Spooling Up in Afghanistan

Oct. 1, 2009

Air Forces Central, the command that oversees US airpower operations in Southwest Asia, reports US aircraft flew some 19,000 close air support sorties over Afghanistan in 2008. This year, AFCENT forces are on pace to nearly double that number.

In other areas of airpower application—tactical transport, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, and so forth—the story is much the same: Expeditionary airpower is in growing demand.

An F-15E from the 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron banks over a craggy mountain range in Afghanistan. (USAF photo by SSgt. Aaron Allmon)

For US military leaders, the war in Afghanistan now has moved to center stage. US goals are clear: Defend Afghan citizens from depredations of insurgents, support civil development, and, in the process, crush a resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda threat.

For this, USAF airmen are cast in starring roles. The Air Force’s ability to quickly and efficiently deploy and redeploy its combat power makes it especially valuable. Whereas lightened-up ground forces are still relatively slow and ponderous, airpower can shift from one combat zone to another in a matter of hours.

The reduced violence in Iraq in recent months has allowed USAF to shift its attention eastward, said Maj. Gen. William L. Holland, the new commander of 9th Air Force and, until recently, the deputy commander of AFCENT.

Airpower is a deterrent, Holland said. The air presence prevents enemies from massing and forces them into hiding.

In Afghanistan, things are heating up and will become deadlier as more US troops pour into the nation. In July, the US upgraded to wing status the 451st Air Expeditionary Group at Kandahar Airfield. It is now commanded by a brigadier general, reflecting the new scope and importance of the operation in southern Afghanistan.

In August, USAF also carried out a major realignment. AFCENT, the theater air component of US Central Command, was separated from 9th Air Force, an Air Force-only service command. Until August, both commands had been led by Lt. Gen. (now Gen.) Gary L. North. When North was tapped to lead Pacific Air Forces, the account was broken into two pieces. The AFCENT commander now is Lt. Gen. Gilmary M. Hostage III. The 9th Air Force commander is Holland.

A Complicated Environment

“The operations tempo is as high as it’s ever been, and as our commitments accelerate in Afghanistan, we need 100 percent focus,” said Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Chief of Staff, explaining the plan earlier this year.

Hostage’s forward headquarters is at al Udeid Air Base in Southwest Asia. AFCENT will take forward a command staff of 40 to 50 persons to oversee 27,000 deployed airmen, a large network of expeditionary bases, and the air campaign. Al Udeid is also home to a combined air and space operations center (CAOC), which directs air operations.

For the moment, anyway, Afghan insurgents are willing to fight head-on battles with US and NATO forces. Col. Kenneth C. Sersun, AFCENT’s manpower director, said officials have noticed an increase in casualties from small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. “This suggests an increase in sophistication” in the enemy’s tactics, he said.

Terrorists will mass “relative to the small units” patrolling Afghanistan, explained Col. Kenneth Craib, AFCENT chief of plans. Friendly forces have repeatedly found themselves outnumbered and ambushed, making on-call airpower a key to success and even survival.

“It’s a complicated environment,” Holland summarized. “It’s a fight.”

Consider the events during five typical days this summer:

Last July 29, Navy F/A-18 fighters were on armed overwatch in Afghanistan, supporting a convoy that had come under rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire near Tarin Kowt. The F/A-18s carried out several “show of force” passes to keep the enemy’s head down. Then, USAF A-10 attack aircraft rolled in, using precision weapons and 30 mm cannon fire to wipe out several enemy positions.

On the next day, an Air Force MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle took similar action near the Afghan village of Sangin. The heavyweight UAV “responded to an enemy threat by firing a precision guided munition” at the enemy’s position, and that position was eliminated, according to an official summary of the action.

TSgt. Joel McPherson scans the steep hills of the Korengal Valley, searching for enemy combatants. (USA photos by Sgt. Matthew Moeller)

Shortly afterward, on Aug. 2, Air Force A-10s once again went into action, this time near the town of Gereshk. Enemy forces had dug in along a tree line, firing from cover at friendly forces. The A-10s used precision weapons and halted the attack, and then kept the enemy from escaping the scene.

