Watch on Afghanistan

Sept. 1, 2007

It’s been hours since the C-130 of the Minnesota Air National Guard took off from Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan and began droning southward into the night. Now, the crew flips off the standard illumination of the cargo hold and activates soft green “slime lights”—the signal that night vision systems are engaged.

The American airlifter bobs and weaves slightly. Then it makes an abrupt dive, hurtling downward. So begins the final approach to Bagram Airfield in the heart of Afghanistan. This is a standard evasive maneuver for Bagram-bound aircraft such as this Hercules, which is packed with US Army 10th Mountain Division soldiers headed to the war zone. The landing, always a tense moment, comes and goes without event.

The relief on board is palpable.

At Bagram, one sees firsthand how far the Air Force’s expeditionary mission has come since the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom. When US forces seized the airfield from the Taliban in 2001, Bagram was described by a visiting aviator as “the scariest place on the planet.” It was littered with mines, unexploded ordnance, hangars filled with abandoned weapons, and roving bands of bearded special operations forces. Bagram had played a key role in the decade-long Soviet battle with mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan. Aircraft based at Bagram provided close air support and mobility. The disastrous endgame of that Soviet effort was aptly symbolized by the physical wreckage of the place for years afterward. That’s in the past. The field and facilities have been upgraded for long-term combat operations. The buildings there now feature plumbing and electricity. The troops have running water and receive hot meals. US workers have poured acres of concrete to upgrade and strengthen runways and ramps. USAF commanders have built up an impressive portfolio of capabilities. “The beauty of airpower is that we are flexible and adaptable. … We can shape or change how we fight,” says Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, Central Command Air Forces commander.

Shortly after midnight, a bus transports the troops and other passengers to a small aluminum-sided building just off the airfield’s main ramp. A placard welcoming visitors to Bagram sits over the door. It bears the logo of the Combined Joint Task Force-82.

The security difference between Manas and Bagram becomes immediately—and glaringly—apparent. Everyone has a weapon, from the sergeant checking customs forms to the fresh arrivals. Just inside the terminal entrance, one side of a hallway is adorned with an oil painting of silhouetted service members atop a mountain—a tribute to those who have died in Operation Enduring Freedom. On the opposite wall, a tall poster displays rows of full-scale photos of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines for all to see. It’s precautionary; Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined places on Earth. As visitors and troops walk out of the terminal building, the relative quiet of the night gives way to the faint flutter of helicopter rotors. The choppers are inbound. The war is just a short ride away, notes one of the nearby soldiers. Across from the entrance to Camp Cunningham—the Air Force compound on base, named after Air Force Cross recipient SrA. Jason D. Cunningham—stands a large Soviet-era artillery piece.

Getting to the other side of Bagram requires a 10-minute truck ride over a bumpy washboard road, alongside of which are the rusting hulks of abandoned Soviet tanks and aircraft. There, one finds the airfield’s newest facilities—revetments and trailers for the F-15E fighters of the Air Force’s 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.

Enter the F-15s

The airfield’s ramp reveals a mix of aircraft from across the services. Navy EA-6B Prowler aircraft sit on the ramp next to Air Force C-130s. The airfield lies at the bottom of a sweeping plain that is completely surrounded by mountain peaks—some rising to more than 12,000 feet. The base, about 27 miles north of Kabul, has been here since the 1950s. Airmen at Bagram are in what seems to be constant motion. CMSgt. Joseph Livingston has been at Bagram since January, arriving with the 14 F-15Es from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. He steps away from a fighter, instructing an airman to inspect the right engine intake. A foreign object in the intake could spell big trouble for one of those fighters, and a sandstorm whipped across the plain not too long ago. Crews are making adjustments to some of the weapons on a pair of F-15Es. A quartet of Small Diameter Bombs and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions are almost ready for action. These were the first F-15Es to deploy to Bagram in support of OEF. Livingston makes sure that they are ready to fight at a moment’s notice, 24 hours a day. Ever since it arrived, the squadron has been flying surge operations with up to 10 sorties a day. When called on an alert, crew members boast, they have gotten these huge fighters into the air in less than 20 minutes.

Moments later, and as if scripted, two F-15Es lift off the runway in full afterburner, turn westward at the front of the Hindu Kush range, and zoom from sight. “That’s one big advantage we bring to the battlefield,” says Capt. Chris Troyer, a pilot with the 391st EFS. “Lots of speed.”

For Troyer and the other operators, the squadron’s first deployment to Afghanistan is a chance to prove the versatility of the fighter. Theater air planners wanted to cut down on the time it took to reach targets. The workhorse A-10s that have been a mainstay in Afghanistan are capable of loitering in an area for a long time, but it would sometimes take them 45 minutes to reach target areas. Since the arrival of F-15Es in theater, Troyer notes, enemy forces ambushing patrols and friendly forces have learned the hard way that they can no longer count on having a long “grace period” to attack before air support shows up. The deployment, as of late April, has been successful. The squadron in its first few months attacked 142 targets, routinely performed reconnaissance escort for patrols and convoys, and staged numerous “shows of force” over enemy positions. The fighters are flexible. “We’re not a typical bomber in this case,” says Capt. Joe Ryther, a weapons systems officer with the squadron. “We’re not going to just lay waste to everything.” The thundering, low-level “show of force” passes typically keep an enemy’s head down long enough for the good guys to get out of a bad situation.“Five hundred feet at 500 knots makes a lot of noise,” Troyer said. “We shake brains around a bit.” With the ramp up of operations across eastern Afghanistan in the late spring came the return of A-10s to Bagram. Warthogs of the 354th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., arrived in the country, setting up on the side of the runway opposite the group of F-15Es. The combination of the heavy-hitting Warthog and the quick and responsive (and also hard-hitting) F-15E will give commanders an even wider spectrum of air-to-ground capabilities from which to choose.

