BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - For years, the F-16 Fighting Falcons at Sumter's Shaw Air Force Base have trained to search out and destroy enemy missile and anti-aircraft artillery sites.
"That's the big war," as Lt. Col. Ken Ekman, a Shaw squadron commander, put it recently.
Now, Ekman and his S.C.-based unit - the 79th Fighter Squadron - are here, fighting a small war where they may be called on to fly close-air support for a donkey train carrying election ballots to a mountain village.
With U.S. and coalition air forces reigning supreme in the skies over Afghanistan, Shaw's airmen have had to adapt their sleek, swept-wing planes to fight an irregular war.
Instead of hunting down enemy missile sites, the pilots use the multi-million-dollar electronic gear aboard their planes to find bombs buried in a roadbed or enemy fighters hiding behind rocks.
They also are being given rules for combat designed - first and foremost - to spare the lives of Afghan civilians and win, if necessary, without firing a rocket or dropping a bomb.
"In irregular warfare, the idea is that you win the hearts and minds of the people who live in and amongst the battlefield as opposed to ... destroy the enemy," said Lt. Gen. Mike Hostage, based at Shaw.
"The stuff that gets in the way you try to minimize, but that's not your prime concern," said Hostage, chief of Air Forces Central Command, which oversees air operations over Afghanistan and Iraq. "The people are your prime concern. They are the center of gravity."
Irregular warfare fits the counterinsurgency strategy championed by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
McChrystal's aim is to win over Afghans.
'YOU DON'T HAVE TO USE THE FORCE'
One way to do that is keep down civilian casualties.
The death toll caused by coalition air strikes has jeopardized efforts to win Afghan support and turn back the Taliban, experts say.
"Air strikes remain the largest cause of civilian deaths attributed to (U.S., NATO and Afghan government troops) during the first six months of 2009," according to a recent United Nations report.
Roughly 200 of the 310 Afghan civilians killed by "pro-government forces" in the first half of 2009 died in coalition air strikes, the U.N. report said.
The civilian toll appears to be swaying Afghan public opinion against the United States, its partners and the Kabul government.
A recent ABC News poll found 36 percent of Afghans blame mostly U.S., Afghan or NATO troops for the violence in Afghanistan, up 10 percentage points from 2007. Only 27 percent blame mostly the Taliban, down 9 percentage points from 2007.
Observers say U.S. air power, which pounded the German and Japanese war machines into oblivion in World War II, does not have to be so overwhelmingly lethal to defeat the Taliban, bearded men armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
"You don't have to use the force, but the fact that you have the force gives you the effect you want," said Brig. Gen. Steve Kwast, commander of the 455th Expeditionary Air Wing, based at Bagram.
"We minimize the amount of force that has to come off that aircraft," said Kwast, an F-15 fighter pilot. "If we do use that force, it is precise, it is targeted at the forces that are trying to kill our warriors and ... it is proportional and limited to only what is needed in order to disengage and move on."
That means Shaw's F-16s may just "buzz" Taliban fighters at times, rather than bomb them.
Having a warplane buzz the enemy to scare them off is nothing new, said Hostage. "You only ever read about when things get blown up and people get hurt."
A Shaw pilot, though, could be effective simply by flying over a target and switching on his plane's screaming engine afterburner. "If you're not used to that, it's a very horrific sound," Hostage said.
Without control of the air, it would be almost impossible for stretched-thin coalition ground forces to press the fight against insurgents hiding in the remote, mountainous reaches of Afghanistan. There, coalition troops can be ambushed or cut off from rescuers by the country's rugged, forbidding mountains.
Survival can depend on having a fighter jet or attack helicopter overhead.
But before a bomb is dropped, everyone - from the ground commander to the forward air controller to the pilot - has to agree on how much force is needed.
It is the pilot's job to offer the ground commander a range of options, said Lt. Col. Tim Gosnell, whose F-16 squadron was replaced at Bagram by the Shaw unit.
"We're the voice of reason overhead," said Gosnell, stationed at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. "I tell my pilots, 'Use your conscience, use your airmanship and your college degree.'
"But if it comes down to him (the ground commander) wanting a bomb, he's probably going to get it."
'THIS IS A BIG SHIFT'
The presence of F-16 fighters at Bagram is new. Gosnell's squadron was the first F-16 unit deployed here, pulling a 120-day rotation.
F-16s hadn't been in the Air Force's arsenal at Bagram because the base was considered "too dirty" for the single-engine, swept-wing fighters.
The problem is the F-16's engine air intake is located under its fuselage as opposed to being on the side of the fuselage, like F-15 Strike Eagles, or at the rear, like A-10 Thunderbolts.
Called by some "the Air Force's vacuum cleaner," an F-16's engine intake can suck up anything on a runway or ramp, wrecking a multi-million-dollar engine.
At Bagram, there are plenty of rocks that can be stirred up by propeller-driven planes, like the Air Force's C-130 transport, and helicopters.
The Air Force has worked to separate the more fragile fighters, building hangars and facilities for the F-16s and twin-engine F-15s on the opposite side of the airfield from the prop planes and helicopters.
Getting ready to fight the "irregular war" in Afghanistan required the Shaw unit to go through a "whole new training program," said Ekman, whose unit includes more than 200 pilots, maintainers, weapons technicians and other staffers.
Knowing they would need to navigate the towering peaks and deep valleys of the Hindu Kush Mountains, the squadron spent more than two weeks training in the mountain ranges of Nevada, Ekman said.
Ekman is commanding a squadron that lacks the bench strength of U.S. fighter squadrons that deployed in 2003 for the start of the Iraq war.
Those units included pilots who had fought in the 1991 Iraq war and patrolled the no-fly zones over Iraq during the intervening years.
Only Ekman and three other members of his squadron, nicknamed the "Tigers," have deployed before. "We're very young," conceded Ekman, an 18-year Air Force veteran and Panama City, Fla., native.
And flying a new mission, whether buzzing "bad guys" in pickups or providing support from above to U.S. troops in Afghanistan's mountains.
"This is a big shift," Ekman said.
Reach Crumbo at (803) 771-8503.