On Aug. 3, B-1 bombers came to the rescue of friendly forces under attack near the Afghan town of Mushan. “The enemy position was located along a wall,” said an official summary, which added that the B-1Bs engaged the enemy with precision weaponry, “terminating enemy action.”

On Aug. 4, F-15E fighters went into action near Asmar. According to a summary, “numerous enemy sniper positions were identified, confirmed, and destroyed” by PGMs, eliminating the threats. Also on Aug. 4, USAF F-16CJ fighters swept in when “enemy forces were confirmed massing in an open field.” The enemy position was “destroyed by precision guided munitions and cannon fire.”

If precision airpower has been vital, USAF’s ISR systems have been even more critical to success in Afghanistan.

Sophisticated ISR gives US forces the ability to track the enemy’s forces for extended periods, spot threats before small units stumble into them, precisely target enemy positions, and develop “pattern of life” analyses that indicate when something is amiss and when it is safe to attack enemies.

Every ground commander wants full-motion video provided by airborne sensors. The demand for FMV spurred USAF to swiftly field (within eight months) the MC-12 manned reconnaissance aircraft. It has also led to greatly expanded Predator and Reaper forces. This summer, the UAV force had grown to provide 35 simultaneous orbits.

In Afghanistan, the ISR mission is “still growing,” said Maj. Ed Horner, an ISR planner at the CAOC. The aircraft are invaluable for tracking enemies over rough terrain and in villages. Horner said “one of the hardest tasks” is positively identifying Taliban and al Qaeda figures, so planners try to “layer” the ISR collection whenever possible, for example by using UAVs, Rivet Joints, and U-2s to collect information on the same target.

The ISR community typically works “in the shadows,” Horner said, but it protects bases and outposts, counters improvised explosive devices, identifies sources of indirect fire, supports troops in contact and expands the situational awareness of small ground units.

Limited Conditions

The primary mission for the Predators and Reapers is ISR, but the UAVs can immediately switch to an attack role if necessary. Manned aircraft perform most strike missions.

Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, recently issued a tactical directive ordering troops to “scrutinize and limit the use of force such as close air support (CAS) against residential compounds and other locations likely to produce civilian casualties.” The directive came on the heels of a series of attacks that killed Afghan civilians in addition to the intended terrorists.

Of particular interest to coalition air forces is McChrystal’s guidance that “use of air-to-ground munitions and indirect fires against residential compounds is only authorized under very limited and prescribed conditions.”

This matters greatly because US and allied forces are battling an enemy that courts civilian casualties for propaganda purposes, deliberately hides among civilians, and frequently fights from residences and towns.

A US soldier watches as F-15Es bombard insurgent positions in the Afghan valley. (USA photos by Sgt. Matthew Moeller)

“Basic US self-defense policy has not changed,” said Col. James G. Bitzes, CAOC legal advisor—friendly forces will defend themselves. Bitzes and others said the directive makes clear that the top priority is protecting civilians, without unduly restricting the Air Force.

“I really don’t think it’s different today,” said Holland. “We pretty much hit what we’re aiming for—and it’s vetted.”

The Air Force is constantly refining its targeting processes. In addition to having controllers in the field calling in and verifying air strikes, USAF has relentlessly pushed new technology. All combat aircraft in theater are now equipped with targeting pods, and data are shared both horizontally and vertically—between aircraft and airmen on the ground.

Air support operations centers are collocated with Army tactical headquarters at Kabul, Afghanistan, and Camp Victory, Iraq. Battlefield airman ASOC teams coordinate the air strikes supporting ground forces—urgent work when there’s a firefight.

When a call for air support comes in, five operators on the ASOC “floor” will in seconds have identified the location and the threats in the area, picked the proper response aircraft, contacted the pilot and appropriate joint terminal attack controller, and passed the aircraft off to the JTAC. Capt. Josh Robertson, a fighter duty officer with the 682nd Air Support Operations Squadron at Shaw AFB, S.C., said the goal is to have an aircraft responding within a minute-and-a-half after notification of a TIC situation.

This response depends on communications systems which have undergone continuous improvement.

