vehicle American convoy as it passed through a canyon and suddenly began taking fire — Taliban guerrillas shooting down from higher ridges in a classic ambush.

The drivers tried to return to their outpost, but were ambushed again. They called to say they could not see all the places the gunfire was coming from.

F/A-18s shifted the dynamic. “We had a pretty good God’s-eye view and could see where the fire was coming from,” said Lt. Kyle Terwilliger, a weapon system officer flying back-seat in one of the jets.

The aircraft shined an infrared marker onto the ridge where the officers saw firing. A ground controller with the convoy, using night-vision goggles, saw the beam and confirmed that it pointed to one of the Taliban’s firing positions.

Its target identified and determined to be away from a populated area, the aircraft was cleared by the ground unit to drop a GBU-12, a 500-pound laser-guided bomb. The strike would not be simple.

There was a low cloud cover, and the ridge was almost against the border; the pilots had to be sure that neither the ordnance nor their aircraft entered Pakistan. “We had to circle around to the south and fly back north, parallel to the border so we didn’t go in,” said Cmdr. Vorrice Burks, the lead pilot, who is also VFA-41 squadron commander.

The bomb struck, and the Taliban firing stopped, he said. The convoy drove on.

In its way, this strike was a model of what air power can do. It was timely, precise and effective, and it neatly integrated communications, logistics, tactics and firepower, freeing American troops from danger in a remote canyon halfway around the world.

It was also so complex — with the assistance of an aerial tanker from the Air Force that allowed Navy aircraft to loiter above a battlefield, the use of an infrared marker for a trained controller with night-vision equipment to confirm a target, the release of a laser-guided bomb near a friendly convoy and an off-limits international border — that almost nothing about it was replicable by Afghan forces.

Asked how Afghan soldiers or police officers might manage a similar tactical problem in the same canyon, Commander Burks gave a knowing frown. “It’s the Wild, Wild West, and the Afghans don’t have these assets to put in the air,” he said. “I don’t know, but they’re not going to do this.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: