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Magazine / FEATURE STORY

The Afghanistan Air War

The Air Force is playing an increasingly critical support role for the Army.

September 25, 2010

Updated at 12:50 p.m. on Sept. 27.

Donald Gansberger defies expectations. He grew up on his family's cattle ranch but became a self-described "hard-core computer nerd." He started college but dropped out to take a programming job at a six-figure salary. When his dot-com employer went bust, Gansberger joined the Air Force -- choosing the muddy-boots part of the service that fights alongside the Army on the ground

 

In 2005, he was with an Army patrol in Afghanistan, hiking back from a "hearts and minds" meeting with village leaders, when insurgents trapped the patrol in a box canyon along the Aurangzeb River. First, Taliban machine gunners pinned the Americans down. When the patrol took cover, another insurgent targeted the position with rocket-propelled grenades. One round overshot; the next fell short. Before the third hit home, however, two American A-10 ground attack jets roared in, firing their 30-millimeter cannon. Gansberger, an apprentice air controller on his first deployment, had radioed for air support and guided the pilots to the target within minutes.

"There was a guy next to me who has since become a really good friend, but I didn't even know him at the time," Gansberger told National Journal. "All I knew was, he was a squad sergeant, and he had just had a kid [while deployed]. I knew he had never met his daughter.... And he just turned and looked at me and said, you know, 'Hey, thanks, man -- now I'm going to get to go home and meet my daughter.' And no paycheck ever in my life has ever felt as good as that moment."

The good feeling is audible even in the cockpit of the aircraft overhead. Capt. Thomas Harney, an Air Force A-10 pilot with two tours in Afghanistan, recalled one mission near Kandahar in 2006 when a ground controller and his Army unit were taking mortar fire. Over the radio, "you could definitely tell that they're trying their best to stay calm," Harney said. "Once we dropped [a] laser-guided bomb on the enemy mortar team and neutralized them, it just totally changed in his voice.... And as we're checking out, he's telling my [senior pilot], 'Appreciate it, guys; you're the angels on our shoulders.' "

Never has so much firepower been available to troops on the ground so quickly. "When you left [the base], you pretty much knew what was already on station in the air and their call signs. You knew if you had Apaches [helicopters], if there were F-16s [fighters] or A-10s on station, flying around, and then you could just dial those guys up," said Army Capt. Christian Mitchell, an adviser to an Afghan army battalion in 2007-08. "On average, when you called, you could get it within about 10 minutes," adding that his Afghan allies "loved it."

Since 9/11, the Army and the Air Force have worked together more closely than ever before. The linchpin is a relative handful of certified Joint Tactical Air Controllers, or JTACs, whose ranks Gansberger, now a technical sergeant, joined after his first tour. Only about 500 are on active duty, but the Air Force is pumping up the training program to more than double that number, to a still-modest 1,200, by 2016.

The close cooperation of pilots, controllers, and grunts bridges a bitter 80-year-old air-ground rivalry. The first crack between the two services showed in 1925, when the Army court-martialed Billy Mitchell for his insubordinate advocacy of airpower. The split grew to a chasm by 1947, when the Air Force won independence from the Army on the strength of a "strategic bombing" doctrine that advocated long-range strikes -- preferably nuclear -- against the enemy's homeland, ignoring the field forces. Mass destruction, not precision, was the goal. Close support of ground troops was disdained as a diversion.

Today, both technology and politics have changed. Civilian casualties are unacceptable, precision bombing is possible, and, above all, this war has no big targets. The enemy has no arms factories, no air bases, no command posts, no tank formations.

"The support of ground operations is the only war in town," said David Johnson, a scholar at the Rand think tank whose books Learning Large Lessons: The Evolving Roles of Ground Power and Air Power in the Post-Cold War Era and Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945 chronicle the bitter air-versus-ground debates. "The question is whether or not everyone will treat this as an anomaly."

If counterinsurgency is the new normal, the Air Force needs to buy different kinds of planes and stop neglecting low-speed, low-cost ground attack aircraft: the A-10, armed drones, and even propeller-driven planes. But if future adversaries acquire the advanced anti-aircraft missiles that the Taliban lacks, then the Air Force will need high-performance, high-cost fighters such as those conceived in the $240 billion F-35 Lightning program. Ground troops grown accustomed to on-tap air support may find that pilots are too busy trying to not get shot down.

