Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A report from AF Special Ops in A’stan

By Matthew Irvine Best Defense deputy bureau chief, Special Operations affairs Following General McChrystal’s revised close air support rules in 2009, units such as Lt. Col. Brenda Cartier’s 4th Special Operations Squadron have become a preferred mode of air support in the theater. Cartier led the squadron in Afghanistan this year and just returned from ...

U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force

By Matthew Irvine
Best Defense deputy bureau chief, Special Operations affairs

Following General McChrystal's revised close air support rules in 2009, units such as Lt. Col. Brenda Cartier's 4th Special Operations Squadron have become a preferred mode of air support in the theater. Cartier led the squadron in Afghanistan this year and just returned from the combat deployment.

Colonel Cartier's squadron, consisting of AC-130 gunships, MC-130 Talons, attack helicopters, and Special Tactics Squadron air controllers, provided a combination of precision strikes and situational awareness to the personnel on the ground not otherwise available from high speed, high intensity platforms like the F-16 or B-1. According to Cartier, in Afghanistan, "I'm allocating assets to a counter-terrorism and a counterinsurgency commander... . I have a small supply of air power and a lot of mouths to feed."

By Matthew Irvine
Best Defense deputy bureau chief, Special Operations affairs

Following General McChrystal’s revised close air support rules in 2009, units such as Lt. Col. Brenda Cartier’s 4th Special Operations Squadron have become a preferred mode of air support in the theater. Cartier led the squadron in Afghanistan this year and just returned from the combat deployment.

Colonel Cartier’s squadron, consisting of AC-130 gunships, MC-130 Talons, attack helicopters, and Special Tactics Squadron air controllers, provided a combination of precision strikes and situational awareness to the personnel on the ground not otherwise available from high speed, high intensity platforms like the F-16 or B-1. According to Cartier, in Afghanistan, "I’m allocating assets to a counter-terrorism and a counterinsurgency commander… . I have a small supply of air power and a lot of mouths to feed."

In order to adapt to McChrystal’s regulations and the counterinsurgency operating environment, Cartier says "we throttled back on the direct action piece. How do you do that with a gunship? The answer is, literally, very carefully."

Good relationships between air and ground commanders are key to AFSOC’s effectiveness in Afghanistan. Conducting joint training exercises and working with deployed units over long periods of time allow the parties to be mutually supportive. The 4th Squadron’s Ghostriders equipment is suited to remain within the battle space for extended periods of time.

Like drones, the AC-130s and MC-130s can remain above the battlefield for hours, circling at relatively low speeds. With sophisticated sensors and communications equipment, the air fleet can help maintain a complete bird’s-eye view of the operating environment. The extended presence allows the air and ground force to synchronize their operations. With AFSOC contributing, says Cartier, we need to get away from the fight over whether "it’s an air campaign, a sea campaign, or ground campaign — it’s an Afghan campaign."

The Air Force’s Special Operations capability is often overlooked when not actively engaged and has faced a history of cuts during peacetime. AFSOC and Colonel Cartier’s combat experience since 2001 demonstrates the utility and value of these forces and should remind us that the best air power is more than just the fastest fighters and bombers.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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