Order Code RS21020
Updated November 21, 2001
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Operation Enduring Freedom: Potential Air
Power Questions for Congress
Analyst in National Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
The United States is employing military air power in a variety of roles in the
Afghan conflict. Congress may have questions concerning the effective use of air power,
including which aircraft are likely to be involved and how they are used. Other questions
include what risks U.S. aircraft may face, potential readiness issues, logistical
challenges, and the effectiveness of U.S. air forces against a “low-tech” enemy.
In light of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon, the Bush administration has announced a new war on terrorism. Although
the administration’s objectives are to counter terrorism globally, considerable attention
will likely be focused on Osama bin Ladin, his Al Qaeda terrorist network, and the
Taliban government of Afghanistan, which aids and supports bin Laden. The
Administration has stated it will employ a wide variety of tools against the terrorist threat,
including diplomatic, economic, and military actions. This report will address the key
issues associated with employing air power in support of Operation Enduring Freedom,
the evolving military action against bin Ladin and his supporters.
Potential Questions for Congress
Which aircraft are likely to be involved in Operation Enduring Freedom and how will
they be used?
Operation Enduring Freedom may require Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army
aviation assets for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights, suppression of
For more information on Operation Enduring Freedom, see 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 support, and air mobility missions including
lift, and aerial refueling.
Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). Acquiring actionable
intelligence regarding bin Laden and his supporter’s whereabouts is a high priority
regardless of what specific military action is contemplated. Navy EP-3 and USAF RC-135
aircraft may be useful if the terrorists employ electronic communications. The U-2,
JSTARS, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as Predator and prototypes of
Global Hawk have been deployed to conduct radar and electro optical surveillance and
reconnaissance of Afghanistan, in an attempt to find, identify, track, and engage bin
Laden, his colleagues, or his resources.
Ground Attack. A variety of theater-range aircraft could be employed to strike at
bin Laden and his associates, including the U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat, F/A-18 Hornet,
Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier, and Air Force F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon, and F117
Nighthawk aircraft. A-10 aircraft have proved effective against many ground targets, and
in prosecuting close air support missions. The long loiter time and high firepower of the
AC-130 gun ship has proved it a valuable resource. Army attack helicopters such as the
AH-64 Apache may also be employed in the ground attack role. In-theater basing and
force protection are issues that must be addressed to effectively employ these aircraft.
Armed versions of the Predator UAV have also been employed. Long-range bombers
such as the B-2, B-52 and B-1 have been employed, from bases in the United States, and
from other locations such as the base at Diego Garcia. Their range reduces the
requirement to base these aircraft near Afghanistan, although proximate basing can
increase combat sortie rates.
Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). Despite Afghanistan’s
comparatively weak air defenses, U.S. aircraft designed to suppress or destroy SAMs and
AAA guns – such as EA-6B, EC-130H, and F-16CJ – will likely be used to ensure U.S.
aircraft have the maximum freedom of operation. Electronic, and especially infrared
countermeasures on all aircraft are important in ensuring aircraft survivability against
man portable SAMs, which SEAD aircraft may have difficulty suppressing.
Air Mobility. Aerial Refueling: KC-135, KC-10, and Navy refueling aircraft have
been deployed to theater and used to both facilitate the deployment and employment of
the aircraft described above. C-5, C-17, and C-141 strategic transports will likely be used
to airlift personnel and material associated with both air and ground combat. Because of
its ability to operate from primitive runways, the C-17 may play an important role. C-130
aircraft may be used for intra-theater lift. Special Operations Forces employ specially
designed MH-53J and HH-60G helicopters for infiltration and extraction.
What risks will U.S. aircraft face?
Any air operations in and around Afghanistan will have to consider the possible use
of the Taliban’s air defenses. The Taliban’s estimated air defense order of battle is
summarized in the table below. The Taliban’s combat aircraft appear to offer little
challenge to U.S. air superiority in and around Afghanistan’s air space. Their combat
aircraft are few, and less capable than currently fielded US combat aircraft. The Taliban’s
combat aircraft also suffer from a lack of many important factors that contribute to
combat effectiveness, such as aerial refueling, airborne warning and control aircraft,
electronic warfare capabilities, digital communications, and stealth technology. It appears
that as of early October 2001, these threats had been effectively negated by U.S. air
October 2001 Estimated Taliban Air Defense Assets
1st flight 1955
1st flight 1969
2-seat trainer aircraft
>70,000 ft altitude
60,000 ft altitude
11,000 ft altitude
7,500 ft altitude
16,000 ft altitude
10,000 ft altitude
8,200 ft range
13,000 ft altitude
25,000 ft altitude
44,000 ft altitude
Source: The Military Balance (MB), International Institute of Strategic Studies 2001. London. MB breaks
out Taliban aircraft inventory. SAMs and AAA guns inventory is for Afghanistan with no breakout among
political factions. CRS regional experts estimate that at the start of the conflict, the Taliban controlled 50%
of Afghanistan’s military infrastructure. Therefore this chart depicts 50% of MB total estimates of 115 SA2s, 110 SA-3's, and 100-300 AAA guns in Afghanistan, and a Washington Post estimate (“Land Mines,
Aging Missile Pose Threat” September 25, 2001, p.15.) that “100-200 Stingers remain in Afghanistan.”
