By SOF Editor on Thu, 12/31/2009 - 10:32am
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- Whether they are conducting patrols on the ground, riding in convoys or performing clearing operations in villages to search for insurgents, coalition forces know members of the 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron here stand ready 24 hours a day and seven days a week to provide close-air support anywhere throughout Afghanistan.
This includes armed overwatch, armed reconnaissance and armed convoy escort with the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
"We get to work with the guys on the ground and they're the ones who are in the heat of it all day," said Capt. Doug Witmer, an A-10 pilot with the 354th EFS. "It's always rewarding when we can support them and help them do their job and get home safely because, ultimately, that's their goal."
Unit pilots have flown 2,500 sorties during their six-month tour. They fly more than twice as much here as they typically fly at their home station, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
"The pilots and maintainers are producing twice as much as we produce when we're at home station, which is impressive," said Lt. Col. Michael Millen, the 354th EFS commander.
They have supported approximately 400 situations in which troops have been in contact with the enemy.
When a special-operations convoy came under ambush northeast of Kandahar in July, two A-10s from the 354th EFS immediately flew out to support them. Both the convoy and aircraft were taking heavy machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenade fire and small-arms fire. The pilots also faced challenges of low ceilings, rain showers and poor visibility.
"The pilots had to get down very low to find the friendly forces, to find the enemy and to really sort out the situation and then kill the enemy so the convoy would not take any more casualties," Colonel Millen said.
When the quick-reaction force met up with them, casualties were evacuated and the pilots began a re-attack on the enemy insurgent forces in the area.
"That's definitely the most dynamic part of our job," Captain Witmer said. "When people start getting shot at, you have to be quick on the ball. The incredible amount of training, the high quality of training that we do back home is what gets us ready for this."
In October, special-operations forces were pinned down northwest of Kandahar by insurgents who fired down at them from a tower approximately 20 meters away. The friendly and enemy forces were too close together for an F-16 Fighting Falcon to shoot at them during the night, but an A-10 pilot was able to engage the enemy with the fighter's Gatling gun.
"Nobody else can do that," said Colonel Millen. "There's no other fighter out there that can shoot the gun or anything else inside of 50 meters of friendly zones. It was very good work on the part of our pilots."
Colonel Millen also lauded the unit's maintainers who were able to quickly get eight A-10s ready and up in the air to protect troops at Combat Outpost Keating after an attack in October.
"We had A-10 presence over COP Keating for about 16 hours," Colonel Millen said. "We had eight of them airborne at one time and two on alert, which is really significant. The maintainers and pilots did a great job."
The 354th EFS moved to Kandahar in July, brought in to provide air cover in the Helmand region.
"We spend most of our time here in the Helmand," Colonel Millen said. "The Helmand is fairly well populated. There are a lot of houses and a lot of people. Operations within the Helmand involve insurgents trying to shoot at U.S. patrols, British patrols, Soldiers and Marines. So you end up with all the complexities of having to separate friendly from enemy forces, and then once you find the enemy, trying to separate the enemy from the Afghanistan populace. Working in Helmand, where there are lots of places to hide and lots of people, (has) an added measure of complexity."
Colonel Millen said he attributes the success of this unit to his Airmen.
"They trained hard in the skill sets they knew they would need in this theater and they continued to get better while here," he said. "The guys here have stepped up and done an excellent job. My hat's off to them. I've been incredibly impressed."
"Definitely, the greatest difference between being here and home is that at home it's training and here it's life and death," Captain Witmer said. "At home, if I'm not exact with my shooting, I get to try again and practice again, but over here, if you don't hit your target when you need to hit your target, then one of our coalition forces dies.
"That's the greatest difference." he said, "realizing the training's over and now you're starting to do your job."