February 1, 2011  

Close-air support at work

On May 25, the soldiers of 3rd Platoon, Bravo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment, and a special operations team, Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 1313, left Forward Operating Base Todd in the Badghis province of Afghanistan en route to the village of Mullah Wazir. Both elements were assigned an Air Force joint terminal attack controller (JTAC). Their mission was to confirm or deny the presence of Taliban in the village.

In preparation for the search operation, 3rd Platoon, with Senior Airman Zachary Jacobs, the JTAC, set up a blocking position to the south of the objective while the special operations team manned a blocking position to the east with the second JTAC, Senior Airman Adam Krueger. Both airmen confirmed radio contact with the air support operations center (ASOC) and then assisted with mission preparation.

About 7:45 a.m., the southern blocking position began taking fire from a hilltop to the west. Jacobs worked to confirm the location of the attackers and immediately transmitted a request for close-air support to the ASOC. Within minutes, two F-15E Strike Eagles checked in to assist and were directed to conduct a “show of force” mission by flying over the enemy at 500 feet. While this occurred, the ODA team exited the eastern blocking position and moved south to assist 3rd Platoon. About 200 meters north of 3rd Platoon, they too came under attack and were forced to take up a defensive position in a nearby compound.

The situation quickly deteriorated as 3rd Platoon began to take fire from all directions. Taking control of the F-15s, Krueger coordinated with Jacobs and directed a “danger close” strafing run to the west and against the tree line to the southeast. As the fire continued unabated, Krueger asked the F-15s to drop two precision-guided bombs — a 500 pounder (GBU-38) and a 2,000-pounder (GBU-31) — on the hilltop to the west. During this entire time, both teams were well within the “danger close” range of the munitions employed with only the close coordination of the air and ground elements and the precision capability of the aircraft to keep them safe.

At this point, two AH-64 Apache helicopters checked in and were directed to execute strafing runs against targets to the west and southwest. Unfortunately, the platoon continued to receive heavy fire from the west, and the ODA was still taking fire from the southeast. Eventually, to allow the platoon an opportunity to link up with ODA, the Apaches were cleared to target an AGM-114 Hellfire missile on a fighting position barely 20 meters from where the platoon was taking cover.

As the two elements joined up, Jacobs talked the F-15s onto an additional fighting position, which was attacked with another 2,000-pound precision-guided bomb. While the soldiers and airmen continued to fight off the enemy, Krueger called for a medevac helicopter to transport wounded personnel. An HH-60 helicopter showed up to a hot landing zone, under a constant barrage of fire. The F-15Es employed two 500-pound weapons to suppress fire so the medevac could safely remove the wounded. As the fighting intensified, the F-15s released additional precision-guided munitions (two 2,000-pound bombs and a 500 pound bomb) on enemy positions in the vicinity. Two British GR-4 Tornados checked in just as the insurgents took refuge in 3rd Platoon’s previous blocking position. Jacobs quickly directed the GR-4s against the complex, which was destroyed with a Paveway IV laser-guided bomb. The group noticed no further enemy activity from that location.

With the wounded evacuated, the team prepared to exit the area just as a B-1B bomber checked in to support the effort. Using its highly advanced sensors, the B-1 crew scanned the field just outside the compound, the ridgeline to the west and the southeastern tree line for movement. With no indication of enemy activity, the team requested another “show of force” demonstration and began to leave the compound. By 6 p.m. the team finally arrived back at the forward operating base.

In all, the two JTACs controlled the release of four GBU-38s, four GBU-31s, one Paveway IV, two AGM-114s and multiple strafing runs from both the F 15Es and AH-64s. The operation involved interservice coordination, multinational cooperation and a level of precision that meant the difference between killing the enemy and inadvertently killing American soldiers and airmen. In the end, an estimated 50-plus Taliban were killed while 18 U.S. personnel and 22 Afghan Security Force members lived to fight another day.

This particular example is representative of the level of close-air support that coalition forces in Afghanistan have come to rely on. The bravery of the forces on the ground, the precision capability of the aircraft and crews overhead, and the responsiveness of air power combined to make an initially harrowing situation survivable. Without today’s close-air support, ground forces would often have no other means of acquiring quick, accurate firepower while in contact with insurgent forces. AFJ

MAJ. AARON W. CLARK is an Air Force officer who served as an air liaison officer with the 4th Infantry Division, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, during exercises at the National Training Center and while deployed in Iraq. LT. COL. J. BRAD REEVES recently returned from a deployment in Afghanistan where he was the lead planner for the Air Component Coordination Element at International Security Assistance Force headquarters. He has more than 1,400 hours in the F-15E. The views expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force or the Defense Department.