Reflections on Long-Range Strike 15 Years after American’s Attack on Afghanistan

October 6, 2016

Over three weeks ago, the United States solemnly remembered the attacks of 9/11 and the 15 years that have passed since that fateful day.  America can never forget that day, but with this week comes the opportunity to reflect on what followed the terrorist attacks: the military response, known officially as Operation Enduring Freedom. For me, that involved a very long flight on one of the most important and capable platforms in the American arsenal. The lessons of that night, as well as other post-Cold War air campaigns, reinforce the centrality of stealthy long-range strike to U.S. power.

On October 7, 2001, after the Taliban refused to give up Al Qaeda elements operating within their country, the United States began military operations. The first night’s strikes began like previous air campaigns in the post-Cold War era — with long-range strike. B-1 Lancer bombers and B-52 Stratofortress bombers launched from the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, flying 16-plus hour missions, to strike targets in Afghanistan and return to the British isle. The day prior, two B-2 stealth bombers took off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to fly 36 hours across the Pacific Ocean and up the Indian Ocean into Afghanistan. The stealth bombers would strike targets throughout Afghanistan, in conjunction with the bombers flying from Diego Garcia, and then returned to the same island making the entire trip over 40 hours. On Diego Garcia, the B-2 crews would exit their aircraft, with engines running, and a fresh crew climbed aboard to pilot the aircraft on their 30-hour return flight to Missouri.

The next two days, October 8th and 9th, the U.S. Air Force continued long-range strike operations, hitting targets deep inside Afghanistan.  While bombers continued operations out of the Indian Ocean averaging four B-1 and five B-52 flights per day, two stealth bombers continued to make the 40-plus hour flight both of those nights. I remember that night’s strikes well. I served as the mission commander on the lead B-2. Those same B-2s then flew 30 hours to get back to the United States. By the end of the first three nights, six B-2s flew over 420 hours, accomplished over 36 aerial refuelings, and returned to Whiteman Air Force Base with no incidents.  The three different bombers that conducted the long-range strikes into Afghanistan accounted for 80 percent of the munitions dropped during the first two weeks of the operation, and a majority of those munitions expended were GPS-aided.  Long-range strike assets would remain in the theater for years after the initial phase of the operation providing rapid response firepower when needed.  Fifteen years later, as the Air Force looks to replace its current fleet of long-range strike platforms with the recently named B-21 Raider, it is necessary to re-examine the importance of the America’s long-range strike capability.

When Billy Mitchell first contemplated the importance of airpower, he noted that “as the air covers the whole world, aircraft are able to go anywhere on the planet.”  Mitchell’s observation was partially correct.  Aircraft can go anywhere as long as they have the range, the basing, and the ability to do so.  When the range is considerable, basing prohibits aircraft from reaching the target area, or the threat environment necessitates a stealth approach, the United States has relied on long-range strike.  In other air campaigns, U.S. bombers flew 36 hours from the homeland to fire the opening salvos in Desert Storm, B-2 bombers operated continuously from the homeland during the air strikes against Slobodan Milosevich, and all long strike assets flew considerable distances to strike targets in Afghanistan.  When constrained by the need to secure basing rights and/or the need to respond in a timely manner, the United States has traditionally entrusted long-range strike aircraft.  Even today, the United States conducts bomber power projection missions on the Korean peninsula. When circumstances dictate a show of strength, long-range strike answers the call.  With competitors developing advanced ballistic and cruise missile capabilities that could threaten possible U.S. operating bases, long-range strike will remain the “go to” asset because of its ability to operate outside an enemy’s ballistic missile threat envelope.  Given enough air refueling, bombers can fly half-way across the world and return, as demonstrated the first night of Operation Enduring Freedom.

When discussing long-range strike, we should remember that strategic bombing was the basis for an independent Air Force.  Early air advocates thought bombers were the way to deliver increased payloads over long distances against tactical and strategic targets in order to reduce the risk to friendly ground forces.  The same is true today.  As discussed above, given enough air refueling, there is no limit to the range of America’s bomber fleet. During the first three nights of the Afghanistan operation, six stealth bombers flew half way across the world and back and encountered no maintenance issues.  Moreover, no other air asset in the U.S. inventory can match the payload capability of these aircraft.  Although strike aircraft flew 15 percent of the total sorties, they accounted for over 70 percent of the munitions dropped in Afghanistan through the first three weeks of the campaign.  In addition to their payload, American bombers possess incredible flexibility as well.  As the situation in Afghanistan changed, so did the targets for the initial strikes.  In fact, I had to change the coordinates on over 70 percent of my bombs from the originally-planned targets.  Finally, the precision payload of today’s long-range fleet has ushered in a new paradigm.  Prior to the precision revolution, planning of bomber operations centered on the number of planes per target; now planners look at how many targets per plane.  The range, payload, and flexibility that has been resident in the American bomber force to date must continue in the B-21 Raider if the United States is to continue providing rapid, responsive firepower.

Since the Gulf War, air superiority has become a given in U.S. military operations. Afghanistan had an arcane air defense system, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a threat. Stealth bombers were the first manned airframe to enter Afghanistan and sought to take down known air defense threats first with precision strike. In fact, the first four of five target complexes I struck on my second mission related directly to achieving air superiority.  Air superiority has always been and should always be the first objective in any major operation.  Due to the unique importance of achieving air superiority, the Air Force must modernize its current long-range strike force and replace it with sufficient stealth assets.

The need for air superiority will not change, but the future environment where that must be done is only becoming more complex and threatening. Proliferation of advanced surface-to-air missile systems complicates American efforts to gain air superiority over potential conflict areas.  The Russians have sold the advanced S-300 surface-to-air (SAM) system to Iran, which has recently been challenging U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.  Additionally, Russia has received payment from the Chinese who want to buy Russia’s most advanced SAM system, the S-400.  Russia moved that same system into Crimea following its annexation of the country.  As deployments of these advanced systems increase, the necessity for stealth aircraft only grows stronger.  Six B-2s were sufficient for operations in Afghanistan, but that was 30 percent of the force.  This is why the entire bomber force must be replaced by a stealth airframe—threats are increasing, commitments are increasing, and the Air Force only has a niche fleet of stealth bombers.

This week, 15 years ago, America launched its response to the attack of 9/11.  On the day of that mission, the B-52 was 40 years old, the B-1 was 17 years old, and the B-2 was 12 years old.  Today, those bombers are all 15 years older, and the plan is to keep the bombers in service for at least another 14 years as the new B-21 comes online.  As with any acquisition program, there will be a desire to reduce capability or numbers in reduce costs as other defense programs grow.  That cannot happen.  America’s long-range strike force brings unique capabilities — range, payload, flexibility — that have been in existence since the formation of an independent service.  The addition of stealth and precision have revolutionized America’s long-range strike capability.  That being said, that force will only remain capable and relevant if it is modernized in sufficient numbers to counter the future threat environment.

 

Dr. Mel Deaile is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College.  He was also the mission commander on the lead aircraft for the second night’s attacks and logged the longest combat mission to date. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joel Pfiester