The War Nobody Expected

April 1, 2002

The nation’s air component passed a major test in Afghanistan. With a relatively small but steady flow of sorties, aerospace forces struck emerging targets fast enough to enable the Northern Alliance to unseat numerically superior Taliban forces. “The very simple purpose was to build and maintain pressure inside Afghanistan with the objective of the destruction of the al Qaeda terrorist network and the government of the Taliban,” Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, Commander in Chief of Central Command, later testified.

To do that, Operation Enduring Freedom employed aerospace power in ways very different from canonical phased operations. US military planners recognized that from the start. USAF Gen. Richard B. Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, drew a contrast with the 1991 Gulf War. “We tried to set conditions with the air war, and then we had a ground component that went in and finished the job,” Myers said of Desert Storm. “You shouldn’t think of this in those terms.” Testifying to Congress in February, Franks described the campaign as “lines of operation conducted simultaneously, rather than sequentially.”

Those “lines of operation” ultimately included everything from supplying fodder for horses to delivering precision strikes from the air. To orchestrate this asymmetric campaign, commanders tapped aerospace power in all its forms. Humanitarian aid started on Night 1 as C-17s air-dropped relief supplies. Air Force bombers and Navy fighters stripped the country of its modest air defenses and opened the door for aircraft to range across the battlespace and find and kill targets. Dominance in the air soon translated into dominance on the ground, as special forces worked with Northern Alliance troops to pinpoint and destroy Taliban areas of resistance.

New Operational Style

It was a new operational style, one that was revealed in Desert Storm and Allied Force in 1999 but brought to a higher level in the skies over Afghanistan.

The strategy of using aerospace power to degrade Taliban military effectiveness required that the air component step up to a new level of performance in handling time-critical targets and employing precision weapons. Planners working in the Combined Air Operations Center blended long-range bombers, land-based fighters, and carrier-based aircraft into a force capable of overcoming the access hurdle while handling emerging targets on demand and 24 hours a day.

The first success came with the smooth functioning of the joint air component itself. The concept of the Joint Force Air Component Commander passed its first major combat test in Desert Storm in 1991. Centralized control worked: The 43-day air campaign brought about a victory for integrated planning and execution of the campaign. Ten years later, it was an altogether different air component available to the commanders of Enduring Freedom.

Tighter organization of the CAOC was one big change. The CAOC integrated mobility, space, and information operations along with strike operations into the actual master attack planning cell. The JFACC–the first was Lt. Gen. Charles F. Wald, who was succeeded by Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley–had mechanisms for plans, operations, and intelligence reporting directly to him, without stovepipes. In Enduring Freedom, said one officer at the CAOC, “you had a coherent and cooperative group of planners from all the services, working together with a common goal and perspective,” because they were all operating together inside the joint and combined air operations center. The officer added, “It just jelled in terms of personalities.”

The ability to concentrate both data and the command authority at a CAOC had grown dramatically in the 1990s, a result of US experiences in two air wars in the Balkans. The CAOC for Operation Enduring Freedom was wired with as many as 100 T-1 lines, carrying floods of data into and out of the facility. That meant complete connectivity with all strike platforms, be they carriers in the Arabian Sea or bombers at Diego Garcia. “We’ve come a long way from 10 years ago, when we had to fly ATO [Air Tasking Order] out to the aircraft carriers,” USAF Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper told the Washington Post in a joint interview with Adm. Vern Clark, Chief of Naval Operations.

The data flow delivered a huge new advantage in ground situation awareness. In Desert Storm, the JFACC had a complete air picture but only a limited real-time view of ground operations. For Afghanistan, high volumes of human intelligence were combined with the take from multiple intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sensors to deliver unprecedented situation awareness. Predator video feeds, Global Hawk surveillance information, and direct input from US Special Operations Forces on the ground improved the CAOC’s ability to track the immediate tactical requirements of the liaison officers operating with the Northern Alliance forces.

Exploitation Phase

The key was to exploit this information, and the air component, for the first time, had the ordnance and platforms to respond immediately to emerging targets. Joint Direct Attack Munitions–first used by the B-2 in Operation Allied Force–could now be dropped by Navy and Air Force fighters and all three types of bombers, making 24-hour precision available in all types of weather. Combining JDAMs with a long-loiter capability was unprecedented. As soon as targets were identified, aircraft could be called to strike them.

