Nowadays we're accustomed to taking unmanned aerial vehicles - drones - for granted in combat. There are any number of makes and models out there, armed with almost anything an Air Force strike aircraft or bomber can carry. However, only a couple of decades ago, that wasn't the case. The then-fledgling Predator drone wasn't armed, and wasn't combat-ready at all. It was largely used as a reconnaissance asset.
The story of how those first Predators were armed with Hellfire missiles, and used even prior to 9/11 to look for terrorists in Afghanistan, is told in the book "Never Mind, We'll Do It Ourselves". The sub-title is "How a Team of Renegades Broke Rules, Shattered Barriers, and Launched a Drone Warfare Revolution".
The authors tell the story of how a combined USAF/CIA team adapted the Predator for anti-terrorist operations thousands of miles from America's shores, while controlling it from a ground station in the continental USA. They also modified the formerly unarmed aircraft to carry and launch two Hellfire missiles, from altitudes and attitudes previously undreamt of by the manufacturer. All this was done just in time for the Predator to come into its own after 9/11, in the battle for Afghanistan.
The initial efforts were conducted on a shoestring, with the team having to make many of their own decisions and fight to get authorization for missions. More traditionally-minded officers knew nothing about this then-new technology, and didn't want to be bothered with it. What really changed that was the Battle of Takur Ghar (also known as Roberts Ridge) on March 4th, 2002, when the hitherto almost unknown USAF/CIA project team and their armed Predator drone made the difference between victory and defeat in a bitter struggle in Afghanistan. Ironically, they were only on the scene by accident, but they turned it into an iconic effort that would dramatically expand the role and capabilities of drone aircraft in future.
I thought, given our current withdrawal from Afghanistan, it might be worth remembering those who fought and died there by recounting one of the early battles that defeated Al Qaeda, before the politicians screwed it up. Here's how the book's authors remember it - and are unlikely to ever forget it. There's a fair amount of profanity in this extract, but that's how soldiers talk. I've decided to leave it in, despite trying to keep this blog family-friendly, because sometimes one has to tell reality like it is.
(BTW, the team's radio callsign during this episode was 'Wildfire'.)
THE BATTLE OF ROBERT’S RIDGE
March 4, 2002
“What have you got?” Calls between Alec and I were now always direct. I was in the double-wide, and we were trying to get our arms around the developing shitstorm.
“We’re working our liaison with the Task Force; not much yet,” Alec spooled off as if reading from hastily scrawled notes. In the back of both our minds, we were kicking ourselves for not being able to get into the planning for Operation Anaconda, a significant Special Operations op to clear bad guys out of the Shahi-Kot valley.
“From what we’re picking up, one of the helos took heavy fire on landing—guns, RPGs. They got back in the air but couldn’t hold altitude.”
“Casualties?” I asked, fearing the worst.
“Unconfirmed. But it sounds like somebody fell out when they got hit.” More paper shuffled in the background.
“Thanks,” I said curtly. “Keep me posted.”
I set down the phone and passed the info to the double-wide team, which immediately passed the info to Darran and the team in the GCS.
“We may have a man down at the initial point of attack, and we’re probably the best asset to find him. We’re working the CAOC to get in there, but in the meantime, keep looking around for the needle in a haystack.”
I glanced at the clock. A bare few minutes had ticked by, minutes that felt like an eternity waiting for the gears of authority to give a grudging turn. It was hard to imagine what time felt like on the snow-covered ridge below. Even from this distance, we could see that the whole damn ridgetop was rippling with enemy fire.
I churned through the few facts on hand. Razor Zero-Three now sat in a smoking heap in the valley. The Navy SEALs on board were already humping their way back up the mountain to rescue the man they’d lost—seven miles straight up in deep snow with shit-thin air, with a lot of bad guys in the way. A flash of pride cut through the storm of emotions inside me. “No man left behind” wasn’t just a marketing slogan.
The second chopper, Razor Zero-Four, flew straight into the meat-grinder to drop its own team of SEALs, call sign Mako 30, on the ridge. By the sound of things, the Taliban had a lot more guys on the mountain than anybody expected. A continuous rain of heavy machine guns and RPGs were pushing the SEALs back off the mountaintop.
A Quick Reaction Force (QRF) was dispatched from Bagram Airfield: two more Chinooks loaded with Army Rangers. In the civilian world, cops in trouble call for SWAT, guys who roll in on a situation with no advance planning or knowledge and simply wrestle control by force just long enough to snatch our guys out of harm’s way. A QRF is largely the same thing; we surge in, suppress violently, and extract.
