Committing Everything to the Battlefield

July 1, 2011

The war in Afghanistan is creeping toward its 10-year mark, and while the size and tenor of the conflict has changed significantly over the decade, US and NATO air and space forces enabled a surge in effort since 2009. With the infusion and dispersal of tens of thousands of troops into the country, to take combat directly to the Taliban and its allies, air assets have become integral to any long-term success, said the top airman in theater.

The United States Air Force has “committed everything we’ve got to the battlefield,” said Lt. Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III, commander of US Air Forces Central Command, in an interview. In addition to the steep increase in close air support sorties. Hostage noted the “tremendous” increase in intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance and airlift, specifically airdrop, missions, and the crucial role they have played in the conflict.

An A-10 takes off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Close air support sorties in Afghanistan have increased since 2009. (USAF photo by SSgt. Samuel Morse)

Airlift is “great leverage” in Afghanistan, Hostage said, as it gets supplies and troops off explosive-ridden land routes—and is how a large counterinsurgency campaign in a harsh environment such as Afghanistan is even possible. “Logistics is what really wins conflicts,” Hostage said. “If you can’t sustain that force, you wind up losing.”

The infrastructure in Afghanistan in most places is “heinous,” he noted, and without the ability to put troops out into the hinterlands and reliably resupply them via air, any effort to take combat to the enemy would be stifled.

Hostage’s tenure at AFCENT has tracked with the massive upsurge in troops, materiel, and combat in Afghanistan. He took over as AFCENT boss in August 2009 just as the major shift in forces from Iraq to Afghanistan was hitting stride.

From Great to Exceptional

Hostage at first saw persistent problems with the integration of air forces in theater into the wider counterinsurgency effort, but organizational improvements fortuitously dovetailed with a period of great violence. Kinetic close air support strikes have risen precipitously in Afghanistan—a tricky proposition in a COIN campaign.

CAS sorties in Afghanistan went from 20,359 in 2008 to more than 33,679 in 2010, according to AFCENT numbers. However, despite the spike, the number of weapons releases has held fairly steady with 5,215 in 2008, compared with 5,101 releases recorded in 2010.

“The basic reality is, we hit what we aim at. We’re very careful about when and where we drop bombs,” Hostage said. US and coalition forces have been able to adhere to the tactical air strike directives put forward by then-ISAF Commander Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, followed by current commander Gen. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, he noted. “The [tactical] directive was really laid on the backs of the ground force commanders, to make sure the targets they want destroyed they really wanted destroyed,” Hostage said.

Close contact between airmen and ground commanders to ensure weapons are employed precisely is even more important in an environment like Afghanistan, where the enemy seeks to use the presence of civilians as protection from the advantage of airpower.

“The enemy absolutely gets a vote,” ISAF commander Petraeus told Air Force Magazine in a late May interview. From force-on-force tactics to different improvised explosive device detonation techniques, the Taliban and their allies have constantly shifted tactics as US forces have poured into the country to challenge them in their strongholds. Even as battles have raged in areas such as Helmand province, the greater precision afforded by ISR, air-to-ground coordination, and better use of real-time intelligence has reduced collateral damage from air strikes to an absolute minimum.

More than 1,000 pounds of seized munitions, mines, and weapons go up in a controlled detonation outside of Bagram. (USAF photo by SSgt. Craig Seals)

“We are constantly adapting to the enemy’s tactics. … They know some of our capabilities, and they try to reduce our ability to exploit them,” Petraeus said.

Petraeus, who is slated to soon leave active duty and assume leadership of the CIA, praised Hostage’s work as AFCENT commander. The Senate confirmed Hostage in May for promotion to full general, and to be the next head of Air Combat Command. Petraeus said Hostage has empowered the air component coordination elements (ACCEs) and air and space expeditionary task force (AETF) commanders “appropriately, and they have had a relatively small forward footprint and have used very effective reachback.”

For example, the responsiveness of CAS in theater has gone from “great to exceptional,” Petraeus said—this at a time when combat has surged and yet both ground commanders and airmen have shown a great deal of restraint in close combat situations. “I cannot think of a significant civilian casualty event [from air attack] on my watch out here. There have been some in the past, but not on my watch.”

Previously, US and allied air forces were under the control of a country-based ACCE, a senior USAF official in charge of coordinating airpower assets (one for Iraq, one for Afghanistan).

