|Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014|
Enduring Freedom Analysis
Parts 1, 2, 3
| Dr Carlo Kopp
First published in Australian Aviation
December 2001 - March 2002
Enduring Freedom Begins
The US-led coalition air campaign against the Taleban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan commenced almost exactly one month after the terrorist attacks on the WTC towers and the Pentagon.
The campaign was preceded by a defacto ultimatum to the Taleban regime, which controlled at that time around 90% of Afghanistan's territory. The Taleban regime, dependent upon Ussama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network in more than one respect, was not inclined to accept the position of the US and its many allies.
In the month preceding the opening of the air campaign, the US deployed the USS Kittyhawk less its air wing as a Special Forces helicopter carrier, supported by the carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Theodore Roosevelt, into the Indian Ocean. Air Combat Command B-1Bs and B-52Hs deployed to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, supported by USAF KC-135 and KC-10 tankers. Concurrently, F-15Es deployed into an unspecified air base in the Persian Gulf. Arrangements were made for the USAF to use bases in Pakistan, and several of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, for basing supporting air assets.
The opening night of the air campaign followed the well established USAF/USN air campaign doctrine. USAF B-2A, B-1B and B-52H heavy bombers, supported by US Navy F/A-18C/D Hornets, F-14B/D Bombcats and ship/sub launched BGM-109 Tomahawks, struck the Taleban's decrepid air defence network, key leadership sites and important communications facilities.
The Taleban's air force and air defence system were anything but formidable, a collection of older Russian MiGs and Sukhois, primarily the MiG-21 and Su-22 series, supported by several Russian GCI/primary radars and a number of remaining Soviet era S-75/SA-2 and S-125/SA-3 SAM systems and ZSU-23-4P SPAAGs of dubious servicability. Most of these assets were wiped out in the first two days of airstrikes, after which the US declared that air superiority had been achieved.
With air superiority achieved, the USAF and USN strike assets quickly shifted their focus upon the Taleban's few valuable infrastructure assets. Warehouses, known leadership accommodation sites, barracks, fuel supplies, ammunition dumps and other similar targets were repeatedly struck and destroyed. The bombing raids hit targets in the Kabul and Kandahar areas, as well as in the vicinity of other cities.
While the main visible focus of campaign was on knocking out the assets which the Taleban require to sustain themselves in power, the USAF surprised most observers by deploying the EC-130E Commando Solo propaganda broadcast aircraft and by the unprecedented commencement of food bombing sorties by C-17A aircraft. The C-17As sortie from Ramstein in the FRG, refuelling over the Black Sea and then proceeding to drop their payload of thousands of humanitarian daily rations from high altitude at the specified drop zone.
The first two weeks of the air campaign were focussed mostly on strategic targets, in part we can assume to deny the Taleban the opportunity to squirrel away munitions and provisions. By the third week of the campaign, an increasing number of sorties were flown against entrenched Taleban, Al Qaeda and Pakistani voluneteer troops along the no mans land' FEBA between Taleban controlled territory, and land held by the Russian Northern Alliance or remnants of the pre-Taleban Afghan Republic. Judging from media reports, a key aim of this effort has been the destruction of tanks, armoured vehicles, trucks, four wheel drives and other mobility assets. At least one fuel convoy heading along the North-South arterial highway was reported destroyed. The USAF's fleet of AC-130U Spectre gunships was put to very effective use, striking at targets deep within Taleban airspace.
The Taleban and Al Quaeda troops have proven to be tenacious and at the time of writing continued to hold their ground despite continuous bombardment. This should not be surprising, given their level of ideological motivation - in this respect the campaign is apt to resemble Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where the defenders had to be burned out of every foxhole.
Within the first month the US publicly disclosed only one Special Operations Force raid, during which around 100 US Army Rangers parachuted in near Kandahar to raid a major Taleban compound. US disclosures indicate that a mother-lode of intelligence had been captured, presumably important records were held at the base. No casualties were incurred in combat, but 2 aircrew died in the crash of a supporting helicopter in Pakistan.
At the time of writing the US had expanded their bombing effort to encompass numerous caves, cave complexes and bunkers used by the Taleban and Al Quaeda, as well as mounting a further effort against road traffic used to resupply units in the fields. Several B-52 strikes were reported against entrenched troops in the north of Afghanistan.
In terms of assets used, the backbone of the bombing effort has been the detachment of USAF heavies operating from Diego Garcia, flying around 10 sorties per 24 hour cycle, and the USN carrier based F/A-18Cs and F-14s, flying up to 60 sorties per cycle. Around half a dozen sorties per cycle wer being flown by USAF F-15Es from the Persian Gulf, supported by extensive aerial refuelling to reach their targets.
The reconnaissance and targeting effort has been divided between USAF General Atomics RQ-1A Predator UAVs, USAF satellites, U-2 strategic recce aircraft, the RC-135 Rivet Joint and E-8C JSTARS. Enduring Freedom is a particularly challenging campaign since it involves a low density target set, where there are few massed land force targets. A large overhead of strategic and tactical recce effort is required to reliably find and identify targets for bombing. The Predator has performed exceptionally well and US Deputy SecDef Wolfowitz commented that he wished he had more to deploy!
The campaign has seen the large scale use of the GPS guided GBU-31/32 JDAM, both with Mk.84, Mk.83, BLU-109/B and BLU-110/B warheads, as well as the 4,700 lb GBU-37/BLU-113/B heavy bunker buster. The GBU-24, GBU-22, GBU-12 and GBU-10 laser guided bombs have been used extensively.