U.S. and allied ground troops have become especially reliant on air support in Afghanistan, where even after the troop surge, relatively small forces are scattered over rugged terrain, far from reinforcements and vulnerable to ambush. Some remote outposts depend on aircraft for their basic supplies. For their part, the fliers rely on ground forces to find the elusive guerrillas and to confirm that they are legitimate targets, not civilians. From the air, even with advanced sensors, "you can see a lot of big-picture things. You can see people moving, you can see that somebody's holding something in their hands--[but] I might not be able to tell you what kind of object that it is," said Kalleen Steele, an Air Force captain who has flown F-16s over ground troops in Iraq and served as a liaison with the Army in Afghanistan. "There is so much that you don't know; and you know you don't know it.... Target selection and target identification is really on the ground commander."

In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, radar and smart bombs allowed the Air Force to find and destroy enemy tanks even during a sandstorm. In Afghanistan, where many village men are armed and where insurgents wear no uniforms, telling the two apart from overhead is hard. Make the wrong call, and the wrong people get killed, with consequences not just ethical but strategic.

A Delicate And Deadly Balance

The most-lethal mistakes of the war have come when commanders have ordered airstrikes without confirmation from the ground. In September last year, a German colonel ordered U.S. planes to blow up two hijacked tanker trucks in Kunduz before the Taliban could turn them into giant suicide bombs. But the crowd that had gathered to siphon fuel was mostly civilian; 142 Afghans died. Demonstrations erupted in Kabul, and Taliban propagandists had a field day. In the words of Napoleon's aide Talleyrand, "It was worse than a crime. It was a mistake."

The massive, fast-responding firepower that aircraft can bring to bear has a definite dark side. The danger is especially heightened in a counterinsurgency, where much of the population is uncommitted, capable of swaying to either side, and where one bloody mistake can spark protests in Kabul and revenge killings in the countryside.

"Once you lose the civilians completely, it makes the war very, very dangerous," Gansberger said. On his first tour, a "huge fight" broke out between U.S. troops and "over 100 Taliban," he said, "but the way we engaged them was tons of artillery and tons of bombs; and I don't know if any civilians even got killed, but an entire orchard was destroyed and all their irrigation ditches were destroyed." After that, many villages switched from wary neutrality to outright hostility, Gansberger said. "Places that you could walk through without having to worry about getting hit before, now you had to worry about.

"Those bad guys are still bad guys, and not dropping on them isn't the right answer," Gansberger went on. "Every time you do bomb a civilian, you lose that support, and now we might have more insurgents who are just going to kill more Americans in the long run." As a result, he said, "going kinetic" -- that is, firing guns or dropping bombs -- "is typically a last resort."

Aircraft in support of ground troops spend most of their time watching. "Some of the days, it was incredibly boring, just circling overhead, waiting for something to happen," confessed Navy Lt. Benjamin Kohlmann, who flew 32 combat missions over Afghanistan but dropped bombs only twice. Even though the planes were armed, much of Kohlmann's work "was, basically, general reconnaissance," using both eyes and advanced sensors to check ahead of allied convoys for ambushes and roadside bombs; following a suspicious vehicle; monitoring a city or valley for unusual activity; looking for signs of digging that might reveal an improvised explosive device. Sometimes pilots spot something and then fly low or zoom in with their sensors to investigate, but often they respond to tips or questions from the ground.

Even if the aircraft don't spot anything, the insurgents will probably see or hear them, and so the aerial presence alone can deter an attack. When a unit is under threat, Harney said, "we'll make sure that we're overhead of them at night, even if really nothing's going on, just so the enemy doesn't attack. They can hear us up there, and they know that we're ready to strike if we need to."

Gansberger said, "If that aircraft's overhead all the time, you might not have a fight. Some guys that are aggressive, like me, we might prefer to have a fight so I can kill the guy now and I don't have to worry about him later. But, on the other hand, a successful mission is bringing everybody home safe."

Even when a fight does break out, air support's first response is not bombs, but a "show of force"--a low, loud, showy flight over the enemy's position aimed at scaring the insurgents off. "My second tour, when a show of force happened, that was it; the enemy quit fighting," Gansberger said. On his most recent tour, however, when he directed a French Mirage to buzz some insurgents near Bala Murghab in northwest Afghanistan, "the guys that were down in front of me under fire said, 'Hey, they're shooting at your plane.' Whoa, I've never had that happen before.... I'm probably going to go kinetic -- and I should probably warn that aircraft that he should pull up."

What is most surprising about the air war in Afghanistan is not how robust it is but how restrained it is. In July alone (the latest month for which data is available), U.S. and allied airplanes flew almost 3,000 close air support missions in conjunction with ground troops -- nearly 100 a day. Of those 2,900 sorties, however, only 400 involved a "weapons release": a bomb dropped, a missile launched, a gun fired. In other words, U.S. and allied aircraft flew over Afghanistan, armed, on call, and ready to fight, but they used their weapons just 14 percent of the time.

