June 1, 2006  

Air heads

Misperceptions and rivalries obscure air power’s potential

Our society, even our military, is so hyper-aware and wired that the ubiquitous presence of the television screen is no more illustrative of Clinton focus-group think than it is of a Rovian mastermind. It just is.

So we should not be surprised that in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and through the Afghanistan war that followed, dead center in the middle of the command center data wall at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Saudi Arabia was a massive television projection of CNN.

Political leaders asserted that Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) would unfold “like no other.” No pinprick attack, no swatting of flies, no pounding of sand. Unlike other wars, there would be no hesitation to commit ground forces.

Yet the television screen said it all. No matter how much grief or justification propelled the campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida, no matter what the political stripes of the administration, carte blanche war was an illusion.

When bombing commenced Oct. 7, 2001, just 26 days after the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, television created a public expectation of constant narrative and transparency that had a profound impact on the conduct of the war.

Internal to the military, moreover, the impression of a televised battlefield had its own effects. Gen. Tommy Franks, the overall joint forces commander, stated that access to a common picture “permitted us to provide intent and guidance without doing the tactical work of subordinate commanders.” In truth, Franks attempted to command from nearly halfway around the world, ushering in a new era of micromanagement.

The surprising reality of the Afghanistan experience is shown in three new studies. Benjamin Lambeth’s “Air Power Against Terror: America’s Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom,” a Rand Corp. study funded by the U.S. Air Force, is the first book-length treatment of the war from an insider’s perspective. Lt. Col. Michael W. Kometer’s “Command in Air War: Centralized vs. Decentralized Control of Combat Airpower,” a doctoral dissertation done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a superb treatise regarding the promises and limitations of air command. Finally, there is the Air Force’s classified Operation Enduring Look (OEL) lessons learned, parts of which have been obtained by the author.

The three studies admittedly focus on air power and, as such, offer a limited view of the war. But they are unsparing in describing a degree of internal dissension and micromanagement. The airman’s view of how to fight was almost completely rejected, and the national level imposed almost complete control. What is more, public opinion concerns about civilian casualties and collateral damage remained constant from previous administrations and significantly influenced the campaign.

Finally, the studies directly address the question of leadership. Franks, the uniformed commander who remained in Florida and thus came to embody an extension of Washington, is hardly portrayed sympathetically or heroically. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is equally portrayed as a relentless micromanager. U.S. Central Command (CentCom) was itself given “very limited flexibility” by the leadership in Washington, Lambeth says, and the other studies bear him out. Rumsfeld was happy to play the “no man” and from the beginning rejected Franks’ scenario of months of buildup of U.S. ground forces, urging a more creative and immediate plan. Yet the secretary never articulated his own overarching strategy.

The studies vacillate between portraying rejection of the Air Force’s preferred practice as doctrinal heresy, as misunderstanding, or even worse, as the willful prejudice of an Army officer (and Army-dominated command). But what they inadvertently illustrate is the ageless impact of politics, domestic and foreign, on warfare. Even in the Bush administration, even after 9/11, American war-making was shown to have immutable qualities. This is the chief value in going back and looking at a war now overshadowed by Iraq.

One might have expected in this, of all wars, that the military would have unprecedented flexibility in fighting, yet in hindsight, nothing of the sort transpired. What is more, even as air operations proved far more successful than Washington expected, Franks and Rumsfeld remained immovable in their preconceptions about how the war would unfold, captive to a televised view of trouble.

In the end, Rumsfeld, Franks and Washington in general could not exploit the tactical success delivered by air power. No one in the intelligence world evidently understood the Taliban or the Afghan situation well enough to anticipate or recognize what was happening. Washington thus failed to formulate a post-Taliban strategy. CentCom, for its part, continued to prepare for protracted ground war even as the enemy crumbled. And then, in a strange harbinger of what would happen in Iraq, Rumsfeld and Franks rushed to declare an end to “decisive” operations, to in essence turn over the problem to someone else.

It was a war shown to be — as wars always are — impervious to prophecy and control, with a lack of knowledge of the enemy, a dismissal of military tradition and practice in the name of transformation, a premature declaration of victory and inadequate appreciation or interest in the aftermath. These central issues of Afghanistan define not just the Rumsfeld tenure but also the American predicament in Iraq.

