ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. Today, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Afghanistan, and he confirmed plans to send about 7,000 more troops there by summer. It's the latest signal that the war in Afghanistan is taking center stage.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): We're going to be in this struggle for quite a long time.
NORRIS: Secretary Gates spoke to reporters about the future in Afghanistan, and our Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is reporting on what that future will look like. Yesterday, his story explored the buildup in ground forces. Today, in the second part of our series, the buildup of air power, helicopters to carry troops and unmanned drones that take pictures and drop bombs. Here's Tom Bowman.
TOM BOWMAN: Talk to any commander in Afghanistan, and the conversation will quickly turn to helicopters. They need a lot more to cover a country one-third larger than Iraq with few roads and mountain-based combat outposts that only helicopters can reach.
General DAVID MCKIERNAN (General Commander, Afghanistan Forces): The helicopter is our truck, is our horse to get around Afghanistan.
BOWMAN: General David McKiernan is a top commander in Afghanistan.
Gen. MCKIERNAN: With the distances about the size of Texas and with geography of Afghanistan, the helicopter is absolutely essential.
BOWMAN: Essential, but in short supply. There's practically a chorus calling for more helicopters in Afghanistan. Here's Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, a year ago.
Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff): If there's one resource that we're seemingly pretty short of, it's almost universally helicopters.
BOWMAN: And here's Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the same time.
Secretary GATES: Our helicopter resources are pretty pushed between Iraq and Afghanistan. And, in fact, a good part of the time that I spent at the NATO defense ministerial was trying to get more allied helicopters into Afghanistan to relieve the stress on ours.
BOWMAN: 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 over land on remote and sparse roads where Taliban forces can easily spot them coming or going.
Major General MICHAEL TUCKER (Deputy Head of NATO Forces): We have requested a combat aviation brigade.
BOWMAN: Major General Michael Tucker is a deputy head of NATO forces. He's getting some of what he asked for. Now, just as more troops are being sent to Afghanistan, so are more helicopters.
Major General TUCKER: We have a date in which we expect, after the beginning of the year, we hope to get a brigade of helicopters in here to fill that void.
BOWMAN: That's more than 100 helicopters. Troops in Afghanistan already are preparing for delivery, expanding airfields and constructing metal buildings to shield the aircraft from the harsh climate. But it's not just helicopters that commanders are demanding. They want more drone aircraft - the kind President Bush bragged about in the speech this week at West Point.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're arming Predator drones. We're using them to stay on the hunt against the terrorists who would do us harm.
BOWMAN: Those Predators can carry two 100-pound bombs. There's also a jumbo version, the Reaper, that holds 3,000 pounds of bombs, as much as a fully-loaded fighter jet. Besides hitting targets, the drones 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 up from this past summer, and there are plans to nearly double the overall number of those high-tech surveillance areas in the next year. Air Force Colonel Eric Mathewson works on a special task force at the Pentagon.
Colonel ERIC MATHEWSON (Air Force): To give you an example, from five miles away, I can tell what color of clothing you're wearing. And typically, I could just start to recognize someone if I was familiar with them.
BOWMAN: That means high resolution cameras on the drones can pick out insurgents planting roadside bombs or Taliban troop formations. Troops say there still aren't enough drones. Those Green Berets in Afghanistan without their own helicopters say they have only one of them at their disposal. That's slowly beginning to change. Just last month, three of those behemoth Reaper drones were shifted to Afghanistan from Iraq. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
NORRIS: Tomorrow, Tom concludes his series. All those aircraft and troops headed to Afghanistan need to be supplied with ammunition, food, and spare parts, and all that stuff has to be brought to Afghanistan. A route through Pakistan is the shortest way in, but it's not the safest. Tomorrow, Tom reports on another route the military plans to use to get equipment to Afghanistan.
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