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US employs broad array of equipment: recent military operations in Afghanistan have served to highlight the amazingly broad array of weapon systems and support equipment used by US special operations and conventional military forces.

Speaking before the US Senate Armed Services Committee on 9 April 2002, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz emphasised the broad nature of that array by noting, "In Afghanistan today, brave special forces on the ground have taken 19th century horse cavalry, combined it with the 50-year-old B-52 bomber and, using modern satellite communications, have produced a truly 21st century capability".

The representative scenario cited by the Deputy Secretary is summarised by an operational vignette provided by the US Air Force. Focusing on a notional B-52 Close Air Support (CAS) mission in the November 2001 timeframe, the unclassified scenario illustrates interaction between special operations forces on the ground, the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) and an airborne B-52 bomber.

During the notional operation, a Northern Alliance commander, accompanied by US special operations forces, needed to cross through a valley occupied by a large Taliban garrison and troop concentration.

According to the vignette description, "special operations forces used satellite communications to radio a request for an air strike to the CAOC. The latter received the request and directed an on-station B-52 to contact the Special Forces operator on the ground for target co-ordinates. The Special Forces team used the Viper, a small, portable system comprised of a laser rangefinder, digital map display and GPS receiver, to derive target coordinates of the Taliban garrison. The Special Forces radio operator radioed these co-ordinates by voice to the B-52 crew. Less than 20 minutes after the Special Forces operator was contacted, the B-52 crew passed over the target area and dropped a series of munitions on the Taliban garrison and troop concentration. The air strike resulted in heavy Taliban casualties, the destruction of numerous fighting positions and artillery pieces and significant damage to a command bunker".


Another example describes the interaction between a US special operations AC-130 gunship and the General Atomics (GA-ASI) Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Combined with the Global Hawk, the Predator has helped to establish the credentials and modern combat contributions of UAVs in the skies over Afghanistan.

The notional US Air Force scenario depicts general operations around an al-Qaeda cave complex in the Khowst Province of Afghanistan during January of this year, beginning with data collection processes that revealed the presence of an al-Qaeda cave complex. The high-priority target was selected for attack by a combination of a Predator UAV and an AC-130 gunship.

UAV or C-130 Signature?

According to the US Air Force vignette authors, "Traditionally, an AC-130 coming into a target area had to spend an extended period of time acquiring targets and positioning itself to fire prior to actually engaging. Its high audible and radar/IR signature left it vulnerable to air defences during this time. Additionally, its presence alerted enemy forces in the area, allowing them to take cover or disperse. The ability of the Predator to provide a direct video feed to the AC130 changes this. During the cave complex strikes, the Predator's low visible and audible signatures allowed it to loiter unnoticed over the target area, sending its data directly to the AC-130. The AC-130 in turn was able to orbit well away from the target area, developing and keeping situational awareness through the monitoring of the Predator video. When targets were identified, the AC-130 was able to come into the area in position and ready to engage, minimising warning time. The provision of sensor data directly to the shooter compresses the kill chain and ensures maximum effectiveness."

Jstars & UAV Combo

In yet another example, US Air Force planners postulated on the possible contributions of a Joint Surveillance Target and Attack Reconnaissance System (Jstars) aircraft in the location and attack of Taliban / al-Qaeda leadership during November 2001. Cued by a combination of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets and Predator UAV data, a Jstars was tasked to monitor and report on convoy activity in a specific area.

According to the scenario authors, "Using Jstars-provided information, the Predator began surveillance of vehicles in a convoy. Reconnaissance of the likely meeting area also revealed a small mosque, which was designated by the Combined Air Operations Centre as a no-strike target. CAOC decision-makers tasked an AC-130 `Spectre' gunship to the target. Acting as a surveillance platform, the Predator was able to maintain positive track of the targets over a matter of hours while the AC-130 came on station. Switching to an airborne C2 role, the Predator cued the AC-130 to targets at the meeting place--engaging trucks, buildings and personnel while leaving the mosque untouched."

The Spectre of C-130

The preceding scenarios highlight the unique combat contributions of the AC-130 series of special operations gunship.

US Air Force Special Operations Command's (Afsoc) 16th Special Operations Wing (Sow) currently flies two different models of the AC-130; the `H' model `Spectre' and the `U' model `Spooky.' Afsoc inventories include 8 AC-130H and 13 AC-130U aircraft (The arrival of the U models in Air Force inventories beginning in the mid 1990s allowed the retirement of 10 `first generation' AC-130 gunship platforms designated AC-130A).

Designed for close air support, air interdiction and force protection roles, the AC-130 gunships have a top speed of 300 mph (at sea level) and a range of 1300 nautical miles (increased to unlimited with aerial refuelling). Both the H (deployment date 1972) and the U models (first deployment 1995) are equipped with a 40 mm automatic cannon (M2A1) and a 105 mm howitzer (M137A1) protruding from the left side of the aircraft. In addition, the newer `U' model `Spooky' also carries a 25 mm multi-barrel Gatling gun located forward on the left side of the aircraft. Employment of the AC-130's direct fire weapon suite is accomplished by placing the aircraft in a banking pattern over the target area.

