This Is How U.S. Air Force Gunships Hunted Terrorists in Afghanistan
AC-130s blasted cell phones of suspected terror leaders
Movies such as Eye in the Sky underscore how drones and controversial targeted strikes against terrorists have become almost inseparable in the public’s mind. Sure, we call it a “drone war,” but in truth, the Pentagon’s shadowy counterterror air campaign doesn’t always end with a small, silent robot firing a missile.
Sometimes, the attacking plane is huge, loud and full of human beings. The very opposite of a drone.
In December 2013, AC-130H Spectre gunships from the U.S. Air Force’s 16th Special Operations Squadron returned from their last operational deployment. During their time in Afghanistan that year, the heavily-armed planes — cargo-haulers modified to carry side-firing guns and cannons — broke up Taliban ambushes, attacked insurgent camps and provided cover for American and allied troops.
“[With] the sound of having a C-130 [gunship] overhead in operation, we have established to the enemy that you get to run away — you can run, but you’ll die tired,” Maj. Jeremy Sparks, the squadron’s commander, said in an official film commemorating the mission. War Is Boring obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act that highlight the role the gunships have played in the Pentagon’s kill chain.
The four-engine AC-130H, which has now retired from Air Force service, boasted a range of some 1,500 miles. The Air Force continually upgraded the Vietnam War-vintage planes with new communications gear, night-vision cameras and extra defensive equipment. But the Spectres always packed the same deadly armament — one 40-millimeter Bofors cannon and a 105-millimeter howitzer.
In 2013, the gunships flew more than 1,800 hours during no fewer than 400 missions over Afghanistan. The crews fired in excess of 1,500 rounds of ammunition during the flights.
“Reducing the number of battlefield unfriendly proved paramount,” Air Force historians wrote, somewhat vaguely, in an annual review of the 27th Special Operations Wing, which includes the 16th. “Eliminating an enemy’ s means of conducting warfare remained crucial to the success of U.S. operations [in Afghanistan].”
The Spectres killed more than 60 “highly visible targets” and nearly 60 more unspecified enemy troops and destroyed 35 “pieces of enemy equipment critical to enemy offenses.” On top of that, the gunships blew up four roadside bombs and a Taliban truck.
The history’s brief entry on the 16th — numbering just two pages — doesn’t go into any great detail about these targets. But an email from the 16th, included in the history, provides invaluable context. Censors redacted the names of the sender and recipients, but did not remove any other information.
The gunships flew 130 of their 400 missions as part of a unit described only as a “Task Force.” This group “conducts offensive operations in Afghanistan to degrade the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Haqqani Networks,” according to the 2016 edition of U.S. Special Operations Command’s fact book.
This most likely refers to nebulous Pentagon terrorist-hunting teams in Afghanistan such as Task Force 3-10 and Task Force 5-35. In October 2015, The Intercept leaked an undated briefing describing how Task Force 3-10 had killed more than 200 insurgents in Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
Covering operations from August 2011 through February 2013, the leaked presentation does not specify the kind of aircraft that conducted the final strikes. The one example of a successful mission from the Intercept‘s presentation involved a drone strike.
“Hands down, the scariest/most intimidating message for the Taliban, at any level, from fighter to Taliban senior leadership, is anything to do with drones or aerial bombings,” the briefing explained, quoting a Taliban leader American troops had detained in Nuristan. “The Taliban has no way to defend against them and they are certain to end in absolute destruction of whatever their target is.”
The 16th’s AC-130s certainly were among the warplanes the Taliban feared. The lumbering ex-transports shot up more than 60 so-called “high-value” terrorists and aided in the capture of 70 more, according to the partially-redacted email. The email writer described dead insurgents as “jackpots.”
Based on the email, it’s clear that when the historian describes air attacks targeting the “enemy’ s means of conducting warfare,” what he really means is cell phones. The email’s author described those 35 strikes as “touchdowns.”
Not coincidentally, the Pentagon uses the term “touchdown” to describe missions where U.S. spooks trace a specific telephone SIM card as a means of finding a possible terror target. But since analysts and operatives are often unable to verify who might be actually holding the device, “touchdown” obtusely refers to the act of blowing up the phone rather than the individual holding the phone.
So to recap what we’ve learned. A “touchdown” is an American mission tracking the mobile phone belonging to suspected terrorist. A “touchdown” is an air raid targeting the phone and, by extension, anyone near the phone. And the warplane conducting the raid could be a drone … or an AC-130 gunship.
In relying on such complex and tenuous “signals intelligence,” aircrews run an increased risk of hitting the wrong targets. Despite what Hollywood movies might suggest, the video feeds on gunships and drones simply do not have the resolution to clearly show faces or other small features that might identify a particular individual.
The redacted email goes on to describe a cycle of strikes followed by troops coming in to gather up any leftover intelligence, which in turn leads to more strikes. On multiple occasions, analysts “exploited” digital cameras, passports, important documents or more cell phones — “DOCEX” and “CELLEX” are the military’s terms for this kind of intel — to find other terrorists.
“SSE results = JP/TD,” the email states, using acronyms for “sensitive site exploitation,” “jackpot” and “touchdown.”
In May 2015, the Air Force finally retired the last AC-130H during a ceremony at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. Two months later, the service received the first of the newest gunship variant, the AC-130J. By January 2016, the flying branch still had nearly 30 of the older AC-130Us and AC-130Ws.
When the 16th’s AC-130Hs left Afghanistan at the end of 2013, other gunships quickly arrived to take their place. On Oct. 3, one of the U-models mistakenly attacked a hospital run by the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières in the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.
“This was a tragic but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error,” Army general John Campbell, the Pentagon’s top officer in Afghanistan, said in a press conference more than a month later. “I can tell you that those individuals most closely associate with the incident have been suspended from their duties, pending consideration and disposition of administrative and disciplinary matters.”
In his statement, Campbell added that the gunship in question had malfunctioning communications equipment and other systems that exacerbated the problems. Without accurate GPS coordinates, the crew attempted to spot their targets using the plane’s night-vision cameras.
By March, 12 individuals had reportedly received administrative penalties. But there were no criminal charges. Despite promising to do so, the Pentagon has not to released a copy of the full investigation.
Now the gunships have joined the war on Islamic State, notably blowing up hundreds of tankers trucks carrying oil for the terror group in November 2015. On March 30, the Air Force released a rare and eerie video showing an KC-135 tanker refueling an AC-130 over Iraq … before the gunship disappears back into the night.