It would be inappropriate to speculate on what next move the US is planning in this campaign. It is however safe to observe that the ongoing battlefield and strategic interdiction effort is likely to continue, indeed at current rates of effort this bombardment could be sustained almost indefinitely.
At the time of writing there was intensive speculation in the Western media about a stalled campaign, little progress and ineffective bombing. These are curious, if not inept criticisms, given that air campaigns over the last decade conducted against much more vulnerable and less tenacious opponents, such as Iraq and Serbia, took 6 and 11 weeks before sufficient attrition was inflicted that the opponent conceded the fight. Given that the Taleban are more interested in martyrdom than any modern Western ideas like survival of the regime, it is very likely that very significant attrition of their land forces will need to occur before we see highly visible results, such as a collapse of their front line defence in the north of the country.
The RAAF component of the coalition force is modest, but potentially highly useful. At the time of writing the Howard government had committed to deploy a pair of 707-338C tankers, a pair of P-3C maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and four F/A-18A Hornets to provide air defence cover, in addition to 150 SAS ground troops, and the HMAS Kanimbla, supported by frigates.
Given the current servicability problems in the USAF's KC-135R fleet, and the single hose limitation of most of the KC-10A fleet, only a small proportion of either being equipped with wigtip Mk.82 pods for refuelling USN aircraft, the RAAF's fast 707 tankers will be extremely useful in the support of USN fighter aircraft in the theatre. While there govt has not disclosed whether the pair of P-3Cs are indeed the two signals intelligence aircraft, press reports have stated this to be so. These aircraft would make an extremely useful contribution in monitoring hostile radio traffic, complementing the USAF RC-135s and USN EP-3s. At the time of writing the role of the four Hornets was confined to air defence. The F-111 fleet has not been committed to the campaign.
Should the bombing campaign last for more than few months, then the USAF will need to rotate and possibly supplement some of the its F-15E units deployed, and a need may arise for coalition strike assets such as the RAAF's F-111s. Indeed, should the war broaden, then it may be necessary for Australia and the UK to commit further air assets, and bombers such as the F-111 would be in high demand.
The big question for the ADF in the context of a possibly long running series of campaigns is the issue of sustainability, or the capacity to maintain combat forces in the field. Technical proficiency and combat readiness of key assets in the ADF has generally been very good, but these do not confer sustainability in wartime. The latter comes from having sufficient personnel and equipment to keep an operational combat force in the theatre, maintain the required training effort for replacement rotations of personnel, and support equipment in combat and training with depot level maintenance.
A rule of thumb is that one third of the force goes to war, one third covers training and one third is in the depot for equipment overhauls. While modern technology can yield a better ratio of combat/training output to maintenance downtime, the reality remains that at best less than half of a defence force will be available for long duration sustained combat operations in theatre.
The simplest remedy is of course to bump the defence budget up from 1.9% GDP to 3.5-4% GDP, at the expense of all other government services - a defacto political impossibility. Are there cheaper alternatives?
The current US/UK effort in Afghanistan maps out the likely needs in future expeditionary campaigns: precision bombers supported by aerial refuelling, to crush enemy resistance, and special forces, to surgically excise the terrorists and their sponsors.
It is not a difficult conclusion that the areas where the ADF can best contribute, and where sustainability will be most vital, are bomber aircraft, aerial refuelling aircraft and special forces. An incremental increase in the planned Defence budget, focussed into these areas, would provide a viable compromise. The existing Capability Plan would be extended in key areas, but other commitments retained as planned for.
Current White Paper planning is centred on replacing the RAAF's four elderly 707 aerial tankers with five new replacements, with many in Defence favouring economy medium twin engine tankers, despite their obvious and important operational limitations. A top level policy change toward more capable three or four engined heavy tankers such as the MD-11 or 747 aircraft, and numbers closer to 10 aircraft would make all the difference. An ADF contribution of 6 heavy tankers, against the US Air Force's fleet of around sixty heavy tankers, is clearly robust, more so given that few USAF tankers have hose/drogue pods to support USN assets. With a soon to come glut of used 747-400 aircraft in the airline market, there will be very good bargains to be had, arguably good enough bargains to credibly offset any near term cost differences against the holy grail of a medium tanker.
In terms of bombers, the RAAF's F-111 is a high value asset. The F-111 can lift between 47% to 94% of the dumb bomb load of a US B-52H, yet it can also deliver a wide range of PGMs. In the 1991 bombing of Iraq, a mere 44 US Air Force F-111Fs killed almost 1,000 tanks, while delivering more PGMs than any other type. The RAAF currently owns 35 F-111s, a mix of F-111Cs and F-111Gs, the latter still not equipped with avionics for PGM guidance. To sustain a deployment of 16 to 20 aircraft, while maintaining training effort and depot work such as overhauls and planned upgrades, the RAAF would need closer to fifty PGM capable aircraft.
Extending and upgrading the F-111 fleet is hardly a budget buster. With cca 250 mothballed F-111s in the US, additional aircraft cost a very small fraction of what new fighters would. Most of the expense would lie in refurbishing and upgrading the whole fleet to a common post-AUP Block C-4/5 avionic configuration. This means extending the scope of the BUP upgrades planned for the F-111C to cover current and additional G-models, and adapting the proven AUP avionic system to the F-111G, mostly a packaging task. As the infrastructure required already exists at RAAF Amberley this is mostly an incremental cost. With Australia's aerospace industry facing bleak times ahead, several hundred highly skilled industry jobs could be saved from the effects of the conflict.
