ABOARD USS NIMITZ, Gulf of Oman (Reuters) - “A jet has dropped,” a commander tells an officer in a quick exchange, both pressed against the wall as sailors hurried by in a corridor below the deck of the aircraft carrier Nimitz.
Word of the air strike travelled fast on the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. It was the first bombing raid by an aircraft off the Nimitz since it launched its first flight sortie on Sept. 18 in support of foreign forces in Afghanistan.
Its pilots will be in the spotlight after General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in July issued new guidelines supposed to limit civilian casualties by requiring troops to take extra steps before opening fire.
McChrystal says he wants to change the focus of his 100,000-strong force, from hunting insurgents to protecting Afghan civilians. Within weeks of taking command, he issued new combat orders, tightening the rules for ordering air strikes.
But while the Nimitz was transiting to its area of operations, an air strike called in on Sept. 4 by a German commander on two fuel trucks hijacked by Taliban fighters killed 30 civilians, according to the Afghan government.
NATO is investigating whether the attack violated McChrystal’s rules. NATO troops say they have killed far fewer civilians in air strikes this summer than last summer, despite taking more casualties of their own.
McChrystal says that extra short term risk is necessary to reduce the risk over the long term by escalating casualties.
As the situation on the ground in Afghanistan has become more complex, the pilots’ role has changed.
While during the first operations in 2001 they hardly communicated with ground troops and merely pulled the trigger, they now provide information to ground forces from their sensors to ensure rules of engagement are being followed.
“Back then it was a traditional military setting, it was small tactical victories passed down to the Navy, but now it’s different because everyone is involved in strategic-level decisions,” said Lieutenant Commander John Kelly who has flown missions into Afghanistan since 2001.
He said that in 2007 air crews and ground troops started to share the same video pictures in making decisions on which weapons to use in an air strike or to apply other means instead.
“Hopefully a show of force just by us coming down, flying by fast and low is enough to solve whatever they were taking fire from,” he said.
Pilots said they still depended to a large extent on the assessment of ground troops.
“Those are the ones that have to decide whether the threat against them is in line with the strategic thinking...of the new tactical directives ‘Do you need that combat power to solve that situation you’re in right now’,” said Lieutenant Commander Michael Kampfe.
But part of the new directives is that air crews have a greater say in whether or not air strikes should be carried out.
“We can stop the kill chain, too, if it doesn’t look right to us. We’re trained to have a very questioning attitude,” Kampfe said.
Rear Admiral John W. Miller, commander of the Nimitz strike group, told Reuters that at about the same time when the German commander called in the strike on the hijacked fuel trucks, an air crew did not follow ground troops’ demand for air support in a separate incident.
“The air crew concluded that that particular air strike didn’t meet the guidelines, because they’re looking at it from different vantage points, so they do come to different conclusions”, he said.
“(The ground troops said) ‘We think we need a bomb’, the air crew said ‘We don’t and here’s why’, so that ground crew did find a different solution,” he said.
Reporting by Frederik Richter; Editing by Diana Abdallah