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In Afghanistan, Marines and Afghan forces patrol under cover of an AH-64 Apache. (Ed Darack)

Control the Air

On the ground with Marines in Afghanistan, the author sees a different side of close air support.

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.

 

Like Clockwork

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.

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.

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