Australia's ongoing involvement in the War on Terrorism is inevitable. Both sides of politics might consider how Australia can provide a credible and sustainable contribution, without wrecking existing funding plans or making promises which cannot be kept. Some extra funding into aerial refuelling aircraft and F-111s makes an affordable, sustainable and credible contribution.
Air Power Wins Again
The remarkable events of early November, during which the Taliban defensive line across the north of Afghanistan collapsed, prove yet again what air power theorists have argued since 1991: precision air power will defeat any undefended surface force.
The cheering crowds on the streets of Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat and many other Afghan cities and towns said it all. The Taliban were routed in a way many traditional military theorists believed impossible, and indeed many land warfare theorists argued could only be done by a massive land force invasion. If there was any doubt about the moral position of the US and its allies in crushing the Taliban, the popular anger on the streets of Afghan cities and defacto lynching of Taliban and Al Qaeda stragglers by ordinary Afghans and United Front (UFA) troops testifies to the hatred produced by the Taliban's brutal oppression. In Afghanistan today, hunting Al Qaeda tourists appears to have become a national obsession - much to the consternation of the world's human rights advocates.
Afghans have a long and colourful history of turning on foreign invaders and collectively resisting and destroying foreign dominated domestic regimes. The Taliban, largely a creation of the Pakistani fundamentalist movement and intelligence agency, funded by Pakistan, Saudi Arabian interests and Bin Laden/Al Qaeda, qualified as exactly that - a substantially foreign army and regime which violated a great many Afghan cultural traditions. In a sense the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies tried to do what the Sovs tried after 1979 - impose a new and alien culture upon a traditional and fiercely nationalistic tribal culture. Caught between the hammer of US air power and special forces, and the anvil of indigenous Afghan nationalism, the Taliban and Al Qaeda relived the historical experience of all foreign invaders - crushing defeat.
The aerial bombardment of the Taliban and Al Qaeda ground forces commenced early in the campaign, but the focus of the bombing effort was largely upon key warfighting resources such as stockpiles of ammunition, military stores, fuel, concurrently with a ongoing campaign of interdicting road transport and striking at identified urban targets. The latter were primarily Al Qaeda and Taliban training and accommodation.
By doing so, US campaign planners progressively eviscerated the logistical and command structures of the Taliban and Al Qaeda armies, but also introduced an important element of disruption into the process. The Commando Solo was introduced into the campaign very early, supplemented by B-52 leaflet drops, both aimed at demoralising the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, but also aimed at encouraging ordinary Afghans and the UFA forces to actively resist the Taliban.
What has been less publicised in the popular media is the pivotal role performed by the RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic intelligence fleet and the USN EA-6B Prowlers. The Rivet Joint fleet joined the campaign early, eavesdropping and locating Taliban and Al Qaeda battlefield radio emitters. Part of the Taliban's advantage in earlier campaigns against the Afghan government forces was their widespread us of handheld VHF radios, and battlefield radios to coordinate their forces. Indeed, with Afghanistan's underdeveloped telecommunications infrastructure, this was the only means of communicating in many areas. What was an advantage in a traditional Third World confrontation proved to be a fatal weakness when confronting the US. Radio intercepts were used very widely to glean real time intelligence, but also used to pinpoint Taliban and Al Qaeda elements otherwise hidden from the prying eyes of the Predator UAVs. It is reasonable to speculate that the Rivet Joints cued all manner of other recce assets, such as Predators, fast FACs (F-14D, F/A-18D, F-16D and F-15E) and later E-8 JSTARS to potential targets, which were identified, tracked and then engaged and destroyed.
Many observers expected the EA-6B to become redundant in the campaign, once the Taliban's few radar systems were destroyed. Rapid modifications to the ALQ-99 Tactical Jamming System (refer Dec 2001 AA p32) to allow the jamming of battlefield radios, using the podded low band radar jamming equipment rather than the specialised USQ-113 comjam pods, allowed the EA-6B to jam Taliban and Al Qaeda communications. Coordinated operations with the USAF's EC-130H Compass Call communications jammers and the EC-130E Commando Solo propaganda broadcast aircraft saw the US assume complete control of the electromagnetic spectrum. The Taliban and Al Qaeda forces lost the use of most radio channels, other than those being used to eavesdrop and localise their forces.
The importance of the US Information Warfare campaign cannot be understated, it was a pivotal aspect of the targeting effort, as well as disrupting the capacity of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to organise their military effort, and demoralising their troops. The latter was of key importance since large portions of the Taliban's indigenous troops were either conscripts or hired guns bought from tribal warlords in the south of the country, neither of which shared the passion for martyrdom which characterises the committed Taliban and Al Qaeda diehards.
By late October the bombing effort expanded in scope, to encompass the systematic targeting of entrenched Taliban and Al Qaeda battlefield forces in key sectors of their northern defence line. The Mazar-e-Sharif and Bagram defensive lines were subjected to repeated and punishing Arc Light strikes by USAF B-52H and B-1B bombers, and at least two BLU-82/B Commando Vault 15,000 lb Ammonal daisy cutter bombs were dropped by USAF MC-130s.
Media reports, and footage of circular contrails clearly indicated that the USAF heavies were orbiting the target areas, being called in by ground FACs and fighter Fast FACs to drop sticks of Mk.82 and Mk.84 dumb bombs on trenchlines, fortifications and tunnelling systems linking these. These strikes were supplemented by USN F-14D, F/A-18C and USAF F-16C strikes with laser guided bombs and JDAMs against mobile targets such as tanks and artillery pieces. The fighter Fast FACs were reported to be directly supporting B-52 strikes with GPS targeting coordinates produced by the LANTIRN or other FLIR/Laser pods.
