A-10s Saved the Day in Botched Afghanistan Raid

Low-flying jets better than bombers for supporting ground troops

A-10s Saved the Day in Botched Afghanistan Raid A-10s Saved the Day in Botched Afghanistan Raid

Uncategorized June 14, 2014 0

A-10s Saved the Day in Botched Afghanistan Raid Low-flying jets better than bombers for supporting ground troops On June 9, five U.S. Special Operations... A-10s Saved the Day in Botched Afghanistan Raid

A-10s Saved the Day in Botched Afghanistan Raid

Low-flying jets better than bombers for supporting ground troops

On June 9, five U.S. Special Operations Forces commandos died when a U.S. Air Force B-1 bomber mistakenly attacked their position in southern Afghanistan—presumably dropping JDAM satellite-guided bombs on the commandos from high altitude.

The accidental bombing comes as the Air Force is trying—with some success—to convince Congress to allow the flying branch to retire all 230 of its remaining A-10 Warthog attack jets, which specialize in low, slow attacks in close proximity to friendly troops.

The Air Force insists the high-flying B-1 and other warplanes can adequately replace the A-10. But the June 9 incident undermines the Air Force’s case. Likewise, a similar incident seven years ago involving a B-1—“Bone” to the ground troops—and A-10s highlights the yawning differences between the two plane types and their pilots.

On Jan. 15, 2007, a force of 200 British Royal Marines and other troops including a Joint Terminal Air Controller, or JTAC, crossed a canal of the Helmand River in southern Afghanistan and attacked Jugroom Fort, a walled complex that was a key Taliban strongpoint.

The assault was a fiasco for the Brits. “The besieged Taliban fighters proved resilient, and sprayed the Z Company Marines with gunfire,” The Guardian reported. “Within minutes the British force suffered four casualties, mostly gunshot wounds.”

The British troops retreated. They were back across the river when the realized they had left behind a wounded man—30-year-old Lance Corporal Matthew Ford. The Brits radioed for help. Two A-10 pilots were flying nearby.

“Suddenly, our flight was re-tasked to support an allied commando unit and their JTAC,” one of the A-10 pilots recalled in a widely-circulated written account. War is Boring agreed not to print the pilot’s name, as his opinions contradict Air Force policy.

“We quickly checked in with the JTAC and received a standard situation update,” the pilot recalled. “Using our old-school 1:50 paper maps, we hastily plotted the factor locations with grease pencil and quickly developed visual target reference points for us to use within our own flight.”

We were given several known enemy firing positions to target north of the canal and we began hitting them with 30-millimeter [guns]. A B-1 bomber checked in with a full load of GBU-38 and GBU-31 JDAMs.

After we conducted the initial strikes, my flight lead sent me to the tanker to get gas first. While en route to the tanker, the JTAC gave the preparatory call for all players to receive the recovery game plan. I was forced off frequency to facilitate my tanker rejoin.

Once plugged on the tanker, I had the tanker pipe the frequency through the boom interphone so I could at least listen to the communications while getting gas.

The Royal Marines came up with a desperate and daring plan. Marines would strap themselves to the outsides of two British Army Apache gunship helicopters and dart back across the river to pick up Ford. They wanted the A-10s and B-1 to cover them.

“This is going to be a timed strike to cover the helicopter ingress,” the British commander radioed. “The B-1 is going to drop four GBU-31s on the [Taliban positions] just prior to the helicopters crossing the canal. The A-10s will escort the Apaches in and lay suppressing fire on the enemy firing positions.”

“Once dismounted from the helicopters, A-10s have overwatch,” the commander continued. “Once we get our guy, we’re gonna load him up, egress the area, and Bone and Hawgs are going to smash the place to bits.”

“Jesus Christ,” the tanker’s boom operator muttered on overhearing the plan.

“The B-1 was now rushing to get the targeting solutions for the JDAMs,” the A-10 pilot wrote. “The JTAC ordered a bomb-on-coordinate nine-line”—a detailed attack order in standardized format—“and the B-1 was frantically attempting to repeat the coordinates while plugging them into his targeting system.”

“At the same time I was attempting to visualize where the coordinates were plotted, using just the verbal data alone—a skill set I learned from some experienced A-10 pilots,” the Warthog flier recalled.

The more experienced A-10 flight lead was frantically doing the same—in essence, checking the JTAC and B-1 crew’s work. The Taliban and the British troops—to say nothing of their madcap rescue force—were in very close proximity.

The B-1 is a high-flying, sluggish aircraft. Rather than maneuvering to attack down low based on visual cues, it lobs satellite-guided bombs to hit pre-designated coordinates. For a B-1 to hit the bad guys and avoid the good guys, the numbers have to be perfect.

“One set of coordinates made the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” the A-10 pilot wrote. “I glanced at my canopy, where I had very similar coordinates written in grease pencil and circled with ‘FDLY’”—code for friendly troops—“written on top. Before I could put two and two together, I heard the JTAC clear the B-1 hot for the four JDAMs.”

“Immediately after the ‘cleared hot,’ I heard my flight lead interject.”

“Abort! Abort! Abort!” the flight lead barked into the radio.

“State reason!” the B-1 crew demanded.

“Screw reason!” the A-10 leader responded. “God damn it, abort—you’re about to kill friendlies!”

The B-1 waved off. Irritated, the British JTAC asked why his bomber had aborted.

“You passed your own coordinates!” the A-10 flight lead shot back.

“The JTAC disagreed with that assessment,” the junior A-10 pilot wrote. “What I heard on the radio next still impresses me to this day. My flight lead asked the JTAC what GPS system he was using, then walked him through the page menus to confirm he was reading the system correctly.”

“This took an amazing amount of prior self-study and composure during paramount stress.”

The JTAC followed the senior Warthog pilot’s directives. “Holy shit, mate,” the air controller said. “You’re right. We’re spinning everything and we’re re-setting this.”

“Jesus Christ,” the boom operator said again.

“Countless friendly lives were saved by a laminated Russian 1:50 map, a five-cent grease pencil and a dedicated and professional … pilot with the experience and training to sift through the fog of both air and ground war,” the A-10 pilot wrote.

The ground troops and their air support regrouped. The B-1 crew plugged in fresh—and this time correct—GPS coordinates and dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on the fortress.

The two A-10s, their gas tanks full, angled in to cover the Apaches. “We set up a close, low escort pattern to provide immediate firepower in defense of the helicopters,” the pilot remembered.

As soon as they crossed the canal, all Hell broke loose from the canal banks and village. The Apaches began firing, we were calling out firing positions and shooting alongside them [via] close-range, low-angle strafe.

As I passed abeam one Apache, I glanced high left to see a man, leaning over the stubby helicopter wing, unloading his rifle on the enemy. We matched with 30-millimeter and rockets.

The B-1 held high as he was useless during this close attack phase. The Apaches, usually the escort birds, now found themselves requiring escort to make it in and out alive. Only an A-10 could have done that.

The Brits found Ford. He was already dead. The A-10s covered the Apaches on their return flight then helped the B-1 pulverize the fortress. “This time the JTAC had deferred coordinate generation to my flight lead.”

“Ever since this mission I have fully embraced the unique and highly specialized skill of battlefield tracking,” the pilot concluded. “It is a skill unique to the A-10 community, as we realize that [close air support] is more than simply dialing up a bomb for the ground commander.”

The A-10 fliers—plus some very traumatized Royal Marines and B-1 crew members—may realize that. But Air Force generals apparently do not. They persist in believing a B-1 can replace an A-10.