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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Chicago Tribune January 14, 2002

Pentagon plumbs lessons from war

By John Diamond

A potent combination of high-tech weaponry and ancient forms of warfare have led to success for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, success that will remain qualified until Osama bin Laden is found.

Unmanned spy planes, some carrying missiles that could be fired by an operator at a computer terminal in Tampa, have played an important role. So have horses and mules that carried U.S.-backed Afghan fighters and even some U.S. commandos over otherwise impassable terrain. As senior U.S. officers and military analysts begin to examine the Afghan campaign for lessons they may apply later in the war on terrorism, some preliminary conclusions already are affecting thinking at the Pentagon.

The most important one is that the war need not be waged with massed armies seeking to conquer territory. A combination of local allies, Special Forces troops and precision air power can deliver a lethal punch. The keys are good intelligence, help from knowledgeable locals, streamlined decision-making and the quick-strike power to make those decisions count.

"Going in light was critical," said Marine Corps Gen. Harold Mashburn Jr., commandant of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, a Washington-based advanced war college that will help the Pentagon assess the Afghan campaign. "We didn't want to appear as an occupying force."

Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, said in an interview that the weaponry and capabilities the U.S. has brought to the fight are largely the same as have been seen in recent conflicts.

"What is different is the insistence on the part of our civilian bosses to be more imaginative," Natter said. Defense Secretary Donald "Rumsfeld is a tough guy but, God bless him, he's our tough guy and he insisted we come to him with some new ideas."

As Army Gen. Tommy Franks and his field commanders pursue the fight, the experts at the Pentagon are not just patting themselves on the back. They also are cataloging problems that came into clear view during the Afghan campaign.

They include the challenges that arise when countries in the immediate area of a campaign deny basing rights to U.S. combat planes, shortages in precision-guided munitions, the limits of carrier air power when flying long distances, and the compromises that must be made when relying on locals to carry out much of the ground war.

In a vivid after-action report, one U.S. commando described training anti-Taliban fighters in the finer points of mounting a cavalry charge against artillery positions. These warriors riding straight out of the 19th Century into the 21st had something in their arsenal that their forebears from the Asian steppe lacked: F-15 Strike Eagles packing precision-guided bombs.

Much as the Bush administration sought to retain sole control of the fight in Afghanistan --even to the point of keeping close ally Britain at arm's length for a time-- there was no avoiding occasional struggles in the working relationship with the local fighters and tribal leaders.

Why air strikes went awry

Last week, the governor of Kandahar, Afghanistan, allowed the release of seven senior Taliban officials soon after their surrender. Amid accusations that the U.S. has bombed civilians, the Pentagon increasingly suspects that some air strikes were misdirected as one Afghan tribe set U.S. air power after a rival tribe.

"We don't know who the hell we can trust," said professor Alan Gropman, chairman of the Grand Strategy Department at Washington's National Defense University, an arm of the Pentagon.

When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, the Pentagon was embroiled in an intense battle to reinvent the military for the post-Cold War era. The four service branches were scrambling to present their visions of the future, visions that, not surprisingly, highlighted their particular pet weapons programs and styles of fighting.

To an extent, that bureaucratic struggle has carried over into the Afghan war.

Knowing that the Bush administration is about to put its stamp on a defense budget for the first time, the services have been not-so-quietly touting their own particular contributions.

Navy people talk about the importance of aircraft carriers in giving the Pentagon striking power when countries are reluctant to allow land-based U.S. warplanes in their territory. The Air Force points out that its bombers flew about 10 percent of the sorties over Afghanistan, yet dropped 80 percent of the ordnance. The Marines, normally thought of as a force used in coastal scenarios, projected forces some 600 miles inland.

The Army has had the toughest time making the case for a leading role in the war on terror. With heavy ground forces out of the picture, the Army's initial role was confined to small teams of Special Forces troops, working with Air Force ground commandos and Navy SEALs. The first combat death from hostile fire was that of an Army soldier.

These highly trained troops established the first links with the anti-Taliban Afghan tribes and performed the dangerous mission of locating enemy positions and calling in air strikes. More recently, Army Rangers have moved in to replace the Marines. But the 10th Mountain Division, one of the first units called to the region, has remained mysteriously in reserve at a base in Uzbekistan.

"What you have is an Army that is very much oriented on heavy forces when what was needed most was special ops forces and light forces," said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Weapons prove worth

Among the weapons systems highlighted in the Afghan campaign, perhaps most notable is the satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition. First used in small numbers during the 1998 Yugoslavia campaign, the bombs link up with global-positioning satellites that guide them to their target, day or night, in all weather.

But they are not bugproof. Weak batteries can break the connection between bomb and satellite. Human error can result in wrong coordinates being plugged in, the suspected culprit in two fatal friendly-fire incidents.

Fighter planes, a star weapon in the Persian Gulf war, have played a lesser role in Afghanistan. Their short range and the long distances the Afghan mission demanded have taxed the military's midair refueling capability. Many of the combat missions later in the campaign required planes that could loiter over an area waiting for targets to emerge, a mission not suited to the shorter-range fighters.

One of the enduring images of the war was a single B-52 flying lazy figure-8s over the Tora Bora cave complex prior to an 8 a.m. deadline given to suspected terrorists, after which bombing would resume.

"A couple of B-1s carry more precision strike capability than an entire carrier air wing," Krepinevich said.

The relative role of various weapons is not just a matter of interservice rivalry. The Pentagon is about to embark on two costly fighter aircraft programs, the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter. The high-profile role of bombers over Afghanistan and the demands the campaign placed on reconnaissance and surveillance planes like the Rivet Joint, JSTARS and AWACS could lead to reductions in the fighter programs.

Not only the fighter plane but the fighter pilot have emerged from the Afghan campaign under a cloud. The usefulness of unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Predator caught even military planners by surprise. The Pentagon rushed a prototype Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance plane into service. These assets belonged to the Air Force and, in an unprecedented move, the CIA. That had the Navy scrambling.

"We need this capability," Adm. Vernon Clark, chief of naval operations, told reporters last month. "We need it as rapidly as we can get it."

GRAPHIC: (color):

Lessons learned from Operation Enduring Freedom; Several key weapons and strategies enhanced the precision and efficiency of attacks on Al Qaeda and Taliban forces during the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. U.S. officials are now assessing how some of these tools and strategies--including the Predator, precision bombs and use of Special Forces--contributed to the mission.;

RQ-1 PREDATOR; The RQ-1 Predator is an unmanned plane deployed for reconnaissance, surveillance and target-acquisition missions. In Afghanistan, Predators were equipped with Hellfire missiles to perform the additional task of search-and-destroy missions, enabling the military to attack without risking soldiers' lives.;

JDAM BOMBS; As in the Persian Gulf war, "smart" bombs proved to be a valuable tool in destroying the enemy from the air. Specifically, the Joint Direct Attack Munition succeeded in annihilating Al Qaeda and Taliban weaponry, facilities and caves.;

SPECIAL FORCES; Perhaps the most efficient strategy conducted by the U.S. military in Afghanistan was the use of Special Forces troops to train anti-Taliban forces, communicate ground information to bombers and prepare the Kandahar base for the Marines. By deploying Special Forces teams, the military reduced risk to American soldiers, sharpened bombing precision and established contacts with Afghan natives, which may prove helpful in future operations.;

Sources: Federation of American Scientists, Globalsecurity.org; Chicago Tribune/Max Rust, Chris Soprych;

Copyright 2002 Chicago Tribune Company