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Farah Hit Shows Need for COIN Plane

by Ward Carroll on June 29, 2009

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I know it’s been out for a while, but I thought I’d give the recently released investigation report on the air strikes in Farah province Afghanistan a chop and post the entire report here.

You might remember this was the latest high-profile close air support strike on a village that allegedly killed as many as 140 civilians — but probably killed more like 60 (still a WAY too high number) during a day-long battle in Farah province in May.

I’m not going to get into the whole idea of using CAS in villages against an enemy that may (or may not) be deliberately hiding amongst civilians, the perception versus reality arguments and any doctrinal issues. We can cover that at DoD Buzz and Military​.com, but I have a purely defense tech-related issue I’d like to bring forward for you to consider as an outgrowth of the investigation’s findings.

The report states that there were essentially two rounds of air strikes called in by a Marine Corps Special Operations team which was acting as a QRF for Afghan forces and their “coalition” trainers (it doesn’t say where these trainers were from but they could have been other Marines or Brits) who came into contact with enemy forces around 3pm on May 4 during a patrol intended to secure a small village rumored to have been hassled by foreign Taliban.

The MarSoc bubbas took control of the CAS when they arrived on scene and talked in an escalation of force strike with four F/A-18Fs which popped flares, did a couple gun runs and eventually dropped some bombs on confirmed Taliban positions that the MarSoc commander observed and confirmed for each strike.

While the direct fire stopped for a while, the enemy was never completely suppressed. But the Hornets were running out of juice, so they had to RTB. In came our Soviet nuclear strike bomber to save the day.

Four hours later, as the Marines and Afghan forces were waiting for a medivac chopper and coming under intermittent fire from a nearby village, a B-1B Lancer called in on station. It dark by then and the B-1 spotted a group of military looking men walking toward the village to reinforce the enemy firing on the Marines and ANA. Of course, this was almost a mile away from the ground force commander, so he had to trust the B-1’s thermals and used “a variety of real-time intelligence resources” which probably means he was listening to a radio scanner and having the jibberish translated to confirm that the group was coming in for the kill.
Farah Province Investigation

Of course they hid in two buildings.

Boom! Three 500 pounders on air burst fuses destroy a mosque and a shrine. No one in the air or on the ground has any idea who’s taking shelter in the mosque and shrine aside from the Talibs.

Then the B-1 sees another group like the first one, tracks it for 20 minutes on the thermals moving toward the Marines’ front line and rallying near another building outside the village. Threat=strike. Boom: two 500 pounders and two 2,000 pounders (which must have looked like a nuclear strike).

More than two hours after the B-1 came on station, and spotting a third group of tactically-moving personnel take shelter and another building, the Lancer drops its last 2,000 pounder, destroying the building and killing everyone inside.

Again, we can debate the policy and tactics of CAS and target ID in another forum, but what this incident tells me is that we absolutely need a counterinsurgency aircraft. The F-18s could ID the targets themselves and get low enough to do strafing runs, etc. But they couldn’t stay very long and had to relinquish control to a strategic bomber sheep-dipped as a tactical support aircraft.

An A-10, or some other COIN aircraft would have done a much better job eliminating the enemy with graduated force and IDing the targets — and staying on station. They can be cheap, easy to field at FOBs and convenient to maintain (especially prop-driven planes). And I got no problem with the armaments either. Give me some Hellfires and a couple chain guns, and I’ll put your Talibs on the ground.

I hope that this incident arms those in the Air Force and Army to advocate for a “back to the future” focus on simpler, long-endurance, stick and rudder with a pair of binos CAS that is critical to keeping the population on our side in a conflict with an economy of force that demands a the careful use of precision airpower.

– Christian

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