‘Courageous Restraint’ in action: U.S. pilots find it hard not to respond when fellow soldiers are under attack 

ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz was allowed to fly in an Air Force F-15E fighter jet on a combat mission in Afghanistan.  The plane was loaded with 500-pound bombs and ready to protect coalition forces on the ground.  But the guiding principle of the mission, Raddatz writes, was to exercise “courageous restraint,” that is, to not fire at the enemy if there were the possibility that civilians might be hurt or if buildings might be damaged — even if that meant that American or coalition forces were in great danger.

“Sometimes not firing can be tough,” Raddatz writes.  “Pilots say it’s hard to watch their fellow soldiers on the ground taking fire.”

But that’s what they do, under orders from top American commanders.  On this mission, when a French officer on the ground requested a bomb be dropped on the enemy, the U.S. pilot said no, opting for strafing instead because it would be safer for those on the ground — except, of course, for the coalition forces.  From Raddatz’s account:

Our mission was to provide close air support and “over watch” for 600 French troops on patrol in Kapisa Province.

The pilot, Col. Joe Beissner, has flown about 500 combat hours. He told me one of the things stressed again and again in the briefings, is to look out for collateral damage, namely for civilian casualties. But the air crews go out of their way to not only avoid hitting civilians, but also take care to avoid hitting property.

“Our primary issue that we discuss with our ground commander is how do we establish the positive identification of the target,” said Beissner, who is vice commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing. “Once that’s complete, we next ask is there any civilians or any potential of civilians being in the area of the weapons, and then we ask is there any potential for collateral damage.”

But in this war, making sure you kill the enemy — and no one else — can take far more discipline and even courage, as we would soon find out. In fact Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who is the commander in Afghanistan, calls this discipline, “Courageous Restraint.” It means even if someone on the ground is in trouble, you have to make sure you know what your target is and that you do your best not to hurt innocent civilians.

Sometimes not firing can be tough. Pilots say it’s hard to watch their fellow soldiers on the ground taking fire.

“We have to use restraint when it’s tough,” Col. Jack Briggs said. “We’re listening to these kids on the ground, and they’re taking fire.”

When the mission began, there was little action.  But after an in-flight refueling, Raddatz writes, things “took an urgent turn.”

The French air controller, called a JTAC for Joint Terminal Air Controller, who is on the ground with the French troops, says they have come under small arms fire and had a rocket propelled grenade launched at them.

“We have a bad guy with a weapon moving to the northeast!” he yells.

The JTAC does not hesitate. He asks the fighter jets to drop a 500 pound bomb, or GBU 38: “I request an attack at 340 degrees … in the treeline. …Confirm you guys are still taking effective fire.”

“They are very close … imminent attack,” he continues. “We just see one more RPG on that location. I request one GBU 38.”

But we can see from the air that a school is nearby and dropping a bomb would cause significant damage and possible loss of life. The aircraft recommends strafing, an extremely low-level attack using the jet’s powerful 20 millimeter machine gun. It’s much less likely to cause collateral damage. The French JTAC gives the go-ahead.

“You are clear, hot; clear, hot,” he yells.

The lead fighter jet dives toward the treeline and sprays it with bullets. An eruption of dust can be seen on the screen and below us, but the French ground controller is not satisfied.

“I request re-attack with one GBU, to the north 20 meters … north to south … one GBU, attacking 3-4-0,” he yells.

“Negative, that is close to the building,” we hear the lead F-15 reply. “The school to the south is too close for a GBU.” The American crews of the fighter jets sound frustrated. “They sure are antsy to drop some bombs on friendlies,” they say over the radio.

But the fighter jets coordinate with the French for a second strafing run. The fighter crew asks the JTAC to confirm that hostiles are still in the treeline. After they confirm where the strike should hit, 20 millimeter bullets pound into the treeline again. (The jet is armed with more than 500 rounds).

The enemy fire stops. The JTAC requests that our jets continue to scan for possible “squirters” — insurgents who may have escaped.

To watch Raddatz’s report, go here.

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