Operation Enduring Freedom: Potential Air Power Questions for Congress
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS W eb
Operation Enduring F reedom: Potential Air
Po w er Questions for Congress
Analys t i n N ational Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and T r ade Division
The United S tates i s employi ng m i l itary ai r power in a variety of roles i n t he
Afghan conflict. Congress may have questions concerning the effective u se of air power,
including which aircraft are likely t o b e i nvol ved and how they are u sed. Other questions
i n cl ude what ri sks U.S . ai rcraft m ay face, pot ent i al readi n e s s i ssues, l ogi s t i cal
chal l enges, and t h e effect i v eness o f U .S . ai r forces agai nst a “l ow-t ech” enem y.
I ntr oducti on1
In light of the S eptember 11, 2001 terrorist attacks o n t he W o rld Trade Center and
the P entagon, the Bush administration h as announced a n ew war o n t errorism. Although
the administration’s objectives are t o counter terrorism gl obally, considerable attention
will likely b e focused on Osama b in Ladin, his Al Qaeda t errori s t n e t w o r k , and t he
Taliban government of Afgh anistan, which aids and supports bin Laden. The
Administration has stat ed it will em ploy a wide variety of tools against the t errorist threat ,
incl uding diplomatic, economic, and military actions. This report will addres s t h e k ey
issues associated with employing air power in support o f Operation Enduring Freedom,
the evolving military action against bin Ladin and his supporters.
Potenti a l Q uesti ons for Congr ess
Wh ich a ircraft a re likely t o b e i nvolved i n Operation Enduring Freedom and how will
Operation E nduring Freedom may require Air Force, Navy, M arine C orps and Army
aviation assets for i ntelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights, suppression of
1 For more i nformation on Operation Enduring Freedom, s ee the CRS Electronic Briefing Book,
Terrorism, page on “Military Responses” at [ http://www. congress.gov/ brbk/html/ebter80.html ].
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
enemy air defenses, ground attack, close air s upport, and air mobility missions including
lift, and aerial refueling.
Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) . A c q u i ring actionable
intelligence regarding b in Laden and hi s s upport e r ’ s w h er eabouts i s a high priority
regardless of what speci fic military action i s contem plat ed. Navy EP-3 and USAF RC-135
aircraft may b e u seful i f t h e t errorists employ electronic communications. The U-2,
J S TARS , and unmanned aerial v e h i cles (UAVs) s uch as P redator and prototyp es of
Global Hawk h ave b een deployed to conduct rad ar and elect r o o p t ical surveillance and
reconnaissance o f Afghanist an, i n an attempt t o find, id e n t i fy, track, and engage bin
Laden, his colleagues, or his resources.
Ground Attack. A v ariety of theater-range aircraft could b e employed t o s trike at
bi n Laden and h i s associ at es, i ncl udi ng t h e U.S . Nav y F-14 T om cat , F/ A-18 Hornet ,
M a r i n e C o rps AV-8B Harrier, and Air Force F-15 Eagl e, F-16 Falcon, and F117
Nigh thawk aircraft. A-10 aircraft have proved effective against many ground targets, and
in prosecuting close air s upport missions. The long loiter time and high firepower of the
AC-130 gu n s hip h as proved i t a valuable resource. Army attack helicopters s uch as t he
AH-64 A p a c h e m ay also be employed in the gr ound attack role. In-theater basing and
force protection are issues that must be ad d r essed t o effectivel y employ t hese ai rcraft.
Armed v ersions of the P redator UAV have a l s o been employed. Long-range bombers
such as t h e B-2, B-52 and B-1 h ave b een em pl oyed, from b ases i n t h e Uni t ed S t at es, and
fro m o t h er locations such as the base at Diego Garcia. Their range reduces the
requirement to base these ai r c r a f t n ear Afgh anistan, although p rox imate basing can
increas e combat s ortie rates.