That figure has wobbled up and down over the months, but on average this year, only 10.6 percent of close air support sorties actually fired weapons. That rate has fallen since 2007, when it was 37.2 percent -- even though the total number of close air support missions per year has more than doubled in the same time. (Pre-2007 data were not available.)

As a direct result, according to official United Nations reporting, the rate at which Afghan civilians are killed in airstrikes has dropped by more than half, from almost 30 per month in 2009 -- one innocent victim a day -- to fewer than 12 per month so far this year. That decline stands in sharp contrast to the insurgents' increased killings of civilians and, for that matter, increases in American military casualties, troops deployed, and the pace of operations during the troop surge.

Even as the war has escalated by every other measure, U.S. and allied air forces have grown more careful in using their weapons. But is this paradox the pinnacle of strategy, Sun Tzu's ideal of "winning without fighting"? Or is it a self-imposed handicap that drags out the war and ultimately costs more American and Afghan lives?

Tactical Directives

U.S. policy on "collateral damage" has swung back and forth in recent years. The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2007 and '08, Army Gen. Dan McNeill, earned the nickname "Bomber McNeill" for his use of airpower. "We have seen for the first time this year more civilians killed by U.S. and coalition forces than by the Taliban," a former Air Force targeting planner, Marc Garlasco, told National Journal in 2007. The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a humanitarian group, reported, "The year 2008 brought a significant dip in the popularity of the international forces, particularly following several high-profile air strikes that killed dozens of individuals in the second half of 2008."

McNeill was replaced in June 2008 by Gen. David McKiernan, who was fired and replaced by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in June 2009, who was in turn fired and replaced by Gen. David Petraeus this June. Though McChrystal was known as a hard-knuckled Special Forces fighter, one of his first orders was a "tactical directive" tightening restrictions on airstrikes and artillery. Petraeus is considered the high priest of "hearts and minds" counterinsurgency, but one of his first actions was to "clarify" McChrystal's order with a directive that, in effect, loosened the restrictions.

The McChrystal restrictions won the ire of many troops and the praise of humanitarian activists. "McChrystal's tactical directive was an incredible improvement," said Sarah Holewinski, director of the innocent victims group. Civilian casualties caused by coalition troops quickly began to drop and have continued downward since. But by the time McChrystal was ousted over indiscreet remarks to a reporter, she said, "there had already been weeks or even months of very outspoken soldiers in the field telling journalists, 'We have one hand tied behind our back.' "

Petraeus's staff has argued that McChrystal's tactical directive was sound but that local commanders, anxious to steer clear of any gray areas, layered on additional restrictions -- and then their subordinates followed suit. What was needed, the Petraeus camp argued, was a return to McChrystal's original concept.

"We must continue -- indeed, redouble -- our efforts to reduce the loss of innocent civilian life to an absolute minimum," a declassified excerpt of Petraeus's "clarifying" order declared. "Prior to the use of fires [artillery or airstrikes], the commander approving the strike must determine that no civilians are present. If unable to assess the risk of civilian presence, fires are prohibited, except under of the following two conditions: [details redacted].... This directive, as with the previous version, does not prevent commanders from protecting the lives of their men and women as a matter of self-defense where it is determined no other options are available to effectively counter the threat." Petraeus's punch line: "Subordinate commanders are not authorized to further restrict this guidance without my approval."

Extreme Measures

Tech. Sgt. Gansberger, who has served in Afghanistan three times, thought that the real change in attitude came before McChrystal's arrival, between Gansberger's first tour in 2005-06 and his second in 2007. "It actually hasn't changed that much from 2007 to now," he said. Nevertheless, "there's a lot of times, and I'd say especially so with this last tour, [when] you've kind of got to become a lawyer.... There's a lot of times I felt more like I was on an episode of Law and Order than I was a combatant."

During the Bala Murghab battle, for example, U.S. troops came under fire from one of the walled clusters of Afghan buildings that make for ready fortresses. "I could see the compound, [but] I'd been on site for less than an hour," Gansberger said, so he had no idea if civilians were inside. "I couldn't just drop on it, but my guys were pinned down ... so I did the show of force. And they started shooting at the plane; they never quit shooting at our guys, and I'm like, OK, this is bad." Fortunately, some Army snipers got on the radio to say they had been watching the compound all night and had seen no civilians. The bombs came down.

"I got lucky in that situation," Gansberger admitted. "It was, like, well, I can save my buddies and I don't have to worry about there being negative ramifications."

