U.S. Air Force and Navy warplanes are backing up the American military’s effort to keep the Kabul airport secure and open, as the Pentagon ramps up a hasty plan to ferry at-risk Afghan citizens and foreigners away from the resurgent Taliban regime.
Multiple Air Force and Navy aviation squadrons of F/A-18 and F-16 fighter jets, AV-8 strike aircraft, AC-130 gunships, B-52 bombers and MQ-9 intelligence and attack drones are providing air cover for the evacuation, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said at a Pentagon press briefing on Wednesday.
“We have a significant amount of rotary-wing aviation on the ground, including attack and lift helicopters,” Milley added.
Those join nearly two dozen C-17s and C-130 transport jets that had handled the humanitarian evacuation underway over the previous 24 hours, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday morning.
Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told Military Times that the presence of U.S. fighter aircraft was routine and would continue until the evacuation mission concludes.
The pre-dawn darkness in Kabul came alive with the jets’ distinct sound on Wednesday, lighting up Twitter with concern. Initial speculation on the cause of the noise ranged from trouble at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to a potential U.S. seizure of Bagram airfield, which is currently in the hands of the Taliban.
HKIA, the last airfield controlled by the U.S. in Afghanistan, has been a chaotic scene in recent days. It remains the last chance for tens of thousands of American citizens and Afghans seeking an exit from the country.
Although CENTCOM did not comment on the intent behind the jets flying low enough for people around Kabul to be awakened in the early morning hours, ground troops sometimes request fly-overs by pilots as a “show of force.” The intent is to inform potential belligerents that the U.S. has overwhelming firepower, should it be needed.
The aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan is in the area directly supporting the drawdown, along with aircraft operating out of bases in Kuwait.
When reinforcements have all arrived, there will be roughly 7,000 U.S. troops securing the Kabul airport, and their mission so far is confined there, Kirby told reporters earlier this week.
The 621st Contingency Response Group out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, also arrived in Afghanistan in the past day, Kirby said Wednesday morning.
“This is a dynamic Air Force unit highly specialized in the rapid deployment of personnel to quickly open airfields and establish, expand, sustain, and coordinate air mobility operations.,” he said. “This is a group that knows how to run airfields., and can help with the actual air operations on the ground.”
Currently, there are some 22,000 Afghans who the Biden administration looks to resettle in the U.S. because they risk death at the hands of the Taliban if left behind -- a fraction of the 88,000 or so Afghans who may need to evacuate. American forces are attempting to complete the U.S. withdrawal from the country by Aug. 31.
“Right now, we’re looking at one aircraft per hour in and out of HKIA,” Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters earlier this week. “We predict that our best effort could look like 5,000 to 9,000 passengers departing per day.”
These Afghans are in addition to the thousands of U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan over the last week, whose only supply route is HKIA’s runway, as major U.S. airbases at Bagram and Kandahar have been captured from the now-defunct Afghan government by the Taliban.
The situation in Kabul is fluid. Stay with Military Times for the latest updates.
James R. Webb is a rapid response reporter for Military Times. He served as a US Marine infantryman in Iraq. Additionally, he has worked as a Legislative Assistant in the US Senate and as an embedded photographer in Afghanistan.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.