These strikes in effect implemented the hammer and anvil model devised by UK general Simpkin during the eighties - the Taliban and Al Qaeda had to keep refilling their trenches and artillery/tank emplacements not to be overrun by UFA forces, yet once filled with troops and equipment, these positions became prey for the B-52s over and over again. There are no accurate estimates of casualties incurred by these strikes, and indeed these may never be compiled given the destructive effect of concentrated Arc Light bombardment.
Ground FACs, teams of USAF and US Army Special Forces, provided important targeting support for this effort. Working with UFA troops, these teams frequently moved very close to Taliban positions to provide accurate coordinates for strikes and post-strike Bomb Damage Assessment. Indeed, some FAC teams moved through the impassable terrain on the back of UFA horses and mules. US SecDef Rumsfeld commented on SF requests for resupply which included horse feed and hay! Some UFA cavalry units actually charged against Taliban and Al Qaeda positions on horseback to elicit defensive fire and expose the enemy positions, which were soon visited by orbiting bombers overhead.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda were haemorrhaging their best battlefield assets at an unsustainable rate. The crunch came on the 9th November, when UFA Uzbek Gen Rashid Dostum broke through the Taliban and Al Qaeda positions around his previous stronghold, Mazar-e-Sharif. The Taliban and Al Qaeda forces rapidly fled and the city soon fell. Some Pakistani Taliban tourists were abandoned in the city, and barricaded themselves in a former girl's school. After negotiations for surrender failed, a vicious firefight ensued, several bombs were dropped, and the UFA troops stormed the site - of several hundred defenders, only around 180 were claimed to have been taken prisoner.
With the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif the Taliban and Al Qaeda defensive line across the north of Afghanistan rapidly crumbled. Three days later, Herat in the west fell, soon followed by the capital, Kabul. The UFA encountered little resistance, and the few Taliban and Al Qaeda who attempted to resist the advancing UFA forces were promptly despatched with Paveways.
The scenes of jubilation in the northern Afghan cities were reminiscent of the Allied advance through France in 1994, a clear testimony to the fact that the Islamo-fascist Taliban and Al Qaeda were anything but benevolent rulers. Indeed, numerous press reports indicate that the retreating Taliban and Al Qaeda forces massacred many civilians in the Herat area, and did their best to burn out much of Bamiyan, the site of the two destroyed Buddha statues and home to most of Afghanistan's remaining Buddhist and Hindu minorities, a group who predate Islam in Afghanistan by many centuries.
By the 17th November the UFA had driven the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces out of most of northern Afghanistan, the far West of the country and pushed down to Ghani. The covert but very active CIA had been busily working in the South of the country, to rally ethnic Pashtun tribal groups which whom they have established close relationships during the Soviet occupation. The remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda forces trapped in the north retreated to the district surrounding Kunduz to dig in for a last stand. USAF B-52s concentrated on pounding positions around Kunduz, which began to crumble in days.
UFA Gen Dostum negotiated arrangements for ethnic Afghan Taliban forces in Kunduz to surrender, which they did but not before Ussama Bin Laden's zealots killed many intended ethnic Afghan Taliban defectors and deserters. The surrender of Kunduz had a bloody aftermath in Mazar-e-Sharif - the negotiated surrender included several hundred Pakistani Taliban and Arab, Chechen, Uzbek and Pakistani Al Qaeda troops. Some of these concealed hand grenades when surrendering and staged a bloody revolt in the Mazar-e-Sharif fortress compound. Lasting for several days, the revolt saw dozens of UFA troops, mostly local men, and one CIA officer killed. Nearly all of the Al Qaeda troops died, after sustained USAF/USN bombing and a mop up operation led by US SF and UK SAS personnel.
With the fall of the Kunduz pocket, the remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda forces retreated for a last stand in the Southern city of Kandahar, the traditional stronghold of the Pashtun dominated Afghan Taliban leadership. At the time of writing, pockets of Taliban and Al Qaeda remained south of Jalalabad, in the Tora Bora caves along the Pakistani border, in Spin Boldak and around and inside the Kandahar defensive perimeter and nearby cave complexes.
In preparing to break the last Taliban stronghold, the US inserted a force of what could be up to two thousand Marines into FOB Rhino in the Kandahar district, a site described as the target of the original 100 strong US SF raid early in the campaign - according to media claims in the vicinity of Dolangi. The FOB was rapidly reinforced, and within a day of insertion USMC Cobra helicopters teamed with USN fighters to destroy a column of Taliban vehicles advancing in the area. The stated aim of the FOB was to support SF operations in southern Afghanistan - given the size of the deployment, media speculation that this force alone could launch a land offensive to take Kandahar verges on the absurd.
At the time of writing the campaign is well and truly entering the endgame, with the USAF and USN pounding the Tora Bora cave complexes in Nangahar province, and cave complexes in Paktia and Kandahar province, while sustaining heavy around the clock bombardment effort against the entrenched Taliban forces in and around Kandahar, using B-52s and fighters. With additional USAF fighters and AC-130s deployed to Central Asia, at undisclosed bases, firepower shortages will be unlikely. Sortie rates during the bombardment of Kandahar crept up from around 80 per day to 120 and more.
A notable raid in the Kandahar region involved an F-16C providing targeting for a B-1B which dropped around ten JDAMs on a Taliban/Al Qaeda leadership compound located by intelligence.
