The U.S. Military Campaign in Afghanistan

Part III - The Means

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Note: These nodes were in preparation several days before the U.S.-led air campaign began on October 6th. As a result, several of my assumptions and conclusions are fairly dramatically out of whack with reality. I offer them in their original form, however, as an example of a 'back of the envelope' study of a warfighting problem.

-The Custodian

One thing everyone is fairly sure of is that the U.S. has a much wider variety of means to bring to bear on this problem than anyone else. This is quite true. While the U.S. Military is in no ways as large as it was during the Gulf War due to post-Cold War drawdowns, it remains an enormous force. With the American public outraged at the attacks on New York City and Washington D.C., there will likely be little competition for tasking; what we've got, we'll use on this.

I propose to examine in (very) brief terms the types of units that the United States may choose to field in Afghanistan. A brief description of each will be followed by a quick match-up between their capabilities and the mission goals.

Air Forces

This term covers anything that flies; it does not refer strictly to units of the U.S. Air Force. Let's further divide it up into two categories: with the understanding that each includes both land- and sea-based assets.
Fixed-Wing Aircraft
These include:
  • F-15 (C/D/E): The F-15 Eagle is the mainstay air combat platform of the U.S. Air Force, at least until the F-22 is acquired in quantities sufficient to field an operational squadron. The C and D variants are purely air-to-air, and would not likely see much action save for flying CAP and BARCAP around high-value U.S. forces and assets. On the other hand, the F-15E Strike Eagle would likely see at least some use for striking smaller valuable targets.

  • F-16 Falcon: The F-16 Falcon has two major and several minor roles. As a lightweight day fighter, it is an excellent air-to-air interceptor. As the Israelis discovered and passed back on to the U.S., it also makes a quite capable fighter/bomber, with the capability of carrying a surprising variety of weapons. In addition to these two roles, the F-16 is used in 'Wild Weasel' missions, carrying the ALQ-141 jamming pod.

  • A-10 Thunderbolt:The A-10 Thunderbolt is a purely ground-attack and forward control aircraft, and would likely see heavy use. Its design allows it to remain on station for a long time in support of troops on the ground. Specially designated Air Force pilots are trained as A0As, Airborne Observers, and can direct support fires and airstrikes from within an A-10 cockpit. In addition, the A-10 was explicitly designed to withstand hits from small arms and light MANPADS threats of precisely the sort posed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.

  • F/A-18 Hornet: The F-18, a jack-of-all-trades aircraft (and, some would say, master of none) is the U.S. Navy's strike platform and backup air combat aircraft. As the F-14 fleet ages, the F/A-18 will be forced to take on greater shares of the operations burden. One problem with the F/A-18 is its relatively short combat radius, especially when carrying ordnance. This will limit the number of strikes that can be flown from carriers in the Indian Ocean and/or Persian Gulf; however, these aircraft can easily be operated out of ground airfields. Look for most carrier strike aircraft to debark their ships and use the carriers as rest/resupply/repair depots and ferries while staging from land strips. The U.S. Marine Corps will operate its F/A-18s in more of a ground support role.

  • AV-8B Harrier: The Harrier 'Jumpjet,' while aging and due to be replaced by the as-yet-unproduced JSF, is the Marine ground-support aircraft of choice, and would likely be flown off those amphibious ships able to support them as well as sheltered at frontal airbases.

  • EA-6B Prowler: Although for some reason the U.S. Air Force tried diligently to get rid of dedicated jamming aircraft, retiring both the EF-4G Wild Weasel and the EF-111 Raven in favor of bolt-on jamming pods, they found that stealthy aircraft alone didn't eliminate the requirement. So they now borrow Navy aircraft, remanufactured A-6 Intruders which carry a full suite of jamming and electronic counter-countermeasure equipment. These will likely remain on the carriers if they can gain favorable access overflight corridors, as their systems require more complex maintenance and they are (relatively) higher-value assets.

  • AC-130H: These aircraft will see heavy use after any initial campaign reduces air defenses; their role will be quite similar to the one they played in Vietnam. Psychological and physical effects on enemy morale (and directly to his forces) are their specialty; designed to be the very definition of 'loiter capable' they would spend their time in support of ground forces and performing interdiction to disrupt enemy movement on the ground.

  • F-14 Tomcat:The Tomcat and its sibling the F-14D Bombcat are aging but still potent. While there may not be a need for dedicated air-to-air platforms (meaning the F-14s will likely remain on the carriers to perform CAP duties) the Bombcat could be used to drop ordnance. Given the plethora of other types available, however, it's not likely.

