Thursday, April 5, 2012

Iowa Guard Jets Providing Air Cover for U.S., Afghan Troops

Iowa National Guard fighter pilots are attacking Taliban insurgents with bombs or scaring them off with the thunder of jet engines, their commander said from Afghanistan today.

About 300 members of the Air Guard’s 132nd Fighter Wing are serving a two-month deployment to southern Afghanistan. The unit flies F-16 jets, which are flying numerous missions from Kandahar Airfield.

Lt. Col. Travis Acheson of West Des Moines, the top officer on the deployment, said the Iowa planes are mainly assigned to protect U.S. and Afghan troops patrolling on the ground. “Those folks are coming under fire every day, and if they need air power, if they need air cover, we are there to provide them that blanket of security,” Acheson told reporters in a conference call.

The ground troops often are accompanied by Air Force members, who help guide the fighter jets to their targets, Acheson said. The pilots use the coordinates to ensure their bombs hit the enemy without endangering friendly forces and civilians, Acheson said. Even though the jets are traveling hundreds of miles per hour, he said, the bombs they drop hit within 30 feet of their targets. Some of the bombs can be aimed with lasers to hit a moving motorcycle carrying insurgents, he said.

“It’s very critical in conflicts in this day and age that we carry precision-guided munitions, because it’s very different from World War II,” in which waves of bombers would try to hit one target, he said. “We absolutely have to have that bomb go where it needs to go. … We absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, have collateral damage or any fear of injuring any of the friendly forces.”

Pilots sometimes refer to the modern rules of engagement as “handcuffs,” Acheson said, but the precautions are necessary in a war where insurgents often fight near civilians.

In many cases, the fighter jets fly right over the heads of insurgents to try to intimidate them. “Sometimes it’s just us making noise, and the bad guys will disengage,” said 1st Lt. Ryan Stott of Jefferson. “I’ve actually had guys on the radio say they were nervous and weren’t feeling real comfortable, but as soon as we checked in overhead, making the jet noise… the guys’ spirits will lift up, and for me as a young pilot, that’s a very rewarding mission.”

All of the Iowans volunteered for the deployment. About 250 of them are involved in fixing and preparing the jets, which require 10 to 12 hours of maintenance work for every hour they’re in the air. The planes are nearly 30 years old, so they require extra care. Among the challenges is to ensure that the plane’s engines don’t inhale debris from the rocky, dusty environment of southern Afghanistan. Dozens of Iowans scour the tarmac several times a day, cleaning it of every loose rock, said Maj. Trenton Twedt of Roland, who leads maintenance for the unit. “When I say clean, you can’t imagine. This is cleaner than probably anybody’s driveway,” he said. “There is not a pebble on it.”

The Des Moines unit is slated to lose its F-16s under national budget cuts, which Iowa leaders are seeking to have reversed. If the cuts go through, this could be the unit’s last overseas deployment. In the future, the unit would control unmanned drones, which can be flown from the United States.

Twedt said members talk a bit about the situation, but not much. “Right now, we’re trying not to get wrapped up in what’s going on back home,” he said. “…The big thing is focus, finish the mission, finish strong, come home in one piece, hug our families and shake a lot of hands, and then we’ll deal with that back there.”

Some of the F-16s came from Air Guard units in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., which preceded the Iowans in Afghanistan. The Iowa pilots will fly all of them back to the United States when their deployment ends.

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