The air-ground teams can direct strikes with astonishing discrimination. Harney recalled flying over Uruzgan province in 2006 to support a combined U.S.-Afghan force against insurgents fighting from among civilian homes. "There was a report that they had seen the Taliban grab children ... and take them to the house just next door to the house they were firing from," Harney said, guessing that the insurgents were trying to keep the Americans from dropping bombs.

Instead, the A-10s fired white phosphorous marking rockets at what they thought was the target; the ground troops confirmed that it was the correct house; and then, as the senior pilot spotlighted the target with a laser, Harney dived in with a 500-pound smart bomb. The Taliban was "neutralized." The house next door was untouched. The ground troops did find children inside -- some with stab wounds apparently inflicted by their captors. "I just escorted the medevac helicopter in there and grabbed the kids," Harney said, "and they took them, probably back to Bagram, to treat them."

Sometimes, technical glitches or human error lead to tragedy. Sometimes, technology, tactics, training, and ethics all come together, and everything works. The challenge for the military is making it all work consistently.

Technology, Training, And Culture

For eight decades, from the rise of Billy Mitchell to the invasion of Afghanistan, airpower revolutionaries and ground war traditionalists were locked in a bitter and stalemated debate over the role and design of military aircraft. The traditionalists wanted low-flying, rugged aircraft to support the ground troops. The revolutionaries wanted fast, high-flying, long-ranged planes to strike vital targets in the enemy homeland.

The low-and-slow advocates thought that those on the high-and-fast side had their heads literally in the clouds at the cost of diverting resources from the decisive battle on the ground. The high-and-fast group saw low-and-slow as trench warfare with wings, tethering airpower to the ground troops instead of letting the planes strike deep for a swift victory and ultimately save lives. From World War II through Vietnam to Operation Desert Storm, commanders struggled to mediate between Air Force and Army, long-range strikes and close support.

In the weeks after September 11, 2001, however, the combination of precision weapons, advanced sensors, and communications networks cut partway through the Gordian knot. The first U.S. forces into Afghanistan could call in accurate and devastating firepower from aircraft flying high and fast, even from heavy bombers, such as the B-52 and the B-1, originally built for strategic nuclear strikes. The pilots were not flying low and slow enough to see the target, but the ground observers gave them the coordinates, and the smart bomb did the rest.

Suddenly, the Air Force's favorite planes were doing the Army's favorite mission. The aerodynamics of the particular aircraft, or "platform," had become less important than the smart bombs, sensors, and communications gear onboard. "I don't really care what platform it is; I care what it's got," said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Schmidt, an Air Force controller with two tours in Iraq. "If it's got targeting pods ... if they're experienced ... if a B-2 [stealth bomber] has a GPS-guided bomb, I'll give them [attack] coordinates and say, 'Hey, here's your target, let's go with it.' "

As powerful as the technology is, the human element, both in the cockpit and on the ground, is still key. Air Force ground controllers spend much of their time on Army bases, and they deploy with Army units. "I wear blue, I bleed green," Schmidt said, referring to the two services' colors. "We're the in-between that makes everything work."

In the air, likewise, one of the great advantages of the A-10 force is the culture of its pilots, who train exclusively for ground attack. "What makes them the most useful is, they are bred to have the air-to-ground mentality," Schmidt said. "That's what makes them valuable to a JTAC -- their thought process." By contrast, Schmidt noted, the Air Force, Navy, and NATO fighter-bomber crews are "awesome pilots," but they must split their training time between attacking ground targets and dueling other aircraft. "At the end of the day, they have another role," he said, "so it ends up with [them] being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none."

Those fighter-bombers, however, are the Air Force's favorite, precisely because they are multi-role. The Air Force has not budgeted for a bomber since it bought the last B-2 in 1993. The service has not bought a new ground-attack plane since the last A-10 was procured in 1982. From 1975 through 2009, in fact, the Air Force bought about 110 bombers, 750 ground-attack planes, and 3,500 multi-role fighters. Its future procurement strategy includes a vague plan to develop a new bomber, no ground attackers, and more than 1,700 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

What Planes To Buy?

The Air Force has an immense investment -- not just financial, but emotional -- in fighter jets. For three decades, it has consistently favored multi-mission fighters, which sacrifice bomb load and fuel load -- and, hence, range -- for high performance. It has consistently de-emphasized specialized aircraft for either short-range ground attack or long-range heavy bombing. In the Cold War era, when the mission was arming to fight the Soviet air force and army simultaneously, within easy range of European bases, this emphasis made considerable sense. Since 9/11, it has increasingly come under fire.