General Petraeus (r) visits US and British troops at Forward Operating Base Wahid in Helmand province. The ISAF commander said the responsiveness of CAS in theater is “exceptional.” (USMC photo by Sgt. Mallory VanderSchans)

“In talking with the ACCEs, I got a sense that they felt underutilized in their ability to contribute anything,” Hostage said. The nature of airpower is such that it works well when there is centralized command and decentralized execution. However, ACCEs had little staff and no authority to help out ground commanders, who were looking for fixes on the battlefield, he noted.

The ground commander “was looking for solutions; he wanted someone to make decisions,” Hostage said, and under the ACCE construct, this was very difficult. Requests often reached all the way back to Hostage’s office at the combined air and space operations center (CAOC) in the Middle East, thousands of miles from the conflict.

First verbally, then with written changes, Hostage allowed the ACCEs in theater to make decisions. He told Gen. Army Raymond T. Odierno, who was US Forces in Iraq commander, and McChrystal that he “was empowering airmen to make decisions.”

“I would cash any check that ACCE wrote, because I wanted the [ISAF commander] to understand he could solve his problem,” Hostage said.

As time progressed, the ACCE’s job became enmeshed in the ground commander’s decision-making process, leaving the CAOC to manage the movement of assets theaterwide. “Our job was to make [ground commanders] successful,” Hostage said. Staffs grew in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and instead of clustering at a headquarters, they spread out across both countries to be “sensors” for what was happening on the battlefield.

In October 2010, the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force was established, with two senior airmen given statutory authority over air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (the AETF-Iraq and AETF-Afghanistan commanders).

Beyond the Combat Mission

Now, for airmen on the ground, there is no question who they work for, Hostage said. Integration for Afghanistan operations occurs in Kabul, not thousands of miles away, and the communication piece between ground commanders and AFCENT leadership has improved as a result.

There is a fundamental difference between the culture of USAF and the ground forces, but Afghanistan requires a great deal of responsiveness and communication between the air and ground to realize progress.

“Air by its very nature is used to being able to reach back, to adjust, to project, to move … as the battle requires,” Hostage said. Ground culture is more driven by the “fundamental needs” of the commander in a tactical situation, being able to control all of the forces at his disposal around him.

It’s a constant effort to be responsive to what commanders need, to prioritize air as best we can, Hostage said. As the decision-making process is built now in theater, the ground force commander decides which engagements get airpower, and then airmen build a tasking order laid against those priorities. In the past, someone detached from the battle made this call, Hostage noted.

“I give up some of my efficiency to do it this way, because they may think the asset that is farthest away from the [troops in contact] is what they need. But what’s important is, are their needs being met,” he added.

Beyond the combat mission in Afghanistan, both Petraeus and Hostage pointed to the importance of training and advising Afghan forces—even in light of the April 27 shooting at Kabul Airport, by a reportedly disgruntled Afghan pilot, claiming the lives of eight airmen and a US contractor. “Obviously, we have sought to learn from this,” Petraeus said, noting a thorough after action review and an investigation are still under way.

SrA. Kyle Zangl leads Lt. Gen. Michael Hostage, AFCENT commander, on a tour of the Central Command region’s theater distribution center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. Hostage noted in his interview that logistics “wins conflicts.” (USAF photo by SrA. Steele C.G. Britton)

The advisory effort has resumed, and is going forward, Petraeus added, with some additional security measures and procedures in place. “Those Americans who gave their last measure in that case would have wanted to continue their work,” Petraeus noted. The advisory effort, both with the Afghan air arm and the ground forces, in addition to US contributions will likely include non-US partners that can make unique contributions, such as the expertise in operations of the Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopter inherent in many forces of NATO allies formerly in the Eastern Bloc.

“It’s a matter of risk. They were in a relatively safe environment, so that means their guard was a bit down,” Hostage said of the incident, noting it was a worst-case scenario. “But this is what we’re trying to do,” and success “ultimately represents our ticket home,” he said of USAF advisors.

“It is very appropriate to describe our warriors as ‘pentathlete warriors’ ” Petraeus remarked. “They never know if they are going to be greeted with a handshake or a hand grenade.”

In a counterinsurgency battle, a 2,000-pound bomb or a small-arms round can do more harm than good if used improperly. “There is always a need to balance patience versus keeping your teeth in the jugular, versus breaking contact and fighting another day,” Petraeus added. “There is a constant awareness of circumstances, of second-, third-, and fourth-order effects, on the ground or in the air.”