Control the Air

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

In Afghanistan, Marines and Afghan forces patrol under cover of an AH-64 Apache. (Ed Darack)
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A familiar voice greets me from the shadows of an earthen barrier in Watapor Village, a few miles west of Pakistan in Afghanistan’s mountainous Kunar Province. “What brings you out to this neck of the woods?” asks Marine Captain Zach Rashman. Fresh off the back of a troop transport, I join Rashman behind the barrier to escape the sun as we await a nighttime convoy. We’re headed to Camp Blessing, a military base about the size of a small city park; the Marines call it “The Edge of the Empire.” From this outpost, a platoon from the Second Battalion, Third Marine Regiment has been trying to ensure stability in the area by befriending villagers and flushing out enemy militias. Some of their adversaries may have fought for the Taliban, others for al Qaeda; others are on their own. U.S. intelligence officers have identified 22 different groups of bad guys in the province.

Now in October 2005, the platoon is preparing for Operation Valdez, named in honor of Lance Corporal Steven Valdez, a Marine killed at the base by a mortar lobbed from a nearby ridge. The purpose of the mission is to locate the spot from which that mortar was launched and record its coordinates in order to rapidly return fire should the position be used for another attack.

I had met Rashman six months ago, and 8,000 miles away, when he was a first lieutenant and 15 pounds heavier. At a live-fire training area outside Twentynine Palms, California, I watched him rehearse the job he’s here to do as a forward air controller: guide weapons from aircraft to the precise spot where ground forces need them. In answer to his question, I came to Afghanistan, embedded with the Second Battalion, to observe how the often misunderstood mission of close air support is conducted. Having seen how Marines train for it, I’ll be able to see if the training matches what is required in combat. Rashman, a 26-year-old CH-53D helicopter pilot who had just recently volunteered for a tour to work side by side with infantry, is able to point out almost immediately one big difference. “What you saw at Twentynine Palms six months ago was all USMC,” he says, “Marine Air, Marine infantry, Marine artillery—Marine everything. It’s all joint here. Local Afghan forces roll with Marine grunts. We get lifted by Army Chinooks. Air Force A-10s provide fixed wing. Higher [command] even pushes us special operations AC-130s every now and again, and there is usually a Predator buzzing around somewhere.”

A day after my arrival, I’m accompanying the platoon as they deploy from the base to destroy cave complexes near the mortar position where the enemy could hide. This will be my first combat experience involving CAS—pronounced “cass” in military circles—and I tap my fingers nervously on the ceramic plates of my body armor. As the order to move to the landing zone is given, I see Rashman running for a combat operations center instead of the waiting helicopters.

“Aren’t you coming?” I ask.

“I’m stayin’ in the rear for this one,” he says.

“We got air, don’t we?” I practically cry, and I flash back on a prediction Rashman made a day or two prior: that in combat I would understand the urgency of wanting every form of supporting fire available. I understand already, and I haven’t even left the base.

“Type-3 control, brother,” he responds, indicating that he, as a controller, will grant aircraft permission to engage on their own as long as the strike fits a series of parameters, including where and when they plan to drop ordnance. “I have to stay behind to act as not only the forward air controller, but to deconflict [separate airplanes from one another and from munitions] and deal with other types of air in addition to CAS, all that good stuff…. You’ll be fine, just keep your head down.”

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.”

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