TCS Daily

Improved Air Weaponry Leads Campaign That Soldiers Must Finish

By Melana Zyla Vickers - October 12, 2001 12:00 AM

Afghanistan's Taliban say they favor returning to a simpler way of life, unburdened by the trappings of modernity. The United States' long-range air power can oblige them.

Yet, for all its destructive capacity, the combination of Tomahawk missiles and precision-guided munitions dropped from stealthy B2s and other bombers will play only a supporting role in this Afghan campaign. That's a change from the Gulf War, where these were weapons of first resort. The reason: Afghanistan is fairly bombed-out and primitive to begin with. And no amount of air power can accomplish the goal of ousting a regime or killing the Al Queda leadership. That's work for soldiers on the ground.

The missiles and munitions nonetheless have an essential role in these opening days, destroying Taliban air defenses and command posts. And in many respects they're superior now compared to 10 years ago:

  • JDAM: The Joint Direct Attack Munition is a "smart bomb" that is directed toward its target by satellite. The munition, which costs $18,000, is far less expensive and far more effective than its predecessors a decade ago. The smart bombs of the Gulf War were laser-guided and could not be used when skies obscured by clouds or smoke prevented the bomber crew from pinpointing the target. The new JDAMs are guided by Global Positioning System satellites and therefore are capable in all weather. What's more, they're being dropped by stealthy B2s, able to fly record-length, 44-hour missions from the continental United States.

  • Tomahawk: The cruise missile is being fired from U.S. submarines and surface ships all the way to land-locked Afghanistan at distances of up to 1,500 miles. It, too, has dropped in price since the Gulf War, and now costs about $700,000. Tomahawks used to have to have their route pre-programmed with digital terrain mapping, satellites can now guide the 18-foot missiles in real time.

  • Bunker Buster (GBU-28): U.S. bombers have also been dropping 5,000-lb bombs designed to penetrate reinforced bunkers. Prototypes, designed to solve the problem of attacking hardened, underground shelters with a conventional bomb instead of a nuclear warhead, were used in the Gulf War. Now perfected, the bombs feature a concrete penetrator and are designed to detonate some time after they strike the surface, rather than upon impact.

  • Once U.S. air power has destroyed Afghanistan's fixed targets such as airfields, command posts, and the like, its role will shift. In the coming weeks, air power will support the Northern Alliance and other opposition forces, which until now have been outgunned by the Taliban. Potentially, it also will support U.S. Special Forces as well if they are sent in. In practice, U.S. subs and aircraft will use JDAMs, missiles and bunker-busting bombs to attack the Taliban's massed forces, preventing them from defending territory or advancing against opposition forces, including the Northern Alliance.

    The munitions and missiles will serve to alter the balance of power in Afghanistan in favor of opposition forces. The success of U.S. air power will help the Afghan people topple the Taliban regime, leaving Osama bin Laden without his protectors.


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