The Combination That Worked

April 1, 2002

One of the “right lessons” to draw from the military operation in Afghanistan is that US airpower is accurate and highly reliable, said Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, Commander in Chief of Central Command. And space communications was the lifeblood of that operation, said USAF Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, Franks’s counterpart at US Space Command.

The two operational Commanders in Chief were directly involved in carrying out the innovative operation.

In the past, ground forces commanders have talked among themselves about whether they can depend on precision engagement of the enemy from the air. “What I’ve told all my friends and neighbors is, ‘By God, you can count on it,’ ” said Franks.

Franks, the officer who ramrods Operation Enduring Freedom in Southwest Asia, told an Air Force Association audience in Orlando, Fla., that he has learned to trust the capabilities of airpower in the effort to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda forces.

He added that Enduring Freedom has been “the most precise war in America’s history, to be sure, beyond question.”

Operations over Afghanistan began Oct. 7. Thirteen days later, virtually all the air defenses and early warning systems in the country had been destroyed by air strikes, said the CENTCOM chief.

About that time, special operations forces linked up with the Northern Alliance and other opposition combatants to sharpen “the incredible operational fires provided by you and yours,” said Franks.

Within weeks, the Taliban force had been destroyed as a coherent military entity. A new government was introduced in Kabul on Dec. 22.

Precision engagement was the linchpin of the whole effort, Franks observed.

“I suspect we have seen the first glimpse of precision engagement as it was described in Joint Vision 2020,” he said, referring to the JCS Chairman’s operational template for US military operations in years to come.

The technology supported hunter-killer operations, strikes and restrikes, and the employment of sensor-shooter grids unlike any seen in the past. The ability to plan and count on ISR–Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance–was “incredible,” Franks asserted.

In “the largest and most complex use ever of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles of multiple varieties,” operators achieved an availability rate that approached 100 percent, Franks noted.

“If you are a CINC, you count on everything to be where you need to have it at the time that you need to have it there–incredible work when you can … receive about 100 percent of what you count on, thanks to great young people on the ground and … in the air.”

Technology since the 1991 Gulf War has come a long way, too, he noted, making operations more swift and efficient. During the early part of Enduring Freedom, the US conducted about 200 attack sorties a day, but “the hell of it is that the 200 sorties today have hit roughly the same number of targets we hit with 3,000 a day during Desert Storm.”

Franks added that in Desert Storm “we used about 10 airframes per target. In Enduring Freedom, we struck two targets per aircraft.”

Among Enduring Freedom’s firsts were the longest combat fighter mission in history; an F-15E mission covered more than 15 hours. One surveillance mission lasted for more than 26 hours.

“With all due respect to those who accomplished something incredible during the Berlin Airlift, it seems to me that the duration, size, intensity, and the result of those aviation efforts into and out of Afghanistan are beyond what we may have ever planned for,” said Franks.

Enduring Freedom involved the first opening of US Air Force bases in Central Asia and the largest RED HORSE construction effort since Vietnam War days.

USAF aircraft delivered more than 100 Joint Direct Attack Munitions during a single 20-minute period, and they also dropped more than 50 million leaflets (one of which sold on eBay for $147.80, Franks noted) and more than 2.5 million humanitarian daily rations, all by air.

End-to-end linkages of sensor platforms, such as E-8 Joint STARS surveillance and battle management aircraft and Predators with shooters and command and control, provided revolutionary fusion of information and functional commands, said Franks. And all this was to back ground forces that sometimes used less-technological transport.

“Unbelievable–close air support and interdiction fires in support of people riding around on horses,” said Franks.

Among the lessons learned from the conflict is the incredible flexibility of bombers, which enables them to do even close air support, said Franks.

Not that other types of strike aircraft are now outdated.

“We are going to have to continue to wrap our arms around this business of the flexibility we gain by having a balance of multiple types of platforms, because what served well in Afghanistan may not be the precise trick we need in the next fight,” said Franks.

Afghan operations also had a lot to teach about the necessity of the C-17, the kinds and numbers of tanker refueling platforms needed, and the benefits of mixing and matching sensors and shooters to the needs of the mission.

“General Billy Mitchell, once upon a time, said airpower has the power of offense always with it. We choose the time, the place, and the method of attack,” said Franks. “If we carry anything forward with us out of Enduring Freedom, that probably ought to be it.”

Franks concluded that, in the future, “sometimes we will find ground power supported by airpower [and] in some cases, we will have airpower leveraged by ground forces.”

In the decade since Desert Storm, the Air Force has been working hard on learning how to leverage space systems for operational use, said Eberhart, Commander in Chief not only of US Space Command but also of North American Aerospace Defense Command and commander of Air Force Space Command.

That means taking systems designed for national, strategic purposes and figuring out how they can help solve smaller, tactical problems, Eberhart told AFA.

“The analogy I use is a two-engine airplane,” he said. “We had both throttles back toward idle, in terms of space control and force enhancement. We’ve moved that force enhancement throttle right on up to [full power].”

Space communications, for instance, has been a lifeline of Operation Enduring Freedom. Space Command doubled the bandwidth available to Central Command–in part by going out and buying additional commercial capabilities and in part by picking the pocket of the other CINCs.

“They are not happy about that, but they understand because they know we would do the same thing for them if they were sending people in harm’s way,” said Eberhart.

In fact the military may have even reached the point where it takes many of the advantages of space for granted. Think of GPS. Only a small handful of GPS-guided munitions were used in Desert Storm. In Enduring Freedom, upward of 50 percent of the bombs dropped were JDAMs.

“And in terms of the accuracy that we have provided–it is all fuzzed up for security reasons–but we are providing accuracy half again as good as the operational requirements document stipulates,” said Eberhart.

The JDAM was originally specified to be accurate to within a few meters of its intended aim point.

If the force enhancement throttle is on full power, to repeat Eberhart’s analogy, the space control throttle is not–at least, not yet.

Mention “space control,” and many people’s thoughts turn immediately to weapons in space and space battle. “But I would offer to you that the pillars of space control start with surveillance,” said Eberhart. “We’ve got to know what is up there. [A] space ‘order of battle,’ if you will.”

Even when moving into the area of denial of space capabilities to adversaries, there are ways of completing the mission without destroying orbital equipment–attacking ground equipment, for one thing, or jamming transmissions.

“There are lots of things you can do. You can use nonkinetic means,” said Eberhart.

Even in Enduring Freedom, the US has practiced negation of a sort by buying up as much imagery of the area of operations as possible. It’s an expensive technique–but an effective one, for now.

At least the Air Force can say the phrase “space control” again. In the 1990s, there was a period when broaching the subject was unpopular.

“We couldn’t talk about it,” says Eberhart. “I think that is terribly naive.”

Today, force application through space means what the CINCSPACE called the “big guys”–ICBMs. If there is one nuclear weapon on the face of the Earth, it should belong to the US, he added.

But in decades to come, with the Global Strike Task Force, the situation may change.

“You are going to kick down the door, in my view, with weapons through space and possibly from space,” said Eberhart.

Considering the length of system development times, the Air Force needs to dedicate itself now to thinking what that capability might be.

“Whether it is a conventional ICBM, which causes some people to shudder, or whether it is a [Combat Aerial Vehicle] or Pegasus off a B-52, whatever it might be, we’ve got to develop those capabilities in the coming decades,” said Eberhart.

Doing missile defense right will also probably involve doing some of it from space, according to Eberhart.

“You are going to do it with space based lasers or things like that,” he said.

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Bush’s Nuclear Blueprint,” co-authored with Robert S. Dudney, appeared in the March 2002 issue.