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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“Show-of-force CAS!” Bradley yells over the shriek of the Chinooks’ engines. “Just the sound of those A-10s keeps the bad guys down. Everybody says the A-10s are ugly. Betcha never seen such a beautiful sight in your life though.”

They are a reassuring sight, but I don’t gaze upward long. I’m busy finding a rock to take cover behind.

Apaches, A-10s, and even an AC-130 gunship (at night) fly support missions throughout the next four days—never firing, but remaining on station and ready to provide support at a moment’s notice as the Marines run patrols, looking for the mortar position. The roar of the Warthogs and the whine of lower flying Apaches echo through the steep valleys of the Hindu Kush. Throughout the operation, our interpreters and attached Afghan fighters pick up Taliban radio chatter and alert us of impending ambushes. But none comes. During a day patrol led by Bradley, the Marines on his squad discover signs of a mortar position and note its coordinates, then blow up a small cave complex where they determined the enemy had hidden munitions. That done, we hike back to Camp Blessing.

Weeks later, out on another operation, I discover that the Marines can’t always count on air support. As we ground-pound up and down the steep Afghan hills on Operation Pil (“elephant” in the Afghan language Dari), the air above us is empty. Now, machine gun rounds zip over my head, splintering tree branches and pinging boulders at the patrol base, coming within inches of people in our group. Lieutenant Kinser directs the Marines to return fire at a ridge above us where he detected muzzle flashes. The grunts squeeze off bursts from M240G light machine guns, M16s, and M249s. The ambush quiets. We maintain our covered position, waiting for air to arrive.

Later that night some members of our attached scout sniper team reflect on the firefight. “No air on station. Safe for them to pop up and hit us,” team leader Sergeant Keith Eggers surmises.

No one understands why aircraft haven’t been sent to hit the ridge from where we were ambushed; nothing shows up for hours, long after the shooters have fled. We later learn that Rashman had immediately requested support, but an inbound C-130 with landing gear problems shut down the field at Bagram Air Base, grounding the A-10s.

Rashman is on the mission with us this time, and he seems always to be working his radios. Since the battalion has only two forward air controllers to support operations spread across hundreds of square miles, Rashman is called upon to clear air on targets he often not only can’t see, but isn’t even near—at all hours of the day and night. But he says that the chance to fight alongside infantry is why he chose to temporarily leave his career flying helicopters. “Ask any [Marine] aviator who has done a tour as a forward air controller what their favorite billet has been, and they’ll tell you the FAC tour,” he maintains.

In 2003, Marines got their first glimpse of a system that can receive images from aircraft, including unmanned aerial vehicles, and relay instructions using the system’s radio link. Designed originally for the Air Force and called Rover (for Remote Optical Video Enhanced Receiver), the system enables ground forces to see what pilots see through their targeting pods. Now real-time imagery can be fed across the battlefield to commanders, pilots, air controllers, and ground troops. That ability is considered vital when attacking fleeting targets or supporting friendly troops on the move across long distances. Future wars, like current ones, will no doubt require that kind of attack and that kind of support.


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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