Air Weapons: September 27, 2002

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The experience in Afghanistan has revealed some dangerous differences in how the army and the air force wants to use smart bombs. The air force was very pleased with the way smart bombs worked in Afghanistan. But the army was less pleased. While the air force objective was to get bombs on target within 11 minutes, this only happened in situations where the air force ground observers were in touch with a bomber directly above. When the bomber were not around, it could take from 26 minutes to several hours to hit a target. And if an air force ground controller was not available, you would never get the support. Moreover, the air force prefers to have the army give it 36 hours notice for bombing operations, as the air force normally operates on a 36 hour cycle (which is good for them, but not for ground troops who have encountered enemy resistance no one could plan for.) The air force has also been increasingly reluctant to bring their fighter-bombers down below 10,000 feet, which is where the army needs them when the enemy is a moving target. The army has long since bought hundreds of attack helicopters to solve this problem, but there are times when the situation on the ground is so hairy that the helicopters aren't sufficient, and it's a matter of life and death to get high flying fighter bombers to come on down and join in. The air force does have A-10 ground attack aircraft, which work quite well. But the air force has been trying to get rid of the A-10s for over a decade and won't spend the money to build a replacement aircraft. 

The Afghans quickly figured out how to make the smart bombs and night vision gear less effective. Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters operated at night more often, even though American ground troops and aircraft had night vision gear. What the Afghans feared most at night were Predator drones, AC-130 gunships (which they called "Spitting Witches") and AH-64 helicopter gunships. Moving around at night in small groups, they knew a smart bomb would not get them. The Afghans listened for Predators, AC-130s or AH-64s, and when they hear one nearby, they would lie on the ground and cover themselves with a blanket (which would degrade the heat sensing night vision equipment enough that they would usually "disappear). Several times, commanders watching Predator battlefield videos actually saw this disappearing act take place. 

The army is intent on getting their artillery observers trained to call in air force strikes. Many air force generals agree, but as an institution, the air force resists giving up that kind of power. But the army is adamant, pointing out that the air force would never provide as many ground controllers as the army needed, and in a confused ground battle, you need plenty of ground controllers. The army will often have several artillery controllers per platoon, and would like more. 

The air force likes to concentrate on how many sorties they flew and bombs they dropped. But to the guys on the ground, that means nothing. What counts is how many bombs hit a target the ground troops needed destroyed. All of this will turn into another Pentagon turf battle, but the outcome will be a matter of life and death for ground troops. 

 


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