June 1, 2006  

Hidden history

A thrilling account of the Afghanistan air war

Why has the U.S. Air Force gotten so bad at studying its own history? In the wake of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the secretary of the Air Force commissioned the “Gulf War Air Power Survey,” an independent study in which a talented team of historians, analysts, participants and operators led by the gifted Eliot Cohen undertook a multi-year examination of all facets of the air power operations launched against Iraq. The five volumes that resulted from that effort remain the definitive source for analysis of air power in that conflict.

Since then, however, the Air Force’s examination of its role in major combat operations is notable mostly for its absence. Gen. John Corley (now the service’s vice chief of staff) led the official Air Force study of the 1999 Kosovo war — a high point for the use of air power as an instrument of national policy — but was blocked by the Defense Department bureaucracy from releasing his insightful report. The product of the Pentagon’s interference — a brief, watered-down document — in no way does justice to Corley’s original product.

Likewise, nearly five years after the invasion of Afghanistan, there has been no formal Air Force account of its role in the operations initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Even basic information such as munitions counts and sorties flown has not been officially released. Other than a sparse set of statistics put out by then-Lt. Gen. “Buzz” Moseley (who has since become Air Force chief of staff), the same goes for Operation Iraqi Freedom. By comparison, the Army has produced its own richly detailed, day-by-day account of the march to Baghdad — “On Point: U.S. Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom Through 1 May 2003” by Gregory Fontenot, E.J. Degan and David Tohn.

Given this sorry state of affairs, the publication of Benjamin Lambeth’s fascinating book, “Air Power Against Terror: America’s Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom,” is all the more timely and important. (The book can be downloaded at no charge from the Rand Corp. Web site at http://rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG166.)

A senior analyst at Rand, Lambeth has published widely on air power issues over the past three decades, including a book on the campaign against Serbia that is required reading for any serious student of modern military operations. Although trained as a Soviet specialist with a doctorate from Harvard, he has bolstered his academic expertise with operational knowledge gained from flights in 35 types of U.S. and foreign combat aircraft. He was, for instance, the first American civilian to fly in the Soviet MiG-29 fighter.

Lambeth attempts to provide a broad overview of the use of U.S. air power against the Taliban regime and al-Qaida in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. To the author’s immense credit, however, it is anything but a dry, academic work. On the contrary, if the events it describes were not real, “Air Power Against Terror” could be read as a thriller. Using superb writing, Lambeth grabs hold of the reader with his tense account of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, then traces the Air Force response, from the mounting of combat air patrols in the U.S. to the development and execution of the brilliant campaign in Afghanistan.

Because of the Air Force’s reluctance to release information on Enduring Freedom, Lambeth is forced to rely primarily on press accounts to build his narrative. What distinguishes this effort, however, is the way in which he ties together these secondary sources with scores of personal interviews with both senior officers and junior participants in the Afghanistan operation. It is these firsthand accounts that provide the best glimpse yet into the realities of the 2001-2002 air war.

Many of Lambeth’s observations about the Afghanistan war track with the findings of other analysts. He details, for instance, how the linking of small numbers of U.S. ground forces with air-delivered precision weapons changed the balance of power between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces and led to the rout of the enemy. The availability of what Edward Luttwak has characterized as “routine precision” thus enabled an innovative and entirely new operational style of war, combining uncommonly good real-time tactical intelligence (provided by eyes-on-target and long-endurance unmanned aircraft), all-weather precision weapons using space-based navigation systems, and long-range bombers. Lambeth argues, drawing on doctrinal observations made by Lt. Gen. David Deptula following the war: “What was demonstrated in Afghanistan was not classic close air support but rather something closer to ground-enabled precision strike. The latter was distinguished by ground forces supporting air power rather than the other way around through the provision of targeting and combat identification in the same manner that such support to air operators is provided by other offboard sensors and methods.”

But Lambeth also exposes some of the frictions that developed in the course of operations, both within and among the services. He notes, for instance, the “tense relationship” that existed between the forward air command center in Saudi Arabia and the Central Command (CentCom) staff in Tampa, Fla. These tensions were a product of both the shifting American strategy over the course of the war and exacting rules of engagement that prevented U.S. forces from taking advantage of tightened sensor-to-shooter data cycle times. The latter, in particular, repeatedly allowed the escape of enemy leaders and generated huge frustrations on the part of air operations staff. Other factors included CentCom’s unwillingness to give execution authority to the forward air operations center, and the geographic and time zone separation of the two commands.

In this regard, Lambeth observes that Enduring Freedom saw movement toward not just centralized planning, but centralized execution. As he states: “A downside of the expanded ISR connectivity and available bandwidth that have evolved since Desert Storm is that at the same time they have made possible far more efficient and timely operations than ever before, they also have increasingly enabled direct senior leadership involvement in the finest details of force employment. … There is an inherent tension between the imperatives of political control and those of efficient mission accomplishment that senior leaders must understand.”

It is with this observation in mind that Lambeth dedicates considerable attention to Operation Anaconda, the battle that exploded in the mountains around Afghanistan’s Shah-e-Kot Valley in March 2002. Anaconda has achieved notoriety not only for its tactical outcome — namely, the escape of hundreds of al-Qaida fighters — but for the clash it provoked between the Army and the Air Force, following a press interview by the ground commander, now-Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck.

Lambeth follows the development of Anaconda from conception to execution in a chapter that should be read by anyone concerned with modern joint and combined operations. The resulting analysis suggests that the breakdown was the result of mutual misunderstanding on the part of both ground and air services about the other’s cultures and procedures — one notable example being the amazingly widespread, and erroneous, Army belief that air tasking was rigid, inflexible and took days to schedule. As Lambeth concludes: “Viewed in hindsight, those who planned and initiated Operation Anaconda failed to make the most of the potential synergy of air, space and land power that was available to them in principle.”

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. At the very least, the Pentagon should release the materials that have been compiled to date, so they are available to scholars such as Lambeth.

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt initiated the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, which included such outstanding figures as John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Nitze, George W. Ball and Adlai Stevenson. Its conclusions challenged much of the conventional wisdom about air power, while laying the intellectual groundwork for the extraordinary innovations and accomplishments that would unfold in the decades ahead.

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.

Christopher J. Bowie is director of strategic studies for Northrop Grumman’s Integrated Systems Sector. He holds a doctorate in history from Oxford University. He has held a variety of think tank, industry and government positions, including the Rand Corp. and, most recently, as deputy director of the Air Force Strategic Planning Directorate.