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Report: Poor planning for air cover during key Afghanistan battle

Air Force document says no major mistakes made

From Mike Mount

A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt
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Air Warfare
Unrest, Conflicts and War

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. ground commanders failed to coordinate with the Air Force until a week before a key 2002 battle in Afghanistan, causing confusion among troops in a fierce fight and pilots providing air cover, an Air Force report released Friday says.

The report, titled "Operation Anaconda, an Air Power Perspective," shows serious problems with how U.S. ground commanders planned the operation against Taliban fighters and al Qaeda terrorists in eastern Afghanistan during March 2002.

The report concludes no major mistakes were made in the battle, one of the deadliest of Operation Enduring Freedom. Eight U.S. troops and three coalition forces died during the mission to secure a hilltop known as Takur Gar.

The report shows that while the Air Force succeeded in protecting ground troops, it broke its rules in battle.

The report points out that planes dropped bombs in the paths of other friendly aircraft, fired on enemy positions without using standard combat procedures, endangered pilots and the rules of engagement for firing on enemy positions were not clear.

While the report paints a chaotic picture at times, it says that the Air Force, operating in an area of about 10 square miles, did a much better job than could have been expected given the conditions.

Operation Anaconda was planned in the first half of February 2002, but according to the report, planning on the air component did not start until the last week of that month, a few days before the start of the operation.

The air commander was not informed about the operation until one week before its start, the report says.

Ground commanders underestimated the number of enemy fighters and assumed the small number of Taliban and al Qaeda would not require much close air support, the report says.

"Much of the problem seemed to stem from the lack of clear and frequent contact between the right elements of the staffs of the two components [air and ground forces]," the report says.

The slow notification to the Air Force of the operation, the report says, "affected fire support planning and execution."

Air commanders struggled to give ground commanders the close air support the troops needed in the opening days of Anaconda as aircraft from as far away as Kuwait were flown in and immediately put to work, according to the report.

In one case, two A-10s made a five-hour flight from Kuwait and instead of landing, immediately dropped bombs on enemy mortar positions firing on U.S. troops who were "screaming for close air support," the report said.

Smaller bombs better suited for dropping close to friendly troops also were rushed to the battle, and by commanders who had to make numerous adjustments during battle, the report says.

According to the report, the commander of the air forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Michael T. Moseley, told Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks about the planning, "We shouldn't go into this thinking that the air component's going to come in like the cavalry and bail everybody out. We should have all of this happen at the beginning."

Air Force commanders also complained that they would have liked to have been able to "soften up" or "prepare" the battlefield before and at the start of the fight, to clear hilltop mortar positions so that the "shock against the opposition would have been immediate."

Though Operation Anaconda was essentially a success for the U.S. forces, air commanders and ground commanders were dissatisfied with the level of information about the planning for the mission.

"What was lacking was a free and full exchange of information about upcoming operations," the report states.

"Working hard on their pieces of the battle, there was little initiative -- by land and air commanders -- to reach out to the other to enhance coordination and effectiveness," the report says.

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