Air Operations in Afghanistan


2012-05-2012 By Raj

I’m currently deployed to Afghanistan in my role as a reserve pilot in the USAF.

Here follows a short update: I’ve been at Bagram Air Base, just north of Kabul, for the past three weeks and will remain here through the middle of February.

I’m flying missions about every other day and the food is quite edible. Although the Brits take rum rations to war, the U.S. never deploys without wireless internet!

Flying over Afghanistan I am continually amazed by two things.

First, the awe-inspiring mountains of the Hindu Kush, and the breadth of the US/NATO footprint here.

Flying in mountains with 20,000ft peaks is both sobering and exhilarating. We take off directly towards the base of a steep ridgeline – very glad the taxpayers splurged on an afterburner for my jet!

One cannot look at the mountains of the western tail of the Hindu Kush that engulf Afghanistan and wish that history had dealt these lands a different hand.

The monumental massifs in the north taper down into a sea of desert in the south. The pictures only begin to capture the grandeur of the landscape. World class skiing and hiking could have made this region a Valhalla for adrenaline addicts and outdoor enthusiasts. Sadly though, conflict has prevailed here for millennia.

As such, I’ve flown my first four combat missions here over the last week.

The second thing that strikes anyone viewing Afghanistan from the air is the sheer number of US military outposts deployed across this country: even some of the most deep and remote valleys host a combat outpost.

As a fighter pilot my role is here is much more important than my previous tours in Iraq. With over 100,000 US and NATO forces scattered across remote and hostile terrain, often we are the resources that can most quickly assist ground troops that come under fire from the Taliban.

It’s very rewarding to know that my actions on eventhese first few missions have helped protect ISAF forces and Afghan civilians. Around the base I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a wide range of individuals from Marines headed downrange to Nepali Ghurka’s that protect the base.

Each is spending this holiday season (facing far more danger for far longer than I) helping bring stability to Afghanistan.

Excerpts from a Holiday Letter by “Raj” a Viper pilot.

“Raj” then provided an update in January 2012

Well, I’ve managed to make it past the halfway of this deployment without doing anything dumb enough to be sent home early!

The winter season has dumped over a foot of snow and the sub-freezing temperatures have kept much of the accumulation on the ground. The runway and taxiways are often the only cleared areas.

Fresh, bright snows cap the mountains, belying the skirmishes that live in the valleys. The majestic beauty of the terrain never ceases to astound me.

On nights with a full moon, I can see for hundreds of miles and under clear conditions can even glimpse K2 far to the east. On moonless nights, an ocean of stars reveal themselves as I turn off all the cockpit lights and look straight up.

Modern conflict, unfortunately, does not recognize holidays or bankers hours.

Our squadron’s operations run 24/7 – ensuring that several jets are airborne at all times.

I have shifted to the night flying schedule here and rarely see the sun these days.

Occasionally, I am lucky enough to soak in a sunrise over the white mountain crests while aloft. I’m considering placing an order of vitamin D supplements.

On both the ground and the air, NATO forces own the night.

Equipped with night vision goggles, our ability to support ground troops does not diminish with sunset. Through the goggles, mountains, friendly forces, and where my targeting sensors are aimed are easily discerned.

Much like a light saber from the movie star wars, I can slew the while line in the image to the right to cue my sensors to any point on the ground.

All of this technology, of course, is designed to help me perform my job here , which is to support ground troops with firepower from the air.

Our troops carry the taxing burden of defeating enemy fighters while building up Afghan military and civil institutions in preparation for our looming departure.

Theirs is a difficult and dangerous mission.

Geopolitical constraints, such as our shifting relationship with Pakistan and uneven support from Kabul, hinder their progress.

Strategic concerns aside, I am continually impressed by the dedication and competence of our ground troops.

I recently returned from a 4 day trip visiting with the troops I interact with daily from the air.

A highlight was visiting one of the more remote combat outposts in Afghanistan. Accessible only by helicopter it is the year-long home to several dozen soldiers.

The outpost is so isolated that when Americans first arrived the local Afghan populace thought that the Russians had returned!

Many have no concept of 9/11 or the purpose of the US mission here. Nestled at the base of two merging valleys, this outpost witnessed some of heaviest fighting over the past summer fighting season with airstrikes playing a decisive role.

Observing their job first-hand, I left with renewed respect for the ground element.

We all should do our best to support these brave men and women, from pilots protecting overhead, to politicians enacting sound strategy, to employers welcoming returning reservists.

The words ‘brave men and women’ are often tossed around Washington DC circles a bit too cavalierly. If you heard their incredible stories – you’d agree they deserve full respect without political posturing or hyperbole…..