US combat forces often describe Afghanistan as the hardest place on the planet to fight a war. Without airpower, that task would be almost inconceivably more difficult and deadly.
"The fight is, I think, ... easier than Iraq," said Army Maj. Gary Pina, the chief of fires for Task Force Currahee, based at Forward Operating Base Sharana, Paktika province, and composed of elements of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), from Fort Campbell, Ky. It is rare to see the close combat and pitched street battles many remember from places such as Ramadi or Fallujah, he noted. Afghanistan is a large and not very dense country—and offers a lot of space for the enemy to hide and to carry out operations.
SrA. Kendall Wilson watches for trouble in the desert surrounding a runway in Afghanistan. Wilson is part of a Fly Away Security Team, which provides security for aircraft in remote, unsecured locations.
"We don’t really have a population issue. ... We have a terrain issue," he said, noting that Paktika’s mountains and valleys are prime movement areas for groups coming and going from Pakistan. Whether tracking individuals or putting firepower on top of the enemy, air assets are critical to the balance of power between the coalition and the enemy.
Talking with airmen across Afghanistan, stories vary, but all contain a common thread: This conflict is now a part of their lives. Deployment after deployment, for nearly a decade, has made the mission intensely personal.
In the mountains of Paktika province by mid-March, the spring and summer fighting season was already ramping up for the troops and airmen at another forward operating base, Orgun-E.
By then, SrA. Eric Shaner, a joint terminal attack controller with 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne, could cite some of the developing threats. Reports from the FOBs and outposts nearby suggest the Taliban are gearing up, he said. "[FOB] Tillman took several rounds today, and they’re not far from a pretty major trafficking route."
Soon, patrols would be going out to contact tribal officials and find out if any local villages had received "night letters" from Taliban militants—basically threats against cooperating with the Afghan government and coalition forces, and a prime measurement for tracking enemy influence in the region. JTACs will often accompany troops into the villages, or stake out the high ground, to help maintain a good connection with aerial assets and watch for any trouble.
Shaner is assigned to the 817th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Squadron supporting Task Force Currahee in Afghanistan’s restive east and moves around to support units wherever he and his fellow JTACs are needed. There are never enough JTACs to go around to meet the requirement for clearing missions, air assaults, and even engaging tribal leaders.
"It’s not easy.We’re roving assets; we move around to where we are needed. Sometimes they need us on an operation in the field. Sometimes we’re back a bit farther from the fight," said SSgt. James Eggleston, a 10-year veteran JTAC and enlisted battalion air liaison for the White Currahee element at Orgun-E.
Shaner and Eggleston are dots of blue in a sea of green, and both simultaneously professed their love of the job while also noting its difficulties. Being physically isolated from their support structure takes a toll, and cultural clashes with senior Army NCOs are routine, they said. But their role is to link the efforts in outposts and FOBs across the country with the airpower flying high overhead—and it is demanding work.
A Small Community
A JTAC’s typical physical mission load is between 80 to 90 pounds of equipment. This includes everything from spare radio batteries to mortar tubes, and most of the JTACs have multiple leg and ankle injuries over their deployments to show for it.
Both Shaner and Eggleston count friends and fellow JTACs among the killed and injured in this war, and pointed out that the enemy continues to find ways to combat the upsurge in troops.
An HH-60G Pave Hawk returns from a mission at a forward operating base. Rotary lift in Afghanistan is an in-demand commodity.
Army officers and JTACs in Paktika frequently mentioned last October’s Battle of Margah, a firefight at a small combat outpost, on the eastern side of the province, between Army troops and well-armed insurgent fighters swarming the position.
The Taliban had counted on catching the outpost by surprise, and waited for weather the enemy thought would affect air support, several JTACs and Currahee officers noted. But a pitched battle followed, with mortars, artillery, small arms, and air strikes from USAF fighters and Army helicopters holding back the horde. By the next day, five Americans were wounded (none were killed), while 92 enemy fighters lay dead.
Capt. Leif Nordhagen, an A-10 pilot and flight commander with the 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, is one of the pilots frequently called on to defend ground forces under attack, such as the one at Margah.
