Afghanistan air support missions under scrutiny
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Bombs that kill bad guys make news for a day. Bombs that kill allies make news for much longer.
America’s role in two deadly friendly-fire incidents involving British troops during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made that point all too clear.
The March 2003 death of Lance Cpl. Matthew Hull in Iraq and the Aug. 23 deaths of Pvts. John Thrumble, Robert Foster and Aaron McClure in Afghanistan highlight the dangers of air support and created tension at times between the United States and its closest ally.
At the same time, The Associated Press regularly reports scores of Taliban insurgent fighters killed by bombs dropped from U.S. fighter jets. Just last week the news agency reported approximately 165 insurgent fighters killed by airstrikes or artillery fire in Afghanistan.
NATO and U.S. officials declined to release the exact number of close-air support missions flown, but Air Force press releases from earlier this month indicate they are used frequently.
According to one release, there were 44 close-air support missions flown in support of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan security forces on Sept. 14 alone. There were 41 such missions on Sept. 4.
Air power advocates say close-air support is vital to the military’s fight in Afghanistan.
But some critics of coalition planning argue the most recent friendly-fire incident is the inevitable result of a less-than-robust Afghan counterinsurgency campaign in which jets in the sky are used to compensate for a lack of boots on the ground.
Last week, airmen from the RAF Lakenheath-based 492nd Fighter Squadron returned to Britain after four months of high-tempo operations that included around-the-clock flying, employing hundreds of weapons that neutralized scores of enemy fighters and dropping one fatal errant bomb.
“There’s a tendency to think [friendly-fire deaths are] always a massive screw-up and a scandal, and sometimes it is,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the stateside Council on Foreign Relations.
“But inherent in the nature of the mission is the risk of fratricide. That’s something you have to balance with the need for it.”
On the cheap?Even before the most recent friendly-fire incident drew international headlines, the coalition was under pressure from the Afghan government over the inadvertent killing of civilians by airstrikes.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been among those calling for a re-examination of NATO airstrikes.
“All of our rhetoric about bringing democracy to Afghanistan isn’t going to matter much to somebody whose kids just got killed by an American bomb,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and military analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
“The U.S. military has sometimes overused firepower in these kinds of wars.”
With roughly 50,000 combined U.S. and coalition troops patrolling a country the size of Texas with a resurgent enemy, close-air support has become a “second-best” option for the coalition.
“The big problem with [close-air support] in Afghanistan at the moment is that the West in general is radically short of troops by normal counterinsurgency standards,” Biddle said.
Close-air support played a significant role in the initial invasion and during Operation Anaconda in 2002, he said.
“As the insurgency has gathered steam, it’s tended to increase again,” Biddle said. “When you’re forced to rely on an at-second-best solution, because you aren’t willing to provide the troop strength, you end up accepting a whole collection of downside costs and risks.”
In Helmand province, where the British soldiers were killed, the British military regularly encounters fierce resistance, according to Paul Smyth of the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank.
“All reports are that the number of contacts and the degree of fighting is reasonably intense,” Smyth said. “It’s been a number of years since our forces have been engaged in such continued and intense contact.”
U.S. Air Force Maj. Charles Anthony, an ISAF spokesman, said most close-air support occurs in the south and east provinces of Afghanistan, including the especially hostile Helmand province.
Smyth tempers the risk of fratricide with the tactical advantage of close-air support.
“We mustn’t forget that there are lots of British soldiers who are safely at home today or in their units in deployed operations who have called in air support,” Smyth said.
“And it’s been absolutely critical to giving them that tactical edge in battle.”
The British Ministry of Defence did not respond to requests from Stars and Stripes to speak to British soldiers who have served in Afghanistan.
A last measureMembers of the 492nd were barred from speaking about the friendly-fire incident earlier this month pending the result of an ISAF investigation under way in Afghanistan.
British investigators were on hand at the 492nd headquarters on Bagram for their part of the probe.
But troops from the 492nd did speak generally about their role in providing close-air support.
Maj. Randy Haskin, a pilot, said dropping a laser- or satellite-guided bomb is often not the first option when intervening in a ground assault with an F-15.
“Our first objective is to have them stop getting shot at,” he said. “Our second objective is to kill the bad guy.”
Often the intimidation of a low-level flyover will suffice to ward off what the military terms “anti-coalition forces.”
“We want to use the minimum amount of force necessary,” Haskin said. “Believe it or not, it works most of the time. Something you see at an air show is generally enough to scare off the bad guy.”
The squadron also employs strafing via 20 mm high-explosive incendiary tracer rounds, fired from the six-barrel cannon in the belly of the jet.
“We’ve done more strafing here than any other F-15E in any other combat zone,” Haskin said. “It’s like a hand grenade, if you put 100 of these on the ground, it’s going to hit something.”
Ideally, air intervention is done in conjunction with what the Air Force terms a joint tactical air controller, or JTAC — airmen embedded with ground forces to communicate with the jets to direct strikes, according to 492nd commander Lt. Col. Troy Stone said.
Some of the most perilous strikes occur when no JTAC is involved.
“To try to figure out where the friendlies are, to try and figure out where the enemies are, and to lay down a blunt instrument, it’s not easy,” he said earlier this month.
Regardless of the presence of a JTAC, the fighter jet officers run through a list of checks to ensure they strike the designated target.
“It’s necessary that we’re apprehensive because we care so much about the guys on the ground,” F-15E weapons systems operator Capt. Matt Chapman said.
Recent air support missions
NATO officials won’t disclose how many close-air support missions are being flown in Afghanistan, but on Sept. 14 alone, coalition aircraft flew 44 close-air support missions, according to an Air Force news release dated Sept. 15.
Among those missions:
Air Force F-15E fighter jets performed shows of force with flares in Sangin and Now Zad to deter “anti-coalition activity.”In Gardez, F-15Es provided armed overwatch for coalition forces searching a cave entrance.An Air Force B-1B Lancer employed guided bombs against enemies engaging coalition forces near Kajaki Dam. The pilot also conducted a show of force in Gereshk to deter further enemy activity.Other F-15Es in Kajaki Dam targeted three enemy compounds with munitions, and one pilot engaged an enemy sniper position.In Orgun-E, an F-15E flew a show of force over enemy positions.In Ghazni, an A-10 Thunderbolt II conducted shows of force with flares to make air presence known and to deter enemy activity near a convoy.Source: Air Force Print News Today, “Sept. 14 airpower summary: F-15Es cover coalition forces,” Sept. 15, 2007