A lumbering Navy airplane first designed to scan the oceans for Soviet submarines played an unlikely pivotal role over the sharp ridges of eastern Afghanistan in the war’s largest land battle.
The four-engine P-3 Orion carried Navy SEAL commandos who radioed descriptions of the enemy to fellow special operations troops fighting in the Shah-e-Kot valley down below. “They told them, ‘There’s a vehicle coming in your direction,’ and our guys were able to set up ambushes,” said a military officer, describing the “countless” sorties the Navy plane flew before and during the 20-day Operation Anaconda that ended March 19.
The land-based P-3 also pinpointed enemy fighters and heated cave hide-outs through its thermal-sensitive infrared camera. The coordinates were relayed to ground forces as well as jet fighters and heavy bombers.
“It’s new for the P-3 to be involved in strikes like that,” said the senior military officer, who like other sources discussed the P-3’s prominent role on the condition of anonymity.
Deploying the sea-searching patrol planes for mountain warfare in a landlocked country is another example of how the U.S. military is finding different ways to fight an unconventional enemy: Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda fighters. Green Berets ride on horseback with Afghan tribal fighters. Strike fighter pilots “skip” bombs off Afghanistan’s arid, hard ground to penetrate a cave entrance. The carrier Kitty Hawk becomes an airfield for helicopter-borne special operations troops. And the submarine-hunting P-3 is a soldier’s best friend.
“It was not uncommon for guys on the ground to say, ‘Can you look over the next hill for me?’” said another military source.
While the pilotless Predator spy plane has drawn the most media attention, the turboprop P-3 has emerged as special operations troops’ favorite surveillance asset during the six-month war.
The 116-foot-long plane, designed in the 1950s and since upgraded with sophisticated sensors, filled a gap in wartime intelligence collections.
Satellite photos were of limited use in Operation Anaconda. The resolution could not convey the steep inclines of planned helicopter landing zones, two officers said.
In the previous major ground battle at Tora Bora, al Qaeda found out how their short-range radio and cell phone communications could tip off coalition forces. At Shah-e-Kot, the assembling al Qaeda of perhaps 500 to 800 fighters largely maintained radio silence.
The Predator has limits, too. The unarmed, Air Force-operated drones sent multiple pictures via the Global Broadcast System to various command centers, including Anaconda headquarters at Bagram, north of Kabul, and to Tampa, Fla., headquarters of U.S. Central Command. The live video, which some officers dub “pay per view,” is not available to troops doing the actual fighting, however.
Enter the P-3, a 1950s air-frame design based on the Lockheed L188 Electra commercial airliner. Through its 1990s “Tactical Common Data Link,” commanders could see what the P-3 crew saw. “Predator pictures are for the generals,” said one officer. “P-3 links straight to the ground. The guys on the ground below can see what you’re seeing.”
The P-3s, which stayed just above the reach of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, alerted commandos and infantry that the enemy was near.
One officer likened al Qaeda to the Japanese warriors of World War II who would rather fight to the death than become prisoners. “Al Qaeda are not particularly skilled fighters, but anybody who is willing to die is a challenge,” the officer said. “There were a lot more than we thought at Shah-e-Kot. We thought there was going to be light resistance.”
Another officer involved in Anaconda described al Qaeda battle tactics this way: “The enemy is well-motivated but not well-trained. Once we either blow up their first string mortars or force them to displace from known positions, they have become ineffective because they do not have the training to use their mortars from an unknown spot where they have not [calibrated] their fires. Anytime they try to do this from a new spot, we are on them. Mortars leave a big thermal signature and they are toast.”
Some of the best intelligence on Anaconda came from human sources, the officers said.
As the al Qaeda warriors reorganized in Shah-e-Kot, south of Gardez, they dispatched runners into nearby villages for supplies. CIA paramilitary officers and American commandos were also in the area and collected information about the visitors from local villagers.
“If there is any lesson from strategic intelligence’s role, it’s that a satellite hasn’t been invented that can replace the man on the ground,” one officer said.
A Navy spokesman at the Pentagon declined to say how many P-3s were operating in the Afghan theater or to disclose their home bases. “They are operating in the region,” the spokesman said.
The Navy deploys four P-3 squadrons of about eight planes each in the Pacific and European regions.