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Could the COIN Plane Have Saved Lives?

by jnoonan on September 14, 2009

COIN-air-force.jpg

Sorry for the delay in posting, folks. Was on a much-needed vacation with the family that recharged my batteries and prepared me for what is certain to be a very newsy fall.

One thing I wanted to make a note of with our readers is a story that ran last week on Military​.com from a well-respected journalist whom I’ve known for years, Jonathan Landay. He writes for McClatchy news and was involved in a sudden ambush and firefight that resulted in the loss of two senior enlisted Marines, a young Marine officer and a Navy Corpsman — all on an advisor team for Afghan forces.

Jonathan’s takeaway from the ambush and the hours-long firefight that ensued was that the Marines were begging for some kind of fire support to help get them out of the pinch in Kunar. Because of the new restrictions placed upon forces there to avoid civilian casualties — or the perception of civilian casualties — fire and air support for the Marines (and their Afghan troops) was delayed for hours. Anyone reading this who’s been in combat knows how long an hour is when the bullets are flying — most of the fights I’ve been in have lasted minutes, and that was plenty.

…The U.S. troops had to wait more than an hour for attack helicopters to come to their aid and their appeal for artillery fire was rejected, with commanders citing new rules designed to avoid civilian casualties, the report said…

When an Afghan soldier demanded helicopter gunships, U.S. Major Kevin Williams replied through an interpreter: “We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We’ve lost today.”

The Americans were assisting Afghan forces in an operation that called for Afghans searching the hamlet for weapons and then meeting village elders to plan police patrols.

But U.S. officers suspected insurgents were tipped off about the operation beforehand, as the coalition and Afghan forces were ambushed as they approached the outskirts of the hamlet at dawn, the report said.

Aside from the policy aspect of the screwup, there’s something that might be worth considering here that could have made the crucial difference. We’ve been covering the larger issue of COIN air power and the micro issue of a COIN support and recce plane. Would not have something like this made a decisive difference in the ambush?

Let’s look at the key points:

The COIN plane would have 5 hours of loiter, more than enough time to recce the area before the meeting with the elder that was the bait of the ambush. The crew could have alerted the advisors and their Afghan charge well before they entered the village of the ambush setup.

Even had they missed the emplacements, the COIN plane could have provided graduated levels of precise CAS and could have worked as a FAC-A for artillery and mortar support. Helicopters are great for this, but they were too far away and have limited loiter time. A COIN plane can be based at FOBs or even COPs with only a few hundred meters of runway and a skeleton maintenance crew.

Sure there is greater risk to the pilots and there’s plenty of logistical problems to account for. But it seems the solution to this problem is well within our grasp and the Pentagon has been much too slow to send it down range.

This loss of life is a tragic (and preventable?) shame and rest assured that Defense Tech and Military​.com will continue to investigate its circumstances and follow its conclusions.

– Christian

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