F-16's Provide Essential Air Support In Afghanistan
During a raid in February 2019 on a terrorist stronghold in a remote Afghan village, U.S. ground forces came under enemy fire. They called for close air support, and shortly thereafter, an F-16 Fighting Falcon dropped munitions to eliminate the threat.
Lt. Col. Benjamin Freeborn, 510th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, distinctly remembers that mission.
“What really struck me about that particular mission was this village was small, and our troops took more risk than they could have in order to protect the civilian population,” Freeborn said. “For us it’s more important to protect the population and support the government of Afghanistan than it is to apply massive fire to the ground.”
The 510th EFS at Bagram Airfield delivers precision fire to protect U.S. and coalition forces in support of Operations Freedom’s Sentinel and the NATO Resolute Support mission. While many fighter squadrons have multi-role missions and train across the spectrum of air threats, surface threats and close air support strategic strikes, this team focuses mainly on the close air support aspect. Freeborn said the airpower they deliver helps ensure the safety of the ground forces they support.
“Oftentimes we spend a couple of hours just flying over watch,” Freeborn said. “Then when a firefight kicks off, we have almost no warning and have to get there quickly to provide that coverage for the ground troops.”
Freeborn said building and maintaining a positive relationship with the F-16 maintainers is paramount in ensuring operations run smoothly.
“The trust we need to have in them is amplified because we fly single-engine, single-seat aircraft where there’s not a large margin for error,” Freeborn said. “Our aircraft maintenance unit is among one of the best I’ve had the chance to work with.”
With operations going around the clock, keeping these aircraft mission ready in a combat zone is a daunting task for the 510th Aircraft Maintenance Unit; but they are up to the challenge.
“Everyone here is focused on the mission,” said Chief Master Sgt. Seth Lininger, 510th AMU superintendent. “We just make sure we can get aircraft in the air 24/7.”
Lininger said when an F-16 returns with empty rails—meaning they dropped munitions—maintenance Airmen do an end-of-fire inspection, load new munitions and ensure all the aircraft systems are functional before preparing for another flight.
“We have a nonstop flow of aircraft into the air,” Lininger said. “We want to make sure our ground troops are always covered.”
The close relationship between the flying squadron and maintenance unit started well before this deployment; the Airmen are also stationed together at Aviano Air Base, Italy, and have been preparing for their mission here together for over a year.
Lininger and Freeborn said the 510th “Buzzards” take great pride in their work and come together as a seamless team to ensure mission accomplishment. As an F-16 pilot, Freeborn said his job is satisfying because he sees the immediate impacts of his role, which is all about taking care of the Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines on the ground.
“There’s nothing as satisfying as hearing, ‘good effects’ from the ground party,” Freeborn said. “You get that immediate feedback when you drop a bomb in close proximity to friendlies, and it hits the target and protects civilians and friendly troops. That’s the most rewarding feeling.”
The 510th EFS and 510th AMU are part of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, the Air Force’s premier counterterrorism wing in Afghanistan. Headquartered at Bagram, the wing has geographically separated units at Kandahar and Jalalabad airfields in Afghanistan and provides decisive airpower throughout the region.