  • E-2C Hawkeye: This command and control aircraft will be joining its larger cousins the E-3 Sentry and E-8 JSTARS aircraft in keeping a watchful eye on the skies over the combat area as well as the units moving around on the surface. The E-8 JSTARS will see heavy use as U.S. forces use every possible means of detecting the whereabouts and movements of their quarry.

  • F-117 Nighthawk: While using this aircraft is an attractive prospect because of the potential for saving U.S. aircrews (only one has been lost in combat, and the pilot was recovered) it is also problematic. The F-117 can only carry a small amount of ordnance (two Mk.82 LDGP with precision guidance tail/nosekits). In large-scale combat, this is mitigated by the extreme accuracy with which those weapons can (theoretically) be dropped. However, there are few high-value 'point' targets in Afghanistan. There will certainly be a role for these aircraft at the start of any large campaign to reduce the few known fixed air defenses the Taliban possess with as little risk as possible. However, the Taliban government possesses only a handful of vehicular or fixed-mount AA systems and associated radars and control facilities. It is a telling fact that on Sept. 12, the Northern Alliance apparently attacked arms and munitions dumps around Kabul, as well as the airport, using helicopters. None were lost, as far as we know; from the choppy video available from the CNN correspondent on the scene, there was little directed AA fire. While there were several missiles in flight, they appeared to be 'cookoffs' from burning supply dumps, as they were ripple-fired and in fairly dramatically different directions. It is possible that there were simply 'panic fire', but even if this is the case, it is still a damning picture of Taliban air defenses.

    I don't wish to give the impression that the U.S. can or should dismiss the threat. I merely point it out to note that there will be very few targets 'worthy' of the silent precision strike of the Black Jet. In greater demand will be those platforms which can loiter for long periods of time to strike at targets of opportunity or bomb trucks (like the BUFF!) which can suppress and/or destroy large swaths of ground in one pass.

  • Heavy bombers (B-52H, B-1B Lancer, B-2A Spirit): More useful in the long run, likely. Basing constraints make their use somewhat problematic, although this is one case where neighboring real estate can be useful even without lots of available supply transport. Bases in Uzbekistan and its neighbors will allow quick mission turnaround; if needed, bombers (B-52s and B-1Bs) can stage out of secure bases such as Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The B-2 cannot be deployed overseas, so any missions flown by that platform will require round-trip flights from the CONUS (Whiteman AFB). This, coupled with a lack of sophisticated air defenses around the targets, combine to make me quite skeptical the B-2 will see much, if any, use.


  • AH-64 Apache: The Army's premier attack helo. There most likely won't be widespread use of the Apaches until later on in the campaign, for a couple of reasons. First, they have a fairly large logistics demand, and second, they're most profitably used down low where they can beat up enemy units. While Apaches opened the Gulf War by taking down some air defense installations with Hellfires, here they may not even be available due to supply and basing constraints. I'm sure a few of them will be used - they can be flown in by C-5A Galaxy or C-17 - and once (or if) ground operations begin, they are perhaps the premier ground support asset.

  • AH-1 Cobra, CH-47 Chinook and SH-60 Blackhawk: the Cobra (an older gunship) and the Chinook and Blackhawk (both transports) are used extensively by the Marine Corps. If the Marines are involved, then these will be extensively deployed. If the Marines are not involved, it is possible we might see units detached from ARGs and based ashore to support ongoing ground operations.

At this point, I'll walk out on a limb. My prediction for aircraft used in this operation is as follows. The first day or three will see use of Stealth fighters and perhaps even a few B-1B/B-2 sorties in order to try to kill the few highly-capable air-defense sites that exist and can be found. Next, whatever list of fixed targets is available will be serviced for a time until BDA finds them sufficiently smashed. After the initial flurry of strikes, there will simply be no valuable and predictable target sets left. At that point, the air campaign will switch to more of a fire support and interdiction role; fighters and fighter/bombers will keep watchful eyes up to protect the very high-value targets like E-3 Sentry aircraft (AWACS) and E-8 JSTARS. They will protect U.S. forces' basing and concentrations. At the same time, strike aircraft that are able to loiter and self-target, such as A-10s and F-16s, as well as dedicated suppression assets such as the AC-130s, will remain on rotation to provide support for ground troops and to hit targets of opportunity.

Heavy bombers will be a tossup. They will be most profitably used to deny located enemies’ avenues of retreat, and to 'seal up' areas for the ground troops or to cover special forces movements and actions. Who cares if we hit anything? Gravity bombs are really, really cheap. A 2,000-lb bomb (the Mk.82) costs around $3,000. As soon as you put a seeker or guidance kit on it, the cost jumps to a minimum of around $50,000. Still cheap when compared with, say, the $600,000 for a Tomahawk, but usually scarce enough to avoid tossing LGBs about like grass seeds.