From the commencement of bombing on Oct. 7, 2001, through the Tora Bora campaign in December 2001, OEF was primarily an air war. The air component commander, Lt. Gen. Charles “Chuck” Wald, who was located at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, was in charge of deploying and readying the force, and oversaw the initial and only feasible actions for the U.S. military. In Tampa, eight time zones away from the CAOC, sat Franks, commander of CentCom. From the very beginning, Lambeth says, “a tense relationship” emerged between the air command and CentCom.

To be fair to Franks and the rest of the high command, OEF was a no-plan war in a difficult environment, undertaken in an extremely short period of time. But from the beginning, despite later talk of a new age of communications and transformation, Franks saw the Afghanistan conflict through an old-fashioned, conventional lens. Air power would merely set the conditions for a decisive phase, which would be the deployment of American ground forces. Any suggestion by airmen that they could do more was dismissed as being air-power-centric and self-aggrandizing.

Franks had at his disposal the same technologies and collaborative tools used in Saudi Arabia to manage the air and logistical operation. The televised view — aided by the ubiquitous video-teleconference — created the impression of a common operating picture. Tampa warriors responded by involving themselves in the most minute tactical decisions. One of the first decisions made was to control the target list — Vietnam War-style. CentCom not only maintained the overall target list at its headquarters, it also established a “cumbersome target-vetting process” that essentially allowed Tampa to decide which targets would be hit and when. CentCom intelligence, moreover, also insisted on controlling the bomb-damage-assessment process, a process with response times nearly as long in OEF as they were in Operation Desert Storm a decade earlier. We have by now heard many times that Afghanistan did not have many lucrative targets. But perhaps one little-known reason was the additional Washington prohibition against attacks on Afghan “infrastructure.” This included not just electrical power and industry, but also roads. The road restriction and the “target-approval bottleneck” that developed at CentCom to implement the collateral damage rules of engagement “allowed many fleeting attack opportunities to slip away,” Lambeth claims. Though airmen “complained bitterly” about CentCom’s stranglehold, Lambeth says, it was the president (or at least Rumsfeld with the president’s approval) who initially imposed at least the collateral damage restrictions. The thinking in Washington was that air strikes needed to be tightly controlled to avoid any perception that the war was “an indiscriminate war” against the Afghan people or Islam.

Eventually, the constraints were loosened and authority to approve sensitive targets was delegated to Franks and later to his staff. The notion of a staff officer telling the air component command what to do was bad enough, but even once control was loosened, the initial decision to withhold authority “created a precedent” and a presumption, Kometer says, that lived on: The air component could not be trusted; air power was a political liability; the real war was still to come.

In the first two weeks of OEF, with severe restrictions on bombing and the absence of any U.S. military personnel on the ground, air power seemed to be failing. Publicly, television culture suggested the war was off to a rocky start. The situation looked so dire that by the end of October, commentators were assessing the seeming lack of progress as, in the words of Lambeth, “either a quagmire or an outright U.S. failure.”

Despite constraints that they themselves imposed, CentCom and Washington accepted the press characterization and, thus, the conclusion that air power was somehow delivering less than it claimed it could. In fact, because so little was seemingly going on and nothing was being said officially about either CIA or special operations, air power earned the unenviable distinction of being the only thing to talk about.

As accusations naturally materialized about civilian casualties and damage, CentCom and Washington objectified air power as the main political liability.

In the airmen’s view, neither CentCom nor Washington seemed predisposed to aggressively defend the air component, to understand the issues or the reality on the ground, nor to respond effectively. The OEL study describes a public-affairs apparatus in Washington that insisted on controlling all information regarding collateral damage incidents to alleviate negative public opinion, yet one that also proved hopelessly inept at accomplishing the task. The CAOC collated material for Washington to counter what it saw as inflated and false reports of civilian damage, but the study says “little of that information appeared to be used for that purpose.” Instead, the OEL study observes, public affairs insisted on showcasing gun-camera videos of the “best of” strikes, creating an unrealistic expectation of perfection rather “painting a more realistic picture of the difficulties encountered by warfighters.”

Externally, of course, even greater damage was done: The Washington communications apparatus failed to educate or convince the public, even in the U.S., that severe constraints guided the conduct of military operations. An impression of American carelessness and wrongdoing was allowed to linger, an ahistoric and inaccurate legacy dating from Desert Storm.

Within days of the late October orgy of pessimism, though, the entire situation in Afghanistan changed. Special operators arrived and took up positions, and they, the pilots and the CAOC learned to work together to deliver air support to the Northern Alliance.

