Low-Flying Tactic May Ease Civilian Deaths

With the war in Afghanistan taking the lives of more and more civilians, the United Nations Wednesday demanded they get better protection. More than 2,000 civilians were killed last year - the most since the war began.

While the vast majority of those deaths are blamed on insurgents, one out of four was caused by U.S.-led NATO forces. To curb those casualties, the U.S. military is bringing back an old tactic, as CBS News correspondent David Martin reports.

Special Report: Afghanistan

A Navy jet pitches into a dive for a strafing run at a training range in North Carolina. After a short burst and a hail of bullets, the pilot pulls out of his dive at 2,000 feet and turns sharply, creating a force six times that of gravity.

Pilots call it "pulling G's." Riding along in the back seat, Martin reports, it feels like being crushed. But the worst of it only lasts for about five seconds. It mashes pretty good, but it beats the alternative -- which is running into the ground.

Strafing, a low-level run firing six-inch bullets instead of dropping 1,000-pound bombs from on high, was a common tactic in World War II, seen in movies like "Empire of the Sun." But it gave way to the "shock and awe" of more destructive precision-guided weapons.

Now with the urgent need to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan, strafing is making a 21st century comeback.

"Since Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal took over in Afghanistan, we've devoted significantly more training to strafe," said Capt. Ken Whitesell.

Whitesell's F-18 squadrons are preparing for their next tour over Afghanistan and CBS News spent two days flying with them. Hundreds of bullets are loaded into the nose, turning Lt. Commander Jason Gustin's $60 million jet into a flying machine gun.

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"We expect the bullets that come out of the gun to be within 30 feet from where we point the muzzle on the ground," Gustin said.

That's about the same accuracy as a laser or satellite guided bomb. But in pictures, the difference between the blast effects of a bomb and a strafing run in Afghanistan are clear.

There are dangers in flying so close to the ground.

"We are closer to the enemy so we're in range for small arms such as machine guns and assault rifles, but our biggest risk is probably flying into the terrain, particularly at night or in Afghanistan, where there's lots of mountainous terrain," Gustin said.

Gustin has flown strafing missions in Afghanistan but it's a skill that requires constant practice. Normally he would get help from his "backseater" - but on this ride he's got a reporter in tow instead.

It's a short hop from Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach down to the training range. On the way, the pilots check each other out.

"Typically, right after we take off we just give each other a once-over and make sure there's nothing wrong with the airplane like you didn't hit a bird you didn't know about on takeoff," Gustin said.

Then the pilots take a few turns to get their (and their passengers') bodies used to the G-forces.

I'm wearing a pair of inflatable jeans which act like blood pressure cuff and inflate to keep all my blood from draining into my feet because if it drains into my feet then I black out.

On the first day, we run into the limitations of strafing -- weather. The target is covered in clouds.

"It's a visual weapon," Gustin said. "On a day like today if a target is where it is in Afghanistan probably strafe isn't something we'll be able to use effectively."

If you can't strafe, there's always what's called a show of force - a high speed low level run to scare the enemy away and a tactic used more than 4,000 times a year in Afghanistan.

On the second day we get blue skies. Gustin gets clearance to "go hot" when he's ready, performs the dive and is informed he got 38 hits.

His helmet has a computer which projects the target on to the inside of his visor.

The number of bombs dropped in Afghanistan is steadily decreasing but strafing runs remain constant at more than 1,000 each year. The old-fashioned tactic of strafing is becoming the weapon of choice.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.