It was Oct. 7, 2001, and the US and her allies were for the first time striking back against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terror attacks.
From early October through the fall of Kabul on Nov. 13, 2001, airpower led a campaign that took away the Taliban’s control of the government of Afghanistan and dealt heavy blows to al Qaeda elements that once found safe harbor there. It was only the beginning of the War on Terror, yet the first phase of the campaign delivered major victories—and hatched a new operating concept where precision strike and surveillance achieved goals with just a handful of special operations teams on the ground.
This opening act of Operation Enduring Freedom laid down a marker. Airpower swiftly disrupted al Qaeda’s main nest and enabled the Northern Alliance—Afghanistan’s main opposition to the Taliban—to take control of city after city in rapid succession.
"I still believe the operating template [used] early on was the right way to go," said retired Air Force Gen. T. Michael Moseley, who took up the job of combined force air component commander in late October 2001.
A KC-10 refuels a B-1B over Afghanistan. The versatile tanker has been invaluable during Operation Enduring Freedom.
The initial US commitment to overthrow the Taliban had been about 110 CIA officers and special operations forces, plus massive airpower, journalist Bob Woodward later tallied.
Airpower had to quickly capitalize on some changes to deliver. In a few short weeks aircrews learned to pick up targets in flight, cope with long missions, aggressively pursue time-sensitive targets, and put continuous precise firepower where ground controllers wanted it. All this took place before the first regular Marine Corps and Army troops arrived on the ground.
The process was not perfect. Coalition forces continued to chase al Qaeda and hunt Osama bin Laden himself. Coordination between air and special operations forces worked smoothly although attempts to apply the same model with regular Army forces endured some painful lessons. But without doubt, in late 2001, OEF proved a new kind of airpower victory.
America’s desire for retaliation was fierce, but what got OEF rolling was the urgent requirement to put bin Laden and his forces on the run, to break up their ability to carry out fresh attacks. The first step was to remove the Taliban, al Qaeda’s state terror-sponsor.
The Taliban had been in control of Afghanistan’s government since 1996. Bin Laden took refuge there shortly thereafter. The CIA had been hunting for bin Laden since al Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, though with little success in locating or disrupting him, and none in apprehending or killing him.
Planning started over on Sept. 12, 2001.
"We had al Qaeda and Taliban target sets in Afghanistan and plans to strike those targets with [Tomahawk cruise missiles] and manned bombers," wrote US Central Command chief Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks in his memoir. But retaliatory strikes, which had been President Bill Clinton’s response of choice after the embassy bombings, were no longer good enough.
President George W. Bush demanded something new. The "antiseptic notion of launching a cruise missile into some guy’s ... tent" was now "a joke" in light of the devastation of 9/11, Bush told Woodward.
The goal was to make sure Afghanistan did not remain a safe haven for terrorists. The US and allies decided to use military force to back a loose coalition of Afghan rebels known as the Northern Alliance and push them into battle to end the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan.
A weapons systems officer preflights the goods on an F-15E. In the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, F-15Es flew 15.5-hour round-trip missions from Kuwait.
The Northern Alliance numbered about 15,000 according to a 2000 estimate by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Three men led the alliance: deposed Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary "Lion of Panjshir." They’d all been receiving some assistance from the CIA to seek out bin Laden.
Unfortunately, bin Laden got to the Northern Alliance first. A pair of al Qaeda suicide bombers assassinated Massoud two days before 9/11, after arranging for an interview on the pretext of being Belgian journalists.
Even then, Northern Alliance forces constituted the best means of direct attack against the Taliban. Within a matter of hours, plans were brewing to increase aid and bring in special operations forces to work with CIA teams already in Afghanistan.
A full range of air strikes would follow.
Pentagon planners reviewed options for deploying US ground forces. They quickly came to the painful realization it was going to take too long and require too many forces, explained Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem.
The way to strike hard and fast was to marshal airpower to tip the balance in favor of the Northern Alliance so it would take back Afghanistan’s major cities and end Taliban rule. "Once we’re on the ground, it should go in weeks," CIA counterterrorism chief Cofer Black told Bush at a White House meeting on Sept. 13.
The combination of airpower and SOF appealed to Bush. It was up to CENTCOM to refine the plan and make it workable.
Franks briefed an outline for OEF on Sept. 21. "We want air and SOF operations to be as near simultaneous as we can get them," Franks told Bush. First, air strikes would go after known remnants of air defenses. The coalition would attack al Qaeda and the Taliban directly while using SOF to support opposition on the ground in Afghanistan. There was no exact target list—the coalition aircrews would have to rely on targets generated by SOF or sniffed out during operations.
Bush approved the full plan on Oct. 1 and set Oct. 7, 2001, as the first day of OEF.
Allies joined up, and a total of 27 nations granted overflight clearances by Oct. 1. "The French and British jumped right in early on," said Moseley. "All the Gulf Cooperation Council states were involved in a variety of ways, not necessarily kinetic," Moseley said. Bombers and fighters began deploying to the Gulf region and airlift, refueling, and combat search and rescue elements headed to unlikely basing locations in nations including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
"A couple of locations [were] absolutely abysmal," acknowledged USAF Gen. Charles T. Robertson Jr., who commanded US Transportation Command.
