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Pilots provide close air support in emergency situations

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- Two A-10 Thunderbolt II jets taxi out to the runway here on July 26, 2008. The jets are experts at close air support missions and have proven to be invaluable despite being well past their expected useful lifespan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse)

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- Two A-10 Thunderbolt II jets taxi out to the runway here on July 26, 2008. The jets are experts at close air support missions and have proven to be invaluable despite being well past their expected useful lifespan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse)

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – A F-15E Strike Eagle prepares to take-off here July 26. Along with the A-10 Thunderbolt, the F-15 provides close air support to ground troops throughout Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse)

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – A F-15E Strike Eagle prepares to take-off here July 26. Along with the A-10 Thunderbolt, the F-15 provides close air support to ground troops throughout Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse)

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- For F-15E Strike Eagle and A-10 Thunderbolt pilots deployed to Bagram Air Field, joint terminal attack controllers play a vital role in the close air support mission.

"The Air Force JTAC is absolutely our go-to guy on the ground to start any mission," said Capt. Jeff Sliwoski, an A-10 pilot with the 190th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. "The JTAC provides a [report] with all the essential information we need to employ ordnance. His other big piece of the puzzle is making sure we understand the situation on the ground - any threats, where the targets are, deconfliction of artillery."

However, there's not always a JTAC on the ground when CAS is needed. In these rare situations, pilots step outside their normal boundaries and execute an emergency CAS mission.

"Emergency CAS is very rare, but we are prepared for the situation," said Captain Sliwoski, a Boise, Idaho native. "We train for it in our pre-deployment spin-up. We are very familiar with the steps we need to take to employ weapons around friendlies who are not qualified JTACs."

Being familiar with the necessary steps doesn't make it easy. The first challenge is aircraft deconfliction. Pilots determine what other aircraft are in the area and arrange for clear air space. The next challenge comes with building an area of operations update.

"You have to find out what you have to do to help the guys on the ground," explained the captain. "There is a lot of talking to the guy on the ground and understanding his situation - the friendly situation in general - and find out exactly what they need."

Other airframe platforms in the area are helpful when it comes to building the AO update as air-to-air communication is easier than air-to-ground. Whatever the method, the update must be built with speed.

"If the people on the ground are not currently taking contact then you can afford to take more time to develop a plan for the AO," Captain Sliwoski said. "If they are taking contact then it ratchets it up another notch to employ weapons quickly, efficiently, and above all, safely."

Weapons employment is the biggest challenge when it comes to ECAS. When a call for ECAS goes out, nearby assets in the air are sent. Those aircraft may not be equipped with the ideal weapon for the job.

"Normally, a JTAC will assume some responsibility - he identifies what you are bringing and how you can use it," Captain Sliwoski said. "In ECAS, the pilot is assuming all the responsibility and risk in weapons deployment."

High importance is placed on deliberate targeting. Decisions on what weapons to employ when and where are based on the distance between the target and any friendlies, according to Captain Sliwoski. This can be challenging considering operations today are not like past wars.

"The enemy doesn't operate in droves like in past conflicts," said Lt. Col. Dave Trimble, 190th EFS commander. "It's not like we show up and see a mass of people advancing. It's much more challenging trying to find them in the types of terrain they are dispersed in."

Close air support now involves more time spent orbiting overhead and helping to search for the enemy, but the end result is the same.

"If our presence alone makes the enemy stop shooting, that in itself is rewarding," said Colonel Trimble.

That sentiment is echoed throughout the CAS pilot community.

"Our saying in the squadron is that it's all about the 18 year old with the rifle, it's not about our ego and having to employ weapons," added Captain Sliwoski. "The ultimate reward is to be able to help guys that need your help."