While a part of me was dying to get into the fight, the bigger part hoped that the QRF would end this thing in the next few minutes. For anybody on the ridge bleeding right now, time was life.
I did a quick assessment. Genghis was in the pilot seat. A top-notch F-15E jockey, she was one of my best in a fight. Tall and athletic, Genghis had a boundless love for the outdoors. I was lucky to have her on the team.
Andy was running sensors in the right seat. A young staff sergeant, Andy had learned a lot from Gunny, for better and for worse. He picked up bits of Gunny’s sandpaper charm, but also Gunny’s lethal effectiveness. Both Gunny and Andy had distinguished themselves as able to thread missile shots in through the window of a target building.
Darran was behind and between the two, informally parked on a cheap folding chair. He would be juggling maps and nav charts, working radios in a crunch, and doing anything else that couldn’t be squeezed into the heads-down displays at knee level or the larger heads-up display screens at eye level.
Cliffy wasn’t in the room, but his MacGyver magic was unmistakable. The normal GCS design brought no allowance for the display of threat data and imagery direct to the pilots and sensor operators. Cliffy had wrangled a way to split the threat data streams off, through a repeater, and into the GCS. The factory-original design demanded that threat data—we’re talking in the middle of a fight—be printed off in the trailer and run out to the GCS on paper. Thanks to Cliffy, our pilots could see the fight play out in real time. It was another case of a million-dollar requirement stitched together with zip ties and Velcro.
Big was parked in the second GCS, watching the same feeds that were playing in the live one. That gave us a second pilot to swap when needed and allowed him to be up to the moment on situational awareness.
It was a fluke we were out there in the first place. Task Force Mountain, a 10th Mountain Division team, had been dispatched as part of a bigger effort to clear the remaining Taliban fighters out of the Shahi-Kot valley. It was all hush-hush, but based on the efforts to keep everybody else out of the airspace, somebody was planning a big fight. We were high overhead, transitioning from one collection target to the next, and all this just happened to be on the way. Basically, we rubbernecked into one of the biggest fights in Afghanistan.
On his own initiative, Andy began to scour the bleak mountains for any signs of life. All our sensor operators were great at sniffing out significant activity. He had been searching through the mountains when he came across an inbound Chinook helicopter and decided to follow it. “Hello,” Andy muttered. “Where are you going?”
Andy glanced back at Darran and raised an eyebrow; Darran nodded back. The exchange was just another example of the oddball Vulcan mind meld we had developed working together.
Andy and Chris B. focused on the heads-up display with the MTS video, watching as the chopper rolled into a tight search pattern. Just a moment later, it slowed to a hover above a tall peak. Whatever it was looking for, it seemed to have found it.
Something found it as well. A flash of heat cut across the screen, a streak of white against a background of gray in the monochrome eye of thermal imaging.
“What the fuck was that?” Darran was in the mission-commander seat, leaning forward to stare at the screen as the glowing blob of helicopter thumped down hard on the mountaintop.
“Holy shit,” Genghis snarled, “I think we just lost a chopper.”
Andy zoomed in and out, slewing the camera to find the shooter.
A Chinook looks like an Oscar Meyer Wienermobile with rotors above both ends. As targets go, a hovering Chinook is like the broad side of a barn. The huge ramp door at the ass end of the chopper dropped open, and guys scrambled out, guns firing.
In the ghost-gray of infrared, we saw the explosion of black as the RPG slammed into the Chinook. Through the distant IR view, every rock, shrub, and crevice lit up with the starburst of muzzle flash. The helo lurched, side-slipped, and dropped out of the sky. It slammed down on the snowy peak in a spray of burning debris, the giant rotor blades slowly churning to a stop.
“Probably Razor Zero-One or Zero-Two.” The intercom voice came from the double-wide.
Call signs were a best guess for us at this point, just what we could pick up on radio. We were twelve miles away. Our mission was farther north, our presence here little more than a drive-by. Being there when the shit hit the fan was only happenstance.
That fan was Takur Ghar, a rugged ten-thousand-foot peak jutting up along the eastern edge of the Shahi-Kot valley. This was Taliban country, the kind of rugged stronghold that helped predecessors stand off the might of the Soviet Union years before. Judging from the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) overhead, and the AC-130 that had lapped through just beforehand, whatever was playing out on that jagged spike of rock was a big deal, something to which we hadn’t been invited.
In an instant, Genghis was on it, immediately requesting AWACS clear us into the airspace. It wasn’t budging. “They said they already had assets in the area,” she called out. As best she could, she explained that we weren’t some run-of-the mill observation platform—we had fangs. But despite her pushing, she was told to “stand by.”