Mosely said, "When I first showed up at al Udeid [AB, Qatar, the future headquarters for US Air Forces Central], there was a 14,000-foot runway with a fire station—that was it." For the time being, control of air operations would be run from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.
Going to war quickly was a stretch for airmen. An outpouring of basing offers was not enough to assure there would be a sufficient number of combat air patrols over Afghanistan.
CENTCOM planned for C-17s to air-drop humanitarian relief beginning on Night One. So the job of providing air superiority for the first days fell to carriers on station in the North Arabian Sea.
Enterprise was leaving the area but turned around after hearing about the attacks on the World Trade Center. The carrier Kitty Hawk left most of its air wing in Japan in order to take on helicopters for special operations forces. "Having the carriers snuggled up off the coast of Pakistan ... was probably key to being able to start this thing as fast as the Administration wanted," said Stufflebeem.
Operation Enduring Freedom began with strikes from B-2s flying from Whiteman AFB, Mo. B-52s launched from the British atoll Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
CENTCOM was cautious. "The first thing we did was set conditions to begin to take down the tactical air defense and all of that," Franks said. Afghanistan had sparse air defenses, but still, pilots reported anti-aircraft fire clustered around Kabul, Bagram, and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. Navy F-14 pilot Lt. Chris Gasko watched the "string of tracers from the ZSU-23s" and handheld surface-to-air missiles that resembled bottle rockets "corkscrewing up" at him.
It took time to figure out geography and politics, too. Moseley recalled sending his aide down to the headquarters of the National Geographic Society to purchase a map before he left Washington, D.C. "I carried that map every day of the campaign," he later said.
Distance was a major problem. "In the early stages we were flying the longest bomber missions in the history of combat aviation," said Moseley. "We were flying the longest UAV missions in the history of combat aviation with the Global Hawk. We were flying the longest fighter missions in the history of combat aviation," he said.
Sailors launch an S-3 Viking aircraft from the deck of USS
F-15E Strike Eagles operating from Kuwait completed a 15.5-hour mission to Afghanistan, while a Global Hawk UAV logged a 26-hour flight. Likewise Navy pilots launching from the cluster of carriers faced a nearly 700-mile flight to their northernmost targets.
Tankers were critical to the operation. The combined air and space operations center (CAOC) was coordinating Air Force, Navy, and NATO aircraft that all needed either boom or probe-and-drogue-style refueling. KC-10s were up all day. Any tanker leaving its station "would dump its remaining fuel into the KC-10s," Moseley said. "We never brought fuel home. The KC-10s were worth their weight in gold."
Teams on the ground with Northern Alliance forces and southern tribes were a big source of intelligence about new targets. But OEF also demanded aircraft use a full spectrum of sensors in ferreting out al Qaeda and Taliban targets. From electro-optical pictures to radar moving target indicator to sniffing for all forms of electronic emissions, Afghanistan steadily morphed into an intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance war.
Week by week the air component layered in more command and control capability and additional ISR assets. Some, such as E-3 AWACS aircraft and Navy E-2Cs, deconflicted airspace and passed along fresh coordinates and CAOC instructions. E-8 JSTARS aircraft were deployed in November to help hunt for moving vehicles.
The ISR requirements were a departure from past conflicts—and a demand that got Moseley and others thinking about the path ahead. "U-2s, the [Royal Air Force’s] Canberra, the French Mirage—all did a great job," he said. But just a few weeks of Enduring Freedom drove Moseley to the conclusion it was time to get serious about a U-2 replacement and a new configuration for the ISR force.
Then there were the unmanned vehicles. Global Hawk made its combat debut and Predators—which had previously flown in Kosovo—were engaged from the start. They were so new to the force the Pentagon felt compelled to arrange a background briefing for reporters in early November to explain what these ISR collectors were and how they operated.
The air war was not without its dangers. Foremost in Moseley’s mind was what would happen if enemy fire or mechanical problems forced a coalition airplane down in Afghanistan.
He had no illusions about how the Taliban or al Qaeda would treat a downed US pilot or a captured SOF operator. "You get shot down and they will catch, torture, and kill you," he stated. Having combat search and rescue capabilities ready at a moment’s notice was imperative.
"If you are going to send people to a place like this, you owe it to them to go pick them up," Moseley said.
"The next thing we did was set conditions with these Special Forces teams and the positioning of our aviation assets to be able to take the Taliban apart or fracture it," Franks later briefed.
The main job for these missions after the first several days was to provide on-call strikes as directed by SOF controllers on the ground. They called it XCAS, a new shorthand for immediate close air support.
Indeed, the streamlined process bore little resemblance to previous conflicts. Individual SOF controllers relayed their requests through their own chain and back to liaisons at the CAOC via secure Internet chat. Some teams worked in the north, others hundreds of miles south.