Relatively late deployments in the campaign were the E-8 JSTARS and RQ-4 Global Hawk, with planning to field four prototypes of the latter for operational prototyping - repainted in low visibility camouflage. The aircraft involved in this year's Australian trials, claimed to be equipped with an LR-100 electronic intelligence gathering system, was to be part of the deployment. At least two Predator UAVs were reported lost due to icing in cloud. The outstanding success of the Predator has seen orders placed for the turboprop and turbofan powered Predator B, and at the time of writing there was intense debate in the US over the prospects for a larger twin engine Global Hawk Block 20 variant, with U-2 class payload.
Various US media and industry journal reports suggest that the USAF will be deploying a range of new recce and surveillance systems early in 2002, exploiting hyperspectral imaging, seismic detection, magnetic anomaly detection and possibly also LIDAR technology, all coupled with advanced target correlation algorithms. Whether details of these systems are disclosed publicly, or indeed whether they even get the opportunity for combat use, remains to be seen. With the prospect of some Taliban and Al Qaeda diehards holding out in the extensive limestone cave systems in the Kandahar and Jalalabad districts, sanitising Afghanistan of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and indeed hunting down Bin Laden and his lieutenants could take weeks or months even after the fall of Kandahar. Whether the USAF employs this technology remains to be seen - although advanced planning is underway for a new multimission 767 derivative aircraft, the Multi-Sensor Command and Control Aircraft or MC2A to provide a long term capability in this area.
A key difference in this campaign, in comparison with the 1999 campaign, has the extensive use of datalinking and an operational doctrine aimed at minimising the time between the detection of a target and attack from the air. With fleeting and mobile Taliban and Al Qaeda units on the ground, waiting 24 hours for strike planning was simply not feasible - heavy bombers and strike fighters were evidently parked in orbits awaiting vectors from airborne FACs, airborne command posts and ground FACs to engage targets once they were found and identified - emerging targets to use US DoD jargon.
Lessons for the ADF
There is one very central lesson for the ADF in the conduct of Enduring Freedom campaign - the undisputed primacy of air power in land warfare. Indeed, the operational environment the USN and USAF had to deal with is geographically analogous to that envisaged in the Defence 2000 White Paper for regional air operations - targets were struck at distances between 1,000 and 1,500 NMI from the aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean, and 2,000 NMI or more from the Diego Garcia runways.
The ADF's leadership should take careful note of what was achieved in this campaign, and how it was achieved. At an average rate of around 10 heavy bomber sorties per day, corresponding to 20 F-111 sorties per day in typical payloads, and 50 - 60 fighter bomber sorties per day, corresponding to 25 - 30 F-111 sorties per day in typical payloads, 5 to 6 weeks of bombardment broke the back of the Taliban regime. In practical terms, the ability to sustain the equivalent of around 45 - 50 F-111 sorties per day would provide a similar combat effect to the combined USAF and USN strike force sortied in the pivotal periods of the campaign.
As noted in last month's analysis, this level of capability is within the reach of the ADF if proper investment is made into the F-111 fleet, and into the planned AIR 5402 tanker replacement fleet.
What distinguishes Enduring Freedom from previous campaigns, in effectiveness, was the effort put by the USAF into targeting. The combination of USAF F-16C Fast FACs, USN F-14D Fast FACs and the vital ground FAC teams, supported by Army Special Forces, all working in concert with Rivet Joint electronic intelligence gathering aircraft and recce UAVs, provided the necessary real time and near real time flow of targeting information required to put the bombs on target.
The concurrent Information Warfare effort, conducted using the EC-130E Commando Solo, EC-130H Compass Call and EA-6B Prowlers, paralysed the enemy ground forces' command and control while contributing valuable targeting data in the process.
In broad terms, the ADF's push for network centric warfare, using recce assets like the Global Hawk and digital datalinks to feed targeting data to strike fighters, is aiming very much in the right direction. However, the ADF has modest electronic reconnaissance capabilities, and no support jamming capability against either radars or communications - both implementable with a platform such as the EF-111A, if properly upgraded.
In this context the lesson for the ADF is simple - make the proper investment into imagery and electronic recce assets, and support jamming. Having the best fleet of fighters and bombers in the region does not automatically confer the ability to use it effectively - that only comes with having the proper targeting machinery and personnel.
The big challenge for the ADF is to overcome the deeply entrenched Cold War mindset of balanced forces in which naval and land warfare assets devour more than half of the total defence outlay. Afghanistan, taken in context with Desert Storm and Allied Force, clearly proves that the balance in ADF funding must to air power. Surface forces, be they naval or land forces, have a primary role in supporting air power with targeting data, and Bomb Damage Assessment data, where these cannot be gleaned from the air adequately.
The notion that surface forces are the decisive asset in surface warfare is little more than nostalgia, and purple wishful thinking - with the exception of niche roles such as peace enforcement, they are most useful for targeting and as an anvil to support air power. The longer the purple lobby clings to outmoded thinking, the harder it will become to the ADF to the new paradigm.
The collapse of the Taliban regime in November last year led to an inevitable outcome, with remaining Al Qaeda and Taliban diehards fleeing to remote frontier cave complexes along the Pakistani frontier, in an attempt to evade Coalition forces and survive to fight another day.
Inevitably this has seen a progressive reduction in the intensity of bombing activity in Afghanistan - although armed patrols of B-52H, B-1B bombers and US Navy fighters are likely to continue for some weeks.
> The expected last stand of the Taliban at Kandahar did not materialise, certainly not in the fashion many may have expected. Around two weeks of intensive bombardment delivered against both urban Al Qaeda and Taliban targets, and the defensive trench systems intended to keep out Hamid Karzai's Pashtun tribal army, saw heavy attrition of defending forces. Press reports from that period would suggest that the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership repeated the very same blunder they committed at Mazar-e Sharif, Bagram and Kunduz - after the trench systems were obliterated by Arc Light B-52H/B-1B raids they would dig them out again and refill them with fresh troops. Repeat cycles of Arc Light bombardment saw their troop numbers rapidly dwindle. The Taliban leaders in Kandahar negotiated a surrender and the elusive Mullah Omar fled.