Suppression of Enemy Air De fe nses (SEAD). Despite Afghanistan’s
comparatively weak air d efenses, U.S. aircraft design ed to suppress o r d estroy SAMs and
AAA guns – s uch as EA-6B, EC-130H, and F-16CJ – will likely b e u sed t o ensure U.S.
ai rcraft have t h e m ax i m u m freedom of ope r a t i o n . El ect roni c, and especi al l y i n frared
countermeasures on all aircraft a r e i m portant in ensuring aircraft survivability against
man portable S AMs, which S EAD aircraft m ay have difficulty suppressing.
Air Mobility. Aerial Refueling: KC-135, KC-10, and Navy refueling aircraft h ave
been deployed to theat er and used t o both facilitate the deploym ent and em ployment of
the aircraft d escribed above. C -5, C -17, and C -141 strategi c t ransports will likely be used
to airlift p ersonnel and material associat ed with both air and ground combat. Because of
its ability to operate from primitive runways, the C -17 m ay play an important role. C -130
ai rcraft m ay b e u sed for i n t ra-t h eat er l i ft . S p e c i al Operat i ons Forces em pl oy speci al l y
designed MH-53J and HH-60G helicopters for infiltration and ex traction.
What risks w ill U.S. aircraft face?
Any air operations in and around Afgh anistan will have to consider the possible use
of t h e T al i b an’s ai r defenses. The Taliban’s es timated air defense order of battle is
summarized i n t he table bel ow . T he Taliban’s combat ai rcraft appear to offer little
challenge t o U.S . air superiority in and around Afgh anist a n ’ s air space. Their combat
ai rcraft are few, and l ess capabl e t h an current l y fi el ded U S com bat ai rcraft . The T al i b an’s
combat aircraft also suffer from a lack of many important factors t hat contribute t o
com b at effect i v eness, such as aeri al refuel i n g, ai rborne wa r n i n g and cont rol ai rcraft ,
electronic warfare capabilities, digital communi cations, and stealth technology. It appears
that a s of early October 2001, these t hreats had been effectively n egated by U.S. air
October 2001 Estimated T aliban Air D efense Assets
Type Number Comment s
Ai rcraf t MiG-21 10 1st flight 1955st
Su-2 2 10 1 flight 1969
L-39 5 2-seat trainer aircraft
Surf ace t o SA-2 57 >70,000 ft altitude
Ai r Missiles SA-3 55 60,000 ft altitude
Stinger 50-100 11,000 ft altitude
SA-7 unknown 7,500 ft altitude
SA-1 3 unknown 16,000 ft altitude
SA-1 4 unknown 10,000 ft altitude
Ai r Def ense ZU / Z S U -2 3 ( 2 3 mm) 100-150 total 8,200 ft range
Artillery M-1939 (37mm)
S-60 (57mm) 13,000 ft altitude
K S -1 2 ( 8 5 mm) 25,000 ft altitude
K S-19 ( 100mm) 44,000 ft altitude
Source: T he M ilitary B alance ( MB ), International I nstitute of Strategic Studies 2001. Lo ndon. M B b reaks
o ut T a l i b a n a i r c r a ft i nve nt o r y. SAM s a nd AAA guns i nve nt o r y i s fo r Afgha ni st a n wi t h no b r e a ko ut a mo ng
p o litical factio ns. CRS r e gio nal exp e r ts e stimate tha t a t the star t o f the co nflict, the T alib an co ntr o lled 5 0 %
o f Afgha nistan’s militar y infr astr uc tur e . T he r e fo r e this char t d ep icts 5 0 % o f MB to tal e stimates o f 1 1 5 SA-
2s, 110 SA-3's, and 100-300 AAA guns i n Afgha n i st a n, a nd a W a s hi ngt o n P o st e s t i ma t e ( “La nd M i ne s ,
Aging Missile Pose T hreat” Septemb er 25, 2001, p.15.) that “100-200 Stingers remain in Afghanistan.”
