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‘Old warrior’ B-52 gets call in Afghanistan

Venerable bombers providing air support for U.S., Afghan troops

The U.S. military has called on a few of its oldest warriors to the fight in a recent series of offensive actions in Afghanistan.

B-52 Stratofortresses — twice as old as some of the crewmembers aboard them — are dropping satellite-guided bombs on targets called for by forces on the ground.

Capt. Andy McElvaine, weapons officer for the 40th Air Expeditionary Group, said “B-52” and “close air support” historically don’t belong in the same sentence. But technological advances have changed that.

“We’ve been providing a lot of close air support pretty effectively,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Some A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, Army helicopters and Marine Corps aircraft continue to support ground operations in more traditional roles, flying in low while engaging the enemy. But now those fighting against Americans and Afghan government forces on the ground also have to contend with enemies they’ll never see.

That’s because the B-52s perform their missions between 22,000 and 39,000 feet. Sometimes they leave vapor trails. But Capt. Adam, an aircraft commander who declined to give his last name because he said he’s engaged in ongoing operations, said most of the time crews never see their enemies or the effect of the weapons they drop.

He said there was an exception recently on a mission after dark.

The 2,000-pound GBU-31 bomb “lit up the entire night sky” when it struck its target, he said.

Capt. Bobby, a navigator who also wouldn’t provide his last name, said Afghanistan doesn’t provide any special problems for crews. The mountains, dust and swirling winds make flying helicopters treacherous, but none of those problems exist at the B-52s’ altitude.

Before the advent of precision bombs, B-52s’ roles in close engagements were severely limited because bombs dropped from 30,000 feet were just as likely to fall on friendly forces as those they were fighting.

There are still restrictions on how close forces can be engaged before the precision bombs are put in play. But McElvaine said the GBU-31 hits within about 42 feet of its programmed target.

“It’s a very diverse group of targets,” he said. “Sometimes larger groups [of entrenched enemies] and sometimes cave complexes.”

The three Air Force officers, all based with the 5th Bombing Wing from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., expressed confidence in the weapons they’re dropping. The aircraft commander said if numbers programmed into the bombs are accurate, they’ll hit their targets.

So, he said communication is important not only between those on the ground and in the air, but also within the crew. It takes only about a minute for the bomb to hit its target after it’s launched.

The five-member crews and aircraft aren’t based in Afghanistan, though the Air Force won’t release their home base. It’s a flight of several hours to reach the country, and crews normally take off without any specific targets. They hover around until they’re called upon, or until it’s time to head back.

Missions last 16 to 18 hours, but those flying them say it’s worth the time and effort.

“Our main mission here is to make sure those guys on the ground — American or Afghan allies — are protected,” the commander said. “They’re the ones slogging around down there and they have our respect and support.”


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