Situation awareness at the CAOC did not always cover the entire battlespace at all times. However, the improved links between sensors and shooters outclassed anything seen before in modern warfare, translating aerospace power’s asymmetric advantages into gains on the ground.

The changes came not a moment too soon. When American strikes began Oct. 7, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that he saw “not a lot of high-value targets.” Coercion by bombing was not an option. Many did not believe that an air campaign would work at all, and some analysts were extreme in their pessimism. For example, Mackubin T. Owens of the Naval War College speculated that it would take 40,000 ground troops to wrest control of Afghanistan from the Taliban. Indeed, the success of Operation Enduring Freedom depended on the ability to find and kill emerging targets that would enable the Northern Alliance to move and take territory.

The war began with strikes on preplanned targets. These were designed to take down the Afghan air defenses. Then US war planners shifted to a combination of preplanned and flexible strikes on various targets. Within days, as many as 90 percent of the sorties were striking emerging targets. “After the first week, the pilots didn’t know what targets they’d be striking when they launched,” said Vice Adm. John B. Nathman, commander, Naval Air Force.

The CAOC needed 24-hour coverage of the battlespace to handle emerging targets, but long distances posed a problem.

For the fighters–consisting largely of Navy and Marine F/A-18s operating from aircraft carriers–a standard mission was to take off and fly to an assigned engagement zone. Once on station, the fighters might orbit, waiting on the most recent information synthesized from a variety of sources to be passed on to the strike aircraft

Navy pilots had to traverse more than 500 miles, strike a target, and then recover within the intricate deck cycle time of the carrier’s operations. This created a major challenge. The Navy’s aircraft carriers worked under a different operational concept in the Afghan air war. Previously, exercises focused on a single carrier generating combat power–a reflection of the Cold War emphasis on each carrier being able to survive and operate alone. In Operation Enduring Freedom, the Navy used five carriers (including USS Kitty Hawk with its stripped-down air wing) to keep up the coverage required by the CINC. Navy fighters delivered ordnance around the clock during the campaign.

New Bomber Tactics

Bombers suffered less from range limitations and soon took up a major share of the job. However, bomber planners, too, found that new tactics were in order. Eighteen B-52s and B-1Bs deployed forward to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Typically, the CAOC could count on four sorties per day from the B-1B group and five from the B-52 group.

For the first time in combat, these bombers followed the lead of the B-2 in Operation Allied Force and linked into the net of updated information to take new target coordinates in real time. Bombers generally did not have their entire load of weapons designated for fixed targets. Instead, bomber crews headed for their first preplanned targets and then were on call any time during the sortie to be redirected to other targets. Jumper called the use of the B-52 against emerging targets in a close air support role transformational. Those sorties, he said, would previously only have been flown by attack aircraft such as the A-10. Who would have thought it possible? Jumper asked at a February symposium.

Strikes on preplanned targets and flexed targets and reliance on fighters and bombers became commonplace in Enduring Freedom. In early December, the DOD spokesman, Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, described a typical day: “Air strikes in 10 planned target areas, generally around the Jalalabad and Kandahar areas,” carried out by a typical force mix of “about 110 strike aircraft, including about 90 tactical aircraft launched from sea-based platforms, 12 to 14 land-based tactical aircraft, and between eight and 10 long-range bombers.”

To bring this striking power to bear, planners scheduled aircraft to be available 24 hours a day for operations within the engagement zones, although distance and constrained resources put some limitations on the coverage.

From the CAOC, the staff could change the flow of aircraft into an engagement zone in the time it took to transmit a call to the aircraft. Afghanistan was divided up into fixed engagement zones to control strikes on emerging targets such as Taliban troop concentrations, vehicles, and strong points. CAOC planners could also lay special zones over lines of communication, for example, and activate them at different times. Special forces personnel on the ground identified aim points and then double-checked the target coordinates.

As it turned out, time-sensitive targets were the key to the operation, and their prominence changed the nature of the air war in several ways.

First, the need to strike such targets put a premium on battlespace coverage rather than relative percentage of missions flown or ordnance dropped. Pundits in and out of uniform quickly took sides, some lauding USAF bombers for dropping 70 percent of the ordnance during only 10 percent of the sorties, some praising the Navy’s fighters for flying half the sorties and averaging two or more DMPIs (Designated Mean Points of Impact) per sortie.

