Afghanistan Taught U.S. "Hard Lessons" in Close Air Support

Article excerpt

The battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan changed the way U.S. forces conduct close-air support, and some of those lessons are still being implemented, said Air Force Col. Michael Longoria, joint air-ground operations office of Air Combat Command.

"It's important to see how far we've come since Afghanistan," he told attendees at a recent defense industry conference.

Longoria led specialized forward air operations as an expeditionary group commander during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 and later as director of the Air Combat Center at the combined forces land component command. During a presentation, he offered new details on what the Air Force learned from its experience in Afghanistan.

At the start of the conflict, Longoria described the Army and Air Force as services that had "grown apart" but were forced to work together in ways never before imagined. Conditions in Afghanistan were unique, challenging and evolved as the war progressed, and tested the level of coordination between the services. In terms of providing firepower to conventional and unconventional troops on the ground, the test was life-and-death.

"Close air support is the hardest thing we do in joint warfighting," Longoria said. "When we make a mistake, we kill our own people."

An early demonstration of the risks of climbing a steep learning curve while under fire occurred when a forward air controller inadvertently vectored a global positioning satellite-guided munition to his own position, killing three Green Berets. Although this error occurred two other times, no other incident caused casualties, he said.

When controllers began using digital instruments to coordinate air strikes, safety checks born of an earlier age were lost, he said. Things were moving faster, and new doctrine had to be enforced to ensure errant bombs were not dropped in haste.

When Operation Enduring Freedom began, there were few airspace issues, Longoria recalled. But as the conflict progressed, the simple targeting and unrestricted targeting areas became more complex.

One problem arose when Special Forces operators, fearing fratricide, established umbrella no-fire zones around themselves and their allied Afghan fighters. These zones did not move with the forces, and were left behind to clutter the pilots' maps. "It's very hard for a pilot to know what he can and can't do when there are literally thousands of these no-fire areas," Longoria recalled. "We didn't fix it fast enough for Operation Anaconda."

Operation Anaconda was launched in March 2002 in Afghanistan's

Shahikot valley. More than 200 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division and 101st Airborne stormed mountain strongholds to kill or capture hundreds of Taliban soldiers.

Another aspect of the close air support that was to change was the amount of available air coverage. Longoria described aircraft being told "to go to the country of Afghanistan" and wait for further instructions. This ability to direct bombs at will was a bad lesson to pass on as the conflict progressed. "We taught some of our friends they didn't have to have a plan," he said. "That lack of planning will impact us as we go to Operation Anaconda."

A large challenge of close air support is an organizational one. The battle for the Shahikot Valley provided a hard lesson in this area, as forward air controllers proliferated on a fairly tight battlefield. …