The USMC contingent stationed at FOB Rhino, south west of Kandahar, rapidly relocated most of its assets to Kandahar airport. Late December and early January saw the US consolidate its position in the Kandahar area.
By late December much of the bombing activity had become concentrated in the Tora Bora area, along the White Mountains. This region straddles the Pakistani border in an area which is geologically ideal for cave formation - soft limestone eroded by water produces a natural honeycomb of cave systems. The Tora Bora caves were a sanctuary for Afghan nationalist troops fighting the Soviets during the 1980s and this produced an expectation in many minds that this natural fortress was impregnable to attack. With few roads and natural defences creating many opportunities for ambushes, the Soviets did not fare well in repeated assaults against Tora Bora.
Late December saw a ferocious and sustained around the clock aerial bombardment of the Tora Bora complex - with few other targets left the USAF and USN concentrated much of the firepower in the theatre against this target complex with utterly devastating results. Tora Bora was subjected to repeated raids by the B-52H/B-1B contingent, delivering a range of dumb and smart munitions. Between heavy bomber raids, USN F/A-18Cs and F-14s picked off point targets with Paveways and JDAMs, while nighttime visitations by the USAF's AC-130 gunships left no respite for the Al Qaeda defenders. A USAF MC-130 dropped a BLU-82 Commando Vault on the complex, reported to have obliterated defences outside several important caves. Inevitably, the Tora Bora defence collapsed and the TV imagery of captured Al Qaeda troops clearly showed the overwhelming psychological distress produced by the bombardment. Limestone defences are no match for the BLU-109/B bunker buster.
After the fall of Tora Bora, Coalition Special Forces combed the area to collect intelligence. Computer hard drives, documentation, filing cabinets and other materials found contributed valuable intelligence to the growing pool of materials collected in Afghanistan - a strategic payoff from this campaign.
While Tora Bora was being pounded to oblivion, reports emerged of a last stand by Mullah Omar's most loyal supporters in the vicinity of Bagran in Helmand province, in the southern foothills of the central highlands. An Afghan tribal force was despatched and the contingent was reported to have surrendered, with the elusive Mullah Omar yet again living up to his reputation and refusing to be captured.
By the second week of January the focus of Coalition air activity shifted from Tora Bora to the Zhawar Kili area further south, yet again a combined surface and cave complex in soft limestone geology along the Pakistani border. Dozens of raids were flown, obliterating surface structures and closing cave entrances. The Zhawar Kili complex was previously a terrorist training camp, and became a rallying area for scattered Al Qaeda forces to regroup at. Zhawar Kili proved to be a much larger and extensive complex than originally believed and the collapse of its defences in the third week of January saw some valuable intelligence gains and further captured Al Qaeda troops.
Air power played a less conventional role in January, as the US began the difficult task of relocating many hundreds of captured Al Qaeda troops to a temporary detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. A specially modified C-141 Starlifter is being employed as a prison transport - the captured Al Qaeda have shown a propensity to repeat the behaviour of captured Cathar heretics centuries ago and suicidally attack their guards should an opportunity arise to do so. Inevitably this creates much difficulty in handling them - whilst they are happy to avoid being killed on the battlefield, they have no respect for centuries old conventions of war.
Intense media speculation about the whereabouts of Ussama bin Laden and Mullah Omar continues. At the time of writing it was unknown whether either remained alive or indeed whether they were still in Afghanistan. This is not historically dissimilar a situation from the collapse of the Third Reich - the leadership groups of totalitarian regimes are seldom anxious to be captured and many weeks or months may elapse until they are caught.
Coming weeks and perhaps months will see more of what we have observed in January, 2002. Al Qaeda and Taliban diehards will attempt to gather and regroup, they will be located, subjected to air attacks and mopped up by Afghan troops with the assistance of Coalition special forces. It will be a gradual and progressive process of attrition, with ever diminishing intensity. Given that the Afghans are now largely pre-occupied with nation building and consolidating their political position, it is likely that much of the mop-up burden will to Western Special Forces units.
What is clear is that the Afghan campaign was decisively an air power centric campaign and future campaigns in the War on Terrorism are apt to follow a similar pattern.
While a very detailed discussion of the tactical advances in this campaign is not entirely appropriate for public discussion in wartime, what has been widely observed on television and in the US trade press and DoD briefings can be safely discussed.
We might ask the question: what was the single most important tactical/operational innovation seen in this air campaign?
Clearly the use of concentrated Information Warfare attack was vitally important, as was the extensive use of Predator and Global Hawk UAVs, equally so Special Forces ground FACs played an important role. Were any of these innovations decisive in their own right, or was another innovation more important?
The answer to the latter question is, decisively, yes: the single pivotal innovation in the Enduring Freedom campaign was the use of loitering bombardment techniques.
In the traditional model of air campaigns, targets are located by surveillance and reconnaissance, carefully evaluated and then allocated in a daily tasking order for attack. Fighters/bombers are then sortied to attack the targets, upon which recce assets revisit it for Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) to determine whether it has been killed or not. This is termed the targeting cycle. It comprises a target detection/identification phase, a target evaluation/decision phase, an attack phase and a kill assessment phase'.