Ryther explains that F-15E crews have an air-to-ground mission, and the squadron has trained extensively for missions specific to the Afghan deployment. It also honed little-used tactics, such as strafing with the fighter’s 20 mm cannon. Operators learned to adjust their aiming techniques a few degrees when performing strafing runs.

Tracking the Taliban

Bagram is a colorful hybrid of a frontier town and modern military hub. Local civilians tote shovels and equipment for the seemingly never-ending construction efforts. Rolling by at any time of day is a local “Jinga,” the name given to the wildly decorated and ornamented Afghan utility trucks. Bagram, like other forward facilities across the Southwest Asian Theater, is more than an airfield. It serves as the hub for a wide range of combat operations, medical activities, and logistics work. Bagram also provides confinement for enemy detainees. Under the command of Army Maj. Gen. David M. Rodriguez of the 82nd Airborne Division, CJTF-82 oversees a full complement of combat, support, and reconstruction operations along the country’s eastern border with Pakistan—a hive of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters and weapons. Across the entire country, about 37,000 US and coalition forces are engaged in OEF. A significant portion of those troops and resources operate from or pass through Bagram, which, at the height of a troop rotation, hosts 15,000 uniformed troops. About 3,000 of those are under the command of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, which oversees six Air Force groups at Bagram and Kandahar Airfields. To the south, the 451st Air Expeditionary Group maintains unmanned aerial vehicles, a combat search and rescue squadron, and an air control squadron at Kandahar.

From close air support to evacuation and resupply, a wide range of capabilities is available.

Thanks to airpower, the patterns of the enemy have been closely tracked, North says. Whether Taliban elements are infiltrating from camps in Pakistan or al Qaeda affiliated groups are coming in from Uzbekistan or other Central Asian countries, there is a migratory pattern, and the US and its allies are learning it. The problem, however, doesn’t always result in the release of a weapon.“If it’s the most efficient, we will fight them that way,” North says. “If it’s more efficient to watch and wait for a bigger fish, we’ll do that.” From early in the morning to late at night, a pair of huts not far from the passenger terminal form part of a key mission at Bagram—moving manpower and materiel to the battlefield. SMSgt. Jim Shay works in the Air Terminal Operations Center, the clearinghouse for all information going in or out of Bagram. Shay, the aerial port superintendent for the 455th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, works with about 60 airmen to ensure that the ramp never gets bottled up. In an average week, the 455th ELRS sees about 2,500 tons go in and out of Bagram. A short ride from the ATOC shed, one finds a trio of Illinois ANG C-130Hs on the flight line. There TSgt. Myles Debshaw finishes up some work in the cockpit. Debshaw, a Guardsman from the 169th Airlift Squadron, notes that, just the day before, his squadron delivered about 8,000 pounds of supplies to troops at a forward base.

The climate of mountainous Afghanistan keeps maintainers busy, Debshaw explained. In the winter months just past, ice and mud were the big problems for C-130s. In the summer, the heat and dust can be oppressive at times.

A Raw Place

Maj. Pat Ober, a pilot with the 169th, remembers clearly the first time he touched down at Bagram. “You could still see old MiGs and [anti-aircraft artillery] not far from the runway. It was still a raw place.” Bagram-based C-130s have carried everything from soccer balls and medical supplies to up-armored Humvees out to troops in the field. The Hercs at Bagram are the in-theater utility tools of airlift—often getting reconfigured by aircrews within hours to fly aeromedical evacuation missions, low-altitude airdrops, VIP transport, or other tasks. Afghanistan is a harsh environment, and the rules of warfare take their toll with every mission. In high rugged terrain, when the aircraft comes in, there will be blind spots where GPS signals may not be as strong—fouling the guidance of precision airdrop bundles. With help from air planners, crews decide what kinds of drops can be performed in certain areas throughout the country. Many bases and camps have been set up on extremely small plateaus, Ober notes, requiring something close to direct hits in an airdrop. If a drop misses, the supplies may tumble down a 12,000-foot-deep ravine, probably to be recovered by the enemy. Ober’s shift was coming up soon, and, depending on what actually pops up on the board, his next mission could well require a tense, brake-jamming landing on the side of a mountain. Indeed, Ober is quick to note, “This is a max performing aircraft; we jam on the brakes every day.” Or the mission could require a high-level precision cargo drop.“Our focus is making sure we are able to support the mission across Afghanistan,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher D. Miller, who was commander of the 455th AEW until his reassignment to NORAD in May.

Miller, who had overseen operations at the airfield for the past year, said the Air Force had benefited from several steps to improve its effectiveness—steps such as pouring more concrete in places where only dirt existed before. “I won’t say it’s more of the same, but it’s really more of the same,” Miller quips.

While the Army oversees the joint task force, the Air Force stands forth as the senior airfield authority, responsible for making sure that the required number of aircraft take off and land there every day, without fail. The facility today is a blend of old and new. The yellowing walls of the airfield’s control tower still sport scars from shelling in 2001. Glenn Allison, a civilian contractor who manages daily tower operations, gives a kind of short tour, noting the survival, even today, of Russian instructions painted on various walls. The Soviet-era building features enormous blast doors in its bomb shelter basement, which now is used as a storage shed for parts and supplies.

From the top of the three-story tower, one looks out on a sea of temporary huts, tents, and trailers, with the runway beyond, and, beyond that, the soaring Hindu Kush. Out on “Steel Beach,” the cargo staging area, K-loaders pick up heavy pallets and load them on aircraft. An Antonov airlifter idles there, taking on cargo. Beyond it, a C-130 prepares for yet another sortie, because here, the mission does not end.