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[] Jane's 19.12.01: Afghanistan: First Lessons,

Jane's Defence Weekly
December 19, 2001

Afghanistan: First Lessons

What can be learned from the US-led campaign in Afghanistan? Bryan Bender, Kim Burger and Andrew Koch look for the answers. The first of a two-part series 

The world's armed forces "are always preparing for the last war", as the maxim goes. The US-led military campaign in Afghanistan in some ways was the war the US Department of Defense (DoD) has been planning for. 

The strategy has been built around the use of capabilities provided by information superiority and is the most vivid proof to date that 'network-centric warfare' is a highly-effective warfighting concept. It has featured improvements and the progression of trends based on lessons learned in the 1990-91 Gulf War and 1999's Operation 'Allied Force' in Kosovo. 

The military campaign in Afghanistan has also extensively used airpower supported by surrogate and US ground troops with direct links to US pilots and aircraft. The campaign has relied heavily on that airpower capability, much like the Kosovo operation, but the improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and networking capabilities have proven to be vital. 

"There have been battles fought in Afghanistan for centuries, and I don't think any of them have seen the speed, results, the speed of effect that we have here. Clearly something different is going on," said retired Navy Vice Adm Arthur Cebrowski, the DoD's director for transformation. 

However, despite its swift military success, Operation 'Enduring Freedom' also struggled with problems of a low-tech enemy using asymmetric means. Other old problems have also re-emerged, such as strains on the aerial refuelling fleet. As in Kosovo, enemy ground forces also sought to evade US airpower by dispersing and concealing equipment and troops - this time among the civilian population, religious sites or in caves. 


Military powers have long aligned with forces that share a common enemy. The USA's alliance with a local opposition force consisting of the United Front (UF) in northern Afghanistan and opposition Pushtun forces in the south is reminiscent of the role the Kosovar Albanian rebel force, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), played during the Kosovo conflict. Although the KLA was not as militarily organised and NATO forces avoided a close alliance with them, it was that surrogate ground force that pushed enemy troops out in the open. 

The US contribution in Afghanistan to date has been deployed primarily from the air. But the introduction of Special Operations Forces (SOF) and intelligence personnel on the ground have provided real-time and near-realtime targeting quality data - either through the use of laser designators or by calling in global positioning system co-ordinates through radios or laptops to US aircraft flying overhead. 

The insertion of a sufficient number of SOF units enabled the US strikes to move from primarily fixed targets - such as airfields, air-defence facilities, and military compounds - to Taliban frontline forces. This new level of accuracy on the fairly static front lines of the Taliban-UF conflict put the Taliban under sufficient pressure, and helped quickly to swing the war, starting around Mazar-e Sharif and north of Kabul. "You could just see the change in the effectiveness of the bombing," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on 7 December of the effect the insertion of US SOF with anti-Taliban forces had on the campaign. 

"If we had not put those special forces troops on the ground, this campaign wouldn't have worked," said retired Gen Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander Europe during the Kosovo campaign. 

Some DoD officials and other policy-makers say the combination of US airpower with local surrogate ground forces should serve as a model for dealing with Iraq and other possible targets. While Bush administration officials say they are looking to increase support to governments fighting terrorist organisations such as in the Philippines, they insist no decisions have been made about future military operations. Washington, however, may use SOF and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives to conduct attacks or snatches of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks in other locations such as Somalia, making large-scale military activity unnecessary, US officials said. 

Lessons to be learned 

The USA enjoyed military success in its Afghan campaign, but not all went smoothly. More shortcomings are sure to be revealed as a Defense Science Board panel headed by retired Air Force Gen James McCarthy compiles its after-action report and the DoD addresses initial difficulties in some of the new targeting tactics and techniques that were hurriedly fielded and improved in Afghanistan. US military sources say, for example, that as many as a dozen opportunities to strike high-value but time-critical targets, such as leaders of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, were missed in the first few weeks of the war. 

This problem is attributed to the length of the decision loop - the time required from when a sensor detects a target to when it can be identified and approved by a human operator. Some of the those early problems were said to be due to interoperability issues and other technical difficulties, and others were questions of Rules of Engagement that could not be resolved quickly. Problems with time-critical strike and targeting processes surfaced in the Gulf War and in Kosovo, although the sensor-to-shooter loop has been tightened from days to hours, and now minutes. 