Nordhagen and the rest of his squadron arrived mere weeks before describing the pace of operations to a reporter. The 18 Warthogs in Nordhagen’s unit were steadily ramping up operations, and each of the unit’s pilots would fly three to five sorties a week. Often they were flying routine top cover missions, only to be chopped off to respond to troops-in-contact calls at some point in their four- to five-hour missions.
Warthog pilots and support crew are closely associated with this war. Most of these airmen have been in Afghanistan before, many several times—both at Bagram up north and at Kandahar.
"It’s a small community, and we’ve all done this before," Nordhagen said. "We do this a lot, but we all love this mission—the maintainers, the pilots, everyone." Over years of combat, relationships have developed between the A-10 community and the JTACs on the ground who often have to dial up pilots when faced with difficult circumstances.
In Afghanistan, the A-10 fleet is in high demand, as one of USAF’s premier close air support platforms. The aircraft rack up a lot of flight hours and expend a large number of munitions.
A typical deployment to Afghanistan will add 800 to 1,000 flying hours to every aircraft, noted 1st Lt. Michael Murphy, the officer in charge of the 74th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Unit. A prior-enlisted airman who came from a background in munitions, Murphy pointed out the long line of 30 mm shells from the Warthog’s famous seven-barrel gun that ring the top of the walls in the EAMU’s shop just off the flight line.
"They were from the last deployment," said Murphy, who deployed from Moody AFB, Ga. Each shell signified 1,000 rounds fired in combat, with the previous rotation firing off approximately 147,000 rounds. "They stay busy," Murphy said, adding that each aircraft will average a full phase inspection per deployment to make sure everything is working correctly.
The war has taken its toll, and the signs are unmistakable, from the skins of aircraft to the memorials to fallen comrades. Nordhagen, and several other airmen operating out of the west ramp side of Kandahar Airfield, wear a patch honoring Pedro 66—the call sign of an HH-60 Pave Hawk that crashed in June 2010 during a sortie in Helmand province. Five airmen died. The A-10 community works closely with rescue crews and the pararescue jumpers who man the often dangerous casualty evacuation and combat search and rescue missions across the country.
Things Will Blow Up
Just down the way from Nordhagen’s squadron, the new barracks of the 55th Expeditionary Helicopter Maintenance Unit is home to a memorial for Pedro 66: The Pave Hawk’s wheel chocks hang on a wall in the squadron’s break room, above a list of the crew who died in the crash last summer. First Lt. Andrew Marsh, the OIC for the maintenance shop, said the Pave Hawks are put through the wringer daily, as rotary lift in Afghanistan is an in-demand commodity and the dry, dusty environment makes keeping these aircraft healthy even more challenging. The dust in Afghanistan is finer than the sand ginned up back at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., he noted, and engines will wear out much faster, having to work with the sharp changes in altitude in addition to the dust.
Nearby, a dry-erase board with the squadron’s aircraft and mission numbers showed just how busy they’ve been since late 2010, when their deployment kicked off. Sixty-eight saves, 356 sorties, 276 flight hours, in just over three months.
Maj. Chris Richardson of the 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron commands the detachment of HH-60s at Kandahar standing alert for combat search and rescue and medical evacuation missions daily. The "Pedros" of the 26th ERQS, along with the "Guardian Angels"—the PJs and rescue specialists of the 46th ERQS—are on call daily to respond to scenarios ranging from combat medical evacuation missions, to extracting wounded from an overturned armored vehicle, to transporting Afghan civilians for medical care.
Capt. Travis Kuenzi and 1st Lt. Alexander Hanna run the engine start-up procedure on a C-17 before an air delivery mission in Afghanistan.
Trained in the specialized mission area of personnel recovery and combat search and rescue, often these airmen are pressed into rotation along with Army helicopters to perform casualty evacuation missions (CASEVAC) across Afghanistan.
"Some days, it will be quiet. Days on end, even. Then things will blow up," Richardson said of the 12-hour-at-a-time watch he and his crews perform. The squadron’s main element resides at Helmand’s Camp Bastion, an area of southern Afghanistan that has seen a great deal of violence in the last year-and-a-half, as US and coalition forces move into the traditional stronghold of the Taliban.
