Control the Air
On the ground with Marines in Afghanistan, the author sees a different side of close air support.
- By Ed Darack
- Air & Space magazine, September 2008
(Page 2 of 8)
I hurry to catch the 20 Marines quietly marching away and reach the helicopter landing zone just as two Army CH-47 Chinooks, accompanied by two Army AH-64 Apache gunships, appear in the distance. My minder, First Lieutenant Patrick Kinser, explains the plan to me as Camp Blessing’s mortar crews launch a barrage of 120-mm rounds at a ridge protruding high above the firebase. Textbook close air support missions start this way—“suppression of enemy air defenses,” the military calls it—to keep the aircraft called in for an attack from being attacked themselves.
“The birds’ll lift us and we’ll head down valley, as if we’re on a routine flight, but then we’ll bank hard and come in for a surprise attack,” he continues. “Apaches will fly cover for us, then do close air support, if necessary.”
Sensing my anxiety, the 24-year-old lieutenant adds, “A-10s are rippin’ up here right now for CAS work, Rashman’s already got ’em cleared. Hope you get to see some gun runs. You haven’t lived till you’ve seen an A-10 hit a position with that 30-mm rotary gun. And tighten your helmet. Looks loose.”
The Chinooks roar onto the dirt landing strip as the Apaches carve broad arcs overhead, keeping watch for enemy movement. Twenty Marines and 20 local Afghan Security Forces personnel load a week’s worth of food and bottled water, then themselves, into the big helicopters. The engines spin up, and we lift away from the firebase.
Almost every Marine headed to Afghanistan or Iraq stops first at Twentynine Palms, the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in California’s Mojave Desert, for roughly 30 days of combat training. Six months before Operation Valdez, I’m there too, crouching next to Zach Rashman as he eyes a target a half-mile distant, near the bottom of a gently sloping desert bowl. The Second Battalion, Third Marine regiment, based out of Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, is in the second week of a pre-deployment workup. Under the intense supervision of “Coyotes,” a select group who teach, oversee, and maintain the safety of visiting exercise forces, the battalion is preparing to assault a target—a cluster of dilapidated tank hulks—in a live-fire training exercise. As a forward air controller, Rashman is one of three Marines who will be directing the fire.
A Marine battalion can call on mortars, artillery, and aircraft, and each of the three kinds of fire is typically provided by operators who cannot see their targets. Instead, forward observers act as eyes for the weapons operators. Observers for each of the three forms make up the battalion’s fire support team, or FiST, and coordinate their respective “fires” for the maximum destructive power and psychological impact.