This was no SA-3 engagement, no creeping forward a slice at a time like we had done in the past. Respecting US airspace limits wasn’t optional; anything sticking its nose uninvited into the kill box would get that nose shot off, with no care who we were or what kind of good intentions we brought to the fight. Genghis was forcefully pitching our case with the AWACS even higher overhead. What might look to the civilian eye like a commercial airliner with a giant rotating pizza bolted to the top, an AWACS was a command and control aircraft, the all-seeing, all-knowing eye that provided air traffic control across the battle space. It had the final word on what flew through the giant box of sky beneath.
To say that we were not invited was an understatement. We had been emphatically ordered to stay the hell away. The airspace had been declared off-limits, and we respected that boundary. But like any good warfighter we hugged the edge of our assigned airspace and peered intently inside to see what was going on as we flew to our next target.
Time froze for just a second, barely a heartbeat, a moment that felt like it stretched out for minutes. Then reality snapped back with a face-slap of adrenaline and Darran punched up the LNO.
“Ty, grab Eric and Alec, we need to work this.” Ty and Eric were going through changeover at this point. He didn’t have time for conjunctions, and Ty didn’t need them. Keys clattered like a machine gun as he worked with the Predator LNO at the CAOC in parallel.
It was time for me to swap seats with Darran. Alec hit the line first, reading my mind. Watching the same feed we had, he led off with, “Go direct with the ground; you’ve got whatever support you need from here.”
That was exactly what I wanted to hear. With warfighters in mortal peril this was no time to discuss interagency agendas or conflicting mission priorities. On his own authority Alec had just chucked our existing task and committed the full weight of the CIA behind saving American lives.
“We’re reaching out to the CAOC Predator LNO now,” I responded, snapping hand gestures to people around the GCS. No matter what the urgency, barging into controlled airspace in a crisis was a sure way to get shot out of the sky. It’s one thing to play cat and mouse with MiG fighters, but I wasn’t about to have a midair with one of ours. I shifted my focus.
The guys on the mountain continued to take fire. I don’t think the bad guys were all that surprised, I grumbled inwardly. By the looks of things, the bad guys had a pretty good idea we were coming.
Even from this distance we could see damage to both sides of the wrecked Chinook as rounds tore in one side and out the other. The inside of the helo had to feel like a garbage disposal. Bodies scrambled out the wide rear door, guns blazing. Some fought their way to scant cover; others dropped motionless on the edge of the ramp.
Still wrangling for clearance to enter the fight, we could only watch in horror.
Somebody on the ground started calling for air support. Identifying himself as Slick Zero-One, the beleaguered Airman had to split his bandwidth between moving, shooting, ducking, and coordinating an ad hoc air strike on what amounted to his own position. From ground level, he described the primary source of enemy fire as coming from a bunker some fifty to seventy-five meters uphill from the nose of the helo. Stealing glimpses between bullet strikes, he had to see the rise as a gravel wall speckled with muzzle-flash.
Our perspective from on high gave us the ability to provide a more analytic assessment. Absent much of anything for scale we reverted to our “unit of measurement” trick. The Chinook was a known, the fuselage measuring about sixty feet from tip to tail. The front face of the bunker was just over two Chinooks away, a distance closer to forty meters. We could see the irregular line of fighters fanning to either side of the primary bunker, tucked behind rocks or the sparse vegetation.
Almost every US asset in the sky was converging on Takur Ghar. Slick Zero-One engaged a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles that came at a run. I looked at the scene, knowing up front that talk-on from the ground would be an utter bitch. The Chinook was the only real point of reference, and the Eagle pilot would have to engage hostiles that hid within pistol-range of our survivors. The blast radius for the smallest bomb on the Strike Eagle would encircle the entire fight, friend and foe alike.
I pushed thoughts of Donnie from my mind and focused on the problem in front of me. Clearly on the same wavelength, Slick Zero-One was having a bad enough day without rolling the dice on that sort of crapshoot. He opted for gun runs.
Mind you, the guns on an F-15E are no joke. A dedicated killing machine, the Strike Eagle packed a General Electric M61 Vulcan Cannon. The modern progeny of a multibarrel Gatling gun, the Vulcan could spin up and vomit 20 mm explosive-incendiary shells at nearly a hundred rounds per second. In what might sound like a chainsaw revving, a Vulcan could saturate an area with bullets, each one bigger than a man’s thumb. What wasn’t shredded on impact was blown up and set on fire. The Air Force doesn’t fuck around in a gunfight.
