Afghan Conflict Losing Air Power as U.S. Pulls Out
It was an evening in October last year, and Mr. Qayum was meeting several Afghans in a field. Though he did not know it, a Navy F/A-18 strike fighter was circling high overhead more than five miles away, summoned by an American Special Operations team. Its engines were out of earshot, the pilot said, “so we didn’t burn the target.”
Mr. Qayum led a platoon-size Taliban group and was plotting to bomb an Afghan government office, an American intelligence officer said. Under Western rules guiding the use of deadly force, the pilot was barred from trying to kill him while he stood in a group of unidentified men.
Then came a chance. The meeting ended, and Mr. Qayum approached a man who had pulled up on a motorcycle, the pilot and the intelligence officer said. Soon the two men were riding together on a dirt road, illuminated on the screen of the aircraft’s targeting sensor.
The pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Brian Kesselring, released an AGM-65E laser-guided missile. Visible on a video recording declassified and released to The New York Times, the missile struck the pair head-on, exploding with such energy that only fragments of Mr. Qayum’s remains were found.
The killing of Mr. Qayum and his driver, confirmed by the Taliban and reviewed by The New York Times as part of an examination of operations in Afghanistan by 44 F/A-18s from the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, was a demonstration of the extraordinary technical and tactical abilities of American air power. For both better and worse, that power has become a defining facet of the Afghan conflict and the American way of waging war.
But the tight integration and expense of air missions, which in Navy crews’ case can cost up to $20,000 an hour, also raise questions about the prospects for the continuing fight against the Taliban.
Weary of the costs of a long war, Western military forces have already begun withdrawing and handing greater security responsibility to Afghan forces. One worry, several officers said, is that these air operations have become essential, necessary for ground units that are operating in contested areas of Afghanistan and hoping to maintain influence, or even survive. And the Afghan government has nothing to match the role they play.
Drawing from the experiences of more than a decade of fighting, and after repeatedly refining training and rules of engagement to address concerns about civilian casualties, aircrews work in close coordination with ground controllers more fully, and usually more precisely, than ever before.
In carefully choreographed killings of tactical commanders like Mr. Qayum, use of heavier ordnance to beat back Taliban attacks, and efforts to keep roads clear of improvised fertilizer bombs, conventional American warplanes are integrated into the finest details of ground war. These missions, distinct from the C.I.A.-run drone program, have allowed a relatively small Western combat force, with just tens of thousands of troops actually patrolling each day, to wage war across a sprawling nation of 30 million people.
The tactics for air-to-ground war have greatly evolved since the war’s start in 2001. One pilot, saying that he dropped just a single 1,000-pound bomb during a six-month deployment, recalled that at the war’s outset, planes would take off with more bombs than they were allowed to return with for landings. “When this kicked off, they were launching aircraft with unrecoverable loads,” said the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Peter Morgan. “Basically, you had to drop. That’s all changed.”
A Sophisticated Balance
F/A-18 strike fighters are among the world’s most advanced military aircraft, with a price of roughly $100 million each and operating costs estimated at $18,000 to $20,000 per flight hour. Their sorties from the Stennis, each often lasting eight hours round-trip, almost always passed without violence.
Part of this was the nature of an experienced foe. The Taliban have spent years learning to mask their movements and intentions from aircraft, making themselves hard to spot.
Another part was the nature of the rules. Even when Taliban fighters were visible, Western military restrictions devised to prevent harm to civilians and minimize damage to infrastructure, codified after prominent and deadly mistakes that fueled Afghan public outrage, sometimes limited a pilot’s options. Just last month, commanders again tightened the rules for use of air power in civilian areas, after Afghans said a NATO airstrike killed 18 civilians in an eastern village...