TCS Daily


Dissecting the Anaconda

By Melana Zyla Vickers - March 21, 2002 12:00 AM

A common refrain from young GIs returning from Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan has been that this was their first time in combat. Yet they weren't the only first-timers in the field - at least three new ways of war have emerged over the course of the conflict as well.

The three concepts arose out of both political need and technological possibility. They are:

Precise air strikes backed by Special Forces on the ground. Special Operations Forces deep in enemy territory have been able to spot targets accurately and call in air strikes. Thanks to this spotting and to munitions technology that has improved in the last decade, the precision air strikes were conducted on a larger scale than in past wars, and in all weather. In addition, the Special Forces have done strategic reconnaissance, directed local forces, and themselves conducted assaults on the enemy. This combination of Special Forces and precise air strikes allowed the main phase of the war to reach a decisive conclusion - the overthrow of the Taliban regime and the routing of most Al Qaeda and Taliban forces - more quickly and with fewer troops than it otherwise would have.

Armed unmanned aerial vehicles. Pilotless, armed aircraft equipped with video cameras have been able to loiter over the enemy, watching his location and actions for long periods and attacking him when he's exposed. The power of this persistent surveillance and ability to attack fleeting targets was most notably evident in the assault on Usama bin Laden's deputy Muhammad Atef last November. An armed UAV relayed to military and CIA operatives video of a house where Atef and others had gathered. The officials called in airstrikes and the UAV fired missiles, killing the men.

Bombers dominating the attack. Long-range bombers -- the B-2, B-52, and B-1 -- have dropped some 70 per cent of the munitions in the war. The bombers' range allows them to fly missions from bases far from the conflict - a B-2 stealth bomber completed a bombing run in Afghanistan from its U.S. base in 44 hours - and the bombers can carry a greater number of munitions than fighters can. Thus, the bombers, with their mass and precision, proved far more useful in the war than "short-legged" fighter aircraft that fly short distances, require nearby bases, and carry fewer munitions.

Relying on the highly trained Special Forces was partly motivated by an understanding of military history in Afghanistan: Large foreign armies, most notably the Soviets, met grave harm there. The SOF, with their skills and much smaller footprint, promised to be able to mobilize the indigenous Northern Alliance and build up the Southern and Eastern Afghan forces as well, minimizing U.S. exposure.

Similarly, using long-range bombers was motivated by local constraints. The countries ringing Afghanistan did not want to grant Air Force fighters access to their bases. It was too expensive to fly the short-range fighters to Afghanistan from the Persian Gulf, and therefore U.S. instead relied on long-range bombers and carrier aviation.

The reliance on precision-guided munitions and armed UAVs, meanwhile, arose from the ever-increasing maturity of those technologies. Consider that precision-guided munitions made up just 7 per cent of bombs dropped in the Gulf War and 35 per cent of those dropped in Kosovo. But they accounted for close to 70 per cent of the Afghan war's bombs. Satellite-guidance technology allows those munitions to be used in all weather conditions, and they're increasingly precise as well.

War planners are certain to rely on these three capabilities in future wars. For one thing, with each passing conflict it appears more likely the U.S. will be denied bases near the actual fight, raising the need to operate from long range. Moreover, one cannot deny the value of winning battles by employing small numbers of troops from extended range and relying on technology to afford U.S. forces greater precision, unmanned surveillance, and unmanned attack.

But the advances used in Afghanistan won't apply in each future conflict. Special Operations Forces won't always be able to muster an indigenous fighting force. And unmanned aircraft and bombers that aren't stealthy would be vulnerable to attack if they had to fly into territory protected by air defenses - something Afghanistan didn't have.

All the more reason to build on these advances of the Afghan war for the future:

  • Build ties with indigenous forces that could overthrow the rogue regimes that oppress them.

  • Add stealthy long-range bombers - only the B-2 has stealth, and the U.S. has only 21 B2s.

  • Add range and stealth to armed UAVs as well as surveillance UAVs.

  • Continue advancing precision-guided munitions and the ability of aircraft to carry them in great numbers.

That's how U.S. war planners can follow the counsel that commanding officers are surely giving their returning GIs: Learn from the Afghan experience and build upon it.
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