As Afghans take over security duties, U.S. officers worry that without vital air operations, gains will quickly fade away.
n F/A-18F flew over Kandahar Province in January. F/A-18 strike fighters are among the world’s most advanced military aircraft, with a price of about $100 million each and operating costs estimated at $18,000 to $20,000 per flight hour.
Death stopped Abdul Qayum, a Taliban commander in Afghanistan's Zabul Province, in a fiery flash.
Last October, as Qayum was meeting several Afghans in a field, a Navy F/A-18 strike fighter was circling high overhead more than 5 miles away, summoned by a U.S. special operations team. Its engines were out of earshot, the pilot said, "so we didn't burn the target."
Qayum led a platoon-size Taliban group and was plotting to bomb an Afghan government office, a U.S. intelligence officer said. Under Western rules guiding the use of deadly force, the pilot was barred from trying to kill him while he stood in a group of unidentified men. Then came a chance.
The meeting ended, and Qayum rode away on a motorcycle with a driver, giving the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Brian Kesselring, the go-ahead to release an AGM-65E laser-guided missile, intelligence officials said. The missile hit the pair head-on, exploding with such energy that only fragments of Qayum's remains were found.
The killing of Qayum and his driver, confirmed by the Taliban and reviewed by the Times as part of an examination of operations in Afghanistan by 44 F/A-18s from the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, was a demonstration of the extraordinary technical and tactical abilities of U.S. air power. For both better and worse, that power has become a defining facet of the Afghan conflict and the U.S. way of waging war.
Weary of the costs of a long war, Western forces have already begun withdrawing and handing greater security responsibility to Afghan forces. One worry, several officers said, is that these air operations have become essential, necessary for ground units that are operating in contested areas of Afghanistan and hoping to maintain influence, or even survive. And the Afghan government has nothing to match the role they play.
Drawing from the experiences of more than a decade of fighting, air crews work in coordination with ground controllers more fully, and usually more precisely, than ever before.
These missions, distinct from the CIA-run drone program, have allowed a relatively small Western combat force, with just tens of thousands of troops actually patrolling each day, to wage war across a nation of 30 million people. Their sorties from the Stennis, often lasting eight hours round-trip, almost always passed without violence.
Part of this was the nature of an experienced foe. The Taliban have spent years learning to mask their movements and intentions from aircraft. Another part was the nature of the rules. Even when Taliban fighters were visible, Western military restrictions devised to prevent harm to civilians and minimize damage to infrastructure sometimes limited a pilot's options. Just last month, commanders again tightened the rules for use of air power in civilian areas, after Afghans said a NATO airstrike killed 18 civilians in an eastern village.
For the pilots, who live far from the infantry soldier's daily physical grind and away from the dread of hidden improvised bombs, these strikes and strafing runs hit a personally satisfying chord. They know they are protecting fellow service members and punishing those trying to kill them.
Kesselring said as much after killing the men on the motorbike. That flight was a welcome contrast to the bad days on the job, he said, because often "you arrive to a smoking hole and guys calling for a medevac, and you feel pretty helpless."
A few weeks later, a pair of F/A-18s was flying at night over the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. One of the planes was watching over a five-vehicle U.S. convoy as it passed through a canyon and suddenly began taking fire -- Taliban guerrillas shooting down from ridges in a classic ambush.
The drivers tried to return to their outpost but were ambushed again. They called to say they could not see all the places the gunfire was coming from.
F/A-18s shifted the dynamic.
"We had a pretty good God's-eye view and could see where the fire was coming from," said Lt. Kyle Terwilliger, a weapon system officer flying back seat in one of the jets.
The aircraft shined an infrared marker onto the ridge where the officers saw firing. A ground controller with the convoy, using night-vision goggles, saw the beam and confirmed that it pointed to one of the Taliban's firing positions.
Its target identified and determined to be away from a populated area, the aircraft was cleared by the ground unit to drop a GBU-12, a 500-pound laser-guided bomb. The strike would not be simple.
There was a low cloud cover, and the ridge was almost against the border; the pilots had to be sure that neither the ordnance nor their aircraft entered Pakistan. "We had to circle around to the south and fly back north, parallel to the border so we didn't go in," said Cmdr. Vorrice Burks, the lead pilot, who is also VFA-41 squadron commander.
The bomb hit, and the Taliban firing stopped, he said. The convoy drove on.
In its way, this strike was a model of what air power can do. It was timely, precise and effective, and it integrated communications, logistics, tactics and firepower, freeing U.S. troops from danger in a canyon halfway around the world.
It was also so complex -- with the assistance of an aerial tanker from the Air Force that allowed Navy aircraft to loiter above a battlefield, the use of an infrared marker for a trained controller with night-vision equipment to confirm a target, the release of a laser-guided bomb near a friendly convoy and an off-limits international border -- that almost nothing about it was replicable by Afghan forces.
Asked how Afghan soldiers or police officers might manage a similar tactical problem, Burks gave a knowing frown.
"It's the Wild, Wild West, and the Afghans don't have these assets to put in the air," he said. "I don't know, but they're not going to do this."