By Capt. Michael Meridith, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 20, 2007 - Airmen of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing recently were able to help give the gift of freedom to the citizens of the Afghan village of Musa Qalah. After a week of heavy fighting, Afghan national security forces backed by coalition forces were able to defeat Taliban insurgents who had controlled the town since February. That Dec. 12 victory was in no small part due to air power, which kept ground forces supplied and provided critical close-air support during the seven-day fight.
With the Taliban using civilian homes to stockpile weapons, including suicide vests and improvised explosive device-making materials, F-15E Strike Eagle and A-10 Thunderbolt II crews from the 336th and 172nd expeditionary fighter squadrons here were careful in how they employed airpower in support of the battle.
"It was a very methodical, step-by-step operation," said Air Force Maj. Tim Welde, an F-15E weapons system officer with the 336th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. "The Taliban would love nothing more than to show footage of women and children hurt or killed in an air strike. Regardless of their tactics, we only employ the level of force we need to meet the ground commander's intent while avoiding civilian casualties."
Through the careful use of precision munitions and intimidating "shows of force" (low-level passes that demonstrate an aircraft's power without the use of weapons), fighter crews were able to foil the Taliban's attempts to create an "information" victory through civilian casualties, where they could not win one through force of arms, officials said.
"I did a few shows of force, and they seemed to have a real impact on the enemy's decision-making as to whether they would continue to fight with our ground forces or throw up their hands," said Maj. Shawn Holtz, an A-10 pilot with the 172nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.
Precision wasn't just a concern for fighter aircraft. C-130 Hercules transport aircraft kept ground forces supplied, safely dropping about 180,000 pounds of food and other supplies over the course of the operation, often near congested areas.
"Fundamentally, it came down to our people, their experience and their attitude," said Maj. John Owens, who operated the precision airdrop systems used by the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron's C-130s during several missions in support of the operation. "Day or night, they were motivated to get the job done right."
The surge in airpower to support the Afghan forces' advances was made possible by a corresponding surge among the aircraft maintainers. "We knew we would be supporting a major operation, so we pre-positioned ourselves to ensure we had the resources and manning ready," said Capt. Rodney Stevens, officer in charge of the 336th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Unit. Stevens said the results "speak for themselves," with not a single missed F-15E sortie, despite a significant increase in flying hours.
That kind of success is a direct result of the attitude of the airmen launching the fighters, said Capt. Kevin Toll, who led maintenance operations for the A-10s during the operation. "It made people move faster and with a tremendous sense of purpose," Toll said. "Their morale was high at being part of something like this."
(Air Force Capt. Michael Meridith is assigned to 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs.)