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U.S. air support troops learn to hold back

In an effort to reduce Afghan civilian casualties, U.S. air crews, when they get calls from colleagues under fire on the ground, must try to ensure they don't cause additional fatalities.

March 22, 2010|By Tony Perry

Reporting from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower — At the nightly "hot wash" debriefing on the Dwight D. Eisenhower, a pilot from the Pukin' Dogs squadron was explaining how he dropped a 500-pound bomb on a Taliban target in Afghanistan -- and why.

The pilot, a Naval Academy graduate with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, would face two such cross-examinations before he could get some sleep after his 12-hour mission.

"It's very professional but very gloves-off," said the 34-year-old lieutenant commander, who asked that he be identified only by his call-sign, Thurman.

Pilots have always undergone intense debriefings after combat missions, but the questions focus now on whether they were certain that no civilians were endangered before they dropped a bomb or launched a missile. One Super Hornet pilot aboard the Eisenhower off the Pakistani coast says the grilling is a bit like defending a master's thesis, with professors trying to poke holes in your explanations.

"They ask very pointed questions and you best have the answers," Thurman said.

It's hard to be a mud-mover -- slang for a pilot who aggressively supports ground troops -- when the bosses won't let you push the button.

Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, says mission No. 1 is to avoid civilian casualties, even if it means letting suspected Taliban fighters escape. Civilian casualties, he said, are undermining Afghan support for the U.S.-led effort coalition.

In its last deployment, the Eisenhower's warplanes dropped 66,000 pounds of bombs in Afghanistan. In this deployment it is doubtful that the Eisenhower squadrons will drop a fraction of that amount.

Targets are more limited, said Capt. Roy Kelley, an F/A-18 pilot and commander of Carrier Air Wing Seven aboard the Eisenhower. And the number of bombs per engagement has gone down.

"Where once we would use five bombs, now we will use one," Kelley said.

The McChrystal rules appear to be helping reduce the number of civilian deaths caused by NATO and allied Afghan forces. A report by the human rights division of the United Nations found that in 2009, 596 civilian deaths were caused by those forces, compared with 828 in 2008 -- in both years, airstrikes caused most of those deaths.

In 2009, the percentage of overall civilian deaths attributed to NATO and allied Afghan forces, as opposed to the Taliban, decreased from 39% to 24%.

The impact of the more restrictive use of airstrikes and ground weapons is debatable. Though officers believe it is helping win the confidence of the Afghan people, some ground troops believe the rules put them at greater risk.

"The bad guys know our hands are tied: They hide behind women and children, or where we think women and children might be, and they know we can't shoot back or call an airstrike," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Brooks. "It means we have to sit there and get shot at and not return fire. It's very frustrating."

It can be difficult for a pilot to exercise restraint when soldiers or Marines are in a firefight and calling for air support, said F/A-18C pilot Lt. Nicole Johnson, a member of the Rampagers squadron.

"It's an adrenaline blood-rush when you can hear, in the background, that our guys are getting shot at and they're calling for air support," said Johnson, 30, whose call-sign is Bad Dog. "But you've got to be careful."

In preparation for the Norfolk, Va.-based carrier's return in January, pilots were briefed extensively on the new rules under McChrystal, who took over in June, as the Eisenhower was ending a deployment.

"We had a heart-to-heart discussion with our people," Kelley said. "They needed to know what our objectives are -- that we're here to protect [the Afghan] people, and that means limiting civilian deaths."

Kelley is notified immediately by military air traffic controllers based in Qatar when one of his pilots has launched a weapon. Word sweeps through the air squadrons: "We dropped." The Eisenhower pilots conduct 25% to 30% of the air missions over Afghanistan; the rest are done by land-based U.S. and coalition warplanes.

Each day the warplanes circle over Afghanistan, waiting for a call from troops for an airstrike. On the ground, infantry commanders, sometimes with lawyers at their elbow, go through a checklist to make sure their request fits the rules of engagement.

The final decision, though, rests with the pilots. The new rules had an immediate impact on them.

"This year we are a lot more careful," Johnson said. "There are a lot more rules and regulations on what we can and can't do, and we need to make sure there are check marks in all the boxes."

At the hot wash, Thurman, who flies an F/A-18E Super Hornet, explained that he had received a call from British troops under attack in the Kajaki area of Helmand province. In his excitement, the forward air controller's British accent became hard to understand.

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