Air activity in Afghanistan

Air Force steps up bombing to support NATO combat troops

November 17, 2006|By New York Times News Service

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The Air Force has conducted more than 2,000 airstrikes in Afghanistan over the past six months, a sharp increase in bombing that reflects the growing demand for U.S. air cover since NATO has assumed a larger ground combat role, Air Force officials said.

The intensifying air campaign has focused on southern Afghanistan, where NATO units, primarily from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, as well as U.S. Special Forces have been engaging in the heaviest and most frequent ground combat with Taliban rebels since the invasion five years ago.

The NATO forces are mostly operating without heavy armor or artillery support, and as Taliban resistance has continued, more air support has been used to compensate for the lightness of the units, Air Force officials said.

Most of the strikes have come during "close air support" missions, where the bombers patrol the area and respond to calls from ground units in combat rather than performing planned strikes.

On a recent 11-hour mission that included a reporter for The New York Times, a B-1 bomber patrolled at 20,000 feet, responding to radio calls from U.S. and Canadian troops who asked the plane to use its radar to watch for insurgent forces and to be prepared to drop bombs.

On a separate mission last week, a bomber dropped its entire payload of eight 2,000-pound bombs and six 500-pound bombs after ground units called for help, Air Force officials said.

One B-1 pilot, Lt. Col. Tim Schepper, said that when troops called for airstrikes, "There are times when you can hear the gunfire and RPGs over the radio in the background, and that's when you know you have helped keep them alive."

An RPG is a rocket-propelled grenade.

To carry out the increased mission load, the Air Force's entire complement of B-1 bombers was shifted over the summer from the British air base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to a Middle Eastern airfield closer to Afghanistan.

The new base arrangement shortens the flying time to Afghanistan by two hours, allowing bombers to remain overhead longer between refueling by aerial tankers.

Air Force officials said they were prohibited from disclosing the base's location because of sensitivities by the host country about the extent of its cooperation with the U.S. military.

Lt. Gen. David Richards, the British commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has promised to bring stability and win support among Afghan civilians by focusing primarily on economic development and avoiding combat. But the resurgence of the Taliban has made that difficult.

NATO forces have established numerous small bases and sent out extended patrols in small formations and with little or no heavy armor and artillery. And NATO has also lacked a reserve force that can be shifted quickly to hot spots, though Poland has promised to send more troops to fulfill that role.

The 2,095 attacks by U.S. aircraft since June is many times greater than the number of airstrikes in Iraq, where the terrain and nature of the conflict are less susceptible to bombing campaigns. There have been only 88 attacks by U.S. aircraft in Iraq since June, according to Air Force figures.

Unlike in Afghanistan, insurgents in Iraq are largely in urban areas and do not often mass in groups large enough to warrant use of airstrikes, Air Force commanders said.

The increase in total munitions dropped has also been substantial.

This year in Afghanistan, U.S. aircraft have dropped 987 bombs and fired more than 146,000 cannon rounds and bullets in strafing runs, more than was expended in both categories from the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 through 2004, the Air Force said. During those years, a total of 848 bombs and just more than 119,000 munition rounds were used by aircraft, according to Air Force figures.

The surge in recent airstrikes coincided with NATO moving into the south over the summer, a period when Taliban attacks also increased.

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