It appears that any Taliban challenge to U.S. air superiority will be posed by surfaceto-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). The most threatening SAMs in
terms of range and altitude are the SA-2 and SA-3, which can reach altitudes of
approximately 70,000 ft and 60,000 ft respectively. Although these SAMs were designed
in the late 1950s and deployed in the 1960s, they remain a cause for concern today. While
the radars and command and control assets for these systems are mobile, their missile
launchers are semi-fixed and can only be relocated with time and effort. This lack of
mobility may be their greatest vulnerability. The United States has demonstrated a very
good ability to destroy fixed targets in past conflicts. The 100mm KS-19 AAA gun also
can reach high altitudes, but according to one source, its effectiveness “against modern
aircraft is very limited.”2 It appears that as of early October 2001, these threats had been
effectively negated by U.S. air strikes.
The remainder of the Taliban’s AAA guns and SAMs reach lower altitudes. The M1939, S-60, and KS-12 are towed guns, which limits their mobility, and thus their
survivability. The United States has demonstrated some difficulty in destroying moving
and relocatable targets in recent conflicts. The ZSU-23 gun and the SA-13 SAM launcher
Jane’s Land-Based Air Defense 1997-98.
are based on tracked vehicles, which makes them more mobile. The man portable SA-7,
SA-14 and Stinger missiles are the most mobile systems and likely the most difficult to
target and destroy. In recent conflict, U.S. combat aircraft have mitigated these types of
threats by flying at high altitudes.
As two points of comparison, the Taliban’s air defense capabilities appear to be
notably inferior to those of Iraq and Serbia, both in terms of technology and inventory. In
conflicts with these countries (1991 Operation Desert Storm against Iraq, and 1999
Operation Allied Force in Kosovo) the United States lost only 35 aircraft despite flying
89,261 combat sorties. However, in their war with Afghanistan, the Soviet Union lost 333
helicopters and 118 combat aircraft.3 This suggests that the Taliban’s air defense
capabilities should not be underestimated, and that U.S. aircraft could be lost.
Are there potential readiness or sustainment issues?
It is not clear that U.S. air forces has adequate supply of precision guided munitions
for an extended air campaign. Some observers have suggested that DoD has underfunded
several munitions programs and may now have to play “catch up.”
Inventory of the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) is one potential area of
concern. Popular because of its low cost (approximately $15,000 per unit), the JDAM was
used extensively in Operation Allied Force and stocks were depleted severely. It was
reported, for example, that B-2s operating from bases in the United States dropped 600
JDAMs on Serbia. In an annual report to Congress on industrial preparedness, DoD
reported industry was stretched thin, and would have difficulties surging JDAM
production.4 This inability to surge could constrain military options.
Another potential question is the adequacy of the GBU-28 inventory. This munition
was developed specifically to attack hardened underground targets. Current inventory of
this “bunker buster” is approximately 500 bombs.5 Bin Laden’s continued use of
underground caves and tunnels makes this munition useful, and the inventory could be
What are the logistical challenges?
If the United States is to successfully prosecute any military action in Afghanistan,
it will require air bases in or around Afghanistan from which to operate. The exact
number, location and types of bases required will be determined in part by the exact
military operation or operations to be conducted. Additionally, overflight rights from
Pakistan (granted in early October 2001) and other neighboring countries are important
even if basing is not used. Overflight rights would enable U.S. and coalition refueling and
Lester Grau (Ed.) The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan.
(Frank Cass Publishers. London, 1998) p. xix.
Sharon Weinberger. “Report: Air Force Could Face Choke Point in Precision Guided Weapon
Production.” Aerospace Daily. September 18, 2001.
Air Force Magazine. May 2001. p.154.
surveillance aircraft to establish orbits near Afghanistan from where they could conduct
their missions and increase the range and on-station time of combat and ISR aircraft.