It took several minutes to get the Strike Eagle oriented, according to both where to shoot and where emphatically not to shoot. Absent a laser, almost everything relied on Slick Zero-One’s ability to speak under heavy fire, the Strike Eagle pilot having only a glimpse of the target as he sizzled by at jet-fighter speeds. The Eagle rolled in. I could imagine the Gatling gun chewing a line of earth and rock into a trench of sand and gravel. Radio traffic from the ground reported some exposed enemies had been hit or scattered.
But the bunker held, the fire from within undiminished. The Eagle made a second pass, a third, a half-dozen or more with no change. Out of ammo and getting low on fuel, the Eagle had no choice but to break off.
The door of the GCS swung open abruptly. Marcella made a beeline behind Darran and Chris, then dove between Genghis and Andy. Without a word she punched a button, ejecting a tape cartridge with a short whine. Shoving a new tape in place, she turned on her heels and left just as abruptly. The door slammed behind her.
I looked at Darran, confusion on my face. He shrugged back, by all appearance equally baffled. Darran continued to work the Predator LNO to get us into the airspace. By the time Big swapped into the pilot seat, we received clearance into the airspace. He immediately began attempting to contact the ground party, which was difficult because we only had unencrypted radios and they were using encrypted radios.
Finally! I thought. Now maybe we can do some good.
Not much had improved on Takur Ghar. Although the F-15E’s guns had helped to shave the edges off the enemy force, the core remained terribly effective. Even with the best of tactics and training, the crew of Razor Zero-One had only the ammo they carried, firing guns that seemed anemic against the 12 mm Soviet machine guns that pounded their position.
With no relief in sight, Slick Zero-One opted to swing for the fence. An Air Force F-16 Falcon was next in the batter’s box, which like its beefier brother carried a Vulcan cannon. But Slick Zero-One had moved past the notion of winning this fight with a series of base hits; he opted for a Louisville slugger in the form of a five-hundred-pound JDAM, the same weapon that cratered Kandahar’s runways at the start of the war.
No question, spiking a JDAM through the roof of the bunker would obliterate everything inside. The problem was that the blast would also shred the Chinook and everyone hunkered around it. Ending a fight is important, but surviving the ending is the whole point.
The answer, as best as they could reason, was to drop the bombs on the far side of the bunker. Placed properly, the blast would wash over the back of the bunker but come up just short of the Americans.
I thought about Alec’s “Black Widow” and her bug splats, about all the science that goes into predicting where fragments of white-hot steel might go. That game doubled in complexity because we had no idea what else was inside the bunker. Secondary explosions, the kind we might get from, say, a stack of mortar shells, could turn a big explosion into a helluva big explosion. The margin of error was paper thin, maybe nonexistent.
I doubted that Slick Zero-One had the bandwidth for much of the math, but by the sound of things he had a real solid grasp on the concept. He directed the F-16 to drop on the back side of the peak, hoping, I supposed, to send enough of a shockwave through the earth to collapse the fortification. That strategy would put as much of the mountain as he could wrangle between his men and the blast. It was a ballsy move, but he was low on options.
The F-16 rolled in. Much like the Strike Eagle before it, the F-16 delivered its rounds spot on target. We watched the attacks that played out like inverted fireworks, a streak from the sky that burst explosively when it reached the ground. Huge chunks of rock were blown into the air, hot earth vaporized into a thermal cloud. Then the dust settled, and from within the bunker, the gunfire resumed.
A second bomb was dropped, the target point edging closer. Then a third, closer yet. The mud-spatter of rocks and debris rained down across the Chinook.
It was agonizing to listen to run after run, kicking up a lot of dirt. Slick Zero-One was getting punchy trying to call in fires and fight at the same time, having to repeat the same instructions to each new aircraft. He was running on the end of endurance while we were rotating bodies as needed. On a rapid rotation, Troy had just cycled into the pilot seat.
“I’ve got ‘em!” The voice erupted from behind me, just a heartbeat ahead of the rush of fresh night air that flowed through the open door.
I turned to see Marcella once more in the doorway, now holding a piece of paper at head height. A fire burned in her eyes as she stepped in and slapped the page on the desk. “I know where they are.”
I looked down at the page beneath her hand. It was a photograph, a screengrab from Predator’s camera feed she had pulled off the tape. The image was overlaid with hand-drawn notations. Lines of sight, angles. And a red circle on the front face of a pile of rocks. Marcella stabbed a finger in the center of it. “We need to shoot here.”