Along with the direct fire capabilities of the AC-130 series special operations gunships noted above, the US Air Force has employed a range of bombs in Afghanistan.


The Joint Direct Attack Munition (Jdam), for example, is a guidance tail kit that converts existing unguided freefall bombs into accurate, adverse weather `smart' munitions. The new tail kit section contains an inertial navigational system and a global positioning system guidance control unit, improving the accuracy of unguided, general-purpose bombs in any weather condition.

The joint service (US Air Force and Department of the Navy) Jdam programme uses either the 900-kg BLU-109/Mk 84 or the 450-kg BLU-110/Mk 83 warheads as the payload. First delivered in 1997, the growth of the Jdam family of weapons has been expanded to the Mk 82 225-kg version, which entered development in late 1999. In addition, the Navy has been studying the effects of adding enhancements such as improved GPS accuracy, a precision seeker for terminal guidance and additional warheads. Initial Jdam combat employment occurred during Operation Allied Force when US Air Force B-2 bombers flying 30-hour, nonstop, roundtrip flights from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, delivered more than 600 Jdams.

According to service descriptions, "Once released from the aircraft, the Jdam autonomously navigates to the designated target co-ordinates, which can be loaded into the aircraft before takeoff, manually altered by the aircrew before weapon release or automatically entered through target designation with onboard aircraft sensors. In its most accurate mode, the Jdam system will provide a weapon circular error probable of 13 meters or less during free flight when GPS data is available. If GPS data is denied, the Jdam will achieve a 30-meter CEP or less for free flight times up to 100 seconds with a GPS quality handoff from the aircraft".

Heating Up the Air

Jdams are just one of the weapons employed during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. US Air Force representatives have recently found themselves in the position of defending that service's use of the BLU-118/B "`thermobaric'" bomb against al-Qaeda fighters in a cave near Gardez. Afghanistan. during operations on 5 March 2002. While correcting mistaken criticism regarding the weapon's design and detonation process, programme participants noted that the weapons enhanced internal blast effectiveness was achieved through a "single-stage detonation" with a higher percentage of fuel (versus oxidizer) than many other bomb designs. Utilizing available oxygen from the target area to add to the reaction, the system reportedly achieves higher overpressures and more significant blast effects in confined areas, including caves.

In addition to the Air Force conventional bomber and special operations ordnance delivery platforms cited above, a variety of Navy and Marine Corps and Army aircraft have also participated in the actions in and around Afghanistan.

Wings, Whirly and Fixed

Examples of participating US Navy and Marine Corps air platforms have included Navy F/A-18 Hornets as well as the complete Marine Corps spectrum of AV-8B Harriers, KC-130 Hercules and AH-1W Super Cobra and CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters.

Moreover, US Army operations in Afghanistan have been characterised by the use of both transport and attack helicopters to deliver assault troops and equipment over the operational terrain.

The Boeing CH-47 Chinook, for example, seems to be a rather ubiquitous presence during both special operations and conventional US Army operations in Afghanistan. Aviation observers note that one likely result of the additional hours and demands put on these aerial workhorses could be increased emphasis on the US Army's current CH-47F Improved Cargo Helicopter (ICH) activities.

Likewise, the arrival of US Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters on 25 January highlighted the critical contribution of these platforms in direct support of ground operations.

Small is Beautiful Too

Although most actions to date have featured a significant air component, US operations in Afghanistan have also seen the introduction or presence of a range of smaller combat systems and developmental hardware.

One example involved the US Marine Corps' Afghan field evaluation of their new Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR) M-14.

The DMR is an M-14 7.62 mm rifle that has been extensively modified by Marine Corps armourers. Features include a new Kreiger match grade barrel made to Marine Corps specifications with five grooves and a one-in-12 [inch] barrel twist. The barrel allows removal of the standard M14 flash suppressor and installation of a muzzle brake that can be equipped with an OPS sound suppressor. The DMR also incorporates a McMillan A2 stock with adjustable face piece and features that allow ambidextrous shooting. Spacers in the stock allow weapon adjustment to be set for a specific shooter's length of pull. Additional enhancements include a GG&G modular rail, allowing to mount a Leupold 10 power Mk 3 fixed scope and removable flip-down bipod.

Designed for use by members of the Marine Security Force Battalions, the DMRs were used in field evaluations by snipers with the United States Marine Corps' 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) during their initial deployment to Kandahar.

As with the combination of technologies from different decades noted by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the DMR M-14 provides a single-system, small-scale representative example of combining existing technologies to achieve a 21st Century capability. Along with the other systems cited above, it serves as an example of the type of systems being employed by US forces in Afghanistan.
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Author:Gourley, Scott R.
Publication:Armada International
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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