It appears t hat any Tal i b an chal l enge t o U.S . ai r superi ori t y wi l l be posed by surface-
to-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). The most threatening S AMs i n
terms o f range and altitude are t he SA-2 and S A-3, which can reach altitudes o f
approx imately 70,000 ft and 60,000 ft respectively. Although t hese SAMs were design ed
in the l ate 1950s and d eployed i n t he 1960s, t hey remain a cause for concern t oday. W h ile
the radars and co mmand and control assets for t hese system s are mobile, t heir missile
launchers are s emi-fix ed and can only be rel o cat ed w i t h time and effort. This l ack of
mobility may be t heir great es t vulnerability. The United S tates has demonstrat ed a very
good ability to destroy fix ed targets i n p ast conflicts. The 100mm KS-19 AAA gu n also
can reach high al titudes, but according t o one s ource, its effectiveness “against m odern2
ai rcraft is very limited.” It appears t hat as o f early October 2001, these t hreats h ad been
effect i v el y n egat ed by U.S . ai r s t ri k es.
The remainder o f t he Taliban’s AAA guns and S AMs reach lower altitudes. The M -
1939, S-60, and KS-12 are t owed guns, which limits their m obility, and thus their
survivability. The United S tates has demonstrat ed some difficulty in destroyi ng moving
and rel ocat abl e t arget s i n recent confl i ct s . T he ZS U-23 gu n and t h e S A-13 S AM l auncher
2 J a ne’s Land-Based Air Defense 1997-98.
are b ased on t racked vehi cl es, w hi ch m akes t hem m ore m obile. The man portable S A-7,
SA-14 and Stinger missiles are the m ost m obile system s and likel y t he most difficult to
target and d estroy. In recent conflict, U.S. combat aircraft have mitigated these t yp es of
threat s by flying at high altitudes.
As two points of comparison, the Taliban’s ai r defense capabiliti es appear to be
notably inferior to those o f Iraq and Serbia, both i n t erms of technology and inventory. In
conflicts with these countries (1991 Operation Desert S torm against Iraq, and 1999
Operation Allied Force in Kosovo) the United S tates l ost only 3 5 aircraft d espite flyi ng
89,261 combat sorties. However, in their war with Afgh anistan, the S oviet Union l ost 333
helicopters and 118 combat aircraft. 3 Thi s suggest s t hat t he Tal i b an’s ai r d efense
capabilities s hould not be underestimated, an d t hat U.S. aircraft could b e l ost.
Are t here potential r eadiness or sustainment i ssues?
It is not clear that U.S. air forces has adequate supply of precision guided munitions
for an ex t ended air campaign. Some observers have suggested that DoD h as underfunded
several m unitions programs and m ay now have to play “catch up.”
Inventory of t he J oint Direct Attack Munition (J D A M ) i s one potential area of
concern. P opular because of its low cost (approx imately $15,000 per unit), t he J DAM was
used ex tensivel y i n Operation Allied Force and s tocks were depleted s everel y. It was
reported, for ex ample, t hat B-2s operating from b ases in the United S tates d ropped 600
J DAMs o n S erbia. In an annual report t o C ongress on industrial p reparedness, DoD
reported i ndustry was stretched t hin, an d would h ave d ifficulties s urgi ng J DAM
production. 4 This inability to surge could constrai n military options.
Another potential question i s t he adequacy of the GBU-28 i nventory. This munition
was d eveloped s pecifically to attack hardened underground targets. Current inventory o f
this “bunker buster” is approx imately 500 bombs.5 Bi n Laden’s continued u se of
underground caves and t unnels makes t his m un ition useful, and t he inventory could be
What are t he logistical challenges?
If the United S tates i s t o s uccessfully prosecute any military action i n Afghanistan,
i t will require air b ases in or around Afgh anistan from which to operate. The e x a c t
number, location and types o f b ases requi r e d w i l l b e d etermined in part by the ex act
military operation o r operations to be conducted. Additionally, overflight righ ts from
Pakistan (granted in early October 2001) an d o ther neighboring countries are important
even if basing is not used. Overflight rights would enable U.S. and coalition refueling and
3 Lester Gr au (Ed.) The Bear Went Over the M ountain: Soviet Combat Tactics i n Afghanistan .
(Frank Cass Publishers. London, 1998) p. xix.