I winced, tapping a cluster of blobs on the photo. “No, Marcella. Our guys are here, and the bunker is—”
“I know where the fucking bunker is. But they’re shooting at the wrong place.” She shook her head, forcing her calm. “No, not wrong, just … they can’t see things like we can. Look, those F-15s and F-16s have been hitting the same spot with everything they’ve got. Pounding the roof, pounding the back side—it won’t work. The walls and roof are feet, hell maybe meters, of rock and earth. It’s Taco Bell ten times over. We need to put a shot through the front window.”
I looked up at her and blinked. A well-earned rule in warfare is that the guy on the ground, typically the guy getting shot at, has the best understanding of the battle space. As a nation we’d seen time and time again what happened when some REMF, far removed from the battlefield, thinks he or she has a better idea of what is going on. That happened in places like Mogadishu, and we all know how that turned out.
And yet here was an imagery analyst who could fit in a large rucksack telling me that from eight thousand miles away she had a more finite understanding of the battle space than the SEALs and Rangers who were bleeding all over it.
And fuck if I didn’t believe her. Marcella wasn’t a showboat; this wasn’t some midcrisis play for relevance. I’d stand her up against the entire flock of NIMA-nerds that Alec had at his disposal. I’d seen Marcella Marcella identify a truck by its shadow from four miles in the sky. She raised an eyebrow and tapped the circle. “Right here.”
I glanced at the control station. Next to Big at pilot was Joker in the center seat, Andy at SO, and Chris as the backup sensor operator. I pointed her to them. “Brief ’em.”
I turned to Joker. “Get Slick Zero-One on the line.”
What followed had to be one of the strangest combat discussions in history. I had no idea how Slick Zero-One would handle any of it. Here he was, stuck on a mountain in the middle of a helo crash, bullets chipping rocks around his head, and we’re poking him to juggle off secure comms to answer an open line just to talk to us. I felt like a telemarketer from the Twilight Zone, calling the poor guy at the worst moment in his life.
Hi sir, you don’t know me, in fact on paper we don’t exist. But you’re in a horrible firefight right now, and while technically we are eight thousand miles away, we have an unmanned airplane over your head packing a pair of antitank missiles. What’s that? Uh, no sir, we don’t actually use the term “model airplane.”
Once we got past our identity, we explained why the gun runs and bombs had failed and how a Hellfire through the front door would do the job. Remarkably, Slick Zero-One had some knowledge of Predator as a platform, but the Hellfire part was a twist. What we proposed was not going to happen at the far edge of the envelope; it was gonna happen just off the end of his nose.
Now, skepticism is healthy. It is critical in the military and never more so than when you bring explosives to a firefight. Nothing is friendly about friendly fire, and nobody in his or her right mind is comfy with the idea of calling for high explosives to be delivered less than a football throw away.
But if necessity is the mother of invention, getting shot at is the mother of opening your mind to alternatives. Having burned through four manned fighter’s worth of air support to no avail, the relentless barrage made any idea, even a crazy one, seem a little more palatable. Still, even neck-deep in shit, there are limits to how far somebody is willing to make a leap of faith.
Joker cupped his hand over the boom mic on his headset. “Slick wants to take the shot, but his ground commander wants a demo shot on some bush down the hill.”
I scowled. One round of show-and-tell would expend half of the firepower we were carrying. “He understands we only have two missiles, right?”
Joker nodded. “I made that real clear. Slick’s onboard, but the GC says it’s the bush or nothing.”
I cursed under my breath, hating to waste fifty percent of my ordnance on a demo. Still, I couldn’t fault the guys on the ground. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, they were trying their damnedest to save lives. If I were in his shoes, I’d have done the same thing.
Sometimes, while in a fight, we need to make a call quickly, without the normal string of “Mother, may I” permissions. This was one of those moments. I turned to Joker. “Hell, if that’s what he wants, shoot the fucking bush.”
Everyone spun into action. Our load-out carried the usual pairing of two [Hellfire] missiles, a Kilo and a Mike. The former did a better job of punching through armor, while the latter would throw a hell of a lot more violence across an open area.
“Use the Mike on the bush,” I said to Big. With the new sleeve on the K, it was my biggest hitter. We could show off with the jab and keep our roundhouse for when it counted. If we did fire on the bunker, I wanted to turn the inside of that thing into a blast furnace.
Andy swung the optics to a lone scrub bush that clung to the barren slope a couple football fields away. As the crosshairs centered on the straggly plant I asked him “Are you sure we’re all looking at the same bush?”
