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Archive for Monday, October 8, 2001

Airstrikes follow familiar Pentagon game plan

October 8, 2001

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— The airstrikes against Afghanistan used only a limited number of aircraft and cruise missiles, yet the attack appears to have had easily enough punch to knock out most of the country's strategic targets in a single night.

The strikes followed one the most oft-used pages from the Pentagon's playbook: It opened with a fusillade of cruise missiles to destroy air defenses, communications nodes and other large fixed sites, then followed with precision munitions and gravity bombs to destroy smaller and more dispersed targets.

Because the Taliban regime has a small and mostly decrepit military, the 40 attack planes and 50 cruise missiles were concentrated on only a few dozen targets: air bases, air defense sites, command-and-control sites and terrorist camps among them.

The attacks probably destroyed most of these targets, immediately diminishing the Taliban's ability to fight back, according to Pentagon officials and outside analysts.

The Pentagon intended the strikes to give the United States effective control of the skies over Afghanistan and to ensure that the Taliban will be hard-pressed to shoot down the helicopter-borne special operations forces that may have already begun searching the rugged terrain for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.

But the Bush administration had important indirect goals.

It hoped the strikes, by demonstrating U.S. power, would provoke divisions within the Taliban. The administration also wanted to slow operations by the terrorists, throw them off balance and perhaps flush them into the open.

And it wanted to strengthen the hand of the anti-Taliban opposition and force the Taliban to concentrate its 50,000-man force in a way that will make them vulnerable to coming U.S. strikes.

Reports from Afghanistan indicated that U.S. strikes hit the compound in Kandahar that is home to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

But defense officials and outside experts said the Pentagon probably went to some lengths to avoid civilian casualties, in order to maintain international support.

Though the strikes apparently took out the lights in the capital, Kabul, analysts speculated that the military probably dropped "soft kill" munitions that short-circuit power plants but don't take them out permanently. This approach was used in the 1999 air campaign on behalf of the Yugoslav province of Kosovo to limit injuries to the civilian population.

Weak spot

The strikes revealed one important weakness in the U.S. position.

To avoid domestic political problems for U.S. allies in the region, none of the attack planes was flown from the soil of the Islamic countries nearby.

The airplanes flew either from U.S. and British ships in the region, from the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia, or, in the case of the B-2 Stealth bomber, from the United States.

This approach appeared to cause no problems Sunday. But over time, the limited access to basing in neighboring countries could strain the military effort.

Military officers and outside analysts said the approach was similar to those the United States has used in recent years in the Balkans and against Iraq.

The cruise missiles were launched from Navy surface ships and British submarines in the Arabian Sea, and perhaps also from B-52 bombers. Because the missiles have a range of up to 1,000 miles and fly too low for radar detection, they are customarily used against air defenses.

Navy F-14 and F-18 fighters from the carriers Carl Vinson and Enterprise followed up with laser-guided bombs.

B-2 Stealth bombers, flying from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, were used to drop the satellite-guided bombs called Joint Direct Attack Munitions. These bombs can be delivered with great precision even when cloud cover would throw off laser-guided bombs.

In addition, the B-1 and B-52 bombers followed up by using so-called gravity bombs for the carpet bombing of larger areas. This approach was used to hit terrorist training camps, airfields, and perhaps also military depots containing trucks and tanks.

One senior defense official acknowledged that the strikes followed a familiar approach, saying it was chosen because it is known to be effective in such circumstances.

"We have a good plan, and we use it," he said.

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