One factor I cannot evaluate is the degree of intelligence that the U.S. has (or thinks it has) on the potential target set. I do not know what will qualify, in the minds of the planners, as a 'valuable' asset. I also do not know the actual extent of the 'terrorist training camps' or the Taliban's few military installations inside Afghanistan. Depending on these, there might be enough fixed targets to keep a sustained, high-tempo air campaign going for two weeks or more. At some point, however, you are just (as one Air Force officer I know commented) "making the rubble bounce." (A high-tempo campaign would mean something on the close order of 150+ sorties/day).

Once you've run out of fixed targets, or whittled them down to the point where some minor number of strikes each day is acceptable, the natural progression leads us to ask "what then?" That, of course, is indeed the rub. Assuming (as I do) that a sustained bombing campaign fails to produce bin Laden, his associates, a collapse of the Taliban entirely, or a spontaneous successful revolt, then the U.S. has a problem. I note that American adminstrations (especially Republican ones, for reasons I cannot fathom) have a strong belief in 'the inner American', or as one bigoted officer put it during the Vietnam war, "Inside every (insert slur here) there's an American trying to get out."

The Afghan people have now endured twenty years of constant warfare, most of it raging over which small group gets to sit at the top of the pyramid. The notion of revolution to install a popular government may strike them as not only farfetched but, given their long history of tribal allegiance as the largest unit, simply unthinkable. If so, what then? The most likely outcome, assuming the U.S. has in fact managed to damage the Taliban warmaking capability, is that the Northern Alliance will have gained enough ground to at least embroil the country in full-scale war once more. This doesn't help the U.S., as it then remains a hotbed of training opportunities, weapons supplies, and embittered young people whose hatred can be harnessed by those who seek to exploit them.

There may not be a good answer. I'll give my shot at it in the Methods, later.

I should close this section by noting that this plan depends on the decision being made to actually undertake large-scale and/or public operations inside Afghanistan. There are special forces teams operating there now, likely with some 'strip alert' air and helo cover and a few transports to get them in and out. While more may, in fact, be operating, it is unlikely that the tempo has reached a point where it can be termed an 'air campaign.' It may never do so; there simply aren't good targets.

In a way, it almost seems as if the U.S. is trying to find harder and harder targets for the disciples of Douhet to try their as-yet-invalid methods of 'conquest through air power' on.,

Ground Forces

To include any unit that is expected to enter combat on land. This applies to Army ground units as well as Marine Corps infantry.

Armored Units
The heavier units of the Army, the Armor divisions and Armored Cavalry Regiments, are at an enormous disadvantage due to the logistical constraints discussed in the Ground. While some armor will likely make it to the theater, it is probable that the only such units that go will be the heavy brigades and companies of otherwise light divisions such as those of the XVIII Airborne Corps (101st Airborne, 10th Mountain, and 82nd Airborne divisions).
Light Infantry Units
The U.S. Army has been shifting its force mixes in recent years to include more of the so-called 'light' units that can be more easily (and cheaply) deployed into lower-threat areas. There are prior light units (such as those of the XVIII Airborne Corps, mentioned above) and units such as the ACRs which have recently converted to 'fast and light' TOEs. These units will be in great demand, as they will be much better suited to fast-moving combat in broken terrain against an opponent who lacks a credible heavy unit presence. Easily shuttled around the theater by smaller aircraft such as the C-130, with less supply requirements, capable of fighting on the drop (in some cases), these units will most likely do the bulk of the actual trooping. In order to do this, however, they will probably take along a disproportionate amount of...
All U.S. Army units of division size or larger contain organic artillery units, typically armed with 155mm howitzers both towed and self-propelled. Some smaller units have attached arty companies as well. In any case, U.S. firepower will be of enormous importance in a conflict inside Afghanistan; not because it will magically make the war 'winnable' but because it is the best way to increase the security, effectiveness and protection of your deployed light troops. Massive firepower can be 'shared' by units in the field, called in when needed and centrally supplied, as opposed to armor, which can only be used at its point of contact.

Naval Forces

The various assets available for land attack from the sea. Afghanistan and the Taliban pose no threat to U.S. naval vessels operating in open waters. These will fall into a few types: The carriers will be pressed into service as airbases, supply points, and aircraft ferries, as well as for the massive facilities they contain for coping with personnel injuries and other problems of deployed ground life. They will retain battle group escorts, being too valuable to risk; those escorts will provide both air defense and antisubmarine shielding. In addition, those escort vessels with VLS will probably find their Tomahawks tasked for strike packages into Afghanistan.

