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 4 of 8)
As Pasnik refocuses his attention on one of his radios, pieces of this seemingly chaotic puzzle click together for me. In order to transmit all relevant information to an attacking aircraft, ground controllers use a standardized set of instructions, the “Nine-Line Brief.” The brief details the nine points of information required by pilots tasked with close air support, including target descriptions and locations of enemies and friendlies. Once an aviator reads the information back, the ground controller will issue the “cleared hot” call, granting permission to release ordnance.
Just as Rashman completes his brief, Smoke 21 rolls in; the pilot immediately confirms the information. Rashman’s voice booms out of the Coyotes’ monitoring radios: “Cleared hot.”
Smoke 21 dives and the roar of twin jet engines reverberates in my chest. A hundred-yard wall of roiling fire vaults skyward as six 500-pound, Mk82 bombs slam into the ground. Smoke 21 banks hard away from the conflagration—and barrel rolls. The FiST erupts in cheers. The rattle of .50-caliber machine gun fire resonates from tanks that have taken positions in the hills around the target, 81-mm mortars begin slamming the target anew, and the infantry swarms over its goal.
“That,” Pasnik says, “is how CAS is done.”
The Chaos of Anaconda
By all accounts, one of the great successes of the war in Afghanistan was an unprecedented coordination of air power with special operations forces on the ground, who accompanied Northern Alliance fighters and designated enemy targets for air strikes. But when the military leaders of the Afghanistan campaigns attempted to combine special operations with conventional forces for large, coordinated missions, there were also failures.
Among the most visible breakdowns—and the most analyzed—was the confusion that jeopardized Operation Anaconda in March 2002. Planned to trap al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who had slipped away from the December 2001 battles in Tora Bora and who were hiding in eastern Afghanistan, Operation Anaconda was a weeks-long battle in mountainous terrain. It had been planned months earlier and always with the expectation of close air support, but no notification had been given to air commanders until five days before the battle began, and no system was in place to manage and integrate close air support requests.