An Evolution in Air-to-Ground War.
Not quite 25 years ago, when I was a kid fresh from college and training to use a U.S.M.C-issued, two-way radio to integrate fire support into ground operations, close air support took the following form:
Aircraft (on one day I remember especially well, I think the aircraft were F-4’s) would circle at high elevation above one of several pre-determined points many miles away, and the pilots would tell us they were ready. After making a quick set of calculations and checking it all against the map, we’d drop a white-phosphorous round into an 81-mm mortar tube and fire it out toward the intended target, and tell the pilot by radio that we were marking with Willie Pete. The mortar round would arc though air, descend and hit the earth, somewhere near what we wanted the aircraft to strike.
Things from this point on would seem to happen quickly and slowly at once.
By this time the pilot would be screaming toward us on the heading we had plotted. As the white phosphorous plume rose in a tight billowy column, he’d flip over and climb, giving himself a clear view of the mark through his now inverted canopy. We’d then adjust him off that smoke, saying something like, “From mark, northwest 500 meters.” He’d acknowledge the mark and the adjustment and flip back over and bear down toward his target. We’d tell him his wings were level and clear him hot, and he’d release a string of free-falling general-purpose dumb bombs, often with Snake-Eye fins that would slightly slow the bombs’ fall. We’d watch them, these little barrels with their fins extended, each in an X, while they moved toward the earth and the aircraft pulled away. Then they’d hit. There would be a set of flashes followed by a tremendous, ground-shaking set of crunches. Black smoke and dirt and dust would rise in mini-mushroom clouds, sometimes illuminated within by orange flame.
Every strike I saw started with a miss. So then a second plane would scream in, and we’d repeat the process, absent the Willie Pete, adjusting Dash Two off Dash One’s miss.
That was close-air support, circa-1988. It was a significant step forward from the type of bombing chronicled in the photo above, in 1966 in Vietnam. But no matter how we tried to refine it, it still had all the crudity you would expect when you try to drop heavy objects ballistically from fast-moving airplanes over broken terrain, and a bunch of guys are doing it all it by radio, a mortar tube and hot plumes of smoke.
Fast-forward one generation. American air-to-ground war has utterly changed.
It’s far from perfect, though when a modern Joint Terminal Attack Controller is working with a well-trained pilot and weapon systems officer, and the comm is up, close air support in the age of guided munitions, infra-red targeting pods, Rover links and G.P.S. has become so precise and so effective that people have come to expect perfection. That very idea once seemed an impossible notion.
Soon on The New York Times, a look at close air support in the present day. It’s a form of warfare that captures many of the contradictions and drives many of the emotions surrounding modern Western war, as it has become so fine-tuned that every mistake fuels anti-foreigner anger. And yet without it many of the remote outposts and operations in Afghanistan would otherwise be in no-go zones. Everyone complains when a strike goes bad, for very good reason. And yet almost everyone who is pinned down finds the mind going to that recurring question: Where the fuck’s the air?
Herein is one of the exhausting riddles of a war in its second decade.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPH
By Henri Huet, The Associated Press. Vietnam, 1966. As a piece of art supporting the idea that air-to-ground war has changed, this photograph requires no further caption. As a piece of art enshrining the role of journalists in war, this photograph is helped (make that, solemnly elevated) by the following information. Mr. Huet, who made part of the essential record of the wars that engulfed Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, died while covering combat in 1971, when a helicopter he was traveling in was shot down. .
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