An Unlikely Super-Warrior Emerges in Afghan War

U.S. Combat Controllers Guide Bombers to Precision Targets

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- Master Sgt. Bart Decker remembers riding on horseback to the top of the highest peak south of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan in November and watching the Taliban flee in pickups and four-wheel drives, their headlights illuminating the only road out of town to the east.

It was almost too easy.

Flicking on his Global Positioning System receiver, Decker calculated coordinates for either end of a narrow stretch of highway and radioed them to B-52 bombers and F-16 fighters loitering overhead. Then he watched, horse by his side, as bombs rained down from the sky, striking the vehicles and killing their occupants with devastating precision.

Decker is an Air Force Special Operations combat controller, an unlikely super-warrior. His core skill is air-traffic control and his most potent weapon a Global Positioning System receiver available at the average electronics store.

Yet, in a war driven by precise information about Taliban and al Qaeda targets, Decker and other combat controllers, embedded in Army Special Forces A teams, emerged as pivotal figures in the fusion of U.S. targeters on the ground with precision strikes from the air, the conflict's most important tactical innovation.

Gul Haidar, an Afghan militia leader who has fought against the Russians and with the Americans, said the air-ground coordination was the key to the victory by U.S.-led Northern Alliance forces last year against al Qaeda and the Taliban militia that sheltered the terrorist network.

"The people with Special Forces controlling the jets are very effective -- they really know what they are doing," he said. "It was American aircraft that broke the front line of the al Qaeda."

Like Decker, four other combat controllers interviewed at Air Force Special Operations Command headquarters here told dramatic stories of airstrikes they called in during the early stages of the war, talking jets they could barely see onto targets they had identified using Global Positioning System satellite coordinates, laser beams or infrared pointers.

One controller, a technical sergeant named Calvin who did not want his last name used, arrived in Afghanistan on Oct. 21 and called in airstrikes for 25 straight days, averaging 10 to 30 per day.

On the 25th day, with Northern Alliance forces amassed for a final assault on Kabul, the Afghan capital, and coming under heavy fire from more than 1,000 Taliban fighters, Calvin called in the coordinates of a "kill box" covering the entire Taliban front.

Minutes later, 27 2,000-pound Mark-82 bombs saturated the zone. The ground shook, a two-story building serving as Calvin's lookout post began collapsing from the shock, and all Taliban firing ceased. The final advance on Kabul soon began, he said.

"When you roll in a B-52 and put those bombs exactly on their front lines and spread that out for 300 or 400 meters long -- that's where you're devastating the enemy and breaking their back," Calvin said.

Air Force Secretary James G. Roche said this fusion of Special Forces on the ground and strikes from the air has the Air Force envisioning a much greater air-to-ground role for its most advanced new weapon, the F-22 stealth fighter.

In future wars, he said, the fusion will be enhanced by new devices. These include Global Positioning System satellite receivers that load target coordinates directly into guided munitions, smart bombs that use "terminal guidance seekers" to lock onto moving targets and "small diameter" smart bombs that will enable an F-22 to hit as many as eight targets and a B-2 stealth bomber as many as 216 on a single sortie.

Decker, 40, a native of McHenry, Ill., who joined the Air Force at 22 after a brief career as a construction worker, said most Special Forces troops can "take one aircraft" and call in an airstrike. But combat controllers, he said, can "rack and stack" half a dozen fighters and heavy bombers like jetliners over a commercial airport before directing them to targets in rapid succession.

"If you can't get them on target quickly, those [planes] go home with ordnance -- and you've lost," Decker says. "That's air-space management, and that's what we do best."

Decker's war on terrorism began in early October, when he took over management of the control tower at Karsi Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan, guiding in giant C-17 cargo planes within hours.

But it was the "terminal attack" skills of Decker and his fellow combat controllers -- there are only 400 in the entire U.S. military -- that distinguished them on the battlefield once the Special Forces A teams were inserted into Afghanistan.

As the war wore on, the weapon of choice became the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), a 2,000-pound bomb that is guided to its target by signals from satellites.

The JDAM made its battlefield debut in Kosovo in 1999, providing all-weather precision capability for the first time. Unlike laser-guided bombs, a JDAM's guidance system is not impeded by cloud cover.

But without combat controllers and other Special Forces troops on the ground in Kosovo, most strike aircraft could only take off on combat missions with predetermined target coordinates.

The presence of Special Forces in Afghanistan made flexible targeting possible, officials said, greatly reducing the amount of time it took to identify and attack targets.

Instead of taking off with pre-programmed bombs, fighters and bombers flew into Afghanistan and were assigned to specific combat controllers on the ground, who gave them targets to attack.

"A JDAM allows you to target faster," said a combat controller named Jason, who did not want his last name used. "I can hit six different targets with six different JDAMs on one drop -- and it will totally shift the momentum of the battle."

Combat controllers must understand the capabilities of every jet in the sky and the blast radius of the different weapons they drop. In Air Force parlance, every bomb has a PI factor -- short for "personnel incapacitation."

For a 2,000-pound bomb, for example, controllers know that friendly forces must be 500 meters away to ensure their safety. A 2,000-pound bomb is so powerful that, even at 225 meters -- a distance greater than two football fields -- the PI factor would be 10 percent, meaning that 10 percent of friendly forces would be incapacitated for at least five minutes.

Another combat controller, a 27-year-old staff sergeant named Mike, who also asked that his last name not be used, returned here from Afghanistan with a whole new appreciation for personnel incapacitation. He was 50 feet away from a JDAM detonation.

He had just called in an airstrike on Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners during a riot at the Qala-i-Jhangi prison outside Mazar-e Sharif in late November. But instead of entering the enemy's coordinates into the bomb, a pilot apparently punched in those of Mike and other friendly forces instead.

A Northern Alliance tank absorbed much of the impact. "I can't see anything, I can't hear anything, my whole body is in shock from the explosion," Mike said, describing how the blast propelled him 30 feet into the air. "Before I hit the ground, I thought, 'I'm probably dead right now.' "

Although the blast flipped the tank upside down and killed several Northern Alliance fighters inside, Mike survived, suffering only scratched corneas and perforated eardrums.

Not everyone was so fortunate. Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, a combat controller, was one of seven soldiers killed in early March when a helicopter inserting Special Forces troops during the U.S. offensive against al Qaeda in the Shahikot valley came under fire. Another was shot on the battlefield north of Kandahar in December and lost an arm.

Back in Special Forces training, Mike remembers the ribbing he took when he arrived at Fort Bragg, N.C., for Army jump training. "You show up as an Air Force controller and they say, 'What are you doing here?' " Mike recalled. "We've always been the guys in the middle of the mix, the guys no one really talks about -- until now."