ABOARD USS IWO JIMA -- The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s AV-8B Harriers flew the last of 136 combat missions over Afghanistan Sept. 21, ending a short but productive stint in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Using just four of its jump jets per day, the MEU’s Harrier detachment dropped a total of 17 precision-guided bombs over 13 days on behalf of NATO forces battling a resurgent Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
With the MEU and the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group positioned in the Arabian Sea, and with NATO forces in daily contact with insurgents, coalition commanders were happy to have the Harriers’ help.
“Our Harriers were invaluable in filling the gaps of coalition air cover,” said Maj. Pete “Chumly” Lee, who led the first section of Harriers into Afghanistan on Sept. 9. “We would regularly show up when no other aircraft were on station and coalition forces were engaged with the Taliban, and we would deliver lethal fire on the enemy. Our presence on more than one occasion resulted in the destruction of the Taliban and their weapons.”
By opting to openly challenge coalition forces determined to assert control in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban have frequently exposed themselves to waiting bombers and jets loitering above.
The Harrier’s weaponry includes a 25 mm cannon and a mix of precision-guided, all-weather Joint Direct Attack Munitions and laser-guided bombs. Additionally, the Harrier is equipped with a targeting pod that provides considerable standoff range, allowing the pilot to spot and fire on the enemy while remaining undetected himself.
While the Harriers operated mostly from the deck of the USS Iwo Jima, the MEU sped up their turn-around time between missions by inserting a small detachment of maintainers and bomb-loaders at a coalition-run airfield in Kandahar.
The Harrier’s ability to take off from short runways and to land vertically allows it to operate both from its ship at sea and airfields ashore, greatly enhancing the aircraft’s responsiveness.
“By using Kandahar Air Base, we nearly doubled our sorties,” said Lt. Col. Robert Barr, commander of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced), the 24th MEU’s air combat element. “The versatility of the Harrier allowed us to rapidly refuel, rearm and get back in the fight. Our jets truly made a difference these last two weeks.”
The 24th MEU is the landing force for the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group. Based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the MEU consists of its command element; Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced); and MEU Service Support Group 24.