"Every day, we are working in a 60-minute window," Richardson said, and when calls come down, crews are geared up and on the flight line in eight minutes. Some of the crew members on alert joked that they could be wheels up even faster if the barracks—like a firehouse—had a pole to slide down from the second floor.
Down here in Regional Command South, the area around Kandahar, and RC Southwest in nearby Helmand, crews can usually meet that time frame.
Unlike Army "dust off" helicopters, which are unarmed, Pave Hawks are not emblazoned with a red cross. They are heavily modified for CSAR, with .50-caliber heavy machine guns, refueling capability, and enhanced self-defense systems. The Army’s Apache Longbow attack helicopter weighs in at 16,000 pounds, while a Pave Hawk, with a full kit, will tip a scale at 22,000 pounds.
"We’re basically a big flying ambulance," said SSgt. Matt Champagne, a PJ with the 46th ERQS, as he inspected one of the Pave Hawk cabins on the flight line. "Only, we shoot back."
The cabin is a cramped place when fully prepared, filled with medical supplies, personnel recovery gear, and special tools for sorties ranging from high-altitude rescue to water recovery.
Yes, Champagne noted, even in arid Afghanistan, water recovery will occur, noting that sorties have gone out to recover armored vehicles that have overturned in canals. Rivers in Afghanistan rage in the spring months after snowpack melts, making water missions even more difficult. He indicated a diamond-tooth saw in the cabin as well, used to cut the doors off mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles.
Two F-16s on the flight line at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Expeditionary airmen are familiar with both Bagram and Kandahar from repeated deployments.
The Business at Hand
A mid-March visit to Kandahar was calm, but only days before, multiple calls had come in. This is the nature of the war, aircrews and PJs said. Mass casualty events such as suicide bombings, Afghan citizens injured, enemy wounded, flipped vehicles, marines and soldiers pulled from the battlefield with multiple missing limbs—everyone had a story, and most had recent ones to boot.
"We are here to help everyone; we’re not just sitting around waiting to go get a pilot," said Capt. Stephen Colletti, the detachment commander for the 46th ERQS element at Kandahar. A prior-enlisted PJ, he anticipated his airmen would be even busier in the coming months, as the fighting season promised to rage again. It’s not easy to keep skills balanced, but airmen in this work are used to pressure.
"I want my people kept interested. We thrive on pushing ourselves," Colletti said. "These guys … are not normal cats. We don’t need normal."
There are three active duty HH-60 squadrons in the US, Richardson noted, and everyone in them has been steadily deployed, for months at a time, for the better part of the last decade to Iraq and Afghanistan. "We have volunteers, we have [Reservists] and [Air Guardsmen]. But our squadrons have to make sure we don’t get people stuck" in one position, he added. Complicating this is the need to balance out the experience with getting new folks trained up back home.
TSgt. Jonathan Oliver, a joint terminal attack controller, goes over the operation plan and maps on a remote mountaintop in Laghman province. JTACs often stake out the high ground to maintain good contact with air assets.
"We’ve sent guys [on temporary assignment] just to get them away for a little while," Richardson said. "You don’t want to burn up the A-team, but you also have to know that this is a commitment."
Back in 2008, Richardson said, eight Pave Hawk pilots said no to generous bonus pay to re-up, after years of grinding rotations. "It’s hard. And I can understand when someone’s had enough. But this is the business at hand, and we’ve got new blood that needs the stink of theater on them, too. It’s not something that has an easy answer."
The strain of this war is also visible on airmen fighting far from the flight line at Kandahar.
The isolated locations of FOBs and combat outposts across Afghanistan are crucial to ferreting out Taliban and insurgent support networks and strongholds, senior officials point out. They are at the end of a long logistical chain, more often than not held together by tactical airlift to keep these locations supplied. In addition to calling in air strikes, JTACs are often tasked to "pop smoke" and help guide in frequent airdrops of supplies from C-130s delivering materiel, ranging from plywood to fuel and food, to locations otherwise all but inaccessible.
Early on the morning of March 23, the night shift of the 772nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at Kandahar filed into its hut to update the mission board.
Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Craig Williams and others went over the previous shift’s missions, and prepped today’s. One of the previous shift’s crews just came off what they dub the "pain train"—a long multistop route up through Afghanistan, stopping in Kyrgyzstan, before coming back down to Kandahar Airfield.
"We’ve got four lined up today," said Lt. Col. John Fox, the 772nd’s assistant director of operations. The squadron was closing in on 50 airdrops for the month already, a new record pace for the year. The squadron had on the ramp four C-130J models, which can carry up to 20 bundles for airdrop per flight. In May, the squadron bumped up to eight aircraft to handle the expanding workload.
Today’s flight, a two-ship formation, would fly up to a drop zone in northwest Afghanistan, stop at Bagram to replenish pallets in a few hours, then turn and perform one more drop before landing back at Kandahar. Each bundle weighed about 1,200 pounds, and there were strict procedures about how to ingress for a drop, with the aircraft dipping as low as 2,000 feet above ground while watching for the purple smoke of the JTAC marking the zone.
An Unheralded Front
At the drop signal, a blade cuts the restraints holding in the pallets, and nearly a third of the weight of the aircraft pours out toward the earth in a matter of seconds. "As long as those coordinates are correct, we’ll get it in the right place," Williams said.
Supplies float to the ground on parachutes in an airdrop to a remote operating base in Afghanistan.
Loads are turned fast during stops, said Capt. William McLeod, the OIC of the 451st Expeditionary Airlift Maintenance Squadron. We drop, we gas up, and go often in less than two hours, he said.
The tempo runs Hercs through the ringer as well, he conceded, noting the belly of the aircraft and the propeller blades bearing scars of frequent pummeling on nonpaved runways. Fox gave credit to McLeod’s maintainers for keeping the aircraft running daily.
"Without good maintainers, all you have is a bunch of static displays," Fox quipped.
Beyond daily combat operations, many airmen in country are involved in a mission likely to persist for many years—despite force levels and drawdown timelines.
On the other side of Kandahar’s runway was a quartet of Mi-17 helicopters, bearing the roundels of the Afghan Air Force, and several airmen, Lithuanian troops, and Afghans worked on another parked in a nearby hangar. Here, USAF air advisors with the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group guide AAF counterparts to build skill and proficiency in helicopter operations.
It is an often painstaking and halting process, many of them note, and filled with just as much success as frustration. "It’s hard to do this [sort of thing] in a combat zone," said Lt. Col. Fred Koegler, a veteran of three advisory tours in Southwest Asia. "We’re in a [situation] where I have to balance things. We are trying to enable a ‘train first’ mindset, rather than just [letting people] fly off into operations."
Even this mission is not without risks. In April, an Afghan pilot shot and killed eight USAF air advisors at Kabul Airport.
In his first six months with the squadron, Koegler said, his airmen had worked to improve simple tasks such as aviation English competency, improving communication, command and control, and accountability, from officers to NCOs. Many of the pilots and crews are older and have experience flying Mi-17 aircraft, even since the late 1980s, during Afghanistan’s communist period, and even for the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban for years.
But building a sustainable program is not easy, as the metrics are often difficult to track—although anecdotes abound.
"Trust is a big part of all of this," Koegler said. "In Afghanistan, trust is often as big a part of the solution as geography." Mission areas are growing, he said. Now Afghans regularly perform troop movement, flood response, and some aeromedical evacuation activity.
SrA. Hilarie Maine checks an AIM-120 missile secured to the wing of an F-16 during a preflight check at Bagram. Without sharp ground crews, Afghanistan’s challenging environment would be virtually impossible to work in.
Last December, in north Helmand province, some elements of the Afghan military brought one of their helicopters up for display in a youth shura, or meeting of young leaders, he noted.
The kids "asked about how they could fly a helicopter. It was a huge response," Koegler said. "This is one of those things we can do. We can put that opportunity out there, to show folks ... there are other options to the Taliban."
This may be the unheralded front line of the war in Afghanistan, because a successful US drawdown requires local forces to effectively take over myriad missions now performed by US and NATO forces.
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