Beat the Devil

Oct. 1, 2002

The decisive phase of Operation Enduring Freedom lasted two months, and most of it was an air campaign. This should have–but did not–end what has become the almost routine disparagement of military airpower.

The recent successes of airmen–in the Gulf in 1991, Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, and Afghanistan one year ago–have not been enough to satisfy airpower’s critics. They continue to propagate doubts, especially in times of military tension.

This summer, as the US faced war with Iraq, the “boots on the ground” lobby favored sending 200,000 ground troops to the Gulf. Retired Army Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen called it “disturbing” to learn DOD might use airpower, special forces, and local proxy forces, à la Afghanistan. In this, Kroesen saw the “promise of disaster.”

Writing in the Army War College journal Parameters, analyst William R. Hawkins implied Afghanistan was not even a “real war.” With Iraq clearly in mind, Hawkins warned: “American leaders should not expect the next war to be as undemanding.”

A surprisingly large number of people still harbor such doubts, which Yogi Berra would describe as déjà vu all over again.

In the run-up to Enduring Freedom, critics also predicted that the air war would flop. Fears of massive civilian casualties were widespread. Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times thought it pointless to fight elusive Taliban and al Qaeda jihadis. The US, he warned, could do little more than “shadowbox with the devil.”

When the shooting started on Oct. 7, the hand-wringing began in earnest. Soon, there were calls for ground troops–as many as 100,000. Pundits everywhere dusted off the word “quagmire.”

It had to be embarrassing to the critics when November rolled around and the foe was seen to be taking a ferocious beating from the air. The strikes of October had weakened and isolated enemy forces. The strikes of November featured heavy attacks by bombers using precision ordnance such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition.

As special operations scouts spotted targets, precision airpower beat Taliban positions to pieces, opening huge gaps in the front lines. Irregular Northern Alliance forces took the key towns of Mazar-e Sharif, Kunduz, Taloqan, and Kabul, then turned south toward Kandahar.

Suddenly, it was over. The Taliban-Qaeda force that once controlled 85 percent of Afghanistan was, by early December, in control of nothing, on the run, and hiding in caves.

Some attributed the rout to the presence of Afghan ground forces. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld maintained that “the air war enabled the ground war to succeed.”

Each US armed service (and those of allied forces) had a hand in the victory. Still, the Air Force contribution stood out.

USAF bombers, fighters, and special operations gunships delivered some 10,000 tons of munitions–75 percent of the total–and struck more than half of all targets. The work of SOF teams–Air Force, Army, and Navy–enhanced the accuracy of these strikes.

Vice Adm. John B. Nathman, mindful that US carrier aircraft flew 75 percent of all combat sorties (and dropped 25 percent of the munitions), summed up his view in three words: “We Were Great.” The Navy was great, its aviators displaying skill and fortitude. Nathman also noted, “The US Air Force provided lift, munitions, … intelligence and surveillance, and more than 80 percent of the mission tanking to our carrier striking forces.”

Civilian deaths were remarkably few. As Rumsfeld said, “No nation in human history has done more to avoid civilian casualties than the United States has in this conflict.”

The Air Force’s workhorse airlifters transported everything that went into or out of Afghanistan. Its tankers flew more than 5,000 refueling sorties.

USAF spacecraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft gave war planners a battlefield view of unprecedented clarity.

RED HORSE units created 190,000 square yards of new ramp space–equivalent to 30 football fields–at nine Central Asia airfields.

It was a humanitarian war. Through December, 162 C-17 sorties had brought to hungry Afghans some 2.5 million individual rations.

The success of the air campaign may be, as some partisans say, an anomaly. If so, it is an anomaly that occurs again and again. Enduring Freedom marks the fourth time that this particular anomaly has appeared in a decade.

Nothing written here should be construed as claiming that joint airpower, by itself, can fight and win all of the nation’s wars. As editors of this magazine have stated on numerous occasions, the United States needs to maintain the full complement of modern military capabilities–air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. There’s no need for a one-trick pony.

However, some of airpower’s more-strident critics would do well to show a similar open-mindedness.

One who makes the case for airpower is Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of US Central Command and ramrod of the Afghan war. He pointed out that ground force commanders–Army and Marine–have long recognized the potential of airpower, but have questioned whether they would actually be willing to count on it in battle.

For them, Franks has an answer. “What I’ve told all my friends and neighbors,” he said, “is, ‘By God, you can count on it.'”