WASHINGTON (AP) -- Directing airstrikes on Taliban and al-Qaida targets has been one of the most vital -- and dangerous -- jobs for U.S. special forces troops in Afghanistan.
Three soldiers were killed and 20 injured Wednesday when a one-ton bomb from an Air Force B-52 went astray and landed about 100 yards from the troops. They had just contacted the high-flying bomber for airstrikes against Taliban forces they were fighting near the southern city of Kandahar.
Calling in airstrikes usually is done by specialists called forward air controllers, often Air Force members, who are specially trained for the job. They use a variety of technologically advanced devices to pinpoint targets and tell U.S. planes when and where to shoot.
One of their basic tools is a laser range finder, which gives a readout of a target's precise coordinates. Using encrypted radio transmissions, the forward air controller can give those coordinates to the bomber crew, which then enters them into a satellite-guided smart bomb's guidance system.
Some devices can transmit the coordinates directly to the bomber. Others allow the soldiers to send more detailed information -- including digital photos or video -- to pilots or commanders.
The process, while high-tech, is not foolproof. An error by the person who enters coordinates into the bomb's guidance system can be deadly. That's what happened Oct. 13, when a targeting error sent a bomb a mile off target near Kabul and killed four civilians.
Pentagon officials say they don't know what went wrong Wednesday or in another incident last month in which a U.S. bomb injured five American soldiers fighting Taliban prisoners in a fortress near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
"This is one of the potentially most hazardous types of missions that we use as a military tactic -- calling in air strikes nearly simultaneously ... on enemy forces that you're engaged in close proximity to," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said Wednesday.
Ground troops also can point a laser at a target that acts as a bull's eye to guide another type of smart bomb. One advantage is that a soldier can keep a laser aimed at a moving target, allowing it to be hit from the air.
Using laser-guided bombs can have shortfalls as well. The laser has to stay on the target while the bomb is falling. While it can track moving vehicles, the bomb could miss if something comes between the laser pointer and the target.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.