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 3 of 8)
Rashman and the other members of the FiST mark their maps and check and re-check their radios in preparation for the fury they will soon be directing onto the targets.
“This is a combined, simultaneous live-fire event; we design the training to be as close to the real thing as possible,” says Lieutenant Colonel Doug Pasnik, my guide for the day. Pasnik, an F/A-18D naval flight officer and a veteran of dozens of recent close air support missions in Iraq, runs the air support component of the day’s exercise.
On the rocky knoll where the fire support team works, we hear the first rumbling booms of distant artillery pieces; 155-mm shells thunder into the target area seconds later, sending plumes of earth into the sky. UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra gunships crest a distant ridge and assume a holding pattern, awaiting targeting instructions from Rashman. Coordinates blare from Coyotes’ radios and members of the FiST shout back and forth, sometimes peering through binoculars, sometimes noting positions on the backs of their hands.
“Rashman will be doing Type 1 control, meaning he sees both the target and the attacking aircraft,” Pasnik says, holding a radio set in each hand. Type 2 control means the ground controller is able to see either the target or the aircraft, or neither, if he has an observer who can see the target. Type 3 is similar to Type 2, except that the controller doesn’t clear a strike for each release; instead, he clears the aircraft to engage for a period of time and within a limited area.
“Got ’em—eyes on the Hornets!” shouts a member of the FiST as he thrusts his index finger high into the air. Two F/A-18C Hornets streak across the powder blue sky. Smoke 21, the lead Hornet pilot, checks in with Rashman.
“One of the most difficult—and important—aspects of controlling air is deconflicting with other aircraft and fires,” Pasnik explains as the Hornets disappear into the distance. “You have to ensure that your aircraft won’t be in danger of getting hit by an artillery or mortar shell—or another jet or helicopter.”
Infantry, packed into swift-moving armored personnel carriers, push into my field of view as artillery-lobbed “white star cluster” rounds burst over the target, showering it with burning phosphorus and marking it for the air strikes to come.
“Okay,” Pasnik updates me, “Rashman’s worked the Hornets into the fire support plan; the pilots have told him how long they’ll be on station and what they’re carrying. He’s deconflicted the other fires; they’ll be shutting down just before the jets are inbound. He’s holding the two gunships off laterally, for employment later.”