Amphibious Ready Groups (ARGs) contain those air, sea and land forces required for a battalion of Marines to fight their way ashore and hold a beachhead. While this isn't likely to be required in this conflict, the LHD and LHAs will make excellent hospitals, supply points, and helicopter staging points. The ARGs are also natural staging points for special forces missions, as they are designed to launch, transport, support and recover (relatively) small numbers of ground troops to point objectives.

The Land Strike assets - that is, the carrier strike aircraft and missiles - will likely only be useful at the outset of a widespread campaign to reduce fixed targets (See ‘Air Forces,'above). While F/A-18s might be of some use in the patrolling that follows, their range is fairly severely restricted, bringing their loiter time sharply down.

The supply chain (replenishment ships) will be in constant use, bringing supplies forward to the deployed battle groups. In addition, it is likely that they will be tasked with delivering some of the land forces' supply needs as well, either to the carriers or the ARGs.

Special Forces

As has recently been admitted in open media, the U.S. and perhaps some allied nations already have Special Forces units operating on the ground inside Afghanistan. We can make an intelligent guess as to which units they are and what they have been tasked with.

The Green Berets are usually tasked with long-term liaison missions inside contested or enemy territory; their success, however, then relies on local support. This is actually a decent terrain for them; a local population that (we hope) isn't sympathetic to our targets, and an area in which local knowledge of the ground and resources will be critical. I would expect some deployment of Green Berets (although I have doubts as to their Pashtun language skills), especially if the campaign looks to carry on for some time.

The Navy special forces, the SEALs, aren't as likely to be useful. The SEAL is primarily a sneaky demolitions expert, and they like to operate in or near water. There's a lack of that in Afghanistan, as we discussed earlier.

The Army Rangers, headquartered at Ft. Bragg, are scouting and reconnaissance assets. They are also able to carry out small-scale demolitions and the like, but their advantage swiftly disappears if they engage in protracted ground combat. Their main value-added to the CINC is their ability to collect intelligence on the ground with human eyes, and act as a 'prefilter' when compared to the massive floods of data from NTM sources. For example, if you ask a Ranger if there are any aircraft preparing to leave the airport he is watching, you will get a 'Yes sir' or 'No sir' along with (if you ask) a brief description of only those aircraft you care about. Satellites and recon aircraft, on the other hand, would dump a huge volume of data into the lap of your force's analysts, and they would answer you based on their interpretation of already aged data.

This capability is useful if you are pursuing foot soldiers or opponents. Rangers can move quietly to observe, check, and if necessary grab a person or five. In order to derive maximum benefit from their capabilities, however, Special Forces such as the Rangers cannot be committed to 'classic' infantry combat. Their training and doctrine is of little help there, and their other skills will be wasted. For infantry combat on a larger scale, you can turn to regular army 'special units.'

The 'special units' like the 82nd airborne are designed to provide a surprise advantage at the opening of a larger campaign. For example, the 82nd's expected mission is to drop onto and seize a small patch of ground (probably an airfield) and hold it until relieved by a larger follow-on effort. While this is a possible task for them (there are a few reasons the U.S. might want to take and hold an airbase inside Afghanistan, especially inside Northern Alliance territory) they are not likely to move until the 'balloon goes up.'

In addition, the 82nd and its ilk are useful for classic infantry tasks. They should be expected to capitalize on their unique mobility in order to maneuver around the TOE, but once they've gotten there, they fight like everybody else. The hope is that the destination is not sufficiently prepared for them due to their speed at deploying and redeploying. This would make these units ideal 'backup' forces for small Special Ops teams, ideally strengthened with a brigade’s or ACR's worth of armor. It may not be possible to bring the armor for all the reasons outlined above; however, for protection of the ground forces, at least massive attack helicopter presence would make up some of that shortfall.

The Air Force claims it has special forces. This is true; they have specialized units intended to work closely with the 82nd Airborne and their colleagues in seizing airfields. 'Commando' units deployed on C-130s include Air Force logistics and ground operations experts; all the people you will need to begin immediately operating the airport you've just seized. If we do, in fact, decide to take airbases, then I would expect these units to be utilized.

There are, of course, a myriad of units I've left out. I've tried to touch on the various combat arms and sections, and offer a picture of what they could contribute. Note that I haven't made any recommendations, here; that comes in the Methods later. This section is intended to serve as a 'menu' for the aspiring counterterrorist planner.

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