“Fuck if I know,” Andy replied, pushing the zoom. “It looks like the most prominent one I can see from up here. But I’ve never had a talk-on to a plant before.”
Fair point, I thought. Low scrub was largely IR neutral, pretty much the same temperature as the rest of the environment. For all we knew, we could be aiming at a completely different bush. But there was no time for dragging this out. We ran the shot by the numbers, the bush was a target like any other until the sudden stutter in the video feed as Troy squeezed the trigger and the missile left the rail.
Then came the wait, twenty to thirty seconds as the missile streaked down out of the sky, waiting to see if with millions of dollars we’d been able to build a transnational laser-guided Weed eater. With nothing really to lock on to, Andy had to hand fly the missile into the bush.
The blast of impact was anemic in IR, not much more than a dull flash that scattered a lot of hot gravel. There were no car parts, no fuel tanks, no burning debris. But as the dust cleared, we could see the burning scraps of an Afghan tumbleweed scattered around the impact crater.
Moments later, Joker looked back at me, flashing a thumbs-up. “He wants us to hit the bunker!”
“Great!” I said, more in relief than irritation. It was excruciating to watch Americans under fire, feeling we could help if only given the chance. Only now we weren’t just a chance; we were pretty much the last-ditch hope.
I got Alec back on the line. Making the call on a bush was one thing, but unilaterally slinging a missile right over friendly troops was a different matter altogether. I needed somebody higher up the food chain to authorize a shot that had a chance to end this fight.
Alec was quick to relay the decision. “You’ve been cleared to engage.” He had no need for a “don’t fuck it up” here. He understood just how paper-thin we were slicing it.
“All right, here’s our target,” I said, handing Big the sheet with Marcella’s marked-up photo. The talk-on we were getting from Slick Zero-One was accurate, just not specific. “The bunker fifty feet in front of us” set up the ballpark, but the gap under the big slab of rock was the sweet spot, the Achilles’ heel. All we had to do was hit it.
There was no point trying to explain it to the guys on the ground. The long and the short of it was that we were about to send a Hellfire missile screaming over their heads. Trying to explain it to Slick Zero-One would have been like trying to describe a one-mile sniper shot to a guy in a nose-to-nose pistol battle.
In this case, though, the sniper analogy was a little unsettling. We weren’t a mile away; we were over two miles above a ten-thousand-foot peak. With only fifty meters separating a hit dead-on the enemy from one dead-on our own men, our margin of error was somewhere on the order of one-quarter of one degree. Factor in for the blast and frag radius, and we could cut that margin to about an eighth of one degree. In sniper parlance, a one-eighth minute of angle shot was akin to hitting an aspirin dead-center from a football field away. Miss that shot by just the diameter of the bullet, and good guys die. Add to that freezing cold and high-altitude winds, and a team that had been on-station for the last fifteen hours. But if we don’t take the shot, everybody dies. Nah, we had no pressure at all.
But if anyone around me was aware of the difficulty, it didn’t show. I watched my team perform like it had on every other shot, with skill and precision and no skipped steps and no shortcuts. Nobody was unprepared. It all came down to this.
The optic ball tracked smoothly as Wildfire swept in, and I ran through the final checklist: “Missile Armed. Laser on. Lasing. Confirm Lasing.”
Gun flashes burned from inside the bunker, the massive forked flare of a heavy machine gun centered on the screen.
American voices were on the radio, nearly drowned out by the chatter of gunfire.
“3 … 2 … 1 … Rifle.”
Big pulled the trigger and the missile vanished, nosing up only briefly before seeking out the shimmering ball of laser light that Andy held on the target. Time slowed to a crawl, my entire being focused on the image on the screen. One-eighth of one degree.
Then a black flash exploded, debris and body parts flying through the air. Dust and smoke obscured everything.
From within the haze I heard screaming; raw, ragged voices on the radio. I couldn’t process the words at first, only that they were English—American voices. It took a long moment before my brain latched on to an explosive “Fuck yeah!” Not screaming, I realized, but cheering.
Only then did I remember to breathe. The image on-screen cleared as mountain winds swept away the cloud of dust. The men of Razor Zero-One were standing up from behind their spartan cover, guns shouldered and sweeping the bunker. But the only thing coming out was smoke, trails of black and the occasional spark of loose ammo cooking off. Whatever had been inside was dead.
A roar tore through the GCS, the same torn-from-the-gut cheer that likely was rattling the walls of every structure involved with this process. Dots seemingly scattered randomly across the globe all tasted victory.