TSgt. Josh Littlefield, a JTAC now assigned to the 682nd, has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan six times since 2002. The primary method of communication has changed almost every year, he said. Strikes were first coordinated by radio, then secure Internet “chat,” then moving digital maps, and now the “Gateway” Humvee-mounted communications system.

A storm rolls in at Bagram Air Base. With so many infrastructure improvement projects going on, Bagram keeps a dedicated cement plant just outside the base fence. (USAF photo by SrA. Erik Cardenas)

Deployments Trending Downward

Capt. Chad Richardson, squadron logistics director, said these changes have sped up targeting and notification and helped eliminate mistakes. Each new system has its own quirks and idiosyncrasies that must be mastered, however. The Gateway system, for example, had growing pains and was originally “finicky,” Richardson said.

Redundancy is key, so there are multiple options if a system fails. “If it all went down today, we’ve got our radios and batteries,” said Littlefield.

Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) rotations are reaching deep into the Air Force to identify the proper airmen for deployments to Afghanistan.

Case in point: The 169th Fighter Wing at McEntire JNGB, S.C., is an F-16CJ unit specializing in destroying enemy air defenses. The base, home to an active associate unit that includes nearly 150 active duty airmen, is preparing now for a 120-day deployment to Southwest Asia. A dozen F-16s are expected to deploy next May. The training begins well in advance.

Though traditionally a suppression of enemy air defenses unit, the 169th has “all the bells and whistles to do CAS,” said Col. Scott Williams, the wing commander, who added that “exercises are key.”

Thanks to the infusion of “regular Air Force” personnel through the active association, the 2010 deployment will be the first time a single Air National Guard unit has deployed for a full 120-day AEF without having to bring in personnel and equipment from other units.

Capt. Eric Fleming, in the cockpit of an A-10, readies for takeoff at Bagram. The Thunderbolt II sports nose art symbolic of the famous “Flying Tigers” squadron. (USAF photo by SSgt. Samuel Morse)

The arrangement also allows the wing to continue to fly at the normal rate in the days leading up to its deployment, said Lt. Col. Scott Bridgers, commander of the 169th Maintenance Squadron. Most Guard units, with their small full-time staffs, have difficulty maintaining flying hours during the run-up to a deployment. The active association’s extra personnel allow the wing to keep its skills fully honed before heading overseas.

The 120-day AEF is becoming something of a rarity in Southwest Asia, however. Sersun, the personnel director, reported that 56 percent of deployments to the area of responsibility are now of the 179-day variety, with only 39 percent being traditional four-month AEFs.

The trend toward half-year deployments “keeps growing,” he said, but most personnel seem to favor this. The spin up, transportation, and training time associated with most of the jobs in Southwest Asia take a lot of time, and four months is often seen as too soon to turn back around.

Once in theater, units run hard. The deployed air refueling fleet, for example, is flying about 45 refueling sorties per day—more than double the normal “peacetime” rate.

Other aircraft types are similarly busy, and the wear and tear adds up. Lt. Col. Simon A. Izaguirre Jr., chief of maintenance and munitions in AFCENT’s logistics directorate, noted that some parts simply weren’t designed with heat and sand in mind.

Maintainers keep readiness rates high by working 12-hour days, seven days a week in theater—but it is a constant struggle to meet the forward requirements without unduly raiding stateside units. Home bases are “also feeling the burn,” Sersun said.

One of the priorities for planners is to “balance capability and minimum footprint,” said Lt. Col. John Edwards, deputy chief of AFCENT plans.

Because of Washington’s new emphasis on Afghanistan, many military construction programs are humming around the country.

There are “tons of concrete being poured,” said Col. Brian D. Yolitz, AFCENT installations director. Civil engineers are “trying to stay ahead of what the operator needs”—and the operator needs a lot.

New barracks and parking areas for airlifters top a long list of projects. Infrastructure has steadily improved in Afghanistan. At Bagram in 2002, “there were literally holes that we taxied around for takeoff,” Craib said. “The construction of the runways was of such poor quality, they were falling apart constantly.” Existing facilities often have to be destroyed and rebuilt from scratch.

Even this January, Edwards added, airmen were de-mining Soviet-seeded areas around Kandahar. This sort of work is vital to build Bagram, Kandahar, and other locations into secure, “enduring” facilities.

