Once the coordinates were received, the two A-10s immediately pointed at the location, pressing toward it as fast as they could. Oiler’s jet was a bit of a pig, so he was trailing his wingman by a distance of almost eight miles. The throttles were at the stops, demanding as many knots as the airplane would give him.
“Two, call our tanker back and get them rollin’ this way. We’re going to need them when this gets real.”
The pilot reached to his lap, grabbed the NVGs and popped them into place in front of his eyes, switching them on. He was really concerned.
From what the command and control element had passed, the situation on the ground was dire: American troops in four different locations inside a small town, their positions not clearly marked, and under a coordinated Taliban attack. They were under fire from three different directions, already taking casualties. Comms with the ground position thus far had been lousy, the jets were low on gas, and the bad guys were closing in–a recipe for disaster.
Within moments, the two A-10s were back in a tactical formation, screaming in toward the target area at tree-top level. Each aircraft was loaded for bear: a targeting pod, AGM-65 Maverick missile, a pair of Mk 82 “dumb” bombs, and two GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, plus all the rounds they could carry for the monstrous GAU-8/A “Avenger” thirty-millimeter gun in the nose. Each of the seven barrels in the cannon was nine feet in length, delivering the ammunition at a rate of four thousand rounds per minute.
The first pass over the target area would be a show of force; it would give the two pilots an opportunity to get their eyes on where the enemy fire was coming from, as well as give the bad guys the opportunity to scatter. More often than not, at the first sound of an A-10’s high-bypass turbofan engines, the enemy would head for the hills — literally. They didn’t want any part of the Warthog. It would inevitably mean their death.
The Green Flag mission begins long before tactical training operations occur on the simulated battlefield. The 549th CTS planners design the exercises with Army planners six months before forces arrive to begin their maneuvers. Air Combat Command determines which and how many flying units will participate, then the planners at Nellis and Fort Irwin work with those commands to build up an integrated plan to maximize joint and individualized unit training objectives.
“It’s a tremendously difficult exercise,” said Sergeant First Class Randall Smith, an Army Ground Liaison Officer seconded to Green Flag. “Those guys train for two weeks straight, and though that may not seem like a long time, you have to remember that it’s a twenty-four-hour battlefield. That means continuous operations, casualties — to include Hollywood blood and effects, explosions, even real livestock. It’s really intense, really robust.”
For this particular session of Green Flag, unprecedented access was offered by the participating units, allowing FighterSweep to get a feel for how airpower is being employed in the CENTCOM theater of operations. Participating units were the 55th Fighter Squadron in their F-16s from Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, and the 75th Fighter Squadron in their A-10s from Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. On the ground was the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington. All told, 250 Air Force personnel were supporting nearly six thousand Army troops. No small feat.
“[Green Flag] really brings in the whole joint team,” said Lieutenant Colonel Mike “Torch” Schnabel, commander of the 55th at the time. “It adds a whole other dimension when you’re talking about putting all those soldiers on the ground, actually out there trying to accomplish their mission in an area where they can maneuver. That’s what Green Flag has. We’re also dropping live ordnance, so that adds yet another element — that pressure — that brings us closer to combat.”
At the end of the day, the success or failure of this type of training in measured in lives—both those saved and lost. The relationship between the pilots and JTACs is the wildcard, and the better that relationship is, the more likely that the bulk of the outcomes will be positive.
“We help the Air Force decipher our language, since their terminology is different than ours,” SFC Smith explained. “So we bring that capability in order to help the pilots understand what the JTACs are saying.”
A great example of how symbiotic the relationship between pilot and JTAC is happened on training day four, where the JTACs saw a surface-to-air missile launch and called out a warning over the radio. The pilots in their F-16s actually did not see it because they had just turned away from the target area, and they ended up releasing a volley of flares as countermeasures to defeat the infrared missile. The JTAC at that point was responsible for saving the lives of aircrews, too. It truly goes both ways.
From the pilot’s perspective, Schnabel illustrated it like this: “When there are friendlies dying on the ground, there’s pressure. It builds as you’re there — you know people are getting shot at and are actually being wounded or killed. My airplane will carry 2,000-pound bombs, and that makes an impact, no matter where it lands. And when you know there are friendlies down there, you take it extremely seriously, and so does the JTAC. He knows that not only is his life on the line, but also the lives of his friends and Army brethren there on the ground.”
In the next installment, FighterSweep continues to illustrate the importance of good integration between air and land assets, and what a real-world CAS mission looks like when all the pieces come together. We’ll be right back!