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Afghanistan: Use Of Precision Warplane Signals New Phase In Campaign

The military action in Afghanistan has so far focused on high-altitude fighter jets, bombers, and long-range missiles. But the recent deployment of two turboprop gunships may signal the start of a new phase in the battle.

Washington, 17 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- After nine days of pounding targets in Afghanistan with fighter planes and bombers from high altitudes, the United States has turned to low-flying aircraft -- a precision-firing, lumbering, turboprop workhorse first used in the Vietnam War.

U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold confirmed yesterday in Washington that two AC-130s - powerful gunships often used to support ground forces and described as one of the most lethal planes in the U.S. air arsenal -- took part in the military action on 15 October.

Newbold would not say how the AC-130s were used, but defense officials were quoted as telling U.S. media that the planes attacked Taliban troop concentrations near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, marking the first time in the U.S.-led action that a special-operations aircraft has been employed.

But it also marked the opening of a new phase in the campaign to dismantle the Al-Qaeda organization of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born militant believed to be behind September's attacks on the U.S., and the Taliban militia that allegedly harbors them.

In turning to the AC-130s, Newbold said the U.S.-led military action has moved beyond its initial focus on high-flying aircraft and missiles striking at stationary targets, such as airports and communication centers. The general said: "I think you've seen over the past four or five days a shift to strike emerging targets, and that is exactly the way how you'd like to see a campaign to go -- to emphasize agility in execution."

Whether or not the AC-130 will see further action is unclear. But if history is any indication, the U.S. will make ample use of the powerful gunship, whose two models go by the call signs "Spooky" and "Specter."

First employed in the Vietnam War to knock out enemy vehicles and back up ground troops, the four-engine turboprop jointly built by the manufacturing firms Lockheed and Boeing has been busy in the last decade, seeing action in Panama, the Persian Gulf War, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Somalia, and Albania.

Manned by five officers and eight enlisted men including four gunners, the plane flies low to capitalize on surgically precise 105mm and 40mm cannons and 25mm guns. It has television, infrared, and radar sensors that enable it to distinguish between real and false targets at any time -- night or day, good or bad weather.

Newbold, who said 15 October's AC-130 mission was successful, made this observation about the plane, which costs between $130 million and $190 million: "It has a wide array of unique advantages, including support of ground troops, including precision-striking, its ability to loiter and to discriminate and to acquire -- it ought to worry the Taliban."

But because it is slow and low-flying, the AC-130 is vulnerable. That's why analysts agree that its use indicates the U.S. has largely handicapped Taliban air-defense capabilities -- even if the U.S. military believes the Taliban still have some anti-aircraft Stinger missiles.

Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy and military analyst at the Brookings Institute, a Washington think-tank, had this to say about the use of the AC-130: "I would think there's a good chance we're shooting at Taliban vehicles, whether it be mobile artillery or tanks or pick-up trucks used by Taliban forces. There's a good chance that we're trying to track and follow military leadership of the Taliban and be able to attack their convoys."

The appearance of the AC-130, usually used to back up special ground forces, is also a good indication that a ground operation is imminent. On 15 October, "The Washington Times" daily quoted a senior Bush administration official as saying that special units such as the Army's Delta Force commandos would be used "very soon."

But Jack Spencer, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, another Washington think-tank, says that while he isn't sure, the use of AC-130s may be a sign that there are already U.S. troops on Afghan soil: "I do think that will happen in a relatively short time. I mean, I think that there are people on the ground right now. I think there probably have been American troops on the ground since about 13 September -- you know, collecting data, establishing a primary database of information which we really didn't have."

In any case, both O'Hanlon and Spencer agreed that any ground operation is likely to be limited. O'Hanlon had this to say: "Is this a first step toward a major ground war that would look like Desert Storm? I think the answer is absolutely no. I think that what you're looking at is the need to get lower and hit harder at the mobile targets and battlefield capabilities of the Taliban, and that's the context in which I would understand the AC-130 deployment."

One question about the AC-130s is where they are flying from. The aircraft can be refueled mid-air, so in theory it could be launched from bases in the Middle East or Turkey. But O'Hanlon thinks the most likely base of operations is in Central Asia, probably either Tajikistan or Uzbekistan.

Still, despite the U.S. military's heavy reliance on the AC-130 in past conflicts, it is unclear how much they will continue to see use in the current effort. O'Hanlon said the options were many: "I think you'll see more things like the AC-130, perhaps attack helicopters, perhaps close air-support combat jets. I'm not sure if the AC-130 is going to be the primary instrument. It does have a greater vulnerability than some of the other assets we might use, like an Apache helicopter. So I think you will see an increasing orientation of our forces away from bombers and cruise missiles towards airplanes that are capable of more precision strikes against frontline forces, but I'm not sure the AC-130 will be the primary workhorse."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on 15 October that the war is heading in a new direction -- straight at Taliban troops facing Afghan opposition fighters in the northeast.

Rumsfeld said that won't be a safe place for Taliban fighters -- a prediction that appears all the more likely if AC-130s are roaring overhead.