Moreover, many US tactical aircraft are still not equipped with digital satellite communications equipment - meaning that even in Afghanistan they are still reliant on aircraft such as the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System to send messages to other aircraft and ground forces out of range. Such failings indicate the DoD is far short of its plans to build an integrated seamless network of information that will form the backbone of future network-centric warfare. Further investments in datalinks and sensors will receive high priority in the coming years, one senior US official said. 

Locating and striking hard and deeply-buried targets (HDBTs) has also been one of the most challenging issues. For years DoD officials had identified locating, characterising and striking HDBTs as one of their most difficult tasks, but have yet to find any all-encompassing answer. "There is no silver bullet solution," one senior DoD official said recently, adding that investment continues to be made in the area. 

To address the problem in Afghanistan, the US military used two primary weapons: the 5,000 lb GBU-28 developed during the Gulf War to penetrate hardened bunkers and AGM-130s fired into the mouths of caves to seal them off and preclude their future use. As DoD planners tried to reduce the number of caves and subterranean complexes available to Al-Qaeda fighters, the AGM-130 was used when such targets were so far underground that penetrating them was not possible. 

Information revolution 

The Afghanistan operation may ultimately prove to be a boon to the DoD's 'revolution in military affairs', in which the prize is not territory but information. Only after a clear picture of the battlefield is assured - and that knowledge shared with as many weapons platforms and fighting forces as possible - can the maximum potential of precision-guided munitions and other high-tech weaponry be unleashed both militarily and politically. Many of the novel technologies and tactics being used by the USA and coalition forces in Afghanistan were intended to do just that - inform the USA and allied forces, not to destroy. 

One such development was the increasingly effective linkages developed between US forces operating in and around Afghanistan. The USA successfully linked the RQ-1 Predator unmanned air vehicle (UAV), RC-135V/W Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft, U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) aircraft, and RQ-4A Global Hawk long-endurance UAV using Link-16 and other datalink technology, US Air Force (USAF) officials said. 

According to US defence officials, innovations include the use of Predator UAVs not just for overall ISR missions, but also to place laser designators on specific leadership targets to guide bombs from other tactical aircraft. Predators were also used to strike those targets on their own through the CIA's operations of two variants armed with AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles. Moreover, Predator images can now be sent directly to the cockpits of aircraft such as the AC-130U Spectre gunships, Gen John Jumper, USAF Chief of Staff explained on 27 November. New targeting tactics have also been used with B-1B, B-2A, and B-52H long-range bombers by giving them mission-planning updates en route, thereby allowing them to provide close air support. In this regard, "we are inventing these tactics more or less in the course of battle", Gen Jumper said. 

These changes in information-sharing capabilities have long been sought after and are finally beginning to take shape. For example, the Joint STARS is designed to monitor static battlefields but has been used over Afghanistan to cue other platforms such as Global Hawk, which, in turn, cues other systems, allowing US forces to conduct a wider search of the battlefield than before. Air force Gen Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls this "persistence over the battlefield". 

The seamless transfer of battlefield information from one platform to another - including from space assets - proved particularly useful in enabling attack aircraft to strike targets of opportunity such as troop formations or convoys of Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders. Many USAF and Navy aircraft have operated in so-called 'engagement zones', where they are responsible for monitoring a particular part of the battlefield until a target presents itself. 

"This thing turned into a moving target kind of an operation very early in the campaign," Adm Vernon Clark, chief of naval operations, said recently. "It really placed a premium on this type of capability - merging all of this information and getting it to the guy in the cockpit so that he can hit the target." 

DoD sources say the Pentagon is working to close the sensor-to-shooter loop to about 10 minutes, which would enable US forces to strike most mobile targets. Moreover, the USA has been able greatly to increase the accuracy and speed of conducting bomb-damage assessments, partly due to investments in data fusion made since the Gulf War. Space-based assets such as KH-11 optical satellites and Lacrosse radar satellites, as well as airborne assets such as U-2s and Predator UAVs provide that data. 

