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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“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.”

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.”


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About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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