Saturday, March 05, 2005

The value of being dressed for dress rehearsals - part 2.

New readers might want to read part one of the story here. Or maybe not.

As the clearing team went through, it became pretty evident that resistance from the compound was lighter than we expected. Later, we found out why, and it also explained why we landed later than we had planned. There were two Air Force crews running the AC-130 gunships. The one we dealt with in the past was shit-hot accurate and evil aggressive (which are qualities that small units on the ground in Indian country really appreciate in close air support, by the way.) We were listening to the radio one night when Spectre was up, and we heard them call into base:

ACFT: "We just took ground fire, we think from a ZSU. It wasn't anywhere near us - we think they were aiming at the sound of our engines."
BASE: "Roger, continue mission."
ACFT: "Request permission to engage source of ground fire."
BASE: "Negative, continue mission."
ACFT: "We can identify the source of the ground fire - they're out in the open. We can engage them without hitting anything else. Request permission to engage."
BASE: "Negative. Permission denied."
ACFT: "Do you understand that they shot at us and need to die . . .?"

Another time, they had some playtime and were looking for someone on the ground to use them. We called them up and told them it would help if they could take a look inside some compounds we thought the bad guys were using to meet in. The asked what we intended to do they did, in fact, identify an ACM gathering inside one of the compounds. We told them that we intended to let the aircraft smoke the bad guys if they found them, and then we'd go in and clean up. "Then we're in," they replied.

But, that crew rotated out right before the raid, and a new crew came in from the states. I don't want to use the actual callsigns, both for opsec reasons, and because I don't want to embarrass anyone, so, for the purposes of this reminisce, let's just call this aircraft "Clueless."

The plan was for the gunship to make one orbit, hit the corner towers where the heavy guns were, and loiter in the area to make sure that no-one got away when we took down the compound. What happened instead was a comedy of errors that worked to the bad guy's advantage. First, it turns out that the aircrew had neglected to boresight their big gun - a 105 howitzer that could have easily penetrated the thick dried mud walls (think adobe) of the compound. So, their first pass missed the compound entirely, but did alert everyone there that something was up. Then, instead of following the plan and pulling off so we could land, the crew made a second pass and tried again - this time, they managed to hit the kitchen instead of the towers and started a nice fire going there (which becomes important later.) Having failed utterly with the howitzers, they made several more passes engaging the towers with 25mm cannon fire - it failed to penetrate the walls, but it did scare the bejeezus out of the guards in the towers, and caused them to flee, so I suppose it did eventually neutralize the guns . . . it also gave everyone in the compound 20 minutes or so to get ready and get out. So much for a "surprise attack." Fortunately, they decided to run instead of fight, or we'd have been really, really screwed.

So anyway, there we were - we had the TACP (the guy on the ground communicating with the aircraft) with us, so I could hear the radio traffic going on - while the clearing teams were still in the compound, the AC-130 Spectre picked up many small parties moving along the nearby creekbed - but, since they couldn't be sure that they had come from the compound, they wouldn't engage. Now, keep in mind that the rules of engagement for the evening allowed anyone moving between compounds or along the riverbed to be targeted - since they were in an area that they could engage us from - and that the whole job of the Spectre was to keep those people off of our backs. Their decision pissed us off, since the "small groups" were moving into an area that would allow them to engage us with indirect fire, but there you have it. Then came what really pissed us off - the Spectre picked up five people actually moving out of brother in law's compound and towards the creekbed - four of them were armed men, but the fifth was a figure in a burka (the head to toe garb traditionally worn by women of the region.) Because there was a "woman" there, the AC-130 again refused to engage, even though we were explicitly authorizing the attack from the ground, and the overall mission commander was having his chopper (with two snipers aboard) fly around to try to find the the bad guys. We were trying to explain to the Spectre pilot that a) just because there was a figure in a burka, it didn't make it a woman, that b) the guy we were after was known to wear a burka to evade checkpoints, and that c) no Pashtu in existence would provide a woman with an armed escort of four men. But all to no avail. Later, of course, we heard that the guy we were after had escaped the compound by making his way to brother in law's compound and then fleeing from that in a burka with an escort of four men. Air Force pussies. Where was {the other Spectre crew} when we needed them?

A few minutes after all that settled down, rounds started exploding in front of us, in the open area about halfway between the bad guy's main compound and the creek. We greeted that with a sense of relief - the Air Force had finally gotten in the game, even if they couldn't hit for shit - we figured they were firing the howitzer at the guys in the creekbed. After a few rounds, though, we realized that the fire was getting closer to us than to the creek. I was yelling at the TACP to tell the crew they were walking their fire onto our position, when Ross yelled at me to shut up and listen to the incoming rounds. I did, and realized, from the whistle before the explosion, what he was trying to say - but only after some back and forth discussion about what was going on. It wasn't the Air Force - it was the bad guys who had made it to where they had a soviet 82mm mortar and ammunition hidden in the creek bed; and they were shooting at us. It took us so long to figure it out because the bad guys weren't very proficient with the mortar, and were having trouble adjusting fire onto our position. Its the first time in my life that I've engaged in a debate as to whether somebody was shooting at me or not. At that point, with guys actually trying to kill us, the Spectre crew finally got its head out of its ass and engaged the mortar crew. They didn't hit anybody, but they scared the mortar crew off and the incoming fire stopped - pretty much when just it was going to cross the boundary from interesting to exciting. So that problem was over anyway.

By that point, nobody on the outside perimeter was shooting, all the bad guys in the creekbed were gone, and the clearing team had secured the compound. So, nothing to do now but settle in and wait for dawn so we could go over and check out the other compounds. Right about the time we were all settling in and realizing just how damn cold it was, there was a huge BOOM from inside the compound right behind me. It was good timing actually, since the initial adrenalin rush had just started to wear off, and this provided a fresh dump for my system. "What the . . .?" A lot of voices on the radio, trying to figure out if someone was hurt, and if a booby trap had been tripped, or what, when finally Jack came in on the command channel. He was an SF medic on my team, and was a firefighter-paramedic in the civilian world: "That was a propane gas tank cooking off. Nothing to worry about." The fire the AF started in the kitchen? It had burned through the roof, and was now blowing up the propane gas cylinders they used to cook with. Two or three more went up over the next hour.

Finally, with all that behind us, I settled down to keep an eye on the compounds across the way. I suddenly realized how thirsty I was, and reached for the Camelback hose over my left shoulder to get a drink. I sucked, and nothing happened; sucked harder and still nothing. I pulled the camelback off my back - the hose and bite valve were completely frozen. Fortunately, I had an old school 2-quart canteen on my rucksack, and didn't have to wait for dawn to thaw the Camelback just to get a drink.


Blogger Papa Ray said...


Hah, I would have thought those air farce weinies would have retired by now, they almost killed us one night, many years ago. They couldn't shoot for shit and evidently couldn't understand grunt.

Anyway, glad they didn't shoot you guys.

Papa Ray
West Texas

6:42 PM  
Blogger Special Forces Alpha Geek said...

I can't slam the whole air force - the other Spectre crew was hot and switched on - just bad luck we got a green crew rotating in right before the raid. By the time that crew left, they had probably gotten seasoned and switched on.

1:02 AM  

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