This evolving modernization of combat doctrine involved many people from all the services. Some tactics needed tweaking; other needed a complete rewrite. For the Strike Eagle, it was a drastic shift.
The national recognition of the survivors of the Battle of Robert’s Ridge in August 2018 has begun to have an effect on the way Air Force members pause to reflect on the history and heritage of the service.
As told by Tech. Sgt. Daryl Knee, Air Combat Command Public Affairs, in the article Evolution of Combat: Strike Eagle hits turning point in armed overwatch mission set, one snapshot reflection focuses on the integration of the F-15E Strike Eagle fighter aircraft as a valued contributor to the close-air-support mission set.
Close-air support takes place when enemy forces engage in proximity to friendly ground forces. The friendly forces then identify a target and communicate with the air assets overhead to direct a coordinated attack against the enemy. Sometimes, the enemies are very close to the friendly forces, which doctrine calls danger-close.
(This article by Dario Leone originally appeared on The Aviation Geek Club in 2019.)
The threat to harming friendlies during a danger-close strike is high, and it requires a certain precision skillset reinforced in combat aircraft pilot training across the Air Force.
A Strike Eagle team, led by then Maj. Christopher M. Short, flew overhead during the early part of the Battle Robert’s Ridge.
Short, who is now a brigadier general, said the lessons learned from initial operations in Afghanistan changed the fighter community culture as a whole and directly contributed to the advancement of Strike Eagle CAS training.
“I went from a culture where the weapons officers would say, ‘We don’t do close-air support in this airplane,’ to the brief starting out that the reason we’re going to Afghanistan is for that 18-year-old on top of the mountain with an M-16,” he said.
But the transition mindset wasn’t easy, and it has to do with what the Strike Eagle is and how the Air Force used it.
The Strike Eagle needs two crew members, a pilot and a weapons system officer. The F-15E model is designed as a dual-role fighter as it can engage targets in the air and on the ground. The aircraft can carry the most weapons in the Air Force inventory including an internally mounted 20mm multi-barrel gun that can carry up to 500 rounds. The pilot controls the gun, and the weapons systems officer controls the other munitions.
For the most part before 2001, the Air Force employed the Strike Eagle as an interdiction asset, breaking through a line of aircraft to deliver guided strikes against command and control facilities to destroy the leadership structure of the enemy. Often, the mission set did not include CAS, and the at-home training reflected that mentality.
But that all changed after Operation Anaconda, the larger effort to remove al-Qaeda forces from the Shahi-Kot Valley and Arma Mountains. Robert’s Ridge, also known as the Battle of Takur Ghar, was one of the deadliest engagements of Operation Anaconda.
“After this operation kicked off, it was obvious it was much different,” Short said. “All of a sudden, we’re doing close-air support on every sortie. The squadron commander was putting anyone who had had previous CAS experience in the front lines, because we didn’t really train to this mission set.”
Short said he was the only pilot in the formation to ever shoot the 20mm gun from the air to the ground. He credited his time in an A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft for helping him keep his shots on target. But unlike the A-10, the Strike Eagle’s gun was designed for air-to-air combat and has an up-cant, making it more challenging to shoot as the aircraft gets closer to the ground.
Short was in communication with the team on the mountainside, and they requested support. Danger-close support.
“And so we shot 500 rounds, 75 feet from friendlies,” he said. “And my wingman made five passes and shot 500 rounds, having never done it before.”
And this, Short said with difficulty, is where the Air Force learned something about communication, training and weapon-system integration. He made four strafing passes at 1,500 feet above ground level, and after refueling, returned to “walk in” successive bombs closer and closer to the enemy forces.
Short said the efforts of his team and the many other joint forces on the mountaintop did more to suppress the enemy attack rather than eliminate the threat.
“We were less prepared to do that than we should have been,” he said. “There were things we could have done better if we’d been proficient and practiced at what we do.”
One aspect that could have changed the course of the battle was the uncoordinated presence of the MQ-1B Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle designed as an intelligence-collection asset. The Predator flew around the mountain, and had collected data as to where exactly the enemy forces were located.
“We had no idea that the Predator was there,” Short said. “We were strafing, and (Maj. Jim Fairchild, the weapons systems officer) said, ‘Predator on final.’ I didn’t have enough situational awareness left to do anything. I thought, ‘Big sky theory, right? I hope I don’t hit it.’
“We came back and saw all the pictures that the Predator had of the scenario,” he continued. “If they could have just explained some of this. Why weren’t we talking to each other? It was that we weren’t on the same frequencies, putting two and two together. We could have spent 45 minutes over them, making low passes, dropping flares and letting everybody know we knew they were down there. I’ll live it a million times over.”
But while there were difficulties on seamlessly integrating, the overall support from the air assets overhead — including the F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft, the AC-130 gunship, the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, the F-18 Hornet and A-10 — gave the ground forces a chance to disengage, take the initiative and win the fight.
After the battle was over, the time had come to extrapolate and collate the combat data to see how the Defense Department could grow into the well-oiled warfighter it is today.
Short said the Battle of Robert’s Ridge proved the Strike Eagle could perform CAS, and it changed the F-15E community’s view on their ability to execute that mission set. They demonstrated the capability, and now it was time to further hone.
This evolving modernization of combat doctrine involved many people from all the services. Some tactics needed tweaking; other needed a complete rewrite.
For the Strike Eagle, it was a drastic shift.
“When I left that squadron, we were focused on what happened during Operation Anaconda and how do we get better,” Short said. “Now, routinely, pilots are going downrange, and they’re strafing danger-close in their first five sorties in the Strike Eagle. That’s the leap we made.”
A part of that leap included more Strike Eagle participation in the at-home training of Green Flag. Green Flag is a two-week joint-forces event in support of ground combat training at the U.S Army National Training Center in Fort Irwin (Mojave Desert), California. The Air Force pilots work with Air Force Tactical Air Control Parties (TACP) and Army Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) to hone CAS proficiency, which includes practicing strafing runs in the California mountains.
“There are young aviators now who are better at strafing and CAS that I ever was,” Short said, “because they’re training at an early stage in their career. I walk into a squadron now, and it is second nature for these lieutenants to know that CAS is on the menu of things they might be asked to do. And they’re ready to do it.”
The Air Force has an innate ability to embrace change and grow to meet the requirements of the current fight, Short said. The culture has a can-do attitude and a willingness to adapt quickly, whether it’s to technology or to mission sets. Today’s Airmen are experts at innovation and creativity on the battlefield to get the mission done.
“As you get older, you look back on your career,” he said. “That’s one of the neat things to see is how far we’ve come and what we did to adapt. Our Air Force is agile and it has incredible talent and people with a passion to do the mission.”
This snapshot reflection of the Strike Eagle shows how they are now part of the CAS mission. Operation Anaconda and the Battle of Robert’s Ridge served a vital role in identifying key changes necessary to protecting lives in the future.
This article by Dario Leone originally appeared on The Aviation Geek Club in 2019.