Yet the comparisons were artificial. From the CAOC’s point of view, the high number of emerging targets meant that the real value of strike aircraft was in having them constantly available to blow up resistance points on the ground. All of the forces contended with long, fatiguing sorties, be they 10-hour missions followed by a dawn carrier recovery, the 15-hour bomber missions from Diego Garcia, the record-setting 15-hour F-15E sorties, or 44-hour B-2 sorties.

Harmonic Convergence

As one CAOC officer put it, “We were all working together as an air component, not individual services, so it didn’t matter whether the platform you were working with was an F/A-18 off a boat or a B-1 or B-52 or an F-15E.”

The emphasis on time-sensitive targets also affected execution of the air war–sometimes in negative ways. Doctrine for air warfare all hangs on the tenet of centralized control and decentralized execution. The battle for centralized control was won with reliance on the JFACC concept, but Enduring Freedom witnessed a new clash over the continuing need for decentralized execution.

The CAOC itself handled the bulk of the sorties from a supermodern facility established at a secure site in the region. However, other command centers existed, and they used their pictures of the battlespace to control portions of the air war. The CIA controlled Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles armed with Hellfire missiles. Franks kept his headquarters at MacDill AFB, Fla., near Tampa, and took a direct hand in some targeting decisions.

Adding to the problem, the physical arrangements split the JFACC from the CINC more than in recent air campaigns. Franks told Washington Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks that he was comfortable with keeping his command in Tampa “because of technology assists, which provide 24/7 situational awareness,” and that this enabled CENTCOM staff “to provide intent and guidance without doing the tactical work of subordinate commanders.”

In Congressional testimony, Franks cited as reasons for staying in Florida the time and difficulty of moving a unified headquarters. “I think what we want is the ability to either be remote or offset or to be present in theater,” Franks said, stressing again that, in this case, the mission was “best served” by using the technologies in hand and remaining in Tampa.

However, the perspective from Tampa sometimes differed from that of the CAOC, eight time zones away. For example, although Franks described Enduring Freedom as “far and away the greatest application of precision munitions in the history of our country,” the different perspectives on how to reduce collateral damage ended up having a direct tactical impact on the execution of the air war.

Horner’s View

Retired Air Force Gen. Charles A. Horner, who commanded the air campaign in the Gulf War, talked to the Washington Post about the matter. He said simply: “I would have been forward.”

Target approval constraints have become a bigger and bigger part of the air war over the last decade, but only recently has command approval threatened to become an obstacle in time-critical targeting. For example, commanders in Desert Storm used real-time communications with airborne aircraft almost exclusively to surge sorties or redirect strikes to more urgent targets, as during the Khafji engagement. Hundreds of sorties were sent to attack Iraqi forces, but all were under forward air controller control or followed kill box rules of engagement once they reached the battle zone.

During Operation Allied Force, fighters on missions frequently called the one-star CAOC shift directors for approval to strike mobile targets such as Serb vehicles. Some of these emerging targets were struck in time and some got away, but the control of the air war remained largely in the hands of CAOC staff. One B-2 assigned to strike a preplanned target got a call en route and was told not to strike that target for political reasons. Yet, for the most part, as with Desert Storm, execution remained decentralized to the appropriate tactical level.

In Operation Enduring Freedom, the improved picture of ground operations made it possible for concerns about collateral damage and political guidance to intrude into the execution of the air war, not just the planning process. The rapid ability to handle emerging targets hit a bottleneck when CENTCOM’s strategic perspectives clashed with the CAOC’s tactical execution authority. According to an article in the Washington Post, CENTCOM on several occasions overrode the CAOC’s calls for strikes on newly identified targets.

As one officer told the Post, “It’s kind of ridiculous when you get a live feed [of a target] from a Predator and the intel guys say, ‘We need independent verification.'”

A similar notorious incident of hesitation was reported in late October by Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker. According to Hersh, the CIA was controlling a Predator with Hellfires when the UAV spotted a car and truck convoy believed to be transporting Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban and the second most-wanted man after Osama bin Laden himself. The Predator operators watched the convoy halt and Omar and his guards enter a building. But the CIA needed approval from CENTCOM to fire missiles.