"All of the airspace control measures that you would normally have to worry about in terms of air-ground relationships are not there," Col. Michael A. Longoria, who was commander of the 18th Air Support Operations Group, attached to 9th Air Force, said at the time. "You have a large land mass, a lot of airspace, [and] little bitty airplanes with a lot of bombs. Everybody’s a bad guy; everything’s basically a target."
The system was a good fit for the widely dispersed fight. Meeting air support requests called for fluency with precision weapons and the ability to quickly retarget.
OEF was not an all-precision air war. Strings of Mk 82 munitions were delivered from bombers, and platforms such as the A-10 still had devastating effect. However, most fighters now carried laser guided bombs and bombers frequently loaded up 2,000-pound satellite guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions.
A consistent challenge was in generating useful targets, so aircrews could keep the pressure on. What helped most was the October insertion of airmen from USAF special tactics squadrons who had training and equipment to spot targets and call in close air support.
Higher command levels had to adjust, too. Both the forward CAOC and CENTCOM’s main staff in Tampa, Fla., had grown accustomed to the more leisurely pace of Operation Southern Watch over Iraq (which continued during the first 17 months of OEF). Procedures were tight—but targets were rarely urgent. The key was adapting command and control to the rapid targeting procedure.
Time-sensitive targeting required fast ISR, nimble strike aircraft, and several levels of command approval. This sort of targeting had been done before, but "not by a full CAOC and not in theater," Moseley said. The Air Force became convinced of time-sensitive targeting’s relevance after operations in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999.
Air Force officials had experimented with time-sensitive targeting and bombers flying close air support at Nellis and in exercises with the Army. "We built a mini-CAOC" to improve command and control methods for turning ISR detection of ground targets into a set of actionable coordinates for precision weapons, said Moseley. "We had a rapid targeting model that I was quite comfortable with."
Significant shifts in the air war took place from late October through early November—soon to culminate in smashing successes. But it was not fast enough for some. Coalition aircrews flew just over 1,800 strike sorties in the first month of OEF, a small number compared to operations over Kosovo two years earlier and miniscule compared with Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Three weeks into OEF, many commentators were clamoring for ground troops.
The air war continued. A B-52 was filmed dropping a string of weapons on Taliban trench lines near Kabul. The clip caused a sensation. Senior officials at the Pentagon insisted that the US job was providing airpower and resupply, and it was up to the Northern Alliance militias to decide when to move.
Although the campaign did not show immediate results, the strategy was working and the opposition was soon to be overwhelmed. The number of US teams on the ground increased steadily. "The more teams we get on the ground, the more effectively we’ll bring airpower to bear on the Taliban lines," said Myers on Nov. 4.
Mississippi Air National Guardsmen SSgt. Mitchell Sojourner (l) and MSgt. John Carter complete a post-flight inspection of a C-141. The venerable Starlifter pulled heavy duty in OEF.
Proof of the concept came from plans for inserting the first regular US ground forces. These were to be marines under the command of Brig. Gen. James N. Mattis. The marines would fall in on Kandahar on Nov. 25 and take over the attack on Taliban and al Qaeda forces from special operations forces holding the airfield. Importantly, thanks to the large amount of firepower available from aircraft, the marines could go in light.
Moseley met with Mattis in advance. "We had a long chat," Moseley said. Mattis told Moseley that if airpower did its job, "I won’t have to take artillery."
In the early weeks of November came a string of successes. Dostum of the Northern Alliance was pressing hard at Mazar-i-Sharif. "This is being done at our initiative. Some is visible. Some is not," Franks stated cryptically on Nov. 8, adding, "It is only those who believe that all of this should be done in two week’s time … who are disappointed" by the pace of progress.
Mazar-i-Sharif fell the next day.
The Joint Staff confessed to some confusion in sorting Islamic fundamentalist Taliban fighters from the international al Qaeda terrorists they supported and protected. "Where we can positively identify Taliban as such, we are pursuing them. It’s difficult, though—it’s difficult in the southern part of Afghanistan, west of Kandahar, to be able to positively identify what may be southern Pashtun tribes versus Taliban troops that may be on the move," Stufflebeem explained.
Taliban control of Afghanistan was rapidly collapsing. The Northern Alliance took control of Kabul on Nov. 13. "Every day the targeting and effectiveness has improved, and that has clearly played a critical role in killing Taliban and al Qaeda troops," Rumsfeld announced. Kicking the Taliban out of the capital city of Kabul fulfilled a top objective of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Yet those watching the swirling situation on the ground stopped well short of declaring outright victory. Despite the success in driving the Taliban out of one major city after another in rapid succession, Stufflebeem cautioned on Nov. 14, "We don’t have enough factual information to assume that this war in Afghanistan is about to end."
Breaking Taliban control of Afghanistan ensured the nation would not continue to be the premier terrorist stronghold, training ground, and safe haven for bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorists, but "we still have the job of finding and getting al Qaeda," Stufflebeem said. "We still have the job now of finding and getting at Taliban leadership, specifically."
Bin Laden himself remained at large, and the campaign to find him and destroy al Qaeda would soon turn to a desolate mountain range known widely today as Tora Bora.
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