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The world’s most powerful gunship cannot win the war in Afghanistan

The US responded to the Iraqi insurgency with punishment raids. It didn’t work, but today’s commanders don’t seem to have learned the lesson.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
14 November 2019
AC130U Spooky gunship seen from below
Spooky, a civilian's eye view
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SpecialOpsGuy at English Wikipedia. Public domain.

In April 2004, a year after the start of the Iraq War, US troops were embroiled in a bitter urban insurgency that was to last another five years and leave Iraq deeply insecure. One particular incident that month in the disputed city of Fallujah powerfully illustrated the problem for the US. It also showed the US waging war in a way that made no effort to protect civilians. It is enthusiastically doing the same thing today in Afghanistan.

What happened in Fallujah began when a Marine Corps column was sent into the city to supply a small forward operating base but came under heavy attack from paramilitaries. The marines had to take refuge in a building and were besieged until a large rescue force extricated them in an intense three-hour battle. All the marines survived, though some were injured.

An experienced US journalist, Pamela Constable of the Washington Post, was embedded with the US military at the time and described the situation and its aftermath. She reported that the operation had been a success:

... but the incident also revealed some startling facts about the insurgency that the Marines are facing here, officers said. More dramatically than any armed confrontation since U.S. forces surrounded Fallujah nine days ago, it showed the tenacity, coordination, firepower and surprisingly large numbers of anti-American guerrillas who still dominate much of the city.

”We definitely stumbled into a wasps' nest. They were definitely a lot more organized than we thought,” said Capt. Jason Smith, 30, commander of the company whose armored supply vehicle made a wrong turn into insurgent territory and was immediately inundated by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades from all sides.

Marine officials here said offensive operations in Fallujah would remain suspended, extending a pause that was ordered Friday to allow civilians to leave the city and let political leaders in Fallujah and Baghdad attempt to negotiate a solution to the conflict.

Just before dawn Wednesday, however, AC-130 Spectre gunships launched a devastating punitive raid over a six-block area around the spot where the convoy was attacked, firing dozens of artillery shells that shook the city and lit up the sky. Marine officials said the area was virtually destroyed and that no further insurgent activity had been seen there.

The Pentagon had seriously misjudged the Iraqi insurgency. But the nature of the US response was also telling. Given US firepower it was a straightforward task to use gunships to devastate six blocks of a city, most likely killing many civilians. Those civilians, however, had not been given time to leave: this was a punishment raid and many Iraqis would have seen it as yet one more act of terror by their occupiers.

Spooky and Ghostrider

The aircraft used to stage this punishment raid was the AC-130U ‘Spooky’ gunship, a variant of the widely used Lockheed C-130 military transport. It was equipped with two remarkably powerful weapons housed in the fuselage and directed sideways and down. One was the M102 howitzer, which could fire 105 mm artillery shells over a range of seven miles at a firing rate of up to ten shells a minute. The second was the M61 Vulcan, a six-barrel cannon that could fire at the extraordinary rate of a hundred rounds a second. The operating pattern would be to circle the target area at low level but at some distance, firing the weapons as required. In areas of insurgency, given the risk of small-arms ground fire, most attacks would be done at night.

The point of this bit of recent military history is that the AC-130U has recently been retired from the US Air Force and replaced by the upgraded AC-130J ‘Ghostrider’, which has been operating in Afghanistan, giving the lie to any idea that this eighteen-year war is anywhere near over.

One of the key papers read across the US armed forces is Stars and Stripes, produced from the Pentagon, and this week it provided an update on this element of a largely unreported but intensifying war. The Ghostrider is broadly similar to the Spooky, having the same cannon and howitzer, but is also armed with air-to-ground missiles and laser-guided bombs. Its avionics and sensors have been upgraded and the aircraft also has increased engine power, enabling it to loiter at high altitude.

This gives it an advantage over its predecessor, especially in Afghanistan, where it is being used intensively. According to Stars and Stripes, since June Ghostriders have completed 218 sorties totalling 1,380 hours of air time, part of an increase in the pace of the war since peace talks with the Taliban collapsed earlier in the year.

This is in line with Trump’s declaration “to hit our enemy harder” after the peace talks collapsed. Afghanistan’s own air force now has some offensive capability, but it is minimal compared with the US support which has become essential for so many Afghan operations.

What is less straightforward is the wider effect of Ghostrider operations and other US attacks. One glaring example was the Spooky’s role in the notorious attack on a hospital in Kundiz Province in 2015, which killed 30 people. This was largely blamed on human error, but it is part of a civilian death toll which continues to this day. In the first half of this year, for example, the United Nations reported that more than 360 non-combatants had been killed by airstrikes. The Pentagon disputes the UN methodology but does not dispute the fact that it is the air strikes that are the leading cause of most civilian deaths.

US military deaths in Afghanistan are rare, and the use of gunships, armed drones and conventional strike aircraft is the main way the US is fighting this war. It is almost entirely unreported outside the military press, but we should be under no illusion that there is any end in sight, nor that the continued use of the world’s most powerful gunship will lead to the Taliban surrendering.

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