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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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.

The night before the battle began, Air Force Major Scott “Muck” Campbell and Lieutenant Colonel Eddie “K9” Kostelnik had been called out of their base in Kuwait and were the first A-10 Thunderbolt II pilots on the scene in the Shahi Kot Valley.

“Nobody knew where anybody was,” says Campbell. “Nobody was deconflicting. The biggest threat was us running into each other, not the bad guys shooting at us.” Campbell describes pulling off of a gun run only to find himself just a few hundred yards off the nose of an AC-130. At one point, a Navy F/A-18 rocketed between his wingman’s aircraft and his own. “K9 and I were getting ‘talked on’ to a target and a JDAM [Joint Direct Attack Munition] goes off directly below us, and we’re like ‘Where’d that come from?’ It was completely out of control,” says Campbell. “A mortar would impact and we’d literally have a crowd [of friendly ground troops] calling in.”

It wasn’t that the air controllers and pilots weren’t speaking the same language. The military has made certain that training in every service is based on the same set of protocols. “The air controller course I went through is virtually identical to those of other branches,” says Rashman. “Upon graduation we’re all Joint Terminal Attack Controllers—JTACs.”

The problem in Anaconda came from the mission’s planning staff. In a study of joint operations conducted for the Naval War College, Marine Colonel Norman Cooling blames the disarray during the battle on the failure to integrate command. Special operations forces in the area reported to U.S. Central Command instead of to Army Major General Franklin Hagenback, the joint task force commander to whom all other participants in the battle reported. “Failures in integrated planning and intelligence sharing produced highly publicized fratricide incidents and situations such as that on ‘Roberts’ Ridge’ where a Ranger Quick Reaction Force inserted into a known enemy kill zone,” Cooling wrote. (In the Roberts’ Ridge incident, Navy Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts was killed by enemy gunfire. Six more Americans died trying to rescue him.)

Military leaders analyzed the deficiencies in integrating air power with ground forces and proposed twin corrections: First, insist on unity of command. In Afghanistan, two different commands, one controlling special forces, the other controlling conventional forces, had produced an us-and-them culture, similar to the division that had characterized the Army and Air Force approaches to air power since the services separated in 1947 (see “A Little Help From Above,” p. 56).  Second, make close air support a part of the original battle plan instead of an emergency call. “We need to quit using CAS to save lives and start using it to win battles,” says Colonel John Allison, former chief of the close attack branch in the Air Force joint air-ground division, tasked with integrating ground and air operations. “We have grown an entire generation of Army officers who think there will always be airplanes overhead. It is an airpower buffet, hot and ready 24/7. You get hungry and go eat—no planning required. The Air Force is quite good at doing close air support…but if the Army doesn’t incorporate air into its maneuver and fire plans from the beginning, it will always be the 911 call.”


Combat CAS

On Operation Valdez, the mission runs as smoothly as the training I witnessed at Twentynine Palms. The two Chinooks land side by side and lower their loading ramps on a flat, grassy section of the target ridge. Motivated by a stiff tug by Corporal Justin Bradley, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound squad leader, I bolt down the loading ramp and immediately gaze skyward to see one of the most soothing views of my life—Apaches roving the airspace high above nearby ridgelines and A-10s soaring above them.

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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