ABOARD THE USS PELELIU – Hidden in the mountains of Afghanistan, armed with rifles and laser beams to mark targets, U.S. special forces have taken on a key role in the war against the Taliban in recent weeks.
As U.S. fighter jets run out of fixed targets, pilots have become more dependent on U.S. ground troops to locate and identify troops and tanks, said Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt battle group.
Working undetected in Afghanistan's rugged terrain, sometimes miles from friendly forces, the specially trained troops — known as forward air controllers — have an especially difficult job.
U.S. special forces teams already are helping anti-Taliban rebels with training and are directing American warplanes to Taliban targets. So far, special forces with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the USS Peleliu remain on standby.
If Marines from the USS Peleliu are ordered to land in Pakistan or Afghanistan, Capt. Howard Gordon will be involved in planning every aspect of the air operation, and then head for the front lines.
Though he has not yet seen combat, Gordon has specialized training in directing precision airstrikes in urban areas, a skill that may be needed as the Taliban are reported to be hiding in residential areas to avoid airstrikes.
He said controllers can call in airstrikes precise enough to send missiles fired from Harrier jump jets through specific windows, without destroying the entire building.
In training "we called in the Harriers to drop bombs in that mock city; it was just a blast to see what they can do," Gordon said.
Forward air controllers have to combine the skills of battlefield tactician, pilot and infantryman, Gordon said.
"I help coordinate how the planes are going to come in and drop their bombs, where they are going to drop their bombs and also coordinate the troops coming in and out of the field by helicopter or C-130 aircraft," Gordon said.
On the battlefield, controllers also help determine what type of aircraft and bombs are needed to destroy a target.
Gordon, a 32-year-old from Milwaukee, said he takes between six and 120 infantrymen with him when he goes into the field, depending on how far they have to go and how long they have to stay. His men are trained to get within eyesight of the enemy without being detected, he said.
"We all strive to sneak in without anyone seeing us," Gordon, who has not yet seen combat, said. "It is hard to do, but it's your goal."
Once he has identified a target to be bombed, Gordon has a variety of ways he can point it out to pilots. During daylight, he can use a radio to talk to the pilot and describe landmarks to pinpoint the target, lob a smoke or luminescent grenade next to it or even use a mirror to reflect sunlight on to it.
Controllers also have high-tech ways of indicating a target. Controllers carry a laser that allows them to point an invisible beam on the target. Laser-guided bombs dropped from attack jets will home in on whatever the laser is shining on with pinpoint accuracy, Gordon said.
Controllers also carry infrared pointers that can be seen with night vision goggles worn by pilots.
The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit is the primary amphibious combat unit in the Arabian Sea, based on the USS Peleliu. Two or three expeditionary units are at sea at any one time, usually accompanying aircraft carrier battle groups.
The Peleliu Amphibious Ready Group — which consists of three ships based in San Diego, Calif. — carries a total of 2,200 Marines and 1,900 sailors.