It was a short celebration. We’d gutted the Taliban fortress, but a whole lot of bad guys were still clambering around on the mountain. With a much-needed breather, Razor Zero-One had a chance to regroup and address the wounds. The soldiers were low on ammo and battery power. We maintained contact as their two medics worked frantically to stabilize the injured; from the sound of things a couple guys were pretty bad off. Slick Zero-One continued to call in air strikes against the clumps of enemy forces scattered across the mountain.
We had no word on incoming helos and wondered where the evac team was. Joker stayed on the radio with Slick Zero-One, a friendly voice to lend some comfort as the time dragged on.
“We’re freezing up here,” Slick Zero-One said quietly at one point, “and another guy just died. Can you talk to the Army and get us off this mountain?”
Although we were out of missiles, we made the call to stay on-station, circling overhead to provide the best set of eyes. I heard Joker say, “Slick Zero-One, do you need me to take over? We’ll handle it from up here. We’re not leaving you.”
Slick Zero-One seemed all too relieved to have the help. It was pretty apparent that whatever the hell this Wildfire thing was overhead, we had earned our chops with the guys on the ground and with the AWACS as well, it seemed, who were all too happy when we started calling in other air assets to drive the enemy off the rest of the mountain.
An al-Qaeda convoy tried to push its way onto the ridge; it died ugly. Joker had been lining up a pair of F-15Es to do a gun run on the convoy when a Spectre gunship declared itself available. Troy kept our Predator in a perfect ellipse over the battle space while Joker called in fire. Using our Rover feed as a guide, the AC-130 fired what looked like a laser beam of tracer fire, carving trenches in the earth. Running or hiding, if something escaped one round of carnage, Andy picked it up and the cycle would repeat. It was less a matter of clearing the mountain as it was sanitizing it with fire. As I watched the onslaught I found myself doubting that so much as a scorpion could have survived.
“Where the hell are the evac birds?” The question became a mantra in the GCS as the hours slid by. Razor Zero-One was relentlessly demanding medevac, declaring status critical for at least one of the wounded. But with Bagram just over an hour away, we still weren’t tracking inbound choppers.
It came as no surprise that by now, somebody well up the chain of command would be damned curious about their wayward bird and why it wasn’t headed home. For the umpteenth time, I had Alec on the line, echoing Joker’s commitment to the guys on the ground.
“There’s still no word on the evac. Tell everybody whatever you need to, but we’re not leaving ’em alone up there.”
Alec didn’t need convincing, he was shoulder to shoulder with all of us that this mission trumped anything else going on. Fuck the priorities; today we are saving a handful of guys stuck on a mountaintop in the ass end of nowhere. We had unmatched situational awareness and the ability to designate fire on just about anything that moved. If anybody with ill intent even thought about coming up that slope, they’d only live briefly enough to regret it.
I told the crew, “I want iron on the mountain. Let enemies and the friendlies both know that airpower is here.” And by God we rained iron.
The barrage fell into a rhythm with the steady stream of air assets cycling into the battle space. Joker had planes stacked like pancakes: Strike Eagles and Falcons, Navy F-14 Bombcats, Marine F/A-18s. While Andy was buddy-lasing one target, Joker established comms with the next inbound, exchanging the laser codes necessary to allow one aircraft and bomb to tune to the laser illuminating the intended target. This allows simultaneous or nearly simultaneous attacks on multiple targets by a single aircraft, or flights of aircraft, dropping laser guided weapons while limiting spoofing by the enemy. That’s a technical way of saying that we became the express lane for the delivery of American firepower.
To stay at our best, we hot-swapped pilots and SOs, keeping fresh eyes on screens and steady hands on the controls. Joker stayed in place at the center seat, having established himself as an authority presence in the battle space. He had talked so many aircraft into the fight that he had it down to a science. Perhaps as important, he had become a persistent point of contact with the guys on the ground. “We’re not leaving you guys,” he repeated time and again.
We did all this largely on our own authority, side-stepping the CAOC and the interminable delays of asking for permission at every turn. Nobody argued, nobody bitched; it was a group of Americans doing whatever it took, big or small. I couldn’t imagine what sort of voodoo Alec was doing to placate his side of the planet, but everybody backed our play and let us do the right thing, the American thing.
While our ability to remain on station seemed limitless compared to that of our gas-guzzling, jet-powered brethren, our promise to stay to the end was finally challenged by a glowing Low Fuel indicator. Big, now in the pilot seat, turned to me and sadly announced that we had entered the last stage in the evolving path towards bingo fuel. The time had come for Wildfire 54 to head home.
