Murphy's Law: Afghan Air


February 21, 2020: In Afghanistan the most effective military support for the government forces is from the air, followed by special operations troops and air controllers on the ground to promptly call in that air support. The air support also includes communications, intelligence collecting and surveillance support. The U.S. only has a few dozen combat aircraft stationed in Afghanistan and can call in heavy bombers (B-2B, B-52) stationed elsewhere in the region.

The U.S. air support system is quick to respond and, because it only uses guided missiles or smart bombs, the airstrikes are very precise, effective cause far fewer civilian and friendly troop casualties than in past air support efforts. Nearly all this air support is for Afghan forces and to get American support those Afghan troops must have an American air controller team with them. This is the limiting factor on how much air support the U.S. can provide. Over the years these air controller teams have been deployed more effectively as the Afghans learned to plan their ground operations more efficiently. For emergency support, Afghan forces can call on the Afghan Air Force, which has more air controllers (about fifty teams) but ground attack aircraft that are more limited. There are 36 ground-attack aircraft, mainly 26 A-29 single-engine turboprop armed trainers carrying heavy machine-guns plus, in most cases, unguided rockets and bombs. There are ten even smaller Cessna 208s that use Hellfire missiles. There are also a few dozen armed helicopters using machine-guns, unguided rockets and laser-guided Hellfire missiles. The helicopters have very short (under a hundred kilometers) range while the fixed-wing aircraft can  hit targets up to 500 kilometers from their base, though it takes an hour to go that far. Because of these limitations, the most effective air support, which can be anywhere in the country and on very short (often minutes) notice are the American or NATO fighters and bombers.

American air support for 2019 was one percent greater than in the record setting total for 2018. During 2019 there 7,423 airstrikes compared to 7,362 for 2018. That’s about 20 a day for both years. This is a major increase from 12 a day for 2017, 3-4 a day for 2016 and 2-3 a day for 2015. Since 2018 American airpower was used more often in Afghanistan than at any other time, including the 2011 surge. In 2018 coalition warplanes (mostly U.S.) used 15 percent more bombs and missiles than in 2011. Coalition warplanes performed more sorties a month, with 15 percent of sorties resulting in weapons being used. This includes AC-130 gunships but not attack helicopters or UAVs. In some months the U.S. Air Force used more smart bombs and missiles than at any since late 2010.

The effectiveness of this air support relies on a communication system that enables U.S. air controller teams anywhere in the country to contact any American bombers or fighters nearby (within a few hundred kilometers, or more) and get them to the target to deliver smart bombs. The fighters and bombers are equipped with targeting pods that enable the pilots to see detailed pictures of what is on the ground so they can assist the air controllers with sorting out what is going on down there. The communications are made possible by high flying (13,000 meters/40,000 feet) BACN (Battlefield Airborne Communications Node) aircraft that deal with the many high mountains and deep valleys found in Afghanistan and immediately connect air controllers, and any other American combat units, with U.S. aircraft. Because of this system, in use for over a decade, heavy bombers (B-52s or faster B-1Bs) can circle in a central location and quickly get to where they are needed and drop a few smart bombs. There are also F-16s and A-10 aircraft that can do the same, plus the A-10 can also come in low and use its 30mm autocannon.

There is more to American air support than the quickly delivered smart bombs. In fact, there were only 8,773 strike sorties during 2019 and only 28 percent of those resulted in weapons being used. There were twice as many air reconnaissance or surveillance sorties to keep track of the enemy. There were also 11,000 transport sorties that carried 78,700 tons of cargo and 141,000 passengers. There were also 276 tons of cargo delivered by parachute, often using GPS guided parachutes which land the cargo exactly where it is needed. Finally, there were 2,637 refueling tanker sorties, to enable the fighters and bombers to stay in the air longer by refueling 12,800 aircraft. American air support has become more efficient over the last decade, requiring fewer recon and strike sorties because of improved technology. 

The greater use of American airpower has had a dramatic and damaging impact on the Taliban. Prisoner interrogations plus eavesdropping on internal or public Internet chatter show declining morale, higher desertion, fewer recruits and higher pay and benefits to keep numbers up. There is also more pressure on Taliban field commanders, by their own gunmen, to keep casualties down. This can be done by avoiding actions that will attract airstrikes. A common mistake is attacking army or police bases or staying in one place too long while blocking an army or police operation. “Too long” is often an hour or more and after that, if not earlier, the deadly smart bombs arrive. In some situations, where the Afghan forces are carrying out offensive operations, air support will arrive in minutes. This puts Taliban commanders in a difficult position as they cannot afford to stay in contact with Afghan forces for too long. Worse it often means that Taliban groups will be under attack for a while, or at least until they disperse or otherwise evade detection from the air or ground forces. Some Taliban field commanders are better at dealing with this than others and all Taliban combat commanders know that if they are too successful they get put on a priority hit list which often leads to an early death.

The foreign air forces are providing over a hundred airstrikes a week. The Afghan Air Force provides much less (about a quarter of what the foreigners provide). Afghan airstrikes increasingly use laser and GPS guided bombs. Afghan soldiers and police are big fans of the smart bombs and missiles because it means that, if they have cornered the enemy, one such smart bomb will cripple or destroy the opposition and enable the Afghan soldiers to advance without having to deal with much (if any) defensive fire from the enemy. Afghan soldiers and police are much bolder when they have air support and that leads to more combat operations and more casualties, especially among their opponents. For the Afghans, losses are more palatable if you know the enemy is far worse off. Moreover, the Afghan Air Force use of smart bombs means they can operate effectively at night. Finally, the air controller on the ground can talk to the pilot in Dari (the common language in Afghanistan) and this is a lot more effective and comfortable than doing it in English. Since the Afghan Air Force began using laser-guided bombs in early 2018 they were using about six a week with the number increasing as more bombs are available. Since 2018 the major limitation on the use of Afghan Air Force support has been the availability of Afghan air controllers, who have proven more difficult to recruit and train than pilots.




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