Hersh reported that CENTCOM legal advisors balked and told the CIA to “bounce it [a missile] off the front door.” In the end, the Predator fired at the parked cars. Soon, Omar’s convoy left. F/A-18s carrying weapons heavier than the Hellfire struck the building itself but the opportunity to nail Omar had passed. Hersh wrote that “the failure to attack” left Rumsfeld “kicking a lot of glass and breaking doors.”

Problem of Reach Forward

Even rudimentary details of these cases showed how the ability to put ordnance on target in minutes could be squandered if execution authority became an obstacle. The CAOC’s networked communications and reachback intelligence environment accelerated air war execution, but it also left enough time for doubts to creep in. The desire for visibility elevated the tactical picture to a much higher level. Now, those who had the tactical picture had operational and even strategic responsibilities–a change from the days when the tactical picture was limited only to those actually engaged in the operation and decentralizing execution authority was the only practical option.

The controversy over reachback generated heat because striking the time-sensitive ground force targets was the heart of the campaign. Yet for all the difficulties, it was airpower’s ability to kill emerging targets that created the payoff on the ground.

It did not happen all at once. During October, it took time to get supplies to the Northern Alliance and build working relations with US liaisons on the ground. “You had a First World air force and a Fourth World army, and it took a while to connect the two,” Secretary of State Colin Powell later explained in a Washington Post interview.

By November, the pieces were in place for rapid success. The ability of the CAOC to keep bombs on target raised the confidence of the Northern Alliance forces in their airpower ally. “Every day, the targeting and effectiveness has improved, and that has clearly played a critical role in killing Taliban and al Qaeda troops,” Rumsfeld said Nov. 13.

On-call aerospace power linked to the immediate needs of ground forces provided a winning combination. A near-perfect example of decentralized execution at its best came with the now-famous event in which a B-52 put ordnance on target within minutes of the request. Northern Alliance forces on horseback came across a Taliban military outpost with artillery, barracks, and a command post. The outpost was not engaged with ground forces at the time, but the Northern Alliance identified it as a stronghold. The commander requested an air strike on the target within the next few days. However, the target lay in a location with engagement zones already established. A B-52 dropped its ordnance within 19 minutes of the request.

With precise firepower available continuously, air strikes broke the Taliban resistance. The Northern Alliance began to roll up territory in defiance of conventional wisdom that attacking forces needed three to five times the strength in numbers to defeat their opponents. Mazar-e Sharif, Taloqan, Herat, Jalalabad, and Kabul fell in quick succession. By Nov. 27, US Marines were on the ground at Kandahar air base. When their helicopter gunships spotted Taliban vehicles nearby, a pair of Navy F-14s attacked the convoy.

The quick results depended on ground forces to exploit the openings. “Imagine the air campaign without the Northern Alliance ground forces,” said one American officer. “The Taliban troops could just have dispersed to avoid air attack.” The Army vice chief of staff, Gen. John M. Keane, said in an interview with Jane’s Defense Weekly, “Those population centers toppled as the result of a combined arms team: US airpower and a combination of special forces and Afghan troops.”

Disproving the Critics

In the first phase of Enduring Freedom, the joint air forces pulled off what critics had long said could not be done: They fought and won a sustained campaign with limited access to the region.

“In modern combat, there is nothing quite so leveraging as air dominance,” summed up retired Air Force Gen. Richard E. Hawley, the former commander of Air Combat Command. Enduring Freedom also offered a taste of the difficulties of the wider war on terrorism. In late November, Franks mentioned that teams were systematically “visiting” more than 40 sites suspected of housing weapons of mass destruction.

Rumsfeld cautioned, “It would be a mistake for one to look at Afghanistan and think about it as a model that will be replicated.” Afghanistan had “some distinctive things about it–hundreds and hundreds of tunnels and caves, for example,” he added. The war on terrorism involves action beyond the air campaign. Rumsfeld described some of the broader strategy: “We’ve put a lot of pressure on the bank accounts, a lot of law enforcement action where people have been arrested and interrogated, a lot of intelligence has been pulled together, a lot of people have been killed. And some have been captured. It’s all for the good. It’s made their lives very difficult. But when or how or in what way it will all sort through, I don’t know.”

Yet one point is certain. On Sept. 11, 2001, Afghanistan was an oppressed state and a safe harbor for a lethal terrorist network. After the first phase of Enduring Freedom, as Franks said, “The harbor is gone.”

Rebecca Grant is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation. Her most recent article, “Flying Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” appeared in the March 2002 issue.