Had this been a manned aircraft, this would be the end of our part in the story. Out of gas was an unforgiving and unbending rule that existed since the dawn of powered flight. But Wildfire had made a promise to these guys, and we didn’t have to play by the rules.
For the last several hours, our second Predator, Wildfire 55, had been winging its way into the battle space. On what amounted to a “3, 2, 1, go,” we executed a Chinese fire drill between the two GCSs, pilots, and sensor operators swapping seats with their counterparts. In just moments, the crew familiar with the fight found themselves at the control of a fresh aircraft with full gas tanks. Like I told Alec, we weren’t leaving these guys, even if we had to jump our crew from one fucking plane to another in midflight to stay on station. And it was good that we remained.
Despite everything we had thrown at the enemy thus far, they remained a tenacious opponent. A second bunker to the south revealed itself and suddenly started lobbing mortar rounds across the ridgetop.
Mortar attacks are a cause for urgency. With the ability to rapidly arc one shell after another, a crack mortar team can zero in on a target pretty damn fast. We weren’t about to give them the time. Reaching for the top card in our deck of available assets, we blinked with surprise when it came up a French Mirage 2000.
That’s not a knock on our coalition brothers; the French flew with distinction. But although this process had become almost business as usual with US air assets, handling a talk-on and potential buddy lase—sharing the laser from one asset to guide the weapon from another asset—with a foreign national in this case, even a trusted ally, was a different matter. The French pilot wanted our laser code; we replied that we’d adjust our laser to match his bomb. It was a short battle, and we weren’t budging. Suffice it to say that the French crew proudly added their fist to the beating that fell on the southern bunker.
The knock-out blow came from yet another Navy Tomcat, the swing-wing fighter made famous in the 1980s film Top Gun. Since the bunker was located considerably farther away from our guys on the ground, we were free to go heavy on the ordnance. The mortar team was loading another round when a one-thousand-pound Paveway II turned the entire pit into a giant steaming golf divot. As chunks of debris and mortarman rained from the sky, I felt a bit of old-school satisfaction that touched me down to my Air Force blue.
For the impossible shot, use precision. For everything else, drop a shit-ton of high explosives.
As promised, we remained on station into the night. When nothing was left to shoot, we were simply a friendly voice in the darkness, a presence overhead. Scott and Gunny were now in the seat, with Will, Steve H., and Rob G. swapping out. We did more rover work with an AC-130, scanning the helo ingress route for threats.
In the spirit of “use every blade in the pocketknife,” Gunny came up with an innovative angle for yet another part of the Predator package. The MTS ball had not only a laser designator, which we had been using to great effect all night, but also a laser illuminator. Invisible to the naked eyes of the enemy, US troops with night-vision saw the illuminator as a powerful spotlight that shone down out of the night sky.
Gunny repeatedly swept the peak, pushing back the darkness. It was less about discovering a threat than it was giving the guys on the ground that extra measure of comfort knowing we were overhead, still watching. In the end, the IR spotlight helped guide in the rescue choppers that at long last arrived to take our guys home. The pickup and exfiltration were uneventful save for the result: Slick Zero-One and his buddies made it off that godforsaken mountain.
At some point, Colonel Boyle asked if the sun had risen in Afghanistan. After untold hours in a darkened GCS staring at infrared camera footage, the question took everyone by surprise. Gunny flipped the camera ball to optical mode and the stark reality of the “morning after” hit home.
Our flight team was exhausted, but we could only imagine what the guys on the mountain had endured—not only the long hours but also getting shot at, crashing a helo, and enduring the bitter cold and loss of brothers. Our exhaustion didn’t seem to stack up.
In the course of what had thus far been the sum of the Predator program, contact with friendlies on the ground had been rare by design. In the jargon of the CIA, “We were never there.” Any awareness at all was more often than not the nameless provision of a laser dot before we disappeared into the night.
But this fight had been different, the unexpected but unforgettable payoff coming in just a few words of radio traffic between Slick Zero-One and the air assets overhead. When asked a question about the status, Slick Zero-One replied, “Talk to that Wildfire guy. I don’t know who he is, but he’s been saving our ass all night.”
Thousands of Americans were killed, wounded and maimed in Afghanistan. They achieved the initial objective of neutralizing Al Qaeda in that country, and (eventually) of killing Osama bin Laden, but were effectively left dangling by politicians and policy-makers who couldn't figure out what to do next, but didn't have the courage to call a halt to the bloodshed. We should not forget their sacrifice, and should honor their service and their memory.