“The effects were so devastating that they transformed the overall military strategy and even the strategic objectives for the war,” Kometer says. A war strategy previously wed to coercion of the Taliban to cease support for al-Qaida while preparing for a U.S. ground campaign shifted to one of supporting the Northern Alliance in a regime change. The decisive conventional war for control of Afghanistan came long before CentCom’s Phase III.

No one anticipated the magical effect air power would have on the Taliban army, and far more work needs to be done to understand how a relatively small number of strikes in such a short period of time was so successful in defeating an army. Was the Taliban defeated by air power, or was it already a paper-thin force exhausted by war? How much influence did CIA money being thrown around and other secret activities and deals have? How much of the victory was because Taliban commanders changed sides and soldiers capitulated as they saw the handwriting on the wall? How much of the victory can be attributed to Taliban strategy, preferring to scatter and fight a guerrilla campaign rather than a conventional battle?

There is no question that air power was the American straw that broke the camel’s back in toppling the Taliban from power and scattering al-Qaida. Whatever the weaknesses of the war and the strategy, Taliban forces abandoned Kabul on Nov. 13, 2001, 39 days after bombing commenced and less than two weeks after the televised defeat of America had been declared.

Yet merely because air power was the decisive element doesn’t mean that the air component or air planners forecast what happened or anticipated the unwillingness of the Taliban to fight toe to toe. Lambeth posits Air Force prescience, but that ignores micromanagement and public opinion concerns in the rules of engagement, intelligence failures and Franks’ wrongheaded strategy.

The Tampa-based command, Lambeth asserts, could not accept the “visionary manner in which airmen in the CAOC wanted to use air power against the Taliban and al Qaeda.” The CAOC, Lambeth says, “wanted to build and execute an effects-based campaign focused on key elements of the Taliban organization rather than to follow the more classic attrition-based approach that CentCom headquarters was imposing.”

As a matter of principle, Lambeth may be right. But where the argument fails is in the war itself: If one looks only at the first two months of the Afghanistan war, it is hard to imagine what an “effects-based operation” might have looked like and how it could have been any more effective than the nondoctrinal operation of necessity that transpired.

Lambeth also argues that CentCom was “insufficiently appreciative” of what the Air Force could do. Similarly, the OEL study speaks of CentCom and Defense Department “misperceptions of the individual capabilities, accuracies and destructive effects of certain weapons systems.” This misperception, both examples show, led to excessive collateral damage constraints, unnecessary bombing and distorted targeting.

“Insufficiently appreciative”? “Misperceptions” of air capabilities?” A president who was actually concerned in late 2001 that the Air Force might undertake “indiscriminate” attacks?

After fighting Desert Storm, the Bosnia campaign and Operation Allied Force for Kosovo, after a decade of near- flawless flying over Iraq with the most exacting rules of engagement, after spending billions for greater and greater accuracy and proving its worth, could it be that Franks, CentCom, the Army and Washington all lack an appreciation of air power’s potential and of the service’s fundamental obedience to precision?

I guess the answer is yes, and some responsibility must be placed at the feet of the junior service. Clearly, the Air Force has failed throughout the 1990s to sufficiently educate political and military leaders about air power, even if all during that time, air power was the constant (and successful) 9-1-1 force. The Pentagon, through hyper-secrecy and political gamesmanship, has also failed to share the true legacy and results of past campaigns, a history that would obviously demonstrate the unique American way of war.

In a world of dominating public opinion and telegenic myth, the image of air power seems stuck in World War II mass destruction and Vietnam carpet bombing. The hyper-competent service is saddled with a reputation for being uncooperative with a compulsion to pursue its own path to glory. Air power advocates never are forced to gaze inward to ask whether this isn’t true. They instead argue the potential of air power’s execution in a future perfect war. Missing is a balance in appreciating the magnificent actual accomplishments and the natural limitations that air forces, like armies, face.

To some, the “shock and awe” experience of the 2003 Iraq war confirmed an Air Force sickness. Air power advocates again promised too much, and the results — Saddam Hussein and his henchmen survived, civilians died — proved that air warfare cannot deliver.

This isn’t the war I saw in 2003. The war I saw was 21 days of air attacks in Baghdad succeeding in defeating a government that was far more powerful and ready than the Taliban, with ground forces blowing through a defeated and exhausted force, causing far more civilian harm, frankly, with each inch of territory they took. I’m not arguing for a moment that the air forces could have won the war by themselves. But the achievements of air power are lost in an ineffective official message and a debilitating inter- and inner-service battle.

What is left is a distorted CNN image of modern warfare.

WILLIAM M. ARKIN is an online columnist for The Washington Post and an NBC News military analyst.