Warplanes: Bombers Replace Artillery in Afghanistan


November22, 2006: While artillery has replaced air power as the primary source of fire support in Iraq, U.S. troops in Afghanistan are still using lots of smart bombs. As was discovered in late 2001, it's much easier to bring in bombers, armed with smart bombs, than to deploy artillery in Afghanistan. The high casualty count for the Taliban during their "Summer Offensive" was the result of some 2,000 air attacks between June and October. Not all of these attacks were with bombs (only about 45 percent were), the rest involved aircraft like A-10s and F-16s coming low and using cannon (30mm and 20mm respectively.) New fire control equipment has made these strafing runs much more accurate. Still, each cannon attack involved, on average, only about a hundred rounds fired.

The tactics in Afghanistan are still very similar to those used in 2001. Small groups of troops move around in vehicles (usually hummers) and, with the aid of UAVs and Afghan scouts, find the large groups (up to several hundred) of Taliban. Once discovered, the Taliban either gather in a village or cave complex to fight it out, and get smart bombed, or scatter, and get chased down. Even small groups (less than a dozen men) often got hit with air strikes. These included attacks by AC-130 and helicopter gunships. While the 500 pound smart bomb is preferred in Iraq, Afghanistan still sees 2,000 and 1,000 pound smart bombs used.

Bombers also make much use of their new targeting pods, which enable pilots 20,000 feet up, to make out individuals on the ground, and whether or not they are carrying weapons. Troops on the ground often rely on this sort of air reconnaissance, from the same aircraft that will either drop smart bombs or come low for a strafing run. Unfortunately, the B-1 and B-52 bombers do not have this high altitude recon ability, but do carry most of the smart bombs dropped. The fighting in Afghanistan this year has led to the use of more air delivered munitions (987 bombs and 146,000 cannon shells), than in all the time since U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in late 2001 (848 bombs and 118,000 shells). The heavy bombers spend most of their time just circling high in the spy, waiting for someone to call for a smart bomb. To enable the bombers to stay up there longer, they are now based in the Persian Gulf (Qatar), which is closer to Afghanistan than Diego Garcia island (in the Indian Ocean.)

In Iraq, the preferred fire support weapon now is the 227mm MLRS GPS guided rocket. With a range of 70 kilometers, and a 200 pound explosive warhead, a few GMLRS (G for "Guided") vehicles (each carrying eight rockets), can cover a huge area with very accurate fire. The air force and navy still provide reconnaissance, and cannon fire support, but not as many bombs. The troops have missiles (TOWs, usually) fired from the ground, or from helicopter gunships. Moreover, most of the fighting in Iraq is being done by the Iraqi army.


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