Monday, May 10, 2010

Limits on Afghan airstrikes frustrates pilots

By Michael Hoffman, Staff writer
Air Force Times
Posted: May 10, 2010, 12:21:43 EDT

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — The Taliban no longer run and hide when they see a fighter jet overhead, brazenness that airmen attribute to the nearly year-old directive to limit close-air support.

Joint terminal attack controllers, airmen on the ground who call in airstrikes, and fighter pilots report that insurgents are encouraging each other to continue firing because they know the Air Force's F-16s and A-10s are dropping far fewer bombs now than this time last year.

"Keep fighting; [coalition forces] won't shoot" is the order that enemy leaders are giving — in Pashtun and Dari, words that the JTACs have heard over their radios.

Pilots notice the bolder attitude, even from their bird's-eye view in the sky.

"It can be very frustrating when you can see them shooting at our guys," said Capt. Andy Vaughan as he walked out to his A-10 on a March 24 mission over southern Afghanistan. "They know we are not allowed to engage in certain situations."

Much of Vaughan's time is spent flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties, even though his A-10 — with titanium planers underneath the cockpit and a 30mm GAU-8/A seven-barrel Gatling gun mounted on the nose — was built to fly close-air support.

"The A-10 pilots … are just left circling in the skies," said an Air Force officer here who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak on the record.

New tactics
In July, the senior NATO commander in Afghanistan limited the use of airstrikes to reduce civilian casualties. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal instructed leaders to authorize air-to-ground munitions — bombs and small missiles — as well as indirect fires such as mortars and rockets only "under very limited and prescribed conditions." He made a point of noting, however, that commanders could use force as a last resort to protect their troops.

McChrystal's directive played a part in reducing Air Force Central Command's close-air support numbers from 2008 to 2009, according to Col. Keith McBride, deputy commander of the command's combined air operations center. The figure for bombs dropped or strafing runs flown — both by Air Force and Navy jets — was 4,184, down 17 percent from 2008's 5,051.

In a January interview with Air Force Times to review the year-end numbers, McBride stressed that U.S. aircraft are not hesitant to attack if troops are in imminent danger.

As an example, he cited the defense of the Army's Forward Operating Base Keating. In October, the month that the insurgent onslaught occurred, bomb drops and strafing runs reached 660, the highest in more than a year.

More recently, an A-10 made a strafing run through the village of Gereshk in the Helmand Valley after coalition forces came under attack. Shooting ceased after the A-10 unleashed the 30mm GAU-8, according to a command air power summary.

Before a plane drops any bomb or makes a strafing run, the aircrew and the JTAC work together to determine if an attack can be justified. For example, either the pilot or JTAC must visually identify an insurgent firing a weapon before engaging the target — no easy task either while flying a plane or taking fire on the ground, airmen here said.

"There are directives on what we need to ask the JTAC," Vaughan said, and each pilot is looking for the JTAC to say "specific phrases" before he releases any munitions.

The JTAC is who the directive puts the pressure on, said Lt. Col. Keith Bryza, commander of the 817th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Squadron, which oversees JTACs in Afghanistan.

"Our guys have to know what the rules are," Bryza said. "The JTAC is the only one who can release ordnance."

Even if a ground commander orders an airstrike, a JTAC does not have to authorize the attack if the situation does not exactly meet the conditions laid out by McChrystal, Bryza said.

Better numbers
Fewer civilian casualties have been reported since McChrystal issued his directive. The numbers are difficult to count and often disputed, but the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan puts the civilian death toll from airstrikes in 2009 at 359, down from 680 the year before.

All the airmen here and at Bagram Airfield made it clear the Air Force stressed avoiding civilian casualties even before last July, and they have been personally committed to the goal from the time they joined the service.

Before heading off to Afghanistan for his third deployment, Staff Sgt. Christopher Ney met with senior officers to review the importance of avoiding civilian casualties.

"Back home, we spent time training on the [rules of engagement] and they just wanted to drive home what's going on out here," said Ney, who is serving with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment's Terror Platoon at Forward Operating Base Mizan in Helmand province.

The high op tempo makes it difficult for JTACs and pilots to make time for training — especially JTACs who have less than a 1-to-1 dwell time ratio. Bryza preps most of his JTACS on the fly.

"We just don't have enough guys to give them much time, if any at all, on the training ranges to practice this with the pilots," he said.

The A-10 pilots here from the 188th Air Wing of the Arkansas Air Guard managed to hook up with JTACs at the Razorback Range at Fort Smith, Ark., said Lt. Col. Tim Eddins, the 188th's operations officer. That training helped the pilots feel more comfortable flying in the war zone, he said.

Bryza helped set up a regular video teleconference between Army and Air Force pilots and JTACs to discuss issues they have encountered in the field.

"The conversations that we have had with the pilots have been really good," he said, "and that's made this a lot easier."


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