New approach to airstrikes


The New York Times

ABOARD USS RONALD REAGAN, in the Gulf of Oman — After taking repeated fire from Taliban fighters holed up in a building last week, a group of Marines in southern Afghanistan called in airstrikes to wipe out the threat.

But the Navy F/A-18 fighter pilots who responded were concerned that bombing the militants could hurt civilians, and suggested a different solution to the ground troops. The aviators then roared in low and fast, without firing a shot, in a deafening flyover that silenced the militants.

"It used to be, where do you want the bomb?" said Capt. Thomas Lalor, commander of the air wing on this aircraft carrier, which provides about one-third of the combat air-support flights for U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan. "Now, it's much more collaborative."

The adjustment reflects orders last month by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, that sharply limit the use of airstrikes to try to reduce the civilian deaths that he and other top officers said were eroding support for the U.S.-led mission.

McChrystal said the use of airstrikes during firefights would in most cases be limited to when U.S. and other allied troops were in danger of being overrun.

Pilots in the four F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet squadrons aboard say the new orders spur them to coordinate even more closely than before with spotters on the ground.

"It's the right thing to do," said Cmdr. Rich Brophy, the commander of one of the squadrons, VFA-115, based in Lemoore, Calif. "We certainly don't want to cause civilian casualties."

On Saturday, Brophy, 42, who has also flown combat missions in Kosovo and Iraq, said he responded to reports of Taliban fighters shooting at Marines in Helmand province by strafing a line of trees where the militants were firing with his warplane's 20 mm guns. The hostile fire stopped, he said.

"It makes our judgments more important," said Cmdr. Art delaCruz, 41, the commander of another squadron, VFA-22, of the new caution. "There's a saying that the most important bomb is the one you bring back."

The Hornet squadrons are fighting the Taliban in other ways. Pilots use infrared thermal sensors to detect disturbed earth alongside the roads, a telltale sign that militants have buried powerful roadside bombs, their deadliest weapons.

On Monday, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the carrier on a six-day tour of the region. As Mullen spoke to hundreds of crew members in the ship's cavernous hangar, a steady battle rhythm played out up top.

One by one, F/A-18s streaked off the flight deck, hurled into the hot, hazy sky by a giant catapult below decks. The warplanes soared north to Afghanistan, a mission the commanders here said could last between two and 10 hours (with aerial refueling).

While the ship is conducting the same number of flights as it did here last year, Lalor, the air wing commander, said the number of requests from ground troops has risen by about one-quarter.

"We're definitely seeing an increase in business this year," he said.