An MQ-9 Reaper touches down at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. The primary mission for these UAVs is ISR, but they can switch to attack mode at a moment’s notice. (USAF photo by TSgt. Erik Gudmundson)

Vital Airlift

The current programs at three locations help illustrate what is needed.

Kandahar Airfield is receiving a strategic airlift apron, CAS aircraft apron expansion, refueler apron, ISR aircraft apron, expeditionary fighter shelter, and a cargo helicopter apron, among other enhancements.

Forward Operating Base Bastion, in south-central Afghanistan, is seeing construction of a runway, munitions storage area, fuel storage, new strategic airlift apron, cargo handling area, and an aviation operations and maintenance facility, and CAS and ISR aircraft apron work.

Southern Afghanistan is currently Operation Enduring Freedom’s hotspot, so building up Kandahar and Bastion allows airmen to work closer with the marines and gives aircraft more time on station.

The original Afghanistan hub, Bagram, is receiving passenger and cargo terminals, an expeditionary fighter shelter, a C-130 maintenance hangar, a refueler ramp, and an aviation operations and maintenance facility. So much concrete is being poured at Bagram, in fact, that the base has its own cement plant just outside the fence. Concrete, Yolitz said, is pumped through chutes over the fence into waiting cement trucks. The trucks stay on base for security.

Airlift is vital in Afghanistan because so much activity is far from the major hubs. An airdrop is often the only way to resupply troops at forward locations. Still, airdrops are not a cure-all. Lt. Col. Jon M. Olekszyk, an air mobility planner at the CAOC, said if water has to be airdropped to outposts, it is only half as effective as a conventional delivery. A drop requires bulky protective packaging, some goods will be damaged in the fall, and some materiel will simply not be recovered.

“You’ve got some folks really out there in the hinterlands,” said Holland. “You can’t get a mule to them, much less a Humvee.”

Overall, airdrops (which were never really an issue in Iraq, thanks to an abundance of 13,000-foot runways) are on the rise. Olekszyk said air-drop capacity has increased 800 percent just since 2005, and July 2009 was the busiest month for drops since 2001.

The Air Force has continuously adjusted to meet the needs in Afghanistan and will continue to do so as long as the fighting continues.

Winding Down in Once-Violent Iraq

The reduced violence in Iraq has allowed USAF to shift its attention eastward without damaging the war effort there. Close air support missions were once the norm over Iraq, but they have declined. The total has dropped from 18,422 sorties in 2008 to fewer than 9,000 projected for 2009.

In January 2008, AFCENT-controlled air forces expended 400 munitions, but the “kinetic” portion of the operation has sharply tailed off. In June, zero munitions were fired from the air.

“That’s pretty significant—that’s telling,” said Maj. Gen. William L. Holland, commander of 9th Air Force, who served as deputy commander of AFCENT until August. “It means we’ve been pretty darn successful” in Iraq.

Today, roughly half of the 150 sorties flown daily over Iraq are counter-IED missions. Improvised explosive devices are still a deadly threat, but USAF’s armed overwatch missions greatly improve situational awareness and reduce the danger.

Building an Afghan Air Force, From Scratch

The Afghan government’s need to control vast areas of rugged terrain underscores the importance of USAF’s mission to develop the Afghan Air Corps.

The group of 170 airmen supporting the Combined Airpower Transition Force (CAPTF) is expected to expand to more than 300. The airmen are training an air corps that began from scratch, said Wes Long, chief of AFCENT’s Air Advisory and Training Division.

Airpower can increase the Afghan government’s visibility and its ability to reach its population, Long noted. These factors could prove vital to Afghanistan’s long-term security because the central government faces the same problems US and NATO forces do—long distances, crumbling infrastructure, and harsh terrain.

The unit is not trying to duplicate the US Air Force, said Lt. Col. John Edwards, AFCENT’s deputy planning director. CAPTF, he said, is focused on training an air corps with “the right capabilities to serve Afghanistan.”

This means lift, ISR capability, and direct support to the Afghan national army. The air corps is already flying a variety of Russian-designed helicopters and transports, and will soon begin to take delivery of 18 refurbished C-27A light airlifters.