Military Strengthens Aerial Forces In Afghanistan

The second of a three-part series on the American military strategy in Afghanistan.

Troops load into a Black Hawk helicopter i i

hide captionSoldiers board a Black Hawk helicopter at their combat outpost in the Sabari District of Afghanistan last month. Helicopters, including the Apache attack chopper and the heavy-lift Chinook, are essential to troops in Afghanistan.

David Furst/AFP/Getty Images
Troops load into a Black Hawk helicopter

Soldiers board a Black Hawk helicopter at their combat outpost in the Sabari District of Afghanistan last month. Helicopters, including the Apache attack chopper and the heavy-lift Chinook, are essential to troops in Afghanistan.

David Furst/AFP/Getty Images

Drones Playing Larger Role

The Department of Defense released this footage of an armed Predator drone aircraft in Afghanistan firing its 100-pound missile on three insurgents planting an improvised explosive device, or IED, on a road.

The U.S. military's Central Command reports 28 unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, in its theater of operations, which covers the Middle East and Central Asia.

That number is up from 24 drones this summer and is expected to reach 35 in the coming months. By 2010, 50 drones will be in the region.

Reaper Drone i i

hide captionAn MQ-9 Reaper unmanned drone takes off from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada last year. Unmanned aircraft, like the Reaper, are increasingly being used in Afghanistan as military operations are expanding.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Reaper Drone

An MQ-9 Reaper unmanned drone takes off from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada last year. Unmanned aircraft, like the Reaper, are increasingly being used in Afghanistan as military operations are expanding.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a visit Thursday to Afghanistan, where he confirmed plans to send about 7,000 more troops there by summer. It's the latest signal that the war there is taking center stage.

"We're going to be in this struggle for quite a long time," Gates said.

But the buildup in ground forces — at least 20,000 American troops are expected to be added in 2009 — is only part of the story. Talk to any commander in Afghanistan and the conversation will quickly turn to helicopters; they say they need a lot more to cover a country one-third larger than Iraq, with few roads and with mountain-based combat outposts that only helicopters can reach.

"The helicopter is our truck, is our horse, to get around Afghanistan," says Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan. "With the distances about the size of Texas and the geography of Afghanistan, the helicopter is absolutely essential."

Essential, but also in short supply. There's practically a chorus calling for more helicopters in Afghanistan.

"If there's one resource that we're short of it's almost universally helicopters," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last year.

Gates agreed. "Our helicopter resources are pretty pushed between Iraq and Afghanistan," he said at the time. "And, in fact, a good part of the time that I spent at the NATO defense ministerial [meeting] was trying to get more allied helicopters into Afghanistan to relieve the stress on ours."

What NATO offered wasn't enough.

The shortage has become so bad that Green Berets have to borrow Black Hawk helicopters from regular Army units. Without helicopters, one officer tells NPR, the elite Green Berets must sometimes travel overland on remote and sparse roads where Taliban forces can easily spot them coming or going.

"We have requested a combat aviation brigade," says Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, the deputy head of NATO forces. Now, he's getting some of what he asked for.

Just as more troops are being sent to Afghanistan, so are more helicopters. "After the beginning of the year, we hope to get a brigade of helicopters in here to fill that void," Tucker says. That's more than 100 helicopters.

Troops in Afghanistan already are preparing for delivery by expanding airfields and constructing metal buildings to shield the aircraft from the harsh climate.

Drones Also Sought

But it's not just helicopters that commanders are demanding. They also want more drone aircraft — the kind President Bush bragged about in a speech this week at West Point.

"We're arming Predator drones," the president said. "We're using them to stay on the hunt against the terrorists who would do us harm."

Those Predators can carry two 100-pound bombs. There's also a jumbo version, the Reaper, which holds three 1,000-pound bombs, as much as a fully loaded fighter jet.

Besides hitting targets, the drones also see the battlefield, which in this case is the entire country of Afghanistan.

The American buildup means commanders can now watch more than a dozen different areas around the clock. That's an increase from this past summer, and there are plans to nearly double the overall number of those high-tech surveillance areas in the next year.

"To give you an example, from five miles away I can pick out what color clothes you're wearing," says Air Force Col. Eric Mathewson, who works on a special task force at the Pentagon. "And typically I could just start to recognize someone if I'm familiar with them."

That means high-resolution cameras on the drones can pick out insurgents planting roadside bombs or Taliban troop formations. But troops say there still aren't enough drones. Those Green Berets in Afghanistan without their own helicopters say they have only one drone at their disposal.

That's slowly beginning to change. Just last month, three Reaper drones were shifted to Afghanistan — from Iraq.

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