4 Sharon Weinberger. “ Report: Air Force Could Face Choke Point in Precision Guided Weapon
Production.” Aerospace Daily. September 18, 2001.
5 Air Force Maga zi ne. M ay 2001. p.154.
surveillance aircraft t o establish o rbits near Afgh anistan from where they could conduct
thei r missions and i ncreas e t he range and on-station time of combat and ISR ai rcraft.
Factors t hat contribute t o t he operational attract i v eness o f an ai rfi el d i ncl ude runway
l engt h , runway surface, runway and t ax i w ay wei ght beari n g capaci t y, and ot her ai r base
infrast r u c t u r e s uch as o ffloading equipmen t , hangars, and refuel i n g resources. T he ai r
base’s di st ance from l i k el y t arget s or areas of ope r a t i o n , and ai r base securi t y are al s o
important considerations. In general terms, airbases with runways i n ex cess o f 8,000 feet
(2,400 meters) are most attractive t o military planners. Although combat aircraft can use
runways h al f t hat l engt h, t h e ex act com b at l o ad, ai rfi el d el evat i on, and pot ent i al obst acl es
near the runway combine t o m ake 8,000 feet a minimum p rudent planning factor. 6
Although t here are d ifferences between th e P ersian Gu l f regi on and C entral Asia,
making observations about air b asing and operations in Operation Desert S torm may o ffer
insigh t i nto b asing for Operation Enduring Freedom. During Operation Desert S torm,
the U.S. Navy positioned four a i r c r a ft ca rri ers (US S R anger, Mi dway, A m eri ca,
Roosevelt) approx imately 300 nautical miles (nm) from t he Iraqi border i n t he P e rsian
Gulf. T hey positioned t wo aircraft carrier s i n t he Red S ea (USS Saratoga, Kennedy)
approximately 550 nm from the Iraqi border. To facilitate combat and reconnaissance
sorties from t hese positions, t he Navy flew aerial refuel i n g ai rcraft i n t hree general areas:
t h e nort h ern P ersi an Gul f (sout heast o f Kuwait and northeast o f Dahran), northern S audi
Arabia, (just south o f Tabuk), and the northern R ed Sea.
Duri ng Operat i o n Desert S t o rm , t he U.S . Air Force operated its aircraft from m ore
t h an 20 di fferent ai rfi el ds i n S audi Arabi a, Q at ar, UAE, and Om an. S even o f t h e s e
airfields were between 300 nm and 3 2 0 n m f r o m t he Iraqi border. Seven airfields were
between 450 nm and 600 nm from Iraq, and s ix airfields w ere 665 nm to 950 nm from
Iraq. The Air Force established four tanker “tracks” above north central Saudi Arabia to
refuel aircraft attacking and returning from attacks i n Iraq. 7
There are 55 airfields with runways i n ex cess o f 8,000 feet in countries neighboring
Afghanistan.8 Afgh anistan itself h as seven airfiel ds with runways i n ex cess o f 8,000 feet.,
and i t m ay be that U.S. and coalition air forces may gain access t o one or more of these
bases. Other i nformation about these airfields is not readily available.
The s outhern border o f Afghanistan is approx imately 200nm from t he Arabian S ea,
while Kabul is approx imately 675n m f r o m t he sea. Aircraft carriers operating from t he
Arabian S ea would likely s tandoff 100nm f r o m t h e s hore for self protection purposes,
which would m ake t he operational d istances 300nm and 775nm from t he sea respectively.
W h i l e Navy aeri al refuel i n g ai r craft can great l y ex t end t h e range of com b at ai rcraft ,
6 Shorter r unways can be used for many useful c ontinge ncies, such as emerge ncy l anding. Large
aircraft such as cargo, t anker, and s urveillance aircraft also r equire, i n general terms, 8,000 foot
runways. Source: Conversation with USAF Legi slative Liaison, September, 19, 2001.
