Cover: Air Power Against Terror

Air Power Against Terror

America's Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom

Published Nov 7, 2006

by Benjamin S. Lambeth


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The terrorist attacks of 9/11 plunged the United States into a determined counteroffensive against Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network. This report details the initial U.S. military response to those attacks, namely, the destruction of al Qaeda’s terrorist infrastructure and the removal of the ruling Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It first outlines the efforts of the Bush administration to prepare for war, including pulling together an effective coalition, crafting a war strategy, moving forces and materiel to the region, forging alliances with indigenous anti-Taliban elements in Afghanistan, laying the groundwork for a target-approval process, and planning for humanitarian relief operations. It then follows the unfolding of Operation Enduring Freedom from its beginning, starting with air strikes against Taliban early warning radars, airfields, ground force facilities, and other fixed targets. The author also explains how allied Special Operations Forces (SOF) were successfully inserted into Afghanistan and how those forces, enabled by U.S. air power, were eventually able to work with indigenous friendly Afghan fighters in defeating and routing the Taliban. He then outlines problems that were later encountered in Operation Anaconda—an initiative by U.S. Army forces to push into the high mountains of Afghanistan where hard-core al Qaeda holdouts were known to be regrouping. This was to be a conventional ground force operation, but unexpected resistance and resultant fierce fighting required the emergency summoning of fixed-wing air power. This air involvement proved pivotal in producing a successful outcome and, in hindsight, pointed to the failure of Operation Anaconda’s planners to make the most of the potential synergy of air, space, and land power that was available to them. The author describes some of the friction and conflicts that arose within U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) over how best to use air power in the war. Perhaps the most serious inefficiency had to do with strict rules of engagement and a resultant target-approval bottleneck at CENTCOM that often allowed many important but fleeting attack opportunities to slip away. The author emphasizes, however, several distinctive achievements in this war, including the use of SOF-enabled precision weapons that were effective irrespective of weather, the first combat use of Predator unmanned aerial vehicles armed with Hellfire missiles, and the integrated employment of high-altitude drones and other air- and space-based sensors that gave CENTCOM unprecedented round-the-clock awareness of enemy activity.

"As technological advances bring senior policy-makers closer to the battlefield and compel ever more cooperation between the services, the need for books like Lambeth's is all the greater. 'Air Power Against Terror' should be a wake-up call to the Air Force leadership — not simply for its operational analysis about the Afghan war, but also for the importance of sponsoring and initiating serious, independent research about the service… There is no reason that the Air Force cannot rediscover this tradition. Otherwise, as illustrated by Lambeth, misunderstandings both within the Air Force and with its sister services are certain to continue, and the nation will be unable to fully capitalize on its capabilities at a time of war."

- Armed Forces Journal, June 2006

"This is the only recommendation I have concerning airpower in recent operations. Lambeth presents a very revealing book that lays out many behind-the-scenes issues, and has a relatively robust discussion/critique of the role of JAGs in combat operations. An absolute 'must read' for anyone deploying to work in an air operations' center."

- Brigadier General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., in The Reporter, Office of the Judge Advocate General

"For almost 60 years, the RAND Corporation has provided military and policy decisionmakers with effective solutions to the challenges facing America in times of peace and conflict. Following in that sterling tradition is the publication of Benjamin S. Lambeth's latest work, 'Air Power Against Terror'. The author provides readers with an analysis of the Bush Administration's preparation for Operation Enduring Freedom—from the initial planning for the response to 9/11, to the attacks against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Lambeth's insight into the enabling capabilities of US air power against determined foes in what can only be characterized as an extremely hostile environment leaves readers with a new understanding of the approach that America will use to counter such threats in the 21st century."

- Parameters, "Editor's Shelf," Spring 2006

The research described in this briefing was sponsored by the United States Central Command Air Forces. The research was conducted in the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center supported by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the unified commands, and the defense agencies.

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