Heavy bombers look increasingly attractive at both the high- and low-tech extremes of modern conflict. They have the range to reach a distant target in Afghanistan--or China--and then loiter overhead, hunting for elusive targets such as Taliban insurgents or mobile nuclear missile launchers. They have the bomb load to swiftly devastate a single well-defended target or to spend hours rationing out a few smart bombs at a time against scattered guerrilla bands. Fighters, by contrast, run out of bombs much faster and must refuel roughly every hour from flying tankers, a process that is at best time-consuming and at worst, in the face of the enemy fighters, suicidal.

"The No. 1 need is for a long-range bomber," said Michael Dunn, the retired lieutenant general who heads the nonprofit Air Force Association. Both Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz have recently emphasized the service's need for such a plane.

On the low-performance end, Gen. Schwartz had toyed publicly with buying rugged ground-attack planes cheap and simple enough for both the Air Force and its Afghan allies. The Navy Special Operations Command, meanwhile, went as far as experimenting with a leased propeller plane called the Super Tucano, a ground-attack turboprop built by Brazil's Embraer to fly long patrols off dirt airstrips in the Amazon. But the Navy project, "Imminent Fury," ran out of money, and Schwartz scaled down his "counterinsurgency wing" to a single squadron dedicated to training American pilots to serve as advisers to less-well-endowed air forces. Leading contenders are the Embraer Super Tucano, an armed version of the Hawker Beech craft T-6 trainer used by all Air Force student pilots, and a militarized crop duster called the Air Tractor. But the Air Force now plans to buy these planes primarily for the Afghans, with only about two dozen for the U.S. fleet.

"Let me talk about something that I think the Air Force has lacked for too long, and that is a fighter or attack aircraft that is capable of launching and recovering out of an austere airfield," said Capt. Stewart Parker, an Air Force Special Operations ground controller. Such a plane, he contended, could operate from forward bases and not only respond quickly, without requiring expensive jet fuel and aerial tankers, but also allow pilots to live and work side by side with the ground forces. Even in an era of global communications, Parker said, face-to-face contact makes for better teamwork.

Other veteran controllers are less sure. If you are willing to trade speed for loiter time, why not take the pilot out of the airplane altogether and use a drone? "They're much slower than all the other aircraft out there," said Staff Sgt. John Robertson, a regular Air Force controller, but "once they're overhead, they can stay as long as you need them." Though the pilot is operating the drone by remote control, often from as far away as Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, "you don't even notice that at all," Robertson said. "It's just like talking to a regular aircraft."

Other controllers also praised the famous Predator and its up-armed successor, the Reaper. "I love the Reaper because it's got a long loiter time, a lot of armament, and he hangs out overhead -- and they can't hear him," unlike jets, Gansberger said. The drones may not deter insurgents from attacking but they can deliver a nasty surprise from above when the fighting starts.

Contrary to its aversion to turboprops, the Air Force is investing heavily in what the service prefers to call "remotely piloted aircraft." But the drones will supplement manned aircraft, not replace them, for the foreseeable future. Glitches in the remote-control system have caused frequent crashes and allowed the Taliban to hack the video feeds. In one case, Dunn said, "we lost the links to every airborne [unmanned aerial vehicle], every single one of them. The entire fleet that was airborne went to its [automated] emergency orbits." A better-armed enemy than the Taliban could have taken advantage. Indeed, drones maneuver so awkwardly that even when working perfectly, they are easy prey for an adversary with anti-aircraft guns, not to mention missiles or fighters.

What is the controllers' favorite aircraft? Time after time, they gave one answer.

"When asked, if any platform in the world, what would you rather have," Schmidt said, "A-10 will probably be the first answer."

"If you're in a heavy fight, there's no substitute for the A-10," Gansberger concurred.

It was built for close air support, Robertson said. "It's a gun with wings."

In fact, the A-10's 30-millimeter Gatling, designed to take out Soviet tanks, is the heaviest gun ever mounted on a jet. (The propeller-driven AC-130 has an even bigger cannon, but only 25 of the planes exist.) And because the Gatling is highly precise, "I've seen guys in my last deployment [open fire with only] 30 meters between the friendlies and the bad guys," said Harney, the A-10 pilot.

Air Force leaders worry that the low-and-slow A-10 might not survive against modern anti-aircraft missiles, even with its heavy armor. But they have invested in new wings and electronics for the 30-year-old jets. The service could even resurrect decommissioned A-10s from the boneyard, if required. For now, as far as technology and training have come, the future of Air Force ground support is an aircraft from the past.

CORRECTION: The original version of this report misspelled David Johnson's name.

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