Factors that contribute to the operational attractiveness of an airfield include runway
length, runway surface, runway and taxiway weight bearing capacity, and other air base
infrastructure such as offloading equipment, hangars, and refueling resources. The air
base’s distance from likely targets or areas of operation, and air base security are also
important considerations. In general terms, airbases with runways in excess of 8,000 feet
(2,400 meters) are most attractive to military planners. Although combat aircraft can use
runways half that length, the exact combat load, airfield elevation, and potential obstacles
near the runway combine to make 8,000 feet a minimum prudent planning factor.6
Although there are differences between the Persian Gulf region and Central Asia,
making observations about air basing and operations in Operation Desert Storm may offer
insight into basing for Operation Enduring Freedom. During Operation Desert Storm,
the U.S. Navy positioned four aircraft carriers (USS Ranger, Midway, America,
Roosevelt) approximately 300 nautical miles (nm) from the Iraqi border in the Persian
Gulf. They positioned two aircraft carriers in the Red Sea (USS Saratoga, Kennedy)
approximately 550 nm from the Iraqi border. To facilitate combat and reconnaissance
sorties from these positions, the Navy flew aerial refueling aircraft in three general areas:
the northern Persian Gulf (southeast of Kuwait and northeast of Dahran), northern Saudi
Arabia, (just south of Tabuk), and the northern Red Sea.
During Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. Air Force operated its aircraft from more
than 20 different airfields in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, and Oman. Seven of these
airfields were between 300 nm and 320 nm from the Iraqi border. Seven airfields were
between 450 nm and 600 nm from Iraq, and six airfields were 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 in Iraq.7
There are 55 airfields with runways in excess of 8,000 feet in countries neighboring
Afghanistan.8 Afghanistan itself has seven airfields with runways in excess of 8,000 feet.,
and it may be that U.S. and coalition air forces may gain access to one or more of these
bases. Other information about these airfields is not readily available.
The southern border of Afghanistan is approximately 200nm from the Arabian Sea,
while Kabul is approximately 675nm from the sea. Aircraft carriers operating from the
Arabian Sea would likely standoff 100nm from the shore for self protection purposes,
which would make the operational distances 300nm and 775nm from the sea respectively.
While Navy aerial refueling aircraft can greatly extend the range of combat aircraft,
Shorter runways can be used for many useful contingencies, such as emergency landing. Large
aircraft such as cargo, tanker, and surveillance aircraft also require, in general terms, 8,000 foot
runways. Source: Conversation with USAF Legislative Liaison, September, 19, 2001.
Gulf War Air Power Survey, Vol 2,. Washington, DC 1993. p100-103.
Pakistan has 33 airfields, Tajikistan 6, Turkmenistan 13, and Uzbekistan 3. CIA World Fact
greater distances tend to reduce combat sortie rates. Cruise missile capable ships and
submarines could operate from the Arabian Sea and still target all of Afghanistan.
Access to sea ports could also be an important factor for airpower in Operation
Enduring Freedom, depending on the specific missions pursued. Many important airpower
resources, such as ammunition and fuel are most effectively transported by sea. The ease
or difficulty with which Operation Enduring Freedom overcomes basing and logistical
challenges may have implications for future funding of air mobility programs like the C17 and C-5 aircraft, as well as sea lift and pre-positioning assets.
How applicable are U.S. Air Forces against a “low-tech” enemy and what are the
implications for future investments?9
In many ways, it appears that the principal efforts of the U.S. air forces to improve
their capabilities do not match up well with the military challenge in Afghanistan. As part
of its transformation efforts, for example, the Air Force is emphasizing technologies such
as stealth aircraft and precision guided munitions (PGMs). Stealth technology, while
always beneficial, is not needed to protect U.S. aircraft from Taliban air defenses, and
PGMs are of limited value if targets can not be found or identified. Similarly, one of the
Air Force’s leading transformational concepts of operations – Global Strike Task Force
– which is designed to obviate anti-access threats, appears to be of marginal importance
in Afghanistan where U.S. air forces are likely to operate with minimal challenges.
On the other hand, it appears that U.S. air forces have also invested in technologies
that could prove valuable in Afghanistan. The expendibility of UAVs, and in some cases
their long on-station time, could make them very useful in providing persistent
surveillance over the battlespace. Also, the Air Force’s primary organizational
innovation, the Air Expeditionary Force (AEF), may help alleviate personnel tempo
challenges caused by a prolonged military campaign.
Perhaps the greatest test of the Air Force’s relevance in conflicts like the one
unfolding in Afghanistan will be the success of another transformational concept of
operation, called Effects Based Operations (EBO). According to Gen. Michael Ryan,
EBO includes “our ability to analyze the battle space and to go to the critical points in the
battle space to get the effects that we want – through kinetic destruction, or disruption, or
deception, or information operations or, probably a combination of all of them.“10 The
considerable analytical capabilities suggested by EBO may be required to find, identify,
track, and “effect” elusive adversaries such as bin Laden. Whether EBO is up to this task
remains to be seen.
The outcome of Operation Enduring Freedom will likely affect future air force
debates. The applicability of many of the more “high tech” programs to the war on
terrorism may suggest whether current priorities are best suited to successful conduct of
the full range of future military challenges.
For a more detailed discussion of the transformation issues high lighted in this section, see CRS
Report RS20859, Air Force Transformation: Background and Issues for Congress.
John Roos. Effects-Based Operations. Armed Forces Journal International. March 2001.
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