Until the 1990s a typical targeting cycle was 24 or 48 hours. Indeed, for many classical strategic targets such as buildings, facilities, bunkers, airfields, factories such a targeting cycle is quite reasonable - the target is immobile and will still be there a day later.
Battlefield targets are inherently more mobile than strategic targets - even a large formation of troops or armour can relocate in a matter of hours. As a result the classical Battlefield Air Interdiction or Close Air Support (BAI/CAS) targeting cycle was typically much shorter - measured in hours usually. The determinant of targeting cycle length in battlefield work is typically the time it takes to sortie a fighter from a runway within easy striking distance of the intended target. While short targeting cycles such as 30 minutes have been seen in Vietnam and subsequent campaigns, where a fuelled and bombed up fighter was sitting on a taxiway ready to be scrambled, in practice it could take up to hours to prepare an aircraft and brief the crew if such favourable circumstances did not exist. Of course once a battlefield target is found and attacked by an aircraft, its odds of survival are slim - as proven repeatedly since Goering's Ju-87 Stukas broke the spine of the Spanish Republican forces.
Since the emergence of modern BAI/CAS techniques in the late 1930s, there have been only incremental advances in the state of the art. Better dumb weapons, precision guided munitions, aerial refuelling to keep fighters aloft longer, digital datalinks to transfer target coordinates, JSTARS GMTI radar to track armour, UAVs to provide persistent surveillance. However, the basic paradigm of launching a fighter from a nearby airfield remained - old habits die hard and the well proven method had yet to be superceded in practice.
As far back as the 1940s highly mobile battlefield targets presented a particular challenge for air forces performing BAI/CAS work. The solution to this problem was simple - Typhoons, Hurricanes, Spitfires, P-38s, P-47s and P-51s were flown on battlefield sweeps hunting for targets of opportunity - if caught they were promptly destroyed. This model remained in use even in 1991, a good example of which was the USAF 48th TFW's tank plinking campaign flown with Pave Tack equipped F-111Fs.
This model began to break down after 1991. The reasons were several. The first was that opponents of the West are not entirely dumb and quickly figured out that remaining on the move was a good way to bust the hours or days long targeting cycle model used by Western air forces - by the time the fighter arrived the enemy had moved elsewhere - bad guys 1, air power 0. The second reason was the CNN Effect - the pervasive presence of television media in combat zones, eager to broadcast the civilian casualties from each and every stray or mistargeted bomb. Since blood sells in the media game, we have seen a competitive orgy since 1991 in media organisations seeking gory collateral damage footage. Yet again, opponents of the West are not entirely dumb and very quickly understood that Giap's success in Vietnam media campaign (perhaps the most successful use of Information Warfare in the 20th century) could be turned to their own ends. Hence the emergence of human shields as a central theme in deterring the use of air power. If SAM, AAA and fighters can't fend off nasty Western air power, then footage of women and children blown to little pieces is the next best thing.
During the 1990s this technique became refined with mosques, churches, schools and public areas and shelters becoming favoured sites for the emplacement of SAM and AAA batteries, munition storage, command and control sites and every other manner of useful military asset. Of course, the chaos of large numbers of refugees on the roads and gathered in cities was a bonus into the deal.
When the US commenced the bombing of Afghanistan it very quickly learned that Al Qaeda and their Taliban proxies, if not imaginative certainly observant, were most adept at playing this game. With the US Navy's fighters taking three or more hours to transit from carriers in the Arabian Sea to areas of interest in Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership clearly expected a propaganda windfall in dead civilians and ample opportunities to evade bombardment.
Were the US to have retained the established targeting cycle model, in both strategic and battlefield attack, odds are the bombardment phase of the campaign would still be active, the Taliban would still hold much of Afghanistan and there would be a full scale fight between the US govt and media over dead civilian footage.
However, the US were clearly cognizant of this strategy and very quickly adapted to defeat it. Clearly the key to breaking the human shield and target mobility defences lay in achieving extremely short targeting cycles. Mobile targets could be engaged within minutes of positive identification and validation, and high value assets such as leadership targets could be hit in transit between human shield defended hides.
The challenge in producing very short targeting cycles was in a sense formidable - while the UAV, fast FAC and ground FAC models were well proven, the problem of fighter scramble times, endurance over the target area and limited weapon load remained. While one might argue that tankers could solve all problems by providing the USN's fighters with great endurance over the target area, the reality is that once the fighter has expended its weapons it might as well head straight home. The ideal aircraft for such combat would have to be inherently large and thus capable, with tanker support, of loitering over the target area for many hours with a large load of weapons.
As we now all know, the B-52H and B-1B fulfilled this in doctrine admirably. Capable of carrying a mix of GBU-31 2,000 lb JDAMs, Mk.82/84 500/2,000 lb dumb bombs, and the accurate Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser (WCMD - an inertially guided variant of the SUU-65 cluster bomblet dispenser), the heavy bombers could orbit for hours picking off targets on demand. Different targets could be optimally attacked with varying numbers of guided or unguided weapons. Unlike fighters, limited in weapons loads and mixes by payload limitations, a B-52H/B-1B bomber could either pick off point targets with single JDAMs, obliterate a trenchline with Mk.82/Mk.84 or demolish a group of buildings or bunkers with multiple Mk.84 or BLU-109/B 2,000 pounders.
The characteristic circular contrails we observed over Mazar-e Sharif, Bagram, Kunduz, Kandahar and Tora Bora in our daily television reports were a halo of death for the Al Qaeda and Taliban enemy. The aerial bombardment paradigm has yet again shifted, to defeat a counter-bombardment technique which has plagued air campaign planners since the 1940s and indeed become a centre-piece of the West's enemies' strategy for countering modern air power.
