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US communications plane crashes in Afghanistan

This photo provided by an Afghan journalist affiliated with the Taliban is said to show an aircraft that crashed in eastern Afghanistan on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. The U.S. military said it is investigating reports of an airplane crash in Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan. U.S. Army Maj. Beth Riordan, a spokeswoman for U.S. Central Command, said that it remained unclear whose aircraft was involved in the crash.

TARIQ GHAZNIWAL VIA AP

By J.P. LAWRENCE AND PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 27, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan — An Air Force communications aircraft crashed in a Taliban-controlled area of central Afghanistan on Monday, after which video of the purported wreckage circulated on social media.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said the aircraft was a Bombardier E-11A, during a meeting with reporters in Washington on Monday. Goldfein did not confirm any further details.

“It appears we have lost an aircraft,” Goldfein said. “We don’t know the status of the crew.”

U.S. Forces-Afghanistan spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said on Twitter that while the incident was under investigation, “there are no indications the crash was caused by enemy fire.”

The plane crashed around 1:30 p.m. Monday in Ghazni province, and initial reports suggest two or three people died, said Arif Noori, spokesman for the provincial governor.

Noori wasn’t initially able to confirm whether it was a U.S. aircraft that crashed in Deh Yak district, about 80 miles southwest of Kabul.

“We tried to send Afghan security forces to the scene,” Noori said, but they were pulled back due to security concerns.

The Taliban control large sections of Ghazni, which was the site of a surprise offensive in 2018.

Teams from the Red Cross and Red Crescent went to the crash site but weren’t able to send updates due to poor phone reception in the remote area, Noori said.

The Taliban said in a Pashto-language statement that the U.S. plane crashed and that their fighters “had downed it tactically.” They also said that “lots” of U.S. servicemembers died, The Associated Press reported. The Taliban are known to exaggerate their claims.

Tariq Ghazniwal, a journalist in the area affiliated with the Taliban, said that he saw the burning aircraft, AP reported. On Twitter, Ghazniwal told AP that he saw two bodies and that the front of the aircraft was burned badly.

Early reports stated the crash was an Ariana Airlines plane, but the company told AP that none of its planes had crashed in Afghanistan.

The Aviation Safety Network, which tracks aviation accidents, identified the E-11A by its Air Force tail number, 11-9358.

The Air Force’s fleet of four E-11A aircraft, outfitted with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node payload, provides a unique capability in a country where mountains and poor communications infrastructure create a challenge for military operations, the service has said.

All of the service’s BACN aircraft are assigned to the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron and solely fly out of Kandahar Airfield, where they’ve been deployed for about a decade.

They are in the air every minute of the day, the Air Force has said.

The aircraft is “like Wi-Fi in the sky,” said Capt. Jacob Breth, an Air Force pilot quoted in a November 2018 statement.

The capability was developed in direct response to communications failures during one of the most well-known battles of the war, Operation Red Wings.

During that summer 2005 operation in Kunar province, a four-man Navy SEAL patrol was unable to establish communications with its combat operations center, leaving them vulnerable to the attack that left 19 special operations troops dead and only one survivor, Marcus Luttrell.

The former SEAL recounted the mission in the book “Lone Survivor,” which was later made into a movie.

In response to that incident, a Bombardier Global Express was outfitted to allow ground troops and the aircraft to talk to each other, the Air Force has said. Test pilots first deployed with the aircraft to Kandahar in 2008.

The bomber and heavy aircraft pilots — all volunteers for the duty — train on simulators before deploying and the first time they fly one for real is a combat mission, the Air Force said in a statement marking the airframe’s 10,000th sortie in March 2017.

Chad Garland, Corey Dickstein and Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

lawrence.jp@stripes.com
Twitter: @jplawrence3

wellman.phillip@stripes.com
Twitter: @pwwellman

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