B-2s Were Needed in Afghanistan

In the weeks after 9/11, the B-2 was selected to conduct the opening strikes of Operation Enduring Freedom because Afghanistan did, indeed, have air defenses, if not the best, retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute, said at a Capitol Hill forum Tuesday commemorating the 15th anniversary of the start of that war. Afghanistan had surface-to-air missiles and fighters, though they were not networked, and they and Taliban command and control had to be destroyed to pave the way for the air campaign that followed, he said. The B-2 alone had the range, payload, and stealth to do the job, argued Deptula, who was running the air operations center that planned the attacks. Retired Col. Tony Cihak, a veteran of those opening strikes, said those missions pioneered in-flight retargeting of GPS-aided weapons. He noted that the second night bombers had to take off even “before the war was on”—before the first night bombers entered Afghan airspace—and had to take account of what strikes had already been successful. He estimated “more than 10,000 keystrokes” of reprogramming coordinates as the first run finished, and though clumsy by today’s standards, the system, called “Combat Track 2,” added a tremendous flexibility to B-2 operations, and had only been available to crews for a few months prior to OEF’s opening hours. Col. Brian Neal, a B-2 pilot on those nights, now vice commander of the 482nd Fighter Wing, said the most surprising aspect of the missions was their “dynamic nature.” He expected more set-piece runs than the shifting target sets that were constantly being updated. (See also: Enduring Freedom’s New Approach from the October 2011 issue of Air Force Magazine.)