What are the other implications of loitering bombardment techniques? These are manifold. Mobility and concealment have become a central aspect of modern SAM/AAA air defence doctrine as well as ballistic missile deployment doctrine. As shown in the 1999 Serbian campaign, the disparity in static S-125/SA-3 SAM battery kills against mobile 9M9/SA-6 SAM battery kills decisively favours high SAM system mobility over static emplacements. A loitering SAM killer denies opportunities to shoot and scoot - once the SAM system lights up and exposes its location it will be hunted down and killed. Once might argue that loitering in SAM infested airspace is a recipe for lost aircraft - however there are two sides to this argument, since the bomber can shoot back at the SAM site, and if need be an escort jammer can blind it. Unless the SAM site is tempted with a target to shoot at it will not reveal its location and thus cannot be killed off.
The largely futile Scud hunts of 1991 set the trend for ballistic missile users, with players large and small shifting their ballistic missile inventories from static emplacements and semi-mobile launchers to all terrain 8x8 and 12x12 transporter Erector Launchers. Be they Chinese ICBMs or rogue state IRBMs, the ballistic missile user base is going mobile to defeat air attack.
As with mobile SAMs, loitering bombardment techniques are the answer to the Scud hunt problem. With the ability to loiter in an area where a mobile ballistic missile launcher is known to be hiding, the instant it exposes itself to initiate a missile launch it can be engaged. Unless the TEL is designed to elevate and shoot the missile in 2-3 minutes, the odds are very good that it will eat a JDAM in that process.
For the USAF loitering bombardment will increase the demand for the B-2 batwing and the new F-22 Raptor, and diminish the usefulness of the F/A-18A sized F-35 JSF. In the loitering bombardment game bigger is decisively better, in terms of wing size, fuel load and bomb load. The difficulties in finding accessible runways within 600 nautical miles of a target are a problem for the existing F-16 and F/A-18 fleets. The new F-35 JSF, so beloved of many political players and defence bureaucrats here and abroad, is sized around the F-16 and F/A-18A-D albeit with some combat radius gains from a clean design with internal weapons and fuel. Accordingly it becomes a much less than ideal asset in this game - built around the Cold War European theatre paradigm of short distances to the FEBA, the F-35 JSF is nothing less than a Cold War anachronism built using the latest technology and inheriting the same strategic limitations as the Cold War concept Eurocanards, the F-16 and F/A-18A-D. The shifting air power paradigm will make all of these fighters into niche assets best suited for hit and run strike sorties when opportunities arise to fly them.
Loitering Bombardment and the ADF
The current in bombardment techniques has important implications for the ADF, especially in light of the ongoing F-111 debate and the AIR 6000 program.
Consider the RAAF's current inventory of 72 F/A-18As and 35 F-111s against a hypothetical regional campaign to destroy an opponent playing similar mobility and concealment games as the Al Qaeda and Taliban did - not an impossibility given the US expectation that Australia will play a major role in dealing with regional terrorist movements, and the presence of Al Qaeda linked insurgents in Indonesia and the Phillipines - Malaysia's problem in this respect being largely confined to urban supporters of the movement. Let us postulate that a regional government might request that the RAAF deploy assets in their country to perform a BAI/CAS effort against a domestic Islamo-fascist insurgency.
The first conclusion to draw is that deployment within 300-500 nautical miles of the target may not be viable, either for reasons of base security (who wants mortars and RPGs raining down on the flightline?) or indeed geography within the wider archipelago.
The F/A-18A might be a delightful aircraft to dogfight in and a highly accurate bomb truck, but it is arguably the least useful asset the RAAF has for this kind of campaign activity. Even assuming unlimited aerial refuelling, the need for safe diversion range will see pylons carrying external fuel tanks at the expense of useful payload items, such as GBU-12s or other bombs. The photographs from Afghanistan, where diversion to nearby Pakistani runways was available, say it all - asymmetric loads of GBU-12s, JDAMs and 480 USG drop tanks.
Fortuitously the RAAF is not limited to the F/A-18A and owns what is arguably the next best asset to a B-1B or B-52H - the F-111. It is pitiful that in the midst of a major world in air power technique which decisively favours larger combat aircraft that we still have public commentators in the media defence debate diminishing the F-111! The ADF leadership and indeed the DoD's civilian players might want to seriously contemplate the shifting sands in the air power game - the value of the F-111 as a pivotal combat asset in Australia's inventory has increased over the last three months, rather than decreased. In a world of highly mobile targets, where loitering bombardment is the only viable engagement technique, size does indeed matter. Bigger is better and the F-111 fits this recipe better than any other aircraft available to the RAAF. Suffice to say many Australians have no idea how lucky the RAAF is, in having the F-111 fleet.
If Australia is serious about adapting its force structure to the evolving world environment, then a good case can be made to retire the most fatigue damaged Hornets from the fleet and invest the money saved into recovering more mothballed F-111s, further F-111C/G avionic upgrades and indeed putting smart weapons on the F-111Gs. In terms of combat value over the next two decades the F-111 will gain increasingly as opponents try to become increasingly mobile, while the F/A-18A will become less and less useful. One might indeed argue that the F-111 is sufficiently valuable to justify mothballing or retiring quite a few of the RAAF's less than entirely useful assets, if funding for upgrades runs short.
Rebalancing the RAAF's fighter force to three F/A-18A squadrons and three F-111 squadrons would be an appropriate adaptation to evolving world air power trends, as well as extant White Paper capability goals and future coalition campaign needs. Whether Canberra has the courage to grapple with this challenge remains to be seen.
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