June 15, 2010: New weapons, situations and technology have radically changed how American warplanes handle ground support. In Afghanistan, for example, F-16s, A-10s, F-15Es and F-18s spend a lot of time just using their targeting pods, to scan, in high resolution and great detail, what's going on down there. The troops appreciate this kind of "overwatch", and usually let the pilots know what likely areas of interest are. The warplanes don't drop that many smart bombs. In many cases they just come in low and drop flares on suspected enemy gunmen. That still tends to persuade the enemy to back off, and avoids possible civilian casualties (as the Taliban still like to use human shields).
But perhaps most surprisingly, more of these fighters are coming down low and using their automatic cannons to strafe ground targets. Strafing has undergone something of a renaissance in the last five years, thanks to new, and much more effective, fire control systems for F-16 and F-15 fighters, and more training in this form of close air support (CAS). The new F-35 will have similar capabilities. Some F-22 pilots insist they can do it as well, but their bosses are reluctant to even think of risking these very expensive fighters that close to ground fire.
The new fire control hardware and software, enable a fighter pilot to deliver 20mm cannon fire through the window of a building. This is one way to take out a sniper, without using a smart bomb that could cause a lot of nearby civilians to get hurt. Part of the magic is GPS and targeting pods with x30 magnification. This allows the pilot to be far away while getting a bead on the target. Then the pilot can come in low and fast, fire off a few dozen shells, and be gone before the enemy can get off many, or any, shots at him.
In the last six years, more pilots have received strafing training, often using a simulator. This is safer, because strafing in a fast mover (F-16 or F-15) is inherently dangerous. The 20mm cannon only has a maximum range (for aimed fire) of about 700 meters. The 20mm cannon fires 50-100 rounds a second. On a strafing run, the F-16 is moving at about 150 meters a second, a hundred or so meters above the ground. It's a tricky business.
Some F-15 pilots believed that these kinds of strafing runs could be carried out at night. Their commanders were not so sure, so the F-15 pilots used an F-15 flight simulator to practice the technique, and convinced their boss that it would work.
The biggest danger in this low level gunnery is the risk of accidentally hitting the ground, or a building. One F-16 has already been lost to this kind of accident. All it takes is for a pilot to jerk the aircraft in the wrong direction for a second or two, and it's all over. But with nothing to fight in the air, most fighter pilots are eager to come down on the deck to deliver some firepower. Although the A-10 was built for this kind of mission, and does a lot of the strafing, there are times when an A-10 is not available, and an F-16, F-18 or F-15 is.
U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft fly 100-200 close air support and reconnaissance missions a day over Afghanistan. Far more cannon shells (20 and 30mm) are fired, or flares dropped, than smart bombs.