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Surveillance surge puts more Reapers at Afghan airfield than any other

This expansive base has become home to the largest operational deployment of Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones to one airfield, as the U.S.-led coalition works to gain momentum in the 16-year fight against a resilient Taliban insurgency.

The drones arrived recently to augment efforts to target the Taliban, which controls or contests more territory now than since its regime was toppled in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. U.S. and Afghan forces are also battling an Islamic State affiliate that has taken root in the east and northwest.

“We’re going after the enemy, we’re going after the vehicles they use, we’re going after the buildings that they try to hide from us in,” Col. Stephen “Joker” Jones, an Air Force commander here who began flying unmanned aircraft in 2000, told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday.

Drones are the signature aircraft of the war in Afghanistan and perhaps the most controversial. They’ve been criticized for causing civilian casualties and for inspiring retaliatory terrorist plots.

The Obama administration embraced their use for targeted killings and covert assassinations. There’s no sign of an end to those practices under the Trump presidency. An alleged drone strike on Haqqani network leaders in Pakistan drew Islamabad’s ire this week, though the U.S. has denied its involvement.

Cheaper to operate than manned warplanes and able to loiter above the battlefield for long stretches, remotely piloted aircraft are critical for reducing civilian casualties, U.S. officials say.

Their “unblinking eye” lets commanders observe targets day and night to make decisions in a “relaxed, calculated fashion” about the best strike timing and weaponry to reduce unwanted damage, Jones said.

“In this type of warfare, we want — we need — our airstrikes to be as precise as possible, as well as not incurring any collateral damage,” Jones said. “Specifically, no noncombatants.”

The nearly three squadrons of MQ-9s now based here — officials declined to give specific numbers — along with a newly deployed squadron of A-10 “Warthog” Thunderbolt IIs, will provide critical support to a first-of-its-kind Army brigade, said Maj. Gen. James Hecker, commander of all U.S. airpower in Afghanistan.

The Army’s Fort Benning, Ga.-based 1st Security Forces Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, will put experienced combat advisers with conventional Afghan fighting units at the tactical level when it deploys here this spring.

“They’ll need both [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] as well as [close air support] to make sure that they can accomplish their mission successfully,” Hecker said.

The $65 million Reaper, a successor to the Predator, has a suite of high-tech reconnaissance and targeting sensors that serve as a “necessary precursor” to an A-10 raid, Jones said. It can conduct strikes itself using laser-guided GBU-12 Paveway II bombs and Hellfire missiles, as well as 560-pound, GPS-guided GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs.

“My preference is always a Hellfire because it’s so accurate,” Jones said. “I can get that thing right into somebody’s chest if I needed.”

Jones was flying drones before they were armed. In the early days of the war, he piloted a Predator doing reconnaissance for B-2 JDAM strikes against this same airfield before the U.S. occupied it.

Teeming with more than 35,000 coalition troops, contractors and civilians at the height of the war, the base became a shadow of its former self with the withdrawal of most combat forces in 2014. Since then, it’s been the only airfield to host the Reapers, Jones said. Predators once based here and at other bases are now gone, though Army MQ-1C Grey Eagle drones remain.

About one-third of the base was handed over to Afghan forces. Some of the rest languished without maintenance, but Jones led a three-week scramble earlier this year to prepare it for dozens more warplanes.

For now, the drones will remain concentrated here.

“With a further buildup to support the SFAB, we’re sticking to Kandahar,” Jones said. “We haven’t branched out yet to other bases.”

The U.S. is increasing its aerial surveillance over Afghanistan by one-third, to levels approaching those at the height of the conflict, Hecker said. More over-the-horizon surveillance capabilities will also come online here soon.

Earlier this month, Naval Air Systems Command revealed plans to have General Atomics, maker of the MQ-9, provide 12-month “surge support” flying its own unarmed aircraft over Helmand province, where a Marine Corps task force is embedding advisers with government forces.

Afghan forces have also stood up their own unarmed surveillance drone program, though they still rely largely on help from the U.S.-led coalition.

The surveillance surge comes as the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy is putting thousands more troops in Afghanistan, where they will soon be closer to the fight than in recent years.

Conventional troops, such as those of the SFAB, will soon follow the example of U.S. special operations forces who have been routinely fighting alongside their Afghan counterparts.

Commanders also have more authority to strike targets deep in enemy-controlled territory, which Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch said has already allowed the U.S. to go after a drug trade that supplies much of the Taliban’s war chest.

U.S. and Afghan warplanes have been pounding militants and their hideouts mainly in the south and east last year, and officials plan to keep the pressure on them through the winter. Bunch said “scores” of ISIS fighters who cropped up in the northwestern Jowzjan province have also been killed in recent strikes.

The A-10s began flying combat missions in support of ground troops a day after arriving in-country last week. Lt. Col. Todd “Riddler” Riddle flew the first sortie, which he said took him over “traditional hot spots.”

The 43-year-old from Warrensburg, Mo., has flown missions over Afghanistan on several deployments in support of coalition forces since May 2002. He flew the last of the A-10s out of Kandahar when they left in 2012.

This time around, the warplanes will be supporting Afghan-led operations, he said, but U.S. air controllers will still be calling the shots.

“We’re ready to bring the A-10 and all of its weapons to bear on all of our enemies,” he said.


© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.