7 Gulf War Air Power Survey, V ol 2,. Washington, DC 1993. p100-103.
8 Paki stan has 33 airfields, T aj ikistan 6, T urkmenistan 13, and Uzbekistan 3. CIA World Fact
great er distances tend to reduce combat s ortie rates. Cruise missile capable ships and
submarines could operate from t he Arabian S ea and s till target al l of Afghanistan.
Access t o s ea port s co u l d a l s o b e an i m port ant fact or for ai rpower i n Operat i o n
E n during Freedom, d epending on the s peci f i c m i s s i o n s p u r s u e d . M a n y i m p o r t a n t a i r p o w e r
resources , s uch as ammunition and fuel are m ost effectivel y t ransported b y s ea. The eas e
or difficulty with which Operation Enduring Freedom overcomes basing and l ogistical
challenges may h ave implications for fut ure funding of air m obility programs like t he C-
How applicable are U.S. Air Forces against a “low-te c h ” e n e m y and what are t he
implications for f uture i nves tments?9
In many ways , i t appears t hat t he principal efforts o f t he U.S. air forces to improve
thei r capabilities do not match up wel l with the military challenge i n Afghanistan. As part
of its transformation efforts, for ex ample, t he Air Force is emphasiz i ng technologies s uch
as stealth aircraft and p recisi o n guided m unitions (PGMs). S tealth technology, while
a l ways benefi ci al , i s not needed t o prot ect U.S . ai rcraft from T al i b an ai r d efe n s e s , a n d
PGMs are o f limited v alue if targets can not be found or identified. Similarly, one of the
Ai r Force’s l eadi n g t ransform at i onal concep ts of operations – Global S trike Task Force
– which is design ed to obviate anti-access t hreat s, appears t o b e o f m argi nal importance
in Afghanistan where U.S. ai r forces are likel y t o operate with minimal challenges .
On the o ther hand, it appears t hat U.S. air fo rces have also invested in technologies
that could p rove valuable in Afgh anistan. The ex p endibility of UAVs, and in some cases
thei r l ong on-station time, could m ake t hem very u s e fu l i n providing persistent
surveillance over t he battlespace. Also, t he Air Force’s p rimary organiz ational
innov at i o n , the Air Ex peditionary Fo rce (AEF), m ay help alleviate p ersonnel t empo
challenges caused by a prolonged military cam paign.
P e r h aps t he great est t est o f t he Ai r Force’s rel evance i n confl i ct s l i k e t he o n e
unfol di ng i n A f gh ani s t an wi l l be t h e s uccess o f anot her t ransform at i onal concept o f
o p e r a t i o n, cal l ed E ffect s Based Operat i ons (EBO). Accordi n g t o G en. M i chael R yan,
EBO i ncludes “our ability to anal yz e t he battle space and t o go t o t he critical points i n t he
battle space to get t he effect s t hat we want – through kinetic destruction, or disruption, or
decept i on, or i n form at i o n o p e r a t i ons or, p robabl y a com b i n at i o n o f al l of t h em .“10 The
considerable anal ytical capabilities s uggested by EBO m ay be required t o find, identify,
track, and “effect ” elusive adversaries s uch as bin Laden. Whet her EBO is up to this task
remains t o be s een.
The outcome of Operation Enduring Freedom will likely affect future air force
debates. The applicability of many of the m ore “ h i gh t ech ” program s t o t he war on
terrorism may s uggest whether current priorities are best suited t o s uccessful conduct o f
the full range of future military challenges .
9 For a more detailed discussion of the t ransformation i ssues high lighted in this section, see CRS
Report RS20859, Air Force Transformation: Background and Issues for Congress .
10 J ohn Roos. Effects-Based Operations. Armed Forces Journal International . M arch 2001.