US forces have used an increasingly advanced and highly precise arsenal of smart weapons that get their guidance data from the information gathered by UAVs, satellites and other ISR tools. As of 7 December, the USA had dropped about 12,000 bombs, 6,700 - or about 56% - of which were precision-guided. Those precision-guided munitions included GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), AGM-130s, laser-guided bombs and Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAMs). The percentage of precision-guided weapons used in Afghanistan is the highest of any major US conflict, according to Pentagon officials. In the 1999 Kosovo campaign, only about 35% of some 24,000 bombs dropped were considered smart weapons. 

The most commonly used munition in the war, the JDAM, was first used in Kosovo. The JDAM's "accuracy has proven to be, again, remarkably good and remarkably consistent" in the Afghan campaign, Gen Jumper said. The JDAM is important not only because it allows US forces to continue operations in all weather, but its low cost ($18,000 per tail-kit) allows extensive use of the weapon against targets that would not justify the use of more expensive weapons such as the $1 million-per-copy TLAM. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on 10 December that the Pentagon is looking to increase JDAM production to replenish its inventory, which was about 10,000 units before the war began. 

The Afghanistan campaign has also marked the first operational use of the wind-corrected munitions dispenser (WCMD), developed to help control the spread pattern of US cluster bombs. In the war, US B-52s have dropped CBU-103 Combined-Effects Munitions, each of which releases 202 BLU-97/B cluster bombs and incorporates the WCMD. Gen Jumper said the weapons have been "highly successful". 

Human rights groups have opposed the use of cluster bombs such as the BLU-97. They say that as many as 10% of the bomblets failed to explode during Operation 'Allied Force' over Kosovo and Serbia. The unexploded bomblets create long-term threats to civilians, much like anti-personnel landmines, the critics say. While US officials say that the use of cluster bombs has once again proven effective in the Afghan campaign and are justified under international law, in recent years the DoD has begun developing unitary warheads for many of its strike weapons, at least partially due to pressure over submunition use. 

The tyranny of distance 

In Afghanistan, B-1, B-2 and B-52 long-range bombers have been used fairly extensively because tactical aircraft, while also used, cannot loiter over the battlefield due to the long ranges they need to fly to get to the engagement zone. Strike aircraft have flown from both US Navy aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea and bases in the Persian Gulf, while B-1 and B-52 bombers came from Diego Garcia. The B-2s flew from the continental USA. These missions placed a heavy toll on the tanker fleet and a premium on diplomatic efforts to secure basing and overflight rights. The strain was particularly heavy on air refuelling, the bulk of which was provided by USAF KC-135 and KC-10 strategic tankers augmented by Royal Air Force Tristar and VC10 tankers and US Navy S-3B Vikings. The RAF aircraft provide around 20% of all in-flight refuelling to US carrier-borne aircraft. 

The Pentagon noted similar problems during the Kosovo campaign, saying there had too few airbases in theatre to support all the NATO aircraft that were committed. The number of aircraft used in Kosovo was much larger because of Serbia's greater military power and air-defence capabilities, but the aircraft did not have to fly such long distances. 

Coalition warfighting 

It is understood that the USA will depend on the co-operation of allies when it fights far from home. But unlike the NATO war in Yugoslavia, where the military build-up and target sets were co-ordinated among member nations, the US military avoided the political complications of coalition fighting by largely executing the military campaign in Afghanistan alone. The USA has declined most of the offers of combat forces from the nearly 40 countries that are willing to help. 

Rumsfeld said the UF was not comfortable with an influx of foreign fighters. But the Bush administration, clearly wanting to differentiate itself from the previous Clinton administration in this campaign, freed itself from having to seek or wait for allied approval by relying little on them for military assistance. 

However, as the 'war' against international terrorism shifts its focus to other parts of the world, it will require the support of many nations. It remains to be seen whether limiting allied involvement will impact the next phases of the counter-terrorism effort, said Gen Clark, who believes it was the power NATO had as a coalition that brought legitimacy to the campaign and ultimately the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo. 

"What I learned in Kosovo was that the best way to get whole-hearted support from other governments is to get their nose under the tent, and then grab them by the nose and drag them in," Gen Clark said. 

In Afghanistan, "the question is: 'what do you really need a coalition for if you can go in and just blow the hell out of them, like we've done?' It remains to be determined", Gen Clark said. "But my suspicion is, that as in other modern wars, if you can use international law and diplomacy and put them at your service, it reinforces and gives you enormous throw weight on top of your direct military action."

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