It might appear presumptuous to draw any lessons for the U.S. military from
the war in Afghanistan. Yet, this war reflects ongoing changes in military strategy,
doctrine, force structure and equipment, with important ramifications for both
the ongoing war on terrorism and the broader transformation of the U.S. military.
Traditionally, U.S. defense planning has been threat-driven. This means that
the force structure and military strategy were focused on countering the most
capable and likely threats to the nation.
Threat-based planning permits the creation of alliances, the establishment
of forward bases and the pre-conflict deployment of equipment. None of these
advantages can be assumed to exist for conflicts in the future. This puts a
premium on rapid reach by U.S. forces.
The implication of the basing problem for the United States is the importance
of investing in aircraft that enhance reach. The average range of U.S. in-theater
air bases to Afghanistan is more than 1,000 miles. B-2 bombers have carried
out 30 hour-long bombing missions from bases 10,000 miles distant. Even the
humanitarian airdrops have been performed by C-17s flying out of Ramstein, Germany
nearly 3,000 miles distant.
As the range between available air bases and battlefields increases, so will
the need for aerial refueling. The unparalleled global reach of the U.S. military
is underpinned by a fleet of some 700 aging KC-10 and KC-135 tankers. More than
100 tankers are required to support fewer than that number of daily combat sorties
over Afghanistan. U.S. global deployments have stretched the tanker fleet almost
to the breaking point. Acquiring new fighters and bombers, but failing to replace
the tanker fleet, would defeat the effort to improve the reach of U.S. air power.
An important aspect of reach is provided by the U.S. Navy’s command of
the sea. Those who thought the era of the large aircraft carrier was over have
been proven wrong. U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf have routinely
been conducting some 50 combat sorties per day over Afghanistan. U.S. surface
ships and British and U.S. submarines launched some two dozen cruise missile
strikes on the opening night of the war. The value of amphibious warfare capabilities
also was shown with the deployment of Marine Corps expeditionary forces to Camp
A counterintuitive lesson of Afghanistan is the importance of ground power
in future conflicts. The experience in Kosovo in the spring of 1999 seemed to
some to suggest that wars could be won from the air. While the air component
can certainly lead the way in many future conflicts, what Afghanistan demonstrates
is that effective ground power will be even more important in the future.
In Afghanistan, ground forces—principally the Northern Alliance—posed
an offensive threat. Ground forces occupied critical terrain, blocked escape
routes, and enabled the surrender of hostile forces. U.S. Special Forces on
the ground provided critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
(ISR) and targeting support to the air campaign. This latter role is particularly
important in situations where the adversary attempts to use the civilian population
But this conflict revealed a critical weakness in U.S. ground power. To be
effective in complex environments such as Afghanistan, ground forces must be
strategically deployable, tactically mobile and readily sustainable as well
as survivable and lethal. U.S. heavy forces are both survivable and lethal,
but lack ready deployability and are difficult to sustain at great distance
from major bases. U.S. light forces, such as Marine Expeditionary Units and
Army light infantry, are relatively easy to deploy, but lack the level of force
protection and the lethal punch of heavy forces. For that reason, U.S. forces
on the ground were restricted largely to the defense of fixed locations such
as the airfields at Kandahar and Bagram. It is a telling fact that with some
4,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan the critical role in prosecuting the
war is still being performed by a few hundred Special Forces.
A lesson of Afghanistan is the need to proceed as rapidly as possible with
the transformation of the U.S. Army. The Army is planning to field seven medium-weight
Brigade Combat Teams. These units will be equipped with advanced communications
and intelligence logistics systems that will allow for ready deployment and
for operations from unimproved locations possibly deep in hostile territory.
Afghanistan shows that this is precisely the kind of ground capability the United
States will require for future conflicts.
Afghanistan, meanwhile, would appear to validate the emerging Air Force and
Navy approaches to air warfare. This approach is based on the premise that the
military must gain and maintain dominance of the air from the outset of a conflict.
To achieve this, the Air Force proposes to create Global Strike Task Forces
(GSTS) designed to wreck hostile air defenses and “kick down the door”
for the entry of other air assets.
Potential U.S. adversaries are also learning lessons from the war. They have
concluded that once the United States owns the skies, their fate is sealed.
The future GSTS will need to be equipped with advanced, stealthy aircraft, notably
the F-22 and the B-2, that can defeat advanced air defenses. It will also require
the Navy’s version of the JSF and advanced sea-launched cruise missiles.
Afghanistan is the first war demonstrably won by superior information, as distinct
from superior force. The information war was waged with an unprecedented array
of sensors, real-time communications links and data-fusion capabilities. To
the now familiar array of ISR systems, including satellites, TR-1/U-2s, JSTARS,
P-3s, EA-6Bs and tactical aircraft equipped with targeting pods, the Air Force
and Navy added the unmanned Predator and Global Hawk aircraft. Improved communications
and surveillance systems also allowed Special Forces on the ground to provide
real-time targeting information to aircraft overhead, resulting in the first
ever employment of B-52s in a close air support role.
The real revolution in ISR was in the links. Real-time streaming video from
Predator drones was “streamed” to aircraft orbiting in Afghanistan’s
skies, as well as to command centers as far away as Saudi Arabia and Florida.
The nerve center of the air war, the Combined Air Operations Center at Prince
Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, regularly availed itself of real-time television
pictures of compounds and convoys provided by Predator cameras. New data systems
aboard B-1 and B-52 bombers enabled them to receive targeting information en-route
to Afghanistan, in a number of cases in real-time from Special Forces on the
ground. In the future, expanded linkages will permit sensors and data processors
to “talk” amongst themselves, sharing information and developing
a real-time composite view of the battle space.
The Defense Department’s decision to equip the majority of its fighter
and bomber force with the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) has proved itself
to be one of the wisest of the past decade. Other precision weapons, including
systems such as the AGM-130 Popeye and the AGM-86 hard-target penetrating cruise
missile, proved their worth against al Qaeda caves and bunkers. Equipped with
new warheads such as the thermo-baric explosive, these penetrating weapons can
deny adversaries the shelter of earth and rock. nd
Dr. Daniel Gouré is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public
policy think-tank in Arlington, Va.