—Marc V. Schanz at Bagram, AB Afghanistan
On the eastern edge of the runway at Bagram AB, Afghanistan, CMSgt. Joseph Livingston from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, is checking over one of his fighters—an F-15E deployed from Mountain Home’s 391st Fighter Squadron, now sitting on the tarmac as part of the 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.
Strapped to the belly of the multi-role fighter are two laser-guided GBU-12s, a quartet of GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs down the center line, three GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, and 500 rounds of 20 mm cannon rounds in the aircraft's gun.
Back in January, 14 of the squadron's aircraft deployed here—arriving on the freshly paved and finished section of the runway on the eastern side of the base about a 15 minute drive around the field from the tower and main facilities.
The first Strike Eagles to deploy to Afghanistan, the Tigers of the 391st were immediately thrown into the Afghanistan theater's punishing ops tempo, say maintainers and operators. Averaging eight to as many as 10 missions a day, the squadron has been flying "surge operations," Livingston told Air Force Magazine. The sorties have been a mix of air taskings directed through the Combined Air Operations Center for the Southwest Asia region that often follow calls for help from ground forces engaged in battle with Taliban elements along the country's rugged frontier provinces.
“We've been getting better with time, it's been quite a thing to see," Livingston said, noting that CAOC planners give fighters up to 30 minutes to get off the ground and inbound toward targets—but the F-15Es are getting off the ground in as little as nine minutes when called for an alert strike to support ground forces.
Not 10 minutes after this conversation, a team of fighters streaks off to the north on full burn, turning west at the front of the Hindu Kush range and disappearing from sight.
For the pilots, the Afghanistan mission is a first, providing a chance to prove the versatility of the F-15E aircraft in the close air support role, long the purview of the A-10—venerated by ground forces for its long loiter time and devastating cannon.
Capt. Chris Troyer, a pilot with the 391st EFS, said that the Strike Eagle's strength—lots of speed—has come in handy on the battlefield. The A-10s are hearty aircraft, but take a certain amount of time to get to target, the pilots say. With the F-15Es, enemy forces are learning that they no longer have the luxury of having upwards of 45 minutes to harass coalition forces, Troyer noted.
Using its external fuel tanks and air refueling, the F-15Es have extended their operating radius in theater. "Once we take off, something will come up in addition to our mission," Troyer said, noting that Strike Eagles are often called to fill non-traditional intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance taskings—utilizing the fighter's Sniper targeting pod to get looks at enemy movements and threats to International Security Assistance Force troops.
"Our bread and butter is the air-to-ground mission, and we've trained extensively to get ready for it," said Capt. Joe Ryther, a weapons safety officer with the 391st. Working with ground forces and Joint Tactical Air Controllers embedded in ground units, the Strike Eagles have helped make their mark on the battlefield in close contact with enemy forces in a variety of situations.
Pilots have learned to adjust their targeting tactics to make use of their aircraft’s wing-mounted gun for air-to-ground missions—a bit of a change for operators trained to use the weapon as a last resort in air-to-air combat. The training has paid off with devastating effect on enemy forces. Since January, the squadron has fired about 2,500 rounds at ground targets and dropped 142 air-to-ground munitions on enemy targets in Afghanistan.
Slowly, respect on the battlefield has been earned. "When you drop a GBU-12 on a group of bad guys, it does a lot of damage," Ryther noted.
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